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Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review: Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford University, sets out to research a breach in his Dutch family of origin. His father was the youngest child of the van Esses whose family included an adopted daughter who ought to have been Bart van Es’s aunt. But in 1988 she had been expelled from the family by Bart van Es’s grandmother, and Bart has had no contact with her. In 2014, the aunt is still alive, in Amsterdam, and Bart approaches her (by email) and goes to visit.

His aunt, Lien, was taken in by the van Esses during the second World War. Born in 1933, she was Jewish, handed over by her secular parents to non-Jewish foster carers when it seemed there was no other way for her to survive. The parents were right; both died in Auschwitz, victims of the very efficient Dutch operation to round up and deport its Jews, some of them able to trace their Dutch ancestry back to the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Lien spent the war being moved from safe house to safe house, though was lucky to spend two extended periods with just two but rather different families. At the end of the war, and with no credible Jewish relatives to claim her, she is asked to choose between the Social Democratic and warm van Esses and the Calvinist and cold van Laars. She chooses the van Esses, not least because she has been sexually abused by a van Laar uncle. In due course, the van Esses learn about this,

All goes as well as might be expected given her start in life, until one day in 1988, Bart van Es’s grandmother writes to her adopted daughter to sever all relationships with her. The van Es grandfather had died in 1979; other family members more or less fall into line with the exclusion. What has gone wrong?

Rather like Philippe Sands in East West Street (reviewed here on 5 February 2018), van Es combines the interviews with his surviving aunt with archival research and interviews with those still alive who knew the van Esses, the van Laars, and knew Lien. So instead of writing a family history, he ends up writing a history of the Netherlands from the 1930s and well past the end of World War Two. But he focusses on the war period, on the Dutch Jewish experience of the war, and on the lives of those non-Jews who became helpers. I found all this very interesting, partly I think because though we are used to reading about the German experience and to some extent the French one, the Netherlands in the Nazi period is not so familiar to English readers. His narratives of the complexities of Dutch society were all new to me.

I feel there is a strange lacuna in the book. Maybe I have missed something but I will proceed as if I haven't. It may be that it is a lacuna which cannot now be filled. In one sense van Es solves the puzzle of the family breach, and thereby achieves a work of reparation (there is a sub-plot of reparation of difficulties within his own family). But he does not examine the most obvious narrative which explains it, even though he provides all the evidence. Lien’s exclusion begins immediately after the death of her adoptive father in 1979. His widow - Lien’s adoptive mother - leaves Lien’s name off the printed death notification to which the names of mourning family members are, as convention dictates, appended.

In 1953, at the age of twenty, there was a moment, during a weekend visit home, when Lien's adoptive father made sexual advances to his adoptive daughter. She repulsed them and they were not further pressed; but from Lien’s point of view the damage was done. To me, an obvious narrative is the one which says that the mother somehow knew about this, or at least sensed it, and that the death of her husband freed her to act, making it clear that she blamed her adoptive daughter for whatever had happened. There was a strong motive to exclude Lien at that point, even though the breach was not fully finalised until ten years later. It’s possible that the father made a death bed confession, or that he confessed to someone else at an earlier point who then re-told the story, maybe much later.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Review: Julian Barnes, The Only Story

At the heart of a melancholy disposition is a divided heart. When experienced, things which are presented to us as opposites - courage and cowardice, calm and panic, love and hate - always turn out to be two faces of the same coin. A melancholy life is one lived in a state of fragile ambivalence.

Julian Barnes presents his love story as an instance of The Only Story, but then twins the first person novel of the first 150 pages with a fifty page third person narrative, as much essay as story, which reviews, rows back, turns on its head, much of what has gone before - at the same time still acknowledging it as the only story. It’s all very well done. Julian Barnes has an even, conversational style of writing; he breaks up the main narrative line with unobtrusive but effective anecdotes, tall stories, and jokes; he doesn’t blind the reader with science or Literature. I read this book with pleasure and quite quickly; it’s very good.

The heart of the matter is the love story which starts out with nineteen year old Paul and forty eight year old Susan, who leaves her husband for her lover, who in turn leaves her - ten or a dozen years later - when he can no longer endure her alcoholism.

