Archive for March, 2016

Panoptic Nerve

March 26, 2016

This short story of mine is now up at the fantastic Ink, Sweat and Tears.

Women’s Work: L S Hilton’s Maestra

March 20, 2016

maestraA lot has been said about contemporary crime fiction featuring ‘complex and flawed’ female protagonists – although, to be fair, it’s only really publishing PRs and bored books journalists saying it. Much was made out of Gillian Flynn’s fantastic Gone Girl and the frankly overrated The Girl on the Train. Aside from the condescending ‘female of the species is deadlier’ cliché, there was little truth of literature behind the froth. In vain did observers point out that most people tend to be ‘complex and flawed’ and that, in any case, the immoral protagonist is as old as Milton’s Satan. (Sophie Hannah’s conversation with a journalist who rang her about ‘grip lit’ offers an amusing corrective. ‘But … so maybe the really new thing is that this new crop of books have female protagonists who aren’t entirely sympathetic – who are maybe a bit flawed?’… ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘That dates back a while too. Nothing new about that.’ ‘Unreliable narrators?’ he asked hopefully. ‘Nope’.’)

Such has been the hype around Maestra that the reader comes to L S Hilton’s novel anticipating a 350-page gangbang. There has been TV promos, bus ads, even a crap hatchet job by Jan Moir (‘It was interesting, though, that despite her sexual bravado, [Hilton] refused to tell reporters her age. The unmarried mother, who has a ten-year-old daughter, would only admit to being around 40’ etc). Maestra sex, though, is rushed and fleeting, more present in suggestion than actuality. You can see why the Fifty Shades comparisons irritate Hilton. If this book does give Paul Dacre a heart attack it’ll be more down to the crisp amorality of the prose than any portrayal of intercourse.

One comparison Hilton wouldn’t object to is Patricia Highsmith, and there’s surely an interesting article waiting to be written about why criminal antiheroes see greater opportunity in Old Europe than in the proclaimed countries of Atlanticist self actualisation. Like Ripley, her protagonist Judith Rashleigh is a dreamer from modest beginnings who flees to Europe. While Ripley escapes his humdrum hardscrabble life in New York, Judith runs from a class-bound Britain that all too often feels like a poorly performing grammar school whose prefects nevertheless act as if it’s the centre of the universe. To her England is ‘pebbledash and Tesco and the vomit in the doorway of the Social, to the bottles stashed in the microwave and the unanswered doorbell, to the smell of cold fat and Rothmans and lurid curry that was my own little bouquet of despair. All the things I knew it was indecent to despise, because they were just the fabric of most people’s lives, yet my contempt for which kept me flinty clean inside.’

Fired from her job at a pretentious auction house, Judith disappears to the South of France with a client from the high-end clip joint where she moonlights for rent money. When she and a party-girl schoolfriend accidentally off the client, Judith sticks the other woman on the next plane home and travels deeper into the heart of the Old World, trying both to solve an art fraud and stay a step ahead of the law. The story has almost enough pace, but not quite enough, to truly take you by the throat. The ending tails out a little. And it’s easy enough to understand Judith Rashleigh in her fury and hedonism and loathing of the mediocre. Still, she’s a great travel companion, and Maestra justifies its hype in part because it’s so much fun – like an airport thriller written by Colette or Zoe Pilger.

Judith’s constant is a love of great art, and there’s a fine passage where she studies Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. ‘There’s something domestic about it; the plainness of the sheet, the ungainly spurt of the blood, a curious sense of quietness. This is women’s work, Artemisia is saying, impassive. This is what we do.’ In this marvellous debut, Hilton shows us how deadly such work can sometimes be.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

March 5, 2016

Giles Fraser doesn’t like Americans. Why? For insufficient piety. The US isn’t Christian enough, Fraser complains. ‘Of course, way more people go to church in America’, Fraser concedes. And, he concedes again, ‘I defer to people’s self-description when it comes to religious belief.’ But his problem is that ‘a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America – which they often take to be the same thing.’ He reiterates that ‘America itself has long been its own civil religion’, ‘America became its own church and eventually its own god’, and even adds that ‘Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.’ (This about the country of Thomas Paine, Edison, Mencken, Carl Sagan and Bill Hicks.)

There’s always been an anti American variant to UK establishment thought, that holds the US in contempt first for kicking us out of their country and then electing the wrong kind of people. Political junkies in the UK feel that we have a stake in the presidential elections. We don’t feel that about, say, the German electoral college or Afghan loya Jirga. Hence, in 2004, the spectacle of British Guardian liberals writing to people of Clark County, Ohio, to instruct the bemused Ohians not to re-elect the vulgar Texan George W Bush. I forget what happened that November.

