Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Trouble with Goat’s Milk

May 7, 2017

The worst individual memories often rest on something trivial. In the space sitcom Red Dwarf, neurotic technician Arnold Rimmer’s darkest secret centres around soup. Eventually he gets drunk and confesses that as an up and coming Space Corps man he was invited to the Captain’s table – a sure sign of promise. During the meal Rimmer orders a waiter to reheat his soup course – not realising it’s gazpacho, which is meant to be served cold. He blames his failures in life on this one misstep, and when he dies, these are his last words – ‘Gazpacho soup!’

Cat Marnell’s drug memoir isn’t like most drug memoirs. The tone is brisk confidential. She takes you through her childhood in Cheever country (‘The houses on my street, Kachina Lane, were so far apart that no one ever had any trick-or-treaters on Halloween’) her prep school, and first jobs in New York fashion magazines. There’s no melodrama or self-pity, but when something irritates or frightens Marnell, there are a lot of exclamations – ‘RAARRRRRR!’ ‘AAAUUUUGH!’ It’s like reading something from a feminist zine fair. The Bell Jar rewritten by Shoshanna Shapiro.

Then Marnell is assigned her first byline: a one-para analysis of goat’s milk in beauty products. Dropping prescription meds and grinding her teeth to the nerves, Marnell reworks her sentences over and over again, all through the working day and into the night. By nine thirty she is weeping at her desk in despair and frustration. Her boss takes her into a private office, gathers up what Marnell has done, and assembles a reasonable, readable para, which Marnell includes in the book – ‘This is the paragraph I’d lost my mind writing.’

How does a person reach such a state – to detonate one’s brain over 120 words on a dairy-based exfoliant? How to Murder Your Life is preoccupied with pop culture and fashion, bristling with neologisms and listicles and odd little fragments of advice – ‘When writing, never refer to your own body parts – toes, stomach, bikini area – or prisoners will use the imagery you’ve created for their masturbatory fantasies, and you will get letters from them.’ The fashion world as Marnell writes it seems dysfunctional, but not toxic or cutthroat. People collect obsessively, but don’t seem to judge by looks. This is not The Devil Wears Prada. Marnell’s employers seem like decent people, and support her through her periodic crises and rehabilitations.

Marnell’s book traces the industry from its print based boom period, through the 2008 crash and towards a more online based and body positive form of glamour. Marnell has to hide her addictions at Condé Nast, but ends up as a kind of gonzo drug correspondent for internet startups: sample articles include ‘I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, but I Left with Better Hair’ and ‘The Art of Crack-Tractiveness: How to Look and Feel Hot on No Sleep’. It’s interesting that part of Marnell misses the more prescriptive and airbrushed Manhattan scene. ‘I particular hated the gross-out stories and embarrassing bodily function-centric ‘It Happened to Me’ essays. ‘Why don’t you just hire a full time yeast infection editor, Jane?’ I’d bitch’.

Sometimes Marnell’s conversational tone clashes with the darkness of what’s happening in the narrative – in the second half of the book a lot of it is sleeplessness, penury, hallucinations, destructive narcissistic friendships and suicide attempts. But that’s also where How To Murder Your Life becomes a more muscular and involving piece of work. The life lessons aren’t obvious, but they are there, and owe more to the honest emotive grunge aesthetic of Marnell’s youth than to any twelve-step programme.

Her unconventional ending reminded me of an Atlantic piece I recently read that critiqued abstinence based addiction therapy. Reporter Gabrielle Glaser asked why alcohol and drug therapies are practically the only branch of medicine that hasn’t moved since the 1930s. She interrogates AA and NA’s low success rate, and points to more effective but barely known treatments. Cat Marnell’s cycle of binge and patchup is the norm for most addicts. But her writing is heading towards something new. A different form of struggle and desire.

Luxemburg’s Cat

April 16, 2017

Professional book reviewers, particularly recently, often attempt to bring a current affairs element into whatever new title they’re reviewing. You see phrases like ‘a disturbing portrait of a world that seems not entirely confined to the realm of fiction,’ ‘dramatic scenes that would not look out of place in the pages of today’s newspapers,’ ‘a warning of a nightmarish scenario that today seems all too possible’ – try looking for this yourself, you’ll see that I’m right as often as I’m wrong. Frequently these stabs at universalism seem inane and half hearted. But the general effect is achieved – the title under review now looks ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’.

