Omens For Democracy

Will democracy survive? That’s a bold question. It would be equally bold to assert that Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett gives a clue to the answer.

First, a little history. Democracy is a fragile device that only functions in certain social conditions. A community needs to be sufficiently integrated and stable for one group of people to accept the ascendency of another group, at least until the next general election. When there are fierce divisions, religious, political, cultural, then this arrangement is ill advised and even dangerous. After the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito in 1980, for example, the introduction of democracy in that part of the world went horribly wrong. Groups of people who very much did not get on were given the chance to jostle for power via elections. Tragedy ensued. The UK was in a similar position up until the 1830s, when acts of Parliament finally ended centuries of discrimination against Catholics. In a country where huge numbers of people were violently divided along religious lines, it was very difficult to have democracy. It is no accident that the 1832 Reform Act laying the foundations of modern government followed on from parliamentary acts of Catholic emancipation. Britain was beginning to become a more integrated, secular society, capable of having people walk along to polling stations on a bright May morning, exchanging cheery greetings with candidates wearing variously coloured rosettes, before casting votes for parties that may or may not win. This wasn’t a smooth process, however. We are still waiting in some parts of the UK for circumstances suitable for democracy. The religious and cultural conflicts of Northern Ireland meant that at the height of The Troubles in 1972, local government there had to be suspended in favour of direct rule from Westminster, which has continued in a sporadic fashion ever since.

Local complications aside, democracy by and large appeared to work well in Western Europe and America through the 20th Century and into the early 21st; until, all of a sudden, things started to go backwards. The present day sees an unfortunate polarisation of attitudes. In America, Democrats and Republicans seem in many cases to truly hate each other, driven on by a president whose only understanding of “winning” is the demonising and crushing of the other side. In the UK we don’t see quite such a dramatic situation, but we do have main parties that have become more extreme, with divisions between them growing wider. It makes you wistful for the 1990s, when political commentators bemoaned the lack of “clear blue water” between moderate Labour and Conservative parties. The fact is, democracy needs a situation where there isn’t much choice. The choice between leaving and staying in the EU, for example, was not suitable for a process that works less well in proportion to the starkness of the choice on offer. If polls tap into totally different outlooks on life, or make decisions where there is no opportunity for reversal in the foreseeable future, then serious divisions can open up, even making it possible that a referee, a Josip Tito, will have to take control and impose rules in the best interests of both sides. And you’ll be fortunate if they’re a relatively benign referee, like Tito.

Which, finally, brings me to Good Omens. Good Omens is a story about the battle between heaven and hell. This is a story about conflict, and there will never be a story that doesn’t involve some element of conflict in one form or another. People thinking you can have a conflict-free novel tend to bring up Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, but really this is clutching at straws. Even if, courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke, you are on an alien space ship where nothing much happens except for long descriptions of said space ship, the whole thing works because an Earth perspective is coming into contact and collision with a totally different perspective. Conflict always lurks, giving excitement, doubt, anticipation – all of the things that drive a reader to keep reading. But the thing is, if a fight scene is to become a narrative, then the combatants have to find a common ground in their struggle. That’s what keeps the story moving along. Without it, one side wins, the other loses and that’s that. The end. By contrast, a writer has to fill hundreds of pages, and to do that it’s a massive help if good guys are not as virtuous as they appear, and bad guys have hidden qualities. In effect, the needs of continuing the story lead to a situation where, to bring my thoughts full circle, democracy just might work.

So democracy is like a story. There are different sides. There is conflict. But there also has to be understanding and empathy, light and shade, if the story is to go anywhere beyond the first few pages. Think Good Omens where, through thousands of years of history, an angel and a demon head off the final battle between heaven and hell, and keep things muddling along, by staying friends.

The Struggle To Write, From Fever Pitch To The Sol Majestic

I decided to be a writer in the summer of 1986. Writing wasn’t a new idea. It had been there in the background, through variously unrealistic astronaut, fireman, air traffic controller and musician phases. As a keen undergraduate I wrote two plays, which nobody would stage. Then, after finishing university, what had long been a vague idea hardened into a decision. My parents were worried. This writing plan was sucking motivation away from committing to something more sensible. Employers love it when they feel that you are only doing their stupid job while you get on with something else.

I tried not to let doubts derail my determination, but I wouldn’t be human if there weren’t days when this writing plan seemed like total madness. My early efforts coincided with a long term admiration for Nick Hornsby’s Fever Pitch, which tells the story of a struggling writer who loves Arsenal football club. There is a passage in that book which haunted me, describing a player called Gus Caesar, who had a famously difficult career at Arsenal as a nervous centre back. After all these years it still gives me the shivers to read those paragraphs again…

Think about it. At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford, but with the mighty Arsenal…. To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone in his generation… and it still wasn’t quite enough… Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden and an NME front cover and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from a Booker. You trust that feeling with your life… and it doesn’t mean anything at all.

Gus Caesar gave me pause – it would be foolish to deny it. But for some reason, I kept writing and hoping. And so, many years later, we come to the book I have just finished reading, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz. At the end of this unusual sci fi novel set in a space station restaurant, there’s an epilogue where Ferrett describes how he wrote page one on the day he nearly gave up writing. During a twenty year writing career, he had completed seven novels and numerous short stories. All he had to show for it was a novella which had been nominated for a prize, and a collection of sympathetic, personalised rejection letters from literary agents. Following the latest rejection of novel #7, our unhappy writer weeps in his basement, holing up there so that his wife doesn’t have to witness his degradation. At this critical moment it is clear he would have to start a novel immediately, or never write again. Ferrett’s desperate, unplanned first page eventually became The Sol Majestic – describing the growing pains of Kenna, a young man with a family obligation to become a kind of guru. He is the son of parents who belong to a now fading group of spiritual advisers, who once made a living offering reassurance to worried political leaders and VIPs. They are hoping that Kenna will revive their fortunes.

