Monday, 23 March 2020
Gossip is a dish best served hot. True, it can sometimes be re-heated: how else explain the continuing fascination of literary London with tales of century-old Bloomsbury gropes and fumbles? Those fascinated would be horrified to think that such things might happen today, still less written about. But the fastidious are numerous, enough of them to ensure that in London publishing circles it is believed that the only really safe sex is that between dead posh people.
In New York there is also a long literary tradition of re-heated gossip of which Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) might stand as an example: thirty years on from your time at Vassar College you dish the dirt on who said what, who did what, back then and for sure you have a best-seller on your hands. Truman Capote also achieved best-sellerdom with his 1975 Esquire magazine contribution “La Côte Basque 1965” which touted rather too recent gossip about very very rich people - the metropolitan elite with knobs on - thus rather unsurprisingly causing its author no end of a problem. But the piece paid the rent and much more besides.
Swan Song re-heats the 1975 story and the furore it provoked and - since everyone involved is now very dead - the novel has received universal praise, the publishers able to splash plaudits over front and back covers and five garish inner pages of my edition: “Remarkable” (Woman & Home) “Spellbinding” (Sunday Express - An English newspaper for dead people), and so on. So much credit for re-telling so much past gossip. You can understand why there are authors out there ready to go the moment Prince Philip actually dies.
The author writes well, constructs scenes effectively, varies the style of telling, and so on. It’s just a pity that it’s all in the cause of the idle rich. It’s not as if it’s Brett Easton Ellis: one learns a great deal about what people ate, drank, wore, and how they protected their skin from the sun but it doesn’t feel in the least bit satirical. I got to page 131 and then looked and saw that it would go on until page 467. I called it a day.
The novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction - which is why I bought it - but got no farther; perhaps someone suggested that there is really no good reason to go on feeding our conformist enthusiasm for celebrity gossip even when it is got up safely as Literature.
Saturday, 21 March 2020
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A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....
Hardback, 144 pages. ISBN 9780993587962 £15 post free from the publisher and author. Online bank payment only - no cheques at this time :) But you can ask for a signed copy....
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Regular UK stockists include Amazon* and Waterstones
* Depending on how you access Amazon, it is currently showing only Kindle editions unless you click to All Formats. This book is not available as Kindle.
Regular UK stockists include Amazon* and Waterstones
* Depending on how you access Amazon, it is currently showing only Kindle editions unless you click to All Formats. This book is not available as Kindle.
Friday, 20 March 2020
In Ruritania, there are many ranks, orders, and medals. An elderly gentleman commonly known as Prince Charles but whose full title is sentences longer than that is often photographed wearing a chestful of ornaments, the birthday badges which his Mum has given him over the many years of a very extended childhood. But even those in the lower orders of society can aspire to their own Ruritanian badge. Bernardine Evaristo has one; she is a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - remarkably, this Order does not have to wait for others to award it a ***** rating; it is already Most Excellent in its own eyes.
Evaristo’s MBE may explain much about Girl, Woman, Other. It’s not so much a novel as a set of thumbnails for a very long running TV soap attuned to well-established UK (social realist) and US (schmalz) markets. For the social realists, there is thumb-nailed poverty, rape and domestic violence. Etcetera. For the popcorn crowd, Bad characters like the Evil Nzinga are disposed of but the Good (Domnique & Laverne pages 111-112; Bummi & Kofi pages 187-188; and most blatantly Hattie & Penelope in the Epilogue) ride off into the sunset as the focus turns to soft and the credits roll. It’s a trope which is also found in Evaristo’s earlier Mr Loverman but in that better book there are main characters who are more fully developed and as a result they, as it were, earn their sunset. In this book, the happy endings are merely formulaic: try pages 111 - 112 for example.
The signature typographical style which uses line breaks instead of full stops does not really disguise the banality of much of the prose:
over time Shirley became an experienced schoolteacher who remained committed to giving the kids a fighting chance / realizing everything else was against them with such large classes and lack of resource and parents who didn’t have a clue how to help them with their homework / parents who’d left school early to work in a factory or learn a trade or be assigned a bunk bed in a Borstal … and so on from pages 234 to 236.
The alliteration at the end of the quotation is not untypical; compare page 324 rozzers in riot gear, at the ready. I suppose it’s meant to breathe life into dead prose.
