Saturday, 10 June 2017

Humiliating Victory


The results of the British General Elections are out. These are being interpreted in the media as a disaster for the ruling Conservative party, and victory (of sorts) for the opposition Labour Party. Everyone is taking a great pleasure in the humiliation of Theresa May, the leader of the Conservative party and prime-minister, who ran (an ineffective) presidential style campaign.

As the exit polls predicted a hung parliament, pundits lined up to explain why this had happened: the Conservative party, which started the election campaign twenty points ahead of Labour, failed to win a clear victory, which its leader, Theresa May, wanted. Theresa May has now jumped into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, a party, if truth be told, no one outside of Northern Ireland had heard of until now, with more eagerness and speed than my neighbour displays when getting up from the chair to collect her burger in the local McDonald. DUP is a party, it can be revealed, that wants to bring back death penalty, and wants all the rights and privileges of LGBT community removed; it is a party that is rabidly anti-abortion, and consists of senior members who insist that the world was created by God in seven days and climate change is a cruel hoax perpetrated by the devil-worshippers. In other words a party of crackpots.

The consensus seemed to be that the blame of this disaster for the Conservatives should be laid at the door of the Prime Minister, in particular the way in which she ran the campaign, focusing on the personal styles of the two leaders. You have got to say that the strategy, in principle, was sound. The reputation of the Labour leader, Jeremey Corbyn, for the best part of the two years, since he surprised everyone (and shocked himself) by becoming Labour’s leader, was lower than crocodile’s piss. Everyone, including many Labour MPs, feared that the Labour faced a wipe-out in the general election. In many newspapers Corbyn had become a figure of either ridicule or pity or both. By contrast the personal rating of Theresa May was 5-6 times that of Corbyn’s at the start of the campaign. It was also logical that, with the difficult Brexit negotiations looming, whoever is the prime-minister of the country, could have done with a solid mandate.

It is therefore remarkable that May managed to squander her near-unassailable lead in just seven weeks, and has ended up short of outright majority, albeit by a whisker.

The problem for the Tories was that Theresa May was simply not very good at projecting herself as the strong and stable leader she clearly believes she is. She seemed to lack the warmth and the necessary interpersonal and communication skills. Whenever the interviewer asked May a question she did not like, her eyes would narrow and the corners of her mouth would be set, as if what the interviewer had said deserved nothing other than a sound thrashing. In the few interviews and question-answer sessions which she did, May mostly came across as wooden and not spontaneous. Her answers to most of the questions were couched in generalities and did not really address the questions. For example, when Andrew Neil asked her in the BBC interview, to explain how her party was going to find the eight billion pounds the Conservatives promised for the NHS, May’s answer (delivered in a regal and majestic tone) was that the Tories had a long and proven record of managing the economy well and providing strong and stable leadership. Under these very favourable circumstances it was inevitable that the economy was going to prosper and everything was going to be hunky-dory. That is as maybe, the answer failed to provide any clue to the listener how the NHS was going to receive extra funding. May did this repeatedly: she was reluctant (or unable) to go into specifics. When pressed she would appear peeved and snap back that it was all spelled out in the spring budget of 2017, which, in case the interviewer had failed to register, was presented by the Conservative party (of which she was a strong and stable leader). It gave the impression that the woman was evasive at best and mendacious at worst. Grandpa Corbyn, in contrast, went round with his manifesto and a calculator, and strived to give account (to the last penny) of how the Labour was going to keep the tall promises they had given to everyone except the rich (who are obviously enemies of the proletariat and ought to disappear in the sugarcane fields, as they did in Cuba, ran by the Communist dictator Castro for decades, of whom grandpa is a long-standing admirer). Corbyn as well as his close colleague, Diane Abott, the shadow home secretary, stumbled more than once while answering questions related to financing the myriad manifesto promises of Labour (which anyone with two brain-cells could see they would not have been able to keep). The unconvincing performances made them, Abott in particular, objects of ridicule; however, since May’s performance was not great either, the Conservatives could not capitalise on the Labour weakness. During the only question-answer session May condescended to appear in, she made jokey, if slightly snide, references to Abott’s inability to count (three times, if I remember correctly, in case the audience had missed the joke the first two times), refusing at the same time to give any details of her plans. Poor Abott appeared to be severely arithmetically challenged. She withdrew (or was ordered to withdraw by the Labour party high-command) from front-line interviews after she struggled to answer questions, which, she, in her role as the shadow home secretary, ought to have anticipated. Apparently she has a long term medical condition. What could it be? Developmental Disorder is my guess—inability to calculate, and marshal such cognitive resources as she has to answering questions put by the interviewers. This ought to have been picked up in her childhood and she should have received appropriate help—another glaring failure of the NHS, if you ask me, no doubt the result of the underfunding of the NHS in the 1980s by the Tories.

Halfway through the campaign it became clear that May was struggling to project herself as the strong and stable leader, and—shock! Horror!—Grandpa, unbelievably, was coming across as more relaxed, confident, comfortable, and having some sense of humour. However, there was no observable change of course: he campaign continued to be all about herself, even though it was becoming clear that there was not much of it. The hasty retreats on some of manifesto promises did not help Brand Theresa as the stable and resolute leader.

It is also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the election, which was supposed to be all about Brexit, we didn’t really hear much about Brexit from either of the party leaders. May refused to say anything beyond her strong and stable mantra and repeating the meaningless slogan ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. Corbyn focused more on issues such as giving money the country didn’t have to increase the wages of the nurses and abolishing tuition fees (even though evidence suggests that the number of university placements have increased in the last few years), nationalising industries, and pouring money into public services by taxing corporations and the rich. On the rare occasions when Grandpa could be bothered to talk about Brexit, his answers suggested that he had failed to grasp the enormity and complexity of Brexit (he confirmed that we would be out of the single market and free movement of people across the EU nations would end; but also blithely promised that under Labour there would be a tariff-free access to the EU markets, not bothering to give any idea—probably because he did not have any— as to how this was going to happen). This is a major worry. The leaders of Britain’s two major political parties seemed incapable of coming to grips with the complexities and scale of Brexit. In particular, neither seemed interested in answering how the likely economic impact of Brexit (about which the previous chancellor, George Osborne, whom May sacked unceremoniously within an hour of entering Downing Street last year, was repeatedly warning about) would be tackled. The lying Brexiter brigade during last year’s referendum had dismissed Osborne’s warning as Project Fear. Project Fear is about to become Project reality. Britain’s growth in the first quarter of 2017 was the slowest amongst the seven richest countries. Inflation is on the rise (at its three-year highest) and real-term wages of people are falling. During the election campaign Labour made much of the austerity programme of the Tories, and benefitted from the public’s anger about it. Guess what, austerity is not going to go away: the government revenues will fall in the coming years because of the slowing of the economic growth, and harder times are to follow. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was calamitous, and things are going to get much worse in the coming years, unless some common sense emerges in the Brexit negotiations. We cannot afford to go down the route of the kind of Brexit May wants to press ahead without inflicting serious damage on the economy. For that reason alone it is a good thing that May did not get the mandate she was demanding. One hopes that the Thatcherite MPs in the Conservative party will feel embolden by the result to steer the country away from the cliff-edge towards which May seemed determined to drag us.

The election results are without doubt personal humiliation, slap-in-the-face, whatever you want to say, for Theresa May. However, in the cold light of the day, despite May’s disastrous campaign, the Conservatives are still the preferred party of the British people. What has happened is that the British public has once again (almost for the third time in a row, if you discount Cameron’s slim majority in the 2015 election) has not given any one party a clear mandate. The position of the Tories is roughly the same as it was in 2015 and slightly better than it was in 2010. True, May has lost the majority that Cameron managed to get in 2015; but Cameron’s majority was wafer-thin—just 5 seats. The Tories have lost that majority, but not by a massive margin: they fell eight short of majority. May will probably go in the next few months. I can’t see her lasting given the regicidal tendencies of the Tories. They will do it with stealth, though. There won’t be any of the ungracious squabbling that we witnessed in the parliamentary Labour Party when the launched an ineffective coup against Corbyn who, they were convinced, was toxic.

