Wednesday, 12 May 2010

British General Election 2010

The most exciting general election in the United Kingdom in the last 30 years, allegedly, is concluded and in the words of Paddy Ashdown, the Ex-Liberal Democrat leader, the British Public has spoken, but we are not clear what they have said.

Although this is a blog mainly about books, I can declare that I am interested in politics. ‘Interested’ would probably be overstating it. I am interested in British politics in the same way I am interested in the non-fiction section of a high-street bookshop: I know where it is, but I do not have an overwhelming desire to visit it and pour over, say, yet another account of what the British did leading up to the D day in the Second World War, or a 'highly informative’ account that ‘reads like a thriller’ of the recession crisis engulfing the Western world by an expert (who wasn’t expert enough, it would appear, to predict it; but then, apart from Vince Cable and my friend John, no one in my knowledge saw it coming); however, I will visit it if there is a specific book I am looking for.

My interest in the British general election of 2010 was aroused after the televised debate—the first in British History—of the leaders of the three contesting parties. It was also an opportunity for me to find out the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrat Leader and see him. I thought that was essential, as I was planning to vote the Lib Dems in the election. My curiosity was also provoked by a phone call I received one evening a few weeks earlier. The woman at the other end claimed that she was phoning from the Lib Dems’ office and wanted to know which party I would vote if the elections were held the next day. I told her that I would vote the Lib Dems, and she thanked me. I felt compelled to tell her that those were only intentions and I might change my mind on the day itself. I warned her that I was known amongst my friends to be notoriously indecisive.

‘It’s OK; I only wanted to know your intentions,’ she said.

‘Even though they can change within hours of this conversation,’ I responded.

There was a pause, then the woman said, ‘Well, um.'

All the contestants in the constituency in which I live were men, none of them pretty. The Lib Dem candidate, the party of my choice, looked like the missing link between the Neanderthals and humans, and was of a height that would have required a ladder to get on to a chair. The Labour and the Tory candidates between them weighed 250 kilograms. The Labour guy looked as though he had an alcohol problem, his face permanently flushed and nose an angry red dotted with tributaries of broken veins. The Tory candidate was equally unprepossessing (I only saw his posters), with his hair looking as if a bird had attempted to build a nest on his head before giving up, and eyes glinting sinisterly from behind his glasses. I could not make up my mind whether the man, despite his prodigious bulk, was a mental midget (and therefore to be pitied), or despite his ridiculous appearance, was evil (and therefore to be feared). There was a candidate from the Green Party, too, who looked to be barely out of his teens, a galaxy of acne cruising across his face. I have never really understood the point of the Greens (probably because I have never tried). I knew that Hazel from office was a Green supporter—another reason why I viewed the Greens with some reservation. Hazel is a bit odd; she eats raw vegetables for lunch and has peculiar body odour (I also suspect she is a cat-lover). I logged on to the Green Party’s website, which informed me that it was not just another political party; Green politics was a new radical kind of politics guided by their core principles, of which they had listed ten. By the time I reached the end of the list (liberally strewn with words and phrases like ‘recognising human diversity’, ‘non-violent solution to conflict situations’, ‘Personal freedom, happiness, and human fulfilment’) tears of boredom were streaming down my face, even though I did not have any issues with the Greens’ idea of Utopia. I mean, I wouldn't mind at all living in a world where everyone is happy, everyone gets everything he wants, the Islamists and Jeremy Paxman chill out a bit—the former reconnoitring the route to paradise, and the latter adopting the philosophical position that there ought to be more to life than insulting politicians, and—my personal Utopia, this—I get to date classy birds who wear expensive knickers, own first edition Orwell, and who, when you take them out for meals, spend half an hour studying the menu before ordering green salad and a glass of fizzy water. But I am not sure that is going to happen, not at any rate by voting the Greens; you might as well flush your vote down the toilet. I wished I were living in the neighbouring constituency where there was a posh bird standing on the Conservative ticket against (it has to be said) a very ugly Labour man with gaps in his teeth.

‘I will be astonished if the lesbian wins,’ announced my friend John (a long-standing Labour supporter who hates New Labour; but he hates the Tories even more). ‘This is a safe Labour seat.’

‘You are calling this woman a lesbian,’ I felt I needed a clarification on this point, ‘because you have a specific knowledge about her sexuality, or as a term of abuse to express your contempt?’ I ended the sentence with an inflection to make it into a question.

‘Oh! She looks like a Les’, John Said. ‘And she is stupid; she probably thinks credit crunch is an expensive cereal,’ he added.

‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.

‘She just looks stupid to me.’

