Sunday, 15 October 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro wins the Nobel Prize in Literature


Kazuo Ishiguro said he was very surprised when he learnt that he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature. They all are. I have not come across any winner in recent times who, upon being informed that s/he won the Nobel, responded, “I knew this. I knew I was going to win the Nobel. My creative output has been of such a high calibre and I have been so consistently superlative that I couldn’t see how the Nobel committee could think of anyone else than me when it sat round the table to decide this year’s Nobel. Indeed the only surprise is that I did not get it earlier.” That would be viewed as conceited. So, while the true sentiment of the recipients might be “what took them so long to realise my greatness”, they are hardly going to say that in public. For example, novels of VS Naipaul, pre-2001, made it a point to mention that he had won every possible literary award other than the Nobel. This suggests that at the very least the Nobel was important for Sir Vidiya.

When the winners declare that they are very surprised at receiving the award, what they probably mean is that they genuinely had no inkling till they received the phone call to be informed that that they have won the £ 800, 442 jackpot. So, (like Naipaul, probably) they might not be surprised that they won the award and their inner reaction upon receiving the news might be “about time”; the news itself probably is a surprise.

When Dorris Lessing won the Nobel in 2007 (I think), the Nobel committee could not inform her straightaway; because Lessing was out, shopping for weekly grocery in a local supermarket. The Nobel committee then released the news of the award to the media, and reporters were waiting for Lessing at her doorsteps when she returned from her shopping. I don’t know if the video of Lessing’s reaction when she saw the gaggle of journalists in front of her house is available on the YouTube, but her reaction suggests that she was genuinely not expecting it (and also that she took the news of her triumph in her stride).

VS Naipaul, who, in 2001, ended the long wait for the British writers, by winning the Nobel twenty years after William Golding, was in his house when the phone call came, but he apparently refused to take the call, believing it was a prank or hoax.

In the English speaking world, at least, the media and newspaper knew who the Nobel Laureate for this year was, when Ishiguro’s name was announced. I have read that when JML Le Clezio, a novelist probably little known outside of the building he lived in, in his native France, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, the sub-editors of the literary sections of newspapers in the English speaking countries were scampering about to find any information they could get on Le Cleizo. Ditto for Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet who was awarded the Nobel in 2011.

The Nobel committee over the years has been accused of having regional, political and language biases while awarding the Nobel. Many more European and Scandinavian authors and poets have won the award in recent decades than those in the rest of the world. When the Europeans do not win the award, usually it is someone who writes in English who is awarded the prize. The former permanent secretary of the Nobel committee, Horace Engdahl, was unapologetic about it. In 2008 he declared that Europe was still “the centre of the literary world”. America, according to Engdahl, by contrast, was “too insular and too isolative.” Engdahl was responding, if I remember correctly, to the criticism, after the win of the little known JML Le Clezio in 2008, that a distinct European bias was creeping into the awarding of Nobel and that American authors were being deliberately ignored. Having read the literary outputs of the recent Nobel winners, I am struck how the writing of at least some of the European winners is so totally Eurocentric; indeed, if you were a reader in, say, an African or Asian country, you would not get the nuances unless you knew the historical as well as geopolitical context. Imre Kertesz, who won the award in 2003, and Herta Muller who won it in 2009 are two examples. Svetlana Alexievich, the Ukrainian born non-writer who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, has written exclusively on the Soviet era issues. (It is also true for non-European authors such as Mo Yan, the Chinese author who won the Nobel in 2012.) So I am not sure what Engdahl meant when he said that the Americans were insular. Did he mean the American writers were insular and isolative, because they wrote about American culture? I saw it as a very unconvincing attempt to justify what at that time was a very obvious anti-American bias. (Of the Nobel winners I have read, VS Naipaul, Dorris Lessing  and Mario Vargas Llosa were the only ones (and, in case of Naipaul and Llosa, only in their later outputs) who, I felt, wrote in their fiction about themes that transcended times and geography. And now Ishiguro.)

