Middle England by Jonathan Coe – Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold

This novel is an account of the years immediately before and after the UK’s 2016 European Referendum, seen through the eyes of a disparate group of old and young, academic and non-academic, politically engaged and would-rather-listen-to-music people, all centred on Benjamin Trotter, a struggling writer living a quiet life in the English Midlands.

I’ve read a number of nonfiction books which have struggled to explain the phenomenon of populism sweeping through western society since 2016, leading to the election of Trump and the result of the referendum. It is with the subject of Brexit, however, that we really see the value of a novel in exploring human experience. The nonfiction books tried to explain what happened in rational historic or economic terms. But the fact is, the decisions made by voters in the referendum, whether to leave or remain, were not primarily rational. Few people really understood the legal and economic technicalities of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Even the simple benefit of lorries rolling on and off ferries without any border delays was not widely understood. Neither was the disruptive consequence of border checks being reimposed, the fact that a two minute delay to each lorry’s progress at Dover would lead to a 17 mile traffic queue on the M20 – according to Port of Dover Authority. (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/…). In November 2018 just after the period covered by Middle England, Brexit Secretary Dominic Rabb admitted that “he did not quite understand” the UK’s reliance on the Dover Calais trade route. If a government minister charged with understanding these things could not grasp something so basic, what chance did the general population have? The reality is they had no chance and had to take an emotional decision, whether that meant voting to find some kind of lost identity, or revolting against the crude xenophobia of the poster revealed by Nigel Farage in May 2016, of a queue of migrants, mostly male and mostly black, apparently waiting to enter Britain. After days of confusing research on EU trade policy, it is this poster that persuades Benjamin Trotter to vote remain. 

So with rationality taking a back seat, a novel is a good place to explore the toxic brew of emotion, prejudice, diffuse frustration, misinformation and nostalgic illusion which really led to the final referendum result. If fictions were so influential, the fiction of a novel is a fitting place to consider them.

The story has a clever structure. A journalist’s regular meetings with the deputy communications director for Number 10 provide a satirical account of political events at the centre of government. We then see the impact of those events on the wider cast of characters. The portrayal of these characters is politically even-handed. At one extreme we have the odious Helena, who looks like a sweet old lady but is actually something of a Nazi. At the other extreme we have young, left wing agitator Coriander, who has a predilection for physical violence – camouflaged by an idealistic cause – and wages merciless campaigns of political correctness via social media, which serves as a digital lynch mob. On the spectrum between Helena and Coriander, we have people trying their best to understand and cope with a developing crisis.

Middle England is an excellent novel, well written and compelling as a story, and a reminder that the best novels are less a diversion, more a fascinating tool for understanding people.

A House For Mr Biswas – Sometimes Writing Rules Are Made To Be Broken.

I am reading the Modern Library’s 100 greatest novels of all time to try and help my writing. The problem with this plan is the way many of these books break the rules. This is certainly true of A House For Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul.

It is unlikely you will read this book for the usual reasons that people read books. A sympathetic central character? No. Biswas is often argumentative and nasty. Born in the most humble of circumstances, he has a measure of creative talent which sends him on a modest career of betterment and westernisation; but he is hardly a dashing hero. This is no Greatest Showman, “if you can dream it, you can achieve it” production. Romance? No. His relationship with his wife happens by accident, leading to years of scratchy cohabitation where husband and wife barely tolerate each other. The best that can be said is that they end up with some quiet mutual respect. Excitement and anticipation? No and no. The events of Biswas’ life are mundane. I would keep my incredulous daughter informed with updates such as: “he is living with his in-laws in a decaying mansion. He has moved to a small house out in the country. There was a bush fire; they put it out. He has now gone to live in the Port of Spain in a house owned by his mother in law. He is now a journalist. He is now a minor civil servant. He has finally bought his own house which looks alright but is a bit of a wreck.” And so on. As for anticipation, the author starts at the end, a dying man looking back at his life. You know what will happen. The reviewer doesn’t really have to worry about spoilers, because the story simply doesn’t work that way. The whole book is waiting for something to happen that never really does. And you know it beforehand. By all the usual measures, it’s like an anti-novel.

However, with frequent breaks, I kept going, and in the end I was glad I did. At the beginning of Biswas’s life a local holy man reads the omens of the boy’s life, in the way he sneezes, and in the fact that, briefly, he has an extra finger. He does not give a good report. The book is a bit like that. You can read the signs how you like, making perfectly ordinary phenomena into something meaningful, even as they remain ordinary. Apart from the brief period of Biswas’s early childhood, this book is interesting thematically rather than dramatically. If you accept that you will get a lot from it.

