Archive for October, 2012

A Gentleman’s Promise

October 22, 2012

New story of mine, up on Black Heart Magazine.

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The Rise of the Authoritarian Left

October 17, 2012

Mehdi Hasan says the Prophet Mohammed is more important to him than his children. He also uses his own experience of fatherhood as an argument for making other people’s decisions for them. This is why deeply religious people tend to unsettle me no matter how benign they seem. I mean, I’m sure Mehdi Hasan’s a great guy. I just wouldn’t like to be with him in any kind of enclosed space.

Mehdi Hasan stresses that his position on abortion isn’t anything to do with his Islamic faith. Rather it’s an attempt to reclaim the ‘pro life’ cause for the left. ‘It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice,’ he complains. Well, I’m not crazy about abortions either. I think there is a point where an embryo becomes a human being and I think current law reflects this. I know a few people who’ve undergone the procedure, it’s not a thing I’ve seen done lightly. It’s a sad, distressing thing. In an ideal world no one would need abortions. No one would ever be raped, contraception would be 100% foolproof and love a thing that never went wrong.

Fact is though, the right not to have a child if you don’t want to is absolutely key to secular civilisation. Childbirth keeps women in their place. The right to opt out is crucial. For that reason I don’t truly believe you can be a feminist if you want to limit that right. Fuck with it and you fuck with freedom.

Another problem with pro life arguments is the awful aggressive cloying sentimentality that always has to accompany the process. As soon as the blue line comes up the discussion becomes about the needs of a hypothetical child over a living, breathing person. So Hasan writes: ‘Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?’ The best response to this comes from Wilbur Larch, the orphanage director and abortionist in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. In a letter to FDR, he implores the President that ‘Mr. Roosevelt – you, of all people! – you should know that the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born! Please take pity on the born!’

There is a wider implication here. Hasan writes:

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and ‘defending the innocent’, while left-wingers fetishise ‘choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

‘My body, my life, my choice.’ Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed.

To argue that the concept of choice is essentially rightwing, something evil and capitalist, is not a good position to be in. We are in danger of forgetting first principles. You can’t be a free or happy person without making choices. But there are prominent voices on the left, religious or religiously influenced, who argue for the community and the struggle over individuality, free decision making and personal autonomy. This has been developing for years but has become apparent now over the controversy around Galloway and Julian Assange. No wonder in the debate with David Aaronovitch Hasan claimed that free speech was being ‘fetishised’. ‘We were in a society dying,’ says Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘of too much choice.’

The result is that smart women are leaving the left. Here’s Naomi McAuliffe:

To view women’s rights as simply desirable rather than essential, as an optional extra rather than necessary for our mere survival, is what allows us to negotiate with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan. Peace is important but peace for women and girls can wait no matter how many 14 year old girls are shot in the head for wanting an education. It is the idea that women’s rights will be achieved AFTER other ‘more important’ ‘male’ rights are achieved. It allows people on the left to think that women’s right to justice for allegedly being raped and molested are not as important as an imaginary global conspiracy to jail a darling of the Left. The Left have a long history of postponing women’s rights until their socialist revolution has happened, their war has been won, their peace declared, their poster-boy has defeated capitalism. But of course it never comes. There is always another reason why women have to wait for their rights and why they are being selfish for having the temerity to fight for them.

The Field of Excellence

October 13, 2012

I am late with the latest autogenerated Booker controversy. You may remember there was a lot of fuss and divers alarums from broadsheet and online critics last year when the Booker judges explicitly promoted books that people might enjoy reading. This year there should be no such problems. The main judge is Peter Stothard, he edits the TLS, he has shortlisted numerous worthy titles including some from independent publishers. He even has a knighthood. What could go wrong?

And then Sir Peter had to attack the book bloggers. Online criticism, he says, is to ‘the detriment of literature’:

It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.

Considering the mediocre state of broadsheet literary criticism, this is hard to take. Prolific book blogger John Self hit back:

I wonder, then, if Stothard can have read This Space by Steve Mitchelmore (Britain’s first book blogger), or Mark Thwaite’s ReadySteadyBook (which carried the best critical response to Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque that I saw, online or off), or Max Cairnduff’s Pechorin’s Journal, or Kevin from Canada, or dozens of others that I visit regularly. Here are skilled reviewers offering thoughtful, informed criticism of a wider range of books than any traditional literary publication. What blogs can give readers is a sense of trust that, in professional circles, only the biggest lit-crit names – such as James Wood or Michiko Kakutani – can attain: a ‘criticism with personality’. They are expressing opinions about books in particular, and literature in general, based on a particular life of reading, written in a critical but non-technical language. What they can also give, crucially, is attention to books other than the newly published.

Self is right in general – online reviewing is a compliment to literature, not a threat. But the examples he cites don’t justify the great claims made for the form. Most of Self’s favourite bloggers have a very narrow range of focus, discuss exclusively a handful of obscure writers and offer a limited and censorious vision of literature and reading.