At that time of Engdahl’s comment in 2008, no American author was awarded the Nobel, after Toni Morrison won it in 1993. There would be a further wait of eight years before an American was awarded the Nobel, in 2016. And that was Bob Dylon, who for months did not acknowledge any communication from the Nobel committee. Not because Dylon was protesting, insofar I could make out (unless this was Dylon’s way of letting the Nobel Committee know that he was not overawed by the award). Dylon did not reject the award (like Jean Paul Sartre did on the 1960s, or Pasternak did, under duress, in the 1950s) because that would have given the message that the award was important for Dylon. Dylon just did not take the calls (because he was touring) and did not respond to letters (because he was touring). One must assume that he knew that he had won the Nobel (unless he does not watch television or read newspapers) but he did not think it was necessary to contact the Nobel committee for months. The Nobel committee thought it was rude. It certainly was priceless. I was practically weeping with hilarity when I read a piece in the Guardian in which the spokesman for the Nobel carped about Dylon’s rudeness.

The Nobel committee, mercifully, did not have such trouble in 2017, although Ishiguro’s land-line was consistently engaged when they attempted to contact him. The committee released his name to the media, but, unlike Dylon, they did manage to contact Ishiguro the same day. Ishiguro later remarked, half-facetiously one assumes, that they were a bit cross at the difficulty in getting in touch with him. The committee, however, would have to admit that wait was not anywhere as long as it was in 2016.

Ishiguro is a safe choice. Notwithstanding the rather strange reaction of Will Self (“He’s a good writer, and from what I’ve witnessed a lovely man, but the singularity of his vision is ill-served by such crushing laurels, while I doubt the award will do little to reestablish the former centrality of the novel to our culture”—I think what Self is saying here is that Ishiguro did not deserve the Nobel) most have described him as a deserving winner.

Ishiguro is the only novelist apart from VS Naipaul whom I had read extensively prior to his Nobel win. Ishiguro is a good writer and I like him. Apart from The Unconsoled (which I thought was a car crash of a novel; or, more likely, I found it in accessible) I have loved all of his novels, in particular Never Let Me Go, which I think is outstanding. I also thought When We were Orphans was excellent (I was surprised to hear Ishiguro describing it as his least convincing novel in a literary programme; apaprently his wife did not like the novel either). Then there is The Remains of the Day, which probably is Ishiguro’s most famous novel, for which he won the Booker Prize decades ago. His early novels are also well worth a read.

Ishiguro is more than just a good writer. He is an excellent writer. Many of his novels deal with memory, either individual or national or cultural; and how individual memories can differ from the national memories to the point of delusion (which I thought was explored very movingly in When We were Orphans). Although Ishiguro is not the only writer to have done this (Salman Rushdie tackled this issue slightly differently, and in his inimitable style in Midnight’s Children, in my view), he has done it consistently in most of his novels (is that what Will Self had in his mind when he talked about “the singularity” of Ishiguro’s vision?).

Three cheers for Ishiguro.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Book of the Month: Birds of Passage (Bernice Rubens)


Burnice Rubens once said that she was a very slow writer. She congratulated herself if she wrote three good sentences in a day, and celebrated the momentous event by playing a cello (many members of Rubens’s family were talented musicians). It is therefore a testament as much to her tenacity as prolificacy that, by the time she died in 2004 at the age of 76 (or 81, depending on which year you believe she was born in—Rubens always said that she was born in 1928, but, according to one obituary, she was actually born in 1923—) Rubens had published twenty five novels and a memoir. Her first novel was published in 1960, and the last in the year she died, which means Rubens published a novel on average every two years. Rubens dealt with many genres in her novels. Her personal favourite novel was Brothers, an epic saga of three generations of a Jewish family, beginning in the tsarist Russia in the eighteenth century and continuing beyond the Second World War She wrote a few more novels on this theme, including her last one, The Sergeant’s Story. However, Rubens’s lasting reputation rests on a number of black comedies she wrote, characterised by her deadpan humour—pans did not come deader than Rubens’s.