I’ve used this rhetoric myself of course, and reading the correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot escape the cliché. There is something about Luxemburg that always feels here, that feels now, and it’s not entirely because of the politics – violent and confused as they were in Luxemburg’s time. I should say I only have a very broad understanding of events in Europe between 1891-1919, and came to Luxemburg’s letters expecting to lose myself in the activist forest of revolution, denunciations, theory and composite resolutions.

But the letters turned out to be a striking and addictive read. Great political thinkers are not always great writers (try Gramsci’s stuff if you don’t believe me) but reading Luxemburg is to be consistently blown away by her forensic intelligence and her clarity of expression and thought. She was tough, and faced with equanimity her frequent prison sentences for political non-offences. She had no time for ideological fools in the male dominated activist left (‘And with such people we’re supposed to turn the world upside down?’) and was not afraid to speak up. Enduring a Social Democratic meeting in an ‘obscure tavern on the corner of Menzel and Becker Streets’ she reports that ‘Karolus cleared his throat and began to lecture on the subject of value and exchange value… in such a unpopularised way that I was absolutely amazed. And so it went for about an hour. The poor things struggled desperately against yawning and falling asleep. Then a discussion began, I intervened, and immediately everything became quite lively.’

Not that there’s nothing to argue with here. Time and again Luxemburg affirms her faith in ‘the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.’ This leads her into lapses of ‘don’t rock the boat’ revolutionary conformism: during the early Leninist terror of 1918 she admits that ‘One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing, but of course considerations do not allow that.’ Luxemburg implores a friend in April 1917 that ‘Don’t you realise it’s our own cause that is winning out triumphantly there, that World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole, drunk with joy?’ As it turned out, History was dancing the mortata.

Is it an insult to dwell on Luxemburg the person? I don’t think so. A huge part of the correspondence is by nature on her relationships with others – her friendships and love affairs are at least as complicated as was the political situation at that time. She was clearly the kind of woman it’s easy to fall in love with – and she wrote the best ‘btw you’re dumped’ signoff ever, dismissing one crestfallen fellow with ‘Now you are free as a bird, and may you be happy. Principaccia no longer stands in your way. Fare thee well, and may the nightingales of the Appenine Hills sing to you and the wide-horned oxen of the Caucasus greet you.’

We see so much of Luxemberg domestically: arranging flowers, painting, playing with her cat (an intermittent delight in the letters: ‘Mimi is a scoundrel. She leaped at me from the floor and tried to bite me’) and complaining about the laxity of her domestic servants (perhaps forgetting on such occasions the role service workers had to play in the Women’s Question and the struggle of the proletariat). Even in prison she keeps herself occupied by making friends with the birds and wasps that fly in and out of the exercise yard, and cultivates little gardens on whatever patches of green space are available to her. Had she been born in 1971 instead of 1871, she’d likely be organising book groups, writing NS columns, instagramming the Trump demos and bitching about Waitrose substitutions.

Luxemburg can make you laugh at such moments. She travelled widely, and saw with fresh eyes the little quirks and discordancies of an unfamiliar landscape. She enjoys visiting the Italian Riviera, but its soundscape drives her crazy: ‘Frogs – I can put up with them. But such frogs, such a far-reaching, self-satisfied, blown-up croaking, as if the frog was the number one and absolutely most important being!… Second: the bells. I appreciate and love church bells. But this ringing every quarter of an hour, and such a light-minded, silly, childish ding-dong-ding – ding-ding-dong, which can make a person quite idiotic.’ When Lenin visits her in 1911, her cat attacks him: ‘when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.’ (Go, Mimi!)

What comes through the most, though, is Luxemburg’s force of life and joy at being alive, and this is what makes her timely and relevant, over the distance of a century or so. From a letter in 1916:

To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the great scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to make a human being, I only know that a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Südende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is so beautiful, with all its horrors […]

Deal Orr No Deal

September 11, 2016

Deborah Orr’s column yesterday has got a bit of a slagging. Which is to an extent unfair, because she comes up with an original angle on a complex problem: are zero hours contracts really a universal bad thing?

Orr makes a number of points that normally I’d be sympathetic with. I agree that the economy is changing, and the ‘job for life’ ain’t guaranteed any more. I agree that the left tends to regard pre-Thatcher employment as a lost kingdom, and ignores the difficult, repetitive and hazardous nature of manual careers. I agree that the grind of full time work is not for everyone. And the rebel in me still regards the prospect of decades in the same workplace with a kind of horror.

