Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category

Remember When: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

August 21, 2017

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen – probably the standout novel of 2016 – the narrator is trapped in a town she calls ‘X-ville’, where ‘the streets in my neighborhood were all tree lined and orderly, houses loved and tended to with pride and affection and a sense of civic order that made me ashamed to be so messy, so broken, so bland. I didn’t know that there were others like me in the world, those who didn’t ‘fit in,’ as people like to put it. Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth. I’ve seen episodes of The Twilight Zone which illustrate the kind of straight-faced derangement I felt in X-ville. It was very lonely.’

Small towns are also the subject for John Darnielle in his short and curious novel Universal Harvester. The setting is Iowa rather than New England, and jumps about through time rather than sticking to the mid 1960s. There is quietness, routine, comfort, and a loneliness that feels almost solid, that raises your awareness to the point of high altitude.

While Moshfegh’s protagonist wants to escape places like this, Darnielle’s seek to understand them. He starts with the connections between people. For Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk living with his widowed father, ‘conversations tended towards simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they’d lived in the first place… These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people?…’ But at some point, always, ‘the trail went cold’ and it’s the same small town silence again. ‘The lowest form of conversation,’ Tony Soprano complains in the HBO show, is ‘Remember when’.

The first chapters, which take place in the late nineties, constitute a quietly brilliant depiction of father and son relationships. Jeremy is a college graduate, his father is a low level white collar worker, both are still shaken by the death of Jeremy’s mother. They enjoy a beer and a movie together, but conversation isn’t easy, even though there is no hostility between them – both men are just constantly, acutely aware of each other’s presence. Darnielle is a subtle master of relationships between basically good men.

He picks up this theme of connection later on in the story, and later on in time, when ‘people see more of their high school classmates on Facebook every day than they previously would have in their entire lives after graduation.’ The undergraduates of the 2010s, visiting retired parents in present-day Iowa are investigating a string of missing persons, perhaps connected to a religious cult. The families of the missing put up an appeal website that ‘boasted all the trappings of the initial expansion of the Internet from college campuses and computer laboratories to the wider world: site design from a template supplied by the host, clip art, and several uncorrected spelling errors in the single paragraph atop the frame.’

From the mid twentieth century, something has invaded this quiet world: the strange church, the disappearances connected to it, and something else as well. Jeremy’s video store customers begin to return their tapes early, complaining that the movies on them have been spliced with other movies – odd, furtive handheld clips, called things like ‘Shed #4’, that give disquieting impressions of captivity and restraint.

Universal Harvester is a brief book, in which not much happens, but it could have been twice as long and still not lost the reader’s attention. I suspect it will baffle readers for generations to come. Darnielle writes about a region that is ‘quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries. A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain. But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?’ In his remarkable novel Darnielle comes closest to the mystery behind these tensions.

Let’s Go Back To College

August 11, 2017

Political commentary at its best is disputatious. Pundits are unlikely to give government credit for policies. Except when it comes to tuition fees. From James Bloodworth on the left, to Daniel Mahoney on the right, everyone agrees what a good idea tuition fees were and how unfair it would be to get rid of them.

Both writers make good arguments, and there are good reasons for such uniformity of opinion. Tuition fees are a minor policy issue compared to everything else that’s going on. Marching against them seems self-indulgent, and if you’re not a student yourself, you’re going to look like some fool trying to recover his lost youth. And many students – at least in my experience – support the fees.

Abolishing tuition fees is also a flagship Jeremy Corbyn policy, which makes the idea look more ridiculous still. The hard Brexit he supports makes the implementation of free higher education, and of all the other targeted giveaways he proposes look, well, academic. And I see why people ask how socialist it really is to give more subsidies to the middle classes while leaving swathes of austerity welfare cuts largely untouched.

And yet I still have doubts about tuition fees, and find the arguments for them to be weak.

For example, the Daily Express described Corbyn’s HE policy (pre this year’s GE) as ‘a key bribe being used by the current Labour leadership to younger voters’. Bribe? Excuse me, but what did the Express think British politics is? Most party policy represents the offer of economic or financial support to various interest groups, in the hope of gaining power. Former education minister Alan Johnson complained that the idea would involve ‘cross-subsidising mainly middle class students’. The middle classes are already subsidised with tax credits, child benefit, flexible working, parental leave and pension credit – but apparently, paying for college is where the line has to be drawn.

Then there is the argument that working class people shouldn’t have to pay for an education from which working class people don’t personally benefit… unless, of course, they ever undergo a clinical procedure, fly on an aircraft, lose themselves in a great novel or history book, or utilise any of the other services and innovations produced by graduates. And taxation always involves paying for something you don’t use. I don’t drive, but I don’t complain that my tax contributions go towards funding publically maintained roads.