In this general election there was a clear choice between the Labour manifesto and the Tory manifesto. And the Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Corbyn and his hard-left policies.

The clear verdict of the British public has not stopped Grandpa from strutting about as if he has conquered the world. Anyone watching the jubilation and celebration of the Labour leader would have believed that Labour had won the election with a thumping majority. Like a plumped up raisin Grandpa is exuding vanity and smugness in equal measures, and is asking Theresa May to resign (even though her party won loads more seats than his), which is a bit rich coming from him given his track record. This is no doubt because the Labour has done better than expected. Everybody thought Corbyn was useless and Labour was staring into abyss. That has not happened, although the results also do not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Corbyn and his second rate cronies like John McDonnell—who have zero experience of running anything except their own mouths—are not useless.

This is now the third general election the Labour have lost in a row. And comprehensively. In spite of the allegedly popular policies of Labour under Corbyn (a socialist utopia where everyone has rights and no one has responsibilities, except when you are a productive member of the society and earning money), Labour fell 64 seats short of majority and are comfortably behind the Tories at this stage, in terms of parliamentary strength.

The tetchy Shami Chakraborty, the shadow Attorney General of Grandpa, made the risible claim in the BBC question time that Grandpa had actually won (maybe she also has a chronic condition, which makes her stare at truth and ask, “Do I know you?”) and was thoroughly booed by the studio audience. It was amusing to see Alistair Campbell, the much reviled press secretary of the allegedly discredited Blair, coming to her rescue. How Chakraborty must have hated it.

There is now the inevitable optimistic nonsense spouted by the tiresome lefties, in the Guardian, of how this is going to be the beginning of sort of quiet revolution, and how, in the next general election, especially if it is held in the next few months, Grandpa will stomp to power. It was left to Chris Leslie, the former shadow chancellor, an arch Blairite and a trenchant critic of Corbyn, to point out (it had to be done) that, for all the euphoria of the Corbyn cheerleaders, it was the Tories who were going to form the next government.

So the big achievement of Corbyn is that he lost as heavily as Gordon Brown did in 2010; and Brown, remember, after that defeat, resigned. Labour are in such a sorry state and the expectations were so low at the start of the campaign that falling short of majority by 64 seats is being touted as a victory. Corbyn might have silenced his (I suspect still plentiful) critics in the parliamentary Labour party (for now), but Labour are still not anywhere within sniffing distance of forming a government on its own. Corbyn is now talking nonsense about bringing down the Queen’s speech and forming agovernment, apparently because he believes he has got the mandate to deal with the issues of poverty and inequality in Britain, and he is determined to endausterity. I can’t understand How Corbyn can claim that he has a mandate when his party was comprehensively defeated in the election. In the unlikely event of Corbyn forming a minority government (he and McDonnell have already declared that Labour would do no deals), he would face serious obstacles in pushing through his agenda (which would not be a bad thing, seeing as his policies will bankrupt the country), and, whatever might be the qualities of this aging crypto-Communist, they do not regrettably include being inclusive and tolerant of views that are different from his, which is just one of the many reasons why he is completely unsuitable to be the prime-minister.

I doubt very much that the general election marks of something new and exciting in the British politics, as the Corbynistas (a term coined by British newspapers to describe the noisy and often obnoxious supporters of Corbyn, such as the Trotskyist Momentum) seem to have deluded themselves into believing. Grandpa Corbyn is mediocre at best and is simply not a prime-ministerial material. He will not be prime-minister. Ever. The Blair era might have ended in the Labour in this election, and the grip of hard-left on Labour might have become stronger; however that may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Labour will not win another general election unless they reclaim the centre ground in the British politics.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

British General Election 2017


The British general elections will be held in eight days, and we shall know who would be Britain’s next prime-minister.

Theresa May called the snap general election in April 2017, after insisting repeatedly for several months that she would not call a general election until 2020 because, it would, you see, not good for the country’s stability, until she had the epiphany—while on a walk in Snowdonia—that in fact a snap general election was exactly what the doctor advised to bolster country’s stability. It also happened to be the case that April 2017 was also the month in which May's Conservative Party was declared to be twenty-five points (or some such ridiculous margin) ahead of the main opposition Labour Party by the pollsters (the same pollsters who were predicting a ten point lead for the remain campaign over the leave campaign in the last year’s British referendum about Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU)).

When Auntie Theresa called the election, everyone was predicting a landslide victory for the Tories over the Labour; and with good reason. Labour, increasingly resembling a lame-duck party, with its hopeless (and hapless) leader Jeremy Corbyn, surrounded by left-wing zealots who have been plotting a left-wing revolution for the last three decades, cocooned in a world rarely penetrated by reality, had seemed incapable of providing effective opposition. In the two years since the its last general election defeat in 2015, Labour had not so much been a political party but a battle ground between the rival factions within the party. Corbyn spent so much time fighting against his own MPs, who (probably not without reason) formed the view that the chances Labour winning a general election under the leadership of Corbyn—who, until his surprise elevation to the leadership of the Labour party, had spent his entire political life on the back-benches, carping against Blair and Brown and Miliband, when he was not going on protest marches or embracing the leaders of Hamas and IRA—were less than Donald Trump sending a sensible (or even comprehensible) tweet, that he was unable to—incapable of, in the eyes of some—providing a semi-effective parliamentary opposition.

However, as they say, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

Grandpa Corbyn, the aging revolutionary, has proved to be a bit of a surprise. No doubt having been tutored (albeit inadvertently) by the hostile opposition within his own party in the two years leading to this election, as well as his inherently pachydermic skin, Corbyn, during the election campaign, has come across as relaxed and sure of himself in the face of hostile questions and interviews. Theresa May, by contrast, has shown herself to be thin-skinned, petulant, panicky, evasive, and—dare I say it?—unsure of herself. Not exactly the strong and stable leader she has been ordering the British public to believe she is.

I know crazier things have happened (look who is in the White House), but, as the election day looms, there is now a possibility that it might not after all be a smooth sailing for the Tories, and Auntie, much to her irritation, might not get the brutal majority, which she obviously thinks is her God-given right.

If May does not get the landslide win she thought was within her grasp just a couple of months back, she has only herself to blame.

Theresa May’s strategy seems to be as follows: repeat the same thing over and over again and hope that people would be bored into believing it: I am strong and stable leader; only the Conservatives will ensure a growing economy; only the strong and stable leader will negotiate robustly with the EU bureaucrats who are hell-bent on punishing Britain, yada, yada, yada (or yawn, yawn, yawn). May seems to think that she is immune to the requirement of providing any evidence to support her claims. To paraphrase Orwell, it is a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The same thing over and over again (and it is not as if she has anything nice to say; it is just hate, hate, hate—be it Corbyn or immigrants; let’s get-together and have a good hate). It also seems to have escaped her mind that (as Aristotle pointed out millennia earlier) it is your actions and not your talk (even when delivered in a stern schoolmarmish style) that will tell people about your qualities and abilities. On the evidence so far, Auntie may talk the talk, but can she walk the walk?  If the completely un-costed Tory manifesto was shambles, May’s U-turn, within forty-eight hours of its publication, on one of the key-policies in the manifesto (when it dawned on her that it might alienate the geriatrics who would vote a donkey if it was a Tory candidate) and her attempts to convince that it was not a U-turn (she had, exactly what she was saying now, in her mind all along, even though she had neglected to mention it in the manifesto, and by the way, it was all Corbyn’s fault; darned nuisance the man was turning out to be, with his scare-mongering) were about as convincing as a Nazi concentration camp Commandant claiming in the Nuremberg trials that the gas chambers were for burning wood so that the inmates could stay in comfort in the winter months. Her fall-back position is: when you are running out of argument(s) (or, as has been so frequently witnessed in this election campaign, you have no argument) launch a nasty and personal attack on Corbyn. It is off-putting.