Orr balances the boring old unionist jobs for life culture, with sunny assertions on the happy go lucky world of the gig economy: ‘it’s also true that many people like being their own boss, and just don’t recognise the binary struggle between bosses and workers as relevant to their lives. They like being both.’ Zero hours contracts ‘are mostly taken up by women, and two thirds of people on zero-hours contracts say they don’t want more hours than they have already.’

Is there a little scripture left out of this sermon? I think there is. Here are what to my mind are the problems with zero hours jobs:

1) They are generally crap jobs. I never heard of, say, a zero hours barrister or a piecework advertising executive. But there are plenty of zero hours cab drivers, care workers and pizza deliverers. High powered professionals can get flexibility within their role at their level but the Deliveroo/Uber guys seem to have to deal with all the petty pressures and sanctions of permanent employment. If you are a zero hours worker then your phone tells you what to do.

Which brings us to:

2) Zero hours jobs are not that modern. Zero hours workers report lack of sick pay, leave entitlements, no insurance for when they get knocked over delivering takeaway food all over the city. For the FT, Sarah O’Connor went out and spoke to zero hours drivers and found them struggling under arbitrary rules and on-call systems. As a Deliveroo courier told her: ‘They are treating you like an employee, so how can they say it’s self-employment?’ Rather than writing about new ways of working, O’Connor ended up writing about Taylorism in the nineteenth century. Zero hours jobs could potentially be great flexible jobs if they were reformed, but as it actually exists at the moment the gig economy is just Taylorism with smartphones.

3) People tend to prefer secure employment. As Chris Dillow has said, most people do not have portfolio careers. Most people prefer a regular job with regular pay, particularly if you are young and have a family. That’s not everyone’s situation, but the workplace is set up that way (and it took a lot of hard work to get there) because families stand to lose the most when capitalism goes wrong.

4) Forget your tax credits. It’s also very difficult to claim in work benefits on zero hours contracts because the benefit system is set up to pay people in permanent jobs with regular pay. In a truly scary recent piece by John Harris he argues that the world of work is fragmenting so fast that more and more of us will have to be reliant on benefits in the future even if we have a working income. This would be a perfect storm and I am not convinced that Universal Credit will resolve it.

5) It tends to be a generational thing. When I started work I started out in temp jobs. You could be dumped back on the employment line at a moment’s notice (and I was). For young people coming up, with little experience, the zero hours job will be the only job available – yet another way in which the latest generation loses out in Britain.

So, as I say, I understand Orr’s point that a life in service to one employer is boring. But job security for most people is a bare minimum requirement in life and we are nowhere near being able to guarantee it.

As Gene used to say at Harry’s Place: for most people the problem with capitalism is that it’s not boring enough.

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.

Borderpolis: Inside the City of Thorns

April 11, 2016

cityofthornsAt some point in the last two or three decades, immigration became something it was impossible to have a reasonable conversation about. It is a domestic and international issue that has been politicised and magnified beyond reasonable conversation. The right doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks they erode British culture and drain welfare capital. The left doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks (on dubious evidence) that they take British jobs (and also, refugees cannot always be trusted to express constructive opinions of the absurd religions and nasty, thieving dictatorships that so many leftists in the UK support). Neoconservatives worried that immigrants had too much potential to be radicalised and become terrorists. And there are also some people who don’t like immigrants because they have racial prejudices against people from foreign countries or with different colour skin.

A sense of raging unreality replaced the reasonable conversation. A few reasonable voices demurred. Centrist leader writers quoted from economic studies, Quakers worried about the humanitarian consequences of indefinite detention and deportations. But the raging unreality created its own compelling discourse, so that immigrants can drain the welfare state and take British jobs, can reshape English communities and fail to make a social commitment to the ‘host country’, refuse to learn English and simultaneously speak it far too well. When the crisis came, when thousands drowned in the Med, a few reporters wandered around Calais for a few days, but still the focus of the debate remained on the impact of immigration upon the UK. The public sector mantra ‘no decision about us, without us’ never applies to migrants. What doesn’t get asked is: who are the refugees? Why are they coming? And what are they running from?