We are less used to stories about younger men and older women than vice versa. The etiquette is different. When I once had occasion to google acceptable age differences, I found a mathematical consensus: it was acceptable for an older man to date a younger woman provided she [WA] was at least half his age [MA]  plus seven (WA > = [MA divided by 2] + 7). So a non-sexually discriminatory application of the etiquette would make Susan’s conduct unacceptable by a margin of twelve years: (48 divided by 2 = 24)  + 7 = 31. The result will suggest to some readers that the google consensus does not apply equally to older women and younger men, since even thirty one will appear eyebrow-raising to many readers. But it's academic anyway: he's not thirty one, he's nineteen; the local tennis club rightly expels both of them

I did in fact try to imagine that the novel might have been an inverted, coded version of the love story of an older man and a younger woman, and I am sure Barnes could write its twin, even though he has older Paul professing exaggerated distaste for “those men in their sixties and seventies who carried on behaving as if they were in their thirties”. Paul or the author protests too much at pages 203-204.

The recessional second half of this book reminded me of the one which forms the second half of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (reviewed here on  8 June 2017) and also an example of the only story. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Review: Sally Rooney, Normal People

This novel does get a lot better in its final seventy pages, but for a couple of hundred pages it is simply too normal and I did not want to turn those pages. It’s a regular, non-experimental novel, regular length, regular structure. It is dialogue-based between a small cast of main characters and the dialogue is fine, but not extraordinary. The characterisation is fine, but not exceptional. The plot is repetitive - that’s the point - though with  revelations introduced,  but perhaps not enough of them.

It’s a coming of age story or, more grandly, a Bildungsroman set in a contemporary Ireland from which the priests and the fascists have been eliminated and the currency is the €uro. It’s a novel which could only have  been written there in the fairly recent past; fifty years ago, it would have been banned even if conceivable and the author would have gone to live in a free country.

The core story of the on-off relationship between Marianne and Connell from school days to graduate studies is well developed, often delicately so, and only towards the end did I feel there were moments of authorial intrusion into their evolving consciousness - pages 198-99; p 221; p 239, for example. There are very few jokes and I suspect that the humour at page 235 where a man lays down the second half of a football match for his woman is unintentional.

For an older reader like me, there were a few puzzles. I get the bit about being interconnected via social media, but Rooney’s characters live in a world where gossip is the norm, and where people are very anxious about their current gossip-status. Is it really that bad? Is that what it’s like for normal people? Likewise, they cling to their groups, so that the school group lives on even after everyone has gone their separate ways. For some people, the rule is surely never to go back but rather to keep on moving away. In this novel, no one does that even if they travel and study in foreign countries.

The novel could be compared to Elif Batuman's The Idiot about which I wrote here on 24 June 2018, but whereas I did not finish Batuman's book, I did finish this one.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Review: John le Carre, The Little Drummer Girl

This is a very long book, 640 pages of reasonably spaced text in my edition. Published in 1983, the story is set within the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The setting remains much as it was, nothing much has changed there. The book does not have a dated feel at all, which is surprising given that it mobilises a great deal of then-current contextual information.

It is not the most popular of le Carre’s books and one can see why.  Though an enthusiast, my attention weakened during Chapters 6 and 7 which record an extraordinarily long and intense interrogation of Charlie, the main character, by agents of the Israeli security services. It is only much later in the book that the pace quickens and we are hooked into a Who will Survive and Who will Die narrative. I made it to the end. Like A Perfect Spy, it is a novel of great emotional intensity.

Google won’t tell me who it was who said that the same causes which make one person a Protestant on this side of the Pyrenees would have made them a Catholic on the other. I think it was Voltaire but maybe it was John Stuart Mill. But le Carre’s novel could be thought of as a prolonged, and profound, exploration of that theme. He finds a way of showing how one could believe at the same time both in Israel and the Palestinian cause. Know enough, learn enough, and you will find your loyalties totally divided. Only ignorance or accident of birth on this side or the other side of the Golan Heights could lead you to plump uncritically one way or the other.

