Saturday, 17 December 2011

Remembering W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald was a German academician who had a distinguished career in England. When he died, ten years ago to this day, Sebald was the professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia (UEA) for more than a decade.

If Sebald had only been an academician (he published several papers on European writers in academic journals), perhaps he would not be remembered beyond a small circle of academicians and professors of European literature.

Sebald also wrote novels. At the time of his untimely death in 2001, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sebald’s reputation in the UK as a writer of great merit was on an upward swing. Indeed there were some who felt he would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Not as fanciful as it may sound. In 2007, Horace Engdahl, the former secretary of the Swedish academy, mentioned Sebald as one of the recently diseased writers who would have been a worthy laureate.) Sebald had, by that time, published four novels, all written in German, originally, and published in his native Germany earlier than their English translations. His first novel was published in Germany in 1990, but its English avatar appeared only in 1999 (Vertigo). His first novel to appear in English translation was The Emigrants, which came out in 1996. In 1998 was published The Rings of Saturn. The last novel to come out was Austerlitz, published in 2001.

Austerlitz is one of the most moving novels I have read. It tells the story of a lonely, melancholy man, brought up as an only child by a Welsh Calvinist preacher and his valetudinarian wife. The man, Fred Astaire, meets the novel’s unnamed narrator when both men are in Antwerp, and a kind of acquaintanceship develops between the two. As the novel progresses, we learn that Fred Astaire was born Jacques Austerlitz. Austerlitz is a man, like the protagonists of Sebald’s other novels, burdened with memories. The burden, in this case, is puzzling, even to the man carrying the burden, because he is not actually consciously aware that he is carrying the burden. Gradually, as years go by, via chance encounters and apparently unrelated events, the memories, suppressed since childhood, break through, and slowly Austerlitz becomes painfully aware of his identity. The novel is a brilliant amalgamation of (apparent) facts and history. Right from the first page, an atmosphere of oppressive melancholy and peril envelops the reader. Austerlitz’s journey of self-discovery which brings him face to face with the horror of what happened to his parents and his people breaks your heart. Austerlitz is a man who carries with him a secret, and his torture is all the more because he does not know what the secret is. When he finally discovers it, it devastates him. I can remember very few novels which have overwhelmed me with their powerful emotional ambiance. Austerlitz is one of those novels, which, as far as I am concerned, is all the more remarkable because it is a translated work of fiction. I wonder what effect it would have had on me, had I been able to read German, the language in which the novel was originally published. (In an interview Sebald said that there were three and a half real persons behind Austerlitz. One of them was a person about whom he watched a documentary by ‘sheer chance’. This person was an ‘apparently English’ woman who was brought up in Wales in a Calvinist household. She had been brought to England with her twin. The twin had died and the woman grown up without knowing that she had a twin or her origins were in a Munich orphanage.)

To write a novel on the theme of the Holocaust is a formidable challenge. What Sebald has achieved in Austerlitz is astounding. It is a superb novel; a towering achievement.

The Emigrants is another novel of Sebald I have read and thought it was absolutely brilliant. Like Austerlitz, the novel is a potent and powerful mixture of history, autobiography and meditative discursions. In The Emigrants, Sebald tells apparently factual stories of four men and the devastation that the Second World War brought to their lives. The Emigrants is a work of fiction, though it is presented as factual accounts (one of the portraits is of Sebald’s great uncle). As in Austerlitz, there is the unnamed narrator, born, like his creator in 1944, in the waning years of the Third Reich, and who (again, like his creator) lives elsewhere but returns time and again, almost against his wishes, to the country of his birth.

The Emigrants is a strange, haunting novel. It was Sebald’s first novel to appear in English. He was past fifty when the novel was first published in England, his adopted country where he had lived since 1966 and, upon its publication, many must have wondered where he was hiding all those years.

The Rings of Saturn (which I have in my collection but have not yet read) is a digressive account of its morose narrator (also named W.G. Sebald) through East Anglia (county Suffolk). When The Rings of Saturn appeared the world of literature had begun to take notice of Sebald as a writer of considerable merit, and the novel received very favourable reviews. Sebald however was at pains to clarify that despite spending more than 25 years in England he still did not feel at home here. In an interview he said that he would feel more at home in a hotel in Switzerland (or something to that effect).

I have also read the only work of non-fiction of Sebald that has (so far) appeared in English: On the Natural History of Destruction. Like all of Sebald’s work there was a  gap of several years between the original and its English translation. The book (based on lectures Sebald gave in Zurich, in 1997) was published in Germany in 1999. The English translation came out two years after Sebald’s death, in 2003. In On the Natural History of Destruction Sebald describes and discusses the allied campaign towards the end of the Second World War. It is a powerful and striking book. Sebald does not beat around the bush in pointless euphemisms. He comes straight to the point. The Book starts with the sentence:

‘Today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War, still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation.’