Ben Rawlence spent four years, on and off, in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenyan/Somali border – one of the many grey zones and process centres that are created, and expand, when the rhetoric of the open world meets national protectionism. The camp complex is funded by the UN, is the size of a small city and has existed for generations. Somalis ran there fleeing warlordism, starvation and al-Shabaab. (It took some guts to do so. Rawlence explains: ‘The camps lie seventy miles inside Kenya across the barren scrub of the border country and the crossing is dangerous. The police in Kenya jokingly refer to undocumented Somalis as ‘ATM machines’. Rape is routine.’) Once inside the camp, accommodation and work are scarce: refugees make a pittance shoeshining, or selling khat from a stall. (The UN also has an ‘incentive worker’ scheme where people the National Security Council designates as Islamists in embryo, risk their lives detecting and defusing al-Shabaab IEDs.) The common situation of the migrants doesn’t guarantee solidarity. Rawlence meets numerous refugees whose lives have been put at risk after falling in love with someone from the wrong religion or tribe. How do you imagine a refugee camp? It’s not Buchenwald. It’s more like an open-air prison – complete with beatings, headcounts, hustles, desires, hatreds, segregations, and plots to escape.

If the city of thorns is a prison, parole is extremely difficult. Migrants crowd around the UN building daily to check the few resettlement slots that become available. For those without nous or connections to get moved up the list, the wait can last generations. Some people can’t handle the wait, and sign up with a trafficker. ‘If you get a good one,’ a restless young man told Rawlence, ‘you can reach quickly and safely’. If you don’t get a good one, you can die in a broken-down hotbox truck in the desert, or be ransomed back to your relatives by corrupt cops. Even if one escapes by lawful means, freedom can be short lived. A man Rawlence met, named Fish, came to Dadaab feeling a civil war in ’92 and eventually made it to Nairobi, but had to head back to the camp when the Kenyan authorities cracked down… and ‘cracked down’ in Nairobi meant more beatings, arbitrary detentions and rapes.

Just like in prisons, a listlessness takes over, drains thought and energy. People spend whole days chewing khat, or creating Facebook photos of imaginary lives in Europe or America. There is a Dadaab word for this feeling, buufis, ‘the name given to the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.’ The emotional detail is typical of Rawlence, who narrates City of Thorns in terms of the complex relationships and inner lives of the people he meets there. The flailings and machinations of various governmental and NGO bodies, as they try to deal with unprecedented eruptions of globalisation and war, he recounts briefly – and perhaps with a little dark irony. (Rawlence is particularly scathing on the corporate aid agencies: ‘At five o’clock sharp, they left their cool offices and their computers glowing with warnings and got into their cars…. through the streets wet and slick to some house party or restaurant glittering with laughter and money, and the lights of the city sparkled in the puddles.’) Mainly, Rawlence gives his voice to the voiceless. As Fish says: ‘We talk, but our voices are never heard. We move, but only inside a cage. We have many skills and talents, but we are denied our chance to maximise our potential’.

Wolves of London: Finding The Actual One

January 31, 2016

isysuttiePossibly the best TV comedy of the new century, Peep Show, ended last month. It was a bittersweet experience as a TV fan as I had followed the show from its first episode in 2003 – had grown up with Mark and Jez. In the last series you tend to lose sympathy for the El Dude brothers – as Robert Webb said: ‘It was a show about two young men sharing a flat and it’s become two middle-aged men sharing a flat, which is a different level of sadness. I think it was getting too sad.’ The madcap romantic-stalking schemes and defiant slackerism has a different edge. Always a reactionary outsider, Mark at this point comes off as a toxic individual who messes with people’s lives for personal gain. But at the end of the series his plans come to nothing and he sits in the ruins of another party with Jez on a nearby sofa going ‘I’m so tired’. Turning on the TV, Mark sees a feature about the reintroduction of wolves to Britain – yet another sign that the world is going to hell. ‘What next? Bring back smallpox? We all had fun with the smallpox, didn’t we? Is it time smallpox had a reboot?’ The show ends with an ominous wolf howl.

All this sounds like a roundabout way of talking about Isy Suttie‘s book. Sure, the comedian was in Peep Show and in the book she even repeats one of the show’s classic lines – ‘men with ven’ (plural for ‘man with van’). But it has a similar theme – the difficulty in staying young forever. You stop thinking in academic years and start thinking in financial years. Party shots fall off your newsfeed, and are replaced with endless pictures of misshapen-looking babies. Couples move out of the shared house and buy homes in charmless suburbs that their children will spend an adolescence trying to escape. When Isy Suttie’s best friends decide to get a mortgage and a family, she makes a bet that she will find a life partner – the Actual One – within a month.

