Friday, 31 January 2020

Slán, Sasana

I looked out of my window this morning to see my Italian neighbour, who has been here 40 years and is very patriotic, flying the British flag at half-mast to mark the end of this country's membership of the EU. A brave thing to do in this ultra-Brexit area, but also heart-breaking.

I have a complicated relationship with the Union Jack: too associated with skinheads and being waved triumphantly over piles of foreign dead from Ireland to India for my tastes, but my neighbour has developed his own more flexible version of Britishness which incorporates affection for a country which welcomed and nurtured him while not denying his origins: he still imports a freezer-lorry of grapes from his home region every year to make wine with. That half-mast flag speaks volumes about the way he – and many of us – have been forced by a vicious complex of paranoias and pressures to adopt less rich, less complex identities just as we thought that the poison of xenophobic nationalisms had been eradicated across Europe. 

I'm an Irish citizen (and have been for a lot longer than some of my friends who have suddenly taken to sporting underarm pigs) of multiple origins, from German Jews to turf cutters - and Europe has been an unalloyed good, economically, socially and culturally. The tensions between Britain and Ireland have been blunted by common membership of the EU, while freedom of movement has been the saving of both countries so often. I see the origins of euroscepticism in Britain's failure to address its imperial past, and to plot a post-imperial course. Every time I hear some pumped-up politician talking about Britain 'punching above its weight' I cringe. How about not wanting to punch anyone? How about – like ex-imperial nations like Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Norway and Spain – accepting that having heavy weapons isn't a global mandate to lead or dominate? I've heard so many Brexiteers explain that they can't abide the EU because it's a superstate, but they never make the logical leap to supporting Welsh or Scottish independence, and they're largely enormous fans of an Empire they've never considered from the perspective of those on the receiving end. Super-states aren't a bad thing, it seems, as long as you're on top. 

I'm desperately sad today. I look round my city and all the other desperately poor areas of this country which voted Brexit and wonder what they expect. Every social initiative and new building displays a discreet EU-funded flag. What few employment rights the precariat have come from the EU, as do the clean water and air directives the UK is currently breaching. Safe toys, cars and food, privacy regulations, freedom of speech and assembly: they all come from Europe. While a hunger for votes might make the Tories pay a little more attention to deprived areas, nobody should expect a renewed concern for the left-behind in Westminster: not the old, the poor, the Welsh, the northern, children, the sick or anyone else. Some Brexiteers are happy enough to accept that they'd rather be 'free' than fed, but I can't help noticing that the people expounding these principles tend to own hedge funds domiciled abroad, or have otherwise insulated themselves from chlorinated chicken and pharmaceutical price hikes. They will wave the flag while hiding their wealth offshore, creaming off the benefits of deregulated finance while consciously and deliberately exposing the rest of us to the viciousness of the free market. 

My passport means I can still move around and might qualify for an airlift when we get to the pointy end of things, but I'm taking no pleasure in having an escape route. I'm here because I love this place, from Marmite to sarcasm to cricket, Dorothy Richardson to AS Byatt, Moulton bikes, curry houses, wry demonstration placards, dusty bookshops to haggis. I've lost good friends and colleagues, frozen out by Brexit and the behaviour of some of its supporters. I know German people who've learned Welsh to the extent that they've become literary critics and historians of and in that language: now gone. Britain won't just become poorer: it will be narrower, sadder, culturally-bereft and more suspicious. There's no positive vision beyond 'freedom': to me it looks like the freedom Lear found on the blasted heath, only without the epiphany. 'Very well, alone' worked when Churchill said it, because 'alone' meant 'at the head of a global empire which will do what it's told': now it's the loneliness of the body left on the gibbet to be picked clean by its supposed allies and its leaders. 

I did wonder whether Brexit would be good for the world. A mad dog tamed, and perhaps split into its constituent parts, never to threaten anyone else ever again. I think it's unlikely - once outside the infuriating, ponderous system of patient, unsatisfying compromises that define European progress, Britain, or England, will just get madder and badder. When the inevitable results of Brexit occur, the Brexiteers will blame perfidious Europa, stabbing a freedom-loving people in the back, and they'll win more elections on that basis, slowly (or quickly) condemning a rich, fascinating, complex country to a bitter national dementia. You might not think so, but it's what a majority voted for in a referendum and under the stupid electoral system you decided to retain. You know your racist grandpa? That's your country, that is. 

