Archive for August, 2015

Reach for the Dead: Tessa McWatt’s London

August 23, 2015

higheredLast October Amelia Gentleman wrote a long Guardian piece about an unexpected twist in our troubled economy: the rise of funeral poverty. With crema costs rising and funeral benefits flatlined, increasingly people find that they don’t enough money to give their loved ones a reasonable internment. Gentleman speaks to a woman who was quoted £2,300 by the Co-Op and ‘chose instead to buy a shroud online (£180) and arranged a transit van to take the body from the hospice to the crematorium.’ An ex railwayman only avoided the nine o’clock trot because ‘when he died, social workers found he was carrying his life savings of £500, which were used to pay for the more desirable slot.’

I thought of this piece when I read Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed. It’s a London novel, and kind of a campus novel in a way, one with hardly any students in it. Higher Ed has a decent range of characters and a multiplex narrative: there’s some real insight, and the backdrop of city problems is reasonably evoked. But McWatt has a tendency to frontload. Her first chapter introduces us to Francine, a university QA professional in her early fifties. Francine barely gets a line of dialogue out before the interior monologue takes over and we get the full character backstory: US transplant, demonstrations at Penn State, disastrous relationship with an unreliable male. Higher Ed has many memorable moments but an air of frantic vagueness characterises its prose.

Except when it comes to death. Driving home from work Francine witnesses a man being struck and killed. Francine is haunted by the young man’s death and the prospect that someone else could be imprisoned for a tragedy she herself might have caused. Law student Olivia tracks down her lost father, who happens to be barely holding together a disintegrating council department responsible for interring the growing numbers of London’s unremarked dead – homeless, bankrupts, suicides, illegals, those for one reason or another are forgotten before they die. McWatt’s characters are preoccupied with restructures and downsizing: HR culture permeates everything and the threat of unemployment is never far from the surface. Higher Ed is brilliant on the bureaucratisation of work and life. England is full of people churning out action plans, person specs and five-year strategies but we can’t even bury our dead. ‘Not everything is measurable,’ protests a lecturer, fighting for his job. McWatt’s novel is a good attempt at quantifying these unmeasurables – even though few of us might be listening.

Beware the Friendly Stranger

August 21, 2015

At a time when most people are supposed to be turned off from politics there comes a surge of genuine popular enthusiasm for a certain politician. At first glance you would say that there was nothing particularly inspiring or distinctive about the politician. The politician had spent most of his life in trade unions and local government, then served as MP for 22 years of a North London liberal enclave which, despite its chatterati reputation, suffered from terrible poverty also. The politician was a career backbencher, voting against his party on hundreds of occasions: as a person by all accounts he is intelligent and compassionate, a 66-year old man in old shirts and a grey beard, the kind of quiet, brilliant fellow with a gentle voice you find in badly lit corridors of universities or council offices, measuring out his life in meetings and biros. No one thought this politician would ever become a serious contender, let alone frontrunner for the leader of the opposition party. But that is what has happened.

It’s not clear that the politician would even like to be Prime Minister someday. The politician was included on the ballot by other, more senior political figures who wanted a ‘broad debate’ and wanted to make the party more democratic, only when the politician began to accumulate mass support the senior figures backpedalled and said, oh actually, we didn’t want that broad a debate and actually, we didn’t want the party to be that fucking democratic. As I write data clerks are firing off exclusion letters to people who have registered mainly to vote for the politician.

But by then it was too late. The politician ignited something in a way that I hadn’t seen a politician do for a long time. The politician travels the country and addresses packed-out meetings full of people cheering for the politician. I go on social media and there are people I know, people I respect endorsing the politician, hashtags proliferate cheerleading the politician. I go down my local pub and there are regulars there debating the merits and electability of the politician. If you are in Islington tonight you can go and see the politician at a fundraiser featuring music, speeches and a ‘socialist magician’ (‘fits in nicely with Jeremy’s ideas about quantitative easing’). I even come across an anthology from up and coming poets, filled with paeans of praise to the politician.