Then comes the statistics: 1 million tons of bombs were dropped on 131 German cities—repeatedly on some of them—most of which were flattened. More than half a million German civilians were killed in these raids; 3.5 million homes were destroyed; and, as the war finally came to its bloody end, 7.5 million were left homeless. More mind-numbing statistics follow: in Dresden, in February 1945 (when the Third Reich was in its last throes), the SS burned 7000 corpses in one day, civilians killed in one day by the allied bombing. (Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel, Slaughterhouse 5, was based on the bombing of Dresden, although Vonnegut's treatment of the subject was post-modern.) When Hamburg was bombed (combined British and American operation, codenamed ‘Operation Gomorrah’!) the flames of the fires that engulfed the city leapt up 2000 meters towards the sky. Sebald tells about a writer named Victor Golllancz who spent a month in the British occupied zone of Hamburg, Dusseldorf and the Ruhr. Gollancz particularly noted the profound lethargy of the Germans, which, he remarked, was the most striking feature of the contemporary German urban population. ‘People drift about in such lassitude,’ he wrote, ‘that you are always in danger of running them down when you happen to be in the car.’

What intrigued and shocked Sebald, in equal measures, was the collective silence of the German people about this unprecedented and unparalleled and wanton (and, it might be argued, with some justification, unnecessary) destruction of their land by the enemy. He writes at one point in the book:

‘.  . . with remarkable speed social life, that other natural phenomenon, revived. People’s ability to forget what they don’t want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to test better than in Germany at that time.’

It was as if, Sebald wrote, the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions [of Germans] in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.’

The collective amnesia, it would appear, also affected the writers. Very few writers, Sebald notes, chose to write about the inglorious end to the Second World War culminating in ‘national humiliation’. One of them was the Henrich Boll, who won the Nobel Prize in literature. Boll’s ‘melncholy novel of the ruins’ (Sebald wrote), Der Engel Schwieg, 'was withheld from the reading public for over forty years'.

The book, upon its publication in Germany, triggered furious debate. Sebald was said to have been taken aback by the letters he received from Germany, many blaming the Jews for the Bombings. ‘This was applause from quarters,’ he said, ‘you did not need.’

On the Natural History of Destruction is an essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the madness of the Second World War.

Sebald is not an easy writer to read. I suspect that he was not an easy writer to translate either. (He was presumably proficient in English language and, although, Like Elais Canetti, he chose to write in German, his mother-tongue (it was Canetti's third language), he took great interest in and closely supervised (like Canetti) the English translations of his books.) Sebald remarked on one occasion that his medium was ‘prose, not novel’. That is apparent in all his books I have read. There is a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ quality to his writing. His writing is not dramatic;if anything it is anti-dramatic. It is discursive and meandering at times, yet it touches your heart.  The novels that I have read were, so I felt, meditations on memory and past which come to have a profound effect on our present in ways we don’t always envisage or understand. Sebald had the ability to get to the core with minimum of fuss.

Austerlitz, Sebald’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest novels in the last hundred years, was published in the same year he died, at the age of 57, in a car accident in Norwich. Sebald was at the peak of his powers when he died, and one wonders what he would have achieved had he lived. His untimely death was a great loss to literature.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Jeremy Clarkson: Why Does He Say These Things?

Jeremy Clarkson created a bit of a kerfuffle at the beginning of the month, on the BBC programme called The One Show.

For those who do not know what The One Show is, here is a link. It is aired on the BBC every day of the week in the evening, around 19.00 hours. I watch it very rarely these days. I watched it when it first started airing, which was a few years ago. It was a dull programme featuring pointless topical reports (rising water levels in Rutland Waters) and interviews with non-entities. The programme was presented by a prematurely greying corpulent man with a face like a baked potato, and a thin woman who spoke in Irish accent (probably because she was Irish).

The corpulent man with a face like a baked potato had the air of someone who had decided, probably around the time he grew pubes, that he was a catch and was not prepared to let go of the mistaken notion despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. The woman who spoke with Irish accent, for reasons best known to her (but others could guess at), had decided to accentuate the Potato Head’s grandiose delusion by responding to every lame comment he made as if he was the greatest wit since Groucho Marx. Then the Potato Head left the programme and ‘defected’ to the rival ITV.  I think he now fronts its sports programme, where he makes similar lame comments as the ones he used to make on The One Show, which are not funny in the least. His co-presenter, the woman who spoke in Irish accent, left The One Show soon after the Potato Head left the show, and I remember reading somewhere that that was because the two of them were having it off. The Potato Head also divorced his wife, I think. (I guess I could google these two to find out whether all of this is correct, but I am not interested really in these two—despite the hundreds of words I have wasted on them so far—; the person I want to write about, and I shall come to him in due course, is Jeremy Clarkson. Besides, life is too short to find out about what P-listed celebrities on British television get up to in their sordid little lives. As a further aside, I think it is a good ploy to start anything about which you are ignorant but want to be dismissive with the words ‘Life is too short . .’. When you use these words, you are conveying that while you accept you are pig-ignorant about the subject matter, you are ignorant by choice. There are more interesting or pressing matters clamouring for your attention and they take priority over the subject matter you are choosing to be ignorant about, because it is not important.)

Anyway, back to The One Show. The show is now fronted by another man (who, from certain angles has a passing resemblance, I think, to the monkeys in the extremely addictive on-line game on my mobile called Angry Birds—Rio) and a woman who does not speak in Irish accent and has a bit more flesh on her than the woman who spoke in Irish accent.

Now to Jeremy Clarkson. He is a British Journalist and television presenter. He is a man, I should think, in his fifties (although you wouldn’t think so looking at his face; he has—there is no kinder way of saying this—not aged well, probably as a  result of spending too much time in the sun for his television programme). He is about six foot tall, has a beer gut, and he hails from Doncaster. He is not a sight for the sore eyes (or stomachs) and his insistence on wearing crumpled jeans and jackets (which are tight below his armpits) is unfortunate.