(Good things also happened this week but they pale into insignificance. Maybe next week). 

Friday, 24 January 2020

A little ado about less

Another quiet week here: marking, reading, preparing lectures for the next semester and screaming inside as the world burns. Plus ça change really. The oddest bit was going to a recording of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue at the local grand theatre – very talented comics (all-male, somehow) doing very funny jokes that could have appeared in an episode broadcast in 1976. Which I suppose is half the charm, and clearly what the audience wanted. Silly wordplay, funny noises, familiar catchphrases, incongruous juxtapositions and the odd innuendo to make the audience groan. They didn't like the very mild Prince Andrew joke though… Samantha failed to appear though, which was very disappointing. She had a very good excuse though.

Other than that, not a lot. I went fencing as a charitable gesture: I stand there and let the young folk use me as target practice. Tectonic plates react faster than me these days, but it's still good fun.

I only managed a couple of books this week: Jennifer Donnelly's A Gathering Light and John Christopher's The World in Winter. I have no memory of buying A Gathering Light and historical fiction isn't usually my thing, but I enjoyed it. It's a bildungsroman - the story of a rural New York peasant girl's intellectual awakening, tied to a real-life murder of the early 20th-century. The community and its poverty is beautifully drawn, but I did find the central characters' perfection a bit much to bear. Matty suffers from maternal loss and paternal ignorance; she has a black friend and an inspiring teacher. There's an alcoholic, a groper and a racist in the cast and an unsuitable boy, and she eventually rises above the challenges they all set. It's essentially Anne of Green Gables without the psychological complexity, but it is a good read. I see from the reviews that it was marketed as a teen/young adult novel, which didn't strike me at all. The protagonist is a teenage girl but apart from the rather simplistic ending, it didn't strike me as one aimed primarily at teens at all.

The World in Winter is more problematic. The set-up of this 1962 eco-dystopia is fine: climate change (hot to cold in this case) renders Europe uninhabitable, causing Britain's residents to seek succour in the former African colonies. It could have been a fascinating examination of colonialist attitudes as the white former rulers adapt to being supplicants to those they previously considered inferior. Sadly, the novel's whole point is that whatever suffering must be endured, white people should look after their own. The hero casually applies slyly racist nicknames to people who later help him; he double-crosses them even when they're entirely sincere, solely to re-establish a minimal white population in Britain. The mass murder of the white population down to sustainable levels is presented as little more than a regrettable necessity and apartheid South Africa is the only congenial place (and one about to wiped out by the ungrateful African nations and their renegade white mercenary forces). The plotting and the evocation of a devastated, inhospitable Britain populated with gangsters and cannibals is brilliantly presented, but all in the service of a racist ideology. Without doubt one of the nastiest novels I've read in a long time – the Brexiteers will love it. To take the taste away, I've started Pynchon's hippy crime thriller, Inherent Vice – another one that's been sitting neglected on my shelf since it came out. It's good fun so far, but I'm not sure where it's going, if anywhere.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Bath, Bad Books and Beyond

January is always a weird month here in academia. We're still in Semester 1 but it's an assessment period: no lectures, no seminars but occasional individual tutorials with students mixed with marking (now online, to my chagrin), little daily structure but a lot of demands. When the semester ends we have a week to finish marking and prepare teaching before Semester 2 starts - in my case case reorienting what little remains of my cognitive functions away from The Book of Mormon, The Passion of New Eve, children's literature and assorted American literatures towards the European renaissance: Shakespeare, Webster, various sonnetteers and pamphleteers, plus all their Italian and French influences. Simultaneously there's the BBC novels project to work on, plus my books on masculinity in Welsh writing in English and politicians' fictions to get on with. And of course dissertation supervision, PhD vivas, course leadership and all the pastoral care that doesn't show up on workload allocation forms but very much does show up, in tears, at my desk at regular but unpredictable intervals. Pressured though all this is, it's also enjoyable - no day is the same.