The new thing is that the politician seems to be getting support from people who don’t normally get involved in politics or even vote – smart people, young people, renting people, the precariat, the creatives, the artists, the hipsters, the clued up working class, ordinary people in ordinary jobs, who have been told loud and clear by various governments and movements that, thanks, but we don’t need you.

I understand the weariness with dull, authoritarian machine politicians that have hectored the British electorate for twenty years, and made this country a more difficult place to live in. So I understand to some extent the excitement over this new politician, who is saying something a little different. But how different?

The politician has some policy ideas that make sense to me, and that would be the better choice for our society. Other policy ideas he has just seem silly. Let’s print money! Let’s reopen the mines! Fuck NATO! Which leads me to the politician’s foreign policy. Like many far left politicians he’s against ‘illegal wars’ and America and Israel. He also carries a lot of the standard, stinking far left baggage – appearances on propaganda channels owned by hostile foreign powers, links to Holocaust deniers, Islamist maniacs, 9/11 deniers, LaRouche conspiracy organisations. Such troubling alliances are well documented – the skeletons are out of this guy’s closet and dancing down the streets – but the politician barely deigns to address them. When he is directly challenged, the politician becomes aggressive and unhinged in a way that you wouldn’t expect such a gentle, caring man to be. Interviewers who question him are targeted with foul abuse on Twitter.

I can’t get past the politician’s apparent admiration for totalitarian nuts but for many of his supporters it doesn’t register. It’s a neoliberal lie. They’re running scared. Jeremy just happened to be in a room with these people, and coincidences do happen. And the far left’s love affair with the far right has been part of the political backdrop for so long. Its their culture. As Oliver Kamm wrote recently: ‘It’s no longer possible to assume that a declared progressive will defend free speech, secularism, women’s rights, homosexual equality, cosmopolitanism and the spread of scientific inquiry.’

As I say, among the lunatics there are good, smart people who have thrown their considerable energies and talents behind this politician. I would say to these people, my friends, good people: think again. Even grey haired men with gentle voices are susceptible to the lure of power and can justify all kinds of things in the name of the Worker’s Paradise. When this guy lets you down (and they always do) you will be disillusioned, you will turn off from a system that needs you but will break you if it gets the chance. All the meetings, rallies, demonstrations, fundraisers, articles, campaigns behind this one man – imagine if this energy had been thrown into our communities. We could help to feed the hungry and dispossessed in our society, we could challenge unjust laws, we could bring our empty houses up to code and get people living in them, we could revitalise deadbeat neighbourhoods, we could protect those among us who are targeted for speaking out, we could fight injustice for people who don’t have representation, we could help people to help themselves and to fight for themselves. All this you can get on board with no matter what your politics are. Just, please, don’t put your faith in this ageing prince of the 1980s left. How does the song go? Don’t get fooled again.


(Image by Twilldun)

Fun with Tumblr

August 11, 2015

As part of an ongoing effort to get myself at least into the early 2010s I have set up a tumblr page. It’s based on the often bizarre promo emails from self and indie publishers that I get asking me to review various surreal titles.

The link is here, I hope you enjoy it, I hope also to update it as more emails come in (currently around a half dozen weekly): if you are a reviewer who also gets sent crazy spam promo review emails, please feel free to submit your own posts.

Blood, Bombs and Rock and Roll

August 9, 2015

I’m late with this response to Giles Fraser’s piece last week. I certainly cannot equal the wit of my old Shiraz comrade Jim Denham, who describes Fraser as ‘a caricature comes true – or rather two caricatures, both old favourites from Private Eye: the Rev JC Flannel and Dave Spart.’