The list of Jeremy Corbyn’s problems is longer than the treaty of Versailles. To name a few: his image (incompetent fuddy-duddy with the charisma of dish-washer and personality of a lawn-mower); the outré statements he and his pal John McDonnell made over the years when they did not envisage being within the sniffing distance of the leadership of the Labour party coming to haunt them; and the non-entities that make up his shadow-cabinet (with the possible exception of John McDonnell, who is probably clinically insane) as no one in the parliamentary Labour party with a smidgen of common sense would want to associate themselves with these crazy people.

There, really, is no reason to believe that Theresa May would be a more capable leader than Corbyn. You don't become a strong and stable leader just because you shout till you are blue in the face that you are one. Theresa May's record, first as the home secretary in the Cameron government, and, for the last eleven months as the prime-minister, is unimpressive to say the least. She insists that she, and only she, is the person to lead the country through Brexit negotiations, and accuses Corbyn of not having a plan; yet she refuses to give any details of what plan she might have other than "trust me". She is once again promising to reduce the net migration to tens of thousands (urging the electorate to not trust Jeremy Corbyn, who, she warns, will open the floodgates). Without going into the advisability of this plan (George Osborne described it as economically illiterate) May has repeatedly and spectacularly failed to deliver on this promise. The net migration in the UK, throughout May's tenure as the home secretary (when she was in charge of migration) and now, as the prime-minister, was in hundreds of thousands. Why should people (in particular those for whom immigration is a concern) believe that she would be better than Corbyn, especially as, yet again, she does not come up with any plan as to how she proposes to reduce the net migration? Such flimsy details as she deigns to give are no different from what Corbyn is saying: the UK will leave the EU and free movement of people within Europe will end. There is disingenuousness in blaming the EU for the increased migration. In the last seven years, when May has been in power, the migration from the non-EU countries (on which the UK, presumably, has complete control, as it has nothing to do with the EU) has been consistently higher than the EU migration. So, on the issue of migration, which may well be uppermost in the minds of some sections of the British society, the only difference between May and Corbyn, insofar as I can see, is that May is blithely giving promises which she can't possibly keep, whereas Corbyn is more cautious and is refusing to give promises which he knows he won't be able to keep. That would make him, in the eyes of most sensible people, not less trustworthy, but more honest.

Let's think about the economy a bit. Corbyn has been Father Christmas in his manifesto, showering huge largesse on the public sector services (which have suffered terribly under the Tories). He is going to do this by borrowing more and taxing the rich. He is also going to increase the corporate taxes (he is priceless, Corbyn: a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool, stamped-and-seeled-in-the-production-factory, head-in-the-clouds Socialist). If he is allowed to do this, May is inviting us to believe that Armageddon will arrive and swarm of locusts will attack the Royal family. All the businesses will leave the UK (even though even with the proposed hike in the corporation tax in the Labour manifesto, the UK would still have one of the lowest corporation tax regimes amongst the rich countries). Fair enough. What then are the economic plans of the Conservatives? Search me: their manifesto is completely uncosted. May was outraged when Andrew Neil, in his interview, had the temerity to ask her how she was going to finance the eight billion pounds she was promising to the NHS (which, incidentally, has been systematically decimated by the Tories). "Trust me. I am Theresa May. Isn't that enough?"

Ultimately, though, it comes to the public perception.Nasty as Theresa May maybe (The Economist described her, in fact, as Theresa Maybe—so much for strong and stable leadership), and, let it be said that she has run a thoroughly despicable campaign, which no one save Donald Trump would approve of, the British public may (reluctantly) choose Cruella de Vil to be in the Number Ten because it may (reluctantly) conclude that Comrade Corbyn and his merry bunch can’t be trusted to look after their washing let alone the country’s economy and the Brexit negotiations.

I predict a Tory victory. Let’s hope it is not a landslide.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Book of the Month: Boys and Girls (Joseph Connolly)




Joseph Connolly’s twelfth novel, Boys and Girls, is described as a “superb satire of modern mortality” on its front page, the quote supplied by one Kate Saunders. It is the third Joseph Connolly novel I have read, the previous two being Summer Things (superb) and England’s Lane (just about okay).

Boys and Girls has all the makings of a satire, as Kate Saunders helpfully informs; however, when you finally reach the end of this 440-page novel—exhausted, weary and not entirely sure that the days you spent reading this novel couldn’t have been better spent by reading, say, Helen Fielding (and you could have read two novels of Fielding in the time it took you to plough through the treacly prose of Boys and Girls)—you could be excused for wondering whether the novel was more of a melodrama than satire.

The novel is set in modern day alright. It tells the story of a middle class couple—an intelligent woman named Susan, who is heavy on sarcasm and low on humour, and, who for reasons that were not clear to me, describes herself as a sensualist, her rather inept husband, Alan,—who, after having proven his uselessness in a variety of media-related jobs, is now a sit-at-home-husband—, and their adolescent daughter, Amanda. Following Alan’s un-employability, Susan has become the reluctant bread-winner. She works for a small but profit-making publishing company (there’s a surprise) and earns reasonably good salary, enough at any rate to keep up with middle class pretensions, including (but not limited to) a house in Chelsea, London, which, the reader is informed, is a gift from Susan’s father, who has earned a packet in some business I have forgotten which—but it is not important—and who in his old age has gone doolally and making life hell for the staff in some care-home, by repeatedly climbing on top of the care-home’s roof. But Susan is unhappy. She is unhappy with her situation. She has figured out the cause of her unhappiness. It’s Alan. She is unhappy with Alan because—fair enough—Alan is pretty useless. He does not earn a single penny and therefore Susan the sensualist has to work (like the rest of us) to maintain the lifestyle (or the pretence of it). She does not want to carry on like that. She wants another husband. She has even decided who that is going to be: her boss at the publishing house. But Susan does not want to trade in the old husband for the new. She wants both the husbands: ‘as well as’ and not ‘instead of’ as she repeats ad nauseum to her first husband. The name of the second husband is Black. That’s his nickname, apparently, the real name being Martin Leather (Leather? Black? Can you see the connection?). She is confident that she has had old Black—yes! Old. Black is older than the hills—wrapped round her little finger the day she interviewed for the job, showing attitude and using language, which would get most people sacked. Susan guesses correctly that Alan is a doormat and will not put up any resistance. That’s what Happens. Susan and Black get married (it is not strictly a bigamy because the drink sodden Irish priest—is there another type?—who marries the two has been defrocked for reasons I shall leave you to guess. Black sells off his publishing house for a profit I don’t think is possible—the man publishes literary fiction, and who wants to read that?—and buys a house in Richmond that is large enough to house a village-full of displaced Syrians. Does the teenage daughter fit into any of this? Does she have any views on the unusual marital arrangements of her parents? She does and she does. Amanda, unsurprisingly, is not happy about her mother’s new beau. However, since there’s sod-all she can do about it, the girl takes the only course available to her, and goes off rails. As her mother dives into the riches of Black, Amanda dives into a spotty teenager who works in a garage but aspires to be a poet. (Have you ever met an assistant of a garage mechanic who dreams of being a poet?) If you have lasted this review thus far but is beginning to find it tiresome, believe me, it’s nothing as compared to the tedium that is Boys and Girls. There are a few more (fairly predictable) twists in the story-line before the novel finally limps to its coda.