Anyway, coming back to the televised debates Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, judging from his (ham) theatrical performance, appeared to be auditioning for the role of an enraged brother-in-law in a Bollywood family potboiler. As for what he had to say, it could be summarised as follows: we are not Labour and we are not Tories; we can’t be held responsible for the mess we are in; so vote for us. David Cameron, the Tory leader, looked perplexed, as if trying to figure out how he ended up with the two other chancers sharing the podium with him.  What he had to say was about as clear as one of those Impressionistic paintings of Claude Monet when he began to lose his sight. Cameron’s main message was: we are in a mess; Labour did it; don’t vote for them, vote for us. We are not the nasty party any more; look at me; do I look nasty? (To be fair to him, when he was not looking perplexed, he tried his best to look concerned.) Gordon Brown, the prime-minister and the leader of the Labour Party, unlike Cameron and Clegg, managed effortlessly to be his natural self—awkward, grumpy, sullen, and with the attitude of a spoilt ten year old who has been told that he cannot help himself, for the sixth time, to the jar of sweets. His pitch to the public was: I am the prime minister and, unlike the other two jokers, I know what I am talking about; I have seen good times and bad times (in other words he knew how to wreck a perfectly working economy); the recession was global, and I am your man to steer the country out of troubled waters. (Entrusting economy to Brown, my friend John said, would be like handing over your best crockery set to the bull after he had rampaged through your China shop.) On immigration, especially illegal immigration, the Labour and Tories differed from the Lib Dem position. As I saw it, Nick Clegg was going to track down these illegal immigrants, living in the shadows of our society as he put it, and give them amnesty so that they could live here; whereas Cameron and Brown were not going to find them and deport them. On several occasions during the three televised debates, Brown looked disapprovingly at Cameron and Clegg. He informed Cameron that he was a threat to country’s economic recovery, and Clegg that he was a threat to country’s security. He was so severe, I feared Cameron and Clegg would need telephonic support from anti-bullying help-line.

In the middle of all this Brown had his granny-gate. While campaigning in Rochdale, Brown was accosted by an old biddy who asked him a lot of questions about economy and immigration, which confirmed that the old biddy, in addition to being of an advanced age and (by her own admission) a lifelong Labour supporter, was also stupid, ignorant, and very possibly bigoted.  That’s what Brown called her afterwards in what he thought was a private conversation with one of his aides. Except that he still had a microphone attached to his shirt, provided by SKY, and the remark was picked up by the SKY news, which, promptly, in line with its stoop-to-the-gutter-level-to-destroy-Brown-protocol, splashed it all over the place, forcing Brown to issue no less than six apologies over the next six hours. He even visited the bigoted woman at her house in Rochdale (that, you would have thought, was punishment enough) to apologise in person. Brown could have learned from Teflon Tony, his predecessor, slimier than a snail, who never accepted microphones from News agencies.

My support for Lib Dems began to waver after the ‘granny-gate’ and I toyed with the idea of voting Labour, so sorry did I feel for Brown, who was being be-shitten from everywhere.

On the election night, I started with the intention of watching the results throughout the night. ITV and BBC had rival shows, while Channel 4 had an ‘alternative election night’, fronted, amongst others, by the comedian Jimmy Carr, whom I do not find funny at all and whose habit of jerking his neck (like a hen picking up grains from a garbage pile) every time he delivers his un-funny punch line I find irritating. So I decided to watch ITV and BBC.

I shall not go into the details of what happened on the election night because I had had enough by 11.30 pm and went to sleep. I remember Ann Widdecomb, ex-Tory MP and dreadful novelist, her breasts splayed on the table in front of her, commenting that Paddy Ashdown, the ex-leader of the Lib Dems was being ‘pompous and premature’, before predicting with a school-girlish squeak that the Tories would have a clear majority when the first election result, from the piss-poor Sunderland, came out, which the Tories lost to Labour by a margin of more than 10,000 votes. On another occasion the mosquitoesqe David Miliband, while being interviewed—by that time it was clear as daylight that Labour, although not facing a rout, were losing badly— reminded George Osborne, the deathly pale right hand man of Cameron, that it was not a sixth form debate with the smirk of an eleven year old who thought he had made a clever point in the school debate.

It was also obvious that the Labour propaganda machine had swung into action with all the dexterity and panache of a charging rhino. The double trouble of Alastair Campbell and Piers Morgan refused to accept with the conviction of the deluded that it was turning out to be a bad night for Labour. Campbell tried to give so much positive spin to the undeniable reality that Labour had attracted less than 30% of the popular vote and were comfortably beaten by the Tories to the second position that I began to get vertigo. Piers Morgan was regrettably (but unsurprisingly) equally shameless in his refusal to see the blindingly obvious, and was concocting all sorts of permutations involving Labour and Lib Dems that would keep the Tories out. I could not help thinking that these freelancing wheeler-dealers—Campbell, an ex-alcoholic and discredited spin-doctor of a discredited, profiteering warmonger (liar BLiar, pants on fire); and Morgan, a disgraced former editor of a British tabloid who was frogmarched out of the office for being incompetent and who now earns his keep by being a reality television judge, sitting next to David Hasselhoff and Amanda Holden—were doing more harm than good to Labour’s (already tattered) reputation. It is not as if either of them has credibility or has anything intelligent to say. They are just a couple of chancers who turn up (probably uninvited) at these events. It is impossible to take such publicity-hoggers seriously. Morgan is at least entertaining; Campbell is just annoying.

Then I saw Jeremy Paxman—perhaps it was the next day—giving a grilling to a robot called Jack Dromey  (the husband of the deputy leader of Labour party, Harriet Harman), the newly elected Labour MP from Birmingham. Paxo tried his best-selling act of looking disgusted, contemptuous, incredulous, all at the same time (which had the net result of him looking as if he was choking on his own tongue) when Dromey informed him that the people did not want a Conservative government. However Dromey was having none of that. With no expressions whatsoever on his face and in a monotonous voice, in comparison with the standard recorded message on the telephone answer-phone was Laurence Olivier, Dromey kept on repeating that the Conservatives had not won the election and that people did not want a Conservative government. It was as if the man had no free will and was programmed to spawn the same response no matter what Paxman threw at him. Paxo gave up in the end, looking at Dromey as if he should be quartered and attempting one last bit of sarcasm by saying that he (Dromey) had made himself abundantly clear. The camera faded as Dromey, in response, was in the midst of saying that people did want a Conservative government.

