Nobody Cares What You Know Until They Know That You Care

The Wind At My Back is Paul Maunder’s memoir of failing to find success, both as a professional cyclist and a novelist. He finally puts these two failures together to make a successful career as a cycling journalist. In that sense I found The Wind At My Back heartening. People see success in terms of well-marked routes, whether that means a structured progression through the civil service, or making it as a professional cyclist or novelist. But there’s no shame in turning aside to explore winding byways, which might be more suited to a particular individual. And this sentiment marries nicely with The Wind At My Back’s many descriptions of cycle rides on quiet roads.

However, with no disrespect to Paul Maunder, I can perhaps see why he didn’t make it down the road of successful novel writing. His book reveals a personality more interested in places than people.

“My failure was in becoming too dependent on this sense of place, and not investigating people as much as places.”

Maunder writes of trying to overcome this, but in a revealing aside while talking about Proust, he says that empathy is something you learn. I don’t believe this is true. Certainly children seem to develop an understanding of others as they get older, but it is also the case that some people never develop this ability. And if empathy does not develop, you cannot teach it. It is possible to learn the social conventions of empathy – as Sheldon Cooper often tries to do in The Big Bang Theory. Psychology Today also tells me that people who are naturally empathetic can become more so, if they live in the sort of society that values fellow feeling. But essentially if you lack empathy you can’t learn it. I became aware of this sad fact through much reading when someone I know had the misfortune to marry a woman who had a constitutional inability to comprehend the feelings of anyone except herself.

Paul Maunder’s book does reveal a lack of natural empathy. I’m not suggesting any slur on the author’s character; but it is true to say he focuses on himself and the places he sees from his bike. You feel little about anyone else. He talks about empathy, but only in the sense of trying to learn how to do it, like another technique taught on a fiction writing course. It did not seem to be a natural part of him. He tells you about empathy but does not show it; and we all know the novelist’s rule about showing and not telling. There is a brief attempt towards the end of the book to imagine himself into the life of his two friends Daniel and Sarah, but this is soon abandoned. Apart from his father who you feel briefly as a person, it is Paul Maunder all the way. You hear about the places he has been, his cycle related philosophical reflections, which in an unfocused sort of way, are interesting. But the people he knows remain as ghostly figures beside the road.

We can’t help who we are, and if this author has trouble understanding other people, he does come to understand himself in an honest way. In those terms his book ends as a success.

Rarity In The Midst Of Plenty – Watching Birds At Oare Marshes

A few weeks ago we went for a walk around Oare Marshes bird reserve near Faversham. I am not a birdwatcher myself, so they all looked lovely to me, from mallards to long-beaked, coffee coloured things, called godwits, according to a chap carrying an impressive stubby telescope with upward angled view finder. We were standing in a large shed. Along the wall opposite the door ran a line of three bunker slits, which seemed to magnify a glittering body of water with an island off to the left side.

We watched the godwits on the island for a few minutes. As they pecked and warbled, another birdwatcher strode into the hide. Heavily equipped with bags, binoculars and that standard, stubby telescope, she looked like birdwatching special forces.

“Did you see the hobby fly over just now? Boomerang shaped wings?”

We admitted missing it.

“There were some cormorants over on the other pond,” my wife replied, trying to make conversation.

“Cormorants, yes,” said the woman, metaphorically patting a child’s head.

We left the hide, chastened.

It seemed there were quite a few cormorants at Oare, but not many hobbies. Birdwatchers enjoy observing birds, but their ultimate goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, referred to as megaticks in twitcher jargon. Doing some reading after our visit to Oare, I discovered that while birdwatchers seek rare birds, they are not nearly so interested in odd ones. If a species of bird mates with another species and produces a hybrid, then this unusual and rare individual is not sought after. It does not fit into search lists, and is considered, by some schools of thought, as a threat to biodiversity. These unfortunate creatures are sometimes more likely to get shot than photographed. A new and unknown bird has no value, even if there might only be one example. Rarity, it seems, is not solely about how scarce something is. A few examples of an old species are rare: a few examples of a new hybrid species are imposters.