That’s the premise, at least – the narrative itself is mainly a bunch of anecdotes loosely strung together, reminding me of Richard Herring’s Warming Up blogs, an exercise where you just start writing to get the creative brain in gear, drill down into any observational material and pummel concepts to death. It’s not a bad way to write, and Suttie makes it work – waiting at a GUM clinic, she sees some rowdy lads in their twenties: ‘It was like a youth club where one of them might have to inconveniently pop off and have his dick looked at in a moment, but soon he’d be back to merrily pelt Minstrels at a leaflet stand.’

In the book, she has just got out of a relationship with a man so insensitive he forgets, within days, about the giant papier-mâché penguin Suttie builds for him. She adds ruefully: ‘As it turns out, if you decide to make a papier-mâché penguin for your partner to try and save your relationship, the raw materials will cost approximately £180, and the reaction will be vague.’ Later she goes out with a man she meets at a party in Dalston who lives on a boat and speaks entirely in rhyme: ‘My name’s Joe, I live on a barge, you guys look like you like it large!’ There’s not a lot of dating and romance in here though – Suttie breaks off mid way through these encounters to tell a long anecdote from her childhood or student days.

More interesting are her memories of struggling to make it as a comedian and musician straight out of drama school. Doing the Edinburgh Festival on no money and no profile, travelling hundreds of miles for a few moments’ exposure, getting wrecked until 5am with squaddies in a Portsmouth drinking basement – these are fantastic passages and the book could have done with more material about making it in a classically male dominated world. The Actual One is funny, wise, discursive, even twee in places, but the howl of the wolf echoes through it none the less.

 

The Human Junkyard: Making A Murderer

January 17, 2016

Making_A_Murderer_TitleHaving watched all ten episodes of Making a Murderer, I think that Steven Avery is probably guilty. That’s probably not what the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, wanted me to think, and indeed the series was criticised for a perceived bias towards Avery’s defence. In a debate on the Liz Loves Books blog, which I recommend to anyone wanting to drill down into the rights and wrongs of the Avery case, ex prosecutor Neil White identifies ‘an imbalance in how the evidence was presented, slanted entirely towards the defence case, relying mainly on the insights of the Avery family and of Steven Avery’s lawyers.’ In an email to The Wrap, special prosecutor Kenneth R Kratz echoed this, and said Netflix should ‘either provide an opportunity for rebuttal, or alert the viewers that this series was produced by and FOR the defense of Steven Avery, and contains only the opinion and theory of the defense team.’

Kratz and Avery strike a chord. Avery pretty much owns Making a Murderer. The victim in the case, Teresa Halbach, is just a cipher, a face on the screen. We don’t see the prosecution team or the police apart from when they speak in court (and Kratz in particular comes off as a pompous bore with a silly high voice). However I don’t believe documentary makers have a duty to be completely impartial. A commitment towards some meaningless idea of ‘balance’ can strangle as many truths as it reveals, as many frustrated TV reporters can attest. I personally think Ricciardi and Demos could have widened the scope of the series, following police, prosecution and defence teams as the case unfolded, and leaving it up to the audience to judge Steven Avery guilty of murder or not. But in this case, the trial is done, the verdict reached, the filmmakers have no obligation to present a ‘balanced view’ and there may be practical reasons why they couldn’t do so.

Just as unfair is the condescension of the British viewer. In all the discussions I’ve heard about the show, the big theme has been ‘This is what happens when you’re poor and white with a low IQ in America’. Well, it’s not easy in this country either. There is almost no injustice in the US criminal system that isn’t replicated over here. Wrongful convictions? Ask the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Stefan Kiszko, Tony Stock and countless others railroaded by UK police and courts. On the dodgy confession that convicted Brendan Dassey, Neil White says that ‘Thankfully, the rights of young people are much better protected here and the police would not have conducted themselves in that way in the UK.’ But the recent G4S scandal doesn’t inspire confidence in our criminal justice system’s treatment of children. The obvious exception is the death penalty, but even here, numerous US states have abolished capital punishment in recent years, with executions at a 24-year low. The US never did mass execution on the scale of China and Iran and it seems that America could lose the death penalty altogether within our lifetime. Meanwhile I suspect that if the UK held a referendum on capital punishment today it would pass tomorrow and the gallows would be up and running by the weekend. Can’t happen here? Don’t be so sure.