Peter Mandelson was interviewed at one stage. He is another corrupt, discredited politician, in my opinion. Brown hated his guts for supporting BLiar for the Labour leadership in the 1990s, but recalled him from the cold when he began to lose ground. I am not sure if that was such a clever move. The views of most people of the ‘Prince of Darkness’ nestle between detestation and abhorrence. In the interview I watched, Mandelson did what he is best at: building sandcastles when the tide was clearly coming in. A malicious grin spreading slowly, like soft butter, across his unattractive face, Mandelson hinted and insinuated all sorts of possibilities in respect of post-election alliances between parties, indicating that Labour would be prepared to ditch Gordon Brown if it meant they could stay in power in coalition with the Lib Dems. It was a spectacle guaranteed to turn most healthy stomachs.

The final results were almost exactly as predicted by the exit polls, which confirmed that Lord Ashdown was talking from the back of his head when he asseverated that the Lib Dems would win more seats than that predicted by the poll. However that still left the Tories 20 short of an absolute majority. Any Labour hopes of forming an alliance with the Lib Dems were dashed when Cleggy announced that the Tories should have a first go at forming a government. I was pleased when I heard that for no other reason than that it meant the machinating toerags like Mandelson and Campbell would be frustrated and the smirk on the face of that picayune David Miliband would disappear.

Brown, in the meanwhile, had returned to Number 10, the official residence of the British Prime-minister. His initial announcement suggested that he was not ready to throw in the towel yet. He grudgingly accepted that the Tories and the Lib Dem should first try to form the government—not that he had any choice in the matter; the Lib Dem had not, at that stage, approached him—however, he declared, should those negotiations not come to fruition he would be willing to negotiate with them. The right wing Tory press was up in arms and one of the tabloids owned by the despicable Rupert Murdoch called him a squatter at number 10. (The same tabloid, eleven years ago, when BLiar was licking Murdoch’s rectum clean, had announced in a headline, after yet another deranged rant from the then Tory leader, William Hague, that the Conservative party had died, the cause of death being suicide.) Then El Gordo, the magician, pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He announced that he was stepping down as the leader of the Labour party, but was still keen to form what he termed as a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Lib Dems that would keep the nasty Conservatives out. Since it was no secret that Cleggy could not stand Brown whose idea of persuading others to his line of thinking was to throw the nearest heavy object in the general direction of their heads, the assumption (presumably) by the Labour Think Tank (if that is not overstating the case) was that the Lib Dems would be more amenable to forming an alliance with them if Brown were out of the way. The right wing, pro-Tory, press went apeshit.  Just two days before they were calling Brown a squatter because he was not resigning. Now that he had resigned, they were madder than a hatter, and accused him of trying shamelessly to keep Cameron out of power.

We do not know whose idea it was to advise Brown to link his resignation to the coalition with the Lib Dems (probably Mandelson's), but it was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty undignified, not to say stupid, thing to do. All it did was to give the Lib Dems more leverage in their negotiations with the Tories, who immediately announced that they would be prepared to offer the Lib Dem a referendum on alternative vote (AV).

Allow me to explain all this fuss about proportional voting. This is an old demand of the Lib Dems, who, for decades, have argued that the voting system in Britain, which is ‘first-past-the-post is the winner’, is unfair. In this general election Lib Dem got 24% of the popular vote, but their elected members were less than 10% of the total number. That is of course because majority of their candidates lost, which meant that the votes gone to them did not count. In Lib Dem’s ideal world, with 24% share of the popular vote, they would have almost 1/4th the number of MPs. Quite how this will happen is difficult to say—there are several complicating formulae you can use, apparently—but it does not matter, because it is not going to happen. (Years ago, in 1997, BLiar led the Lib Dems up the garden path. He appointed the Jenkins Commission to look into it; but unsurprisingly, it came to nothing, as BLiar was not committed to it. And why would he? Labour, at that time, were winning landslide victories with just over 40% of the popular vote, and anyone who expected a dishonest politician like BLiar to make changes, however fair, to the electoral system that would harm the prospects of his party, was taking an excessively optimistic view of the human nature.) 

The Tory offer to Lib Dems, something which would be beyond the ideological pale of their grass-root members who are to the right of Genghis Khan politically (there is nothing wrong with our great country that cannot be cured if only the darkies went back to the jungles to beat their bongo drums, the smelly coloured corner-shop owners and landlords were deported along with their smelly coloured tenants, tree-hugging, vegetable-munching beardy socialists were gaoled without a trial, marauding low-class football fans were shot on the spot, and anyone with the name Mohammed was banned from entering the country; in the orderly climate thus engendered, where everyone knows his place, other problems like homosexuality and abortions would get sorted by themselves), and would eat virgins on the nights of full moon if only they had half a set of teeth in their mouths (the average Tory supporter is 176 years  old and thinks Britain still rules India)—was an indication that the panic had set in among the Etonians. One of Cameron’s allies, Michael Gove, who looked as if he was suffering from a combination of a muscle-wasting disease and exopthalmic goitre (or terminal stages of alcoholism) defended the decision by telling David Dimbleby how it was always on Cameron’s mind ever since he came out of his mother’s womb, but it fooled no one.

