Archive for April, 2012

Born Under a Bad Sign: The Sopranos

April 30, 2012

This article contains spoilers

Last night you were flying but today you’re so low/Ain’t it times like these that make you wonder if you’ll ever know the meaning of things as they appear to the others, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers

– Alabama 3, ‘Woke Up This Morning’

As my weary Twitter followers will confirm, I am a serious boxset addict. For the past couple of months I have been watching all of The Sopranos and tweeting about the episodes as I watch them. The Man Who Fell Asleep has been doing something similar recently, live-tweeting Masterchef; the experiment has been quite a success, and he writes that ‘over the years I haven’t alienated too many followers by bombarding them with 80 tweets an hour that make absolutely no sense unless you are watching the same TV show as me.’

I think the difference is that a) The Man Who Fell Asleep is a lot more intelligent and funny than I am and b) he’s live tweeting a primetime show that other people might be watching, whereas I am live tweeting a drama that ended in 2007 and with which the average Twitter user might have only a vague acquaintance. So my Sopranos tweets serve little purpose other than to confuse and irritate my followers. Maybe I should join a book group or something. Oh well.

However, as I worked my way through the boxset, I began to get responses from a few HBO crime drama aficionados, who provided insights into the story and characters that I would never have considered. In particular, I’d like to thank @Finngav, @Citizen_Sane and the peerless @ComradeNosaj. The long rainy evenings have flown.

The show centres on the life of Tony Soprano, boss of a New Jersey crime family. He has sought help from psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi after a series of debilitating panic attacks, so severe that they cause him to lose consciousness and fall over. Melfi treats the attacks with psychoanalysis, discussing with Tony issues around his life, family and friendships in an attempt to kill the anxiety at source. Tony can’t be entirely honest in these sessions, as Melfi has a duty to inform the police of serious criminal matters, so he often reframes, generalises, equivocates and hypotheticals when confiding about current tensions. The therapy is also hindered by Tony’s temperamental hotheadness. On many occasions he’ll lose his temper, storm out, insult or even physically threaten his psychiatrist.

The Sopranos is what the novelist Scarlett Thomas might describe as a storyless story. It’s striking how little the narrative makes sense. Tony’s world abounds with dei ex machina, MacGuffins and red herrings. As the killer says in ‘Apt Pupil’, ‘One thing just followed another’. The series finale is notorious for its lack of resolution. The show also has a strong surrealist element. Entire episodes take place in dreams or alternate realities.

Initially The Sopranos was praised for its quirky postmodernism. Tony’s crew quote The Godfather and watch it endlessly. The series even has an aspiring screenwriter in Christopher Moltisanti, one of the show’s strongest characters. Roadblocked on his script, and depressed at his failure to rise in the organisation, Chris complains to the eccentric capo Paulie Walnuts:

It says in these movie writing books that every character has an arc… Like everybody starts out somewheres, and they do something, something gets done to them and it changes their life. That’s called an arc. Where’s my arc?

Paulie explicitly rejects that concept: ‘I was in the army for a few years, in the can for a few more, now I’m a wiseguy.’

Although he does eventually become a made man, Chris never really gives up his dream of Hollywood success, and even produces a ludicrous slashgore choker with a villain based on Tony and a narrative that reflects their turbulent relationship. Tony sees Chris as the heir and successor his own son can never be. He invests huge expectation and sentimentality in the relationship, only to find that Chris, as a mafiosi, has been ‘the biggest blunder of my career.’ Restless, preoccupied and unreliable, Chris’s usefulness is further qualified by a reckless heroin and cocaine habit; confronted through a farcical intervention and shipped off to rehab, Chris never beats his addictions and is on and off the wagon for the rest of his life. Eventually, Tony and Chris are in an early hours car accident. Although both survive, Chris is hacking up blood, and fearful that he won’t pass a police drug test. That is it for Tony: tired of the younger man’s unpredictability and lack of focus, Tony pinches his nose so that Chris chokes to death on his own blood. No character arc for Chris, no great Shakespearian death scene, just an abrupt roadside murder.

Matt Weiner recently said of Mad Men that ‘one of the premises of my show is that people don’t change.’ It’s the same with his old series. Tony Soprano is a complex man whose problems have developed over many years. He has to deal with the fact that his mother never loved him, closed off his potential out from the mafia, and has actually tried to have him killed. Watching the series in retrospect, it’s heartbreaking to see Tony give up his time for Livia, all those little visits and gifts; he’s at his most thoughtful and compassionate with his mother, but it doesn’t help him. The convention is that age makes us wiser and more generous (in fact, in so many cases, people just become stupid and unpleasant) and Livia is a cold-hearted emotional manipulator, whose reflexive nihilism (‘It’s all a big nothing,’ ‘You die in your own arms,’ etc) poisons both her son’s and grandson’s lives.

