Archive for March, 2012

Party Like It’s 2005

March 31, 2012

Well, who could have seen that coming?

Just a few thoughts.

1) All politics is local

I don’t think you can understand Bradford West without having lived there. Places are different, and the difference is more than demographics. We don’t know, say, why there were race riots in Oldham but not in Keighley. This is why none of us saw this, why the media spent all last week going on about pasties and petrol scares. The Guardian‘s Helen Pidd was the only national reporter at the count. Galloway blindsided us. No one took him seriously until it was too late.

Asian people told Pidd they were sick of the Mirpuri mafia running everything. Labour’s candidate was seen as a timeserver and a product of the local political class. Local governance in every city and town is a small political game run by mediocrities with a sense of entitlement and too much time on their hands. This is why most people are repelled by politics in general, and in a way, it’s good that Bradfordians have struck a blow against the reality of localism – except that they voted for a demagogue of the totalitarian left.

2) All In It Together, Baby

Galloway attributed his win to ‘massive dissatisfaction with the political system in this country and the main political parties and their leaders… They support the same things, the same wars, the same neoliberal policies to make the poor poorer for the crimes of the rich people.’ He also described his victory as the ‘Bradford Spring’ – disgraceful, really, since Galloway has always been a supporter of Arab dictatorships, not Arab revolutionaries. In any conflict between Middle Eastern tyrants and populations he is cheering on the secret police.

The far left line that this represents a victory over the hydra-headed pasty-eating neoliberal hegemony is debateable, to say the least. George Galloway’s triumph is unlikely to lead to anything except more TV work for George Galloway. True, there is widespread and passionate antiwar sentiment in the public and the working class. But much of it isn’t pacifist or anticapitalist. The objection is that we are spending all our money on foreign wars. It is the same reason people are against international aid and immigration.  Almost everyone is in favour of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The arguments tend to concentrate on lost British lives and wasted British money – which is no small matter – and few voices are speaking out for the Afghans that we are preparing to leave in the Taliban’s less than tender loving care. Antiwar thought in this country is not ‘let’s ban cluster bombs’ but ‘not worth the bones of a single British grenadier.’ In that sense, Galloway’s triumph was a victory for the silo nation.

3) Will you stand by Papa Georgie?

You cannot write Bradford West off on an ethnic vote. Galloway’s crowd have a point when they say it’s racist to do so. The turnout and majority are too high to be explained by communalism alone. Bradford is not 60% Muslim.

What is indisputable is that Galloway campaigned on religious and sectarian lines. The Galloway campaign was a hardcore version of Bethnal and Bow, adapted for the austerity age. His team were the predictable entourage of Islamists and far left thugs, and their literature speaks for itself. Galloway could be the first Western politician since the Volstead Act to campaign on his teetotalism. His supporters put out an attack line smearing the Labour candidate as an alcoholic. Typical sentence: ‘If [Labour candidate Imran] Hussain can’t get his Labour colleagues to help him out canvassing, he might have to rely on his trusted pals John E Walker and Jackie Daniels to give him a hand.’ This barely rises to the level of Homer Simpson’s campaign for Springfield’s Sanitation Commissioner.

Hussain was cast as a New Labour Uncle Tom. In his letter to prospective constituents, Galloway wrote that ‘God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not.’ Got that? Anyone who claims that sectarianism has no part in this result is absolutely out of their minds.

Sectarianism goes beyond the totalitarian left. Galloway is known for it, because his strategies are big and obvious. But it is also a mainstream issue. Look at Phil Woolas. Look at Liam Byrne. Tories in Bradford West distributed anti-immigration literature to predominantly white areas. The mainstream has always been happy to tell white working class racists what they want to hear, and enjoy the benefits. They paid the price in Bradford, and we will all pay the price unless things change.

Conservatives complain that Britain is dividing on tribal lines. Maybe it is. In part at least, this is because of the communitarian, Big Society rhetoric and policy we have had for years from political and spiritual leaders of the left and right. It is because of the poisonous lie that the family, the group, the church and the community is more important than the rights, needs, cares and safety of human individuals.