Making a Murderer may be biased, but it’s not condescending. Steven Avery is depicted as humane and courageous but no martyr. The Avery family’s dignity and resilience, as they lose their son to prison, is heartbreaking and inspiring. The style is forensic, but with a warmth and humanity that stays with you, particularly in its treatment of the truly tragic Brendan Dassey story. I personally have no idea how I would have voted had I been on the Wisconsin jury. As I’ve said, I think Avery is probably guilty, but ‘probably’ is not good enough reason to take away a man’s liberty.

Having said this, it strikes me that, to believe in Steven Avery’s innocence, you also have to believe in one of the following propositions:

1) To avoid a $36m lawsuit, the Manitowoc County PD located and moved Teresa Halbach’s remains to the Avery salvage yard during the 8-day search of the Avery compound. The FBI agreed to perjure itself on behalf of the notorious and compromised small town department. This despite the fact that in all probability the ‘real killer’ would almost certainly turn up somewhere in the prison system bragging about the Halbach murder, and the murder conviction would fall apart as had the Avery rape conviction, leading to more financial penalty and reputational damage for the Manitowoc County PD.

2) The ‘real killer’ either killed Teresa Halbach on the Avery salvage yard or moved her remains to the yard without the knowledge of Avery or any of his relatives, girlfriend or visitors to the yard, and without leaving any forensic traces whatsoever.

I could be wrong – I don’t have a law, law enforcement or forensics background – but it seems to me that, as talented as Avery’s advocates were, they had a choice between police conspiracy or one armed bandit as defence arguments. Both of these are very difficult to get past a jury and because of this they lost the case and Avery was convicted. The 1985 rape conviction was a tragedy and an injustice but it doesn’t axiomatically make Avery innocent of the Halbach murder. Real life isn’t The Shawshank Redemption. It’s more like Oz. Complexity beats innocence, every time.

I don’t think Making a Murderer will spring Avery, if that was the intention of the filmmakers. Its success is in its depiction of the impact of crime – not just on the victim but on the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s family, the cops, the lawyers, the jury and everyone else sucked into the case. All this with excellent wide-sweep cinematography of the Wisconsin landscape – radio towers, endless winding roads, cows in paddocks, and the Avery salvage yard: rows and rows of cars, in various stages of repair, open chassis, crushers and combines and skeletons of machinery, half-buried under snow or glinting in the afternoon sun. It strikes me as a good metaphor for what criminal justice so often is for the innocent and the guilty alike – a human junkyard, full of the innards and remains of problematic mortal existence.

Tales of the Missing: Kirstin Innes’s Fish Net

November 15, 2015

Fishnet_270I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. When curious about people with outsider status – immigrants, sex workers, prisoners, benefit claimants – the novelist’s temptation is to make victims, victims of sex workers in particular. Not a bit of it though. It’s easy to write victims. Kirstin Innes has worked a lot harder.

Fish Net focuses on Fiona Leonard, a single parent whose sister, Rona, has dumped a baby on Fiona and then walked out of her life. For years Fiona has been searching for her missing sister. Then a drunken chat with an old acquaintance at a wedding gives her a lead: that Rona may have got involved in the sex industry. It so happens that Fiona is currently temping at a company which is negotiating the development of a drop-in centre where working girls can hang out and get advice and check out the ‘ugly mugs’ gallery of clients you want to avoid. The local authority wants to bulldoze the drop-in and build a leisure complex to attract investment. Furious prostitutes demonstrate outside the company offices. Sympathising with their situation, and still investigating her sister’s disappearance, Fiona befriends them and is drawn deeper into their world of the missing.

Again, the big strength of Innes’s novel is that she refuses to see her characters as victims – or at least not just victims. Fiona meets a Polish escort named Anya who is in the business to work off her international students. She tells Anya: ‘I don’t understand how my sister – how anyone ends up doing this.’ Anya replies:

This question, it comes from a place where for a woman to work in the sex industry, it’s shameful, wrong… What you know is horror stories of rape and powerlessness, that teach us to prize our virtue, to keep our legs closed, that nice girls don’t do things. What you think you know is stereotypes about drug addiction, about desperate girls out there on the street. About the bodies that they find, whenever some fucking lunatic goes on a killing spree. And yes, this is all there; I am not stupid as to say to you these things don’t happen, and that they are not awful, but it is not a complete picture… what people call ‘the sex industry’ is not always, not completely, a bad thing. That just because a person sells their sexual skills, it does not mean that their life is – bam! forever ruined.