Away from work, I've managed to partly block out the general misery (world on fire, local MP – who has blocked me from his Twitter feed – banned from Wikipedia for editing out the more inglorious episodes of his career, general gloom) by visiting Bath, riding my bike and (of course) reading books. I took some pictures in Bath which you can see here.

A Victorian chandelier in Bath Abbey

Sulis Minerva 

Two-faced (I can't resist a pun)

A hunting scene

Despite Jane Austen's horror of the place (she makes Mr Tilney describe it as 'the most tiresome place in the world whereas romantic dimwit Catherine loves it, and Austen refers in a letter to 'another stupid party'), I liked it: good food, good company, good bookshops, fine walking and the palpable presence of a counterculture challenging the deep sense of privilege. The Roman Baths were astonishing so much remains, history piled on history giving a striking sense of the way the Romans and their successors merged spirituality with commerce: the 'wellness' ethos avant la lettre.

I also went to the local council's cycling forum last night. An all-white, all-male and (other than me) all 60+ affair, it encapsulated citizenship in the best and worst ways. The best of it was the way a group of people volunteered to give their time up to help improve the city. They were highly-informed, altruistic, thoughtful people with a commitment to local and global environmental improvement, and they had practical, constructive ideas which the council officer considered and debated with respect. The downside was the homogeneity of the group, a function of wider structural conditions for which those present can't be blamed. The result, however, is that without wider representation, decisions will be made without consideration of other perspectives. This city is a traffic-clogged hellhole: only the hardiest (or foolhardiest) brave its multi-lane ring road, dangerous junctions, damaged road surfaces and psychopathic drivers on a regular basis. Enthusiasts like me will always take a chance and literally have the scars to prove it, but to make this place better it needs to be a safe and pleasant environment for cyclists of all sexes and backgrounds and speeds to take their rightful place. Not present in the room were all those people who'd like to commute by bike and choose not to, and a way needs to be found to take their views into account.

As far as reading goes, only the two books this week: Haruki Murakami's Dance Dance Dance and Alissa Nutting's Tampa. I read most of Murakami's novels in the 1990s when I was young and (slightly) less embittered. I enjoyed the whimsicality, the mixed genres, the tinge of magical realism and the protagonists' slightly obsessive characteristics. If I'd read Dance Dance Dance then, I think I'd have rated it as one of his very best. As a quest novel, it works very well: the quest is of course whimsical and obsessive but it's also emotionally complex and not entirely resolved. There's some good humour, often at the author's expense: 'Hiraku Makimura' is a washed-up author character. With the benefit of experience though, I struggled with the protagonist's and the author's sexual and gendered attitudes - even if we assume that the protagonist isn't meant to be uncritically admired, the plot, resolution and attitudes are relentlessly misogynistic. The women are all waiting for a man, waiting to be sexually available, tarts-with-hearts or bafflingly out of reach. Dead women's bodies abound, too. There's no doubt about Murakami's ability to create a world and a character, but he clearly can't manage to empathise or understand women.

As for Tampa, it came close to being the first book I've never finished. I should have known it would be bad when I noticed that the cover blurbs were by Irvine Welsh and Alex Niven - the self-styled bad boys of literature. Hailed (by them) as a female Lolita, Nutting's novel follows a term or so in the life of a female paedophile and school teacher, Celeste, as she entraps a couple of 14-year old boys before exposure inevitably befalls. There's a vague attempt at psychological justification of Celeste's condition (first sexual encounter was with a 14-year old boy, fixing her idea of perfection, and her marriage is loveless) but it's perfunctory at best, and much of the novel is badly-written pornography. I'm not convinced that it's deliberate, an attempt to reproduce the damaged psyche of a sociopath: it's an endlessly repetitive series of encounters without the mechanical drive of a Ballard, Ellis's early work or Moore's Lost Girls.