And then we come to the ‘crazy students’ story. Barely a week goes by without a headline reporting some ludicrous boycott, no-platform or protest initiated by students. The national security professor Tom Nichols devotes a whole chapter in his marvellous polemic The Death of Expertise to the broken US college education system, and the colossal sense of entitlement displayed by many student protestors. He writes:

At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campuswide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming students. ‘In your position as master,’ one student howled in a professor’s face, ‘it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!’

Quietly, the professor said, ‘No, I don’t agree with that,’ and the student unloaded on him:

‘Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!’ [emphasis Nichols’s]

This is a familiar subject. But Nichols’s conclusions are surprising. The ‘crazy students’ story is more prevalent in America because the system costs more at the point of delivery. Students have such entitlement because they have been encouraged to see themselves as customers – ‘children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.’

Conservatives have made a minor cottage industry from the backlash against crazy entitled student protestors but, at the end of the day, they just want clicks and RTs. Some leftists have even sillier ideas about HE. Millennials have become a pilot cohort for sociology’s wackier theories.

Take this piece by the Guardian’s Hugh Warwick. He advocates a year of ‘eco conscription’ prior to higher education. Young people would be sent back to the land for compulsory agricultural labour. ‘Now, conscription is a scary idea; associated with the great threats that come with war, so it is sure to antagonise. But I believe we need to start treating the multiple environmental crises as the serious threat they are,’ Warwick explains. ‘The benefits to our ‘home’ of having people working on the land, reconsecrating the sacrilege of our industry, are immense. Reweaving the connections, rebuilding the Linescape will forge links for wildlife and for people.’

This article is such a classic, I could quote from it all day (‘Yes, this is state coercion. But…’) Suffice to note the subtext – that students are a kind of claimant group, which should be mined for productive use. But students spend money, work regular jobs to cover their fees, even set up small businesses. There are provincial cities and market towns from London to Carlisle that would starve without the September-June influx.

Of course having a big student population does lead to obvious problems with loud noise, transient populations and knocked over wheelie bins. But there is no reason undergraduates and regular people cannot live together peacefully. I used to do a lot of voluntary work, and in that capacity I sat on a student impact panel in my own city, which got students and local residents together to find ways to coexist without problems. I remember an old woman praising the university system because (I can’t remember the exact words) ‘it’s remarkable that we live in a society that sets a little time aside for people just to think, and read, and find out who they really are.’ And I can think of no better rationale for higher education than that.

Summer Song

July 14, 2017

This story of mine is now out at the marvellous Ellipsis zine.

Everything Belongs to the Past

June 8, 2017

No one wears them; they’re empty. It’s an image of a shape with one entrance and two exits. One may imagine falling continually into the waistband, not knowing from which leg one may emerge. So does history occur: in myriad, often unconsidered, minor decisions.

‘The Trousers of Time’

– Terry Pratchett ‘L Space’ wiki

I remember the June 23 referendum as if it’s actually happening real now in real time. It’s been a long close race, but ultimately not close enough. About four in the am, just as the sunlight is beginning to break into the sky, a decision starts to emerge. Remain establishes a 52% majority and keeps it going well into the stirrings of the working day. Eventually, Dimbleby calls it. The votes are counted, the boxes emptied, the final hand is on the table. Britain has voted to remain in the European Union.

No one has slept, but the real work is only just begun. Cameron and Osborne, faces flushed with victory and relief, are all over the front pages. It has been Dave’s big gamble – and it’s paid off. Subtle but drastic realignments occur all over Westminster as career politicians scramble to adjust their philosophies in line with the triumphant Chipping Norton order. Businessmen all over the country check the result on their phones, shake their heads in relief, and drive to work. Radiographers and IT specialists and hop pickers and schoolteachers and retail workers and others who came from the continent and beyond to build lives here, decide to junk their visa applications, and wonder why they ever even considered leaving a country they love.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the response from the Leave campaign. UKIP disbands a day after the referendum. Even ultra liberal commenters praise Nigel Farage for his grace and good spirit. He tours the studios shaking hands with his opponents. ‘The result was not what I had hoped, but I respect the outcome of the democratic process,’ Farage tells reporters, trademark pint in hand. ‘Whether or not we are in the EU, we will always be British and nothing can change that. Let’s work together to build a great future.’

Farage takes the wind out of a defeated Leave campaign. Paul Nuttall leaves politics and embarks on the first manned mission to Mars – at least, that’s what he says later on his CV. Far away, in an office of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin allows himself a drink of strong spirits while he reflects on a new plan. Boris resigns to spend more time with his mistresses.