Tony also carries a deep resentment for his sister, Janice, who got to leave home, travel America, take drugs and discover herself, whereas Tony had to stay in Jersey and deal with his mother and father. The responsibility shows. When we first meet Tony he is in his late thirties, but looks fifty. A fat bear of a man, his enormous stippled skull revealed by the rapid recede of his hairline, sadness and pain are etched into his features. Waking up alone and hungover in his strip club, the Bada Bing, after killing one of his capos, Tony staggers to the bathroom mirror in a Bing t shirt and stares into the face of an exhausted monster.

There’s a telling moment when Tony and his wife Carmela visit Janice and her new husband at their villa by the sea. Both Sopranos have made resolutions: Janice to commit to the domestic ideal, and Tony to appreciate the good things in life after recovering from a serious gunshot trauma. The visit starts off friendly, but ends in a uproarious drunken fistfight over a Monopoly board. The lie is that things change – the reality is that nothing ever does.

Another thing that becomes apparent is in how completely the characters are boxed in. Tony never feels at ease in non-mob company, whether it’s playing a round of golf with suburban white-collar neighbours, or putting in some executive time at his front sanitation company. Carmela, Tony’s wife, knows deep down that she has made the wrong choice. Impulsive sweeteners and a housewife’s leisure is meant as a trade off for Tony’s explosive temper and tacit infidelities, and for Carmela the tightrope becomes a harder walk by the day. Everyone outside the enabling world of the Soprano community tells her to get out. But when she tries to end the marriage, she finds that Tony has already met with the best divorce lawyers, creating a deliberate conflict of interest that makes it impossible for them to represent her. When Meadow announces her own engagement, Carmela bursts into tears; tears of joy, Med assumes, but truly provoked by the loss of her own life’s possibilities, and a fear for her daughter.

Chris’s girlfriend Adriana is caught selling coke, and is coerced into becoming an FBI informant. She attempts to ‘flip’ Chris – get him to testify against Tony so that they can start new lives in witness protection. Chris considers this at first: it’s only the sight of a working class family at a petrol pump, struggling with cheap overflowing luggage, that makes him realise the poverty of civilian life. Later, he comes to realise that he too is trapped. Having relapsed once again, Chris gets drunk and raves to his Hollywood contact – hapless TV hack J. T. Dolan – about his relationship with Tony and the terrible things he has had to do in the mob. J. T. cannot relate to any of this – ‘Chris, you’re in the Mafia!’ – and Chris shoots him dead, frustrated as much by his own imprisonment and his inability to communicate this as by J. T.’s indifference. Everywhere in The Sopranos you see doors closing. I tried to get out – but they dragged me back in.

And imagine what it must have been like to grow up in that family! Tony’s children, Meadow and AJ, are ostensibly protected from the business – Tony says to Melfi that he doesn’t want them living the life he’s chosen – but, by circuitous routes, both are sucked in. The Soprano townhouse is an eerie gilded cage. Family friends disappear and are never spoken of again. The heavy tension of dissipated arguments hangs in the air. There is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income.

There are many things to like about Tony – his generosity, his relative liberalism, his love of animals – but he is a violent sociopath, no more, no less. The characteristic of this kind of drama is supposed to be moral ambiguity, but there’s no real moral ambiguity in The Sopranos. The show is an exploration of what @ComradeNosaj described as the ‘solipsistic, corrosive nature of mafia life’ and how it ruins everything it touches. Almost every civilian Tony deals with is compromised in some way. Politicians, detectives, financial advisers, storeholders, restauranteurs – all are dragged into Tony’s orbit, and many pay a heavy price for it.

What’s notable about Melfi is that she never allows herself to become part of Tony’s world. Even when she is raped, and the attacker escapes justice, she resists the urge to ask for Tony’s help, even though he would whack the rapist in a heartbeat. Eventually Melfi comes across independent research claiming that the talking cure does not help criminals to reform, and may even encourage them to reoffend. Matt Weiner said that ‘One of the great revelations of The Sopranos for me was realizing that Tony Soprano’s psychotherapy just made him a better criminal.’ Realising that her association with Tony could discredit her forever as a psychiatrist, she cuts him off and walks away.

