Thursday, 9 April 2015

British General Elections 2015

The 2015 British General Elections will be held next month. Without carrying out (or having read) any opinion polls I can confidently predict that (a) it will be (once again) a hung parliament and (b) either the Tories or the Labour would form a coalition government.

With whom would they form a coalition government? The discredited Liberal democrats, I am sorry to say, might once again be the bedfellows with either the Tories or Labour, although in order to form an alliance with the Labour they would have to get rid of the discredited Nick Clegg—who, during the recently broadcast televised debate of the party leaders, showed that he is utterly without any introspection or shame—and pick up someone who is left of the centre. Since the Liberal democrats have never, in my living memory, been able to make up their minds as to whether they want to be more like the Tories or the Labour, they have always had a chancers in their party, who, while sharing the theme of being totally useless binding them together, hold political views that are very different. So it should not be beyond their powers to get rid of the rat Clegg if they get so much as a whiff that there is a chance that they can cling to power closer than a porus plaster, this time round with Labour. Perhaps the good people of Sheffield, the constituency from which Clegg won comfortably last time, would do the job for the Liberal Democrats. According to some opinion polls Clegg is trailing his nearest Labour rival by two points (OK, I’ve read some opinion polls). That does not sound like much, and the Tories have apparently made it a bit easier for Clegg by not campaigning too much in the constituency, although the Tory candidate in Sheffield is going around declaring to whoever prepared to give him an ear (not many, one hopes) that he intends to make Sheffield a Clegg-free zone.

I watched the live debate of the seven party leaders, not because I was interested in what they were going to say about the policies: they were not going to say anything that I didn’t expect them to say (Cameron was going to dis Miliband; Miliband was going to dis Cameron; Clegg was going to be revoltingly smug; Nicola Sturgeon was (also) going to look smug (and, unlike Clegg, with good reasons—her nationalist party is going to decimate Labour in Scotland, thereby vaporising any ambitions Miliband might have to form a majority Labour government); Farage was going to dis all of them; Natalie Bennett—from Green party—was going to say bat-shit mental things the loonies from the Green party are renowned for; and Leanne Wood from the Welsh regional party was going to moan about everything); but because of the same reason I listen to weather reports on the BBC (I am not really interested in the weather—it is the bloody same most of the year): it is a habit.

I was a bit surprised that the Greens and Plaid Cymru were even invited for the debate. It is not as if they are going to win any appreciable number of seats in the elections to make any difference; the Greens, in particular, would be lucky to hold on to the solitary seat—the first ever in their history—they won in the 2010 general elections. Both Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood did not have anything inspiring to say (although, in their defence, they were not as stupid as the clownish Farage; but then again, it would require a superhuman effort to be as asinine as Farage, or as obnoxious).

Cameron was pretty uninspiring, too. He spoke in his customary manner, attempting to say unpalatable things in a way that was assuring. He gave a good performance of appearing slightly flummoxed when others were criticising the policies of the coalition government he has led for the past five years, as if he could not quite understand why he was being criticised. (Cameron’s message? Stick with the Tories. We know what we are doing. The economy is on the mend; and that is because of some tough (but fair) decisions we took. Don’t trust the Labour. Miliband and Co. represent a clear and present danger to country’s economy and stability. You’ve got to be out of your mind to be voting for these nincompoops who destroyed the country’s economy and are entirely to be blamed for the global financial crisis (unless you were so far gone that you had decided to vote for Farage’s UKIP, which would be even worse, as voting for Farage means bringing Miliband into Number ten by the backdoor; so, yes, under no circumstances vote for Farage; sorry, Miliband; urm  . . . both actually . . . Yes that’s right: stick with me and my mate Osbourne.) Amazingly, Cameron had the cheek to say (again and again) that his government had invested in the NHS, a claim which even the super-mendacious Clegg, Cameron’s deputy for the past five years, impossible to support. Time and again Cameron fell back on the time-tested tactic (perfected by BLiar) of not answering difficult questions (OK, accusations) thrown at him by his debating opponents, and repeated the scripted speech, obviously a believer in the dictum that bullshit, when repeated ad nauseum, will baffle brain.

Farage. What can one say about him? It’s just as well that he and his odious party are not going to form a government; you might as well make Toot the Clown Britain’s prime-minister. However, underneath Farage’s (like Boris Johnson’s) jolly, buffoonish exterior—the man is a hectic, non-stop monologuist, and, in a different setting, nay, different reality, it would almost be a privilege to be loused by him—lurk views, which, if they were not so vile (and Farage’s party did not have the support of 16% of population according to various opinion polls), you would dismiss out of hand. All of his utterances had one thing in common: pure, unadulterated antipathy towards foreigners; they are not welcome in Britain. The guy is about as subtle as a dog turd in a cream-bowl.

