The New Nasty Party

October 30, 2016

daverichLet’s try a thought experiment. A series of public controversies highlight racism against BAME people in the Conservative Party. A public inquiry is called, chaired by a well known conservative activist, who begins her investigations by joining the Conservative Party. The terms of reference make clear that the inquiry is not focused wholly on racism against black people, but into racism against black people ‘and other forms of racism’. The report while condemning use of epithets such as ‘nigger’ or ‘paki’ and acknowledging ‘unhappy incidents’ in the past (perhaps the Monday Club went too far… all that ‘Hang Mandela’ stuff… regrettable) maintains that the Conservative Party ‘is not overrun’ with racism against black people. At the launch of this report, a Black British Conservative MP is racially abused while the party leader stands by and does nothing. The activist chairing this inquiry is then awarded a peerage by the party leader, and later appointed Attorney General.

Imagine being a voter of BAME origin – or just someone concerned by racism – and watching all this. Would you feel that the inquiry report was credible and fair? Would you feel comfortable being involved in the Conservative Party: attending its meetings, delivering its leaflets, giving up energy and time to get it reelected? Would the Conservative Party feel like a safe place for you?

Would you vote for them again?

You have likely already guessed that I’m talking about the Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism. My analogy with anti-BAME racism isn’t an entry into the open barter of victimhood, because of course both forms of racism are poisonous nonsense. Rather it’s to illustrate a point made by trade unionist Dave Prentis – that Labour is now the new nasty party. Some people will deny there’s even a problem, but to list all the ‘unhappy incidents’ is way beyond the scope of a blog post… which is why Dave Rich has written an excellent book on the subject. (I would also recommend the Home Affairs select committee inquiry report into anti-Semitism in the UK, particularly chapter 6, which examines a range of anti-Semitic incidents within the Labour Party, and the failure to address these by either Chakrabarti or the party leadership.)

Smart people saw this coming, years before Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. Journalists like Nick Cohen, Greg Palast and Oliver Kamm, academics like Alan Johnson, and the Harry’s Place and other blog writers, warned of dark undercurrents on the left. They were told that anti-Semitism and other such craziness was a marginal issue, that one shouldn’t focus on tiny political sects, which could never have an impact on mainstream politics. Well, Mr Corbyn is a living, walking rebuttal of that critique. As despairing Eustonite Damian Counsell put it: the straw men are in charge now, and everything’s on fire.

How did we get here exactly? Rich explains that in the 1960s ‘some on the left gave up on the revolutionary potential of the Western working class and looked overseas for radical inspiration. By this way of thinking, the bloc of post-colonial states (and the national liberation movements that were fighting for decolonisation elsewhere) held the promise that the part of the world then known as the Third World might supplant the Western proletariat as the global engine for revolutionary change.’

Put simply? It’s easier, if you’re a first world academic or public sector leftist, to project revolutionary hope onto distant peoples like the Palestinians: insurrection by outsource or proxy, rather than trying to convince the working class and minorities in your own country… who might argue back. It’s a long story (try as he might, Rich can’t help but lose us sometimes in the left’s wilderness of mirrors) but you can trace the current tolerance for Islamism back to the ramblings of tenured postmodernists.

In this ideology, Israel isn’t a lifeboat state and multicultural democracy but an outpost of Western colonialism, Zionist not a national liberation movement but international conspiracy. (The more sinister reading, of course, flips this around so that Britain and America are just imperial outposts of Tel Aviv.) The Jewish people don’t need recognition as oppressed minority or noble victims, because they have protective imperial apparatus on which to draw. Rich has then SWP activist John Rees explain that: ‘There are some religions that are overwhelmingly held by the poor and excluded and there are some religions that back up the establishment, the rich and the powerful.’ Guess which ethnic minority falls on the wrong side of the line here.

