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Monday, 13 May 2019

Review: Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England?

This is a readable, accessible book which roams much wider than its title. It provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject of land ownership. In the first half I felt I was being reminded of things I already knew from Private Eye and The Financial Times but as the book progressed I learnt many new things - for example, about English land reform movements in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, including the role of the National Trust,  and then about more recent and extensive actual land reforms in Scotland which the author thinks point the way for reforms in England.

Shrubsole correctly makes the case for believing that land is different from other goods. It is finite and we all depend on it in many ways. For this and other reasons, it’s important to know who owns it and for that knowledge to be in the public domain even though it deprives owners of a kind of privacy which we might accept for other goods - no one, for example, is arguing for a register of all oil paintings in private homes, something which would have the great disadvantage of being of great value to burglars. Land can’t be carted away - at least, not by an averagely equipped burglar. 

Everyone’s dependence on land for food, water, housing, recreation and so on, also creates a very strong case for its ownership and use to be publicly regulated even where land is not publicly owned.

Shrubsole focusses mainly on rural land and in that context makes much of the historical importance of common land - the commons of the past - and the importance now of publicly accessible land, land made accessible by “right to roam” legislation. He emphasises just how much land is privately owned and how few people own it.

 I felt that he would benefit from an over-arching concept of public space which gets used by theorists of the city to think about pavements, parks, and so on, and the way they are separate from though sometimes encroached upon by private spaces. Using the concept of public space, one can think not only about rights but also responsibilities. What we call public space is also the space where anti-social behaviour occurs, which is an important reason why so much of it is degraded; it’s not just the consequence of austerity budgets but of human disregard - littering the most obvious example. 

In the countryside context, Shrubsole only once mentions dogs (page 252). But one of the harsh realities of contemporary public space is that dog owners regard it as provided primarily for the benefit of an ever expanding number of dogs. The amount of public space from which dogs are excluded is pitifully small: think only of those small, fenced off and overcrowded children’s playgrounds surrounded by acres of land more or less monopolised by dog walkers. Walkers in the open countryside have to contend fairly constantly  with exciteable off-the leash dogs.

Shrubsole documents the power of the land-owning lobby, exercised over the centuries to secure more land for itself (the enclosures), and later on, tax breaks and subsidies. Any programme of reform faces a thanklessl task, not least in an England now with a much weakened administrative and political system in which voters have ceased to give governments the kind of thumping majorities which allow them to face down lobbyists and donors. Shrubsole tries to point a path to a better future. I fear it will be an uphill struggle, not helped by the fact that younger people, who are supposed to be more environmentally conscious, do not vote with anything like the enthusiasm of the elderly.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Review: Tara Westover, Educated

IN a footnote to his study of the Memoirs of Judge Schreber, Freud remarks that Schreber puts the most important things into footnotes. That may be true of this book and, especially, the final two pages blandly titled “A Note on the Text” (pages 383 - 384). It is in the notes and these two pages that Tara Westover most obviously agonises over the problem of the veracity of her memories and those of others, and it is in understanding that agonising that we have one route into the heart of her story.

Many years ago, R D Laing identified it as a core problem for children brought up in seriously disturbed but closed family groupings, including ones which were religiously fundamentalist in character, that they struggle to stand by what they know to be true; that they are easily cowed and persuaded (by a sense of guilt, a sense of loyalty, and often enough, by extreme fear) to accept as true what they know to be false.

Tara Westover’s insistence on getting things straight, as if she is a historian of her own life and even at times a pedantic one, is an index of her struggle to hold on to her mind in a context where those she loves demand that she denies the truth of her perceptions and back up the demand with the full panoply of threats available to them - exclusion from the family, damnation by God, and - more crudely - the prospect of a violent death.

Westover’s perceptions are crafted into an extraordinary story - I am happy to agree with a reviewer who calls the narrative “jaw-dropping” - told through a series of tightly structured, dramatic vignettes.