I then wondered if the bird watching world had examples of that other type of rarity valued by collectors – the unusual variation in something very numerous – the Queen’s head upside down on one stamp in ten million, for example. A brief internet search soon told me that birdwatching made the mainstream press in 2018, when someone spotted an albino house sparrow in Somerset. Crucially this rare bird was not a hybrid, but an extremely unusual variation of a common bird – though not as common as they once were, sadly.

So this association of rarity with the well established, and with small variations in something very numerous – both indicate that an apparent interest in novelty is actually a lesson in the extremely conservative way people tend to react to something out of the ordinary. It is fitting that rarity is so closely connected with tradition, and with what Frasier Crane might call Old Money. We could think of Fabergé eggs, dusty bottles of wine from 1945, First Folios of Shakespeare, or caviar derived from a few sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, served in Pall Mall clubs by deferential waiters. Perhaps we should bear this in mind at the moment. Maybe we are too quick to see value in the well established, and threat in the different. And maybe we are limited by only valuing differences which are small variations on what we already know. It would be good to remember that all individuals are different and unique in some way. We are all rare and valuable specimens.

Local Tourist

Crossing the Downs, on my way to Sheppey

I’m spending this week as a tourist in my own part of the world, with the help of my bike and some quiet cycle routes. Maybe as a tourist I would get to know my local area a little better.

Yesterday I rode over the North Downs to the Isle of Sheppey, the first time I’d been there in decades. I ended up in Queenborough, knowing that food was immediately necessary if I was to ever see home again, or indeed remember where home was. In an unassuming area near Queenborough harbour, a display board outside a black Portacabin announced the Mint and Chocolate Eatery. This building looked like a catering unit for construction workers, dropped into a tight space between an old warehouse and a shed; but I was hungry and could go no further. Besides, a quick look at Trip Advisor revealed enthusiastic recommendations. After securing my bike to an upended pallet, forming a fence between my chosen Eatery and the black-creosoted, micro-pub shed next door, I pushed back a gauzy curtain to enter a lovely, fresh space decorated in vibrant lime and yellow. Here I ordered spaghetti with meat balls – from a lady concerned about my nutritional state – before settling down outside with my bike, at a two-person turquoise table, bounded by Portacabin wall and pallet fence. This “terrace” area also served as a store for a few wheelie bins and bits and pieces of dock paraphernalia.

Lunch at the Mint and Chocolate Eatery

Lunch was perfect. Gleaming silver cutlery and immaculate white crockery sat against an aquamarine pastel tabletop backdrop. My table was like a modern still-life in crisp acrylic, which had, for some reason, been left in a stock yard behind an art gallery. The spaghetti and meatballs was delicious, as was the Sicilian lemon cheesecake which followed. I got talking to the waitress who told me that the Mint and Chocolate Eatery had been open for about a year, created by the chef, who was from Belgium. They catered to people on holiday, and also to locals. It wasn’t really clear into which category I fell, a person who lived within a few hours cycling distance, but who was nevertheless on holiday, and had come from the far side of the bridge. Eating cheesecake I started to wonder what local was. People once lived their lives in an area covered by the sound of church bells. Those bells even defined their own time zone, different to that of a village just down the road. Today we cannot think of locality in those terms, when time zones toll their digitally coordinated bells across the globe.

If I discovered anything on my journey to Sheppey, it was that we can be tourists in our own backyards, just as we can be global locals. It might be better to think of ourselves as this kind of contradictory traveller, exploring a place where local and foreign are not clearly divided. Perhaps we should welcome this local tourist in a world which is in danger of closing itself down into illusory territories where one lot of people think another lot of people do not belong

Electric Bikes And Ballpoint Pens

Sustrans Route 1 between Rochester and Gravesend

Electric bikes are like ballpoint pens. Perhaps I should explain that I have just bought an electric bike, and that my journey from electric bike to ballpoint pen began on a test ride around a local park. Riding with a young and knowledgeable member of staff from my usual bike shop, I learned that the shop manager had suspicions about the type of machine I was riding. Reading between the lines I think the boss felt that riding an electric bike wasn’t really cycling.