And then suddenly it was all over. The Lib Dems reached a deal with the Tories and entered into a full coalition. Cameron would become Prime-minister and Cleggy his deputy. Which also meant taxi for Brown. He didn’t hang around. He announced that he was resigning. His resignation speech was full of Brownian contradictions. Within half an hour of Brown meeting the queen, Cameron with his horsy wife was meeting the queen (she had a busy day) and being invited by the octogenarian monarch to form the government. The BBC reporter and the news-reader, in that uniquely British (and, to be frank, nauseating) way, prattled on about whether Cameron had kissed the queen’s hand and who was the last prime-minister before him who had done that. Cameron then returned to Downing Street and gave what I am sure will turn out to be the first of the many bland speeches as prime-minister. David Dimbleby then bored everyone by pointing out at great length, exuding air of smug satisfaction and pomposity in equal measures, the differences between the British and American system when there is a change of government / President. (Who gives a toss? Americans certainly don’t. The British elections did not feature even on page six of their newspapers.) The BBC reporter (a woman with a mouth like Shrek’s) announced that President Obama had phoned Cameron congratulating on his victory. When he heard that, Dimbleby looked as if he was going to ejaculate there and then. Obama, incidentally, was the second American politician to phone Cameron. The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had phoned him on the election night, apparently even before the Tories had won even a single seat, congratulating him on the victory. (May be Arnie was confused by the time difference between the two countries.).

The next day there were (at last) some indications that common sense might be returning to Labour ranks, and there'd be potential problems for Cameron. I saw an interview of Bill Cash, a Tory MP, and Diane Abbot, a Labour MP. Diane Abbott, who looked like she was either returning from or about to leave for, a pie-eating competition, was scathing of the unelected elements—when pressed to name them, she mentioned Mandelson and the improbably named Lord Adonis—interfering unnecessarily. She also said that the majority of the elected Labour MPs simply did not have the stomach to enter into what could only have been a very fragile coalition with the Lib Dems (not least because the two parties did not have the sufficient number to reach the majority and would have had to depend on the support of maverick fringe parties). The majority was also of the view that the party was crushed, trodden to the ground, and brought to a certain point of dilapidation (to these you’d have been tempted to add ‘debased’ and ‘diminished’ by the shenanigans of Mandelson, Campbell  et al) and should do the decent thing and be in the opposition. This view, also aired by the former Home secretary John Reid (in his monumentally irritating accent and patronising manner), suggested that not everyone in the Labour ranks was shameless or opportunistic or had taken leave of their senses. Bill Cash was scary; he would scare the flies off a manure truck. Firstly, he looked like a long lost cousin of Count Dracula; secondly he gave me the creeps when he launched into an inane tirade against Europe, his eyes darting everywhere, as if he was receiving messages from cuckoo land, and spit flying out everywhere from the slash that passed for a mouth on his face.

So, this is the state of play at the minute. Five days after the general election, Britain finally has a government. Cameron is in Number 10, and Nick Clegg has moved out of political obscurity to become the Deputy Prime-minister. (I wholeheartedly welcome this. Clegg is definitely an improvement on the thuggish, secretary-shagger John Prescott, the uncouth, semi-literate deputy of BLiar, who mangled the English language as a butcher cleaves meat and whose idea of sophisticated entertainment, you imagine, was to fart repeatedly and compare each explosion for volume, velocity and odourosity.)

Gordon Brown is gone. He is not just history; he is chemistry and biology. I suspect posterity will judge him as harshly as he is being judged now: he will always be remembered as the man who plotted for years to become prime-minister, but couldn’t hack it when he finally got the job. His legacy is economic ruins and near-bankruptcy of Britain. Bad as this is, he might derive comfort from the fact that at least he will not be remembered as the man who told lies and pushed his country into an illegal war. He is not a great orator, and it is unlikely that the Americans would pay astronomical sums of money to listen to him, as they are apparently doing to listen to BLiar. (Why anyone would part with even a pence of his hard-earned money to listen to BLiar blathering vacuously on peace in Middle East—would you listen to the Yorkshire Ripper lecturing on being kind to prostitutes?—is beyond me; but obviously there are parts of the world where they want to do that, allowing this war-criminal to trouser millions.) I guess Brown, who has a doctorate in History, will devote his considerable intellect to writing weighty books. A memoir full of spite and recrimination should not be ruled out.

Brown having made his long awaited (and much overdue) exit, there will now be a ghastly scrum to become the biggest bug in the pile of manure that is Labour party. Who will it be? David Miliband? Ed Miliband? Or Ed Balls? Surely they wouldn’t elect someone named Balls as their leader?

As for David—call me Dave—Cameron, he has shown that he can talk the talk. Can he walk the walk? Time shall tell. 