Update: Papa Georgie appears to have forgotten which constituency he represents:

Welcome to the 6000 new followers. I will try to live up to your expectations. Shattered but happy after the Blackburn triumph.

Bradford, Blackburn, Northern mill towns, it’s more or less the same, right?

(Image: Guardian)

Against Responsible Drinking

March 25, 2012

Time for us to admit that the public health defence of prohibition has failed. The smoking ban has not reduced smoking, merely displaced it. Every year brings new initiatives and finger-wagging on alcohol, coupled with a rise in alcohol-related health and crime problems. And the UK’s war on drugs couldn’t stop the ruinous ketamine craze from tearing through England’s cities.

Now the government plans to bring in minimum unit pricing. Home Secretary Theresa May said that ‘if you need to deal with problems that are caused by excessive consumption of alcohol, what you have to address is the price of it.’ But high prices are no deterrent. A classic post on Harry’s Place lays out the economics of this. Most luxury goods are elastic products, which means if the price is raised high enough then people will stop buying them. However, there are a few inelastic products, which people will continue to buy no matter how high the price is jacked up. As Libby says:

But, as in physics, there is always an effect. There has to be one. Unfortunately it is not the effect the stupid policy makers hoped for. The effect of the increase in cost is transferred to more ‘elastic’ goods. Frequently these are the goods that are good for us… people are more likely to buy less baby formula and default  on their electricity bill than to buy fewer crates of lager. The most desperate will turn to crime.

True to form, a drinker in Cardiff told the Observer that ‘If the prices go up? Well, I suppose we’ll eat less.’

Essentially, all a minimum pricing policy will do is to make people who can handle their drink pay for those who can’t. That, by the way, is all it comes down to with drink and drugs. You can either handle it or you can’t, and addiction is not a disease, but a choice – to the extent to which we can make pure and free choices.

I can’t deny there are plenty of people out there who should never drink at all. They are the people who jam police holding cells and A + E triage units, they are the people who walk fifteen abreast in Ben Sherman pastel shirts, shouting abuse and propositions, on the way from one soulless purpose-built barn to another; they are the people who appear in Daily Mail double page spreads and freeview documentaries, who cannot have a good night without ruining someone else’s. People can get into horrendous trouble through drinking, they can end up in prison or dead, the lucky ones end up in AA and I know people who have.

But how much of this really is booze? If a man strangles his wife while drunk, he’s probably a bad man who could as easily do it sober. If you keep cutting yourself while drunk, that’s a problem within yourself that you must address. It will be a problem drunk or sober, although clearly drink doesn’t help. The unit price policy will not arrest any of this, it will simply irritate and alienate the majority of people who are just trying to get on with their lives.

Because this is indiscriminate and across the board. Elitist conniptions about drink in general is something that flares up at regular intervals. Alastair Campbell has warned that ‘we are kidding ourselves if we think alcohol abuse is a problem for a small minority… [people are] bombarded with a tsunami of marketing, sitting on a boozequake, and unless we face up to it, we will pay a far heavier price than a rise on supermarket beer, wine and spirits.’ Campbell made a documentary called ‘Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics’ to support his claim that ‘the real problem drinkers in Britain are the professional middle classes.’ One bourgeois drinker told Campbell this:

I think people’s perception of what is an alcoholic is interesting because actually, do you know what, it is not the guy with the brown paper bag and the strong cider or cheap vodka. It can be two glasses a night if that is what you need. I challenge anybody I know to stop for a month, to go the same places, do the same things, interact with the same people and just remove the alcohol from the equation and see how they feel.

Fine. Take those two glasses away. And let’s ban advertising because we’re too stupid to handle it. Why should anyone be able to alter their brain chemistry or experience a sense of well-being that does not derive from abstemious self-satisfaction?