As a writer it’s to be expected that negative reactions to electric bikes should make me think of ballpoint pens. Perfected and patented by László Bíró in 1943, ballpoints allowed people to write more easily and quickly. A writer no longer had to stop writing to dip a nib in a pot of ink. There was no waiting for ink to dry before piling one page on top of another. It was a simple matter of grabbing a ballpoint and putting your thoughts on paper. Naturally this convenience caused controversy. People of a traditional frame of mind worried about falling standards and lazy handwriting. In 1950, an American magazine called the Federal Teacher went so far as to claim that the ballpoint pen would be the ruination of education. A similar situation arose when word processors came along in the 1980s. New convenience once again met objections from traditionalists. Author Fay Weldon, for example, uneasy about word processors, wrote of the mystical qualities of writing in longhand. Whether she wrote about these mysteries with a ballpoint or a fountain pen, I don’t know.

An advert for a Bíró pen in the Argentinian magazine Leoplán, 1945.

Which brings me to my electric bike. While this lovely machine makes cycling quicker and easier, it does not diminish cycling, just as ballpoints or word processors did not diminish writing. According to my iPhone, weekend rides on my electric bike are using more calories than the rides I used to take on my normal bike. This is because I am enjoying the rides more, staying out longer and going further. While I am using more calories my legs are less sore, since the effort of peddling is steady rather than a series of peaks and troughs. A normal bike uses gearing in an attempt to smooth out spikes of effort, allowing a rider to pedal at a similar rate on gradients or a flat road. But gearing can only go so far in smoothing out effort. The electric motor does a better job, allowing me to use more energy with less fatigue. When you are doing more rather than less, it is difficult to dismiss electric bikes as the refuge of a lazy cyclist, just as it is difficult to cast aspersions on the effort of a writer, who is producing more work with a ballpoint or word processor than with a nib and pot of ink.

A bike has always been a machine designed to enhance and magnify human effort. A conventional bike has wheels, an ancient form of force multiplier, reducing friction between a moving body and its environment, allowing a given amount of energy to produce more movement. Wheels also allow us to tap into the force of gravity. Riding downhill there is often no human force involved, but the bike is still moving. Since the days of penny farthings, bikes have always allowed a rider to do more with a given amount of energy. An electric bike just takes this process one stage further.

Route 1 at Gravesend

My most recent ride took me over to Rochester where I joined the wonderful Sustrans Route 1, following a mixture of track, quiet roads and lanes through Kent countryside to Gravesend. It might not seem like a great adventure to go to Gravesend, but it’s a different story getting there on Route 1, crossing great expanses of water meadow pulsating with chattering bird life, dodging through hidden alleyways behind old warehouses, emerging beside the Thames to see a white cruise ship, spinning wind turbines, and towering dock cranes, on the far shore. Sitting in a Gravesend coffee shop, I felt that electric bikes are the future of cycling in the same way that ballpoint pens and word processors were the future of writing. Bikes have always been designed to amplify the strength of human legs. Electric bikes move this on, making the whole experience of cycling more accessible.

The Excitement Factory – This Sporting Life

Since sport requires leisure time and a surplus of money to spend on it, we can thank the Industrial Revolution for our weekend off to watch football, motor racing, tennis or rugby; and for the money to buy the necessary ticket or TV subscription. The 1850s were the crucial decade, when mills in northern England started to close at 2pm on Saturdays. According to A.N. Wilson in The Victorians, Wordsells of Birmingham was one of the first factories to give its workers Saturday afternoon off. It is no coincidence that the 1850s were the time when large scale sport really began to develop. Horse racing grew hugely in popularity with sixty two new horse racing meetings added to the calendar. Meanwhile, rugby and football were evolving rapidly into the games we know today. And as sporting events became established, trains were available to take people to them, thanks to the boom in railway building.

A century later we come to David Storey’s This Sporting Life, a novel about a factory worker who gets signed by a Rugby League team in a 1950s northern town. This Sporting Life might be set a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution kickstarted sport, but it is clear that sport and industry still go together. Rugby League is a kind of sporting heavy industry. This is a game played in vast stadiums by big men who have specialised jobs on the field, just as they follow specialised trades in their factories. Rugby, a sequence of systematic, repeated moments, is in effect a mill for producing sporting excitement, with sparks flying on the pitch as clouds of steam from nearby cooling towers drift overhead.