What we have established so far is: (a) Clarkson comes from the part of British isles where I wouldn’t have thought there are many who are members of Mensa; (b) he is not pretty; and (c) he has roughly the same relationship to style as a bald man has to a comb.

Yet this man of below average looks and physiognomy that betrays his partiality to lager (and pies), is one of the most successful (ipso facto richest) broadcaster, presenter, and journalist in the UK today.

How has Clarkson managed it? For a start, he is white and male, which are always good things to have under your belt if you want to be successful in Britain. Mind, being white and male do not guarantee success that would make others green, but it helps.

There may be other reasons that can explain Clarkson’s success. He probably thinks, as many successful people delude themselves, that he deserves his success and has worked very hard for it. Others might think he is one of those on whom Lady Luck has smiled.

There is no doubt that Clarkson is a forceful presence on the television programme he co-presents with two other blokes. (That one of the other two looks like a hamster and will probably need a ladder to reach the breast level of any woman who is not a dwarf, and the other who sports shoulder length hair which would have been absolutely perfect for him if he were a slim young adult and not a middle-aged bloke with a tired, puffy face, helps.) The television programme Clarkson presents is called Top Gear, which, as the imaginative title suggests, is about cars. I have never been able to bring myself to watch any of the Top Gear programmes from beginning to end, although I know blokes (usually single men who wouldn’t get laid in a women’s prison with a handful of pardon papers) who are addicted to this programme. I used to know a guy who used to tape these programmes and on Sundays watched them one after another the whole afternoon. I mean, if the sight of middle aged men (none good looking) going into raptures about, I don’t know, Nissan Sunny ZX coupe or a Lotus Turbo SE sends you into raptures then this programme is your ticket. If on the other hand you hold the view that middle aged men (none good looking) talking in a faux-macho manner (calling Audi Quattro, a turbo-motherf**ker) is indescribably sad, then give this programme a miss. That said on the few occasions when I saw part of the programme, I thought Clarkson managed to look the most impressive and witty of the three presenters (which, it might be argued, is not that difficult when the other two presenters have the personalities of a washing machine and oratorical skills of a dishwasher).

Jeremy Clarkson, I am happy to confirm, is one of the presenters of an immensely popular car programme on the BBC.

He is also an entertaining writer. He used to write—probably still does—weekly columns for The Sunday Times. It is these columns which made me admire Clarkson (although not so much that I would pay £ 2 every week to access the Times website). Clarkson is a witty writer. His view point is almost always right of the centre and contrarian. The humour relies heavily on figures of speech such as hyperbole (liberal), irony (heavy), sarcasm (frequent), paradox (ditto) and litote (occasional). He has pet hates and dislikes which he expresses in a funny, if stereotypical, manner: French are cowards, Germans are humourless, Americans are fat and simple, Russians are unscrupulous etcetera. These columns have been published as compilations and some of them have gone on to become bestsellers in the UK.

The image that Clarkson has—perhaps he has deliberately cultivated it—is of a grouchy curmudgeon who is griping all the time about anything and everything. His brand of humour is sour.

Earlier this month Clarkson was on The One Show, where he was asked his views about the public sector workers who were striking on that day.

A brief background to the strike is as follows. Britain, like the rest of European countries, is in the midst of the worst recession since the last worst recession. The recession was brought about by the greed of Bankers and the insistence of the great British Public on living beyond its means for years. The government’s coffers are emptying, and the British Chancellor, George Osborne (who always looks as if he is a couple of hundred bowel motions behind the game), in-between his hectic schedule of skiing holidays in Switzerland (where he spent £17,000 in ten days) and summer vacations in San Francisco (we are all in this together, remember?), has decided that the public sector will pay. The government has proposed sweeping changes in the salaries and pensions of the public sector workers. Needless to say that the public sector workers are not happy about it, and, at te beginning of this month, heeding calls from their union, more than 2/3rd of the public sector workers went on strike.

It was this strike about which Clarkson was asked his view on The One Show.

Clarkson said that he would have the striking workers shot in front of their families. This was followed by a typical Clarkson type rant about the ‘gold plated’ pensions of the public sector workers. He left no one in doubt that he disapproved of the striking workers, although he was prepared to see the positive side of the strike. (The roads were empty so that he could drive his car very fast on the empty streets). In the same programme, he also expressed his annoyance at people who kill themselves by jumping in front of trains and delaying those on the trains (who presumably want to live).

The presenters looked visibly startled and uneasy as Clarkson ranted. Which suggests that either they were not informed by the producers what Clarkson was going to say or they are very good actors. Because, as Clarkson clarified to the Times (as quoted in the Guardian), his comments were not off the cuff. Before the programme he had had a meeting with the producers of the programme, going over the topics they wanted him to speak on, and he had given them an idea what he was going to say (he says).

There was a furore over Clarkson’s remarks. The public sector workers were not pleased and the BBC was flooded with four thousand complaints (three thousand and ninety nine of them probably from Dave Prentis). Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the union that gave the clarion call to strike, was beside himself with rage. He felt that Clarkson’s comments were ‘revolting’, ‘totally outrageous’, and ‘cannot be tolerated’.  (Of course these comments were outrageous and provocative and calculated to cause upset. That’s what Clarkson does. He can give a master class in being outrageous. He can start his own MBA in being egregious. The man is a wind-up merchant.)