But it is hard for people in the UK to get past this shameful place. People aren’t accustomed to seeing sex as a transaction. With an increasing puritanism regarding pleasure – smoking, alcohol, junk food – coupled with a backdrop of sitcom prurience, we live in a culture where sex is sacralised and magnified and blown out of all proportion. (The fanatics who killed 129 in Paris this weekend apparently did so because it was ‘the city of prostitution’.) I remember watching an episode of Borgen where the fictional Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg has to make a hard choice about the criminalisation of sex work. She listens to women who have been abused as well as sex workers who are concerned that criminalisation would put their lives in danger. The episode struck me because you couldn’t imagine such a mature debate on this subject in Britain, fictionalised or not.

Fish Net has a raucous scene where Fiona attends a meeting at the drop in. A well-meaning representative from the council explains that in consolation for the closure of their local base, the local authority will help sex workers to leave the trade. ‘We believe that no woman should have to suffer the degradation of prostitution for a moment longer,’ the council officer declares. Rather than welcoming this, the sex workers are enraged. They feel patronised and see the council as putting their livelihoods and safety on the line. Even the brilliant and capable Anya is almost ruined forever by a tabloid sting related to the development (with a op eed titled ‘City’s vice girl shame: is immigration to blame?’)

Innes explores not just the degradation of prostitution but the degradation of modern life. Her respectable world is characterised by boring jobs, crap sports bars with glass walls, tedious get-togethers, unfulfilled wives and parents, screaming children and lairy guys on the make. Fiona becomes more impulsive and unpredictable, and enjoys winding up those she sees as increasingly part of a dull surface world. Yet Innes does not look down on her hapless straightlifers. She understands that some people do need to be rescued – hell, sometimes all of us need to be rescued. And she will make you re examine your beliefs.

In Arcadia Picasso

July 9, 2015

In a winter’s night of Paris a Spanish artist named Carlos Casagemas announces a goodbye dinner at the Brasserie de L’Hippodrome. He has been in love with the model Germaine Pichot, but she rejects him: ‘He started shouting, and she called him impotent in front of everyone… He turned green and ran.’ Pichot attends the dinner, and ‘dug up her real husband for the occasion.’ The young man gets up to make a speech. ‘But instead of a sheaf of notes, he pulls out a revolver.’ Points it at Germaine. ‘Now you’ll get yours.’ Bang. And turns the gun on himself. ‘And I’ll get mine.’ Blam.

Such was Paris in 1901. ‘To be young in Montmartre in 1900 was to know cruelty, violence, madness,’ remembers Fernande Olivier in Birmant and Oubrerie’s comic biography. ‘In this filth, this slum where a band of ragged immigrants in rags invented modern art’. She continues: ‘Picasso loved me. Picasso painted me. He always wanted to erase me from sight… Instead, he made me eternal.’ Shuffling along the streets today – we see them through her eyes, a jarring collage of tourist pastels – she soars into the sky. She remembers herself at seventeen: ‘perched in a tree, being forced to marry a man I didn’t want.’ Birmant and Oubrerie give us a great juxtaposition of yearning here – the old woman looking down on her former self who is herself gazing out beyond the trees to the lights of the city.

Pablo is written like a novel rather than biography, exploring the young Picasso’s life and his development as an artist throughout the 1900s. Like many art histories though, it’s collated into ‘periods’: the passages of his life following the suicide of his troubled friend Casagemas are rendered in deep aqua and turquoise shades, rain, shadows, clouds, night. Art shows and functions are done in royal scarlet pixels. During his ‘African period’ Picasso sees ‘Iberian heads, his totems from Gósol’ streaming through the air like birds, and a black-red shaft shoots out of his eyes with the legend I SEE ALL.

It’s rare that the pointed surrealism for which Picasso is known penetrates the artwork of the comic. Characters are bright and distinctive and they speak in easy, accessible speech bubbles. There are portraits of kindly, tragic soothsayer Max Jacobs – Jacobs took Picasso in when he had nowhere to go, and they slept on the bed in shifts. Gertrude Stein appears as an amazing old battleaxe. No one seems to have any money but there’s lots of fun and parties. Young women earn by sitting languorously in front of canvas. A friend of Pablo’s quotes a Catalan proverb, translating as ‘When you want to fuck, fuck!’

