Archive for July, 2012

A Junk Masterpiece: Jake Arnott’s House of Rumour

July 25, 2012

Readers looking for background to Jake Arnott’s bewildering, fragmented mess of a book could start with this Mark Lawson review. Lawson loves The House of Rumour despite his disapproval of Arnott’s former career in crime pulp, and regrets ‘that Arnott’s early books used the form of gangster yarns encouraged a tendency to categorise him as a sort of bookish Guy Ritchie.’ However, God rejoices at the repentance of one sinner more than the thousands of the just: Arnott has ‘broken free from this narrow definition of his range and this novel confirms his escape.’

True, Arnott’s 1999 debut appeared just a year after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and it was inevitable that such comparisons would be made. Arnott, after all, wrote about 1960s London gangland. But there was a dark imaginative depth-charge to his work that made the Long Firm trilogy more than just Cool Brittannia between hard covers. The second book, He Kills Coppers, featured a doomed murderer of police officers, pursued by a bent cop and a tabloid journalist, Tony Meehan, who is himself becoming a serial killer. We see the ’66 World Cup and Swinging London through Meehan’s bleak and evil perspective: ‘Protest, that’s what they were all talking about. And Letting It All Hang Out. I didn’t like the sound of that. Keeping It All In, that was my slogan.’ He quotes with relish the words of a prosecution witness at the Brady trial: People are like maggots, small, blind and worthless.

Arnott himself satirised the 1990s villainy craze in his trilogy’s finale, truecrime, in which the production of a Lock, Stock style East Endsploitation movie becomes entangled with the power struggles of real-life bad guys. The film’s star Gaz Kelly, a former bouncer and villain catapulted into public adulation, sums up the mass audience’s relationship with crime:

I’m like the voice of something that they’re frightened of but want to hear at the same time. I’m living the dream because I’m living their nightmare. And they can sleep easily in their beds knowing that I’m playing it out for them.

He goes on to puncture middle-class delusions that crime has a social purpose:

Some people come on with this anti-authority thing. But I don’t buy that. I ain’t anti-authority. Christ, authority was my job description when I was working the doors or collecting debts. That’s what a gangster is, an authority figure. No, some people have this Robin Hood idea about villainy. Wealth distribution or something. That’s bollocks… it’s just another alibi. And a useful one too. It keeps people from remembering that all the really big crime – not the petty stuff, mind, but what I was into – it’s about trying to get rich and powerful, and most victims of crime are poor.

And while Guy Ritchie’s films had an aggressive masculinity (or at least an aggressive heterosexuality) I think it’s significant that Arnott made his main London face, Harry Starks, an open and proud gay man. A bipolar gay Jewish gangster. It was Arnott’s way of saying to the piping voyeur public schoolboys: Get off my fucking manor.

But Lawson’s right, this book is different. Arnott makes leaps in time, in space and in depth. UK readers may be turned off when I tell you that The House of Rumour is set over the last seventy years. There is an assumption in the literary world that breadth of scope guarantees quality of content. Only the English could write novels that span a century and several continents yet where nothing much happens. But Arnott has not just the space but loads going on in it, too much for me to summarise let alone analyse.

One of many worlds Arnott immersed himself in is the mid-century science fiction litscene. During World War Two his protagonist Larry Zagorski writes a dystopia inspired by Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night, a 1937 novel that imagines a world where the Nazis have won the war. In a postwar introduction to his own book, Zagorski asks his readers to ‘bear in mind that at the time of writing this was neither an alternate history nor a counter-factual exercise; this was a possible future.’ Constantine – really the feminist writer Katharine Burdekin – wrote in a time where the fashion was pro-appeasement, and she included a character called Hess who takes it upon himself to fly to Scotland, presaging the Deputy Führer’s mad voyage by some four years. For Arnott Hess’s flight was a point where the world teetered between two possible futures, for if his peace mission had succeeded, the Nazis would not have had to fight on two fronts and could potentially have won the war.

Hess is supposed to have relied heavily on astrologists, and Wikipedia claims that he ordered a mapping of all the ley lines in the Third Reich. The religious/mystical roots of Nazism are often discounted in contemporary discussions of its genesis, but Arnott has great fun with junk volkisch spiritualism. Entire chapters are narrated by Hess, looking back on his life from Spandau prison; born in Alexandria, bullied at school for his Levantine looks, he finally finds succour and purpose in the Thule Society, named after ‘the ancient Arctic homeland of the Aryans, a Hyperborean Atlantis of godlike men. This was the meaning of his childhood dream! The wondrous infantile prophecy of the cold land of the North, with a holy symbol of the black sun.’ Not everyone, he notes, is called to the Temple: ‘A young count had his application to the Thule Society rejected when it was discovered that his mother was of Jewish descent. In a rage of disappointment he took a pistol and assassinated the head of the Munich Soviet on the Promenadestrasse.’