The narrator’s omniscience grated on me and as I tried to explain that I hit on the word condescending. Ruritania is structured by condescensions. And they invite collusion, including that of the intended readers of this book. Evaristo’s novel has more Diversity than a Coca-Cola advertisement but often enough she wheels out her characters seemingly just in order to satirise them (try page 334) and prove to her audience (perhaps only too willing to have it proved) that, really, for all their dreadlocks and veganism and theyism (etcetera) they're really no better than the rest of us, though we can of course all strive, can’t we?
That’s so true, vicar, would you like another cup of tea?
Friday, 6 March 2020
Very few, if any, societies have ever arrived at a workable and sustainable consensus about how to distribute desirable scarce goods. The problem is exacerbated when the goods identified as desirable, notably money and fame, are inherently scarce because relative. If you extend the range to include, for example, happiness or virtue or wisdom - well, then things might get a bit easier. If you can identify goods where your gain is not necessarily my loss, so much the better. But for many people that’s a bit too subtle; their understanding is limited to zero-sum games: there’s a cake and any bit you get is a bit I don’t get.
A recent British Prime Minister, David Cameron, praised those who took the sharp-elbowed approach. If you want something scarce, then force yourself to the front of the queue. If you knock over an old lady on the way there, well, that’s life which is about grabbing what you can. President Trump agrees; he has grabbed many things on his way to the top and he will do whatever it takes to stay there - say, dirt on Joe Biden’s son as quid pro quo for US military aid.
I grew up at a time when it was thought that the distributional problem could be solved in a consensual way if societies operated meritocratically: you should get more of the desirable goods only if you in some way merited them. Talent, hard work, a track record of success were among the measures of merit. Race, Class, Sex were irrelevant. Though it was rarely articulated bluntly meritocracy was also a blatant alternative to inheritance; if you were really going to be meritocratic, then the House of Lords had to go and inheritance of serious wealth had to go too.
All general theories have their problems. At Oxford in the 1960s, one of my leftist friends reckoned it a problem deserving of serious consideration (his father in the wine trade), How should the finest wines be distributed after the revolution? Clearly, ability to pay would no longer be acceptable (or possible). Would merit work? Could you demonstrate through attendance at wine tasting classes that you had a palate deserving of a Premier Cru? And so on through many rounds of drink….
Nowadays, no one is very keen on meritocracy. The favoured alternative is representation though no one has yet produced a definitive tome listing all the relevant parameters for who should be represented and where. I have tried to do the math, and once you move into multi-dimensional (intersectional) representation it is very hard to formulate what would count as a situation in which it would be true that For all values of the variables X and Y, X is fairly represented in Y.
But basically the where is fame and money and the who is specified in terms of a few identities: ethnicity (but how many ethnicities are there?) and sex and/or gender (with a lot of ongoing debate there: is the Board of Directors gender balanced if half are males by birth and men by identity and the other half women by identity but with male appendages still in place? Trans ideologists seem obliged to say that the answer to that is Yes).
Nobody seems much worried about class anymore because the working class, rather awkwardly, has its own identity politics: in the USA it’s Trump and in England it’s Brexit. The identity politics with which Douglas Murray is concerned is a middle class thing; it’s about access to money and fame.
For example, when (apparently Caucasian) Sierra Boggess was cast to play Maria in a production of West Side Story one objection on Twitter read “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. It’s not like you’re hurting for job opportunities. Stop taking roles from actors of colour” (Murray, pages 142-43).
Well, to me that’s just an inversion on a standard working class complaint against immigrants They come here and take our jobs. In this case, Puerto Ricans having come to mainland USA (as US citizens, they have always had free movement rights) now claim back jobs which have been stolen from them. This zero-sum idea of theft is central to identity politics, most notably in the doctrine of cultural appropriation. Nobody supposes either that immigrants make jobs happen or that culture grows by appropriation. Human beings just seem to find positive-sum thinking too hard.
But there is more to contemporary identity politics than non-meritocratic competition for scarce goods. There is a strong sectarian or theological element with which Murray is largely concerned and against which he argues and where I find very little to disagree with. The hate-filled bullying behaviour of some young people who think they have virtue on their side repeatedly reminds me both of the American witch hunt tradition and of Jew-baiting on the streets of Hitler’s Germany. It is not the politics of the democratic Left; it has more in common with the politics of the worst Right - including an extraordinary degree of racism which Murray documents.