We generally get arguments here about the decline of the British pub, hammered by the smoking ban, supermarket undercuts and monopoly pubcos. May says she wants to target the ‘cheap end’ of the market (ie the poor) who frontload at home on store drink before hitting the town. The minimum unit price may level the competition a little, but it is ultimately a superficial policy which will do little to arrest the deep problems with the pub trade and the impact this has on communities – not least that, as Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi put it, we live in a sick society that rejects pleasure.

The government has a right to pass these laws, the prohibionists have a right to send out press releases and pro forma emails, but come on, let’s be honest about what is being demanded here. If you don’t like vulgar working class people drinking White Lightning in their gardens, then say so. If the idea of people having a good time makes you nervous, then say so. If you want to bring in a UK Volstead Act then let’s have that argument. Call it a vice tax, a sin tax, whatever. Just don’t pretend this is about trying to improve people’s lives.

I have written about this subject before, probably too often, but there has been a real assault on people’s leisure and choices since 2007 and things have gone too far. It’s time we heard a little less from the prohibitionists and a little more from people willing to speak up for the pleasures of the evening and the sweet delerium of the senses.

3:AM Salutes Frank O’Hara

March 22, 2012

My review of Carcanet’s Selected Poems is now at 3:AM.

Which gives me a reason to quote the final stanza of ‘Mayakovsky’ – a poem that resonates with me more and more.

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Less Than Zero

March 20, 2012

A successor novel raises two questions. There’s a possibility that the sequel will not nearly be as good – will be so bad, in fact, that it overshadows the better work, and taints forever our memories and appreciation. (Think Paradise Regained, or This Life +10.) However, the point of a well-realised character is that we wonder what they are doing long after the book has ended, and it’s a temptation that drags both reader and writer back to the old watering hole.

A potential American Psycho sequel fascinates because the narrative was so wrapped up in popular culture, places and signifiers that were dated before the first draft was written. Never quite accepted as literary, it’s a book popularised word-of-mouth by clubbers and autodidacts and the appeal still holds. In a recent essay on Hemingway, Slate’s Nathan Heller wrote that ‘Although people often assume the strongest, most enduring authors are those whose work is taught in universities, it’s actually the high-school canon that’s the best marker of cultural esteem and literary immortality.’

On a late night Twitter session author Bret Easton Ellis had great fun tossing out ideas. The 2012 Patrick Bateman would be an LA hedge fund manager, he would ‘complain about Spotify and the Cloud and Tumblr … but he would find victims via Blendr while listening to Beyoncé and OAR… [Bateman would] post pics of murdered girls on Facebook and either no one would notice or post ‘Fuck yeah’.’ According to Ellis, Bateman would admire the Kardashians, The Celebrity Apprentice and The Help; fans of the extended essays on Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston will be happy to know that Bateman is still a keen music critic, having penned a ‘very long dissertation about Coldplay’s oeuvre… His favourite song being ‘Fix You’.’

Another story that I’ve been interested in over the last week is the release of a cache of emails, written by the Syrian dictator’s inner cabal while his forces pounded civilians with tank, artillery and mortar fire. Last year Vogue published a flattering profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of the tyrant and ‘a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.’ This article was placed by a US lobbyist hired by the Ba’athists (Assad’s Syria is apparently ‘a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings’) and the only remaining copy of the piece is on a regime fan site devoted to Assad.

The Atlantic has an excerpt:

The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement–a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

The emails make fascinating reading because of their complete insularity and seeming unawareness of the civil war and revolution outside the palace gates. In over three thousand documents the Assads chatter about America’s Got Talent and Steve Jobs; Assad at one point serenades his wife with an obscure country and western song downloaded from iTunes; Asma al-Assad racks up five-figure bills in online shopping binges.

From the story:

The emails appear to show how tens of thousands of dollars were spent in internet shopping sprees on handmade furniture from Chelsea boutiques. Tens of thousands more were lavished on gold and gem-encrusted jewellery, chandeliers, expensive curtains and paintings to be shipped to the Middle East. While the country was rocked by Assad’s crackdown on dissent, his inner circle was concerned about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, or a new chocolate fondue set.