Birds of Passage, first published in 1981 (and later filmed for a television drama) tells the story of two neighbours—Ellen and Alice—who, after they have been finally and respectably widowed, go on a cruise together. They have been abiding patiently for their respective husbands to do the decent  thing and die without creating too much fuss. Neither of the husbands is even once referred to with his first name—Alice’s husband is ‘Pickering’, while Ellen’s is ‘Walsh’—, probably to emphasize their peripheralness in the lives of the two protagonists, despite having been married to them for decades. Walsh obliges and drops dead of a coronary one day. But Pickering, to the annoyance of Ellen and embarrassment of Alice, carries on living. The two families also share a hedge and it is the husbands’ responsibility to cut and trim it. One hedge-cutter is dead, but the other continues with his duties. Pickering, however, does not have the courage to trim the hedge on the Walshs’ side, because he does not want to usurp his dead neighbour’s place in any way, oblivious to the fact that this act of omission is making his dead neighbour’s widow more and more resentful. Ellen has no choice really, then, to marry again; and marry she does. Her second husband, Thomas—he, like the other two, is only referred to by his surname—begins trimming the hedge, till, one day, he, too, drops dead. This, even Alice silently agrees, is very unfair, and begins wishing fervently for Pickering to pop his clogs. Which, he finally does. After a decent period of mourning, the two widows, who, between them have 126 years, although none would confirm the individual contribution to this sum, are ready to embark on a cruise. On the cruise they become part of a group, which includes Mr. Barlow—recently widowed and going on the cruise to celebrate the memory of his dead wife who, so he tells others, if she were alive, would have accompanied him— and Mrs Dove—a widow, who has spent her recent years entering various draws of crossword competitions, and, having been finally rewarded with two tickets to go on a cruise, she has, much against her better judgement, invited her daughter—another Alice—who is going through a midlife crisis. The younger Alice’s husband has left her for another woman and she has found succour in an aggressive lesbian. Alice (Dove) is an angry woman, and although she has decided that she is angry towards men, she is also coming round to accept that she not a lesbian. To this group attaches Wally Peters, a bachelor in his mid-sixties with an impressive paunch and socially awkward manners. Wally has never been in a serious relationship; indeed he may have been a virgin. Amongst the crew is lurking a waiter, who has, during his fifteen years of waiting on the cruise, successfully raped a number of single women—age is no bar for our rapist; he is equally content to rape grannies as well as younger women—without, incredible as It may seem, getting caught even once. He has hypothesized, it would appear, successfully, that the bourgeois pride of the women would stop them from reporting him to the purser; and he has also surmised, again accurately, that some or more of them have probably not been involved in bedroom gymnastics for a while and would actually welcome his attention. The rapist zeroes in on the two widows—Pickering Alice and Ellen—and, over the next ten days, that is the half of their cruise, rapes them every night, having cleverly persuaded them to move into different cabins when one couple—comprising a bossy woman and her henpecked husband—leaves the cruise after the wife is publicly humiliated when, feeling sea-sick, she is caught short. The sexual assaults have the diametrically opposite effects on the two neighbours. While Ellen is consumed with rage she can barely contain—the waiter has guessed that this would be the case, and has taken the precaution of taking her nude photograph, hiding in the cupboard of her cabin when she was changing clothes, which he uses to blackmail her—in Pickering Alice it leads to sexual awakening. Neither of the women guesses that the other is also the object of the waiter’s lust. Neither thinks, for different reasons, that the other would believe, if told. The after-effects of the nightly (for Ellen) and pre-dawn (for Pickering Alice) encounters are there for all to see. The once confident Ellen becomes increasingly haggard and concocts various improbable schemes to wreak her mighty revenge on the waiter (which culminates in her buying, while spending a day in one of the ports, having gone to great lengths to dissociate herself from her inquisitive group, a Swiss army knife!), Alice is aglow with effulgence and is filled with hitherto unknown self-assurance which surprises Ellen, though she still does not suspect the reason behind it. When Ellen can bear it no longer, she tells the story of her nightly ordeals to the widower Barlow—who, for all appearances is wooing Ellen in a manner that probably went out of fashion before the First Great War—during a fancy dress competition (in which Barlow appears as Mahatma Gandhi). Barlow, in turn opens his heart to Ellen and confesses that his marriage was far from happy, at least not towards the end, as his now-dead wife was having it off with another man; indeed the two cruise tickets were bought by Barlow, as a perversely gentlemanly gesture, for the two love-birds to go on a cruise in order to find out whether the two really wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. As it turns out the rest of Barlow’s wife was not long when she meets with a road traffic accident while driving to give her lover the good news of the unexpected manna from heaven—the cuckold is actually sponsoring their cruise—, and leaves for presumably not heaven. Barlow is appropriately and suitably outraged when he hears of the sexual assault, and promises to accompany Ellen to the purser after the fancy dress competition is over. Just when Ellen is heaving a sigh of relief that her aged loins would finally get respite from the nighttime invasion, Barlow drops dead of a heart attack in the midst of the fancy dress competition.  At this stage the rapist makes his first mistake. He decides to turn his attention to the other Alice, who, he correctly guesses, would provide a spirited and vigorous resistance to his amatory attentions—indeed the more resistant his victims are, the more they fight, the more he is turned on; that is why the thought of raping the hostile Ellen excites him more than having a sexual congress with the Pickering Alice, who has willingly opened to him her inviting second lips as it were, and has taken to putting on her best chiffon dress for what she has come to expect as the nocturnal adventure—but, he incorrectly assumes, would yield herself to his power eventually. As it happens, it is the waiter—he, too, like the rest of the male characters save Wally—and even here we know only the diminutive—remains nameless—who bites the dust, and Alice Dove drags him to the purser. The purser does not believe her, but for the sake of propriety offers to investigate the matter further if she lodged a complaint. Alice Dove decides not to lodge a complaint, and the waiter, thanking his stars for the unexpected reprieve, decides to lie low for the rest of the cruise. This has the opposite effect on the two protagonists: Ellen regains her self-confidence, while Alice, feeling rejected, goes back to being her mousy, dithering self. Just when it appears as though the cruise would end without any further kerfuffle, Rubens has one last, and not very pleasant, twist to offer.