The Sopranos is filled with gorgeous musical vistas and panoramas. Tony, recovering from a serious depressive episode, escapes an assassination attempt set up by the crotchety Uncle Junior, the whole thing played out to the sensual sadness of Tinderstick’s ‘Tiny Tears’. A mashup of Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ accompanies the FBI’s attempt to bug Tony’s house, a decisive choreographed ballet of predation and deceit. And who could forget Chris’s heroin bender at the Feast of St. Elzear, cuddling a stray dog, marvelling at the trails of his fingertips to the sound of deep-throat blues.

The show’s trippy stylistics feed into its central preoccupation. One of Tony’s big breakthroughs in therapy is based on his guilt around his beloved cousin, Tony Blundetto (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi, who does a great line in angry, frustrated losers). Tony B has been in jail for sixteen years for an armed hijacking, in which Tony Soprano was supposed to have participated. But Tony S had a panic attack, collapsed, and missed the operation; now, Tony has prospered in his cousin’s absence and Tony B has come home to nothing. The problem is not just guilt but a sense of precarious coincidence: if he had been present at the hijacking, Tony S would have gone to prison and none of his success would have happened. Tony Soprano’s life is a fluke and he knows it.

And how about that ending? By the final episode, Tony is facing potential indictments, including for murder; out at an ice cream place with his family, the camera tracks strange patrons. That ‘Members Only’ guy? The man heading for the bathroom, Godfather-style? How come it takes so long for Meadow to park her car? All Tony’s enemies have either been whacked or bought off, and yet there is a palpable sense of doom. You never see it coming, Tony says. The obvious interpretation is that Tony is about to be murdered. He looks up, into our eyes – and then that’s it.

@ComradeNosaj commented that:

The final scene in the diner actually does more to make you FEEL like Tony than any other scene the show did… this is mafia life, not being able to go to dinner with your family without keeping your eyes on the door or a pair in the back of your head. Unreal tension.

And @Citizen_Sane added:

I see it more as a representation of what Tony’s life is always going to be like… every time the door opens, any shifty looking character in a bar, the threat of death is a constant in Tony’s life. So even if this scene wasn’t his death, it will happen, and probably this way, some other time.

Not a morality play, or procedural drama, The Sopranos is a testament to the sheer scope and depth of the criminal genre, an exploration of the fragility of consciousness and of life itself.

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Ship of Ghouls

April 11, 2012

I mean, Civil War battle reconstructions you can understand.

But this

It might not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday cruise, but today 1,309 passengers will set sail from Southampton on a trip recreating the exact journey the Titanic took on its ill-fated maiden voyage a hundred years ago.

The MS Balmoral will leave Southampton today, with the exact number of passengers as the famous cruise liner and a departure date and location all part of an attempt to create an authentic Titanic experience.

Some of the food served on the ship will be from the menus of the Titanic and the organisers have also arranged a five piece band, who will presumably continue to play if the recreation of the disastrous trip becomes a little too realistic.

The ship is embarking on the 12-night cruise in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Passengers from 28 countries have paid between £2,799 and £5,995 per person for the privilege of retracing the route of the ship involved in probably the world’s most famous maritime disaster.

Miles Morgan, managing director of Miles Morgan Travel, said: ‘This cruise has been five years in the making and every step of the way we have sought to make it authentic to the era and a sympathetic memorial to the passengers and crew who lost their lives.’

At  a dinner on April 13 passengers will eat from a menu made up entirely of dishes which were served on the Titanic and guests will also enjoy a Titanic-inspired dish daily.

The Telegraph has a picture gallery of rich people grinning in period costume.

I’ve just heard about this from my friend Serena and apparently the voyage has run into problems. It seems that a passenger has had a heart attack and the ship has had to turn back to Ireland. Hopefully everything will be okay, but Christ, why would you want to go on something like this? I pity the ship’s crew.

Anyway, here’s George Orwell:

If I honestly sort out my memories and disregard what I have learned since, I must admit that nothing in the whole war moved me so deeply as the loss of the Titanic had done a few years earlier. This comparatively petty disaster shocked the whole world, and the shock has not quite died away even yet. I remember the terrible, detailed accounts read out at the breakfast table (in those days it was a common habit to read the newspaper aloud), and I remember that in all the long list of horrors the one that most impressed me was that at the last the Titanic suddenly up-ended and sank bow foremost, so that the people clinging to the stern were lifted no less than three hundred feet into the air before they plunged into the abyss. It gave me a sinking sensation in the belly which I can still all but feel. Nothing in the war ever gave me quite that sensation.

