Archive for March, 2011

The Only Way is South Manchester

March 27, 2011

The Guardian carries an interesting piece on the negative impact of childbirth on women’s lives. Asher’s long article is summarised by Jemima Lewis, over at the Torygraph:

Consider the bigger picture. It starts so promisingly: girls outperform boys at school and university, get good jobs, start shinning up the greasy pole – and then, suddenly, they fall away. Across all professions, women’s careers take a nose dive the moment they reproduce. The full-time pay gap more than trebles for women in their thirties (from 3 per cent to 11 per cent), while the part-time pay gap increases from 23 per cent to 32 per cent.

Asher and Lewis should write a equivalent study on working class women, for a high birth rate is one of the many curses of the British working class. It’s almost impossible to get into higher education if you are a single woman toting a baby, and most employers will turn away lone parents because they don’t want people who have to arrange their workload around childcare. (I know there is legislation supposed to tackle the prejudice, but bosses can get around this as long as they do not explicitly state ‘We do not want to employ you because you are a single parent.’) If childbirth is bad for the bourgeois woman, for her working class equivalent it can be disastrous.

It still amazes me that people continue to have children that they can’t support. One day this is going to have to be addressed, at policy level. I’m not talking about sinister 1930s Fabian-style breeding controls. Maybe an information campaign, with dedicated advice workers attached to maternity units, whose job would be to ask people: ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’ Understand that I’m not coming from crank eugenicist ideas of population control and welfare. I’m thinking more of the life chances and quality of life of the child. As a society, we need to challenge the idea that reproduction is always for the best.

The biggest problem where I live and work is probably housing. Overcrowding is one subject that the romanticisers of working class culture never seem to get round to, and I am convinced that it is at the root of Britain’s culture of misery, resentment and self-pity. Contrary to popular belief, what humans need more than anything is not friends, family, togetherness – what people need and desire more than anything is space. We should understand that there are far worse things than loneliness.

The middle class Guardian columnist, who worries that he can’t get a girlfriend, will never understand what it is like to have to share a bedroom well into your teens, to not be able to guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep before a hard shift, to not have the space and time to read, to study, to discuss private things with people close to you. Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar opens with the eponymous supermarket worker gatecrashing a party in the expensive part of Oban. She falls into conversation with a housing design student, who asks her what her ideal house would be. Morvern replies: ‘One where you couldn’t hear the men go to the toilet.’

So that’s something that gets to me: the imbecilic selfishness of people who have children and then condemn their children to an environment that destroys their future. Conservatives would say that this is why we should cut child-related benefits, but why on earth should a child suffer because of the stupidity of her parents?

A lot could be achieved if we built more affordable homes – or at least developed the many void properties in every city – but that isn’t going to happen. I’ve worked in housing most of my adult life and it seems to me that, nationally, we are going backwards. Another thing that hacked me off this week was a local Lib Dem/National Government propaganda leaflet (fisked with style and vigour by the Political Scrapbook guys) in which my MP John Leech complains about the number of HMOs in Fallowfield, and promises legislation to do something about it. I live in an HMO. I work full time. Most people I know are in the same position. We can’t get a mortgage or live alone because practically no one under forty can. Why shouldn’t I live in Fallowfield? What does John Leech want to do, get rid of all the students and professionals and bring in another tranche of families on housing benefit? Now that’s what I call ‘regeneration’. Idiots.

End of rant.

American Romance

March 19, 2011

My review of Star Island, latest adventure from the peerless Carl Hiaasen, is now available at 3:AM.

The man himself is interviewed at the New Statesman:

Do you consider yourself to be a crime writer?
All novels are about crime. You’d be hard pressed to find any novel that does not have an element of crime. I don’t see myself as a crime novelist, but there are crimes in my books. That’s the nature of storytelling, if you want to reflect the real world.

Update: the Max Dunbar Twitter profile is going from strength to strength, with new followers including a Devon-based health and safety signage firm, the Israeli government press office and an Arizona company that sells ‘ghost hunting supplies and gear’.

‘Thank a union guy’

March 13, 2011

Probably my favourite writer, on Wisconsin, the Tea Party and the class struggle in America.