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Alan Sillitoe Dies

A couple of years ago I heard Alan Sillitoe in a literary festival. Sillitoe, wearing a hat (and a very crumpled black jacket) and looking very sprightly for his eighty years, arrived with an ancient contraption, and told the near-packed hall that he was going to conduct a small experiment. It was a Morse code operating device and Sillitoe went on to elucidate at some length how the machine operated and the clever things that had been done with it in the Second World War. The scholarly (and very entertaining) discourse had nothing to do with why the great man was there that evening; it was something that seemed to have caught his fancy at the time. The experiment concluded, Sillitoe drank a glass of water, making gulping noises, exaggerated by the microphone attached to his shirt collar. He then walked to the centre of the podium, sat in the chair opposite the interviewer, and said, ‘Right, then! Where do you want to start?’ Over the next one hour Sillitoe regaled the audience with anecdotes laced with humour and marked by eccentricity. I remember one concerning the making of the film based on his most famous novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that had the audience in splits. He said that the novel that influenced him most profoundly and inspired him to become a writer was Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. He informed, almost as an aside, that most of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was written under an orange tree. He revealed that in the six years preceding his debut novel he had written four full length novels, ‘each one four-hundred page length’. He said that the novels were highly derivative, influenced as he was in those days, by the styles of Kafka and Joyce. He did not send these novels anywhere for publication.

After the talk finished, I stood in the queue to get his autograph. When my turn came, I told him, as I put in front of him on the table my copies of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, that I was a great fan of his work. He looked up at me quizzically, as if he was not quite sure whether I was serious, before responding, ‘That is very kind of you.’ Emboldened by his response, I lied that I had in my collection many books of his (I had only five ) but I had not brought all of them with me. When he heard this, Sillitoe looked up at me and smiled. Then he said, ‘Good. You’d have required a wheelbarrow to bring all those books.’

Alan Sillitoe was a prolific writer. In addition to the more than two dozen novels, a volume of autobiography, collections of short-stories, he also published several volumes of poetry, a couple of plays, and several books for children. However, it was his debut novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the first collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, for which the posterity will remember him. The searing, uncompromising account of the working class Britain in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with its truculent, sardonic, womanising, and selfish protagonist, Arthur Seaton, earned Sillitoe (along with Jimmy Porter, John Brain, and Kingsley Amis, who wrote novels with vehemently anti-authority protagonists) the epithet of ‘Angry Young Writer' in the 1950s. He was also, perhaps unfortunately, pigeonholed as a writer of ‘working class’ novels. I am not sure how comfortable Sillitoe—who subsequently wrote on myriad subjects ranging from mental breakdown, political fantasy, revolution in Algeria, and even comic picaresques— felt with this straitjacketing. Years after the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he remarked, ‘the greatest inaccuracy was ever to call the book a working class novel for it is really nothing of the sort. It is simply a novel.’

There were many who thought that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was an autobiographical novel, no doubt because it is set in Nottingham, where Sillitoe grew up, and the protagonist worked a lathe in a factory, which is what Sillitoe did for a few years, before he joined the RAF. Sillitoe dispelled this notion, too, by clarifying that while the novel mirrored the sort of atmosphere he grew up in, it was a work of imagination in that ‘all the actors in it are put together from the jigsaw pieces assembled so that no identifiable characters came out in the end.’

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was followed by the superb collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; one of the stories—that which gave the short-stories-collection its title—was made into a film. Like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the short-story collection was remarkable for the unromanticised account of working class lives. My personal favourite is a story entitled 'Match’, in which a rancorous, resentful middle aged man returns home in rage after his football team loses a match and picks up a violent quarrel with his wife which would be the beginning of the end of his marriage.

None of Sillitoe’s subsequent novels achieved the critical and commercial success of his first two books, which is a great shame, as among them were gems, every bit as brilliant as the first two books, which were grossly underappreciated. He wrote three more novels—Key to the Door, The Open Door, and Birthday—tracing the fortunes of the Seaton brothers, the protagonists of his sensational debut novel. I have read Key to the Door and BirthdayKey to the Door is so forceful in its story-telling, the impact is almost physical. Birthday, which came out more than forty years after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, showed that Sillitoe had lost none of the gifts of evocative details, in this case the process of growing old. It is one of those books where the observation ‘just like life’ is not a cliché.

Alan Silitoe was born in an impoverished working class family. His father was an illiterate tanner, who had to endure long periods of unemployment, and one of the abiding memories of Sillitoe's early life was piling up the meager belongings of the family in a wheelbarrow and being constantly on the move—from one temporary address to another—to avoid rent-collectors. His father was a man of violent temper, and another vivid memory from his childhood was of his mother shouting at his father ‘Not about the head, not about the head’, as he went about bashing Sillitoe. Despite this, Sillitoe would appear not to have been alienated from his family: in a literary festival he narrated the touching story of how he went to Nottingham to meet his father with his first published novel and the old man, who couldn't read, wonderingly turned the book upside down in his palms and asked him whether it meant he would not have to work for his living. Sillitoe went to the local elementary school and was enthusiastic about English literature; however he failed the entrance exam and, aged fourteen, like many young men of his background, began working in a bicycle factory. Later, he worked in a lathe factory. In 1945 Sillitoe enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an air traffic controller, and, while posted in Malaya, he read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, which was to have a lasting impact on the young man. While serving in the RAF, he contracted tuberculosis, and, after spending a year in various RAF hospitals—he read avidly during his protracted convalescence—, he was ‘pensioned off’ at the age of twenty-one. Back in Nottingham he met the American poet Ruth Fainlight in a bookshop. The two fell in love and in the early 1950s sailed for the continent. Over the next six years they led an hand-to-mouth existence in France, Italy and Spain on Sillitoe’s RAF pension. During their stay in Majorca, Spain, the couple befriended Robert Graves, who encouraged young Sillitoe to write. Then he began writing another novel, much of which was composed in the autumn of 1956. This novel was sent for publication and was rejected by four publishers. Another one accepted it but suggested changes in the novel’s ending. Sillitoe, who at the time had not published a single novel and had no other source of income than his meagre RAF pension, refused. The novel was eventually accepted by WH Allen and published in 1958. It was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

In a memorable ‘Desert Island Discs’ interview a few years ago, Sillitoe said that all he ever wanted to do was to achieve enough success that would enable him to plod away, writing a book a year and pleasing himself.