See anything wrong with my little counterfactual there?

That’s right – the last paras.

If Remain had won, even if they had won big – I don’t believe that the leave crowd would have walked away and accepted the result. They would moan and complain and demonstrate. They would say the result was ‘rigged’ and the electorate was ‘brainwashed’. There would be court challenges and appeals to the Electoral Commission. We could even, right now, be in the middle of a second referendum campaign. Because for political fanatics, democracy is a one-armed bandit. You yank the lever until the thing pays out.

Ian McEwan confessed recently that ‘I don’t accept this near mystical, emotionally charged decision to leave the EU. I don’t, I can’t, believe it. I reject it.’ But he admits he is in a minority on this: ‘Our church, perhaps to its detriment, is not so broad. It is moody, tearful, complaining, sometimes cogently, even beautifully. In general, until now perhaps, it seems to have stoically accepted the process.’

As we know, Theresa May was once a Remainer but has committed herself to taking us out of the EU off the back of the referendum result. It looks like an honourable stance – whatever she fought for in the campaign, she accepts that ultimately she’s a servant of the people and must carry out the majority wish.

But it seems to me that this honourable stance has faded into what I call ‘let’s do it to say we’ve done it’. This is a form of bad practice in organisations that can also be called ‘box ticking’ or, more simply, ‘cover thine arse’. You know what I mean by this – you follow protocol or directive, and document your actions thoroughly, without necessarily thinking of what’s best for the project or the client. Then, if and when everything falls over, you can throw up your hands and say: ‘Don’t look at me. I did what was asked.’

There are many good arguments for Brexit – I recommend this gentle low-key and wise piece in particular, by the academic Martin Robb. Many smart Brexiters have close affinities with Europe, and they know we will always have a relationship with the continent, no matter the constitutional arrangements of the day. (They are perhaps less wise in their enthusiasm for local representative structures above all else. How’s your local democracy doing these days? Bins collected recently?…) So I never believed that Remain had a monopoly on virtue or intelligence in this debate.

Fact is, though, any pro Brexit argument has to answer two big questions: how is this thing going to work, exactly, and can we trust this government to achieve it?

So far, the May approach looks like ‘do it to say we’ve done it’ on a constitutional scale. The government triggered A50 early and made Brexit the centre of their programme. Tony Blair spoke in almost DeLillo-style prose when he said ‘this Government has bandwidth only for one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.’ And yet detail is lacking. We will have SME, and less immigration, but we don’t know exactly how. This government is doing a very radical thing, in a very mediocre way. Think the English Reformation, but project managed by the guys who used to run the godforsaken call centre you temped in after college. The American Revolution led by Mr Bean.

This is where acceptance can be a sleepwalk off the cliff’s edge. People have a habit of falling back on the position that things are going to happen because they have to happen. And indeed this post could well appear like the half-assed fantasies of an ivory tower liberal globalist. Maybe, but I should say that when I got interested in politics I was passionately anti globalisation. When I’d argue with friends about Thatcherism’s legacy, I’d get the rejoinder: Look, it had to happen, the world was changing, any government would have found it necessary to do what Thatcher did.

Again, maybe. But I am still not sure that it had to be done in the thoughtless aggressive way that Thatcher’s government did it – the onslaught upon the cities and valleys and towns, the devastation of entire communities. Like I say, I think Brexit could work for us. But I am not at all sure that Brexit will work if it’s the kind of Brexit that this government is aggressively and thoughtlessly pursuing.

Ian Dunt is the best writer on the Brexit age and provides the detail politicians won’t tell you. Here he reflects on the possible future if we crash out of Europe without a deal:

The early effects can already be seen. A year ago we were outperforming Germany, the US and Japan. Now we have slumped to the bottom of the G7 list of advanced economies. The pound fell in value after Brexit and that has translated, due to increased import prices, into inflation. This is denting consumer demand – the main driver of UK growth. Wages are no longer keeping up with inflation. The Bank of England has warned that living standards will continue to fall […]

Producers in Europe are coming to hard conclusions about the UK’s direction. Many goods must pass over borders in their manufacturing process. If there is a tariff and various bureaucratic requirements when they do so, they would be better off based inside the customs union. Almost half of European businesses have already started looking to replace British suppliers with competitors from inside the EU.

Meanwhile, British businesses are being given no certainty whatsoever. Every time May says that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, they are again being driven closer to having to make snap investment decisions in a state of regulatory uncertainty. None of this is necessary, even under Brexit. If guarantees were offered they would not be in this situation. Instead, May continues to play Russian Roulette with the nation’s future.