Prentis demanded that Clarkson be sacked by the BBC and revealed that the union was seeking legal advice about what further action they could take against Clarkson and the BBC and whether his comments should be referred to the police. Prentis went on to suggest that if any children were watching the programme they could have been ‘scarred and upset by his [Clarkson’s] aggressive statements’.

I do not know whether Prentis contacted the Police about Clarkson’s ‘outrageous’ comments. Since we have not heard anything on the matter (so far), I assume that common sense has prevailed or else Prentis did contact the Police and was asked to go for a walk and find sex elsewhere. I should also doubt very much that there are young children all over the country waking up screaming in the middle of night, complaining of nightmares in which a fat, balding, middle aged man is shooting people in front of their families. I cannot believe that any children watched The One Show in the first place. In fact I cannot believe anyone between the ages of one to hundred would willingly watch The One Show which a crap programme.

Jeremy Clarkson, uncharacteristically, issued an apology, clarifying (to dolts deficient in humour) that he was joking when he made those comments. I believe Clarkson was almost telling the truth. I think he was making a point, using crude humour. That’s his style—to make jokes and comments that have the subtlety of a panzer. Sometimes it works; on this occasion it did not. That is the risk you take when you make crude jokes and ‘outrageous statements’. You run the risk of offending people.

It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the moral rights and wrongs of public sector workers going on strike (although that is not because I can’t make up my mind about it; I may not have any talent, but I have tons of opinion. I should say here that I know a few people who work in the public sector; they do very difficult jobs and I have always been impressed by their dedication and enthusiasm. Not everyone working in the public sector is a ‘Waste Disposal Strategic Advisor’ or ‘Volunteers Programme Coordinator'. Many have proper jobs, far more valuable than the useless jobs of the greedy toads in the Private Sector). Dave Prentis and his friends need to take a chill-pill, though. Clarkson’s comments need to be ignored. The other Dave (Cameron) got it right (for a change) when he said that Clarkson’s comments were silly. It is not worth taking them (or Clarkson) seriously. He probably does not take them (or himself) seriously.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Book of the Month: One Day (David Nicholls)

David Nicholl’s debut novel, Starter for Ten, was a big success and was later made into a film. His second, The Understudy, was a relatively low-key affair. A friend read Starter for Ten and opined that Nicholls ‘can write’, but there is ‘no substance in the book’. I thought I would read Starter for Ten (along with Victoria Hislop’s The Island), if I went on a holiday. Which I haven't done this year. Then I read One Day, David Nicholls’s third novel. 

Why did I buy  One Day instead of reading Starter for Ten which I already had in my collection? What can I say? I like to be unpredictable.

Through a series of snapshots of a day—15th July, the St Swithin’s day, to be exact—repeated at yearly intervals over two decades, starting from 1988, One Day  traces the lives of two friends— Emma Morley and Dexter Meyhew. The two meet on the graduation day at Edinburgh University where they had spent the previous four years. Emma had noticed and liked the handsome Dexter ever since she saw him at a party in her first year at the University, but had had not done anything about it because she did not want to risk being spurned by Dexter who she suspects is posh and therefore in a different league. Emma has a working class background and speaks with such pronounced Northern accent that some of her university acquaintances think it is an affectation, their misconception strengthened by Emma’s socio-political views which are to the left of Lenin. She is the sort of girl who regards ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse, reads Unbearable Lightness of Being, and has photographs of Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara adorning the walls of her room. Dexter, who indeed comes from a very comfortable middle class background, has little reason to take notice of Emma, surrounded as he is by a bevy of girls who are only too keen to wrap themselves around him like Union Jack. He finally notices Emma—despite her attempts to spoil her good looks by intimidating spectacles—at the graduation ceremony, and the two spend the night in her room, ‘cuddling’ and ‘kissing’, and speculating what might they do with the rest of their lives. Dexter is taking a gap year—the obligatory rite of passage for the children of affluent parents—so that he can find himself in countries like India and Thailand. Beyond that he has no idea of what he is going to do other than a vague notion that he wants to be successful, make his parents proud and sleep with more than one woman at the same time. Emma entertains the romantic notion of being courageous, making a difference and changing lives through maybe art, and writing beautifully (Awwww). Neither, on this last night as students, is under the illusion that they will see much of the other over the years, although neither has the stomach to actually say so. Emma would like to see more of Dexter but knows she wouldn’t (not being in the same league and all that), and attempts to get over her disappointment by making repeated barbed witze at Dexter’s affluent background.