But when Pablo and Fernande take opium together Fernande finds herself swirling through an underwater sky as a maenad with dilated pupils. An elephant appears in the Montmartre streets for absolutely no reason. Pablo dreams of a skeleton in a little girl’s dress, complete with pigtails, shouting ‘Papa! Papa! Pablo won’t come die with me!’ Another skeleton with the body of Germaine Pichot straddles him naked while Carlos shoots himself again in the background. Picasso’s obvious guilt (his little sister Conchita died of diphtheria at age seven) leads him to the truth F Scott Fitzgerald was busy discovering on the other side of the Atlantic: et in arcadia ego, beauty is not alone in the garden, death is waiting there too. ‘That we may fear our enemy no more,’ Pablo vows, ‘let us sculpt our worst nightmare.’

For a lay reader like me who’s ignorant of visual art Pablo is a fantastic introduction to the man and his work. But it is not about art so much as the effect art has upon the artist. The manic glazed look in Picasso’s eyes near follows you out of the room and down the street. And Birmant and Oubrerie are so good at the texture of life, the shades, ink and vellum of city streets and rooms. Their book captures what Fernande recalls: ‘I still remember the smell: a mixture of wet dog, oil and tobacco… the smell of work.’

pablo

The Elusive Professor Hunt

June 20, 2015

Be taught by this to speak with moderation

Of places where, with decent application

One gets a good, sound, middle-class education.

– Hilaire Belloc, ‘A Moral Alphabet’

There’s been some great comment about the Tim Hunt scandal this week. I’d particularly recommend Professor David Colquhoun’s article, plus this interesting series of tweets from Michael Hendricks – it’s amazing what can be done with longform Twitter these days. What do I think about Tim Hunt? My first thoughts are that this is a very British affair. And I really don’t like the very British culture of banning stuff and demanding that people lose their jobs because they have said something stupid. It’s very high school particularly in the dance of ostracisation and the smug contempt directed at people who don’t know the rules. I would be appalled if this was a young man, maybe with a family, who lost his livelihood and career because he expressed a stupid opinion.

But Tim Hunt is not a young man is he? He is 72 years old, a distinguished professor and a Nobel laureate. A lot of the backlash, the people who have said that Professor Hunt is the victim of a ‘witchhunt’ (in Britain any rigorous and sustained criticism constitutes a ‘witchhunt’) seems to come from this argument to authority: look at this man! He has been a scientist since before you were born! Where’s the deference! Where’s your respect?

But in Britain deference covers a multitude of sins. In Simon Danczuk’s excellent Smile for the Camera, his book about the Cyril Smith paedophile revelations, he writes that ‘blind deference no longer determines a significant part of people’s worldview, earned respect has become the challenge facing everyone in public life… And that’s what gives me ground for optimism.’ This is not a comparison, I don’t think Hunt and Smith are in any way comparable: the point is a reflection on how society has changed, and changed for the better. For decades talented young workers, particularly young women, have had to negotiate and defer to stupid, ill mannered old men who for some reason or another are in a position of authority. They don’t so much now and Hunt did not realise this – hence his shocked response to levels of mockery and derision that are standard in any regulars’ pub or lively office.

Should Hunt have lost his job on this? Instinctively, I feel this sets a bad precedent, but then again, do you want to work for someone who advocates gender segregated workplaces? We wouldn’t tolerate this from a conservative Islamic imam – at least I hope we would not. And as Professor Colquhoun said: ‘All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.’ Also, if Hunt had generalised about people of colour, older people or people of faith in the crass way that he did, he would have been out and there would have been no lineup of important people to defend him. Again, as a society we don’t hold the younger generation, particularly young women, in that level of esteem.

The Hunt affair has been framed as a case of academia gone PC wild. But contra the backlash, universities are not that censorious. I know that the NUS has said and done stupid things, individual student unions do stupid things. But student unions are democratic organisations. If student representatives pass idiot resolutions, students can and should vote them out and elect better representatives, even stand for election themselves – although I appreciate that student politics in general is an invitation to a misspent youth. If you think universities chill free expression, try working for an employer. If you are an employee and you shoot your mouth off at a widely reported public event… chances are you will quickly become an ex employee.

Is that fair? Maybe not, but businesses care very much about reputation and universities are a business. The bulk of Colquhoun’s post, and also this fantastic piece by Marina Warner, explores how HE has become strangled by the mindless HR, bureaucracy and target culture that is killing the British work ethic. There’s a debate to be had here, and it goes beyond the student union.

(Image: Connie St Louis)