Leave aside the bullying, it is also the case that identity theologians secure their prominence - their five minutes of fame on Twitter - by finding ever-new impossible things for us to believe before breakfast. Murray singles out what trans ideologists expect us to believe and makes a restrained case against, urging caution but also flagging up the ridiculous. Eventually I guess the impossible trans beliefs will go the way of the Holy Trinity; whether they know it or not, most of those who are still Christians are Unitarians not Trinitarians despite the residual efforts of England’s state church.
Meanwhile, the impossible beliefs are doing a great deal of harm, notably in university humanities and social science departments which have cheerfully converted themselves into seminaries where nothing is studied or argued, and everything simply asserted and endlessly repeated even if (as with Judith Butler’s prose) it is often confused or simply unintelligible.
I thought Murray’s book very well argued and surprisingly nuanced for a writer whose metatags (Eton, Oxford, Henry Jackson society, neocon, Leaver, ….. the Spectator) are so unpromising. The book is perhaps at its most effective when he looks to Martin Luther King for a defence of what later came to be called Big Tent politics. The general idea should be to find things we have in common, not ways of endlessly asserting the desire not to be common.
Recently, I tried to write a memoir of my years as an Oxford undergraduate, both personal and political. As concerns the political, I arrived in 1965 as an eighteen year old member of the Labour Party who had very recently knocked on his neighbours’ front doors to secure the election of a Labour government; three years’ later I graduated as a supporter or even member (I think I had a card) of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (which may or may not have had an apostrophe …). To put it anachronistically, during my three years at Oxford, I Woke.
But then trying to remember things I realised something which may now seem odd. However Woke I may have been - and this is not just true of me - that didn’t mean that you did not talk to the Unwoke (who were legion), did not debate with them, did not listen to them. And they reciprocated. It occurred to me, for example, that every week when he lectured, arch-liberal and critic of Marxism Isaiah Berlin pulled in a very full house and a significant part of that house was the Oxford Left which turned out in force, not to heckle or barrack, but to listen to the most mesmerising lecturer Oxford had on offer. I would not be pushing it if I said that when you took your place you looked around to make sure that your fellow lefterrati were there with you, rather as if you were at the theatre (which, of course, you were). If anyone had suggested that Isaiah Berlin should be No Platformed it would have produced bemusement or merriment. We had enough confidence in our own convictions not to need to suppress other people’s (and that may be one clue to understand where we have got to now).
It occurred to me that age might have made me rose tinted in thus presenting the Left as indulgently liberal so I looked for some external confirmation and found it indirectly in - doyen of the Oxford Left - Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years, originally published in 1987 and re-issued in a 2018 version which I am using. He writes about his time in Oxford where by 1966 he was already well-known as an activist and trouble-maker. That does not stop the local Conservative MP,
Monty Woodhouse from embarrassing me on more than one occasion He used to stop me in the street and say “I am to the left of the local Labour candidate [Evan Luard - TP] on immigration, on Vietnam, on Rhodesia and probably also on economic measures. But you and your friends will be voting, I take it, for him” To which I replied that we were voting for parties not individuals and moved off rapidly … (page 138)
So it was quite possible for a Tory toff (later the 5th Baron Terringon) and a revolutionary toff to josh in a civil way with each other on the streets of Oxford - and for Tariq Ali to tell the story twenty years’ later in a way which does credit to his opponent.
It’s true that very shortly after, end 1968-early 1969, quite a few of us did place one limit on our tolerance - just one, and after quite a lot of debate which in my case made me very familiar with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill argues that free speech loses its privilege when the circumstances of an utterance constitute it into an incitement to violence of some kind. He gives an example: you should generally be free to say that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, but not to address those words to an already excited mob standing in front of the local corn dealer’s house. On this basis, I concluded - and argued in meetings - that it was legitimate to try to stop Enoch Powell’s countrywide stump of political speeches since they constituted an incitement to violence, unintentional perhaps but their effect clear enough on streets which were becoming unsafe for black people. I had no problems with the idea of Powell addressing, say, a university seminar - indeed, I had attended one that he gave in Oxford and I simply sat a few feet away from him and listened. I agreed with Mill: circumstance makes a difference.