That’s what Sillitoe went on to do. He has left behind a solid body of forceful fiction. When the Times Literary Supplement published a list of fifty greatest post-war British authors, Sillitoe was one of them.

A truly great writer has died. 

Shame of Orlando Figes & Pomposity of Robert Service

Robert Service had a terrible last week of April. He did not sleep well throughout the week, and got up much earlier than usual. That was awful; a man needs his forty wanks (or is it winks?). If you do historic research for living, and are a Sovietologist planning to unleash your next book about the agents and commissars during the Russian revolution, you need to be in full control of your faculties. And Service had other important responsibilities besides banging out a book; he had a concert to attend where a piece by the composer grandfather of his wife was going to be played. It would be a tad embarrassing, wouldn’t it, if the snoring of the respected and respectable historian drowned the music, and of his grandfather-in-law, too. Service had to bring forth every ounce of his willpower to stay awake during the concert, and by the time the concert finished, the poor man was exhausted. All he wished for was a hassle-free ride back home and a good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask? Of course not. Did he have a hassle-free ride? Of course not. No one gets a hassle-free ride on M4.

When Service finally reached home what was awaiting him? A mountain of e-mails, some or more of which from the fellow Sovietologist and historian Orlando Figes, or perhaps his lawyers. But more about that later. Let’s continue with Service’s nightmarish week. 

Service went through as many e-mails as he could that night. It was a tedious process, having to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some e-mails offered to enlarge his penis, while some others invited him to donate money to Nigerian bank accounts. Another e-mail sent him a chain message from the Dalai Lama and exhorted him to pass it on to fifteen of his acquaintances, threatening vague catastrophes if he did not do so. These e-mails did little to calm Service’s nerves. He struggled to derive comfort from his wife’s assurance that these were in all probabilities spam e-mails; that no one had taken photographs of his private parts and circulated them on the net; and that no one had hacked into his bank-code. She urged him to concentrate on the e-mails that really mattered, the e-mails from the dreaded Figes. Service had had very little to do with the lawyers over the years. (He had been very wise (or lucky). One’s relationship with the lawyers should be the same as with God—cordial but distant; it is not a good idea to get too involved unless one is in trouble; and it had better be a serious trouble.) Service finally went to bed wondering whether he would be able to hold on to his house if the matter with Figes went to court. 'What was the matter', I hear you asking. Be patient. All will be clear in due course.

Did Service sleep any better the second night? We do not know for sure, but I suspect he did. Why do I say this? Because he went for a run. (Would you go for a run if you woke up feeling knackered? I wouldn’t.) Service wanted an escape, and nothing like a good jog that would get the endorphins flowing. This day was a bit better when he received letters / e-mails of support from fellow Sovietologists, who urged him to stand up to the bully (Orlando Figes). He was doing a super-job, they declared unanimously. (It was, you couldn’t help thinking, a bit naughty of them to instigate Service in this manner: if the matter did go to the court, it was Service and not they who stood to lose their house.)

The next day Service ate sea bass for supper, for which he was joined by his younger daughter. What is nightmarish about eating sea-bass? Search me. I love sea-bass, and eating a well-cooked sea bass would be the high point of my week (unless I ate Halibut Tandoori on another day). May be Mrs Service did not cook the fish properly, or perhaps Service was dismayed that his daughter gatecrashed, thus depriving him of bigger portions. We shall never know the reason; what we do know is the sea bass supper only partially lifted the gloom enveloping him.

The next day Service logged on to Amazon to see the sales of his latest book, Trotsky. If he was hoping—and he clearly was—that his spat with Orlando Figes would boost the sales of his biography of Leon Trotsky—no publicity is bad publicity and all that—he was in for disappointment. The book was doing ‘alright’ (a couple of copies were sold) but was going to comfortably miss the best-sellers’ list. Service spent the rest of the day in gloomy contemplation of the pitiable state of affairs in this country where a shambolic account of the Victorians by Jeremy Paxman (and he is not even a historian; he is just an overpaid journalist who attempts to divert the viewers’ attention from the fact that he has (yet again) missed the point completely by being rude and insulting to the interviewees) was selling like the proverbial cakes, while the unsold copies of his scholarly (and hefty) biography would be pulped within a few months.