Birds of Passage is a dark comedy. Dark subjects such as death and sexual assaults occur repeatedly, and unexpectedly, in the novel; and are treated with terrifyingly comic nonchalance. Yet, it is a testimony to Rubens’s greatness that at no stage does she trivialise or downplay the sinisterness of what is going on. The full horror of the rapaciousness of the waiter’s assaults is laid bare for the reader. As the novel progresses, the increasing helplessness and futile agitation of Ellen, while depicted in an impassive manner, is full of pathos. It is for this reason you feel distinctly queasy while smiling at Ellen’s comically inept attempts to put an end to her nightmare. Alice Pickering, the other protagonist, reacts very differently to the waiter’s ravishment, which, in her, engenders wholly different feelings. Here, too, is pathos at work: that a woman, who has avowedly enjoyed conjugal pleasures for decades, is actually unfulfilled, and has to wait till she is sixty something and go through what most would regard as acts of utter degradation in order to experience sexual enjoyment, is somehow more sad than funny.



Birds of Passage, however, is not just a dark comedy. It is also an exquisite comedy of manners.  It is a story of bourgeois airs and pretensions, the morbid secrets that lay hidden under an outwardly happy, contented, middle-class, appearances. Nothing is, as it seems in the novel. Ellen and Pickering Alice are united in their grandiose belief that they are somehow special compared to the other women on the cruise because the waiter, they think, has chosen only them for his attention, unwarranted in Ellen’s case, and gratefully received in Alice’s case. It does not occur to them that they are just cannon fodder to the waiter’s lust, and there is nothing remotely special about them. Mr. Barlow, the devoted widower, has not enjoyed the happy connubial bliss he leads everyone to believe. Supporting the main plot of the narrative is the subplot involving the bachelor Wally and Mrs Dove, the mother of the younger Alice. Rubens is at her toe-curling best, here. Both Mrs. Dove and Wally are desperate to find a life-partner, and in a moment of rashness which he soon comes to regret, the pompous, gauche and awkward Wally proposes to Mrs Dove; and she, in a response that is as impulsive as his proposal (and which she, too, would bemoan when sanity prevails) accepts him. Both realise in no time that they have no intention of tying themselves into matrimony, but continue with the charade for the rest of the cruise in order to save the embarrassment to the other. The other members of the group cotton on to what is going on between Wally and Mrs. Dove at different times and in different circumstances.



Rubens does not let the pace of the plot slacken at any time, and, when the reader is least expecting it, gives a hundred watt jolt of surprise. Reading this novel is like driving down a picturesque winding route, whereby, after a while, you come to expect another surprise, but do not know whether it would actually materialise or in what shape or form.