Arnott is a consummate name-dropper and Burdekin/Constantine appears in the text, being interrogated on the coincidence of her dystopia by a pre-Bond Ian Fleming. Aleister Crowley advises on wartime counter-intelligence; L. Ron Hubbard, just finished naval service, hangs out at a commune in Pasadena. (Arnott has his female narrator comment on the Scientology tycoon: ‘I remembered then a domineering manner, an incessant craving for attention… Ron was a verbal illusionist, a writer who had become convinced by his own fantasies and now seemed ready to try to fool others.’) Characters flit and stumble in and out of Arnott’s narrative carnival. Mirror magic and double agents abound; men become women, women men; nothing is as it seems. The Dark Tower phrase ‘Life’s a trick, love a glammer’ could have been written with Jake Arnott in mind.

Lawson compares him to Adam Curtis: ‘As in Curtis’s series such as The Power of Nightmares, there is a gleeful, teasing joining of improbable dots.’ Arnott is certainly a chronicler of alternative or hidden history; the gay subculture in Long Firm, rave and the Beanfield, the space programme staffed by ex-Nazis with whitewashed CVs – there’s a recurrent astonishment while reading The House of Rumour, points where we look up and think: that can’t be true, can it? He is an imp of history, the joker in the deck.

Tarot is the only system of New Age that really fascinates, and in The House of Rumour Arnott has created a major arcana of storytelling. What differentiates Arnott from Curtis is that he is a storyteller, not just some guy who has semi-digested serious research by disciplined writers, yoked it all together in glossy clubscene style and then played some ominous music over the top. Anyone can be a merry prankster and join some improbable dots, but there’s a depth and soul to The House of Rumour, a love story of sorts, and moments of great tenderness. Arnott delivers mysticism without the woo, he’s interested in the impact of beliefs upon the believer. His focus is far more on the people who drank the Kool-Aid than the junk prophet who dispensed it. The new novel is full of ingenues, neophytes and escape-artists as ever, but this time there is something more than disillusionment on the other side. It’s a world upon a stage, and that rare thing, the epic novel that is also compulsively readable.

At the end of a profile of Larry Zagorski’s life, the writer within the book concludes that:

I’m unlikely ever to be taught in schools or studied in universities. But I’m out there where I belong. In thrift stores and yard sales, in battered paperback editions with lurid covers and yellowing pages. Part of that story told by the lost and forgotten, the cheap pulps, the junk masterpieces.

Even if The House of Rumour win the Booker Prize (and it deserves to) I suspect that’s where Arnott would rather be too – out there in raw pulp, in the lower and better form of pure story.

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Man Feelings: A Northern Gentlemen Discovers His Feminine Side

July 24, 2012

I never thought about feminism when I was younger. I had a lot of vivid, contradictory ideas about capitalism, imperialism and war but I would probably have dismissed feminism as irrelevant identity politics. As I grow older, though, I become more and more feminist. Part of how I got there was by reading more widely and coming across, again and again, the oppression of women in other countries – for the most part religious.

There were more subtle changes. I met women who had tried to starve themselves, under the influence of billboards and magazines telling them how to look. And the irony is that men are just as likely to become feminists as women, because we hang around with men and we hear the things men say when women aren’t around. Certain assumptions and attitudes kept recurring in the company of men, and the more I saw of this male groupthink the less I liked it. That women are dispensable repositories of male sexual offloading, or manipulative creatures that have to be defeated through trickery, that it’s acceptable to get a woman drunk in order to have sex with her, that the responsibility for rape lies with the victim – these are all, in my experience, widespread male attitudes. Feminists are often accused of ‘demonising’ all men as potential rapists and that’s a trap some probably fall into, but you can’t be a feminist without recognising the scale of misogyny that is out there.

On the face of it men do well from the patriarchy deal. My gender dominates the House of Commons, the stock exchange and the creative industries. We tend to earn more and are promoted more easily. We can sleep around without the risk of being called a ‘slut’. When marriages fall apart, women are more likely to be left bringing up children alone. All that men have to do is pay maintenance, and if they don’t want to, the CSA is notoriously incompetent at collecting it – as millions of lone parents on the poverty line could tell you. Women couldn’t even vote until my grandmother’s generation. They are likely to be disproportionally hit by economic downturn. Women even still do most of the housework.

So what exactly is in feminism – for men? Reading this dialogue by Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins has helped me to clarify my feelings about all this. Guys don’t have it all our own way – as Robbins points out, we are more at risk of suicide. His idea is that in a Unilad world we find it hard to express whatever vulnerabilities we might have:

Loneliness can be hard to define. You can be surrounded by people and be alone. The NHS have some good research on men my age, one of the biggest problems is not being able to discuss their feelings, and an inability to seek help.