Perhaps Stothard is closer to the online attitude that he realises. Cut the first two lines, and you could be reading RSB or This Space:

The novel is more than a story. Storytelling is a great art and not to be knocked. Yet, if the English novel does nothing to renew the English language, then it really doesn’t do anything. The great works of art have to renew the language in which they’re written. They have to offer a degree of resistance.

Norman Geras pretty much ends this argument for me.

Storytelling a great art, but unless the novel does something to renew the English language, unless it offers ‘a degree of resistance’, it does nothing. Oh, please! What about the aforesaid art of storytelling? What if a given novel merely tells a good story well and without offering resistance? So, then, it may not be at the cutting edge or a ‘great work of art’, but it could still be an excellent novel. If it tells a story, if it makes you think, if it shows you something about the world, about people; it might do these things in a fresh way or in a traditional way, exploring new forms or sticking with old and recognized ones; if it’s part of the great continent of fiction and wins readers and holds them, that is good enough and plenty. Sir Peter Stothard’s requirements are narrow and stultifying.

Look How Far We’ve Come

October 8, 2012

I’ve just realised it’s more or less five years since I set up this blog. To mark the occasion I have gone back through the posts and I’m going to link to articles you might have missed, one from each year this blog has been live.

I think if you click through the links you will get some idea of the sheer weight of my contribution to English letters. (And thanks to Norman Geras who did a similar thing recently with his own blog.)

2007: Would you take fashion advice from Max Dunbar? Of course you would.

2008: Running out of ideas after just a year online, I resort to writing a post about cats.

2009: In a bold, radical environmental piece I argue for a common sense policy on climate change.

2010: Super Size Max – my blog takes on the ‘weighty’ issues of the day.

2011: Over at Julie’s blog, I expose a Blairite plot against new Labour leader Ed Miliband.

2012: We are all Eurasian hoopoes now: writing for Engage, I explore the controversy that erupted when the Morning Star’s weekly quiz included a reference to the Israeli national bird.

Thanks for reading everybody. Here’s to the next five years!

Driver, Where You Taking Us?

October 7, 2012

Here’s a moment I’d like to share.

I was at an event in Didsbury and ran into writer and performance artist Rosie Garland. I hadn’t seen her since her diagnosis of throat cancer in 2009. Since then, she’d had the all clear and subsequently landed a six-figure deal with Harper Collins. Her book, The Palace of Curiosities, will be out next year.

The conversation turned to death, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. After Neil Armstrong died it hit me again that this really does happen to everyone. Everyone who ever lived has died, but we know so little about it. It’s not like law or science where there is a great cumulative body of knowledge to work with. We have no idea what happens after death. We can keep it away longer and longer, but ultimately it will get all of us. We have won time’s lottery in terms of health, culture, medicine and welfare but in terms of the one big fundamental we are cavemen staring at the sky. And no one has ever come back to tell us about it.

Death is the one thing all human beings have in common. We’re all on this journey together but the universality of our future encourages little solidarity. Instead we just fight amongst ourselves. And a little perspective would make us see how ridiculous are the things that keep us at each other’s throats. Sam Harris writes:

Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?

I tried to express these half-formed ideas at this conversation in Didsbury. I remember I did quote the line from Christopher Hitchens: ‘Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake: the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.’

‘That’s why I’m planning to make a lot of noise,’ Rosie said.

I can’t wait for that novel.

A Town Called Hate

October 6, 2012

Only J K Rowling could have had this novel published. I don’t mean that The Casual Vacancy is a bad book. Only someone with Rowling’s fame and market success would have been given the chance on this, because it breaks rule number one of the reading group and supermarket stand: the characters are not likeable. Nearly all of Rowling’s parochial personnel are filled with hate, envy, self-satisfaction, and self-abasement. The perspective switches from one suburban monster to the next: chiselling petty tyrant Simon Price, the pathetic commitment-phobic Gavin, the lairy, thrusting solicitor Miles, and his father Howard Mollison, the obese deli king and local government big name, a character with so little redeeming features that the reader is almost physically disgusted by his presence. Rowling records every evil thought and dishonourable impulse as the citizens of Pagford live out their bitter, empty lives.

Pagford is a fictional West Country village run by a parish council controlled by the sort of people who have the time and energy to sit on parish councils. In the first chapter, local councillor Barry Fairbrother collapses from an aneurysm that detonates in his brain as he is strolling into the golf club restaurant. (At this point I thought: yeah, this is my kind of novel.) It turns out that Barry Fairbrother, generous and open minded, was the council’s one force for good: with him dead, the real power is seized by Howard Mollison and his aristocratic pal Aubrey Fawley. Their big problem is the Fields council estate that has overspilled from the city of Yarvil. The council estate is technically on Pagford land, and Howard’s respectable bourgeois cohort are appalled that their taxes have to subsidise white working class trash.