It is a truism that there are communities all over the UK that have not yet recovered from what happened in the 1980s. I have to smile when I hear fanzine leftists frame hard Brexit as a rebellion against neoliberal elites. What do they think will happen to working class communities after hard Brexit has finished with them?

For neoliberalism has an evil bigger brother: isolationism. It will rip through the fabric of our society like neoliberalism on rocket pills.

As Dunt also writes, you won’t hear this from the major parties. I want to be positive and in many circumstances I am also happy to be a liberal globalist, so I want to end by saying something positive about that magical half-known thing, civil society. I feel good every time I get into a decent argument or laugh out loud at social media or turn on the news to see a carnival demonstration. Civil society is not everything, it may not even exist outside liberal enclaves, but it is something.

And I remember Christopher Hitchens, who once said: ‘if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favour of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.’

The Women of Hyde Park

June 6, 2017

Delighted to have this new story published on the outstanding Cold Coffee Stand magazine.

Ghosted

May 2, 2017

My story of this name is now up at the fabulous LossLit magazine. The whole issue – and the critique gallery about novels of loss – is well worth a read.

The Open Mic

April 1, 2017

Delighted to have this story in the new issue of Under the Fable – starts on page 26, but the whole magazine is well worth your time.

An Unfound Door

March 18, 2017

Magic persists even in the most evil situations. This, I think, is the message of Mohsin Hamid’s startling new novel Exit West. Consider Hamid on the smartphone. A humble and ubiquitous gadget these days, Hamid makes us see the device as a new thing again:

Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and never would be. For many decades after independence a telephone line in their city had remained a rare thing, the waiting list for a connection long, the teams that installed the copper wires and delivered the heavy handsets greeted and revered and bribed like heroes. But now wands waved in the city’s air, untethered and free, phones in the millions, and a number could be obtained in minutes, for a pittance.

And there’s a later passage, when Nadia and Saeed find themselves in a polished London home:

They lay still, hoping not to be discovered, but it was quiet, so quiet they imagined they must be in the countryside – for they had no experience of acoustically insulating glazing – and everyone in the hotel must be asleep.

In both these extracts Hamid makes us see the known magic we take for granted, and brings visibility to the unobtrusive. Skype and soundproofed walls would have seemed like fiction, at one time – technology from pulp fables about space adventures and genetic mutants and variants of the apocalypse. In the twenty first century the technology is real, and the apocalypse is real, too – it’s just not happening in our country, at least not yet. Civilisations fracture into violence and chaos, and they don’t need an alien invasion or super plague to achieve it: in most cases, religion and politics and barrel bombs will get the job done well enough.

As Saeed and Nadia meet, fall in love, and build a relationship, the city where they live collapses around them. And again Hamid is brilliant on the little signs of end times, that jerk us out of our personal dramas and make us see the world around us for a moment. Checkpoints are thrown up, and curfews imposed. The internet goes down, then the water, and electricity. People stop paying in notes and coins and start bartering in food and cigarettes. Entire neighbourhoods are claimed for this or that sectarian militia, and gallows start appearing in the public parks. Hamid writes: ‘A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with the view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.’

Here Hamid introduces his central conceit. Just as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad brought actual secret railways into the antebellum south, so Hamid builds magic doors into his failed states. You can walk through and end up in Colchester or San Andreas or Paraguay. Although the revolutionary guards try to block as many of the exit doors as they can (for authoritarians build walls just as much to keep their subjects inside as to keep migrants away) Saeed and Nadia are still able to bribe their way through a portal. The idea of teleporting immigrants is a border force’s nightmare, and just as every world at Whitehead’s station stops is defined, in some way, by racism and slavery – so every journey Hamid’s lovers make is to somewhere shaped by migration control. Governments endeavour to keep the more desirable doors – those leading to the rich nations – under armed guard, and encourage migrants to return home or elsewhere through another ‘poor door’. Mansions of Kensington and Chelsea are squatted en masse by refugees, and the state meets them with drones and riot police.

But the doors keep popping up. Hamid includes several unrelated vignettes of men and women in random countries discovering doors in their homes, in their apartment buildings, in cellars and attics. Exit West is a story about place, but it’s also a story about time. Saeed and Nadia are constantly stargazing at planets from light years away, and in one settlement they have to pay a ‘time tax’ – a tax on new arrivals, which over time becomes a subsidy for natives and more settled migrants. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid writes.

Exit West is a short, lovely, meandering novel, compassionate but never handwringing, a tribute to multiculturalism without multicultural pieties, a story of mass migration that never forgets about the practicalities. ‘Geography is destiny,’ Hamid says near the beginning of the novel. The rest of his story shows that this need not always be so.

