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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

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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