There is truth in what Fraser says, nevertheless. We tend to perceive American religion as the tent-revivalist and snake-handler variety. Poll after poll had large percentages of US citizens subscribing to biblical absurdities. The late Christopher Hitchens (who was granted American citizenship) demurred. When he published his big atheist book God is Not Great Hitchens took it on tour through the Deep South. He came back emphasising the civility of the book’s reception and said that the repeated opinion polls depicting Southerners as swivel-eyed literalists were wrong. The stereotype of British liberal Christianity versus US fundamentalism persists, even though the Anglicans recently suspended an Episcopalian church from its decision making progress because they disapproved of their American counterpart’s liberal stand on gay marriage.

Liberals watched the resistible rise of Donald Trump first with amusement, then concern turning to a low-grade terror. True, Trump is scary. He makes Bush look like Cicero. (He’s also hard to explain: Trump is a product of the New York property billionaire class, so clichés about unreconstructed snake handler Southerners do not apply.) Not even Hunter S Thompson would have dared imagine this guy. And neither the liberals nor the amusing satires nor the last moment flailing of what’s left of the GOP establishment looks likely to stop him.

Slag politics all you like, but you have to admit it’s not boring. Trump could lose the Republican nomination, or win the nomination but be knocked out in the general by Hillary or Bernie Sanders. Or he could win. It doesn’t seem farfetched to talk about the end of the GOP or even the republic itself. There’s no natural law that says democracy and civilisation will continue forever. Look at the European far rightists that have leveraged themselves into power in the more fragile EU states. Meanwhile those of us who survive the Trump presidency can sit in irradiated WW2 bunkers, eating fried rats and tinned tomatoes and discussing where it all went wrong.

How did we get here exactly? The conservative journalist Tim Stanley nails it. Voters in both our countries have been told by politicians, in essence, that ‘You need to vote for us, because we are the practical-sensible people who get stuff done. True, we don’t have a lot going for us in terms of dynamism and creativity, we can’t empower people, but you need to vote for us because the other lot aren’t practical-sensible enough and it will be a disaster.’ Stanley writes: ‘The politics of that era is overfamiliar and tired. And younger voters resent constantly being told that ageing pragmatists know best – especially when the smart technocrats are the folks who gave us Iraq, the credit crunch and the mess that is Obamacare.’ Practical-sensible can’t even sort out the housing crisis or protect our cities from flooding.

Part of me thinks the complaints of anti politics are ridiculous, after all we live in a free country with no barrel bombs, civil war or high child mortality rates. For me, probably for most of us, England is still a fantastic place to live. We have won the geographic lottery. But does this mean so much if you are, say, a struggling professional couple who can’t start a family because most of your income goes on petrol for your commute or rent for your shitty, damp-infested private rental? Maybe once a year a candidate comes to your door and promises savings on your energy bills. You might vote for him, but so what? You’re still going nowhere in a highly stratified class based society. You’re going to feel that the real decisions are made somewhere else and you’re not part of that conversation. Governments come and go, laws are passed (some of these laws arbitrary, irrational and intrusive in nature) but nothing really happens.

I came across a thoughtful piece by an obscure fellow named Anthony Painter who does a lot to explain the vacuum. His theory is that politicians of the right and left got too much into a managerialist, Burkian worldview. Governments do things to and for people rather than with them. While ‘[p]opulist ideologies offer a false sanctuary for the fearful and the angry’ the problem is also with mainstream practical-sensible people who ‘spend their time bickering with lunatics on social media rather than trying to understand why and how the world is changing.’ Political professionals don’t like anything difficult and don’t like change:

You may or may not think that Basic Income is a good idea. This week the RSA published an entirely practical plan for introducing it as a means to unlock social, civic and economic creativity. It has been greeted on the political centre-left with the same reaction you expect to get from a plumber looking at a leak – it’s all too much trouble, too difficult and costly. Beyond parties, the idea has been engaged with energetically.

Painter calls for an awakened ‘spirit of Paine’. I agree strongly that it would be great to have a (truly) new politics based on Paine’s values of individualism, liberty, secularism, empowerment and human rights – but what that would look like or how we get there, I don’t know.

Also: For some superb critiques of Donald Trump as well as interesting foreign policy stuff I’d recommend following historian Tom Nichols on Twitter.


The Little Book of Kamm

March 3, 2016

accidencewillhappenPrince George: Well, now, look, Dr Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even I know a book’s got to have a plot.

Dr Johnson: Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words mean!