People Are Strange

March 12, 2011

British intellectuals have always had a weird affinity with ideas of the natural and authentic. The brutal slavery of peasant life was romanticised by writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part of Mellors’s appeal as a lover, both to Lady Chatterley and D H Lawrence, was that his agricultural background brought him closer to God and attuned him with the rhythms of the earth. The hero survivors of H G Wells’s apocalyptic novel The War in the Air set up a farm ‘among the clay and oak thickets of the Weald’ where ‘they loved and suffered and were happy’. The novelist George Gissing, visiting Europe, was appalled at Italian industrialisation and commercialism but was delighted to find a genuine ploughman: ‘His rude but gentle face, his gnarled hands, his rough and scanty vesture, moved me to deep respect.’ From John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: ‘Peasants had been popular with William Morris, with the Arts and Crafts movement, with Eric Gill and with early Fabians, as well as with Paul Gaugin and the Pont-Aven school.’ Peasants were earthy, sensual, spiritual, free and pure: best of all, they knew their place. Carey: ‘their traditional qualities of dour endurance, respect for their betters and illiteracy meant that the intellectual’s superiority was in little danger from them.’

As Carey also says, peasant life was also attractive because it represented a feudal way of life that was dying out. The industrial revolution and population boom meant that writers and artists had to push through crowds of rowdy clockout labourers on the way to the coffee house. The countryside that Lawrence and Wells rhapsodised about was colonised by suburbs. The Education Act of 1871 meant more and more people could compete for the attention of the reading public. It was thought that newspapers and magazines would replace the novel altogether. Democratic reform created an emergent class of low born but upwardly mobile ‘clerks’ – working men who had read a little and could do middle class jobs, the kind of people Irvine Welsh calls ‘the clued up working class’.  They wanted to make and sell things – worse, they wanted to read and write things.

Prominent British intellectuals reacted to these developments with horror. In his essential study of intellectual misanthropy John Carey shows just how bad the sickness was. The idea of humanity as a ‘mass’ was first coined by St Augustine, who wrote of a massa damnata: the species is damned, apart from a tiny proportion who God will ascend into heaven come Revelations. But it was in the late nineteenth century that the idea gained currency that there were the one per cent of intellectuals who felt true and great emotions, and the horde that didn’t and wouldn’t want to.  It did not occur to the great minds that there was no such thing as The Masses, just millions of individuals with stories and needs and desires and elegies and complications – an infinite treasure of artistic material.

Instead Huxley and Shaw pondered on how to handle the new breed. Eugenics, not yet discredited by the Nazis, became fashionable in certain circles, where writers and artists tossed around various ideas for species improvement, and to prevent the mass from spreading further through its vulgar habit of having children. 

Thomas Hardy summed up the paradigm:

You may regard a throng of people as containing a certain small minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing. So you divide them into the mentally unquickened, mechanical, soulless; and the living, throbbing, suffering, vital, in other words into souls and machines, ether and clay.

Lawrence thought that the majority of people were not just soulless but ‘dead, and scurrying and talking in the sleep of death.’ As Carey points out, if you believe that someone is technically not alive, actually killing them is no great reach. In a letter of 1908, Lawrence fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.’

If most people didn’t have souls, and deserved to die, then what was the point of democratic reform and universal education? William Inge: ‘The democratic man is a species of ape.’ Hardy thought democracy would lead to ‘the utter ruin of art and literature.’ T S Eliot believed that ‘there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards’. He suggested the number of people in higher education be cut by two thirds. The novelist George Moore said that war, famine and disease were ‘mild and gracious symbols compared with that menacing figure, Universal Education’. D H Lawrence, of course, recommended that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Alternatives for mass of education proposed by intellectuals included monasteries, and – Lawrence again – craft workshops, fighting, gymnastics and domestic science. 