Service’s sense of outrage (at what Figes had done and was threatening to do) coupled with dread (of what might happen) was further compounded by lengthy telephonic chats with Rachel Polonsky, the woman who had stirred up the hornet’s nest in the first place. The two simply wound each other up, going over several permutations and combinations of who might have done what, what might be their intention, could professional jealousy account for all of it or were there deeper reasons etc., bemoaning every few minutes what a total waste of time and money the whole affair was, the toll it was taking on their psyches and family lives . . . yada yada yada. Service felt unable to take on board his wife’s view that spending long time chuntering with the Polonsky woman, repeatedly going over the same matter, was perhaps not such a good idea; that it was contributing not insubstantially to the waste of time and money he was purportedly concerned about; and that the toll on her, his family, would be less if he did not speak on phone as if addressing a small congregation of nutters at the Hyde Park corner when she was trying to watch ‘Bill’. He felt compelled to remind her that her overcooking of sea bass (so it was the cooking and not the daughter) had made his week more miserable.

How do I know all this? I know it because Service thought it was appropriate to give a public account of his week on a Guardian blog (obviously labouring under the belief that people cared). 

I had a dreadful week too during the course of which I had unhelpful discussions with my next door neighbour as to whose responsibility it was to trim the hedge of the common border of our terraced houses, during which he commented on several occasions, apropos de rien, on what in his view were my numerous character flaws; the dog got the shits, crapped all over the living room carpet, and required a course of expensive antibiotics from the vet who insinuated that the sudden onset bowel problems of the dog were somehow indicative of my evil nature; and I waited a whole day for a delivery, which did not show up because of the cancellation of flights coming into the UK because of the Icelandic volcano eruption. But then I am not a a academic historian, puffed up with the sense of his own importance, exuding vanity and insecurity in equal measures, and being very sensitive where his own thin skin is concerned. Service pointed out with all humility that his spat with Orlando Figes and the devastating effect on his scholarly sensitive nature was a ‘matter that has broad implications for the public interest’. I’d agree with this. Sea bass is not a cheap fish, and a mindful wife, no matter what the provocation, should not ruin it, especially when there is so much riding on it, such as the next  book of her husband. Pe—as the Americans say—riod. 

There is also the matter of whether or not one can or should post anonymous reviews on Amazon. Com, trashing the offerings of your fellow academicians.

Because that is what Serivce accused Orlando Figes of doing, and Figes threatened to sue him.

Orlando Figes is an expert on Russia. He is a Russianist. He is also a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London. He is, however, not the only Russianist in the UK. There is, as we have seen, Robert Service (although he prefers to call himself Sovietologist). And as academicians do, these guys publish from time to time books the size of single storey houses, on Russia. Rachel Polonsky is another such Cambridge based historian/academician, who recently published a book entitled Molotov’s Magic Cocktails (or is it Lanterns?). One late night, Dr. Polonsky, her favourite cat Mini nestling in her lap and quivering with anticipation (Dr. Polonsky, not the cat), logged on to the Amazon website to look at the reviews her book had attracted. One of the reviews was posted by someone who called himself (or herself) ‘Historian’. And what ‘Historian’ had to say about Dr Polonsky’s book was not pretty. The book, ‘Historian’ sneered, was ‘dense and pretentious’, the ‘sort of book which made you wonder why it was ever published.’ Dr. Polonsky was not amused, which is understandable. I was very upset last week when I went to work wearing a very respectable dark blue cardigan and Hazel, one of the receptionists, burst out laughing and wondered rudely and loudly what had possessed me to buy the cardigan. Much as I tried to tell myself that she was of peasant type who would not recognise class if it were served on a plate with watercress salad, I’d be lying if I said the comments did not hurt. Dr. Polonsky, being the clever academician, decided to trace the posts of ‘Historian’ on the Amazon. She was secretly relieved to know that she was not the only Russianist / Sovietologist trashed by ‘Historian’. ‘Historian’—at this stage Polonsky did not know whether it was a he or a she—had also rubbished biographies published by Robert Service of some or more personalities from the Soviet era.

Then Dr. Polonsky made another discovery. ‘Historian’ had generated another profile on the Amazon website—‘Orlando/Birkbeck’ (I know not how one can link two profiles on the net as belonging to one person, but I am guessing that it can’t be that difficult if Dr. Polonsky managed it). Using her excellent deductive powers Dr. Polonsky reached the ineluctable conclusion that ‘Historian’ and ‘Orlando/Birkbeck’, who had trashed her book was none other than Orlando Figes, fellow Russianist / Sovietologist (I do not know what epithet he prefers, although the way things are going for him at the minute, he will be neither in a few months) and professor of History at Birkbeck college, London, with whom she had had a public spat in 2002, after she wrote a highly critical review of Figes’s book Natasha’s Dance in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement).

Another thing that made Dr. Polonsky suspicious as regards Historian’s identity was the fact that he / she had nothing but fulsome praise for all of Figes’s books. Figes’s 2008 book Whisperer: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia, for example, was a ‘beautiful and necessary’ account of the Soviet system, and Figes possessed [Historian wrote] ‘superb story-telling skills’. That clinched the issue for Dr. Polonsky: anyone who thought Figes had superb story-telling skills was either (a) deluded or (b) Figes himself or (c) both. We do not know which of the three options Dr. Polonsky plumped for, although we can safely narrow it down to b or c. What we do know is that she contacted Robert Service and alerted him of her suspicions. This was exactly the handle Service, who excels in writing tortuous biographies (compared to which a telephone directory is a bowl of amphetamines), was looking for. He in turn sent furious e-mails to 30 other fellow Russianists/Sovietologists (including, we are expected to believe, Figes), in which he condemned the ‘anonymous’ reviews as ‘unpleasant personal attacks of the old Soviet fashion’, stopping short of saying explicitly that the rat was Orlando Figes. (This suggests that the man Figes, a.k.a. ‘Historian’, a.k.a.  ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’, had achieved the clinical efficiency in slaughtering reputations that would have had Stalin nodding with approval, although employing the user name ‘Orlando / Birkbeck, if he had indeed done that, was not very clever; I am not sure the Soviet assassins would have left behind such obvious trails).