Even so, there is still a sense in This Sporting Life that Rugby League strives for something beyond the daily grind. The players are seen as heroes by local sports fans, reminiscent of those Greek heroes who took part in running and chariot races in Homer’s Iliad. The town’s gods – wealthy industrialists rather than deities on a mountain – run the club. Just as in Homer, the gods support some heroes at the expense of others, using their influence to trip up or push forward individual athletes as they see fit.

This Sporting Life is really a study of what it is to be one of these modern sporting heroes. Seemingly living lives beyond those of ordinary mortals, they are admired wherever they go, receiving free stuff and fan mail. Yet, a famous player also seems something less than human. The narrator and central character, Arthur Machin, often remarks on feeling like some sort of ape man who doesn’t belong in normal society. One of his lady admirers actually calls him Tarzan. The contradiction of popularity and a feeling of exclusion causes havoc with Arthur’s personal life. In his gruff way he loves his landlady, the widowed Mrs Hammond. This troubled young woman becomes interested in Arthur when he makes the metamorphosis from ordinary factory worker to sports star. At the same time she is unable to view him as a normal man she could be with. She always seems worried that Arthur will be off with one of his many female fans. Nothing Arthur can say will convince Mrs Hammond otherwise. Arthur’s fellow players Frank and Maurice are fortunate in having wives who treat them as normal men.

This Sporting Life is a study of professional sport and the celebrity it brings. Published in 1960 it is an uncompromising tale, interesting in the context of sport history, and in its prescience about the kind of developments that would follow in sport and celebrity culture generally.

Reading Between The Lines Of Chess

My daughter has recently started a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Watching her preparations, I was reminded of how close games are to story telling. A game offers a plot outline, whether that involves buying London property, racing around the railroads of America for a bet, or fighting dragons in dungeons. A new chapter unfolds each time the game is played.

If games are stories, I wondered what would count as classic literature, the sort of thing that students might study at university? Thinking along these lines I imagined being at university, about to embark on our course in game studies. After batting away comments from mathematicians in the bar about soft subjects, we could sit down with two of our subject’s oldest texts, draughts and go, which date back at least 3000 years. They represent a simple society, where all the pieces are identical and of the same value. But times change and society grows more complex.

Chess dates back about 1500 years, and settled into a recognisable modern form in Europe by the fifteenth century. Chess, in contrast to draughts and go, describes a complex, stratified society, with the sort of extreme social inequality that could very easily cause controversy on campus. In their differing sizes, chess pieces dramatise a ladder of importance, from a giant king and queen, through middle sized castles, knights and bishops, to the poor, bloody infantry of pawns who can be sacrificed without too many qualms if the wider strategy requires it.

However, a diligent student will look beneath the surface of a story, and in doing so with chess, it doesn’t take long to pick up much subversive commentary. The pawns, for example might be the smallest and least powerful pieces, but their range of movement is actually the same as that of the king, who, in effect, is a pawn dressed up in fancy clothes. Equally interesting is the way real power lies behind the throne. The queen, with her unmatched abilities, provides a remarkable challenge to a male dominated society.

Between the pawns and the royal pieces, we have the castles, bishops and knights. Now for those of you who don’t play chess all you really need to know is that castles move in straight lines, bishops move on the diagonal, and knights move in an L shape, three squares forward and one to the side. At the start of a game, the bishops are closest to king and queen, with the knights next to the bishops, and the castles out on the edge of the board. You also need to know that maybe keen literature students have a tendency to read too much into things. But let’s continue our studies anyway.