Biswas himself tries to learn writing via a correspondence course. He never does write his great novel, but by the time you get to the end of his story you’re wondering what a great novel is anyway.

The Specials’ Encore Album – A Vote For Sanity

The Specials have released a new album, called Encore.

Created at the time of Rock Against Racism in 1978, The Specials have always been a political band. It seems the present political situation is so dire that it has roused The Specials to their first original material in forty years. I enjoyed the results. Vocalist and guitarist Lynval Golding’s tells an affecting story of his childhood move from Jamaica to England. The track where smiling EDL opponent Saffiyah Khan updates Prince Buster’s Ten Commandments Of Man also works well. I liked the bit about makeup, and minds made up.

The thing that really grabbed me about the album was the way it captured the chaotic current political situation. On Encore there’s a track called Vote for Me, which has familiar sentiments about a politician who is out of touch, living in an ivory tower. There’s nothing very ground breaking about that, aside from the way it chimes with the populist mood of the moment. But then the very next track is the old Fun Boy Three song, The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum. This is a very different political sentiment, because it gives the sense that there is a small group of competent people who run the asylum; and it’s definitely not a good thing when their charges get their crazy hands on the handles of power.

When you come down to it that’s the problem. You can be a political band, representing your audience of boys and girls/men and women-in-the-street to the smooth people in the corridors of power. But what happens when those ordinary folks stride down the corridors themselves?

Bands with a political bent might write songs about out of touch politicians, but the logical conclusion of that populist sentiment is the electoral success of a vulgar, dishonest real-estate entrepreneur who knows nothing about politics or national administration, who wins office with an emotion-driven message directed at the lowest instincts in people, and then runs a predictably chaotic, incompetent government. Another manifestation of this Vote for Me populism is the ascendancy of nationalist movements intent on breaking up a Europe-wide union designed in the interests of business efficiency and peace. This populist nationalism leads to the sort of ugliness Saffiyah Khan faced down. And if a song like The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum has relevance, then there it is. It’s difficult to have it both ways. It is true, politicians can become isolated in their ivory towers. Old Etonian Jacob Rees Mogg seems to me a politician who lives in just such a tower, oblivious to the effect his ideas might have on society generally. But if you despise and reject professional politicians, what happens to the asylum after that? What happens to the plane if the passengers decide to fly it themselves? It’s a never ending conundrum, a swinging pendulum of opinion which has reached one of the extreme ends of its swing.

Let There Be Editing

I’ve been hard at work over the last few months editing a novel, which meant blog posts fell by the wayside. It seemed difficult to provide exciting updates on the quiet, hugely time-consuming activity that is editing. This the polishing of what you hope will be a gem: it is not the volcanic activity that produces the rock in the first place. But then I asked myself, who wants a lump of rock? Isn’t writing more about the shaping, like sculpture is more about the chiseling than the lump of marble? When I thought back there was no moment when writing ended and editing began. In fact, now I come think about it, I was editing in some shape or form from the beginning.

Wanting to find out where editing itself began, I read an account of editing’s history in The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Once I’d done that it became impossible to think of editing as just some adjustments you make once the real work is finished. The first editors were medieval monks, human photocopiers, whose mundane job it was to copy out religious texts. They relieved the monotony by designing extravagant drop caps. These fancy first letters of chapters illustrate not only a letter of the alphabet, but a thwarted creativity which had no other outlet. Nobody would presume to set themselves up as an editor for the Almighty; nobody, that is, except for a few monks who couldn’t help themselves when they came to a passage that could do with tidying up. No doubt this was done in a spirit of great humility, just making the words clearer, you understand, so that readers would appreciate the religious wisdom all the better. Nevertheless, in practice medieval scribes began what we now know as editing.

Editing is the confidence to believe that we the reader also have something worthwhile to contribute. At first it was a tweak here and there. Then in the middle of the fifteenth century came the advent of the printing press, which meant the scribe could not simply copy out texts any longer. That was done by a machine. The only thing left for a scribe to do was to expand their role in shaping words. Into the sixteenth century, with printing technology widespread, the role of editor was almost that of author. In an age with few writers, editors, many of them working in the great cultural centre of Venice, became literary celebrities, finding works of the past to publish in copy-edited forms with introductions for contemporary audiences. It was then, of course, a small step, to going the whole hog and writing the damn words yourself. In this way the rich literary scene we enjoy today was born.