On 19 July 2011, Asma al-Assad could be found placing orders with her cousin Amal for jewellery made by a small Paris workshop. She requested four necklaces: ‘1 turquoise with yellow gold diamonds and a small pave on side’ as well as a cornaline, ‘full black onyx’ and ‘amethyst with white gold diamonds’ of similar design. Amal replied that she would ‘launch’ the order in mid-August with a view to getting it done ‘by mid-September’. On 23 July 2011 Asma said she didn’t mind the delay and added self-deprecatingly: ‘I am absolutely clueless when it comes to fine jewellery!’ She signed off as ‘aaa’ with: ‘Kisses to you both, and don’t worry, we are well!’

The big picture doesn’t often impact in the Assads’ correspondence and when it does the tone is dismissive. Assad’s father-in-law sends him half-arsed propaganda ideas and media rebuttals that could come straight out of an amateur Islamist or antiwar website. The Syrian President shares a YouTube clip where regime supporters appear to reconstruct the battle of Homs with a toy car and some biscuits. There’s a suggestion in an email dated December 21 2011 of a New Year party in Omayyad Square – this on a day that 111 civilians were slaughtered in Idlib.

The deaths of an estimated 8,000, the torture, suffering, violence and chaos doesn’t seem to affect any of them on a human level. A sense of not just indifference, but seeming unawareness, strikes anyone who reads the cache. Louis XIV is supposed to have said ‘L’État, c’est moi’ – the world is mine. For the Assads the reading could be more solipsistic and terrible: the world is me.

I don’t know why I thought of this story in connection with American Psycho. Perhaps because the Assad cache reads like ‘Ozymandias’ rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis.

Can the glamorous Mrs Assad guide Syria on the path to democratic reform? (Image: Atlantic)

PS: I Am Gay

March 15, 2012

While cooking last night I had the radio on, The Moral Maze. In his intro to the discussion, the presenter said that the Pope had called gay marriage ‘a threat to the future of humanity itself.’

I thought: come on. Benedict XVI didn’t really say that. You’re exaggerating for effect.

Out of curiosity I googled the quote, and it appears to be genuine. His Holiness told the world that:

This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – one of his senior cardinals, Keith O’Brien, recently compared the legislative changes to slavery.

The whole thing reminded me of Mother Theresa’s Nobel Prize speech, in which – of all the trouble in the world – she identified abortion as the planet’s number one problem.

Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today.

You hear a lot about the charitable work that faith based organisations do, Make Poverty History, community litter picks, the giving of alms and all that. Yet the impression remains that what really stirs our spiritual leaders – what gets the blood pounding – are the activities of lovers behind closed doors.

The Churches have taken an obsessive interest in private intimacy ever since the advent of established religion. They have staked a vocal position on every big argument on sexual and reproductive freedom. And in every one of those instances – every one – they have been on the wrong side.

They have also been on the losing side. They have lost on civil partnerships, contraception, abortion, divorce.

What makes them think they’re going to win on this one?

After all, you can make a moral and humanist case against say, assisted dying. It’s not one that I subscribe to but it is there. But where is the clear and provable harm in gay marriage?

We are talking about two people, who have fallen in love, wanting to celebrate their love in a public ceremony, and to make legal and financial ties to complement the emotional bond. You have to be seriously ideologically or religiously inclined to have a problem with that.

Clerical wailing and self-pity on national media platforms constitute another sign of a nascent Christian right in this country. There are MPs with links to fundamentalist gay-purge organisations, and there have been recent anti-choice demonstrations where activists took photographs of women going into abortion clinics at what could be a very vulnerable time in their lives. But the moral authority of organised religion has been compromised by the scandal of institutionalised child rape, and by other things. Outside senior ecclesiastical and activist circles, is anyone really listening?

A thoughtful debate is happening under the static. Is marriage even religious in origin? Could it predate Christianity and other faiths? Hasn’t marriage already changed with the times as all things do?