(Image: Telegraph)

Pause for Thought… for the Day

April 10, 2012

A report by Demos over the weekend has claimed that religious people are more likely to be on the left. The Guardian has seized on this:

The Faithful Citizens report also has implications for the aspiration of prime minister David Cameron for a ‘big society’. It finds that people who identify with a faith are more likely to volunteer, be politically engaged and to become active citizens in their neighbourhoods.

But the Demos report suggests that the example of the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, who combines deeply held progressive beliefs with his religious convictions, is not unusual.

‘Rowan Williams may be far more representative of the religious community than many have suggested,’ said Jonathan Birdwell, the author of the report. ‘Progressives should sit up and take note. Their natural allies may look more like the archbishop of Canterbury than Richard Dawkins.’

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

I read the report. In a sense it’s nothing more than a welcome confirmation that most religious people don’t share the prejudices and manias of ecclesiastical leaders. However, a few points:

Its definitions are problematic. The report defines respondents as being either a ‘religious exclusivist’ a ‘religious pluralist’ or a ‘non religious secular’. The ‘seculars’ are further defined as people who ‘did not identify as religious’, ‘did not consider themselves religious’ and believe that ‘None of the great religions have any truths to offer’. This runs counter to secularism as it’s been understood throughout history – you don’t have to be an atheist to be secular, you just need to accept a basic separation of church and state. Secularism welcomes everyone who isn’t trying to destroy it. This isn’t the first incidence of high liberal confusion over first principles.

For that matter, what do we mean by ‘left’? Is it ‘left’ to value equality over freedom? Shouldn’t we demand both freedom and equality? Of course you can go on forever about what it means to be left these days, but what’s important in this context is the liberal-left’s attempted revisionism and rehabilitation of religion since 9/11. It’s too stupid to rehearse here, but there has been a definite intellectual slide towards earthy spiritual values and away from bourgois neoconservative constructions such as secularism, feminism and human rights. Alain de Botton – who we’ve met before – encapsulates its motivations:

The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual… In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.

The scramble for an alternative – any alternative – to consumer capitalism has led writers, thinkers and activists on the left into some very strange places. Termini ranged from a harmless flirtation with reiki and cosmic ordering to, at worst, active support for genocidal faith-based terrorism. This is another reason why definitions of a left wing outlook run into problems and why so many frauds and low men can pass for progressive. Rowan Williams is regularly lauded by the Guardian despite his support of sharia law for British Muslims (in effect, an inferior, separate and discriminatory legal system predicated on race) and his special pleading on rightwing G-spot issues like welfare and political correctness.

The report has a preoccupation with political engagement. The pro-faith left have claimed before that religious social networks do good works unmatched by any secular organisation – apart from the NHS, trade unions, numerous residential associations, Friends of the Parks groups and UK Uncut-style secular activists but no one mentioned them. We live in a time where someone who gives ten hours a week to a local church group is seen as morally superior to a paramedic facing five back-to-back twelve hour shifts over a hundred-hour cycle. You could say that the paramedic is getting paid – true, but s/he could make better money in a standard office job, and avoid the ruinous impact of shift work on his health, youth and relationships. It’s not just the little platoons that hold society together, or are motivated by compassion.

In the age of the Big Society it’s easy to forget that community engagement and unpaid work are not necessarily progressive. Councillors, magistrates and school governors are often little Bismarcks trying to build up a power base. The Demos report even considers joining a boycott, any boycott, as an indicator of virtue. The most prominent political boycott today is a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions that threatens labour rights of Israeli workers and the free exchange of ideas between our countries. The inner city Labour MP Stella Creasy hit on the assumption here, that ‘well, as long as people are taking part, whatever happens will be good. Well, the EDL [English Defence League] are taking part in their local communities – and I don’t think what they’re doing is good.’

Finally it’s interesting to note that religion is still losing its appeal. The report admits as much: ‘the active practice of religion continues to decline, with responses from younger Britons suggesting a significant generational shift.’ The Guardian summarises this: ‘Religiosity among younger citizens appears to be declining, with nearly two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds claiming that they do not follow a religion, compared with under one third aged 65 and over.’ The political-media class falls over itself to promote all things faith, while more and more of the public have escaped to the secular world of multiple living. This suggests that, although so many left politicians and intellectuals believe that faith will save us – almost believe that religious belief is a precondition for being leftwing – they will have to at least reach an accommodation with younger generations who are not pro faith. If they can’t do that, they will spiral into irrelevance.