Boys and Girls attempts to be a comedy of manners that centres round a modern dysfunctional family and relationships. Connolly focuses on the pretences of people, their infinite ability for self-delusions, and games they play and the intellectual contortions they attempt to not acknowledge or deny the truth that is staring at them. At times it works. Thus Susan, who is not exactly proving to be a paragon of morality to her daughter, is outraged when she comes to know that Amanda has slept with a boy who is no more than 16 or 17; and splutters on about how the adolescent boy has broken law by sleeping with a minor. Alan, the metaphorically impotent husband, knowing that there is little he can do to stop his wife from doing what she wants, does not even try to summon outrage and, instead, assumes the pliant, reasonable attitude that would have had Nick Clegg nodding with approval.  The ease with which the two men become friends and get on with each other—Alan even agrees to be the best man for Black—is—to employ the word Amanda is over-fond of using—creepy. None of the protagonists in the novel is particularly likeable—I suspect it is deliberate. All the characters—caricaturesque they might be—dwell for ever in the twilight zone of moral ambiguity. Connolly drives the point home with brutal descriptions of what can be best described as barely legal sex.

The trouble with Boys and Girls is that it is, at 400-plus pages, just too bloody long. Connolly has a kernel of an idea, an interesting idea, no doubt, but it can be stretched only so long. The novel severely tests the reader’s patience. In interviews given around the time the novel was published, Connolly admitted that the novel was a modern comedy and humour was absolutely essential, dark times or not, and the English instinctively understood humour, but he had always disliked the tag of being a comic writer. He also revealed that he was not the type of writer who planned his novel at the outset, and confessed to having no idea what unknown B-road his novels would take after the first 20,000 words. That probably explains the slightly rambling, haphazard course Boys and Girls takes.  

Majority of the novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, with interior monologues of the protagonists. This gives the novel a digressive—at times tortuous—feel. Also, it does not matter whether it’s Alan’s or Susan’s or Black’s or Amanda’s interior monologue (OK, hers is a bit different, because every sentence of her monologue is liberally strewn with the word ‘like’, to the extent that it begins to jar; Connolly, in his research, must have discovered that teenagers, teenage girls to be specific, like to use this word a lot)—it is Joseph Connolly speaking. All of the characters sound exactly the same. You either like this style or you don’t (I don’t mind it—long sentences with longer parentheses and sudden shifting of view in the middle of a sentence that started five pages back— but it also means that I need to take a gap of several months in-between reading Connolly’s novels.) The linguistic pyrotechniques (Connolly was once famously described as Wodehouse on acid) in Boys and Girls for the most part are not invigorating; they simply tire you out. The sudden shifts to third person narrative are disorienting.

Black, the aging publishing giant in Boys and Girls, at one stage tells Alan what he, Black, thinks of the Amis father and son. Amis senior is a ‘fine writer’; the son is ‘shit’, is Black’s verdict. I wonder what Martin Amis would have made of Boys and Girls. I don’t think he would describe the novel as shit (that would be ungracious), but it is certainly not one of Connolly’s best. It misses the mark, somehow.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Book of the Month: Bringing Nothing to the Party (Paul Carr)




Paul Carr was a bright boy. His parents hoped that he would one day become a lawyer. After A levels he enrolled into Nottingham University and studied law. While at University Paul, whose love affair with technology had begun at the age of seven when his parents bought him a second hand ZX spectrum, discovered that he had a flair for writing. From his first year digs he created a web-site called Zingin.com which was a sarcastic version of the then powerful Yahoo directory of useful and entertaining websites. Carr kept these activities a secret. Difficult as it is to believe these days, Internet was not cool in 1997, and Carr had ambitions of making a transition to the respectable mainstream publishing. Which happened sooner than he expected when he was commissioned by the publishers ‘Prentice Hall’ to convert his ‘web material’ into a book format. This necessitated frequent trips to London, and, since the young Carr still could not bring himself to reveal what he got up to in his room late at nights (writing for and on his website), he became a source of much speculation amongst his peers, who began to suspect that he was a closet homosexual and his lover was dying of AIDS in London.

After getting his law degree despite attending a total of three lectures in three years, Carr headed straight to London. He had a clear goal: he wanted to be famous; and successful; and rich. And he wanted to be all these very quickly. He was a published author—Prentice had brought out his books—and he was publishing a regular column in the Guardian, writing mainly on the dot com industry. He was also sleeping his way through as many women as possible between the ages of twenty to forty. He was invited for the innumerable dos and networking events, arranged by the uber-networkers to break down ‘social inefficiencies’, where he enjoyed the free booze and meals, and partied late into the night, waking up the next day wherever he did, remembering neither how he ended up there nor how his trousers came to be back to front. So successful were these events, in which tycoons, who had not yet begun to shave, gave one minute tips to the throngs of wannabes, on how to reach the promised land of unreasonable wealth, that soon a whole industry was created around them by men who called themselves web-entrepreneurs, worth millions of dollars. Carr also rubbed shoulders with men— most of these dot com entrepreneurs were men, outnumbering women by a ratio of twenty to one (Carr charmingly describes these networking events as sausage fests), who were all young—some of them were probably not eligible to vote in an election or take a driving test when they made their first million. These boys/men had struck gold by launching websites, which were essentially different versions based on the theme of social networking, targeted at different groups defined by age, sex, interests, and geography; or by starting websites bringing together all the porn websites (and dividing them in various categories  that defied ordinary imaginations); or by starting Net-based businesses—say, starting a company which allowed you to prepare your own business cards on the Net; or one that helped you to draw your very own signature cartoons; or selling chess boards where the chess pieces were replaced by vodka glasses (every time you took a piece, you also took a vodka shot)—; or by coming up with breathtakingly original ideas such as setting up a website of 10,000 tiny squares, each square consisting of ten pixels. All the ‘businesses’—yes even the one which had nothing but empty squares—were then sold for sums (to companies which had made their fortunes with similar strategies) most of us would have difficulty in deciding how many zeros they contained after the first number, which could be anything from 1 to 9. In just a few years impecunious nerds in crummy digs, wearing baggy jeans and dirty T-shirts (who wouldn’t have had girl-friends unless they invented them), were transformed into incredibly wealthy nerds wearing designer baggy jeans and horrendously expensive trainers, on whose every word hung implausibly hot women in clothes worn either by supermodels or high class hookers, who learnt not to mind either the flush of acne or the slime on the buck teeth of these teenage millionaires.

It did not take Carr Long to realise that he was not going to realise his dream of becoming rich beyond imagination by hacking out columns for the Guardian. He might be rubbing shoulders with the internet tycoons, but he was not on their radars—he was one of the hangers-on who was a sometime-amusing-most-of-the-time-irritating company, and who needed to be tolerated, humoured even, for a few minutes so that he would not bitch about them, may even put in a flattering word, in his column. He might freeload on their drinks and stuff his face with the canapés as much as he liked, but he would be as much away from their league as Comrade Corbyn is from Auntie May. Carr smelt the sweet smell of success, but it was not coming from his kitchen. He craved the glamour, the success, the wealth. And he wanted it quickly. There was only one thing to do. He had to become an entrepreneur himself.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is Paul Carr’s highly entertaining account of his disastrous attempt to become a web entrepreneur (and a millionaire). When Carr decided to take the plunge into the whirlpool of Web businesses, he had managed to bring a degree of stability to his life. In addition to contributing columns to broadsheets, he had, in partnership with a woman who had approached him all those years ago to write satirical books on Web, started a publishing company called ‘Fridaynight Project’, and had successfully published books which were essentially compendiums of articles uploaded on some or more of the websites. Carr decided to risk all this—nothing ventured nothing gained—and took on the ‘online’ aspect of the ‘Fridaynight Project’, giving up his share in the parent company. He was confident (probably not without reason) that he had inside knowledge of the industry. He had also convinced himself that he had developed useful contacts in the previous 3-4 years, having impressed some or more of the entrepreneurs by his charm, witticism, and the force of his personality. All he needed was a ‘brilliant idea’ that would capture the attention of those who had so much money it was burning holes in their trouser pockets and were looking for ways to spend it on fledgling ventures (and obtain large shares) which, if they became successful, would rake in more money, which they could invest in some more ventures (and so it would go on; it’s a vicious cycle).