Alex Massie – a rare far-seeing writer on the right – has written an op-ed headlined ‘Yes, Gay Marriage Is A Conservative Cause’:

Indeed in many respects gay marriage has more in common with heterosexual marriage now than contemporary heterosexual marriages do with nineteenth century heterosexual marriages. Changing societal norms have seen to that. Women are no longer viewed as property; they have agency themselves. This, in many ways, is just as great a change in the definition and practice of marriage as anything proposed by campaigners for gay marriage. Indeed, one could argue that given the percentage of the population affected by these changes, the twentieth century’s evolving understanding of hetereosexual marriage marked a much greater change than anything proposed now.

Somehow, sun still rises. (Image via Newsthump)

Quayle Takes the Red Pill

March 13, 2012

This story of mine has just been published on Female First.

There has been some other 3:AM writing over the last weeks that I haven’t had time to link to:

A review of Alex Preston’s cult and cover-up novel, The Revelations;

A piece on Ian Marchant’s noctural ramble, Something of the Night;

Plus, god help me, two thousand words on Boris Johnson.

Classic Books: The Satanic Verses

March 8, 2012

Who am I?

Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?

The cliche is that you have to find your voice. Creative writing students think this means pick a style and stick with it. They don’t read fiction because they worry that exposure to different styles will corrupt and distill the unique voice they are struggling to achieve. (By the way, kids, it’s the other way about; the way to become distinctive is to read as far and wide as possible.)

In his interview with the Paris Review, Salman Rushdie found depths in the question that I never thought existed. But I do remember that terrible feeling of selflessness that strikes you at various points in your youth – that sense James Hawes identified that you stop existing when you’re alone.

Italics mine.


All novelists seem to have at least one [book] in the drawer that’s just garbage.


I have three. Until I started writing Midnight’s Children, which would probably have been about late ’75, early ’76, there was this period of flailing about. It was more than a technical problem. Until you know who you are you can’t write. Because my life had been jumbled up between India and England and Pakistan, I really didn’t have a good handle on myself. As a result the writing was garbage—sometimes clever garbage, but garbage nonetheless.

He later theorises that fiction may be tougher for an immigrant. People who live rooted lives can write about a particular place with confidence. They have grown up there and know the territory. However:

I wanted to write about arrival. I didn’t want to pretend that I was Don DeLillo or Philip Roth or anyone who’d grown up in these streets. I wanted to write about the New York of people who come here and make new lives, about the ease with which stories from all over the world can become New York stories. Just by virtue of showing up, your story becomes one of the many stories of the city.

The Satanic Verses was supposed to be a novel about identity and the immigrant experience. A flight to London is hijacked by terrorists and explodes thousands of feet over the English Channel. Incredibly, there are two survivors: Indian actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Farishta is a movie star who has made it big in Bollywood theologicals. Chamcha is a comic actor and voiceover artist. He is a Westernised man who has renounced his Indian roots, and annoys his liberal friends by supporting Thatcher in the Falklands war. ‘Of material things, he had given his love to this city, London, preferring it to the city of his birth or to any other.’ If the book had been set today (it was published in 1989) Chamcha would have been called a decentist or neocon or Uncle Tom. In this, his outlook is different from Gibreel’s: walking around London together, Chamcha sees ‘attractively faded grandeur’ while Gibreel irritates his fellow survivor by damning the adopted metropolis as ‘a wreck, a Crusoe-city, marooned on the island of its past’.

But Chamcha’s convert’s zeal does not save him. Despite having lived and worked and been educated in the UK, on arrival in London he is beaten up by border control thugs, who assume that he is an illegal immigrant. Having lost his identity documents in the fall, Chamcha hits on a potential out: ‘Ask the Computer!’ The officers get worried, and talk amongst themselves… but Chamcha’s record in official databases doesn’t necessarily mean that the beating will end. He overhears the men: ‘We could say, – one of the nine suggested, – that he was lying unconscious on the beach… Then he resisted arrest and turned nasty and in the ensuing altercation he kind of fainted.’ This is a moment of real darkness, a glimpse into state brutality.