Perhaps the saddest and most sordid development here is the weaponisation of the Holocaust against Jewish people. Rich discusses Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument over the play’s alleged anti-Semitism, everybody agreed on its main theme: that the psychological trauma of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism was playing out via Israeli violence and oppression towards the Palestinians.’ The Holocaust wasn’t a unique historical atrocity, but a schoolyard morality tale from which the Jews had, regrettably, failed to draw the correct lessons – a crappy piece of poetry, that activists recite in piping voices as they wag their fingers in the faces of Britain’s Jews.

Here’s a conundrum: how is it that professional activists, who have spent their lives campaigning against racism, ended up recycling racist tropes and targeting minorities? Dave Rich understands that ‘It is precisely because people on the left act as anti-fascists and anti-racists that they have such a problem recognising modern anti-Semitism.’ Activist sense of moral superiority defeats hope of self awareness: they are blinded by their own perceived virtue, and the left’s proud tradition of anti racism. The protests become shriller as this tradition recedes into memory, increasingly supplanted by ‘the left’s proud tradition of making life uncomfortable for Jews’. As Grossman writes in Life and Fate: ‘it was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality’.

‘Ever since I was a child, I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute,’ says the SS narrator in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. ‘And if this radicalism was the radicalism of the abyss, and if the absolute turned out to be absolute evil, one still had to follow them to the end, with eyes wide open – of that at least I was utterly convinced.’ Dave Rich ends his brilliant book with a hope that the British left can rebuild its relationship with British Jews. But I’m not so sure. To repeat a famous line, the abyss tends to stare back at you until you fall right into it.

I, Max Dunbar

October 27, 2016

idanielblake-jpgHere’s a question I’ve been pondering. Can you review a film you’ve never seen? Also: can you review a review of a film you’ve never seen? This is what I’m wondering as I read reviews of I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s film about people on benefits. Liberals tend to like the movie. Or I think they like it. Lynn Enright, for the Pool, writes that, ‘My whole face was wet with crying. I tried to be discreet, but my body was shuddering as sobs clattered through it. I allowed the film to simply do its work on me, reducing me to tears, stoking a great sadness and sense of naïve uselessness.’ Jack Monroe, in the Guardian, had a similar reaction: ‘The woman beside me, a stranger, squeezed my forearm as I choked on guttural, involuntary sobs. I’m sorry, I whispered, sloping out to punch a wall in the corridor and cry into the blinding, unaware streets of west London. I looked mad. I am mad.’

Would I see this film based on this testimony? No. Undergoing such paroxysm of emotion does not appeal to me. I would rather open another bottle of red and watch The Good Wife until around 2020. I also admit to my preconceptions about Ken Loach as a celebrity activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter and suspect that he’d rather lecture his audience than tell a story. I mean if you want to do a polemical welfare film then great, love it, but why not simply make a documentary, travel the UK talking to claimants, and cut out the fictional middleman? It would probably still win the Palme D’Or, probably still trigger outbursts of expressive emotion in liberal audiences – it would probably be a good piece of work.

As is, Loach’s film is not universally loved. Camilla Long tweeted (her review’s behind Times paywall) ‘Underwhelmed by I, Daniel Blake. Preachy and poorly made. A povvo safari for middle class people.’ Toby Young has a critical piece at the Mail – he’s not as witty as the fabulous Camilla Long so the article drags. Young complains that Ken Loach ‘has an absurdly romantic view of benefit claimants. Daniel is a model citizen. At no point do we see him drinking smoking, gambling, or even watching television.’ The point apparently being made is that Loach portrays claimants as being overly ‘deserving’ – when statistics prove, to Young’s satisfaction, that plenty of them are actually ‘undeserving’: he claims that a million people came off ESA prior to the introduction of work capacity tests and a further million were declared fit for work. Therefore: ‘the vast majority should never have been receiving disability benefit.’ QED!

I could argue this out for the rest of the day. I won’t do because I don’t want to get into the aggressive bitterness that characterises so much of the welfare debate (take a look at Long’s mentions if you don’t believe me) and nor do I want to spend hours going through the intricacies of UK benefits systems (you don’t want to know about applicable amounts and non-dependant charges and mandatory reconsiderations and discretionary housing payments, you really don’t). I also don’t want to repeat the horror stories about possible benefit related deaths (there are examples on the Ekklesia blog, which also challenges some of Young’s statistical claims).