Natalie Bennett spoke like a (stern) dinner lady calling errant children at dinner time, her facial expressions suggesting that she had drunk something she thought was coffee but was in fact someone’s vomit. Relentlessly grim and dour—supply of human milk short by several litres. Bennett launched (like the other two women in the debate) a scathing attack on the austerity measures, and shouted till she was hoarse that austerity had made things worse (yes, for benefit fraudsters), and that was not the answer; however, (like Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru) she successfully avoided the temptation of suggesting an alternative. (Farage, on the other hand, declared that Cameron had wasted money, and if he, Farage, were the prime-minister, he would sort out the country’s deficit in a jiffy. How? Simple: he would slash the overseas aid budget; he would deprive the HIV-sufferers from treatment if they did not have British passport (even if they worked and paid taxes), and, continuing merrily in this spirit of xenophobia, he would also make NHS unavailable for the EU citizens unless they had health insurances. And one more thing—he would get Britain out of EU by the midnight of his election victory. That ought to save Britain hundreds of millions of pounds we pay every year to the EU, and would also bring to fruition Farage’s long-standing dream of preventing free movement of EU citizens, focusing specifically on the former Eastern Bloc, Soviet-controlled, countries. What about the negative impact on the job and businesses in Britain if we walked out of the EU? Just tosh! Scaremongering by the Labour and Lib Dems. Trust uncle Farage. Nothing of the sort would happen. Look at his ill-fitting pin-striped suit. If that doesn’t inspire confidence in you then there really is nothing more to say. Vote the f**king Labour then. You’ll then deserve everything that came your way. The problem with this f**king country is there are too many people with ethics and scruples.) On the positive side Bennett did not go on about some of her party’s entertaining ideas about what can be done for the climate change

Leanne Wood spoke in a high, shrill, strained and querulous voice that made my back teeth tingle. She started hyperventilating when Farage and Cameron talked about EU referendum and wanted assurance, there and then, that Britain would not walk out of the EU unless all four ‘nations’ agreed to and voted for it. You almost wanted to tell her, “Calm down dear; have a cuppa.”

Clegg’s performance reminded me of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He lacks the necessary moral refinement to fully appreciate the true sense of tragedy, and, for that reason, does not understand the concept of shame. His act of trying to put to people in staggeringly simplistic manner (with a smug smirk draped across his face as a gaudy curtain) that Tories and Labour were extremes in their policies and his despicable party offered the reasonable middle way worked five years ago when nobody really knew much about him and he was—prior to elections—an outsider, for all practical purposes. If there is one thing the British public have cottoned onto during the five years of the coalition rule, it is what a shyster Clegg is. His charade of appearing reasonable was never going to work the second time round; and it did not work. That didn’t stop him from preachifying. (To avert the danger of having a cardiac arrest from indignation and incredulity, as the man spoke with the smoothness of a con-artist, I had to walk out of the room from time to time.) Clegg bleated about giving parity to mental health, on par with physical health. For five years the Lib Dems sat in the same government as Cameron’s as Cameron carried out a demolition job on the NHS, leave alone mental health, and did sod-all; and now he is inviting people to put their faith in him because he is going to treat mental health on par with physical health. Clegg is also going to discover 8 billion pounds that NHS apparently needs in the next three years unless we are prepared to go to India on health tourism (what would Farage think of it?). As they say, you can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The man, to paraphrase Nabokov, is an elephantine tic, a king-size botfly, a macro-worm.

Finally, Ed Miliband. Poor Ed. Where does one start? The man has the personality of a dishwasher. He also has a natural aptitude for making people bleed tears of boredom (the man can give you an eye-witness account of the crucifixion and still put you to sleep), matched equally by his predilection for pulling (inadvertently one hopes) funny faces when in public. And the voice! Again, it is not his fault—none of this is; this was the hand he was dealt with—but can’t he, like, get his sinuses checked by an ENT specialist? (Perhaps he has booked an appointment, but, thanks to Cameron's destruction of the NHS, the appointment is not until 2017.) As you watched Ed trying to mouth (like Cameron) his scripted answers (but far less convincingly than the Teflon David) it was a bit like watching a lion tamer put his head into the open jaw of a lion. You admired his courage but were also desirous of witnessing a calamity. Unconvincing does not even come close to describing Ed Miliband. He was not as revolting as Farage (very difficult, as we have seen), or as smug as Clegg, or as mendacious as Cameron, or as whiny as the Plaid Cymru woman (but as boring as Natalie Bennett). Trouble was: he was nothing. Based on his performance in the live debate the man would struggle to get a job as a classroom assistant in a failing primary school, let alone Britain’s prime-minister.  