Rowling lays it out in a beautiful expository chapter:

Meanwhile, as a district councillor, Aubrey was privy to all kinds of interesting statistics, and in a position to share a good deal of information with Howard about Pagford’s troublesome satellite. The two men knew exactly how much of the district’s resources were poured, without return or apparent improvement, into the Fields’ dilapidated streets; that nobody owned their own house in the Fields (whereas the red-brick houses of the Cantermill Estate were almost all in private hands these days; they had been prettified almost beyond recognition, with window-boxes and porches and neat front lawns); that nearly two-thirds of Fields-dwellers lived entirely off the state; and that a sizeable proportion passed through the doors of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic.

On the publication of Rowling’s book, a curious thing happened. Conservative critics mounted a weird, class based, reverse Eagleton style attack on Rowling’s novel. The Telegraph published angry vox pops from a village in Gloucestershire where Rowling lived as a child and on which, therefore, the fictional village might have been based (‘I must not defame the Forest of Dean’). Allison Pearson moaned about the adult content, which includes scenes of rape and suicide: contrasting this with the Harry Potter novels, she complained: ‘why has Rowling decided to break the spell, bewildering fans with this uneven, often harrowing book?’ As Alex Massie responded: ‘How dare she write the book she wanted to write! Couldn’t she think of the children?’

But the strangest attacks were on Rowling personally. The vox pop piece contains an insinuation of hypocrisy or fabulation: while it acknowledges Rowling’s years as a lone parent on the breadline, ‘[l]ess well known is the fact that from the age of nine until she left for Exeter University, Rowling lived a middle-class existence in Grade II-listed Church Cottage in Tutshill.’ Jenny Hjul claimed that Rowling’s previous books were coloured by metropolitan snobbery: ‘Harry Potter looked down at his petit bourgeoisie relatives, the Dursleys, before escaping to the more rarefied environs of Hogwarts, a boarding school where tradition rules.’ (In fact Hogwarts is fiercely meritocratic and the villains are trying to replace its ethos with a ‘pure’ wizardry based on blood.) Hjul’s written an odd, sly piece, which dwells heavily on Rowling’s current lifestyle: ‘she must have met some of the chattering class friends she admits she lays bare in her novel; possibly, she still hangs out with them. For, as she says herself, the middle class is the one she knows best.’

There’s even a suggestion that Rowling is a kind of class traitor. In a piece headlined ‘JK Rowling has turned her back on the culture that made her great’ former Torygraph editor Charles Moore attacked a political schema he had read into the book:

Anyone who has a slightly out-of-date, petit-bourgeois Christian name, like Howard, Shirley or Maureen, is bad. Such people’s evil is proved by the fact that they have carriage lamps outside their doors, refer to the sitting-room as the ‘lounge’, wear deerstalkers (indoors!) and candlewick dressing-gowns… In the Rowling dystopia, the good people, obviously, are any non-whites – represented, in benighted Pagford, by only one family (of admirable Sikh doctors) – plus lesbians, social workers and teachers.

It’s striking to see a man of the pragmatic right attempting to ‘interrogate’ a text like some deluded postgraduate whose head swirls with Chomsky and Derrida and little else. But what really gets to Moore is any critique of provincial values. ‘This is sad,’ he says, ‘because it is in our provincial life that our great culture has flourished. And it is partly because of the decline of our provincial life that it has degenerated.’

Consider for a second the right’s confused attitude to social mobility. You’d think they would be all for it, get on your bike, pull yourself up, and all that. But, having got there, you must not betray your class. UK conservatives have made critiques of bourgeois liberalism into a cottage industry. J K Rowling was a target because she was a Labour supporter, who defended progressive taxation instead of doing the decent thing and funnelling her Hogwarts millions through a Jersey SPV. Be successful. But do it our way.

Rowling’s book is bleak and grim, sure, but readers in small towns all over England will be nodding in recognition. She nails the obsession with status over merit, the amplification of petty disputes into high melodrama, and the hysterical resentment over benefits and immigrants that threatens to become a national paroxysm. As Bidisha says, the awful truth is that they really are like that. And that is why so many people get out young and never return. Oh, Moore has a point that there are great things about provincial culture. All I can say is that I’ve lived in cities and I’ve lived in provinces – and I can say without hesitation that one culture is better than the other.

Remember that cities are a relatively new thing. In Manchester, England, his study of the city, Dave Haslam identified an Old Tory resentment against urbanisation and the intrusion of the metropolis going back to the industrial revolution. It’s also something Rowling picks up on. Pagford parish councillors resent the nearby city of Yarvil despite the fact that it supports the town through nightlife and job creation. To Howard Mollison, Aubrey Fawley and the rest of the big fish, flapping around in their puddle-sized pond, Yarvil represents ‘a necessary evil’.

The section closes on a gorgeous, revealing line: ‘Their attitude was symbolised by the high hill, topped by Pargetter Abbey, which blocked Yarvil from Pagford’s sight, and allowed the townspeople the happy illusion that the city was many miles further away than it truly was.’

How J K Rowling defamed Gloucestershire. (Image: Telegraph)