I speak from experience here because for some years I worked in advocacy/public sector style jobs trying to help people out with their housing, benefits and many other issues. I loved this work, I was good at it, I would have done it for life, but unfortunately over the last six months my own mental health problems caught up with me. Eventually I just got tired of the panic attacks, the depressions, the sleeplessness and I walked. The day David Cameron resigned as prime minister, I was on the couch, my head buzzing with an increase of medication, and I felt nothing. It wasn’t a significant moment.

What pushed me over the edge? It certainly wasn’t the fault of my employers, good people who tried their best. I think the bureaucracy got me, that plus all the suffering I’ve seen, most of it completely avoidable. Result – unemployed and back in therapy. I have a birthday coming up. I’ll be 35. I’m not complaining, I’m a natural survivor, I am also lucky to have support from my partner and others, I am sure I will be back out there and earning again soon. However in my darker moments I think about all the people with long term mental health conditions I know, talented and disciplined men and women who ended up totally marginalised for life. Is that going to happen to me? I hope and believe not but who knows?

Welfare in the UK doesn’t work. Claimants aren’t winning – they get messed around with sanctions, crap placements and form filling, all of which takes time and energy away from the jobsearch. Frontline DWP staff aren’t winning – they have no discretion, they have to deal with claimants presenting complex life issues, and they take a lot of shit from claimants. The public is not winning, because more and more public money is wasted on job centres, Work Coaches, civil servants, the crap Universal Jobmatch system, tribunals, appeals, and the wider social costs of a dysfunctional welfare system. Even private contractors aren’t winning, because they incur reputational damage as focus for public dissatisfaction with the DWP. Even the politicians aren’t winning, because the economic crisis Brexit will bring makes political dreams of a pure free market Singapore state or noble workers united in physical labour look laughably naïve.

The Loach critique I enjoyed most was by Mark Littlewood, director of libertarian IEA thinktank. For Littlewood, Loach’s welfare state ‘does not get the money to where it is needed and is policed by people who are obsessed about their own status and what the rules are but not actually concerned about poverty.’ Littlewood praised the film as ‘an interesting analysis of the colossal failures of state bureaucracy and how that dehumanises both the providers of that service and the people on the receiving end.’ Maybe he was being contrarian, but I think Littlewood strikes a chord: UK welfare combines cruel Dickensian capitalism with all the sclerotic incompetence of the socialist command economy.

Benefits have been politicised to such an extent that we forget how simple it all is. In the best of all possible worlds, some people will be out of work. Either we help them out or we don’t. If we do want to help, let’s do it properly. If we can’t give people the training and health treatment they need, if we can’t make workplaces accessible to those with health problems and disabilities, if we can’t give frontline workers the power to make smart decisions, if we can’t give people autonomy and the control over their own lives, if we can’t help people to help themselves – then we might as well dismantle the welfare reform apparatus altogether and replace it with some kind of base income.

This is Vasily Grossman, writing about Chekhov:

Chekhov said, let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere.

He’s thinking about the Soviet Union. But I think we should remember Grossman’s words in free countries as well.

Step Nine

September 30, 2016

My story of this name is now available at Storgy.

Also, over at 3:AM, I reviewed Lauren Elkin’s marvellous Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

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.

You Ain’t No Nice Guy

August 21, 2016

Character matters in politics. The troubled Blair-Brown relationship had a huge impact on the Labour Party and the country. The Dave-Boris Eton rivalry made history in a way neither man expected.

You can play the counterfactual game forever. If Parnell had been more faithful (or at least more discreet) the Ireland Troubles and so many deaths could have been avoided. If Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated for love, Nazis might rule the world. And so on.

Jeremy Corbyn is a nice guy. A real prince. That is, until you ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer, or tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. You can see the change, in tone and demeanour, in his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murphy, and in the Vice documentary (particularly around 23 minutes in when he is questioned about Ken Livingstone’s unfortunate Hitler remarks). A light goes out of his eyes, and there is a sense that the mask has slipped.