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Book of the Month: A Very Private Gentleman (Martin Booth)

The narrator of A Very private gentleman, Martin Booth’s 1991 novel, is staying in an unnamed Italian mountain village. He is, as the title suggests, a very private individual. Whether he is a gentleman or not is a matter of opinion. The man is so secretive that despite living in an isolated village, away from civilization in every direction by several miles, for several months, and being a foreigner, he has been successful in not letting the villagers know so much as his real name. The villagers have given him a nickname—signor Farfalla, Mr Butterfly. They call him Farfalla because he has told them he is a miniature artist, a painter of butterflies. To the young woman, Clara, with whom he sleeps regularly and who, he believes, has fallen in love with him, he tells that his name is Edmond. That is not his true name either. Being an artist allows the secretive narrator to have no schedule to his days; he is not fettered by the demands of daily routine which would allow others to guess where he would be and what he would be doing on a given day. Add to this the fact that he is English—at least the villagers thinks he is, because he speaks the language like a native—; which means that he has a license to be, or appear, eccentric. No wonder, then, that the local Italians refrain from prying too much into signor Farfalla’s personal life. However, this being an Italian, and not English, village, signor Farfalla, despite being a foreigner, is not treated with the trademark English mixture of scorn and jealousy.
So there he is, this solitary Englishman—although at one point in the narrative, he claims not to be either English or French (or, for that matter, German, Swiss, American, Canadian or South American), he describes in some detail his life in an English village before he took to the peripatetic life that has brought him to this Italian village (also, he does not like French, which gives the game away)—leading a quiet, bucolic existence in the Italian countryside, going on mountain hikes, ostensibly to observer butterflies. He may be secretive, but he is not reclusive. He does not isolate himself from the village life surrounding him, and, during the course of his stay, makes friends with several locals. He wines and dines regularly with Father Benedetto, the local Catholic priest, whose life-story he listens to over evening dinners; he has a nodding acquaintance with people in the bar at which he is an ‘irregular regular’; he gets along well with the owner of a second-hand bookseller with whom he talks about books (Signor Farfalla is a book-lover); and he is friends with a wealthy entrepreneur of sewers and water-catchment drains. However, he has no truly close friends. Such friends, he reckons, know too much and become too involved in one’s well being. Signor Farfalla does not allow himself to have friends; he has only acquaintances, and, while he allows some of them to ‘look over the outer ramparts of his existence’, the shutters come down if any of them, such as the second-hand book-seller, shows more curiosity than he feels comfortable with.
Signor Farfalla may be a solitary man, but he does not believe in solitary sexual pleasures. He regularly has threesomes with two young women in a local brothel, both students—one called Clara whose buttocks are ‘small but rounded’, although her breasts are ‘nothing to write home about’, and the other called Dindina who has ‘firm breasts, and a tight, smooth belly’ (no information is provided about her buttocks). Dindina is not as pretty as Clara, or as clever. Clara is clearly falling for the charms of the old English rascal, but she does not get so much as to step inside the courtyard of the building in which he lives.
Signor Farfalla may be secretive; he may feel compelled to warn the readers repeatedly that attempts to trace him would be futile; but he is also an unstoppable monologuist and an incessant anecdotalist. He is an acute observer of what is going around him. At one point, he describes himself as ‘merely an observer, one who stands in the world’s wings to behold the action occurring.’ However, as the novel unfolds, the reader begins to suspect that there does not have to be an action—in the sense of an activity—occurring for the narrator to record it in his notebook. Anything will do. The reader is provided, in microscopic details, the arrangement and the interior decoration of the apartment in which he lives; the piazzas in the nearby villages and the shops and bars therein (and their interiors); the panoramic view of the valley and the mountains from the loggia of his apartment; and, later, once he lets the reader know his true vocation, the nature of his job, complete with technical details which, on their own, would form a hefty booklet.