A more convincing point, which Robbins also touches on, is the infantilising cliche that women are only into relationships and men are only into sex – ‘It’s like being told you’re a dribbling animal, so weak-willed that you’re guided by your penis.’ It’s the same stupid Islamic impulse to cover women in sackcloth lest the sight of bare flesh lead to riots.

Despite the arbitrary social advantages it’s given me, I agree that patriarchy diminishes men too. I don’t want to live in a miserable society where half the population is enslaved. It depresses me that the expectations of women in the UK are kept down to the level of: get a boyfriend – or that shitty neologism ‘partner’ – get a house, have a baby, have more babies. For many people that’s the dream, and good luck to them. But we should also tell our daughters and sisters that there’s a world out there.

I have my differences with Laurie Penny’s structural conception of misogyny. The cultural approach leads feminists to focus on petty symbolic issues at the expense of severe avoidable harm. I don’t see the point of campaigns against children’s dolls and schoolboy FHM-style magazines, not in a country that has become Europe’s soft touch for female genital mutilation.

But the new wave of feminism has done a great deal to help men empathise with the visceral risks and hostility women face. Men are bigger and stronger than women. Although we’re just as likely to face street crime, we don’t necessarily fear it. It’s different for girls. Take street harassment. This is not harmless shouted compliments, as was claimed by its apologists. Journalists spoke to women who had been followed around, groped and assaulted. Research claimed that almost half of women under 34 had to deal with this kind of thing. An east London music photographer told the Independent that: ‘It’s changed the way I live in London, the way I dress, the areas I visit. I turn down things if it’s late. I don’t have the money to take taxis all the time.’ It’s a fear women learn to live with. The crime writer Julia Crouch said at Harrogate that when she’s alone and walking at night, she carries her keys in one hand, ready to thrust the sharp end into an attacker’s eyeball. Crouch said she had taught her teenage daughter the same thing.

The internet has taken harassment of women into new dimensions of cruelty. Again, this is not just inappropriate comment. The most graphic illustration of this harassment is from Helen Lewis’s piece on the US blogger Anita Sarkeesian. Anti-feminist haterz manufactured images of her being raped by cartoon characters, and circulated these online. They set up hate forums dedicated to Sarkeesian and posted her street address. There is also a game, featuring a headshot of Sarkeesian, that encourages players to ‘beat this bitch up’. Players click the screen to simulate blows, and Sarkeesian’s face becomes bloody and swollen. What’s staggering is the effort that’s been put into this. Someone’s actually cleared a day, sat down and coded this game, and considered it time well spent.

And women who defy these expectations are seen as fair game. Ask yourself if a Louis Penny or Lawrence Penny would be taking as much abuse.

While people accept white UAF anti-racists, and straight advocates for gay rights, the idea of a male feminist still seems unusual. Irvine Welsh said that the white knight is as much a male fantasy as a female one, and Robbins relates that ‘There are men who say that I only support feminism to get laid.’ Am I supporting feminism to get laid? No, I don’t think so, because I am not an activist. You don’t get laid sitting at a desk. For me it’s more the capacity for empathy, which develops as you get older, and a disgusted fury at the immature viciousness that passes for masculinity in the above cases. Real men don’t rape women. Real men don’t harass women. That should be something we can all get behind.

One final point. Leftwing feminists sometimes write as if the left is a misogyny-free zone. That is not true, as the Assange case illustrates. Watch the tweets that female journalists get when they write about him. The left doesn’t own feminism, it’s not even that good at feminism. Many of the derogatory comments I heard about women in general, that I related in para one, I heard from middle class liberals.

Update: Some Brighton hipsters have accused me of ‘mansplaining’, in a piece that misrepresents almost everything I have written above

Harrogate Crime: E-Book Fun

July 23, 2012

I was up at the Harrogate crime festival this weekend. All the events took place in the Old Swan hotel (the place where Christie was found after the old girl did her random disappearing act in the 1920s) and between seminars everyone sat out on the front lawn drinking pints, children ran around in the sunshine, it was a nice atmosphere, and something very English about it – a rich shire town surrounded by farmland, posters for murder mystery weekends, the nostalgia for the English murder and English secrets. The discussions I saw provoked too many thoughts and ideas to set down in one post so I’ll just add my impressions of one specific panel that has been widely reported in the trade press.

This was a discussion chaired by Mark Lawson on the e-book and what this means for publishing. There was a writer on the panel called Stephen Leather. I never heard of him before the weekend, but apparently he has a Hodder contract and has written twenty-eight novels. He is also a massive enthusiast for self publishing and e-books. I think e-books are great, and I’ll even concede there’s a place for self publishing. What got me about this guy wasn’t that he promoted e-publishing as an option, it was that he seemed to think e-publishing was the option and the only available future. You have to have some balls to slag industry professionals to an audience of industry professionals and, from the acrimonious murmurs from the floor, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one watching this man’s performance with a growing sense of irritation and disbelief.