First the castles: what would their straight up and down movements make you think of? To me the castles suggest rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. They could be said to stand for the secular part of society. If I pictured a castle receiving a promotion, it would be on the basis of a rigorous exam. As the game begins, however, I can’t help noticing that the castles’ straight up and down approach to life is kept firmly out at the edges of the board, at a distance from the centre of influence. More favoured are the knights, closer to the king. Is it a coincidence that the knights, who owe their position to an accident of aristocratic birth rather than merit, come at their enemies from the side in a sneaky L shaped movement? Is there a subtle nod at the unfairness of life in the fact that the aristocratic knights sit closer to the king at the start of the game than the castles? Keep these questions in mind as we come to the bishops, who in the initial layout of pieces sit closest to the royal house. The bishops move not on the castle’s straight lines, but on a diagonal. Isn’t there a subtle hint of cunning in that way of moving? In an unsaid sort of way, it could be significant that the two bishops cannot support each other as the castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, the dark or the light squares. What does that make you think of? To me it suggests sneaky self interest, with hints of back stabbing division and closed mindedness.

Chess has long had an uneasy relationship with religious authority, suffering bans at one time or another from Muslims, Jews, Anglicans, Puritans, and most recently, the Taliban. These bans were generally related to perceived time wasting, or laws forbidding idolatrous depiction of people or animals. Perhaps the portrayal of the bishops in chess, is the game’s subtle revenge.

After student arguments about chess, even a few sit-ins, if you will, protesting at the kind of society it portrays, perhaps in the end we come to appreciate a game that is more subversive than conservative. It is ultimately also more reassuring than depressing, in the way it shows this whole ungainly, unjust mess of a society working in such intricate harmony.

The Rise And Rise Of Reginald Perrin

Author Jonathan Coe, writing in 2015 about the career of the late David Nobbs, claimed that Nobb’s most famous book, The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin, should be considered a classic. Initially I was sceptical that the story of Reggie Perrin, a 1970’s sales executive who fakes his own death and comes back disguised as someone else, could really be up there with Shakespeare.

First there were the dodgy jokes. While I laughed my way through some very funny sections, I nevertheless felt that some of the jokes were unwisely reheated from David Nobbs’ other career as a gag writer for TV comedians:

The driver got in the car and slammed the door.

‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.

‘I’m not Macduff. I’m Carter,’ said the driver.

‘I spoke figuratively,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.

‘Macduff’s got ’flu,’ said the driver.

That joke could have have helped fill the half hour on The Two Ronnies.

Apart from the odd less than ground-breaking joke, there was the bigger problem of accepting that a man could come back to his family, a bit older, greyer, suntanned, new bearded, and with nothing more than some am-dram experience, fool them into believing he is someone else.

AlI this being said, I still found myself fascinated by the story of an average man who wants to be something more. Reggie Perrin is a classic 1970s executive suffering a typical midlife crisis, hoping to escape his humdrum fate. David Nobbs does some very interesting things with the theme of fate, making you realise that we can never escape our destiny because what ever happens to us, no matter how bizarre, turns into what we are destined to do. Achieving something special does not involve leaving ordinary life behind, but finding remarkable qualities within it. This reminded me of that great tome of classic modern literature, the Alexandria Quartet, where Lawrence Durrell writes that our aim should not be to evade destiny, “but to fulfil it in its true potential.” David Nobbs makes the same point more succinctly, and with more laughs.

Overall the theme of fate is handled with such sensitivity and wit that I couldn’t help thinking of parallels with other authors who have written about the same thing, authors like, oh I don’t know, Shakespeare. Talking of Shakespeare, we could go back to my gripe about the veracity of Reggie fooling everyone with his disguise. Are all the cases of mistaken identity in Shakespeare always totally believable? Without the benefits of advanced prosthetics and a team of theatrical makeup artists, can shipwrecked Viola in Twelfth Night really concoct a disguise which persuades everyone that she is her brother? And dashing into the woods to escape her father in As You Like It, is it realistic that Rosalind manages to disguise herself as the sort of man capable of turning the head of shepherdesses? While we are on the subject of Shakespeare, let’s not forget that his plays have their share of dodgy jokes. What about all those puns? “You have dancing shoes with nimble soles. I have a soul of lead,” says Romeo. Did you get that – sole sounds like soul? If the Two Ronnies were working in the sixteenth century they might have passed on that gag.

By the time I reached the end of Fall and Rise, I’d decided that a rather silly romp could actually be a classic story.

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. (…). 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.