Carr was joined by two others—an American woman from his University, called Savannah, and an aspiring novelist called Karl Webster—and he launched ‘Fridaycities.Com’, which was a networking site where, if I have understood it correctly (which I may not have), people exchanged titbits and information about the cities they lived in. The subscribers were also awarded points, or kudos, depending on the quality of their inputs. Cunningly, so Carr thought, he also wanted the website to be a quasi-dating website. So, the users were encouraged to use tic boxes in front of the pre-prepared statements (‘I find him sexy’ etc.) which were attached to the profiles of each subscriber. The use of the website was free; however, if you wanted to get to know other subscribers, for example, if you had a burning desire to know who found your profile sexy and your contribution witty, you could do it only by subscribing to a premium service which charged you annually £10. (If, like me, you are wondering why anyone would become a regular subscriber to such websites, you are obviously an anachronism and ought to be sent to live with the Pennsylvania Amish.) As for Carr’s confidence that he would be able to get funding from entrepreneurs and VCs (Venture Capitalists) for his ‘business’, you can’t really fault the poor lad. Remember, this is an industry where a website full of empty squares was hailed as a breakthrough and sold for a million dollars. Carr managed to get Angus Bankes, who had raked in millions developing and selling Web business, as the non-executive chairman of their company; he managed to convince his parents and uncle to part with 50 grands of their hard-earned cash; and, with the zeal of a Born Again Christian, he began to woo ‘the angels’—these are the aforementioned multimillionaires who are prepared to part with their easily-won cash—so that they would invest in his business venture. And failed every time. Every e-tycoon he met was interested in the idea, saw the potential in the idea, agreed that it was a damn good concept, and predicted that it would be the next big thing in the dot com business; but did not actually invest money in it. Carr tried every trick in the book—he even learnt the Powerpoint presentation and changed the name of his web-business from ‘Fridaycities.com’ (‘crap’) to ‘Kudocities.com’ (so much better)—and sucked up to these men like a vacuum cleaner; however, at the end of one year he was forced to admit that he had reached the end of the road. No one was willing to invest in his company. The idea may have the potential, but the business had no future. Carr accepted defeat; accepted that he was not cut out to be a web-entrepreneur; made the (inevitable) discovery that he was much happier when he was a two-penny hack (the free booze and dinners might also have gone some way towards maintaining his felicitous state); and decided that there was something in the notion that on the whole it was a sound plan to stick with what you were good at rather than attempt something (you were not good at) only because you saw others doing it and some succeeding. ‘Fridaycities (or ‘Kudocities). com joined thousands of other similar web-business ventures that do not make it, and disappeared into ether forever.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the over-hyped world of dot com industry at the turn of the century, where one swallow often made a summer. Carr successfully enlivens the Sybaritic world which appears to be unending successions of decadent gatherings. It is also an honest (and often hilarious) account of Carr’s own alcohol-fuelled capers, which, more than once, end up in him pissing off the very people he needs to schmoose with. Running in parallel with Carr’s attempt to secure a funding for his business venture is the story of the love triangle involving him and two American women, one (called Savannah) who is his business partner, and the other (called Kate), one of the subscribers to the test-site of his business. With self-deprecating humour and candidness Carr tells how he achieves the difficult feat—he invites both of them at the same pub when he is rip-roaringly drunk and afterwards has the mother of all blackouts—of upsetting and losing both the women.

Carr has the gift of a raconteur. The book which, at times, has the feel of a shaggy-dog story, and is full of comical anecdotes—the one involving Carr hiring a singing and swearing gynaecologist, who specialises in parody songs that border on misogyny, for the launch of his business, is toe-curlingly funny— crackles throughout with his humour and wit.

Towards the end of this very engaging and entertaining memoir (if that is what it is), Carr recounts how Kate, his jilted ex, started a blog dedicated to dissing him. On the blog the ex told the story, warts and all, of her one year on and off relationship with Carr, which portrayed him as a commitment-phobic sociopath who had an unusual relationship with truth. Kate, Carr informs us, went to great lengths to get in touch with everyone, of either sex, whom Carr had crossed swords with—and there were many—in the previous few years, and invited them to add their stories to the blog. Worse, she encouraged them to dish the dirt on the failed internet entrepreneur on their websites, which were then linked to her own blog. The result? If you typed ‘Paul Carr’ in the Google search box, the Jezebel’s blog site was the first one to pop up on the search engine for reasons that are too technical and beyond my comprehension. What the woman did, was apparently worse than a ‘Google Bomb’. And please don’t ask me what a ‘Google Bomb’ is. It is what, Carr informs us, Zoe-the Girl-with-a-One-Track-Mind- Margolis  did to Nicholas Hellen, the Sunday Times Acting News Editor, who ‘outed’ her as the woman writing salacious stories on her blog, describing in detail her bedroom adventures, and is not very nice, although, obviously, not as malicious as Kate did to Paul Carr. Carr’s name was mud. I wouldn’t have known any of this had I not read Carr’s book. Perhaps there is a lesson in this.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Abortion and Masturbation: are they Comparable?


A Democratic representative in Texas, called Jessica Farrar, has filed a bill to regulate masturbatory emissions in men. The bill proposes that men be fined $ 100 if they ejaculate outside of an appropriate receptacle. The appropriate receptacle, you might have guessed, is a vagina (you’d hope, with a real woman attached to it) or, if it can’t be a vagina, then any receptacle approved by a medical facility. Any emission that does not end in either (or any) of the certified receptacles will be considered an act against an unborn child and the man will be charged with the failure to preserve the sanctity of life.

Jessica Farrar introduced this satirical bill to highlight her opposition to the anti-abortion measures advocated by the Republican politicians.

I must confess that I don’t get the anti-abortion stance of some sections of the societies all over the world. I mean, I get it that Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion, because the Church holds the sanctity of life so dear. So, in vulgate, the Church is saying that if you f**k and the woman gets pregnant, then that’s it. Whether the woman can afford it or not, whether she likes children or not, whether the f**ker (in the strict technical sense of the word) wants to stick around or not, she has to give birth to the child. (There are other ways of getting pregnant without actual f**king, such as artificial insemination; but I should guess that if you have gone all the way to the IVF to have a baby, and it works, you would not want to abort the foetus.) That is OK. It’s OK in the sense that it is, like, the opinion of the Church. Those who are Catholics and think that it is OK for the Church to be so prescriptive about their personal lives, are welcome to follow it. But what about those who are not Catholics, or, who are Catholics but want to have the right to abort? If you are in Texas, you are f**ked (figuratively, this time, although, if you have become pregnant, you have also been literally f**ked), as, it looks like, the only way to get an abortion if you live in Texas (and are a woman, a pregnant woman, it goes without saying) is a twisted hanger in a dodgy back-street.

I therefore am in fully empathy (you should try it, empathy; I have been giving it a go for a while, and I am slowly getting better at it; I allow myself only a smirk these days—and do not guffaw—when a confused geriatric runs over a toddler in ASDA with his trolley and the toddler’s mother eloquently brings to the geriatric’s notice his many character-flaws (and to everyone else’s, within the hearing distance, that she learnt her eloquence in the gutter) with the women in Texas, not because they live in Texas which, I am sure, is a fine state in America, and certainly not because they are women, but because they can’t get an abortion which I think should be their right, irrespective of their motivations for abortion.