Update: Over at the Staggers, Nelson Jones has gone much deeper into the methodology and has some real doubts. Jonathan Birdwell from Demos responds, somewhat intemperately, to Jones’s mild-mannered criticism: ‘Behind Jones’s straw man argument, and the misdirection and lazy assumptions that characterise his other two methodological ‘critiques’… is a clear desire to airbrush faith out of civic and political life.’ Jones has responded on his own blog:

Being neither left-of-centre nor religious, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, and I must say I was rather taken aback with the vehemence with which (in private correspondence) Demos attacked me for suggesting various flaws in their analysis and, most especially, for pointing out that the reports claiming that religious believers were ‘more likely to be left wing’ were seriously misleading. Until I forced them into it, Demos did nothing to correct this misleading impression by publicising the true figures.

Class War and the Boat Race

April 8, 2012

I don’t follow sport, but even I couldn’t not notice the carnage that accompanied this year’s Oxford and Cambridge boat race. Two teams from each university get in a canoe and have to row along the Thames – that’s how it normally works, right? Well, something went wrong this year. I had Twitter on in the background and apparently some guy jumped into the Thames and swam between the two boats in a kind of Occupy-style protest. The race had to be restarted and an Oxford bowman collapsed from exhaustion at the finish line. That kind of cast a shadow over the many unapologetic class hate comments I saw on Twitter.

Trenton Oldfield seems to be an attention seeker along the May-Bowles line and his blog is overwritten to the point of mania. In a manifesto two thousand words long Oldfield compared himself to the Suffragette Emily Davison and said that his stunt was ‘an act of civil disobedience, a methodology of refusing and resistance.’ I have to say, I’m getting sick of this ‘guerilla clown’ bullshit. Why can’t radicals attack politicians with pithy epigrams and satirical quatrains?

I’m linking to a blog piece by an Oxford graduate. We know each other but, by one of those weird social quirks, have never met, despite being close to the same people and moving in the same circles. I think he says something here about the ratcheting class tensions that have developed in our society during the 2010s.

The protester swam in the water, risking his life (nearly getting his head swiped clean off by an oxon oar) and halted the entire race. People were asking, what the hell is his deal? What is he protesting about? Why would he do this?… His problem is elitism, and I suppose there is of course an elitism to the boat race. But, funny thing, what about those who are at Oxford or Cambridge from humble beginnings, and are on the rowing team? Do any of those rowers seem particularly aristocratic to you? Alex Davidson, Dan Harvey, Alexander Woods, David Nelson, Michael Thorp – do these sound like the names of elitist poshos to you?

The concern I have here isn’t that the boat race was halted (thought that has rather put a crimp in my day), it’s the fucking ridiculous class war that inevitably has to accompany the race. If you watch the race you’re probably posh (because as we all know working class people aren’t allowed to understand the concept of a race that lasts less than half an hour between the same two teams year in, year out. A little too much to grasp, perhaps), if you went to Oxford or Cambridge, you’re probably posh. Sure. Oxbridge has more than its fair share of Edwards, Giles’ and Sebastians, but not everyone is walking around wearing a cunting top hat and using a whip with which to discipline their servants. So this elitism thing, that is now and always was bullshit.

Another thing bothering me is the outright lack of concern of our fallen player, rowing team bow man Dr. Alex Woods. He collapsed. He fucking COLLAPSED, and nobody seems to give a flying fuck because some guy with a beard and mild symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia decided to take a little swim in the water. FYI – I hear Dr. Woods is awake, conscious and sitting up, but it might have been so much worse. And I hope all of those tweeting that both teams ought to just sink to ‘get rid of a future Tory cabinet’ feel awful now (not that they will. Funny things are class wars. It’s fine to wish death on someone for being born into something rather than nothing, without knowing anything else about their lives. It’s fine).

How the fuck was that an emmental loop. (Image: Guardian)

Speed of the Sound of Solitude

April 7, 2012

The Guardian had an article the other week about the increase in people who live alone. It’s a sociological thinkpiece with contributions from intellectual celebrities. The author, Eric Klinenberg, says that ‘living alone is something that each person, or family, experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact it is an increasingly common condition.’

Economics barely features in this article. Rising rents and the glacial pace of construction means that, despite the handwringing about an atomised society, people are crammed together on a scale unheard of in the last thirty years. Professionals live in HMOs, working families live in overcrowded social housing. Britain has many problems and loneliness is a long way down the list. Solitude is becoming a luxury for the rich. If more people could live alone, they would.