Amazon. Com removed the offending reviews from its website (damn!), but now Service was like a Pit Bull who has spotted an infant it can mangle. Experiencing a humour by-pass and frothing with self-righteous indignation he carried on sending bombastic e-mails, urging fellow academicians to start a debate on ‘how to . . . expose practitioners of malign electronic denunciation in countries of free expression’, which only served to bring into relief why most readers become comatose by the time they reach page 10 of Service’s biographies.

Figes reacted angrily to these allegations. He denied that he was Orlando/Birkbeck. Or ‘Historian’ for that matter.  (He was prepared to admit that he was Orlando Figes, which, as the social worker types in the county council say, was a start.) He said that anyone could have written those unflattering (if accurate) reviews of Service’s and Polonsky’s books. The denial was followed by, if Service is to be believed, legal threats for libel.

In an Agatha Chrisriesque touch Figes’s lawyer, David Price, suggested that the ‘Orlando/Birkbeck’ profile could have been an attempt by a third party to discredit Figes.  Added Figes: ‘. . .  clearly that [Orlando / Birkbeck] would have been the last nickname I would have chosen.’

It was all getting a bit, as they say, rum. Who was ‘Historian’, and who was ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’? Were they, as Dr. Polonsky assumed, the same person? If so, who was this person? Was it Figes, as Service and Polonsky believed, who wanted to discredit his rivals; or was it someone else, who had taken on the identity of ‘Orlando/Birkbeck’ that would link to Figes and thus discredit him? In which case the person, ‘the practitioner of malign electronic denunciation’, had tried to kill two (or several birds) in one stone. He (or she) had trashed the books of Service and Polonsky and discredited Figes. Figes had said that he was not stupid to take on the username that would link so obviously to him. But was it a Le Carre style double bluff? Everyone would think it would be so obvious that no one in his right mind would do it. If, as Figes claimed, ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’ was not he, could it be—hold your breath!—Service himself? If it was indeed Service, it would be like cutting your nose to spite your face. Unless of course he really believed in the adage ‘No publicity is bad publicity’, and hoped the interest thus generated would boost the sells of his own books. The mystery thickened.

And then suddenly the mist cleared. Figes issued a statement through his lawyer that it was his wife, the Human Rights barrister Stephanie Palmer who holds an academic position herself in Cambridge, who was responsible for the poison reviews. ‘My client has only just found out about this,’ Price, Figes’s lawyer, said in an issued statement. ‘Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.’

We of course do not know what transpired between Figes and his lawyer wife; however, judging from subsequent developments, I imagine it went along the following lines. ‘Orlando,’ Stephanie Mayer declared, ‘I declare that you are a very silly man. You are a fool. You know very well that I did not write those reviews on Amazon; I have no time to read the tripe you write let alone that old tosspot Service. I have better things to do than getting involved in ridiculous spats you get embroiled in with other chancers, who, like yourself, have made a career out of writing reams and reams of pages about a country and about times few in this country are aware of and fewer care about. Now I suggest you come clean and clarify the matter pronto, otherwise you will find my foot landing with a force on your arse.’ As I said, this is just a guess. The imagined conversation could have taken place over a supper of sea bass, but I doubt it.

The next day Figes issued further clarification through his (one imagines increasingly irate) lawyer. He admitted that it was indeed he who hailed his own work ‘uplifting’ and ‘fascinating’, and found Service’s (awful) books ‘awful’. ‘I have made some foolish errors,’ he said, ‘and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned.’ He then proceeded to go on sick leave and was unavailable for further comments. ‘This affair,’ Figes concluded, ‘has brought to fore some health issues, but I offer them not as an excuse.’ (What health issues might these be? Perhaps the Psychiatric classification systems should consider including ruthless scheming and lying as a form of mental illness.) Service, in turn, was in about as much mood to show clemency to the disgraced Figes as Bin Laden on a bad hair day. He said that he and his wife had been through hell (in spite of, or perhaps because of, the sea bass supper). ‘However’, he continued (following the dictum: why use ten words when you can waste fifty), ‘I am pleased  . . . that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean. I have been made acutely aware that a solitary malpractitioner, if he has an abundance of money and malice, can intimidate all and sundry—and that includes both scholars and journalists.’

So this is how things stand. Orlando Figes is humiliated and his public standing in Britain now nestles somewhere between Toni Blair and Gordon Brown. No doubt there will be pressure on him to resign, the first salvo having been fired by John Sutherland, who, as a professor of English at the University College London, is exactly the sort of person you would expect to open his gob about matters that are of no concern of his. Service (one hopes) will sleep better, ecstatic in the knowledge that one of his biggest rivals (who is much more readable than he) has bitten the dust; his euphoria is unlikely to be tempered, at least not for a while, that the fall of Orlando Figes is unlikely to boost the sales of what ‘Orlando / Birkbeck’ described as awful books.