Break the Fourth Wall

March 4, 2017

Every year when winter nights roll in a church near my home organises a carol concert on the local park. Everybody in the area goes. We sing carols. Friendly people hand out mince pies. We live high up and the park slopes onto a view of city and countryside that is beautiful in the way only a Yorkshire night can be. At the end there’s a fireworks display. The church has been doing this for twenty years. It’s free.

Last year the vicar made a brief speech at the concert, in which he drew on the political events of 2016. It wasn’t exactly the Sermon on the Mount. It was just the vicar talking about Trump and Brexit and how scary it all was and how worrying that our country had become so divided. I didn’t follow the whole thread but, judging from the Facebook area chat page, it seemed that the man had gone too far. People complained: how dare the vicar bring politics into a community event, how dare he take it upon himself, and all of this. As an atheist I can’t say I have a dog in the fight, but I did think, isn’t it the priest’s job to sermonise?

This week the author Susan Hill cancelled a signing at a bookshop because, it seems:

I do not expect this bookshop, wherever it is, city or market town, to have posters and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page telling me it is so against what the President of the United States stands for/believes/is/is doing that it is stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him too, and what is more, will give them away free. Needless to say, the opposite is also true. You will not find Donald Trump’s autobiography here, or anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him.

[…]

This is a form of censorship and, of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that.

[…]

All of this leads to an explanation of why I have cancelled a scheduled appearance to discuss my new novel at a bookshop. They have put their own political and personal views about the USA and its President before their business, their customers and what a bookshop is and must, more than any other sort of shop or business, be about.

Danuta Kean has a good piece about the minor controversy this provoked, and the bookshop has itself responded here.

In turn, this reminded me of the row that erupted when Hamilton cast members interrupted their musical to deliver a brief speech to Vice President Mike Pence, sitting in the audience that night. You can read it here. One of the actors, Javier Muñoz, is openly gay and HIV positive and maybe the cast thought that breaking the fourth wall would provoke a reasonable debate about what the next four years might be like. Not a bit of it though. Trump moaned on Twitter about the cast’s ‘terrible behaviour’ and demanded apologies. Others followed his lead.

There appears to be a consensus, that Trump and Susan Hill and my fellow carol singers have tapped into: that this is a failure of decorum, and that politics should be left to politicians.

I’m not so sure. Of course elected representatives have to be careful what they say, and try to represent all shades of opinion within their community (although this duty seems to have lapsed following the events of 2016). Private citizens should have no such obligation. If you run a bookshop or a theatre or another commercial business, you’re not seeking anyone’s vote. You run the business how you see fit. And as an individual you don’t have a duty to represent anyone but yourself.

Don’t misunderstand me. Diplomacy is a great thing in human relations. Many volatile situations, which might otherwise escalate into violence, can be resolved with listening skills, and carefulness in stance and tone. But when it comes to politics, the idea that everyone should be diplomats is a counsel of despair.

Take FT columnist Janan Ganesh on the Women’s March. I used to have a lot of time for Ganesh. But even he has retreated into centrist chin-stroking. Ganesh complained that marchers prioritised ‘the cultural over the material. Their ultimate objection to EU exit is its tinge of nativism. Their main quarrel with Mr Trump is his attitude to women and minorities’ – as if nativism, racism and misogyny had no real impact: as if these forces don’t wreck lives, and not just those of women and minorities. The march was not going to convince ‘the marginal voter, the person who backed populists in 2016 but with some qualms’ – as if any serious person said it had to. This is quietism as virtue signalling – and it is condescending. Ganesh writes: ‘The marginal voter was doing some hamper management over the weekend. The marginal voter has never been on a march and might be unnerved by zealous multitudes.’ Oh I don’t know. Perhaps some of those marginal voters looked up from their laundry at the TV news.

My point is that politics is increasingly not diplomatic. If you’re not one of the 52% (or a 52 percenter who didn’t vote for what the government says you voted for) then you might as well not exist as long as Westminster is concerned. Populism is a club. Only the right people get to be The People. Others are sick of having nothing to vote for. I didn’t go on the January march but I heard from others who did, and what I heard was a weary exasperation at having to be polite and diplomatic for so long – to opponents that will never reciprocate the same courtesy. P J O’Rourke said that ‘there’s always a tinge of self seeking in making sure things are fair. Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.’

It’s worth mentioning that when the crowd booed him at Hamilton, Mike Pence said ‘I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.’ He’s not wrong.

Young Capability Brown

February 20, 2017

My short story of this name is now published at fabulous new journal 50GS.