And it’s not his last encounter with the side of the UK that hates everything different. Casual racism abounds. There are riots, fit-ups, suspicious custody deaths (‘It appears that…’) deportations, racial assaults. Rushdie refers in a throwaway line to the practice of immigration officials checking the vaginas of female refugees for contraband. Chamcha, the great assimilationist, travels through an England that rejects the Other with all its heart.

A further problem for Saladin Chamcha is that he is metamorphosing into a weird Pan-goat devil creature. Horns rise and twist from his head, his feet are replaced by cloven hooves, his penis swells to a lustful-god caricature of an erection, and he grows a tail, which he must conceal inside baggy pantaloons. TV work having trailed out, and appalled by his own freakish appearance, he shelters inside a migrant hostel ‘of the type that borough councils were using more and more owing to the crisis in public housing, lodging five-person families in single rooms, turning blind eyes to health and safety regulations, and claiming ‘temporary accommodation’ allowances from the government.’ He is exiled with his own kind in a city visible but unseen. There he reflects on this literal demonisation:

Could it be, in this inverted age, that he was being victimised by – the fates, he agreed to call his persecuting agency – precisely because of his pursuit of ‘the good’? – That nowadays such a pursuit was considered wrong-headed, even evil? – Then how cruel these fates were, to instigate his rejection by the very world he had so determinedly courted; how desolating, to be cast from the gates of the city one believed oneself to have taken long ago!

The plane crash affects Gibreel in a different way. A actor who plays mainly Hindu gods, Farishta becomes convinced that he is the Archangel Gabriel. Just as Chamcha, in his new form, can generate infernal smoke when he gets angry, so Gibreel, when he deplanes, is surrounded by a benign and powerful light that impresses the border patrol so much that they leave him alone while taking Chamcha into the van for a kicking. But that is the only external verification of Gibreel’s fantasy. To the rest of the world he’s a madman. Gibreel’s delusions unnerve his girlfriend, and he is put on antipsychotics. His attempts to heal London’s damned citizens become farcical. He believes that he can fly, and transform the climate itself. In a brilliant riff Rushdie outlines Gibreel’s plan to ‘tropicalise’ the city:

Gibreel enumerated the benefits of the proposed metamorphosis of London into a tropical city: increased moral definition, institution of a national siesta, development of vivid and expansive patterns of behaviour among the populace, higher-quality popular music, new birds in the trees (macaws, peacocks, cockatoos), new trees under the birds (coco-palms, tamarind, banyans with hanging beards)… Disadvantages: cholera, typhoid, legionnaires’ disease, cockroaches, dust, noise, a culture of excess.

The book’s most ‘blasphemous’ passages, therefore, take place as hallucinations in Gibreel’s disentegrating mind. As the Archangel, Gibreel believes he is speaking directly to Mohammed (‘Mahound’) as he begins a new religion in the desert cities. Rushdie’s Mecca has a multiplicity of gods. It’s a town of brutal hedonism teeming with poets, dancers, mystics and prostitutes. Mahound, with his insistence on monotheism, is a ridiculed heretic. ‘Never more than fifty in the audience when I speak,’ the Prophet says in rueful tones, ‘and half of these are tourists.’ He quotes derisive graffito:

Messenger, do please lend a

careful ear. Your monophilia,

your one one one, ain’t for Jahilia.

Return to sender.

Yet the Grandee, ruler of Jahilia, fears Mahound. He sees something coming. The natural impulse is to have the upstart merchant tortured into pieces, but the Grandee is smarter than that. He knows that martyrs have a way of replicating, and instead seeks to neutralise the adversary. He offers Mahound a deal: guaranteed recognition, and freedom from persecution, plus representation on the city council, if the Messenger will in turn recognise the Jahilia goddesses Lat, Uzza and Manat. Mahound is a pragmatist. ‘It is not even suggested that Allah accept the three as his equals,’ he tells his followers, trying to sell the deal. ‘Only that they be given some sort of intermediary, lesser status.’ But the big selling point for Islam is the one-god thing: the thought of accepting other gods – woman gods! – is too hard for the faithful to take.