Lots of Jeremy Corbyn supporters are nice people. I meet many. It seems that the worse Corbyn does in Westminster, the more people go to his rallies. Political analysts fall over themselves trying to explain Jeremy’s peculiar magnetism. I think Helen Lewis gets it right. People really do want a kinder gentler politics. People are sick of authoritarianism and inequality. There are good, smart, brave, struggling, creative people who are backing him. It’s to them that I’m speaking because I don’t want these people to be lost to politics forever.

Problem is, Jeremy Corbyn is not a nice guy.

I can prove it, and it’s easy to prove, because he’s a public figure, and so much is on record.

Nice guys do not invite Islamist fanatics into Parliament, claim they do this to ‘promote dialogue’ – and then ignore approaches from Israeli socialists.

Nice guys don’t take money from oppressive regimes, nor appear on their propaganda channels.

Nice guys don’t stand by while colleagues are anti-semitically abused, at the launch of an inquiry into anti-Semitic abuse, and particularly then don’t exchange friendly words with the abuser. And a nicer leader would have thought again about offering the inquiry chair a peerage, after the inquiry more or less declared a clean bill of health.

Nice guys don’t take their staff for granted, blank team members who ask hard questions, or leave people to sink or swim. Nice guys don’t appoint, then fire people without knowledge or consent, particularly not if they are being treated for cancer at the time.

Nice guys don’t use the shocking death of a colleague, as rhetorical weapon to inhibit dissent.

Nice guys don’t preside over a culture of threats, bullying and intimidation, and when challenged, simply tell people to ‘ignore it’.

This last point bears expanding.

‘Ignore it’ is good advice if a drunk shouts abuse at you in the street.

If you’re the leader of a political party, that is an increasingly toxic environment, particularly for women and Jewish people, then you shouldn’t ignore it. You should put a stop to it.

For all the talk of entryism, I suspect a lot of the aggro comes from hardcore and longterm CLP members, as much as the ‘£3 supporters’. What is amazing is that people treat this ugly discourse as if it has nothing to do with Jeremy. It’s like the joke Communist, hearing of some new corruption or atrocity, who complains: ‘What a disgrace – if only Comrade Stalin knew about this!’

Check out this piece. The victim blaming, the pettiness, the condescension. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. This is why good, serious people don’t want anything to do with Jeremy or his team.

I have respect and sympathy for women in the Labour Party struggling to change things. Many of them would make fine leaders of the opposition. Right now, they’d have more chance of landing on the moon.

Such problems are not unique to Labour or the left of course. My point is that politics has got appreciably nastier in my lifetime. And I think Jeremy has been one of the people making that happen.

Jeremy will probably win the leadership. He might even win a general election. But he doesn’t deserve to.

Darkness Physical: Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’

August 4, 2016

danvyletaThere’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’

Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.

In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.

It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’

Jumping the Train

August 3, 2016

Sarah has directed me to Anthony Clavane’s piece on Yorkshire and the EU, which is a rather confusing counsel of despair. He offers the standard sociological explanations for the out vote – decline of manufacturing, loss of community, fishing quotas etc – and places odd emphasis on 1960s/1970s cultural referents: Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave plus gritty classic Billy Liar. Clavane quotes poet Ian McMillan: ‘Kes is our creation myth. It’s our Moby-Dick, our Great Expectations. Billy Casper’s story reminds us that we are worth writing about. Here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen.’ I’ve never seen Billy Liar, but Clavane writes about the scene where ‘the Yorkshire anti-hero, played by a very young Tom Courtenay, jumps off the train before it sets off for the Big Smoke. He bottles it, turning down the chance of joining Liz – Julie Christie! – in the swinging capital. Liz slumps into her seat, clearly baffled. As with Kes, I have watched this movie many times and have always ended up screaming at Courtenay to stay on the train.’