In it Fraser begins by complaining about the lack of respect shown to Church of England priests in general. ‘Under pressure not to ‘do God’,’ he explains, ‘the wet non-committal English clergyman became a figure of fun – at best, a local amateur social worker, and at worst, a social climbing hypocrite’ and traces this to the great secularist compromise of the Enlightenment: ‘If not from its inception, then certainly from the end of the English civil war, the big idea of the C of E was to prevent radicalisation – precisely the sort of radicalisation that led to religious people butchering each other throughout the 1630s and 40s.’ But the downside was that ‘God is defeated by religion. Indeed, one could even say that, for the English establishment, that is precisely the purpose of religion. They trap Him in boring services so that people won’t notice the revolution for which He is calling.’

I would have thought this a fair tradeoff, after all there’s not much nostalgia out there for medieval absolutism and witch burning, but Fraser laments the vicar’s drop in status. Maybe that’s just his perception of it though. To vary Stewart Lee’s joke about Ben Elton: it’s not that people don’t respect Christians, or Christianity – they just don’t respect Giles Fraser. His next para gives some insight into why that may be.

And then along comes Islam – and, thankfully, it disrupts this absurd game and refuses to play by the rules. Its practitioners want to talk about God, sex and politics rather than mortgages, school places and the latest Boden catalogue. And good for them. But David Cameron’s whole attack upon ‘non-violent extremism’, his upping the ante on the Prevent agenda, is an attempt to replay that clapped-out C of E strategy of stopping people talking about God in a way that might have social or political consequences. Cameron, of course, thinks of this sort of political God-talk as radical and extreme – which, by the standards of English dinner-party rules, it most certainly is. But had the Levellers of the 17th century not been radical or extreme, they would not have introduced England to democracy in the first place (something for which they were eventually rounded up and shot).

Where exactly to begin? Does Giles Fraser know so little history that he can’t make distinctions between radicals for democracy and the radicalism of the black hole? (I don’t recall the Levellers slaughtering people on beaches, although admittedly I do need to work on my theory.) Fraser ends on a petulant flourish: ‘I believe there is an authority greater than yours – one I would obey before I would obey the laws of this land. And if that makes me a dangerous extremist, Mr Cameron, then you probably ought to come over to south London and arrest me now.’

Probably the Prime Minister has better things to do than to personally arrest people who disagree with him. That said, there is a huge debate to be had about anti terror strategy. Do we set a watch on any provincial maniac even if they have committed no apparent offence? Do we bug children’s phones in case their parents spirit them away to a war zone? This is way above my expertise, maybe above Fraser’s as well. Fraser’s more interested in the passion. There he is, despairing of old maids and warm beer, and then – here comes Islamism, and it’s like Elvis crashing a tea-dance. Belief! Conviction! Wow!

How bored would you have to be to welcome a movement that beheads aid workers and treats women as slaves? Maybe Fraser just needs to get out more, and go to more interesting parties, ones with sex and politics on the agenda. He says, of course, that ‘I condemn absolutely any theology that calls for or encourages violence.’ But what we’re talking about here is a very dull, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist variant of Islam, one to which hardly anybody subscribes. If Islamism didn’t create violence it would be a marginal issue in the UK, like Scientology or Mormonism. As it is, the only reason the British are talking about Islamism is because Islamists are killing people… albeit mainly Muslims in developing countries. Maybe next time Fraser goes to the migrant camp church in Calais he should listen to some Syrian or Iraqi asylum seekers and discover exactly what it is they’re running from.

So despite Fraser’s disclaimer, maybe it’s not the sex, politics and God that attracts him – maybe it’s that buzz, the thrill of the abyss, blood and bombs and rock and roll. He wouldn’t be the first. Fuck him if that’s how he feels. As for the dull bourgeois civilisation he criticises, well, it’s not ideal, but most of us seem to get along. As Kent Brockman said on The Simpsons, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.

Notting Hill Essays

August 3, 2015

I am surprised and delighted to learn that I have been longlisted for the Notting Hill Essay Prize. The longlisted essay is my long piece on Russell Brand.

The shortlist is out in a few weeks. Wish me luck!

Also: my review of some great new US fiction, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, now available at Shiny.