So in a sense writing began with editing, with the belief, that we as readers should have the confidence to give as well as receive. Writing is really one long edit, from the first word to the last.

I’ll Take A Night At The Opera Over A Day of the Locust

A_Night_at_the_Opera_Poster          West_locust

The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, is set on the fringes of the film business in 1930s Hollywood. The story centres around two characters who are new to Tinseltown – a young artist starting work as a set designer, and a repressed hotel accountant taking an extended holiday on his doctor’s advice. Both are pulled into the febrile, chaotic circle of a young woman desperate to make it as an actress.

The Day of the Locust is a bleak read, suggesting that everything in Hollywood life is artificial. People are either pursuing delusional ambitions, or working in shambolic movie production. Scenes set on studio lots paint an unflattering picture of even the heady heights of the film business. At a recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, a huge army of extras charge up a hill before carpenters have finished building it.

As an extension of this caricature of Hollywood, I think we are meant to reflect on life in America generally, and see how much of it is driven by artificiality. In some ways, this seems a prescient observation. After all, movie stars and reality TV celebrities have become presidents of the United States; and America’s current reality-star president manufactures illusions on a daily basis.

However, even against the background of a reality TV presidency, I baulked at the book’s relentless negativity. My frustrations centred around a famous scene depicting a riot outside Kahn’s Persian Palace Theatre where an unnamed new film was premiering. I got the feeling that author Nathaniel West thought that cinema, with its huge audiences, must necessarily appeal to the worst, lowest common denominator instincts in people. This just doesn’t ring true when you start to wonder what the unnamed film might have been in reality. In contrast to West’s sour portrayal, the 1930s were in fact a golden era in Hollywood film making, with Alfred Hitchcock, Laurel and Hardy, Frank Capra, John Ford, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin all hard at work. Creativity peaked, ironically, in 1939, the year that Nathaniel West published his book, with premieres for – amongst many other excellent movies – Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. So the movie showing at the Persian Palace Theatre, rather than pandering to mob tastes, could conceivably have been a classic. Actually, Gary Cooper is mentioned by one of the vile film goers; so this could have been the Hollywood premiere of Mr Deeds Goes to Town from 1936, directed by Frank Capra, for which Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award. Thinking about specific movies makes you see how unrealistic it is to dismiss Hollywood as nothing more than the home of tawdry mass entertainment and frustrated fantasists. Perhaps what we are seeing here is not so much a perceptive portrayal of the debasement of modern culture, more the snobbish outlook of a writer who doesn’t accept that cinema has produced masterpieces rivalling anything in literature.

In my view, for all the quality of its writing and it’s accurate depiction of important aspects of America’s situation, the cultural snobbery implicit in The Day of the Locust results in a book that has not aged well.

Trying Hard To Take It Easy

Holidays are odd things. They derive from exhausting pilgrimage where sedentary, medieval folk would up-sticks and walk hundreds of miles on muddy tracks, in unsuitable clothing, at the mercy of thieves, brigands and weather, to reach a distant shrine. Equally, holidays also derive from peaceful rest cures at spas and seaside towns, where instead of getting foot sore you’re more likely to get foot massage. This contradictory ancestry ends up combining a long physical ordeal in search of spiritual meaning with the beach resort experience, reclining on a lounger, watching waves lap on smooth sand, cool drink in hand.

Both the pilgrimage and sun lounger aspects of holidays are explored in Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome’s nineteenth century account of a Thames boating trip. The nineteenth century was the time when holidays came into being for people generally. You no longer had to be religiously earnest, or be wealthy enough to sit around drinking mineral water in Bath or Tunbridge Wells. People were earning better money, had more free time and, thanks to the railways, could travel more easily. The three men who take Jerome’s boat trip are regular chaps. George works as a bank clerk. It’s not clear exactly what Harris and Jerome do, but you don’t get the sense that they are government ministers, captains of industry, or deep-thinking academics. They are the new holiday makers, embarking on a journey of ancient contradictions.