Here’s a report from the We Love This Book site:

Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman – who were sitting in the audience – felt compelled to cut in at some of the controversial things panelists were saying about e-books, arguing that authors like thriller writer Stephen Leather (a panelist) were devaluing books by selling them on Amazon at slashed prices.

Leather also somewhat tastelessly joked that ‘e-book pirates’, who share digital copies of books for free, much like music pirates, ‘are doing my marketing for me’ – which prompted an audience member to shout: ‘Tosser!’

The general feeling in the air at the Old Swan in Harrogate was that authors such as Leather – who was joined on stage by fellow author Steve Mosby, agent Philip Patterson, bookseller Patrick Neale and VP of the Publisher’s Association Ursula Mackenzie – were selling out by publishing e-book-only books ‘worth less than half the price of a cup of tea’, as Billingham phrased it, adding: ‘disgraceful’.

‘I will spend four days writing a 7,000 word short story and sell it online for 70p,’ Leather said. ‘That’s 20p for me. If it was sold in a supermarket I might get 7 per cent of the sale, but e-books are [up to] 70 per cent.’

‘So you’re happy to work for five pence per day?’ Ursula Mackenzie interjected, to titters from the audience and outrage from authors who clearly felt their work was being devalued.

I’ve written so much about this debate, but it is not going away and I feel it’s important to keep banging on, particularly as I meet so many young writers who see self publishing as the first and last resort and seem to perceive a potential in the medium that in my view is simply not there.

Here are some points, some of which came up in the panel, others in my own discussions with writers.

– A common defence of self publishing is that it brings an audience to novelists who are just too damn edgy and iconoclastic to be accepted by corporate publishing. In the last year, self publishing has taken off, but not in the way the outsider hipsterati expected. The novel everyone associates with self publishing is E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, widely regarded as pedestrian soft BDSM. Following Smith’s First Law of self publishing success, James signed a seven-figure deal with Vintage after her fiction took off.

– Stephen Leather explained that as a self publishing author he not only had to write the books but also handle design, cover art, admin, finance, marketing and promotion. To his credit he understood that this is not going to appeal to most writers, who get into writing because they love to write. Working people will not have the time or resources to act as a one man publisher.

– Another thing that annoyed me about Stephen Leather was that, despite arguing from a position that the digital world is everything, he seemed to have little feeling for it. He talked about promoting his books on social media – ‘I have to tweet a dozen times a day’ – with the implication that this was a work thing, an obligation. The hypocrisy of this hacked me off. Social networks are supposed to be fun, they are a leisure activity, Twitter for me is a carnival of invention and delight. You can check the timeline on your phone and see something that will make you laugh out loud, or realise something new about the world. It’s not a conference centre where you set up a stall and shout your prices. Leather also said that he uses sockpuppets on fiction forums to promote his books and create a buzz.

– If you think that the physical book will eventually become obsolete, then consider Fitzgerald’s question: what happens when the machines stop? You may have heard in the grown-up books pages that the online journal I write for, 3:AM Magazine, recently disappeared from the web entirely. It’s a bizarre story involving a Dallas cock-augmentation businessman, tracked through social media to a tattoo parlour somewhere else in Texas, servers in Bucharest – suffice to say we are now back online and should be posting again soon, but it all could have been lost forever. The transitory nature of online writing appeals to me, but established novelists with a backlist to sell may not take these little glitches so lightly.

– We still don’t have a sure method of making a living wage out of this technology. Ursula MacKenzie alluded to the Guardian, which is finding out the hard way that clicks don’t necessarily equal cash (and see Alan A for a brilliant analysis of why the paper’s in the mess it’s in). Writers got to eat, so do publishers, but we’re still on the ‘Phase 2: ?’ stage of the South Park Gnomes business model.

– An agent made the point to me in the bar afterwards that Leather was being kind of irresponsible in promoting the self publishing route so aggressively. Not everyone who uploads their book to Amazon will sell and not everyone has Leather’s Hodder contract to fall back on. And as far as I understand it, once you give away your first rights, that’s it.

– The acceleration in online technology over the last ten years made it inevitable that someone would figure out a way for people to download books straight onto a mobile device. But technology isn’t necessarily going to accelerate forever. Mark Lawson said that at the Edinburgh TV festival ten years ago everyone was saying that by the 2010s consumers would just record what they wanted to watch, and channels and listings would be obsolete. That hasn’t happened. Things change all the time and the old gives way to the new. Often, old and new technologies can coexist. People have been predicting the death of the novel since the advent of wireless. Let’s credit Constant Reader with the ability to cope with more than one thing.