Another major worry for the feudal intellectual class was the growing emancipation of women. The French pseudoscientist Gustave Le Bon defined the masses as essentially female: headstrong, malleable, easily distracted. The mob, like the woman, takes its pleasure and destiny in prostration at the feet of a strong man. One of Wells’s characters complains that there is not a single woman who ‘wouldn’t lick the boots of a Jew or marry a nigger, rather than live decently on a hundred a year.’ Wells devoted his fiction to wiping out great swathes of humanity in bizarre and outrageous ways. Carey speculates that the recurring Crab People monster in Wellsian dystopia, given its ‘hungry, fishy orifice, threatening to devour and surrounded with what seem like hairs’ might ‘prompt a sexual explanation.’

His most fascinating case study is of the novelist George Gissing. Gissing married a prostitute, and was said to have beaten her. ‘His ideal woman,’ Carey writes, ‘would probably have been a clean, refined whore – nicely spoken, well behaved, but ignorant, and degraded by her vocation, and consequently irredeemably inferior to the educated male who becomes her lover, tutor and disciplinarian.’ Naturally, Gissing hated female education and aspiration. A supporting female character in one of his books enrolls at London University, where ‘her complexion is ruined; her hair falls out… The examinations, when they arrive, prove too much for her. She collapses on the last day with an overtaxed brain and is carried out delirious. She never really recovers.’ The idea that women are genetically unsuited to study and knowledge – which goes back to Genesis – was satirised to great effect in Harry Enfield’s ‘Women: Know Your Limits’ sketch.

Of course there was nothing the intellectuals could really do about the growth of the literate mass. All they could do was ‘prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult to understand… In England this movement has become known as modernism’ – and later, of course, postmodernism. It’s from this separation that the artificial barrier between genre and literary fiction derives.

What’s interesting is that this appears to be just a European disease. New York School pioneer Frank O’Hara was no less an artist than D H Lawrence, yet he shared none of the British writer’s prejudices on consumption and urbanisation. As well as his celebration of the film industry (‘Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!’) O’Hara defended the city in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ and it’s worth quoting him at length:

I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes – I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

It would be good to see a new edition of Carey’s book for the 2010s. There are still middle-aged male intellectuals who support fascist movements, who believe that only they can see through the manufacture of consent, who feel challenged by women who compete on their level, and who see themselves as apart from and above the soulless, tabloidal and consumerist mass. There is still the cult of the natural and the authentic, and what Stevie Smith called the ‘stampede of the sensitive and the intellectual person away from the vulgarities of the secular world’. The poet John Betjeman raged against ‘radios, cars, advertisements, labour-saving homes, peroxide blondes, crooked businessmen, litter, painted toenails and people who wear public school ties to which they are not entitled.’ A century on, his successors slam The X-Factor, Lady Gaga, Richard and Judy’s Book Club, Sky Plus, binge drinking, cheap flights, Wayne Rooney, the FarmTown Facebook game, the pubic wax, James Bond films, breast milk ice cream and the Eastern European fictional meerkat that does price comparison website adverts.

While I agree with most of what Carey says, he could have pointed out that to some extent snobbery is understandable. There is a lot of greatness in mass culture, but also some things of dubious value and others that are just plain evil. Personally I always felt separated from most people, and a lot of what interests two thirds of humanity I find stupid and pointless: I never saw the appeal in football or singing contests or fatherhood.

Contemporary politicians, too, have forgotten that there is no such thing as ‘the masses’. The current government has thrown social change into reverse, with higher education policies that T S Eliot would have approved of. We are in a culture that confuses philistinism with integrity, and where a wilful stupidity masquerades as common sense. There’s a growing infantalisation and proletarianisation of public space. We’re told to agree with welfare and immigration policies because they are what The People want: and if The People want something, who are you to disagree? How can anyone be right against The People? Marko Attila Hoare puts it well:

Instead, for the last twenty years or so, our politicians – both Labour and Conservative – seem to have been following an inverted form of Flaubert’s dictum, and to believe that the point of democracy is to lower the ruling class to the level of stupidity attained by the masses.

Now more than ever, the liberal-creative has been thrown into the mass. Artists and intellectuals have to escape from suburbs and small towns like everyone else. They have to get up and work for a living like everyone else. They have to struggle to hold on to shared houses in the cowboy rental market like everyone else. They are part of the city like everyone else. They have to write in short bursts and register their presences on Twitter when the floorwalkers have passed by.