The blind spot in my thinking was the rather too easy assumption that we could take the law into our own hands. On the statute books, incitement was an offence so why not appeal to the state (as people do now)? After all, the state had more resources at its disposal than we did. Equally, the exception made for Powell was arrived at with some hesitation and doubt; it was a last line of resort not the first choice as it now seems to be (Murray provides examples).
Sunday, 1 March 2020
I recall from fifty years ago trying to explain to a class of fifteen year olds who had me as their (unqualified) History teacher that a country could have an Empire without having territories dotted all over the globe and coloured red. I used the example of Imperial Russia which had built up its empire by extending its land borders in every possible direction, the new territories often enough specialised producers of desirable commodities (coal, copper, furs, hemp, tea, wine … ) which could be shipped back to the heartlands. At the same time, Russia reckoned (rather perversely) that by extending its borders it made its already unbelievably long borders more secure. True, the extensions did place St Petersburg and Moscow farther away from frontiers which invading armies would have to breach in order to get started on a war of conquest but, equally, invaders might just settle for the asset-rich borderlands, as did Germany late in World War One.
There was one anomaly in this simple story, explained at the blackboard with many chalk arrows: Alaska, separated by a short stretch of sea from the Russian mainland. But - ha, ha - Russia sold Alaska to the USA and that, as it were, proved my case.
Alaska figures in Daniel Immerwahr’s extraordinary book as the largest bit of the Empire which America built up over the course of a couple of centuries but in ways which often gave the impression that there was no such thing as an American Empire. Empire, on the British or French models, was acquired by conquest; America just bought Alaska and that surely was different. It had already bought Louisiana and would go on buying - in World War One, the American Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark. In the very recent past, President Trump reprised the old idea with an offer to buy Greenland from Denmark. He was shocked by the rebuff. After all, money can buy anything can't it so what's wrong with my money?
It’s a long time since I read a book like Immerwahr's where virtually every page tells me something I never knew or imagined, from big stories to little anecdotes. I am sure that many readers of this book will go around afterwards accosting anyone who will listen with Did you know …? stories. Some are shocking like those which narrate the devastations wreaked on the Phillipines by successive occupiers (Spanish, American, Japanese) and on Puerto Rico; some are comic like the story of the US State Department laying territorial claim to three small islands which it had already long-ago laid claim to and indeed was currently occupying. They had an excuse: by the 1930s the USA had laid claim to so many Pacific islands (some even inhabited) that it was understandable that they had lost track.
Immerwahr emphasises how these many territories did not fit inside the model USA designed by the US Constitution; they were anomalies but anomalies with several different statuses. Some were reckoned to be on the path to full statehood (Alaska, Hawaii - they got it in 1959); some were slated for independence (the Philippines); some had appointed governors and some were under military administration. Most had some military purpose and still do.
Anomalous territories can, of course, be found all over the world. Europe is full of them, most of them continuing to exist because they provide the rich and powerful with tax havens and money laundering centres: the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (possessions of the British Crown); the City of London; Andorra (Franco-Spanish Bishops isn’t it?); Liechtenstein; Monaco; San Marino. In Rome, if you want to launder money, you just walk across the non-existent border between Italy and the Vatican State and straight into the Vatican Bank.
Some anomalies are military: on the island of Cyprus, the large Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia are wholly owned by the United Kingdom and are counted as British Overseas Territories, anthem God Save the Queen but as a nice anomaly, currency… the €uro.
Immerwahr has interesting stories to tell about the impact of leased American military bases on local populations the world over. Some are about the ABC underside of military occupation: arrogance, brothels, and crime. Others are about what can be huge economic gains from trade; some are cultural: Immerwahr (in a fascinating account) links the rise of the 1960s Liverpool music scene (the Beatles included) to the presence nearby of a very large US military installation.
That is just one example of the ways in which he has done some very diligent research and turned up interesting by-ways which would have been missed had be started from a more theoretically rigid approach than is evident in his four hundred page book. I read all of it with interest and quite often amazement. For once, I find myself in complete accord with the puff printed on the cover of my copy.