– There is a problem with quality control. If you can write a book and upload it to a mass audience at the click of a mouse, where’s the incentive to edit, rewrite, reread and generally make your fiction the best it can possibly be?

The novelist Laura Lippman illustrated this better than I can.

Lippman, spurred by an audience member who introduced herself as a writer who wrote e-books because she had trodden the publishing circuit with no luck ‘for three months’ before publishing online, earnestly said: ‘Patience on the writer’s side is not ill-advised.’ Lippman, author of the New York Times-bestselling Tess Monaghan books, said she was rejected by more than a hundred publishers before her debut novel was published, and it took eighteen months of trying.

There’s a line from James Hawes about the value of patience. He says it’s the difference between a supermodel and a centrefold.

Update: Stephen Leather has also written up the event. Steve Mosby, another writer on the panel, has responded to Leather. His post is reasonable, well written… and quietly damning.

Because nowhere in Stephen’s blogpost does he mention the moment on the panel that really caused the audience to gasp: his casual and unashamed admission that he uses sock puppet accounts to promote his work – creating fake online personas to engage with him, each other and other readers to build buzz and spread the word about his books. When I asked him if his readers knew these accounts were fake, he said no. He seemed totally oblivious that any of this might prove controversial, but it was what most people were talking about afterwards.

All in all, the panel felt surreal. It was a strange experience, as I certainly didn’t dislike Stephen – he was very amiable, with a lot of time for his fans at the signing – and I agreed with him on certain issues, such as DRM. The comment on piracy that prompted the ‘Tosser!’ shout was badly worded and ill-advised, especially given the atmosphere, but I do understand the point he was attempting to make. Unfortunately, it came at the end of what had basically been a car crash of an event for him.

As a final note, I’ll return briefly to the comments I made earlier about value, and the different perspectives on it. Stephen seemed to concentrate on value in purely financial terms, and with his use of words like ‘punters’ and ‘units’ it was occasionally easy to forget we were talking about books at all. I’m sure he doesn’t really think like this, but it came across at times as though his readership was some kind of bovine factory farm that needed to be milked in the most efficient manner possible. At a festival full of passionate readers, the response to that was always going to be chilly. It is a business, of course – but to many writers, readers and publishers, books do mean considerably more than that. Conspicuous by its absence in the discussion was any passion whatsoever for storytelling and reading, even though it was precisely that passion that had brought the audience there in the first place.

Another update: This has been going on all week. The brilliant and tireless Jeremy Duns has investigated Leather’s dishonesty, bullying and sockpuppetry in detail. If you want to follow the story on, Steve Mosby has posted a comprehensive update.

And, now: another dark turn in the Leather story, storyfied by Luca Veste.

Further update: for obvious and worthwhile reasons, the activities and personality of Stephen Leather have overshadowed this debate. But Ewan Morrison has written a fantastic critical piece on e-books, well worth your time.

And again: There is now a recording of the Harrogate panel. You can listen to Stephen Leather in all his grandiloquent glory.

Steve Mosby has transcribed the sockpuppetry admission:

Stephen Leather

I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

Steve Mosby

So you use sockpuppet accounts basically?

Leather

I think everyone does. Everyone does. Or I have friends who are sockpuppets, who might be real, but they might pick a fight with me.

Mosby

Are your readers aware of this, or…?

Leather

Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sockpuppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got ten friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.

Nick Cohen has picked up on this, and discusses Leather in a general piece on literary and journalistic frauds.

Also: Another mainstream piece on Leather and social media chicanery in general, this time from Laura Miller at Salon.

If this debate results in such underhand strategy becoming more widely known, it will have been worth it.

(Image: Wikipedia)

Society and Individualism: Why Giles Fraser Is Wrong About Everything

July 22, 2012

Giles Fraser is a really nice guy. Inner city clerics like him do a great deal of good work and should be recognised. However, he has written something recently that helped me to understand why his kind of benign religious leftism puts me on edge, despite the good practical results it sometimes achieves.

In the piece Fraser declares that he is ‘not a liberal. No, I’m not a conservative either. I’m a communitarian. Blue labour, if you like. But certainly not a liberal.’ Here, Fraser defines ‘the essence of liberalism’ as ‘a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods.’ Fraser explicitly rejects that belief – ‘I don’t buy this’ – and affirms a ‘robust commitment to the common good, to the priority of community. It is intellectual laziness and a form of cheating to think we can always have both.’

What Fraser’s done there is prioritised the group above the individual. It’s not hard to understand why he thinks that’s a good thing. G4S, Libor, tax avoidance cartels, the HSBC narcotrafficking scandal – none of this is an advertisement for capitalist individualism. The 1970s neoliberal idea has become synonymous with desperate poverty, rotting infrastructure and sclerotic, unaccountable, dysfunctional elites. There’s a general diffuse yearning for togetherness and order, to which post-Thatcher governments have responded with soothing communitarian rhetoric.