The story then takes a leap in time and we meet Emma and Dexter a year later, on the same day. They have kept in touch. (They would, wouldn’t they? How would the story progress, otherwise?) Dexter is in his gap year, travelling through Asia, and Emma is touring with an experimental theatre company, having decided to try out acting as her vocation, even though she is nagged all the time by the suspicion that she does not have the requisite talent. Upon his return to England, Dexter embarks on what appears to be a successful media career as a late night television presenter of outré programmes, and, as was his ambition, sleeps his way through a cavalcade of women with nice legs and terrific breasts. Emma, in the meanwhile, lurches from one soul-destroying job to another, before becoming a teacher of English (the triple A’s came handy after all) and drama in a secondary comprehensive in London. Both are in relationships that, in the words of relationship counsellors, have serious issues. Dexter is with his television co-presenter, a loud girl for whom ‘bubbliness is a way of life verging on a disorder’, while Emma starts seeing a man who was a fellow-waiter when she worked in a Tex-Mex, and whose face reminds her of ‘tractors’. The man, Ian, has the ambition to become a stand-up comedian and Emma simply does not have the heart to tell him that he is terrible at it. Emma and Dexter continue to meet dutifully, increasingly feeling that they have little left in common. Dexter, whose career is taking a downward trajectory—hastened by his willingness to snort cocaine by the garden-hose and consume alcohol in quantities that would render a man of average weight and height comatose—even if he does not know it, finds himself getting increasingly irked by Emma’s sardonic humour. He concludes that the chip on her shoulder—at not having achieved much in career despite triple A’s at university—has mutated into a millstone. Emma, on her part, sees what Dexter refuses to accept what he has become: unpleasant, inconsiderate and on a fast train to endsville. Things come to a head between them during one of their increasingly cantankerous meetings, and Emma, unable to bear any longer Dexter’s demeanour that suggests (to her) that he would rather be somewhere else than be with her, walks away from their friendship.  Neither has much luck in their relationships. The bubbly television presenter, on her way to the P list of celebrities, wisely concludes that Dexter, headed in the opposite direction, is past his sell-by-date and replaces him with an upgraded version. Emma finds escape from Ian’s awful jokes into the waiting arms of the principal of the comprehensive she works in (who seems so sexually fixated on her that you think he surely qualifies as a stalker but for the fact that the stalkee has got into his bed—metaphorically so to speak, they have sex in his office—of her own accord), and carries a two-year affair with him that is marked principally by lack of affection.

Over the next few years, Emma and Dexter meet occasionally, mostly at the wedding receptions of their university friends; and are cordial, civil and distant to each other. Dexter starts another relationship; this time with a career woman named Sylphie who talks and behaves like an agent of some alien species programmed to look and behave like humans; into the bargain she has awful petit bourgeois parents who think Dexter is a waste of space.  Dexter and Sylphie marry in due course and have a daughter. Dexter accepts that his television career is more difficult to revive than arouse Lazarus, and, heeding Sylphie’s sensible advice, gets a job offered by his flatmate from his university days who has become some sort of business magnate and is opening sandwich bars all over the place. Emma too takes several decisions, each one the motivational gurus and Life-coaches would describe as life-changing. She asks the unfunny Ian (to whom she in any case is not faithful) to sod off; she tells the sex-fiend of a principal to find someone else he can get carpet burns with; and resigns her job in the school. And becomes a free-lance writer—writing teenage fiction, drawing her own illustrations. After a lot of struggle and several rejections she finds a publisher and, to her pleasant surprise, her witty novel chronicling the adventures of her teenage heroine becomes successful, paving way—Harry Potter style—to several more installations. Things do not turn out that well for Dexter. While he is sampling sandwiches for his university friend and employer, he (the employer) is sampling Sylphie’s buns. The marriage ends after Sylphie walks out on Dexter, taking their daughter with her. Dexter is distraught and even the knowledge that his ex-parents-in-law dislike Sylphie’s new partner even more than they disliked him is not enough to console the inconsolable cuckold. Riper opportunity will not present itself to the two estranged friends to reconcile, and that’s what happens. Emma and Dexter make up. They go a step further and do something which Emma has thought about from time to time right from their university days, but Dexter hasn’t until recently: they start a relationship. In the last part of the novel we find Emma and Dexter settling into a sedate, affectionate relationship—she writes her teenage best-seller while he opens a café that is moderately successful. Surely nothing will go wrong for the two friends now. And then something unforeseen happens.

One Day is one of those novels that are absorbing, funny, sharply observed, wise, heart-warming, moving, and—for all these reasons—terrific reads. Starting in the Thatcher years, the novel traces, via its two protagonists, the lives led by millions in the Labour boom years. Mind, there is not a lot of politics in the novel; in fact, despite Emma’s intermittent hand-wringing at not being faithful to teenage socialist / left wing principles, there is hardly any. Similarly, despite an occasional nod to the flashbulb events such as the famous Labour victory of 1997 and the July 2005 bombings of the London underground, the socio-politico-cultural events of these decades form, at most, a blurred background. It is therefore all the more striking that the novel so succinctly captures the zeitgeist of those times. One Day is a remarkable social novel.

Nicholls takes great care in developing the characters of the two protagonists. Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew are totally believable, solid, well rounded characters. They have their foibles and are capable of causing hurt; they are also capable of genuine kindness. As the novel progresses, you find yourself warming up to them, getting engrossed in their lives, rejoicing in their success, and, when the end comes, they stay in your mind for a long time. Not many novels can do this. Emma Morley, in particular, is a memorable character. One Day is a deeply sentimental novel, but not once does Nicholls take recourse to cloying sentimentality. It is a deeply affecting novel, without being schmaltzy.  It is a rare gift to get the balance of emotions the exact right, and Nicholls manages it with great aplomb.

The prose of One Day is fabulous. Nicholls writes like dream. The sentences flow so smoothly that reading this novel is like floating lightly along the gentle flow of a river. As with everything else, the tone of the narrative is pitch perfect. The narrative engages you from the first page and your interest does not slag throughout its four hundred plus pages, which do not contain one otiose word. There are passages of great wit in the novel, coupled with acute observations. One Day is a fine comic novel; it is a social comedy in addition to everything else. The humour is wry but not cringeworthy. Thus Nicholls’s description of the rituals of modern marriages brings a smile to your face, but you also find yourself nodding because it rings so true.