I don’t want to do a plot summary because that will foreground the sheer exoticism of her story which takes her from mountainside, survivalist “End of Days” Mormonism to Trinity College, Cambridge. In this respect, I think a reviewer in Vogue got it right:

Despite the singularity of her childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?

As for the singularity of Westover’s childhood - no birth certificate, no schooling, no doctors, no seatbelts, no car insurance, no health and safety in the scrapyard, no handwashing after using the toilet, guns cached - it does of course leave me thinking that we need to talk about America, a country badly in need of more Feds and more socialists to deal with its endless outback of lawless Aryan supremacists, Mormon survivalists, abusive cults, and trailer park dysfunction, not to mention …

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Review: Isabel Hardman, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians

This is a hand-wringing book by an Establishment political journalist about Establishment politicians and Parliament. It’s readable, full of interesting anecdotes, and good in the parts which emphasise Parliament’s failures at what is supposed to be its job, legislation. The detail assembled there is worth having. The book pairs with the more academic work The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe,  reviewed on this Blog on 11 June 2013 and mentioned several times by Isabel Hardman.

One book can’t do everything but three things are missing which bear on Hardman’s case.

First, the history. We may think of Parliament as sovereign in the UK, but technically it is the Queen in Parliament who is sovereign. That technicality is explained by a history in which Parliament developed as a creature of the Executive,  that Executive finally formalised as a Cabinet which constitutes Her Majesty’s Government, its head appointed (and still appointed) by the Sovereign. So Parliament developed as second fiddle, though by the 19th century it came to acquire more power than ever did the state Dumas of Imperial Russia. Its power expanded with the expansion of the franchise, but its members remained subject to Executive manipulation, the carrots of jobs and bribes, and later the sticks wielded by  government Whips. Theresa May’s billion pound bung for the votes of ten DUP MPs did not come out of nowhere. It was an ordinary exercise of Executive prerogative.

Second, the voters. Those who argued for the expansion of the franchise through the 19th and early 20th centuries twinned their case with a demand for the expansion of popular education so that voters would be prepared for their tasks as citizens. But the British educational system never got into the business of educating citizens; it stuck with God, the Queen and school uniform and still does. As social media have now made clear, if tabloid newspapers had not already done so, the result is that many “citizens” are not really up to their job.

Third, there is the long term decline of Great Britain, a decline marked by periodic adventures - Suez, Iraq, Brexit - which each time leave it a weakened power. The decline has now gone so far that one can reasonably speak of a failing state - Hardman instances several areas (for example housing and social care) where the state has ceased to cope with the demands created by demographic and economic change. 

In failing states, politics does not attract all the talents; it attracts the crooks and the also-rans. When it comes to it those are people who can’t deliver. The Conservative Party likes to tell the story of Harold Macmillan who as Housing Minister in the early 1950s got considerably more houses built than his (talented) Labour predecessor - much or most of it, social housing. He did it with the benefit of what was still very much a war time command economy, it’s true, but he did it without benefit of computers or social media. Nowadays, you can be put in charge of Brexit, as was David Davis, and simply not turn up to work, throw in the towel - and still get invited onto state TV as if you might have something worth hearing about. Put in charge of negotiating trade deals, as was Liam Fox, you can end up able to show the Faeroes and Fiji and not much else; but you keep your job and continue to appear on state TV.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Booklaunch London

Click  on Image to Enlarge

In the April 2019 issue of Booklaunch you can read a long extract from my Prose Improvements where I discuss Milan Kundera's Art of the Novel.

The website is at 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Review: Annie Ernaux, The Years

France was (and in many respects, still is) a nation of shopkeepers, and Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 into that very large part of the French petite bourgeoisie which is separated by only a cigarette paper from the paysans and ouvriers. Her parents ran a café and épicerie, her early childhood marked by the everyday wartime and early post-war privations common to nearly everyone. But she is clever and achieves her own upward mobility into the teaching profession and, of course, eventually becomes a famous writer.