Lolita, disturbing as it is, has style and structure. Tampa is just one unlovely word following another until we get to the end. If you want confrontational women's writing taking on previously male-dominated subjects (and you should: plenty of men get to publish books about bad things, often bad books abut bad things), I'd suggest Helen Walsh's Brass and Belinda Webb's The Clockwork Apple instead. Walsh's latest novel is about a woman's affair with a 17 year-old boy: I haven't read it yet but I'm pretty certain it's less exploitative and more intelligent than Nutting's effort. Tampa fails because it has nothing to say really, beyond the obvious fact that women can be paedophiles too. Celeste has no origins, no social context, no causes: she's just a monster to be judged (but enjoyed first, it seems). So what?

I actually regret reading this novel. I don't often feel that my time's been wasted despite having read an enormous amount of forgettable or meretricious work in my time, but this one just didn't justify the paper. If you're going to address something important and shocking, you've got to do it well. This didn't.

Back to the marking for me. Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Back to the Future…sadly

New readers may have been lulled into a false sense of security by my generally sunny disposition and wittering on about books, but those of you with less active social lives and a longer acquaintance with this blog may remember the dark years of 2010-15, when far too much of my life – and yours – was taken up tracking the nefarious activities of one Paul Uppal, Conservative MP and a man whose venality was matched only by his idleness. Uppal's fans may be delighted to learn that having been given a sinecure by his old friends in the party, he has had to resign as Small Business Commissioner due to a conflict of interest – i.e. the same old same old. No wonder my Freedom of Interest request about his declarations of interest was refused. Let us hope this is the last stain Mr Uppal leaves on public life.

However, there's a new Sheriff in town: I have a new Conservative MP and it looks like he's going to fill Mr Uppal's corrupt shoes admirably. Even before he was elected the Guardian pointed out that he'd illegally taken £54,000 from his failing company – in a fit of sympathy not extended to your average teenage shoplifter, HMRC allowed him to repay only £2000 lest he go bankrupt through running a company badly and then stealing from it. Private Eye followed this with a report that Mr Anderson, a rabid Brexiteer, has started another company: one supported by European Union grants. Curiously, eTravelSafety has already been dissolved, though it still has a website. But don't worry, Stuart's got a third company on the go: Stand Sure Enterprises, which itself seems to have owned eTravelSafety. It's all very odd, but then there's a tradition of extremely marginal 'entrepreneurs' promoting the free market while sucking up state subsidies. No wonder he was listed as one of the most controversial new MPs. Still, now he's got a nice fat MP's salary, I'm sure he'll repay what he owes us.

Sadly Mr Anderson has blocked me on Twitter, which seems a little precious for a public tribune, let alone dubious given I'm a constituent of his. Still, I intend to keep an eye on him, which is more than the local paper – a long-standing Tory rag – has done. When the illegal payments story emerged they recorded a tearful video of him explaining that it was all done to keep his family off the streets. The latest delight is the government's launch of Town of the Year initiative. If you read the Guardian, you'll know that it was kicked off here by Robert Jenrick, another local. You'll also know that neither he, nor Mr Anderson, nor the government were aware that The Dark Place has been a city since 2000. Curiously, the Express and Star missed this insult in a way that I'm sure they wouldn't have done had a Labour government made this mistake. Instead, they refer only to 'areas' being regenerated. They are also fully behind Mr Anderson's campaign to demonise travellers, perhaps unsurprisingly for a paper that referred to them as a plague.

So anyway, this is fair warning: I'm still going to be wittering on about books, bikes (I bought No. 4 - a second-hand, heavily upgraded Boardman AiR Elite 9.0 - just before Christmas), music and the like over the coming year but there's also going to be a fair amount of petty spitefulness on my part. It'll be a stretch but I'm sure I can manage it.

Books read recently: Phineas Redux (Anthony Trollope) - hugely enjoyable, and featuring a dodgy Tory PM who first staves off and then springs an election while ducking any examination of principle whatsoever. Felt strangely appropriate. Then Nicola Ammanti's Anna: standard post-apocalyptic children stuff though featuring a compelling protagonist; Byatt's The Children's Book, which was largely wonderful. Now I'm reading Robert Frost's Selected Poems and Alissa Nutting's controversial Tampa. Marking is about to come in so I must make hay while the sun shines. Happy new year!