Having said that, I share Rowan Pelling’s scepticism about the ‘power of introverts’ – another big feature across the broadsheets in the last two weeks. The American writer Susan Cain has released a widely admired book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which complains that the world values braggadocio and self-aggrandisement too highly, and forgets the qualities of deep thought and introspection that are harder to see and value. No one who has seen The Apprentice can doubt there is truth in that.

But Pelling points out that a silent or awkward manner can as easily denote a sullen personality and closed mind, and that ‘[t]hose of us who replenish our energy via parties, lively conversation and dancing are frequently dismissed as irredeemably shallow.’

Meanwhile, a taste for solitary reflection signifies profundity to the world at large – no matter that all you’ve contemplated as you wander the shore is your navel and the football scores. I was musing on this while in Venice last weekend for a friend’s birthday party. Prior to leaving, one pursed-mouthed acquaintance expressed astonishment that I was travelling to the cultural capital of the universe for a shindig. No one would have flinched, however, had I said I was making a lone pilgrimage to view Titians.

But why should the consolations of art always be deemed superior to the consolations of fine company? Robert Browning, who died in Venice in 1889, found plenty of succour in a lively social life. Henry James was confounded upon meeting Browning that such a hearty, garrulous and (dare it be said) slightly vulgar man could write such luminous poetry. He wrote a short story in which Browning is ill-disguised as literary lion Clare Vawdrey, who is quite literally two men: while one Vawdrey holds forth at the dinner table, the other sits alone upstairs, writing.

In truth, this is an easy duality to pull off. Christopher Hitchens combined the solitary scholar’s range and depth with the style and reputation of a hardcore hedonist. There’s no reason you can’t be both. My life has been full of intense solitude and long nights partying. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Another Day, Another Bad Idea

April 6, 2012

Shiv Malik highlights the latest silly welfare reform idea from the government. The idea is to cut housing benefit for workless people under twenty-five. Here is the Telegraph spin on it:

The radical proposal is being worked on by Downing Street and the Department for Work and Pensions as part of a drive to make sure people are better off working than on benefits.

At the moment, people under the age of 25 can get housing benefit to help pay the rent for bed-sits or rooms in shared accommodation if their wages and savings are below a certain level.

However, they could be forced to live with parents or other relatives, like many other young people in their first jobs.

Like many welfare reform ideas it sounds good at first glance – why should an unemployed person get a free house when some working people have to live at home? A further moment’s thought reveals potential problems with the idea, that may cost us more in the long term. With something like five people chasing every vacancy it’s not necessarily the claimant’s fault if s/he cannot find work. The claimant could have lost a job through no fault of their own, such as redundancy or sickness. The policy will disporportionately affect working class people, whose parents maybe can’t afford to keep them living at home, or don’t want them living at home. It is a policy aimed at dividing the young against each other. Its effects will be homelessness, and the cramming of yet more people into overcrowded social homes.

Tuition fees, workfare, and now discriminatory benefit changes – why does the government encourage intergenerational warfare? Most political books are dated even by publication, but the Malik/Howker Jilted Generation argument just gets stronger by the day. This is a country where the growing numbers of young people sleeping on streets attract little or no comment, and a modest tax on the allowances of better-off pensioners triggers front pages of confected outrage.

This new housing benefit idea is particularly bad because it goes against not just the letter, but the actual spirit, of welfare reform. It’s not about encouraging independence. All it does is transfer dependency to the family instead of the state.

And it is clear that this is the government’s only idea. In Helen Lewis-Hasteley’s thorough and informative article on intergenerational conflict, she talks of ‘Britain moving to a ‘family welfare’ model, with the younger generations relying on the elder more, as happens in some Mediterranean countries.’ Lewis-Hasteley points out the obvious problem with this model, which is that it will only benefit people from wealthy families. It is a model of internships and inheritances and family connections, what Alastair Campbell calls the ‘Downton Abbeyisation’ of our country.

The other problem is that it encourages young people to be dependent on their families, which is not a good place to be in. Dependence has a bad effect on character. And our parents have done enough for us. They should be able to enjoy their old age. But the government’s assault on the young will ultimately hurt the old, because it is not interested in autonomy, independence and hard work, just in replacing welfare dependence with family dependence.

(Image from The Prodigy official website)

Bounty Hunters

April 2, 2012

This short story has just been published in the new issue of Ofi Press Mexico.

Classic Books: This Is How

April 1, 2012

‘Put every word on trial for its life,’ M J Hyland told me, in the Cornerhouse, shortly after taking up a lecturing job at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. Back then she had published two novels, How the Light Gets In followed by Carry Me Down, both precise and intense explorations of young people trying to find their way in the world. Her latest and best book, This is How, is written in that same unique Hyland style. There’s a single voice. The prose is stripped down to its essentials. Here’s a typical couple of paras:

When the pregnant woman leaves, I buy two ham and salad sandwiches with extra beetroot and two sponge cakes and two vanilla slices and a big bottle of lemonade. I also get lots of napkins. Women always like to have napkins.