Birds of Passage finds Burnice Rubens, one of the best writers of her generation, in splendid form. Buy it from a second hand book-shop, and read it.




Sunday, 17 September 2017

Sillytonian and Slug-a-bed


The linguistic department at University of York, after months of painstaking research, has discovered more than two dozen words which have gone out of fashion, but which, they feel, have so much relevance to the current times that they ought to make a comeback.

Talking of the times we live in, in the UK, one might be tempted to ask whether it is wise to spend tax-payers’ money on a bunch of linguists who bury their noses for months in historical texts and old dictionaries, and come up with a list of strange sounding words, which no one has used in the previous two centuries, and which, should you use them in your day-to-day discourse, would invite incomprehensible looks from the listener. But that, I should guess, would be Philistine. I know a man who is employed by the local council as an expert in medieval graffiti on the walls of the churches and cathedrals in the county. For the last few years he is threatening to publish a book on the subject which, he insists, is cruelly neglected and is not in the consideration of hoi polloi, their minds addled by the latest gizmos, carb-rich food, politics, holidays, music, clothes—anything that is not mediaeval graffiti. The guy is the most dyspeptic, self-martyred, whingeing person who ever breathed (and these are his good qualities), but he has, I feel obliged to point out, a point.  We all should have a higher reason for existence, shouldn’t we? It can’t be about Apple X, holiday to Tenerife, watching gruesome medical dramas on television, and night-outs with your mates, waking up the next day with your knickers round your ankles (or over your head).

The chief investigator of the linguistic project, one Dr Watt (probably not a real doctor) said, “As professional linguists and historians of English we were intrigued by the challenge of developing a list of lost words that are still relevant to modern life, and that we could potentially campaign to bring back into modern day language.”

I am with the good doctor (real or not) Watt on this. These days, campaigns seem not to be about higher pursuits. They are about mundane issues: campaign against homelessness, campaign for the victims of tragedies—natural or man-made, campaigns for the rights of various oppressed and ill-treated minorities, campaign against Israel (usually outside M & S, where you see beardy types with placards, advising you to boycott Israeli avocados, as if that is going to make the Israelis vacate Gaza), campaign to increase the  already-overinflated salaries of public sector workers (they are so special), campaign against Brexit, campaign for Brexit, campaign to keep the libraries in Norfolk open, campaign for free tai-chi lessons for the geriatrics, so on and so forth. Where is the charm in that? Campaign to bring back words which, if you start using them, will make people worry you have gone soft in the head—that’s what I want to see. It is regrettable that art has to convince people that they need it (the mediaeval graffiti expert is a case in point), whereas it is taken for granted that the bloody NHS, the bloody Fire Services, and the bloody police are bloody indispensable, and people bloody well can’t do without them. It is unfair. Wouldn’t you prefer art to life? In life you are surrounded by bores and rogues and schmucks. Life is littered with mistakes, accidents, regrets and the eventual (inevitable) despair. You may start your life with whatever ideology, you are going to end up damaged, disillusioned, and more bitter than the lemon I squeezed in my gin last night.  Art, on the other hand, is interesting, satisfying and entertaining. And, if it isn’t, well, you can discard it and take up another one. Can you do that with your life? To paraphrase Logan Pearsall Smith, people say life is the thing but I prefer campaigning for lost words rediscovered by the linguists in York. You would be hard put to find a more campaign-worthy object than “a list of lost word that are still relevant to modern life.”

Such pursuits are, in some ways, very middle-class. Nothing wrong in that; not everyone is capable of finding relaxation and enjoyment in shouting racist chants at football matches. If you are the type who finds fulfilment from knowing about, say, the manifold similarities (and differences) amongst the multitudes of translations of The Odyssey, or whether Robespierre really kept his eyes open as the guillotine rushed towards his neck, or from spotting the wrong use of the subjunctive (and the correct use of synecdoche), I have no doubt that you will find that knowing obscure words from the past, newly discovered by experts at York University, is a life-enriching prospect.    