Abortion, let me make it clear hear and now, is a boon to the society, like Salvation Army, Amnesty International, and PoundLand. It is a bringer of inestimable, indescribable good and happiness.

I wonder, though, whether introducing the anti-masturbatory bill, however satirical, is the right way of going about it. It can’t be that everyone who supports the anti-abortion bill dangles a penis between his thighs. It seems statistical improbability to me that not a single woman supports the anti-abortion bill. The bill does an injustice to all those lonely men who sit in front of their computer (a sock in one hand) staring intensely (and empathically) at the YouTube videos (uploaded strictly  for educational purpose), who might be wholeheartedly in support of women’s right to abort. These men might be creepy (you might die of fright) but their hearts are in the right place.

What can, then, be done? Stopping men from tossing off will, I am sorry to say, not work. The women could leave Texas. That is no doubt a cop-out option, but, in its support, it could be argued that sometimes retreat is the wisest, if not the bravest, decision. My suggestion is that all these Republican politicians bringing anti-abortion measures (or, even better, the Pope) should be made to read David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go. If Lodge’s wise and humane musings on the Catholic Church, the pill, and the rhythm method fail to change the hearts of Republican Politicians (and the Pope), I don’t know what will.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Trans and Cis




The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently had a spot of bother after she suggested that the experiences of transgender women were different from the cisgender women (I believe this is the term for those individuals who are born women, and either are happy to live as women, or, if they aren’t, don’t make a fuss about it—so we don’t know).

You might argue that it is impossible for Adichie, or any other cisgender woman, to talk with authority about the experiences of trans-gender women, because Adichie was not born a man, and therefore cannot possibly know what it is like to be a man, and, by extension, what it is like to be convinced that one would be better off as a woman, because in spite of one’s chromosome and anatomy one is convinced in one’s mind that one ought to be a woman.

Adichie’s explanation as to why she is reluctant to consider trans-gender women as—for the want of better phrase—real women was neither medical nor psychological; it was socio-political. Adichie said in her interview that if you lived in this world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it was difficult for Adichie to accept that you (a transgender woman) could equate your experience with the experience of a woman who had always lived as a woman, and not enjoyed the privileges as a man.

Adichie’s answer to this dilemma? Trans-women are trans-women, and cis-women are cis-women.

Adichie’s argument risks attracting the accusation, among other things, of making sweeping judgments about the privileges the men supposedly enjoy, and women don’t. She tries to link it to this peculiar condition, which, I believe, is recognised as some sort of psychiatric condition—although I’d wager a hundred pounds that such individuals, while they may experience a variety of emotional distress, do not consider the core issue, that they are born in the wrong body, as a psychiatric condition.

Going by Adichie’s argument, a man, who wants to be a woman for reasons best known to him, is, therefore, willing to give up the privileges of men. Why might he do that? I read that the Indian leader of the twentieth century, Gandhi, who led his country to freedom from British Imperialism, gave up on the Western attire and went through his life wearing a loin cloth. Gandhi took this step because he felt uneasy about wearing Western (or, for that matter, Eastern) dress that would cover his spindly legs and chest hair, when he saw that his countrymen were going around semi-naked because they were so impoverished under the British Raj that they could not clothe themselves adequately. Gandhi, who was a Western-educated barrister, and, at one stage, had a flourishing practice, decided that he too was going to live like his poor countrymen: if they could not afford to wear clothes and went around half-naked, so would he. You might say that Gandhi was displaying an extreme form of empathy. I should doubt very much that the men who choose to be women, and go all the way to have reconstructive surgery, do this because they want to experience, in a Gandhiesque manner, the disadvantages of womanhood. These men want their penises chopped off because they don’t like their penises; they want to have vaginas, instead.

And what about women who want to be men? This trans-business, surely, is not confined only to men who are desperate to be women. Adichie makes no comments about women who have had reconstructive surgeries, and, with hormonal treatment, boast cobwebs on their chins. One would, going by Adichie’s argument, suppose, that these trans-men can’t be real men because they have not enjoyed the privileges of being men right from birth.

Not surprisingly, many trans-women (if that is the correct term to describe these individuals) were unhappy at not being considered for the privileges of being full-women (or cis-women), although Adichie seems to think that it is no picnic going through life as a woman, and you’d be better off as men if you love the privileges (what might these be?). You can understand the dismay of the trans-women. They have gone to get lengths to achieve the appearance of what they always believed themselves to be in their minds, only to be told by some uppity novelist, who does not look like she has lacked privileges any time, that sorry, you are not a real woman because you lived as a man. It’s a bit like telling Nigel Farage that after all he is not going to be the British ambassador to the USA, when in his mind (and in the mind of, or, what passes for the mind of Donald Trump), he is the most suitable chap for the job, and, moreover, has gone to great lengths to improve the relationship between the UK and the USA now that we shall crash out of the Euro. Life is a bitch (or a trans-bitch).

I have not personally known any trans-gender individuals. Years ago I vaguely knew a woman who was married to an IT specialist. I had met her husband in a social do. He was a pot-bellied man with an Arafat-style beard and thick glasses. He had a square face, rubbery lips, and kept one hand in the pocket of his trousers, twiddling, I hoped, loose change. He looked rather dull and did not speak much. The woman, on the other hand, was physically attractive, if slightly on the bigger side (nothing wrong with being a full breasted woman who likes chocolate gateaux) and had an air about her, the way she looked at you, which suggested that she had just finished a marathon sex session. She also had opinions on most matters which she did not hesitate to express. I had also heard that a few years earlier the woman had had an affair with one of our colleagues in the company. In the course of the evening the main topic of the woman’s conversation was how she was going to have children, and how a year-long maternity leave (even on full pay) was not enough. The husband sat listening unenthusiastically to all this. I asked the woman how long the two had been married for. They had been married for almost ten years. I asked her whether they had now decided to have children. This turned out to be a mistake. The woman became tearful, and I was subjected to a tedious account of the unsuccessful efforts the couple had had over the years to have children. I wanted to tell her, “Look woman, I am just trying to make small talk, seeing as you have been rabbiting on about maternity leave for the past half an hour.” But I didn’t, because that would have been rude. “We even had David’s sperm count done,” the woman announced at a volume that could have been heard in the next restaurant. We all waited to hear what she was going to say. “He is OK,” the woman revealed after a dramatic pause. My only thought was that the talk of maternity leave was a bit premature seeing as the woman had trouble conceiving. The couple, I learned later (by this time the woman had left the company), did not have children. In fact the marriage broke down, after the woman found the husband dressed in women’s underclothes late one night in the garden shade. (Poor woman. She thought that all the lingerie he bought was for her). The man with the beard is now a woman (probably as photogenic as psoriasis). He provides support to trans-gender individuals, and is also writing a novel (what a surprise!).  

I wonder what the square faced man with rubbery lips would have made of Adichie’s comments about the male privileges. To me, Adichie’s comments do not ring true. If she were to say that she did not consider a trans-woman a woman because, let’s face it, no amount of cosmetic surgery is going to change your chromosomal make-up; you may shave off your chest hair and have false breasts hoisted on your chest, and pay (or, if you are in the UK, get the tax-payers to pay) to create a vagina that is literally and figuratively going nowhere, you will never have other female internal organs such as the uterus and ovaries, you are never going to menstruate, you will never have children, and, most importantly, you are never going to be as good as the real women at being upset, that would have been accurate. I should hazard a guess (and it will be a guess) that most men would not be interested in a facsimile when they can get the real version, if you get my drift. Would you go on a vacation to Slough when you can go to London? (Even the tourist office in Slough probably advises the tourists that they should get the f**k out of Slough on the first available train, and go to London).