Working in a space station restaurant kitchen, Kenna struggles with the expectations placed upon him, and the lack of any evidence that he has guru potential. But the book really works when his doubts become part of things proceeding in a reassuring way. There’s a scene, for example, where Kenna and young chef trainee Benzo are trying to master the preparation of a tricky consommé – a clear soup. Over and over again they try and fail to make a perfect, crystal clear consommé. After hundreds of attempts, progress finally comes by trying something other than diligent attention to head chef Paulius’s recipe. The youngsters start to experiment with changes or additions of their own. In doing so they don’t improve upon the master’s work, but they do eventually discover exactly why the head chef has set down each step as he did. They come back to the original recipe with a wider perspective on cooking, which allows them to finally get the consommé right. This soupy parable suggests that doubt and confusion can offer a more secure route to achievement than blindly following a recipe for success, even though that guidance had been perfect all along.

I am not a published writer like Ferrett Steinmetz. After decades of writing, I am in my own basement, with my own collection of sympathetic personalised rejection letters from agents, and a first place in a short story competition. It isn’t clear whether this will ever turn into something more substantial. But The Sol Majestic came out of a basement like this, offering reassurance to all those who are trying to do something that requires belief. Doubts are ok. They can even help.

It wasn’t clever plotting or exciting action which made The Sol Majestic for me, it was a sense of thoughtful generosity. The Sol Majestic is a soup of a book, with a warm, pungent, comforting and complex flavour, which Ferrett offers readers, who sit in their basements, hoping for whatever it is they are hoping for. And relaxing there, eating soup, you look back and realise success is more complex than a recipe. Out of interest I had another look at the career of Gus Caesar. Wikipedia told me his Arsenal period was difficult, but he spent five years there, before going on to happier times as a journeyman footballer with other teams. At Colchester United and non-league Dagenham, he actually seemed to enjoy himself, He was celebrated at these teams, both for a string of good performances and his nice bloke personality. Gus Caesar made a living from what he enjoyed. In his own way, he found people who valued his contribution. Any writer would be grateful for that. What is success? Winning the World Cup? Winning the Booker? In that case hardly anyone ever succeeds. Maybe it is better to live your life by different rules, enjoying what you do and seeing what happens.

The Morning Show

I’ve been watching The Morning Show, Apple TV’s new serial about an American breakfast television show going through a MeToo crisis. I felt moved to write about this show after the fifth episode, and have updated today having seen the finale.

Writing this has felt odd. I only have Apple TV because it was free with my new phone, and only gave The Morning Show a quick look out of curiosity. Writing about MeToo is not something that appeals, and morning television is not something I ever watch. And yet here I am watching ten episodes in five days, and writing about stuff that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

So, the thing is, The Morning Show is complex and nuanced, at a time when many people have given up the hard work of dealing with complexities. The mood of the time is one of looking for clear lines and easy answers – boundaries on maps between countries, rules of behaviour, the attitudes of crazy political leaders who give the impression of strength without any of the substance of competence. Good fiction is not about straight lines, so it might not seem to have a place at the moment. Except that, yes, it does have a place, especially now. As I say, The Morning Show is complex. Instead of presenting a simple message, it brings lots of different messages into dramatic conflict. It reminds me, in fact, of something my Shakespeare tutor said to me back at university. She said that the real complexity of Shakespeare lies not in some deep meaning, but in the fact that he is not actually saying anything. Just sit with that for a moment… I certainly did when I heard it. It took a while to accept that the world’s most famous writer has nothing definite to impart to earnest students studying his work. All you can do, according to my tutor, is “maintain the paradoxes”. With Shakespeare, no position is final, no opinion is perfect, no wisdom will come over as wisdom in all situations. Shakespeare would not have been a campaigner, a protestor, or a fundamentalist. He would not have marched with placards, or sprayed buildings with paint, or chained himself to railings. For him, no position, no cause, holds the certainty that would drive him to such action. There is always some civilising worm of doubt, some contradiction that comes along to get in the way of righteousness.

The same is true of The Morning Show. The relationships it portrays are complex and multifaceted. Characters look different at different moments, like a metallic paint that changes colour depending on how the light catches it. You judge, only to have your judgement questioned. You want the truth revealed and yet see all the problems releasing the truth might create for everyone, not just the people who acted improperly. And what comes out of that in the end? A kind of hopeless fence sitting? A lack of will to change things and make them better? I don’t think so. I think the end result is an increased capacity for empathy. Good fiction allows us to see different points of view. The Morning Show absolutely does not tell us that all behaviour is fine, but neither does it draw straight lines. Good fiction is not a sermon or a text book. In the end it doesn’t tell us anything, except to demonstrate how people work, and so increase the chance that we may find a way to understand and empathise with each other. If we are to act well towards each other, it does not come from codes and rules which change over time, but from a basic understanding of how others feel, allowing us to act in a sympathetic way. The profound failings of people in The Morning Show – and believe me they are profound – are essentially failings of empathy, of failing to respect people as you would want to be respected yourself. That’s the crime that leads to the terrible denouement in the final episode.

So I admire The Morning Show’s handling of difficult themes. I also admire the slick production values, use of music, and flashes of humour, believe it or not. As Guardian critic Stuart Heritage says, The Morning Show is funnier than it should be. I recommend it.