This is her autobiography published in 2008 and covering the whole period of her life until then. But the word “I” never occurs, except in occasional extracts from diaries. She writes in the third person (“She”) when directly referencing herself, and at other times uses a generic “We”, and less frequently, a “They”. The reader has surely noticed this before Ernaux draws attention to it and its motivation in the closing pages (page 225 in the English edition). But the English reader will not notice that the translator renders the author’s “On” and “Nous” fairly consistently as “We”, occasionally as "People" except at page 225 where the translated author mentions that she has been using both One and We.

 There is a certain amount of slippage, and sometimes I felt that the “We” of this English version sounded unavoidably like the English Royal We, the “We” which Her Majesty uses when talking about herself. This is unfortunate:

And we [translating Nous ], on the threshold of the 1980s, when we would enter our fortieth year, were suffused with a weary sweetness that came of accomplished tradition, and gazed around the table of faces, dark against the light. For a moment, we were struck by the strangeness…” (p 130)

As I read it, this “We” is rather like defensive irony, the voice we often slip into when talking, for example, about the embarrassments of adolescence. Its function is to permit us to talk about things which would otherwise remain unspoken. I think this is how  "She" and“We"  and "They" all function for Ernaux. Specifically, it allows her to write extensively about her own sexuality - the fumblings, the awakenings, the dissatisfactions,the experiments - in a context where she has children and other people close to her who are still alive. The distance of "She" and "We" or "They" provides protective cover; “I” would be too exposing. There is a topic there for a seminar discussion.

But “We” and "They" and "One" are also used because Ernaux is trying to write not only her own story but the history of her times, so that the autobiography is also a biography of a generation:

There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we”, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before (page 225)

All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time….By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History (page 224; see also 169 - 170)

That her experiences are typical of those of a larger group she establishes by means of one primary device, basically the device of assembling proper names. For each  year or decade, she recalls and writes out (often as not much more than lists), the names of currently popular songs, singers, films, TV programmes, household products, shop names, politicians of the moment,  faits divers (murders, crashes, suicides), slogans, catch-phrases and slang. Thus to evoke the varied destinations of the soixante-huitards after the events of 1968, she writes:

            Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm.They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. (page 108)

It continues with five more namings and the general stylistic choice of enumeration is sustained for over two hundred pages. I think it poses some problems. Clearly, The Years is not just a work of remembering. People just don’t remember as much as Ernaux does, at least without a prompt. Nowadays, the prompt is provided by the internet. You can simply Google to have your memory jolted: what did we wear in, say, 1970; what films came out that year; what were the slogans on the banners; what word did we most often use to express approval; what were the amusing cinema advertisements [ I have prompted myself there: at the cinema, there was the very sexy advertising for Dim collants, with sing-along music. The ads. were much talked about and it was said that Godard had directed them …].

You can surf for hours and you will be richly rewarded. Ernaux says as much:

The web was the royal road to remembrance of things past [ a double allusion here, to Freud and to Proust ]. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present (pages 209 - 210)

I think this identifies a real problem. The list which results from googling may generate a general nostalgia and often (Ernaux must surely hope) an “Oh, I remember that”. But the feelings evoked are essentially diffuse; they have not been focussed by a single, experiencing self; they were often enough given to you in the infinite present of the computer screen rather than by some inner searching and recovery. So though the lists evoke passing nostalgic thoughts, surely different for each reader, they do not really disturb, and there are simply too many of them. They are not like Proust’s entirely idiosyncratic experience of dipping his biscuit which nonetheless works because it can do duty for something different for each reader. Another seminar.

It’s true, there is a major thread of Ernaux’s book which is about the experiencing self, and which does disturb. That is the thread about her sexuality and I think it is the strongest part of the work, strongly expressed. It is also the part of the work which fitted into my own pre-conception that post-war France was simply Vichy but without the Germans: conservative, Catholic, claustrophobic without liberty or equality, neighbours primed to denounce you.