He achieves this result by inserting his main character into both sides of the conflict. She is recruited into the Israeli cause, as their agent, partly on the basis of her public espousal of the Palestinian cause. This makes it possible for her to act credibly when she is inserted deep into a Palestinian terrorist group, but that then also puts her in tension with her sponsors and her agent-runner, Israeli Joseph who doubles as Palestinian Michel until both are totally confused in Charlie’s mind. All this is very well done, in detail and in depth. And I read the conclusion of the book as at best ambiguous and more likely as an expression of the view that, joker or thief, there is no way out of here. That’s the legacy of  what is now a long century of history.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Review: Tiffany Watt Smith, Schadenfreude

I bought this book on the same visit to Waterstones as yielded the previous book reviewed here, Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari. I was looking for short books that would take a few hours to read, having just failed to get stuck into two very long books which would each take twenty plus hours of my time. 

But their brevity aside, the two books are chalk and cheese. If McGarvey’s is a working-class book, this is a middle-class one - very much so. McGarvey tells us about his sharp-edged anger at the world; Watt Smith about her sharp-elbowed envy and jealousy. It’s hard not to imagine her as someone who would have voted for David Cameron.

The book aims to be lightweight and one can imagine a great deal of it emerging from determined googling, examples and anecdotes - many of them amusing - piled up fairly haphazardly. Uncertainty about its intended audience gives us “The Genealogy of Morals written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche” (page 108), a bit odd in the context of a book which has a title in German, the English sub-title providing the translation. 

More surprisingly, the book is the product of a Wellcome Trust research fellowship attached to the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London - that bit of the blurb, read in the bookshop, made me expect some Foucault but he nowhere appears and Watt Smith looks to American psychologists for inspiration. Those psychologists though themselves mostly university academics also aim to be popular, the sort of academics who now make use of the fact that the internet is made of tubes (page 113 for the Schadenfreude story).

The theme of the book is the joy we take in the misfortune of others. The author suggests that the emotion is natural, universal and often desirable despite its poor reputation. The concept of Schadenfreude has acquired fresh relevance in a world where social media allows many millions of people unrestricted access to express their uninhibited joy at the misfortunes of others, and I can see that there is scope to take that fact seriously and to seek to understand it, however distasteful the work may be. Fortunately for Watt Smith, she finds her Twitter feeds and such like exciting. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Review: Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari

This is a good book which held my attention right through though some of it seems cut and paste from what could have been free-standing articles. But I think it is about something more than what it says it is about, and I think there is a fault line in the characterisations.

In any stratified class society which nonetheless permits some social mobility, then the more differentiated the strata the more anyone who is mobile (up or down) will find that they become strangers to the class they have left and never quite belong in the class where they have arrived. Especially in the last two or three chapters, Darren McGarvey is beginning to live with those consequences of his upward mobility, culminating for the moment in becoming an Orwell Prize- winning author and published by a London house which I guess insisted that though in Glasgow it might be all right to spell it  fucking down here it is spelt f**king. Welcome to the world of middle class values, here comfortably hitched to the values of American-dominated corporate publishing.

But the body of the book is concerned with what it is like to begin life at the bottom and, in many cases, to remain there. For Marx, the bottom stratum of society comprised the lumpenproletariat easily mobilised by the forces of reaction and less easily by progressive social forces. Marx had nothing good to say about the lumpen.  Others have called this stratum the dregs of society and beyond ordinary political help. Others again have called it the rough working-class distinguished from a respectable working class which, at a minimum, gets out of bed each day to clock in on time and doesn’t spend all its wages on drink. But since the Thatcher years in the UK which created what we now call the Benefits Culture, the rough working-class has more or less ceased to work, even casually or intermittently.

McGarvey’s background is at least half rough or lumpen, his mother a violent alcoholic and worse, dead from her addictions at the age of thirty six. He writes movingly about this. But he is coy about his father, who is never (unless I missed something) assigned an occupation but who is acknowledged as a source of encouragement - his father does not pooh-pooh Darren’s dream of becoming a writer, but actively encourages it. So I am going to guess that McGarvey’s father is the respectable half of a dysfunctional pairing. This is important. 

Many years ago, for example, Colin Lacey in Hightown Grammar decided to ask the question, Why do some working-class boys succeed? rather than the question Why do most working-class boys fail? He discovered that in most cases of success you could identify a mentor or a sponsor who encouraged and supported at least some kinds of ambition. A typical case would be that of a mother who had married down socially, probably regretted it, and tried to redeem the situation by encouraging a son to push back upwards. D H Lawrence had described the scenario already in Sons and Lovers.