The failure in the priest’s case, a failure of imagination and perspective, is that Fraser never defines what kind of community he imagines we all live in. The word ‘community’ conjures up a small-town arcadia of quiet happiness and simple, decent routine. But many communities as they actually exist are not like that. Communities tend towards homogenity, and there are always people within those communities who are at risk of marginalisation, isolation… or much worse.

Does Dr Fraser think the community should come first in the following cases:

– Mr Y is a African refugee who fled his native land after his activism in a reformist political party led to attempts on his life. Following an asylum application, the UK Border Agency puts him in a white working class tower block on an edge of town where social workers routinely have police escorts, and where the BNP enjoys wide and vocal support. Attacked, exploited and living on the breadline, he jumps to his death from the sixteenth floor.

– Miss X grows up in a traditional Muslim family in an inner city Asian ghetto. She plans to go to college and qualify as a lawyer. However, her father and brothers want her to marry a distant Mirpuri cousin three times her age. If she protests, they beat her. When she leaves the house, she is followed in cars. Eventually, she is kidnapped, taken to rural Pakistan and  never heard of again.

– Kid Z is a black British teenager from an East London estate where almost everyone is connected in some way to the drug trade. At fifteen he still goes to school for two or three days a week, and finds the work interesting, but his friends and relatives ridicule him for studying. Instead of sitting his GCSEs, Kid Z drifts into a street gang. A year later, he stabs and kills a man in a dispute over a £12.50 drug debt. Six months after that, he is serving life for murder.

Fraser’s work as a city priest should tell him that these are not extreme cases. And he refers to that work in an oblique way:

For liberals the word community means little more than co-operation for mutual advantage. Here, individuals exist fundamentally prior to community. There is no such thing as society, and so forth. Liberals are doing it for themselves and rely on the invisible hand of self-interest to do the community work for them. This sort of philosophy has little to offer those who are trying to eke out a living in the tower blocks of south London. It is a philosophy that has demonstrably failed.

But the prolier-than-thou note misses the point that what the coalition is doing to these South London families, at least in terms of cuts to benefits and services, is being done in the name of communitarism. We’re all in this together, but if you can’t or won’t contribute, society won’t take care of you no matter how sick you are.

And yet Fraser persists in seeing individualism purely in terms of material desires. In his last piece he wrote that: ‘making choice the gold standard in every circumstance is to concede to the moral language of capitalism.’ We can argue whether the instinct to work and get on is some kind of sin in itself – I’m not sure that it is – but individualism is also about the right not to be hurt, not to be killed, to be kept safe and happy as far as is possible, and to make our own way in the world without terrible things happening to us. The communitarian model only works if we accept the huge assumption that our peers, our parents, our community and spiritual leaders always have our best interests at heart. The evil truth of the Sophie Lancaster case was that if Lancaster had left her home town, she probably would have lived.

Does Fraser understand that not everything about a community is necessarily good for everyone within it? Maybe not. Last week he slammed a Cologne court’s reasonable decision to outlaw circumcision. The court based its ruling on the fact that babies aren’t in a position to consent to delicate physical alteration. In that article, Fraser complained that ‘one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head.’ In fact:

This is rubbish. Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. ‘We’ comes before ‘I’. We constitutes our horizon of significance.

Got that? And if circumcision is an essential part of this ‘horizon of significance’, why not FGM, the widow pyre and the ducking-stool?

There is certainly a critique to be made of secular liberal individualism. Greed and the love of status, self-aggrandisement, personal vanities, rages and delusions, the refusal to believe that the other 99% of the population exist – all that has led to a tsumani of avoidable suffering and evil. And we have learned the hard way that a free world guarantees only the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself, and that even in a free world not all of us are going to find love, or live a fulfilled life.

This tragic contradiction is best explored in literature and the arts. When it comes to politics, we haven’t even worked out a way for everyone to get enough to eat. Wittgenstein said when all the practical questions are solved the real problems of life remain completely untouched. But the belly comes before the soul and we are still stuck with practicalities. We are still struggling to establish what Norman Geras calls the ‘minimum utopia’ of rights, protections, duties and welfare. And yes, one of these rights should guarantee some kind of personal autonomy. Another should be the protection of difference. To reject a community, to leave if you want to. The living, breathing, flawed human individual, in all its manias, stories, elegies and complications, must come before the group, the community, the religion or the concept. If Fraser can’t accept this, he will show not just a failure of imagination but a failure of compassion.

Update: Sarah and Norm have also written on this.

The Siege Diaries: Samar Yazbek’s Syria

July 18, 2012

So much of the information I have about that family and other families seems like the stuff of novels and fictional stories; it was all so strange and scandalously mired in injustice.

– Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

This is perhaps the first book published about the Syrian revolution. Samar Yazbek was a Syrian novelist living in Damascus at the time the uprising began. She became involved in the demonstrations, organised anti-regime groups and records the stories of protestors and defectors during the revolution’s first hundred days. It got noticed. She was followed, and picked up. In July she made the decision to run, and you can’t really blame her.

Imagine the worst thing a government can do to its people, and you will find that Bashar al-Assad has got there first. His regime puts entire cities under siege, fires live rounds into peaceful demonstrations, and bombs pharmacies so that protestors cannot treat their wounded. He has soldiers fire into funeral cortages to pick off friends and relatives, and snipers target people who speak from the podium. There is incarceration, there are beheadings, and the use of rape as a weapon of repression. There is murder and torture, including the murder and torture of children. People are taken to the prisons, and come out mutilated, or not at all. Yazbek claims that the bodies of some activists were returned with their stomachs stitched up, as if they had undergone a kind of slapdash surgery. A Midan activist told Syrian specialist Michael Weiss that Assad’s men are asset-stripping banks and museums at gunpoint to sustain the money flow. Could it be that the regime is harvesting the organs of its citizens on the black market to maintain liquidity? Crazy and impossible… but in Syria, nothing is impossible.

Bashar al-Assad was a dictator by default. Since 1970 Syria had been ruled by Hafiz al-Assad of the Ba’ath Party, the same aggressive pan-Arab clique that brought us Saddam Hussein. While Hafiz’s elder son Bassel was prepped for the succession, Bashar was sent to London to become an ophthalmologist. The younger brother comes off as a sidelined nonentity. Then Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, and in 2000 the old man checked out as well. As Yazbek’s  translator Max Weiss tells it, Bashar al-Assad ‘somewhat awkwardly and hesitantly inherited the reins of power.’ The awkwardness and hesitation wouldn’t last. After a brief reformist softening in the early 2000s, Bashar’s Syria reverted to the standard Ba’athist secret police and Soprano state. He’s in blood, and doesn’t give a fuck. Returning is as tedious as go o’er.

Assad is maybe the most technologically savvy of modern tyrants. He hired Bell Pottinger and Brown Lloyd James – top reality-handlers, that had previously worked with Thatcher and Bush – to portray an image of sophisticated Arab pragmatism. It wasn’t as difficult as you’d think. Assad studied in London, his wife grew up there. The Guardian noted that Assad ‘appears to have grown increasingly reliant on media advice from a group of young, westernised Syrian expats’ – beautiful women with US educations and experience at America’s best PR firms. Their offensive worked. Western media found the Assads quite delightful company. ‘He speaks English,’ a Washington Syria specialist explained, ‘and his wife is hot.’ The success of Assad spin culminated in a 3,000 word Vogue profile of the First Lady, now considered so embarrassing that the magazine wiped it from its digital archive (it can still be found on a Ba’athist fan site). It’s probably worth quoting from this:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.’ She is the first lady of Syria.

The first lady works out of a small white building in a hilly, modern residential neighborhood called Muhajireen, where houses and apartments are crammed together and neighbors peer and wave from balconies. 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 positive coverage faded around the time the serious killing started. In March this year, towards the anniversary of the uprising, the Guardian published something startling: a cache of Assad’s emails. These were messages sent between the first family and their intimates, and  hacked by Syrian activists. The correspondence didn’t touch on the bloodshed, except in fleeting and dismissive mentions. Instead the Assads focused on personal and cultural enthusiasms. And when I say ‘culture’, I’m talking America’s Got Talent.

We think of evil as bound up with intellectualism: Hannibal Lecter enjoying his Chateau Y’quem, or SS officers who kick back with Goethe and Rilke after a long day at the ovens. What a humiliation for the credulous Western interviewers to find that Assad spends his leisure hours giggling at YouTube, or chillaxing to Right Said Fred, while his wife blows tens of thousands on Christian Loboutin pumps and chocolate fondue sets! Far from the moderating influence portrayed by Vogue – a cool hand on the fevered Assad brow – Asma al-Assad comes off as a materialistic shrew, haggling over Chelsea cabinets while Rome burns. From the Guardian: ‘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.’ The cache reads like Marie Antoinette’s diaries, rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis.

What is all this like on the ground? Samar Yazbek gives us an idea. The prose is fast, almost rushed, the writing of someone who knows every word could be her last. Yazbek misses fiction. She writes: ‘I want to reclaim my ability to obliterate real circumstances… I want the luxury of choosing the faces I will lavishly bestow upon my intimate life.’ That luxury’s gone, at least for a while, but the novelist’s talent captures the thud and roar of a world under siege. Here are lines that jump.

A taxi pulled up and as I got in I thought about how many people were fated to die between morning and afternoon in this land.