As Gregory Riding says in Success: ‘I am one of you now. How did this happen?’

‘I am a man of the people. Vox populi, vox dei’

Things Become You

March 6, 2011

My review of Half a Life, Darin Strauss’s memoir of guilt and culpability, is now available at 3:AM. Strauss’s novel More Than It Hurts You is also well worth reading.

Get Your Prizes From Denmark

March 5, 2011

I am late with this but wanted to say something about Ian McEwan’s Jerusalem Prize award. Shortly after his Israel honour was announced, the Guardian published two open letters of clichéd and sanctimonious condemnation from a group calling itself ‘BWISP’ – British Writers In Support of Palestine. It sounds like the kind of comedy political acronym a novelist or sitcom writer would dream up on a slow day.

In its letters BWISP compared the multicultural democracy to apartheid South Africa and recommended that Ian McEwan not accept the prize. In a further Guardian piece McEwan responded to the letters, and in his Jerusalem speech the novelist agreed with BWISP that he ‘couldn’t escape the politics of my decision’.

He went on to deal with the politics:

Hamas whose founding charter incorporates the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has embraced the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy towards Israel. But (to take just one example) it was also nihilism that fired a rocket at the undefended Gazan home of the Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, in 2008, killing his three daughters and his niece. It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip. Nihilism has unleashed the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories. When the distinguished judges of this prize commend me for my ‘love of people and concern for their right to self-realisation’, they seem to be demanding that I mention, and I must oblige, the continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs. These so-called ‘facts on the ground’ are a hardening concrete poured over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today, more difficult to assert their right to self-realisation.

Not good enough. The Guardian then published a third BWISP letter complaining that McEwan had ‘massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group.’ So what, exactly, is the problem? ‘To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them appears rank hypocrisy… We, British, Israeli and Palestinian members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, are appalled by his conduct.’ Harrrumph!

I did get involved in something of a heated Facebook debate with a signatory to this letter. Before relations completely broke down this signatory told me that McEwan had ‘expressed a desire for dialogue and to meet with us to discuss the prize further’. And yet the third letter says that the novelist ‘has ignored all public and private requests to continue this debate. So much for courtesy, dialogue and engagement.’ Many people in McEwan’s position would have told the signatories, clearly and concisely, exactly what they could do with their boycotts, divestments and sanctions. McEwan has engaged. Short of pissing on the Star of David, there is nothing more he can do to satisfy his critics.

You could ask whether Israel is really like apartheid SA, or if sanctions could really help the Palestinians when they proved disastrous in places like Iraq, and when blockades of food and supplies are so much of Gaza’s problem in the first place. Like Umberto Eco, you could challenge the racist equation of every last Israeli citizen with the Israeli government, no matter what they think of its crimes.

But instead you find yourself wondering: who the fuck do these people think they are? The Jerusalem Prize was accepted by Simone de Beauvoir, Nadine Gordimer, Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller. Who are they though compared with the literary powerhouse that is, er, Tom Vowler? What is their humanity and moral judgement compared to his?

It’s been pointed out that the liberal-creative obsession with Israel looks parochial and absurd against the backdrop of dictatorship after dictatorship being overthrown by democratic and secular Arab citizens, few of whom were shouting Free Palestine slogans. As the novelist Linda Grant pointed out: ‘Was told the root cause of all problems in Arab world was Israel/Palestine conflict. Turns out it was poverty, inequality and dictatorship.’ The absurdity and parochialism is exemplified by the BWISP group of untalented and ignored writers, who think they have the authority to tell talented and established writers who they may and may not talk to.

I would recommend, again, reading McEwan’s speech in full:

There are some similarities between a novel and a city. A novel, of course, is not merely a book, a physical object of pages and covers, but a particular kind of mental space, a place of exploration, of investigation into human nature. Likewise, a city is not only an agglomeration of buildings and streets. It is also a mental space, a field of dreams and contention. Within both entities, people, individuals, imaginary or real, struggle for their ‘right to self-realisation’. Let me repeat — the novel as a literary form was born out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, Israeli or Palestinian, or from any other background, whose mind the novel cannot lovingly reconstruct.