That’s what Germaine Greer—bless her!—the old battle-axe did a couple of years ago. Greer said: “Just because you lop off your d**k and then wear a dress doesn't make you a ******* woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a ******* cocker spaniel. . . I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his d**k chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”

There was a predictable furore over Greer’s comments, and I think some lecture of hers arranged at Cardiff University was cancelled, because some student body with the collective maturity of minus 250, and outraged members of Idiots’ Anonymous were threatening to throw tomatoes at her.

Greer does have a point, it could be argued, which she expressed in her customary forthright manner (she is Australian, so she hasn’t got the British talent, despite living in Britain for decades, of saying unpalatable truth without sounding offensive).

If you ask me, the issue is the sense of entitlement. Not happy that you are going bald? Have a hair-transplant. Unhappy that your tits are too small? Insert breast implants. Ashamed of your chipolata, and want a big fat sausage?  Go under the surgeon’s knife. Not prepared to age gracefully? Have a botox. Not happy that you are a man (or a woman), and would rather be a woman (or a man)? No worries; the medical science will make it possible for you. Except that it won’t. You can inject yourself with a bathful of hormones and chop off as many body parts as you want, the reality of your chromosomes will not change. Psychiatrists and psychologists may disagree. They will lecture you on the intolerable inner turmoil these individuals face because of their conviction that they are born in the wrong body, and the only way to bring some sort of inner peace is for them to be allowed to have series of medical and surgical procedures so that they can go through rest of their lives as parodies of sex they can never genuinely be. OK, being eaten up by misery usually does not improve things, but, surely, there must be other ways to deal with this self-pity (preferably those which do not put extra burden on the cash-strapped NHS). You could try Stoicism, or Mindfulness . . . whatever. Somehow train your mind to accept that you can’t get everything in life you want. You were born a man (or a woman). Deal with it. If you are not able to crow that is probably because you are not a rooster. You are a hen. Learn to live with it.

There are some barriers between men and women which simply can’t be breached: men can go to great lengths to look and live like women, they can’t be women. Women, similarly, can never be men. That is the biological reality.



Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book of the Month: NW (Zadie Smith)




British writer Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW (for North West London in which the novel is set) is the state of London novel.

The novel, set broadly in three sections (there are five parts), tells the story of the lives of the three main protagonists of the novel: Leah Hanwell, Felix, and Keisha (or Natalie). A peripheral character, Nathan makes intermittent appearances.

In the first section we meet Leah Hanwell, a thirty something woman of Irish descent. As the novel opens Leah is fleeced by a drug-addict, whom Leah has known over the years. The drug-addled woman, who goes by the name of Shar, enters Leah’s flat one afternoon and manages to relieve Leah of thirty pounds by telling her the faintly possible (but mostly improbable) story of her child having been taken to a hospital (she can’t tell Leah the name of the hospital, which, you would have thought, should have made most people a tiny bit suspicious). Afterwards Leah is suitably berated by her French-African husband (Michel) and her mother for her gullibility. Shar, as it happens, went to the same state school Leah went to and lives in the nearby poor estate where Leah grew up. However, when Leah (and on one occasion, Michel) unwisely try to confront her, Shar’s companion gives them the message to leave Shar alone. Leah has a school friend Keisha who lives in a nearby, very posh area with her successful husband. Keisha is of Caribbean descent. Her family lived next door to Leah’s, and the two girls have been close friends since their school days. Keisha has left her council house life behind her and has become a successful barrister. She has also changed her name to Natalie. Natalie Blake lives with her husband, Francesco—the product of a brief liaison between a rich Italian countess and a Caribbean train driver—works in the city. Leah herself has a university degree in History but works in a council-run office for black teenagers. Leah and Michel have managed to move out of Caldwell, the run-down council estate in Willesden, of her childhood, and move into a nearby and marginally better (but still working class) area. Michel, in his quest to become rich, has taken to online investing. Leah and Michel meet regularly with Natalie and Frank, and are frequently invited to their dinner parties. Such invitations are a source of great pride for Michel (who runs a hairdressing saloon) although Leah suspects that her childhood friend is bored by the association and continues to invite them to the parties only out of an old sense of loyalty even though these meetings are beginning to irritate her. As the first section ends Lea and Michel are meeting with Natalie and Frank at the house of one of Frank’s rich friends to watch the Notting Hill carnival from a vantage point and safe distance. It is while they are at the friend’s house that they hear on the television that there has been a stabbing in their area, of a man called Felix.

In the brief second part / section of the novel we meet the murdered Felix, in the days leading to his pointless and senseless murder. Felix, a young black man, is a recovering drug addict (I think that is the phrase). He used to deal in and supply drugs, too. But Felix has turned the corner. He no longer takes drugs, he has got a steady job in a garage, and he is in a relationship with a woman with whom he hopes to settle down. He has taken to visiting his Rastafarian father, Lloyd, perpetually high on the cannabis airplane (and in urgent need of a shower).  Indeed so suffused is Felix with the zeal to inform other drug addicts, including his former customers, about his path to recovery that on the day of his murder he visits an aristocratic white woman, now a junkie, with whom he has slept in the past. Felix informs the junkie that he has moved to the next level; he would no longer be sampling her wares, as he has a girl-friend of his own who is prepared to sleep with him and without demanding drugs in return. The next level Felix is talking about turns out regrettably to be the next world as he is knifed in the streets of Caldwell who have taken offence to his suggestion to them in a packed London underground train that one of them should consider taking his feet off the opposite seat so that a pregnant white woman could sit there.

The rest of the sections of the novel tell the story of Natalie Blake, Leah Hanwell’s friend, the reader. The third part, which is the longest, traces Natalie’s life from her impoverished working class childhood in the 1980s to her present day opulence. (It is never really explained why she changes her name from Keisha to Natalie). Along the way the reader meets a host of secondary characters such as Rodney—Natalie’s first lover and a failed lawyer—and Frank whom she ends up marrying and having two kids with, and whom, as the years go by, she falls out of love with. Natalie takes to moonlighting as a prostitute, indulging in gleesome threesomes with folks who have a thing for what is acronymically described on the website on which Natalie has opened an account as BF.  It is inevitable that Frank will stumble on to what Natalie is getting up to (or down to depending on what her customers wish). This leads to a confrontation of sorts between Natalie and Frank with Natalie (briefly) walking out on her family. In the brief fourth part Natalie runs into Nathan, a bright boy from their school who has now become a homeless junkie. In the company of Nathan Natalie takes a detour of the area, from Willesden across Hampstead Heath to Hornsey lane. In the (even briefer) final part of the novel Natalie has returned to the loveless marriage and is impervious to her husband’s suggestion that she should find another place for herself. She then visits her childhood friend Leah where she remembers an incident from her (you hope) brief career as a prostitute which she is convinced will throw light on the unfortunate murder of the unfortunate Felix.

NW, Smith’s fourth novel, was published after a gap of almost six years after the 2006 Orange Prize winner On Beauty. It has flashes of brilliance but ultimately fails to enthuse. The plot, such as it is, is vapour thin. The novel is more like a hotchpotch of novellas which are loosely linked, as the same characters appear in them. You might say that the same underlying theme binds the different sections of the novel: the life in the twenty-first century London. 