I get in the car, take the top off, put the radio on. I find a station playing jazz. If there’s not much chat when she first gets in the car, at least there’ll not be silence.

All the bells, whistles, crutches and affectations that make up your average sentence of contemporary English prose have simply been thrown out of the window. Notice, though, that nothing essential has been lost. In fact it shines all the more because there’s nothing extraneous in the way. By this point in the novel, Patrick Oxtoby, the book’s narrator, has arranged a day out with a local woman who waits tables at a cafe. In these clear, declarative sentences you get anticipation, terror, hope of love, life – and that intensity resonates throughout the narrative. This is a novel with a heartbeat. When the pretensions and delusions that creep into fiction writing have been hurled over the side, we hear that heartbeat so much clearer. The reading experience is captured in the book’s most memorable phrase: ‘Every movement outside sets my heart thumping with blasts of hope and fear.’

‘When I came home from university,’ Patrick tells us, ‘my father told me he didn’t understand me, told me that my brother had a knack for happiness and he asked me why I didn’t.’ This is Patrick Oxtoby summed up in a sentence. In his early twenties with an abandoned engagement and undergraduate degree behind him, Patrick has moved to a coastal town to take a job as a mechanic. Repairing cars is his talent and his passion. Patrick boasts that clients will drive for fifty miles to have their cars worked on by him. There’s a gorgeous passage from a childhood flashback, where Patrick has been fixing a bike at his grandmother’s house:

‘When I was doing it,’ I said, ‘the time flew like magic, like the world didn’t exist. I thought I’d only spent an hour doing the fixing, when it turned out it was the whole afternoon. And when I was doing it, I didn’t have any worries about school or anything. And the pains were gone.’

She didn’t say anything, just opened her arms and gave me a good strong look and waited for me to embrace her, and when she was holding me she said, ‘Dear Patrick, you’ve found the thing you love to do.’

Patrick is good at some things – he thrashes other regulars at pool in the local pubs, he has a strange, damaged kind of charm that makes the waitress Georgia accept a date with him, on the basis of little more than a nodding acquaintance in the cafe where she works. It’s the rest of life itself he can’t handle. Basic interactions with others are a minefield. He’s constantly tense, defensive, inscrutable, and protective of his space. In an interview with Vulpes Libres, Hyland expanded on this: ‘What he suffers from is an escalating and cumulative sense of disorientation, a feeling of being left out, and a frustration both physical and emotional.’

Much of that disorientation centres around his relationship with Ian Welkin, a housemate at the boarder where Patrick stays. In her review of the book, Justine Jordan points out that Welkin is everything Patrick is not: ‘[a] teasing, provocative presence, given to garish displays of sexual prowess and unnerving emotional intimacy’. Welkin is an upper middle class Oxbridge graduate whereas Patrick always comes off as a country boy – little narrative things, ‘I’ll not’ for ‘I won’t’ give the impression of a rural practicality that loses its orientation outside the home village. Welkin’s playful irreverence jars and unsettles Patrick, he can’t deal with that affectionate bantering condescension with which almost all public schoolboys treat people who didn’t go to public school. After a night drinking with his housemate, Patrick begins to suspect that Welkin has stolen the ball-peen hammer from Patrick’s toolbox. This is it for Patrick Oxtoby, who goes to Welkin’s bedroom with an adjustable wrench and smashes his head with it, killing him in his sleep.

Hyland:

The book (if nothing else) says something about the quotidian, the arbitrariness, and the banality of certain murders. A man might be called a murderer even if he’s murdered only once. He might end up paying with his life for a split-second action. I wanted to look at this awful and fantastic tragic paradox of the instantaneous nature of the act and its lifelong consequences.

When someone kills, in films and books, that’s generally the end of the character arc. They are arrested and never seen again. The obvious parallel is L’Étranger, but I’m also thinking of Ziggy from The Wire, shooting Double-G in an argument about stolen cars, then staggering out onto the street in tears, fumbling to light a cigarette as the sirens grow clearer and louder. Patrick’s crime is dispensed in a couple of pages. There is no drama to it. The morning after the crime, Patrick goes back to Welkin’s room and looks at the corpse:

His eyes are open and the room smells of shit and something’s changed. He’s not moving, but there’s something else, something that makes him seem small in the bed.