Prince George: But I know what English words mean. I speak English. You must be a bit of a thicko!

Blackadder III, ‘Ink and Incapability’, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton

When Stephen King came to write his style guide, he tried to cover the elements of good writing as briefly and clearly and readably as possible. When it came to the section on grammar, King anticipated his reader’s objections:

You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries of you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semester in Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one.

I love reading and writing, but like most King fans, I can’t stand theory of language, never studied it formally and was bemused by the popularity of UK grammar guides – Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the obvious bestseller example. Despite this lack of interest in grammar, I found myself following numerous rules picked up secondhand: observing the less/fewer distinction, writing hanged instead of hung, avoiding literally as intensifier – it’s amazing how many of these little customs we have in writing and speech, half-remembered things from school and home.

Because of my disinterest in language theory, I ignored Oliver Kamm’s book on language when it first came out – which was a mistake, for while grammar primers mostly consist of prescriptions and prohibitions (can’t split infinitives, can’t use double negatives, can’t end a sentence with a preposition) Kamm’s style guide emphasises usage and readability at the expense of what he calls the ‘sticklocracy’ and its endless lists of arbitrary rules. He argues that language is driven by a human drive to communicate, and that it evolves from spoken and written custom. He quotes from a staggering range of classic literature to support his case. Don’t be afraid to break the rules, Kamm says. Great writers always have.

In a fascinating section on the history of language, Kamm explains that the rise of grammatical correctness coincided with the industrial and empire boom, where large numbers of the middle classes, through trade and plunder, ‘entered in a vacuum where absolute royal and aristocratic power had once been.’ It became necessary to develop codes, signals and gradations of social class, and correctly used English was a part of this. ‘Gentility mattered,’ Kamm writes, ‘and manuals of etiquette became phenomenally popular.’ Grammatical precepts, mostly based on Latin syntax, developed from this wrangle of modern manners and were drummed into pupils’ heads for centuries before starting to die out in the 1960s.

Kamm read numerous volumes of style guides before writing his own, and quotes generously from the supposed masters. The often overheated tone is striking. This is broadcaster John Humphrys, in 2007: ‘They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ He is talking about, er, text messaging. Other aspects of linguistic pedantry are simply bizarre. There is a US software engineer and keen grammarian who obsessively removes the phrase ‘comprised of’ from Wikipedia articles, logging an estimated 47,000 edits since 2007. (Kamm comments that ‘this disputed usage has been in existence for more than a century’.) Irrational annoyances, that we all have, are exaggerated to the point of derangement. Kamm also quotes Lynne Truss herself: ‘we [sticklers] got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude’ and we really hate that.’ He adds: ‘Yes, I realise it’s a witticism. It’s one that a writer whose sense of place has been supplanted by misplaced pedantry would make.’

Nick Cohen wrote a rave of Kamm’s book, but later added a qualifier:

But an objection made to me by Simon Heffer, one of Kamm’s many targets, nagged away. If you were trying to help poor children get on, you would teach them to observe the ‘rules’, just as you would encourage them to speak BBC English. Conformity would not only protect them from class prejudice, it would help them to be understood. Inarticulacy is a curse. Success comes when you make others understand you, and not just material success either. Kamm and other linguists could not see it. They were well-spoken men and women promulgating anarchist notions that would keep the poor down.

Everyone understands that there is what Kamm calls ‘register’ – you wouldn’t walk into a job interview going ‘yeah mate’, ‘check it,’ and ‘bosh’ and you don’t talk in rolling compound-complex paragraphs when drinking in the pub with good friends (although I suspect Kamm talks in complex structured paragraphs even in that situation). Getting on in the UK is about learning a script, and it is not just to do with language. The script is a peculiar combination of tone, ritual, networks and rules… as arbitrary and strange as language itself.

George Orwell argued that thought derived from language. His totalitarian Party tried to deliberately reduce the vocabulary of English in the hope that deviant mental habits would simply die out for lack of expression. Kamm identifies this as ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ and calls it a fallacy: ‘we put names to things because they are important: things do not become important merely because we name them.’ (Of his corrupt magistrate in Burmese Days, Orwell writes that ‘All those thoughts flowed through U Po Kyin’s mind swiftly and for the most part in pictures’ – so he instinctively knew thinking wasn’t totally dependent on words.) So it’s not the foundation of life itself – but text does matter. People need to learn to read and write, they need the time and space to find their voice, they need lots of old paperbacks lying around in houses and schoolrooms, and big quiet libraries with decent stock. But more important than learning to read and write, is learning to read and write for pleasure.