There is no settled feel to the narrative style. The first section is narrated in a James Joyce-stream-of-consciousness style. While there may be fans of this style I am not one of them. Stream-of-consciousness is not my—what’s the term stronger than ‘not my cup of tea’? In keeping with the Joycean influence Smith has done away with speech marks in this section, replacing them with dashes to indicate spoken speech. (She is not the first modern author to do this. Nadine Gordimer prefers this style, first used by Joyce, apparently, in all of her novels.) At times, the use of dashes makes things more confusing than they are already, as the characters change contexts mid-sentences. And since what they are saying is most of the time utterly banal, it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than testing the reader’s patience. Mercifully Smith jettisons the stream-of-consciousness style and returns to the more traditional territory (with punctuation marks) in the second part (involving Felix), which—peppered with astute observations of London life—is the most engaging part of the novel; also the funniest, until the reader is stunned into silence by Felix’s sudden and tragic death. The third, and the longest, part of the novel which tells the story of Natalie Blake is uneven. It consists of 185 chapters, many of which a paragraph long, sometimes comprising only a single sentence. Perhaps Smith is trying to give an idea of Natalie Blake’s life in a series of snapshots. You might not find it to your taste as you are jerked from one chapter to the next; reading this section is a bit like riding in a car on a road full of potholes. The chapters have got titles, some of which, if you have the interest and the aptitude (I don’t) to decipher their links to cultural phenomena, you might find interesting. The narrative style is detached—the protagonist is frequently referred to as Natalie Blake or Ms Blake. Keisha Blake changes her name to Natalie, probably to distance herself from her working class black Kilburn background; but she finds herself returning, time and again, to her parents’ flat rather like a murderer returning to the scene of crime. Natalie also has a secret life; that of a prostitute. Smith leaves it to the reader to figure out why this highly successful barrister, married to a rich socialite, feels the need to visit strangers in their apartments and have torrid sex, and walk the streets wearing skimpy skirts under which, as Felix observes, minutes before his death, the muscles of her buttocks ripple. You struggle to make any sense of it; it is unconvincing to say the least. In the final part of the novel it is linked to the murder of Felix in a very contrived manner.

Zadie Smith once wrote (while responding to James Wood’s criticism of White Teeth, Smith’s debut, and most famous, novel) that writers do not write what they want; they write what they can.

Zadie Smith (real name Sadie Smith) is generally recognized to be a prodigious talent, ever since she burst on the British literary scene in 2000 with White Teeth, her brilliant (if flawed) debut novel.  She has been selected twice in the Granta list of the best young British writers in 2003 and 2013.  I have read all of Smith’s subsequent novels up to NW, of which I liked The Autograph Man, perhaps her least successful novel, the most. On Beuty, which fetched Smith the prestigious Orange Prize is beautifully written, but is so heavily inspired by E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (without any official acknowledgement, if I remember correctly), you could almost call it derivative. NW, Smith’s fourth is, for me the most disappointing; but she remains one of my favourite writers.



Monday, 27 February 2017

Book of the Month: Lights Out in Wonderland (DBC Pierre)




DBC (Dirty But Clean) Pierre (real name Peter Finley) won several literary awards with his debut novel, Vernon God Little, The Booker Prize being one of them. He also won the Whitbread (as it was called then) First Novel award. The novel had attracted mixed reviews, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember much of the novel, which read once it became available in paperback other than that it took me a while to get into it, but, once I did, I enjoyed it thoroughly; I thought the novel was very funny.

What I also recall about Vernon God Little is was an easy enough novel to read. Which, Pierre’s third novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, isn’t.

The protagonist of Lights Out in Wonderland is twenty-five-year old Gabriel Brockwell, the only child of middle-class, divorced, British parents. His father, before he took to Capitalism ‘like a paedophile’,  had travelled to Germany after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and, in the company of an East German, had run a club called Pego in the former East Berlin. When the novel opens we meet Gabriel in a private rehab, where he is admitted with his father’s money, determined to take his discharge so that he can commit suicide. Why does Gabriel want to kill himself? Gabriel wants to kill himself because he is disillusioned. Gabriel is anti-Capitalist, and is heavily involved in anti-Capitalist activism in the company of others who purport to loathe Capitalism with the same fervour as he. Except that they don’t, really, and are treating this enterprise as a way to earn money; which, to Gabriel’s horror, it does. So Gabriel is going to kill himself; but not just yet. He wants to have one last hurrah, the mother of all bacchanals (a word that gets repeated in the novel several times), before he removes himself from the human pool. He then flies to Japan, having siphoned off money from the account of his anti-capitalist organization—much to the disgust of his colleagues, all of whom, as we have seen, Gabriel regards as fraud, for they have accumulated money for the anti-Capitalist organization, using capitalist methods. Why Japan? Because Japan is where Gabriel’s childhood friend, a South African called Nelson Smuts, who has become a genius chef, a hybrid of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, works as a chef in the kind of restaurant where the likes of me would have to take out a second mortgage for an evening’s meal. Smuts, if it is possible, is even wackier than Gabriel. The hoity-toity Japanese restaurant Smuts works in specialises in barely legal (probably illegal) haute cuisine such as poisonous offal and ovaries of blowfish which, if you miscalculate the proportions (as Smuts does), and serve the wrong organ, can kill the diners instead of imparting delicious tingling to their lips. When the two rabble-rousers meet they waste little time in getting wasted on industrial quantities of cocaine and alcohol. The inevitable happens. Smuts serves the wrong fish or the wrong organ of the fish to one of the customers—a gangster, no less—who dies. This lands Smuts in prison facing charges of first degree murder, and Gabriel on his way to Berlin where he once lived as a child, in search of his father’s former business partner when the two of them ran Pego. Gabriel has been led to believe by his father that he did not cash in his part of the business when he returned to England from Berlin, and, technically, the German partner, Gerd, owes him money. Gabriel believes that through his contact with the partner, he would be able to host another bacchanal for the mysterious Frenchman Didier Le Basque, who specialises in arranging decadent parties for the uber-rich (read bankers and financiers) of such uber-decadence the likes of which are beyond the imaginations of you and me who think eating in Michele Rouex Junior is the height of sophistication. (How would arranging a decadent party at his father’s former club save Smuts? Don’t ask me. We are invited to consider that Le Basque is the provider of the illegal fish to the Japanese restaurant and, since the man has acquired outlandish wealth by arranging outlandish bacchanals with outlandish gastronomic themes for outlandishly rich clients at outlandish venues, he would be loath to part with the services of the outlandishly talented Nelson Smuts.)  

In the Berlin section, the novel becomes less surreal than—though as absurd as—the Tokyo section. Gabriel manages to locate Gerd in the about-to-be-closed Tempelhof airport. It turns out that Gerd owes Gabriel’s father nothing; it was, in fact, Gabriel’s father who fleeced Gerd off money and then legged it to England. Gabriel, despite hiccoughs (such as the disastrous night out with a German aristocrat—Le Basque’s middle man in German—, a couple of whores, and a basinful of illicit drugs), is, nevertheless, able to arrange the greatest bacchanal ‘since the fall of Rome’ with Le Basque’s money and contacts, which includes delicacies (the novel gives recipes, so the interested readers, if they have the means, could try them out) such as ‘caramelised milk-fed tiger cub’, ‘confit of Koala leg with lemon saffron chutney’, or ‘golden lion tamarin brain with blue cheese ravioli’; and the piece de resisatnce, ‘olive ridley turtle necks in parmesan and brioche crumbs’, the turtles, whose necks go into the delicious, mouth-watering recipe, being more than hundred year old protected species from Madagascar, from where Le Basque has smuggled them.

Lights Out in Wonderland, if it is a proof of anything, is the proof of how outrageously imaginative DBC Pierre is. The blurb on the hardback edition I read described the novel as ‘a sly commentary on these End Times and the entropic march towards insensate banality’. That’s about right, I think, even though I do not fully understand what it means. As you read the novel you can’t make up your mind whether the prose reflects the entropic banality (the words ‘nimbus’, ‘limbo’ and bacchanal’ appear on every other page) or is brilliant. I voted, in the end in favour of brilliance. The sentence structures are unusual, the choice of words interesting—all of which go on to give a kind of surreal feel to the narrative, which, I think, was the author’s intention. At times Pierre overdoes it (there is a section of the novel where the word nimbus appears in every second line), but, on the whole, it works. Just about.