I’ve highlighted a couple of lines to show how Hyland evokes, in just a few words, the essential loss here, the difference between someone who is alive and someone who is not.

Patrick kills around a third of the way through the book. Quickly he’s arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison. Hyland brings the process alive: takes us through every step in Patrick’s journey from a free man to another impulse killer lost in the system.

There are metal seats along both sides and each seat is housed inside a narrow cubicle, fenced on either side by metal partitions. There’s no wall at the front of the cubicles. The men opposite can see each other, but it’s not possible to see the man sitting next to you.

We go through two sets of gates and, at the second gate, a prisoner turns round.

‘Hey, new boy!’ he shouts. ‘Did your nut over a clock!’

I clamp my teeth, square my jaw, give a nod I hope looks tough and follow the line through two sets of gates and then wait outside the mess hall while the men from the blocks above cross the bridges and come down on the spiral metal staircases.

Now it’s the other bloke’s turn for a beating and he knows it, just stands back and waits for the officers to pile on and restrain him and, when it looks like he’s going to get off lightly, a fourth officer comes, a tall meat-head from Pentonville, and this one beats him with a metal bar, three blows across the back, a couple more across his shoulders, the back of his legs, and there’s a new blow with the fall of every word: ‘Not. On. Sun. Day. You. Worth. Less. Cunt.’

It’s a world of terse regimentation, boredom and terror, a world that reflects Hyland’s stark narration and also Patrick’s mental world. Prisons are not good places. Terrible things happen in them. There is a horrendous scene where Patrick walks into his cell to find a couple of strange inmates, who threaten to rape and blind him, then knock him senseless. There are moments where he imagines he is about to be released, dreams of love and freedom. He’s Perry Smith waiting for the yellow bird to take him away.

Yet once inside, Patrick acclimatises to prison life very quickly. The first night is always the worst by all accounts, but Patrick sleeps fine. Hyland: ‘Patrick does a better job of things in prison, the very things that caused him to disintegrate in Part One, he manages better when his freedom’s taken away.’ He says:

Truth is, now that I’ve been inside a good while, I don’t always think about my release, and I don’t always want to get out.

I’m sometimes happier in here than I was out there. I’m under no pressure to be better in here and life’s shrinking to a size that suits me more.

There’s even a suggestion towards the end that Patrick is changing in prison, beginning to overcome the flaws that led him there. The book’s concluding scenes are defined by a warmth and physical intimacy of which the old Patrick would not have been capable.

Good writers do not diagnose their characters. There are plenty of things wrong with Patrick’s early life but they don’t necessarily make him a killer. Patrick displays symptoms of psychopathy. He has initial trouble taking responsibility for the crime. On his arrest, his biggest concern is the loss of his toolbox. There’s little active malignancy in him, just an indifference, coupled with a strange intensity of feeling and experiencing. He doesn’t really feel remorse. He has strong emotions but they are all related to his own well being. ‘I should say I’m sorry,’ he tells us, ‘that I’d give my own life to bring Welkin back, but I wouldn’t give up my life to bring Welkin back. I want my life more than I’ve ever wanted it.’ Patrick has the psychopath’s selfishness without the talent for self-preservation.

He is also honest about his own shortcomings. He tells a psychiatrist that, when he is released, ‘I’ll probably make the same mistakes… Not exactly the same mistakes. I’ll make different ones.’ In a tragic and surreal interlude, he appeals to God to set him free:

But God’s got a quick answer ready. He reminds me that things are never as good as I think they’ll be and that I’m always disappointed and that when I’ve got something in my hands I know how to wreck it or not pay the proper attention to what it is I’ve been given.

He says, The best things in the life of Patrick Oxtoby were the things he remembered or the things he still waited for[.]

This is a tragedy… but isn’t it the human tragedy? Aren’t we all struggling forward or lost in the past, barely experiencing even the surface of lived time?

Hyland wanted to avoid the cliches of sadistic guards, and the system does not treat Patrick as evil. After he is sentenced Welkin’s parents come to see him. ‘It’s a very sad situation,’ Welkin’s father says, ‘You seem like a good boy.’ The world is about process, and not that much about morality. Great books have been written about the horrors of injustice. But justice too is often terrible, morality itself contains horror in its execution, and any sense of closure or triumph experienced by the families of the dead is always eclipsed by the intensity of the long walk up the steps of the gallows. The coldness of morality is something Truman Capote understood, and wrote about in his book In Cold Blood. Those who read Hyland’s novel will see it too.