One Day is wonderful (or wonderful, wonderful) novel (see the image below), and Nicholls is a writer in the same tradition as Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby: a virtuoso chronicler of how it is to live in modern Britain. Five stars.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tintin in the Congo: Why would Anyone Read it?

Maybe it is the age thing, but I was never a fan of Tintin. I did not read Adventuresof Tintin when I was growing up.

By the time Tintinin the Congo, the most controversial of the Tintin comics was published in the UK, in 1991 (I think), I was no longer a child and did not feel an overwhelming desire to read the comic. For the same reason I have not read any of the Harry Potter books save one. I struggle to understand why adults of average intelligence occupy themselves reading these novels aimed at children aged 10 to 14. I read one—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—under duress  a few years ago when my then girl-friend, who was a great fan of these novels, refused to have sex unless I read at least one novel in the series. She said that she was sick of listening to me slagging off Harry Potter without actually reading any of the novels. I pointed out that I wasn’t slagging off Harry Potter novels; I wasn’t slagging of children  who enjoyed the book-series; I certainly wasn’t slagging off J.K. Rowling, who, insofar as I was aware, had not claimed that her novels were classics which imparted knowledge about the human condition that made it worth everyone’s while to read them; I was specifically slagging off outwardly grown-up and mature adults who did not mind being spotted reading one of those books. She said whatever; she was still not going to have sex if I did not read at least one of the novels. I had to take her view on board (she had competent breasts). I asked her which of the Harry Potter novels she would recommend and she suggested Prisoner of Azkaban, which, I was informed, was the darkest of the series. I read the novel and was not overwhelmed. It was competently written but I did not find it a captivating read. I can’t remember what the plot was; but it does not matter—the themes are all the same in such novels. Harry and his mates get into sticky situations thanks to the machinations of a devious villain and Harry unleashes some crackerjack magic trick and saves the day. There is no real suspense: you know Harry is always going to be victorious because he has special gifts. The story is predictable and the prose, while adequate, is nothing great. Maybe you have to have the mind of a pre-adolescent to enjoy these novels. I don’t have that mind (downside of being an adult), therefore I am unable to enjoy them. Having read one of the novels I have no desire to read the rest. Life is too short to read lame adventures of a boy wizard.

But back to Tintin and his adventures.

Stephen Spielberg has produced a movie entitled The Adventures of Tintin. I have of course no intention of watching the film; however I googled the movie after reading about the brouhaha about one of the adventure comics (more about it later), and found a long entry on it in WikiPedia. I gave up reading the long plot- summary, which was tedious beyond endurance.

In the introduction of the WikiPedia article it was mentioned that the movie was based on three of the Tintin adventure comics. The list, unsurprisingly, does not include Tintin in the Congo. Very wise.

The publishers of Tintin comics have  decided to cash in on the world-wide release of the Spielberg film and have released the comics as ‘collectors’ items’.

All the graphic Tintin comics are in the children’s section except one: Tintin in the Congo.

Tintin in the Congo finds itself in the adult section along with other adult graphic vampire novels. In addition the novels are shrink-wrapped with the following warning:

‘In his portrayal of the Belgian Congo, the young Hergé [Pen name of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi who created Tintin] reflects the colonial attitudes of the time . . . he depicted the African people according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period — an interpretation that some of today’s readers may find offensive.’

Not having read Tintin in the Congo (and not having any intention to read it either) I have to depend on WikiPedia for the plot of Tintin in the Congo. I also read an article in the Guardian by the Human Rights lawyer David Enright, who, in 2007, successfully campaigned for the comic to be removed from the Children’s Section to Adult Section.

The consensus seems to be that by today’s standards the portrayal of Africans in the comic book is stereotypical, patronizing and racist. According to Enright’s article, there are pages after pages of graphic representations of black people looking like monkeys, bowing before Tintin and telling each other that White man is very clever, worshipping Tintin’s dog Snowy as god etc. In the original (1931) edition there are descriptions of spectacular cruelty (by today’s standards) to animals—exploding a rhinoceros from within, killing apes and wearing their skins, stoning buffaloes etc.

It is argued by some that Tintin in the Congo is very much the product of its times; it reflects the European attitudes of its times and should be understood in this context.

So what were the European attitudes towards the people whom they had colonized?

                                                         Georges Remi (1907-1983)

In an interview he gave in the 1970s, Remi, the creator of Tintin, helpfully clarified the matter. Said Remi: 

‘For the Congo as with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved… It was 1930. I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time: 'Africans were great big children… Thank goodness for them that we were there!' Etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.

So what was considered as standard norm in the 1930s’ Belgium had become an embarrassment in the 1970s, and racist in the 21st century.

The fact is that Europeans by and large considered themselves to be a superior race until probably the first fifty years of the twentieth century and the attitudes depicted in Tintin in the Congo were, sadly, reflective of the beliefs of the wider European society. Remi at least had the decency to feel embarrassed about it.

And Remi was not an exception. The views expressed by Winston Churchill, Britain’s Imperialist, war-mongering prime-minister in the 1940s, towards people who were not White or Europeans would be considered, by today’s standards, shockingly racist.