So what exactly is signor Farfella’s true vocation? If he is not a miniature painter, then who is he? Farfella, the reader is informed about hundred pages into the novel, is in fact an expert gunsmith. He has, over the years, been involved intimately with the unsavoury, nefarious and villainous elements, all over the world—from Europe to North and Latin America to East Africa. No assassination, it would appear, can take place without signor Farfella’s gun. Secretive he may be, but signor Farfella does not find it too difficult to talk freely about his achievements; he has a justifiably inflated sense of self worth. At one stage he talks with ostentatious nonchalance about the role he—rather the equipment he made—played in the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. Farfalla has lived by his wits and—give credit where it is due—has not only successfully dodged assassins—he calls them shadow-dwellers—sent by those who are desirous to bring a swift, if violent, end to his career, but on one occasion he has also sent the shadow-dweller on his way to meet his maker. Blessed with a well developed sense of theatrics and command of language to convey the grandiosity of his missions, Farfalla declares himself to be the salesman of death; he is death’s booking clerk, its bellhop.
For most part, Farfalla is an entertaining narrator, not least because he has an opinion on everything, which he is not shy to express. France, for example. Farfalla does not approve of France. France is a ‘country of provincial banality, a land where patriotism flowers only to hide the bloodied earth of revolution, where history was begun at the Bastille by a horde of peasants running amok with pitchforks, decapitating their betters because they were just that.’ Swedish do scarcely better. They are ‘a humourless, sterile race. They regard life as an intensity to be experienced, not a rest from the slog of eternity. . . They are like bulldogs, always up-and-at-‘em, barking and making an efficient job of it.’ Opinionated? Yes. Prejudiced? Of course. Entertaining? Most definitely. Farfalla has similarly quaint views on religion, history, and art. He is not fond of Catholicism, which he views as a perversion of Christianity, and has pretty biting observations to make about its dogmas. History, Farfalla says, is nothing unless you can actively shape it. Christ was lucky because he invented a religion. Karl Marx was lucky because he invented an anti-religion. Everyone who changes history does so by destroying fellow man; to alter history, you have to kill your fellow man. Then, in an inexplicable attack of humility, Farfella admits that he is no Hitler, no Stalin, no Churchill, no Mao Tse-tung, but (lest you dismiss him as a nobody) he is the hidden one who makes changes possible, provides means to an end; he too alters history. A grander job description of a gunsmith would be hard to find.
The gunsmith is in the Italian village on a job. This job, he has resolved, would be his last. He has had enough of living shadowy existence, forever on the move, looking constantly over his shoulders for the ‘shadow-dweller’. He wants to put down roots somewhere, and enjoy his ill-gotten wealth for the remainder of his life. He wants to build a good library of books. He has, despite himself, come to love the Italian village he has been staying in for the past few months; he can see himself in the cosy armchair in Father Beneditto’s study, discussing theosophical issues over wine; he would love to live together with Clara (even though she has insignificant breasts), Dindina having left the village and whoring. However, as they say, man proposes and God disposes. Signor Farfalla becomes aware that he is being followed; a shadow-dweller has traced him to the village. The shadow-dweller makes no attempts to confront Farfalla, but follows him everywhere. A cat and mouse game begins and the peace of Farfalla’s mind is disrupted. He is not sure whether the shadow-dweller has been sent by one of the many disgruntled characters whom he has inconvenienced in the past, or he, Farfalla, is being double-crossed and the shadow-dweller is in the pay of his current employer, who does not want to leave behind any traces. Signor Farfalla, as the dust jacket of the novel confirms, becomes convinced that a treacherous circle is closing on him.
In A Very Private Gentleman (made also into a Hollywood film, I am informed, entitled The American starring George Clooney), Martin Booth, a prolific British novelist and poet (once short-listed for the Booker for his novel Industry of Souls), who died a few years ago of brain tumour, has created an anti-hero, who finds himself isolated in a foreign territory. At its surface the novel is a psychological suspense-thriller. As a thriller it just about works. The twist that comes at the end is, as twists should be, unexpected, but it fails to deliver the killer punch, perhaps because it is not central to the story.  What makes A Very Private Gentleman a worthwhile read is its language. The narrator is verbose, yet very exact in his descriptions, conjecturing vividly the landscape in which the story unfolds. Booth has a beautifully inventive turn of phrase, and one marvels at the acuity of his descriptions: apparently banal activities such as biting into bread at a picnic or drinking wine are described in a way that is almost bewitching. There is a lot of discourse on many subjects, which, while unrelated to the main story, is nonetheless very entertaining and, at times, persuasive. It is almost like trimmings have stolen the show from the main dish in a banquet. And therein lies the weakness of the novel: A Very Private Gentleman is like a room in an Upper West Side apartment that is lavishly decorated and vividly painted to hide the fact that it is so small.
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