Clavane sees in this scene the northman’s ‘penchant for self-sabotage’ and extrapolates this to the 2016 vote: ‘After virtually disappearing as an economic force, as a result of de-industrialisation, Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth policy and a post-crash squeeze on incomes, [Yorkshire] has now voted to remain invisible. This baffles me.’

Let me try and help him out. For a start, Clavane gives the impression that Yorkshire voted leave, end of story, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that: Leeds, Harrogate and York all backed remain, and places that voted out did so by narrow margins. If the vote had become a referendum on the open society, there were millions ready to defend it.

There’s little such positivity in Clavane’s piece. He talks about the Danny Boyle 2012 Olympic movie, he talks about EU regen funding. All well and good. But then he’s back to moaning about the electorate: ‘Sadly, God’s Own County decided to leave the train. To leave itself behind.’ Nothing on the myriad of voting intentions individuals had for leave: they could have fallen for outright campaign lies, could have serious and principled critiques of the EU, or simply be unemployed, filled with rage and confusion, living in a crap town, and unable to believe things could possibly get worse. (It’s interesting that the places that voted leave tend to be those where the problem is not too much capitalism and immigration but not enough: places with no jobs, nothing to do and populations that are ageing and declining.)

Clavane’s piece reeks of condescension – and more than that, it’s the condescension of nostalgia. Things were better back in the day, Clavane says: before ‘the destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining, communities’ which ‘almost put paid to a collectivist culture based on extended family life, warmth and neighbourliness.’ Clavane is smart enough to recognise the myth in this and that too often the reality of the lost kingdom was ‘stiflingly-claustrophobic Victorian neighbourhoods, pockmarked by overcrowding, poverty and bigotry.’ And yet, like the lost children of House Stark, Clavane still clings to the Winterfell dream, long after the castle has been sacked and burned. This is why Clavane only mentions older generation writers in his piece, and doesn’t seem to have asked any of the brilliant and innovative younger writers and publishers for their views.

The only hope is escape: and again, he complains that today’s Northern creatives just don’t have the imagination to find somewhere better. ‘Back in the socially-mobile 60s, [Billy Liar star Tom Courtenay] was in the vanguard of a post-war generation of northern working-class heroes who migrated to London – and were regarded as ambassadors of their communities.’

You can still make it in London: it’s a fantastic city albeit a hard city, and I know people who have gone down there and worked hard and made something of themselves. The impression I get though is that Clavane is good at identifying problems in Northern communities but can’t think of any answers apart from a) ask for money or b) leave town. It reminds me of the Publishing Association regional diversity project, which finds free London rooms for interns outside the capital. Again, love it, great idea, but why can’t we also make everything a little less centralised and support publishing in our own communities?

Put another way, sometimes it’s the right choice to jump the train and lose yourself in the wilderness.

We Go Around in the Night And Are Consumed by Fire

July 7, 2016

wegoaroundinthenightJules Grant’s debut is possibly the best title of the year. Well – best title of the year. It’s narrated by a lesbian drug dealer out for revenge after her best friend is gunned down in a Manchester nightclub. Gangster vengeance isn’t the most original plotline and as sometimes happens in multinarration vernacular, peoples and times sometimes merge into one another in a way that perhaps wasn’t intended.

Still, it’s such fun to read, and the detail is bang on. As Irvine Welsh’s Leith hustlers hated authority in all manifestations (‘On the issue of drugs, we wir classical liberals, vehemently opposed tae state intervention in any form) so does Grant’s protagonist Donna tells us with pride that her father never paid a penny in tax nor claimed a state benefit in his life. Donna’s crew is also way more organised than Mark Renton’s band of brothers: she changes her sim card daily, and thinks of ever ingenious ways to smuggle drugs past nightclub security (including synthesising MDMA into aerosol hairsprays and charging pillheads a fiver per blast). Her eventual escape is genuinely thrilling.

It’s refreshing to read a Manchester crime novel that’s not stuck in the Gooch-Doddington wars of the 2000s, and Grant writes with a ferocious love of the city that wins her story a place in great northern fiction. That title doesn’t make sense as related to the story – except it reads like a snatch of graffito you might see on a flyover or tunnel or highway or byway on a city evening, something you might remember.

