A High Wind In Jamaica – The Wind Is Still Blowing

Published in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a group of British children living in Jamaica. After surviving a hurricane, their parents decide that England would be a safer place to grow up. The voyage home, however, is disrupted by some kidnapping pirates. These buccaneers are a motley crew, struggling to make a living at a time when Caribbean piracy has ceased to be economically viable. The world is changing. The children’s personal worlds are changing since they are variously on the border between babyhood and childhood, or between childhood and adult life. In the wider world, steamers are beginning to replace sailing ships, and law is replacing piracy. In many ways this book covers the same ground as a Western, set in a similar historical period, charting the same struggle between frontier life and the encroachment of civilisation.

The frontier is an unsettling, ambivalent place. Freedoms are passing, structures are rising. You might regret disappearing liberty, at the same time as welcoming a new order which dissuades a disaffected rancher from shooting you because he didn’t like the way you looked at him. Right and wrong are tricky concepts in the Wild West, and on the seas of the Caribbean as portrayed in A High Wind. It’s difficult to work out if the old world is innocent and good, or a place of primal violence. There are some very murky moral conundrums involving the pirates, who, whilst becoming sympathetic characters, nevertheless occasionally teeter on the borderline of child abuse. Similarly it’s difficult to work out if on-coming civilisation is sophisticated in its justice, or fatally deluded in its rules which do not accommodate the complexity of life.

These conundrums continue even today. The past is seen as a simpler age, viewed with a nostalgia, causing people to visit National Trust Properties, and buy vinyl records. At the same time, there is also a marked tendency to reinterpret the past in a negative way, to revisit past behaviour and find it unacceptable. Actual malicious behaviour has been uncovered, while at the other extreme a pop star accused of historical offences has had his house raided on national television before any wrong-doing had been established, and against whom charges were later dropped. Reminiscent of this situation have been controversies involving false memory syndrome where innocent behaviour is corrupted by later suggestion. This tension between actual bad behaviour and later reinterpretation by misguided moral guardians is a powerful theme in A High Wind, making it feel very contemporary. This is a book where events are reinterpreted according to new labels placed on them. The High Wind of the title refers to the Jamaican storm early in the story, during which the children seem more worried about their pet tabby cat, chased by local wild cats, than about their house collapsing around them. It is only later when the term hurricane is applied to the high wind that it becomes truly significant and threatening. I suppose the modern parallel would be the UK Met Office’s decision in 2013 to extend to normal storms the convention of labelling hurricanes with human names. What in the past was a gale blowing off the Atlantic, has now become something more sinister, a danger dramatised and personified.

A High Wind is a very interesting book, with beautiful descriptive passages. It left me unsettled and reassured in equal measure – unsettled that the winds of morality are so treacherous and unpredictable, reassured that the storm might not be as bad as it seems.

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.