I don’t want to be labelled a momist (if you want to know what this word means, you will have to read this post till the bitter end), and I offer my unhesitating support to the linguistic project taken on by the folk at York University. Ferreting out words and phrases long since fallen into disuse (probably for good reason) is a very worthy activity. In terms of providing entertainment, it may not overwhelm you with excitement, true, but none of us can cope with (or even wish for) hair-raising psychedelic experiences all the time, can we? Once in a while a quiet, relaxing day on the massage-table of Basel hot-spring resort is what we need.

So what are the words the linguists from York University have found?

One that immediately caught my attention was ‘betrump’. Apparently it means ‘to cheat’ or ‘to deceive’. It may remain topical, as Dr Watt confidently predicts, for the next couple of years, at least.

There are, I noticed, quite a few words in the list, which throw into relief the baser instincts of humans.

A ‘quacksilver’ is a person who dishonestly claims knowledge of medicine, and spreads false cures.

‘Coney-catch’ is not a noun. It is a verb with roughly the same meaning as ‘betrump’. If you have been ‘coney-catched’ (or is it ‘coney-caught’?) you have been duped. Deceived. Swindled. Cheated. Betrumped. And you would be well within your rights to describe this person to the police as a ‘nicum’ (except that they won't have a clue what you are on about).

Some of the words in the list are in usage today, but, looks like, in the bygone days, these words had very different meanings. ‘Teen’ was a verb and its meaning was ‘to vex’ or ‘to irritate’ (I can see the links between the current and the past use of the word). A ‘Percher’ was not an object for a bird to alight on; a ‘percher’ was a person who aspired for a higher rank or status.

I liked ‘Tremblable’, which means ‘causing horror or dread’, and ‘Sillytonian’, which means a dunce.

What is a slug-a-bed? A slug-a-bed is a person who spends long time in bed through nothing other than laziness.

‘Rouzy-Bouzy’, meaning ‘noisily and boisterously drunk’, is another word that might find its way into current usage, without requiring a campaign.

I was surprised to see a word in this list of ‘lost words’ which I knew the meaning of: ‘Hugger-mugger’, which means doing something clandestinely, or in secrecy.

I thoroughly enjoyed going through the list of ‘lost words’. Even if you think this is exactly the kind of nonsense for which Lenin shot the bourgeoisie after the Bolshevik revolution, I suggest you give it a go and join the campaign of Dr Watt, in the spirit of hyper-conformism. Who knows, you might start enjoying it.

Momist: a person who has a special talent for finding faults.


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book of the Month: Lucky Break (Esther Freud)




I once heard the British novelist Esther Freud in a literary programme. She was there to speak about Lucky Break, the publication of which, I seem to remember Freud telling the audience, was postponed by Harper Collins at her request, because she wasn’t happy about certain sections of it. I can’t remember now whether Freud read out an excerpt from her novel. In the question answer session (during which one man asked—and I am not making this up—whether she would recommend Morocco as a holiday destination seeing as she had spent some time in that country) she talked about how many of her novels were inspired by her own life experiences. (Afterwards, while taking copies of Hideous Kinky  and Pearless Flats to Freud for her autograph, I asked her simperingly whether she had thought about writing a novel about her illustrious family.  Freud gave me a weary look. I was obviously not the first (and wouldn’t be the last) to ask her this question. In a manner befitting a class teacher trying her best to think of something encouraging to say to the very keen pupil who is ten bricks short of a load in her class she said that no, she had no intention of writing a novel about her illustrious family.

Lucky Break is Freud’s seventh novel. It follows the fortunes of a group of drama students over a period of 14 years, between 1992 and 2006. We first meet them as gauche and anxious teenagers, on their first day at a drama school in London, run by a gay couple, one of whom is so caricaturesquely tyrannical, he can’t be real. But perhaps he is. (Having watched many real life cookery programmes, I have to accept that there are men who are capable of going at the deep end over a bowl of soup; so it is not inconceivable that there are men out there who take acting very, very seriously.) Not all of the candidates make it to the final year. Those—mostly women—who the gay tyrant thinks won’t cut the mustard are asked to leave, while some others—mostly good looking young men whom the gay man is hoping to lure into his bed—are allowed to complete the course.  As the novel progresses Freud concentrates on the ebb and flow of the careers of three of them: Nell—plainer than a Tesco pitta bread—who is asked to leave at the end of the second year but refuses to take the hint; Charlie—part Nigerian and part English—who is beautiful and believes that it is only a matter of time before success finds her address; and the handsome, ambitious Dan who marries Jemma, another reject of the drama school, like Nell, who (unlike Nell) takes the hint and devotes herself full time to raise Dan’s family.