In the body of the book, McGarvey’s use of the term underclass obscures the important distinction between rough and respectable and the dynamic which exists between these groups who may often live cheek by jowl. The voice of respectability is heard very clearly at page 175 when McGarvey quotes the very, very left-wing Scottish militant, Jimmy Reid, addressing shipyard workers occupying their place of work back in 1971 and telling them that there will be no hooliganism…no vandalism. Yes, Sir!

Anyone with any sense acknowledges that not all social problems admit of a political solution. True, some problems are much less acute in societies which are more economically equal than the UK or the USA. This is the lesson of all the academic studies of inequality - Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level most notably. But for the problems of dysfunctional families and the cycle of deprivation which children born into them experience, there is no quick fix from even the most benign nanny state. As McGarvey repeatedly emphasises, there are problems for which you have to accept some responsibility yourself and deal with them as best you can.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The White Review and The Lottery


My local convenience store is always busy, the queue for the check-out snaking back into the aisles. It’s a shop for poor people, of whom there are many in English south coast seaside towns. I don’t stand out very much: I’m old, male, pale and overweight. I don’t have a posh accent though even when I dress down my clothes are better than the standard cotton- and wool-free issue in a queue where you will also search in vain for colours which aren’t drab or, in the case of the trainers, white. Even the young migrants and refugees seem to get the message; they dress pretty much the same though clear skin and groomed hair does often mark them out. As does the fact that they are rarely overweight.

I can see from my position in the queue that poor people buy white bread, frozen pizzas, alcohol and tobacco. On the last two, they take a considerable tax hit. They take another hit when they buy the lottery tickets and scratch cards prominently displayed, another tax on the poor to provide a pot called Lottery Funding..


A recent business trip found me in one of those cupboards which pass as London hotel rooms, this one located conveniently for Euston station. I had a few hours to myself and wandered down through Bloomsbury and into the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, opposite the British Museum, which is the shopfront of the Craft Potters Association. I’ve liked studio pottery since the 1970s when I lived in Devon and every village had a craft potter. It was a cheap outing to visit the Free Admission studios and come away with a modestly priced pot. Nowadays, I go to the Ceramics Centre when I need a nice present for someone and, sometimes, just to treat myself. I checked and the Centre does not seem to attract Lottery funding; it’s just the national retail outlet for serious, self-employed studio potters with a prestige location opposite the British Museum.

Then I went round the corner to the London Review of Books shop where I like to browse and have tea and cake in the small cafĂ© which is really too cramped to be a pleasure  - London rents again and a bit of a challenge for the overweight. The clientele is very well-dressed here, stylishly so, and they are thin. 

I don’t hold it against the shop that when a couple of years ago I walked in proferring Sale or Return copies of my then-new book, The Best I Can Do (2016), the nice young man at the counter after handling a copy very gingerly, and without opening it, declared “It’s not really our sort of thing”:

Click on Image to Magnify

I had failed to realise that things have changed etc since the 1970s when I walked my first book into London bookshops and they happily relieved me of stacks of them: 


Browsing in the shop, I saw a copy of The White Review which looked rather nice at £12.99 for a couple of hundred pages and I thought I would be interested to read the opening round table discussion “On Universities”, a subject to which I return from time to time even though twenty years ago I quit universities for self-employment. I’d already come across a couple of favourable references to the magazine so I bought it, something to read later in my hotel cupboard.

On the back flap, the magazine claims to be a “space for a new generation to express itself, unconstrained by form, subject or genre” though not, of course, by generation. Then I went to the page of editorial details and found the little icon which tells you that it is Lottery funded through Arts Council England. It’s something the poor are paying for.


I headed to the Roundtable discussion “On Universities” What will the new generation have to say about them, I wonder?

Around the table, four people are talking about pensions. They are excited because recently they have been on strike, actually handing out leaflets on picket lines. About pensions. Their pensions. Their employers plan to replace what are called Final Salary or Defined Benefit pensions with pensions which are a function of contributions made but where the final value of the pension cannot be guaranteed. This has led them to strike.