Sadness and death and prison have all become a part of our diaries, like water and the air we breathe.

On the way home I felt like my skin was grimy, that a layer of the blazing sun had settled on top of my pores.

Fear is a human condition that humanity has never given its due, a mysterious commentary on meaning or love. Fear means you are still human amidst the rubble.

Now that I have crossed paths with death, I am prepared to see more of it.

Yazbek retains the imaginative empathy every fiction writer must cultivate, even for Assad’s goons: ‘I wonder what murderers think about during the moment in which they shoot unarmed young men in the chest.’ A page later, she discovers new depths in herself; after a regime officer makes threatening innuendos about the fate of her daughter, Yazbek writes that: ‘If time allowed me to see that man again, I wouldn’t think twice about killing him. That’s another thing I’ll never forgive them for. They made me know what it feels like to think about ending someone else’s life.’

Yazbek was in a difficult position even for an oppositionist Syrian. As an Alawite she was a member of Assad’s favoured sect. A Syrian-Mancunian told me (I paraphrase, we were drinking, but this is the gist of it): ‘Assad is smarter than Gaddafi. He creates financial interests among pockets of the population so they have something to lose if he goes.’ Assad promoted Alawites to elite positions and, when the revolution came, armed their villages. Yazbek: ‘The murderers and I are from the same city. Some of their blood flows in mine.’ When she made her stand, her family and hometown disowned her, and she became a target for the shabbiha, Assad’s mercenary ghost squads.

Yazbek did the best she could to break the sectarian deadlock. And many Alawites seemed to resent their assigned role as Assad’s human shield. Alawites demonstrated alongside Sunnis in Latakia. A man stood up in the crowd and said: ‘I’m an Alawite and I’m participating in the demonstrations. I’m against the regime; they forced me from my home for many years. We are a single nation.’ The Assad line is that this uprising is Islamist, and this feeds into the line of the foreign policy ‘realists’, who say: Look at Egypt. Look at Tunisia. Where’s your Arab Spring now? But the rebels didn’t act like they wanted a Syrian Caliphate. It was easier to demonstrate through mosques as even the regime is reluctant to bomb places of worship, but the protestors Yazbek met there were secular leftists. An early conference of the Syrian National Council affirmed pluralism, secularism and liberal freedoms. Its chair, Dr Burhan Ghalioun, said that:

There is a kind of undeclared, practical alliance between the political dictatorship and the dictatorship of religious authority from all groups, who do the impossible in order to remove all the people who hold different views – politicians, thinkers, and intellectuals – whether by accusing them of secularism, which means heresy, or by accusing them of modernism, of having ties with the West, or of collaborating with colonialism.

As Michael Weiss commented: ‘If this was some kind of clever taqqiya manoeuvre to trick a complacent West into supporting the Syrian people, then all credit to these Machiavellian revolutionaries who found the time to collectively dissemble as they and their families were being shot, electrocuted, tear gassed, dismembered, disappeared, raped and pounded with tank artillery shells.’

How will it end? Is it going to end? The exhausted West can’t summon either the cash or the public support for another foreign war (according to Weiss, after the latest defence cuts our armed forces will be smaller than the Free Syria Army). Russia and China can veto any action by the useless UN, which anyway continues to pursue a strategy of ‘engagement’ even though practically everyone in Syria war correspondents talk to says that there is no point in ‘engagement’ with a regime that tortures thirteen-year-old boys into pieces. Meanwhile Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide moral and military support.

Coming from my layman’s perspective and reading what I have read, the only hope that I can see is the regime itself, which is rotting from the inside out. Yazbek’s diary just manages to catch the first wave of military defections, which have increased in seniority and volume. People generally join the army to fight for their country, not to repress their own people. Many soldiers walked out because they were sick of the innocent blood on their hands. Those that have stayed are heavily monitored, and some have a sideline in selling arms to the rebels. It’s been estimated that a staggering 40 percent of Free Syrian Army weapons come from regime sources. There’s also a rumour that Assad’s inner circle no longer issues written orders. This is the endgame and they know it.

Yazbek writes that ‘intellectuals live in a frozen environment, the world has passed them by. And the mobilisation that has taken place in Syria, what spurred people into the street, was not the writers or the poets or the intellectuals.’ But they can still bear witness, and Samar Yazbek’s document does that with courage, lyricism and mordant wit.

Fight On That Lie

July 17, 2012

We have been engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years. We’re plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round. I have frankly conceded that policy has not been working. We are all disappointed by the fact that far from making progress it could be argued we are going backwards at times… The Government has no intention whatever of changing the criminal law on drugs.

– Ken Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice, Home Affairs Select Committee, July 3 2012

Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war, and now there ain’t no going back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.

– Slim Charles, The Wire, series 3, episode 12, ‘Mission Accomplished’

(Thanks: Alex Massie.)