In many ways this boat trip is a spiritual pilgrimage, an attempt to leave behind the humdrum and find something more profound. Against a background of arduous effort and spartan living conditions, there are reflections on life and extravagant descriptions of nature in all its comforting, uplifting beauty. But the attempted profundities are always punctured by various down-to-earth mishaps involving ill-behaved dogs, poor boatmanship, bad cooking, vengeful steam launches, forgotten tin openers. While this journey might be seen as a kind of physically demanding pilgrimage, it is also an indolent escape from stress and strain. Each man takes it in turn to pull tricks to get out of rowing. Jerome avoids tours of churchyards containing historically significant graves. There is much lounging around in riverside meadows, and laughter at the memory of conscientious old school fellows who threw themselves into French irregular verbs.

So where does this physically demanding, yet languid – profound yet commonplace – journey take us? Without giving anything away about the “denouement”, it takes us somewhere significant, while allowing us to escape heavy significance. It takes us somewhere new, while also taking us home again with a new appreciation of our daily lives.

That’s what the best holidays do for us.

Good Bad Writing

Rules become more demanding in times of trouble. There is a clearer and more unforgiving sense of good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. Ironically, however, times of trouble can also see civilised rules of behaviour torn apart.

A Farewell to Arms tells a story set in World War One. An American named Frederick Henry joins the Italian army as an ambulance driver. Caught in a chaotic retreat, he witnesses summary and arbitrary justice meted out by military policemen. Realising his own side is as lethal as the enemy, Henry deserts. The story then follows Henry through his desperate escape bid.

The writing of Henry’s story mirrors the breaking of rules in his life. As a narrator, Frederick Henry ignores all the civilised writing rules drummed into the aspiring author – repeated words, frequent adverbs, passive voice, limited vocabulary, confusing sentences, liberal use of intensifiers such as “very”, which intensify weak adjectives such as “nice”.

And yet the rules of good writing lurk, the demanding sense that these words are shaped. This “bad” writing aspires to excellence. In the famous opening paragraph, Hemingway uses repeated words like “the” to give rhythm, as in a spoken conversation. The use of “the” also serves to conduct us into Henry’s world, where mountains he describes are “the” mountains which narrator and reader both seem to be looking at, rather than any old range of hills introduced to us at the beginning of a story.

From then on every untutored line has a hidden quality. Take, for example, the following exchange:

“I went everywhere. Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Villa San Giovanni, Messina, Taormina——” “You talk like a time-table. Did you have any beautiful adventures?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Milano, Firenze, Roma, Napoli——”

A timetable might not seem like great writing, but there is undeniable beauty in simple place names. Place names, for example, are hugely influential in song writing, the music journalist Nick Coleman suggesting that apart from love, “pop is better on cities than anything else.”

The writing of A Farewell to Arms might have the literary quality of a timetable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t aspire to the sort of poetry informing thousands of songs.

A Farewell to Arms is a perfect combination of form and content, of what is said and how it is said. As in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, A Farewell to Arms is a remarkable writing achievement in the form of not very good writing

The Sellout

Sell Out

In The Big Bang Theory Sheldon Cooper presents an internet show called Fun With Flags. The Sellout by Paul Beatty, could be called Fun With Racism, with a central character who, like Sheldon, is more than a little gauche when it comes to normal social conventions. And in not getting conventions, both Sheldon and Me – as Paul Beatty’s narrator is called – often provide us with a unique insight into the bizarre nature of human interaction.

Of course Sheldon often gets into trouble for his naïveté; and the same is true of Me. This book is full of society’s most taboo subjects, their inconsistencies innocently pulled apart. Writing The Sell Out must have felt like walking a fraying tight rope. Setting out to write a review was similarly worrysome. It felt as though I was taking my life in my hands just naming a file “The Sellout Review” on my iPad.

But I suppose that’s the sign of an interesting book. And it is interesting, doing what good books do, exploring all the messy space left behind by neat scientific theories, or tidy political correctness of all kinds.

As Me says of his late psychology professor father:

“If there is a heaven worth the effort that people make to get there, then I hope for my father’s sake there’s a celestial psychology journal. One that publishes the results of failed experiments, because acknowledging unsubstantiated theories and negative results is just as important as publishing studies proving red wine is the cure-all we’d always pretended it was.”

Admittedly the book itself is messy. The plot can hardly be described as tight, seeming to be about trying to establish a segregated school, or finding lost copies of enjoyable but racist cartoons. Towards the end I did find my attention wandering as far as plot was concerned. I was just hopping from one amusing social observation to another.