Now I cannot think of a case of a teachers’ union or a university teachers’ union in this country striking over anything other than money. It’s one reason why I think that teachers and lecturers are a fairly materialistic bunch, which is not much more than to say that they generally  have middle class values focused around things like home ownership, schools which will give their children a leg up in the world, foreign holidays, lottery-subsidised theatre tickets - and pensions. 

Many years ago as a university lecturer with strong leftist views I would not join the Association of University Teachers. To my way of thinking, I had a pleasant, taxpayer-funded job which had no great social utility but which left me with a lot of time to read, think and write – things which interested me, as did teaching though I rather doubted that anyone benefited much from that. To have joined an organisation dedicated to improving my own pay, to strike even - well, I would have needed a much stronger sense of entitlement than I possessed.

I have to declare that, despite this, I am now in receipt of a Defined Benefit pension, paid by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and have been a beneficiary since I took early retirement at fifty. Equally, I can honestly say that I had no idea before that age of just how privileged I was. Thinking about my pension was not something I did. Now it seems that the  new generation thinks about pensions from the very beginning, and feels they have to.

I want to tell two stories.

There were lots of university jobs available in the 1960s and 1970s because of university expansion. Salaries were modest but I think there were plenty of applicants. I was sitting in a circle one day and a political comrade was telling us that he had just been interviewed for a job at LSE. He was scornful. They kept going on about pensions, he said. They even told me that there was a widow’s pension. Pause. I told them I didn’t yet have a widow in prospect. Laughter.

Between graduation aged 21 in 1968 and a university lecturer appointment in 1978 which became long term, I did one thing and then I did another. They did not add up to a career path. I had to go back to a Record of Work to complete the following chronological list of things done: two years as Ph D student in Philosophy, a grant supplemented by some teaching; one year as university temporary lecturer in philosophy; one year in Paris on a Leverhulme European studentship; one year as a Liberal Studies lecturer in a technical college; a few months as a British Film Institute research fellow in television studies; a few months being ill (hepatitis); working  as a waiter for a summer; one year teaching history and social studies in a comprehensive school; nine months as a youth and community worker; nine months writing and completing an M Phil dissertation, partly funded by part-time university teaching of political theory; a year as a senior lecturer in Communication Studies - the salary from that when added to my partner's big enough to secure us our first mortgage, aged thirty.

In this period, I also edited one book (Counter Course, Penguin Education 1972), wrote another (the Language, Truth and Politics of 1975) and published a small research monograph (Television and the February 1974 General Election).

One of the generally recognised positive features of not settling straight into a defined career path (and lots of people didn’t), was that every time you changed job you could TAKE OUT YOUR PENSION, all that money they had taken off you against your will and which you could now reclaim and use to pay down debts or go on holiday. It was wonderful. It’s only now, coming across the thinking of the new generation in The White Review, that I realise I should have been thinking of myself as belonging to some Precariat, not knowing where my next meal was coming from. I should have been afraid for the future and angry in the present. I am not quite convinced. I was young and making the most of it and I hope there are people still doing that. But let’s briefly look at what else the Roundtable can come up with “On Universities”.


The discussion goes off into a series of complaints about the marketization of higher education, the casualisation of labour, students as consumers, failures of diversity and equality policies, and quite a lot about sexual harassment. There is nothing about the curriculum, where maybe they think Problem Solved, and really only Beaumont tries to integrate the discussion into something resembling a theoretical discourse (in Beaumont’s case, broadly Marxist). Yaqoob takes the role of hands-on union representative.

I found the content unremarkable and conformist, except in interesting remarks made by Capildeo. Capildeo challenges the religious language of “vocation” but also says about sexual harassment that, in contrast to some other approaches,“a straight down the line witch hunt would be a progressive move”. In a context where Twitter is spoken of in positive terms - something quite new to me - (“It’s that thing of following the right people” - Charman), I hope that Capildeo is simply being provocative.

Two academics from Cambridge (Charman and Yaqoob), one from UCL (Beaumont), and Capildeo from Leeds didn’t come across overall as a strong university challenge team. Disappointing. I think the poor deserve better for their lottery tax.