What is blasphemous about this book? The idea of the devil dictating parts of the Koran, posing as an Archangel (the ‘satanic verses’ of the title)? The implications for revealed religion? The extended comic disgression where the poet Baal, on the run from Mahound, hides out in a Jahilia brothel where the prostitutes name themselves after the Prophet’s wives? I think it’s more the general tone.

There’s a wonderful American idiom: to clean his clock. It’s a colloquial term of conquest, meaning a decisive and total victory. When you clean a clock you reduce it to its component parts. This is what Rushdie does to religion. And not even in a particularly aggressive way. The voice is playful, reasonable, open-handed and persuasive, even as it devastates. A voice of Indian wit and warmth that has picked up the best of Western oratory and run with it, yaar: above all it is a voice that listens.

Here is Rushdie on Genesis:

In the case of human persons, the issue had been morality. Of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they shouldst not eat, and ate. Woman first, and at her suggestion man, acquired the verboten ethical standards, tastily apple-flavoured: the serpent brought them a value system. Enabling them, among other things, to judge the Deity Itself, making possible in good time all the awkward inquiries: why evil? Why suffering? Why death? – So, on they went. It didn’t want Its pretty creatures getting above their station.

Have you ever read a better analysis of our foremost creation myth than that?

But Rushdie’s novel goes beyond God. The opposite of faith, he writes, is not disbelief, but doubt. Saladin Chamcha – a kindly and perceptive man under the veneer of tweedy cynicism – sees this from the beginning. Held in mass hostage on the hijacked plane, he feels an urge to argue with one of the terrorists, the only woman and the one who seems the most serious and self-aware. Chamcha wants to tell her that ‘unbendingness can also be monomania… it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.’

This is it: that which is liberal and diverse is not only nicer but also more durable, better able to defend itself than (or from) the fundamentalist alternative. The book’s cacophony of wordplay, legend and reference is a stylistic tribute to this diversity. Though rooted in a particular time, it does not appear dated, and parts appear to foretell the world we live in. The novel is a powerful cry for cosmopolitanism, secularism, hipsterism, urbanity and difference: it speaks to those of us who contain multitudes and against the parochial, the insular, the political and spiritual elite and their dreams of changelessness and power.

In a later essay Rushdie summed up what he was trying to do:

The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world… The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves.

We’re not there yet, but there will come a time when people will be in a room or a bar discussing this novel and someone will say: When this was published, didn’t he get in trouble, wasn’t there some shit, from like Hindus… or the Tea Party?

When the ayatollahs have died, the ashes dispersed and the demonstrators packed up their placards and gone home, the story remains.

The story is imperishable.

(Image: Guardian)

Zoe’s Stolen Horses

March 2, 2012

My review of Zoe Lambert‘s The War Tour, her collection of stories about conflict, is now available at 3:AM.

Also worth reading is Lambert’s interview with Tom Vowler, over at the Short Review. It is a very well conducted interview. I don’t think I understood where Zoe was coming from as a writer until I read it.

It’s impossible to completely avoid authorial intrusion; we all write from a certain cultural context and position. But the beauty of writing a collection of stories is conjuring up different voices and perspectives, and in doing so I tried to write outside of myself, as all writers do. I didn’t want this book to be a rant or a vehicle for me to declare, ‘war is wrong!’ I like what Chekhov says in one of his letters:

‘You accuse me of objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: ‘Stealing horses is evil.’ But that has been known for ages without me saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.’

Chekhov goes on to explain that it is a matter of technique; in a short story you don’t have the space to explain the evils of horse stealing or indeed, war. On the other hand, the writing process wasn’t always about separating my emotions from my characters’ feelings. It was the opposite. On an emotional level to attempt to explore the experiences of both victims and perpetrators I had to draw upon my own feelings of hurt, fear, anger, and regret… We can never really walk in someone else’s shoes, but we write and read in a hope of doing so, or at least, to walk beside someone else, and see things from their perspective for a short while.