Nevertheless this is a good book, and I would recommend it. It’s not a tidy work of social theory, but as Kierkagaard said – on a promotional poster I noticed in Waterstones recently:

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

The Sellout reminds us that novels are not really about problem solving, but reality experiencing and sharing

Bringing the News Back Home – Reading Scoop

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop describes life as a foreign correspondent for the Beast newspaper in the 1930’s. Lord Copper, owner of The Beast, advocates a style of journalism which is still very much with us today.

‘The Beast stands for strong, mutually antagonistic governments everywhere… Self-sufficiency at home, self-assertion abroad.’

A Beast type newspaper likes to support antagonistic governments because it seeks news through antagonism. Never mind who suffers from the trouble this causes, as long as news and sales follow. In the Scoop world, it appears that the people suffering are comfortingly foreign. They live in places reassuringly far away, like Scoop’s fictional East African country Ishmaelia, or a Balkan state where a journalist sets off a revolution, by falling asleep on a train, getting out at the wrong station, and writing about barricades and flaming churches in the unfortunate country in which he happens to find himself.

The idea that disruptive news can be safely inflicted on distant foreigners is, however, illusory. Scoop has many international complications, which suggest that antagonism is a kind of carelessly used biological weapon, the effects of which are hard to control. Historians have documented the role of the nationalist “yellow press” in stoking up tensions that led to a dispute in the Balkans becoming a Europe-wide conflagration in 1914. Similarly, as the Second World War approached, Lord Rothermere, co-founder of the Daily Mail, was happily supporting the antagonistic governments of Germany and Italy, as a defence against the Bolshevik Russians, and we all know how well that turned out.

It is perhaps the perfect irony that today’s Beast type newspapers, in their continuing support of antagonistic governments everywhere, love Brexit, and so bring disruption back home to roost in the Beast’s back yard. They have helped make Britain into Ishmaelia.

Scoop is a very funny novel. The central character – the writer of a nature column accidentally recruited as a foreign correspondent – is an innocent abroad. But the seriousness underlying the humour and innocence is as relevant today as it was in 1938.

Water, Earth and Fire Versus Hot Air – Robert Harris’s Pompeii

PompeiiHarris

Picture a world where nature is seen in superstitious and conceited terms, where people put themselves at the centre of everything, so that natural disasters must be our fault. “The mountain is destroying us –we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little –a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded.”

Picture this world led by men projecting a fantasy of wealth and power, all based on the shifting sands of corruption, intimidation and blind faith.

This recognisably contemporary scenario is reflected in Robert Harris’s Pompeii, describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of a Roman water supply engineer, who in the tense days and hours before the eruption tries to repair the Augusta aqueduct. Damaged by ground displacement near Vesuvius, the Augusta supplies water to Roman towns around the Bay of Naples, a society of recognisably modern fragility where just a few hours interruption of supply brings rioting in the streets.

So if we are seeing our own world through the doomed town of Pompeii, does it show us any answers? To some extent you would have to say no. In the shadow of vast natural forces there is a sense of inevitability, as though there is not much an individual can do to change things. On the other hand this is a story championing practical competence and integrity. While nature has the power to swat away the most powerful society in the world, someone who understands and respects the truth, who sees that certain fundamentals apply in Rome, Gaul, Campania, or anywhere else, is able to work with nature to achieve an engineering miracle such as the Augusta aqueduct

Pompeii presents an age old struggle between two styles of leadership, the first based on competence, the second on the power of superstition and unquestioning belief. You can always challenge a water engineer with the fact that water is not coming out of the pipes. But if a Roman official comes along and suggests making an offering to Jupiter to solve the water supply problem – as a pompous town official does at one point – how do you prove this approach is incorrect? It is difficult to prove that Jupiter is not there to listen, or that the official does not have a special relationship with Jupiter, or that Jupiter does not direct the engineer in his work. You are in the slippery realm of spin and interpretation, where a priestess can make a prophecy about the glorious future of Pompeii, surviving long after others have fallen, thronged by visitors speaking in every tongue. It is possible to see this vision as accurate and hopelessly wrong.

In the end, however, the solid ground of faith based leadership slips from under people’s feet. No amount of sacrificing to Jupiter will stop Vesuvius erupting, or make water flow into busy towns full of thirsty people. And no amount of corruption and financial trickery will do this either. Pompeii is a gripping celebration of competence over delusional hot air, and in that sense this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance, even more so now in 2018 than when it was published in 2003.