In the 1940s when a man-made famine was ranging in India, Britain’s largest colony, in which almost 3 millions died of starvation, Churchill, as prime-minister of Britain (which had complete control of and therefore responsibility for the continent), repeatedly stopped ships with food supplies going to India; the ships carrying cereals from Australia, for example, were not allowed to anchor in Bengal and went instead to the Mediterranean where there already was abundant food supply. Let me make it clear: it was not ineptness: Churchill deliberately, and in the full knowledge that millions were dying of hunger, thwarted efforts of those who wanted to ease the miseries of Indian people. He was responsible for the deaths of millions. By today’s standards it was a crime against humanity. (Although it is way beyond the scope of this post, he was without doubt also a war criminal.) Why did he do it? Perhaps we can find the explanation in a comment of his in which he declared that he hated Indians who were ‘beastly people with beastly religion [Hinduism]’ and the ‘only people worse than the Indians were the Germans’. Churchill infamously derided Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’ (which suggests that in addition to being a racist he was poor in mathematics) and indulged in despicable behind-the-scene shenanigans that ensured that Gandhi did not win the Nobel Peace Prize on the two occasions he was nominated for it. (Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1950s for a body of work written by his assistants, which was a joke; by that time years of boozing had taken its toll and his alcohol-sodden brain was probably shrunken to the size of a dried apricot. If ever there was an undeserving winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it was this unscrupulous, unprincipled fat git.) Indians were not the only ones towards whom Churchill was racist. In 1937 he commented: ‘I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race, has come in and taken their place.

No one in his right mind today would attempt to justify Churchill’s behavior and comments described above. The best his apologists could come up with is that these comments and behavior ought to be seen in their context; that Churchill was very much a man of his times. That is only partially true. Even in those times there were those who felt that such behavior was unacceptable. Churchill, one can say, belonged to a particular brand of Europeans in whom ignorance and arrogance combined to form the poisonous concoction of racism. (Gandhi, the ‘half-naked fakir’, on the other hand, was a man of altogether higher caliber than the cigar-smoking fatso and held views that were, by any yardstick, emancipated.)

The semi-apologetic explanation Remi (a Nazi sympathizer, although recanted it later) came up with to explain the vile things written about the Africans in Tintin in the Congo is the kindest explanation. Even in those times there were people, such as the great French writer Romain Rolland (the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but sadly a forgotten name these days), who held views about humanity different from the prejudices the likes of Remi propagated through comics.

I can’t see why in this day and age anyone would want to read anachronistic nonsense from the 1930s; it does not reflect the world we inhabit today. If I had a child living with me I would not want it to be exposed to such bilge. I wouldn’t say Tintin in the Congo should be banned (I will never say that), but it is appropriate that the comic book is removed from the children’s section in book-shops and comes with a warning. Many will find its content offensive, and the warning will ensure that parents will not inadvertently expose their children to this garbage.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Cricket Spot Fixing Scandal: Jailing of Cricketers is Stupid

There was a time when I used to watch cricket avidly. That was years ago. Players like Vivian Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Ian Botham, and Malcolm Marshall, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were my heroes, were players I enjoyed watching.

Over the years, however, I have gone off cricket. That is not because I was disillusioned with the stories of match-fixing scandals that started coming out, periodically, in the past ten years, usually (though not exclusively) involving players from the Indian subcontinent.

I went off cricket because, as I became long in the tooth, I simply couldn’t summon up enough concentration to watch a game which (in test match cricket) went on for five days and still ended without a result, and the shorter version went on for a whole day. I simply don’t have the stamina. (That does not however mean that I can cope with games which are of shorter duration, for example Football. I can’t understand what is there to enjoy in a game where aggressive men with attentional deficits run about for ninety minutes, ostensibly trying to kick a ball into the nets at the opposite ends of the ground, but, really trying to kick opponents’ heads and testicle, trying to trip others up, doing, in other words, whatever it is that men with impulse control issues can think of—if the erratic firing of their maldeveloped brain cells can be called thinking—to inflict grievous body harm on one another. In the past I allowed myself, out of my inability to say No, to be kidnapped to some grotty pub, serving crap food and rough looking waitresses and clientele that, were they not busy shouting obscenities at the plasma screen showing a game between, say, Arsenal and Spurs, would probably be lighting up matches with their farts for a ‘bit of a laugh’. But not now; life is too short to watch Football.)

The only game these days I can bring myself to watch is women’s tennis, preferably when Maria Sharapova or Daniela Hantuchova is playing (and the camera is focusing on them from behind as they bend down to receive the serve of their opponents).

Earlier this year I watched the cricket world cup final with an Indian friend (who was terribly excited about it, which was understandable, as India had reached the final). I just about managed that but found it hard-going.

I therefore had not devoted my diminishing energies and concentration to the spot-fixing scandal involving a cricket match played between England and Pakistan last year.

Three Pakistani cricketers, one Butt and two Mohammads, fell foul of some ridiculous act that probably does not exist anywhere other than in Britain. One of the Mohammads accepted his guilt while the other two, including Butt (who was the captain of the Pakistan cricket team at the time) decided (unwisely, as it turned out) to contest the charges.

Both were found guilty of charges—which, couched in convoluted legal gobbledegook, essentially were that these guys are cheats—by a majority verdict.

The judge—who, going by the sanctimonious sermon he delivered to the condemned men, seems like a pompous ass—gave the cricketers length jail sentences.