When Two Tribes

July 6, 2016

We’re ever so nice to our pets

And we know not to work too hard

We’re inventive, accepting, eccentric, and yes

I suppose we’re a bit bizarre

– Professor Elemental, ‘I’m British’

The novelist Clare Allan has a piece in the Guardian on empathy and the EU vote. It doesn’t really go anywhere or make much sense but her para here strikes a chord:

If it’s hard in fiction to get inside another person’s point of view, it’s much harder in real life – and in politics it appears to be close to impossible. Yet, in the post-referendum turmoil when the country seems divided as never before – fractured down every conceivable line – it might be about the most essential skill we could all try to master.

In this tense and febrile summer Allan’s line rings true. It has seemed to me that we in the UK are separating into two tribes – young against old, cities against regions, class versus class, cosmopolitan versus the provincial – and the referendum has widened divisions that have been growing throughout my adult lifetime into one single, glaring fissure. Obviously we all have our opinions and allegiances and it shouldn’t matter. We’re all human, we’re all British – we’re not enemies. Everyone who follows politics has a phase of judging others by their political choices: in the ironic, Radio 4 kind of way. These days, as politics is ceded to the humourless hardcore activists, the irony casts a shadow.

I knew friends in tears and half-mad with worry over the result of Friday 24. I don’t know many Leave voters. I accept that there were good arguments for leave  – the best I think by Professor Alan Johnson, explained here on Harry’s Place – but even the best arguments are simply a list of the European Union’s failures and difficulties. It seems to me that in answer to these difficulties, and the frustrations of millions in forgotten towns, we’ve done the equivalent of what the plague did, in The Stand – unravelled the Gordian knot by simply slashing it down the middle.

And I think it matters that the official Leave campaigners did not argue their case with anything like the intelligence and rigour with which Professor Johnson argues his… particularly since the architects of these campaigns have decided for whatever reason that they don’t want to be a part of whatever comes next, and don’t want to be around when people start asking when the magic money tree is going to appear. There’s a very famous line from Gatsby that comes to mind:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Still, what’s the point in tears and worry and Change.org petitions. What’s done is done, hard reality. The point now is what kind of country do we want to be? There’s talk of a second Scottish referendum, Northern devolution, even serious people proposing that London should be allowed to set itself up as a separate entity and get back into the EU. I admire the people who organised the recent public rallies against post referendum racism and to celebrate diversity. In such a nasty political climate it takes personal courage to organise and participate in a pro diversity demonstration. But I fear the idea of London as a city state unto itself is very much part of the problem.

It’s sometimes said that you’re not allowed to talk about immigration. Wrong. Immigration is all we’ve talked about in British politics since the 1980s. It’s a particular talking point for many working people struggling with crap jobs, broken cities, shitty, damp-infested housing and little say in their futures. Governments, responding to their ‘legitimate concerns’ (but only about immigration) built detention centres, passed Immigration Acts, increased deportations. It’s a war of attrition with apparently no end to it, but who knows, maybe with more deportations, more detention centres, more Immigration Acts, maybe people will stop coming. And then we will find out what it is like to live in a country that people don’t want to come to. I wonder if this will be the paradise it seems?

Maybe Europe and the UK will collapse into competing federations like the ones in George Martin’s Westeros, or in David Hutchinson’s fantastic dystopia Europe in Autumn – entertaining worlds to read about, perhaps not so entertaining to live in. Or it could be that everything will be fine. I hope so, because what I really don’t want to see is an isolated and bitter country where everyone’s first priority is to leave. We’re not the centre of the world, and perhaps a little humility on the part of our leaders is required. We are one place in a dangerous world.

I think of the closing chapters of Ian McEwan’s flawed, but thoughtful novel Saturday, where neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is looking out onto the London night after an eventful day in 2003, and thinking:

A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter’s dawn, might have pondered the new century’s future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn’t yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor – an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace – would not believe you […]

But this may be an indulgence, an idle, overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.