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Tuesday 28 May 2019

Review: John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism

I don’t want to read this book a second time so this will be a short review. From its title, I expected something more elegant but, in fact, it’s a rather ragged book, as if written in a hurry or with lots of cutting and pasting. Bits of important argument are jammed up against thumbnail biographies. There is a very large cast of characters, some of them new to me and who sound as if they are worth reading. I’ve never read Santayana or Schopenhauer and Gray makes me feel that I’ve missed out. That’s something worth taking away from any book.

It’s an interesting book the most general theme of which is the claim that modern (post eighteenth century) positivisms and humanisms, supposedly atheist or secular in character, repeatedly mirror and repeat key mistakes of Christianity, notably the ideas that there is progress in history and that human beings are perfectible. As a result, they end up less liberal and humane than they often set out to be.

For Gray, history is cyclical - things get better, then they get worse - and human beings are always going to let us down. If I had to sum up his views in two words, they would be Shit happens. Three words and it would be Shit happens. Whatever. 

In this context, Gray makes some interesting remarks about Joseph Conrad and the sea (pp 132 - 141). The sea does not know the idea of progress, nor does the sea care much for our prayers. One might add: American evangelical conmen (they are always men and they are always conning people) who see hurricane floods as God's wrath directed at gays or abortion (or whatever) sometimes find their own houses struck by lightning. It may be poetic justice, but it is not part of a Plan nor does it represent Progress.

Lots of potential lines of argument are opened up only to be fairly rapidly abandoned. Some nuances are missed: the French revolutionaries changed the calendar, in a root and branch way; the Bolsheviks also changed the calendar (page 81), but the Bolsheviks actually did no more than move from the inaccurate Julian [as in Caesar] calendar to the more accurate Gregorian [as in Pope Gregory] calendar used throughout  the bourgeois capitalist world, 31st January 1918 followed by 14th February 1918, a reform still in place because it works better. It never had any Millenarian credentials.

Monday 27 May 2019

Review: Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Click on image to enlarge

I still buy books in shops. I like to browse and I try to buy books I haven’t heard of - in contrast, if I go to Amazon it is to buy a book I already know about. At the end of my last visit to a shop (Oxford Blackwell’s) I left with six books, including this one.

As a result, I now have a new rule about buying in shops: avoid books with multiple product endorsements. This one has over thirty. I really don’t understand why.

There is always a danger in trying to write fictions based on current newspaper or TV preoccupations. The fiction can end up being read as simply a non-fiction contribution to the ongoing debate: Should we let young people who went off to join ISIS return to the UK when they change their minds or - more commonly - when ISIS loses the fight it has picked? I am going to guess that that is how some reviewers have read this book and some book groups have discussed it.

Novelists might claim that they concretise the question to individuals, make us see the human side of such questions, but insofar as those individuals are characters in a novel they are not real characters in life but imagined ones and imagined ones ought not (as a general rule) count for  much in real political debate. There are exceptions of which Scrooge is the all time stand-out case of a literary character you can legitimately deploy in real-world debate, treating the character's name as a shorthand for an argument or a gesture towards an area of common understanding. But from the fact that Miss Havisham does not lend itself so easily, one can begin to see that the traffic from novel to life is not so great as that between  life and the novel or would-be novel.

Imagined characters can be flat or rounded, caricatures or fleshed out, cardboard or something more solid. In my reading, Shamsie’s characters don’t quite make it across the line to become really interesting. Especially at the beginning, I was bored by their flatness. I began to say to myself “Potemkin village”.

They do improve but the characters then suffer the fate of being moved around in a plot which comes across as increasingly contrived and which ends up cynical: the ending seems designed for a crass Hollywood film even though the novelist gives her story cover as a re-working of Antigone. Again, I found myself saying “Potemkin village” which is for me partly a way of questioning whether the author’s heart is really in the work or whether the novel is something which has been knocked up for reasons which are not particularly heartfelt but more designed to impress - the Potemkin village is precisely a theatre scenery facade designed to impress the world but behind which there is nothing substantial.

The book has its moments - characters are given some good lines, including funny ones; the  bad guy, Home Secretary Karamat, ends up as a fairly multi-dimensional character; jihadi Parvaiz has an interest in the world of sound around him which is developed in a thoughtful way. But then again, when Kamsie seeks to shift gear from plain narration to heightened narration, the prose and the imagery becomes overwrought.

I would like to have Liked this book; it’s more fun writing positive than negative reviews - and a mistake made in a browse-purchase inevitably makes you think about the book you didn’t buy.

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.