Some sanctimonious pompous asses in the cricketing media, however, think that the sentences were not harsh enough. For example, Simon Hughes—a third-rate county cricketer and a second-rate analyst / commentator. This guy played cricket in the 1980s and was so shite that he was not considered good enough to play for England, which is saying something, as the English cricket team in the 1980s was so shite that practically every cricket-playing nation was wiping the floor with us. After his mediocre, undistinguished career came to an undistinguished end Hughes became a journalist and commentator. To say Hughes talks crap would be insulting faeces. He frequently poses as a technical analyst and bores everyone into catatonia by talking his head off about the position of the batter, the friction of the fabric of his trousers against his testicles, the angle of his bat, his grip on the handle of the bat, the distance between his hands and the surface of the bat, the wind velocity, the action of the bowler, the friction of the fabric of the trousers against his testicles, the condition of the ball, the time of the day, the number of clouds in the sky—all of which conspire somehow to bring into effect whatever it is that Hughes has been asked to provide his expert comment on. It might be a wicket or it might be a boundary—it does not matter; he talks the same shit. It is impossible to take him seriously. Hughes has now written an idiotic article, giving the readers the benefits of his wisdom, and has come up with a five point plan (which will be discarded by Boy Scouts and which suggests that the man has the intelligence of a gnat) to ‘stamp out cheats’.

The sentences are excessively harsh, unnecessary and stupid.

Let’s take the sentence handed down to Butt. The disgraced skipper of the Pakistani cricket team has gone down for 30 months; however, if his behaviour is ‘good’ he can come out after 15 months. He will then be on a license for the remaining 15 months of his sentence during which he will be monitored. The other two cricketers who have received shorter sentences (but still way too long) will also be out on license after serving half their sentences if they 'behave'.

None of the cricketers is a British citizen. Presumably they have no place to live in England, no means of subsistence, and no medical cover. All of these will have to be provided to them when they come out. Who will foot the bill? Why, the British tax-payers. I fail to see why British tax-payers have to foot the bill for something which is not even considered a crime in many countries. (On a different tack, this was also the argument, I remember reading, of Julian Assange the boss of WikiLeaks (which, rumour has it, is about to go bust due to lack of funds. The legal definition of statutory rape in the UK is apparently different from that in the Scandinavian countries).

Mind you, I am not blaming the poor Pakistani sods for this. I am pretty sure they did not want to be in this position. They did not come willingly to the UK to stand the trial; they were forced to come here and stand trial.

And what was their ‘crime’? They took money and Butt, the captain, instructed the two bowlers to bowl a no-ball each. When a bowler bowls a no-ball the side that is batting is awarded one run. What the trio were accused (and found guilty) of was therefore ‘spot-fixing’ and not ‘match-fixing’.

They were investigated by the cricket’s governing body and were handed out bans of between five to ten years. That should have been enough. There are those who are now criticising the International Cricket Control (ICC) of being too lenient and are demanding that the cricketers be banned for life. The camel-faced captain of the English cricked team, Andrew Strauss , has weighed in and described the ICC as toothless tiger. Strauss would do well to reduce his waist-line and score runs against quality oppositions instead of adding more hot air to environment.

Those demanding harsher punishment by the ICC are wrong. A life-ban would not have been justified in this case. There is no evidence that the actions of the cricketers adversely influenced the outcome of the match (which, I guess, would be more difficult to arrange in any case, as it would require involvement of several players in the team). There is not even evidence to suggest that their actions accorded significant advantage (or disadvantage) to their team or the English team. After all how much difference a single run can make? This is not to say that the cricketers did not do wrong. However, the punishment meted out must be proportional to the wrongdoing. And a life-ban for spot-fixing is way too excessive.

Similarly the argument that the time-limited bans should be converted to life-bans simply because they have been found guilty in a criminal court in a country and sent to jail is a straw man. The criminal court did not hear any evidence that was not available to the ICC. The three cricketers had to stand trial because their cheating is considered as criminal as per an act which came into existence in England in 2005. In some other country this type of cheating—because that’s what it is at the end of the day, no different, some might argue, from an athlete or a swimmer who takes banned performance enhancing drugs and deliberately changes the outcome of a competition in his or her favour; and they are not prosecuted—would not have been considered a criminal act. Why, even in our country, before 2005, it would not have been considered a criminal act.

And the sentences are totally disproportionate to the crime the cricketers have been found guilty of. This is a country where MP’s who were systematically defrauding the tax-payers for thousands of pounds for years were given jail sentences of only a few months. An old friend of mine used to work as a care-assistant in a hostel for homeless people, some or more of whom, he used to tell me, were pretty nasty pieces of work—persistent and prolific offenders with lists of criminal activities longer than M1. For their 15th GBH they would be sent to prison for 12 months, would come out on license after 6 and would be recalled for one night in prison after they had breached conditions of their license 5 times, and released out again so that they could get on with their daily routine of drug dealing and other nefarious activities. I did not see any of the cheating bankers in the City of London go to jail for their greed. But we have seen it fit to condemn three cricketers, some from impoverished backgrounds, to lengthy prison sentences.

Butt (that is an unfortunate name given the circumstances in which he now finds himself), Asif and Amir are most definitely cheats. Prosecuting them was way over the top. Their prosecution was waste of British tax payers' money and their conviction makes no sense.