There is a third possible seminar besides those devoted to distancing pronouns and the lists. The Years ticked off in decades do not on their own provide a strong narrative structure. Of course, there is growing up, settling down, starting again, growing old. But partly because of the wider aspiration to write a collective biography, it doesn’t quite have the force one would get (and expect to get) from an "I" focussed Bildungsroman. Only in the last few pages does Ernaux take centre stage, very effectively so.
I bought French and English versions at the same time and decided to read the English one since I thought that in the French there would be too much temporary vocabulary from the past which needed looking up. I consulted the French when I was puzzled or disliked something in the English. I do think that translating “C’est à dire” as “i.e.” is unsatisfactory (page 158) and unnecessary when what is replaced is a colon which could have been retained (page 219). I.e.  just does not belong in literary prose. And I've not come across before the use of "abolishment" for "abolition" (page 136 and elsewhere)

And I think the following translation has to be either a howler or a typo:

A la fierté de ce que l’on fait se substituait celle de ce que l’on est, femme, gay, provincial, juif, arabe, etc. (page 205)

Pride in what one did was substituted for pride in what one was - female, gay, provincial, Jewish, Arab, etc. (page 184)

In the translation “for” should read “by”, or alternatively, “In place of pride in what one did was substituted pride in what one is …”: identity politics is what comes after, not what comes before.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Review: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

The English as a people must now be reckoned mentally incapacitated from a surfeit of royal babies and costume dramas. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books which like those of Jane Austen is now only read because it is the script for wide and small screen country house productions. By the end of reading it you will know a lot about what everyone wears and about interior furnishings; the script is very detailed and seeing it on screen requires less effort.  Over the years, since its publication in 1945, it's been a good money spinner.

Brideshead Revisited is also a book about a world where everyone thinks it possible to have their cake and eat it, and thus fits neatly with our contemporary English incapacitation. They may not always succeed, but much of the time they do not suffer (or suffer very much) for things which would be fatal to the little people on whose labour their lives depend. There will always be someone around to get you out of a scrape, and if money is needed to lubricate the extrication or soften the blow, well, there is an awful lot of it about. As for religion, it’s Roman Catholicism and that is particularly accommodating, providing both terrifying rhetoric and obliging side-deals. It is against divorce, but if you have the necessary, an annulment can be arranged. Adultery merely requires that appearances be kept up. As for homosexuality, well, you simply condemn and turn a blind eye, or condemn and join in.  When it comes to writing a fiction based on the fact, it’s very simple. You let the reader know what you are on about but you don’t do anything as tasteless as dwell on the fact. (I discover that this has provided scope for critical debates about whether the book is “about” a homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Charles, thus casting it into the dire category of books written in code. I found myself impatient with the book because it was so obviously coded, and not only because of the censorship priorities applied by London publishers back in 1945 but probably also because coyness may have been the only way the author could handle his material. The London censorship priorities are, of course, different now).

There is an extravagant death bed scene, which according to taste is either very well done or simply de trop. From a structural point of view, the interesting thing is that Waugh selects for the death bed not one of his major characters but the relatively minor pater familias. The mother of the family, who plays a much larger part in the narrative, is despatched with no mise en scène. The novel thus ends on a fittingly patriarchal note, the death of the father which re-arranges everyone’s future and re-establishes  the order of things. And the priest is very happy with his three pounds, the price of sending pater to heaven after a lifetime of having his cake and eating it (page 318).

There are some passages which I found funny, and some very well-written. The book was composed and published in England at a time (1944 - 1945) when the little people were preparing  to install, by a landslide of unprecedented scale, a socialist government. It was written, as they say, against the current and, of course, deliberately so. Nothing much has changed there when you think of the royal babies and the perennial costume dramas.

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.