In prose that is simple yet elegant, marked by compassion, and flavoured with wry humour Freud depicts for the reader a tableau of the lives of people who are wedded to acting , and soldier on even as the passing years bring home the realisation that they are probably not going to be the next Ian McKellen.  There are several set pieces—such as Nell’s encounter with a film director, hornier than a bunny rabbit on Viagra, or a chronically drunk actor disappearing in the middle of a run of a production—which, while they may not split your sides, will bring a smile to your face. Very occasionally, though, such as Nell’s stint in Edinburgh with a group of physically handicapped actors, it becomes too surreal.

Of the three main protagonists Nell and Dan are blander than the Thursday night curry at the Weatherspoon’s.  Dan, for whom the gay teacher at the drama school has high hopes, does not quite fulfil his potential; and, despite occasional bit-parts roles in American sitcoms which achieve a modicum of popularity, toils in the slow lane. He remains faithful to Jemma and is devoted to their four children. Jemma, on her part, is phlegmatic about the damning verdict of the drama school that she hasn’t got what it takes to become an actress. You almost wish at times for them to stop being so bloody reasonable and supportive, and yearn for them to have an almighty row, driven by Jemma’s jealousy and Dan’s infidelity (it does not happen; these two carry on being maddeningly reasonable). Charlie is in many ways the most interesting: she is vain, conceited, self-centred, and driven.  She is one of the few women students who are allowed to complete the three-year course at the drama school, and, after completing the course, her career appears to be taking off for a while; unlike that of the dumpy Nell. As Charlie bags roles in sitcoms, Nell is flaps her penguin’s wings in children’s shows in Northern towns (with name full of combative consonants). Since the offers are far and few in-between,  Nell is forced to wait at the local Pizza Express, along with her flatmate, another struggling actress of Indian descent, who is fed up of playing the young Asian woman forced into an arranged marriage by her on-screen parents. Charlie remains friends with Nell, but it is an unequal relationship, as Charlie remembers to phone Nell only when she is having boyfriend troubles (and expects Nell to drop everything and rush to her flat (and eat ice-cream tubs). It is Nell, however, who gets the eponymous lucky break and stars in a blockbuster Hollywood film while Charlie’s career stymies.  As the novel ends, Charlie—much to the reader’s disappointment—has meekly accepted the shift in her relationship with Nell as the two women go for the London premiere of Nell’s film. (Prince Charles and Camilla are two of the few real-life characters who make a guest appearance in the novel.)

Lucky Break is a gentle and tender-hearted portrayal of the world of the actors. The pace of the novel, like its prose, is sedate, and, for a novel purporting to show the lives of actors—a profession that, it would be fair to assume, has more than its share of narcissists—, it is somewhat lacking in drama and grand gestures and tense standoffs. But Freud more than makes up for it with astute observations, eye for the detail, and subtle humour.

I do not know how true to life Lucky Break is. Freud was an actress—not a very successful one, though; and, I read somewhere, a reject of a drama school—before she turned her hand at writing; so one assumes that she has drawn upon her own experiences when she wrote the novel.  It is an engrossing read, proof, if proof be needed, that you don’t have to cram your novel with grand moments to make it readable. I liked it very much.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Problem with Socialism


In Anna Funder’s excellent Stasiland, is narrated a powerful scene. A young East German woman falls in love with an Italian man in a fare in Hungary (which, in the Soviet era, used to be one of the less repressive Communist states). Unbeknown to the woman, the Stasi are following her every move. One day the woman is summoned to see the local Stasi Satrap. She is given an offer. She is to carry on with her relationship with the Italian man, but as an agent of the Communist state. She is to ferret out information from her boyfriend (who, the Stasi knows, holds no governmental position) about the decadent Western culture and pass it on to the Stasi. The woman refuses. She is asked to leave the Stasi office. Her visa to travel outside the GDR is revoked immediately. She can no longer carry on with her clandestine relationship with the Italian. She also finds it near impossible to find any work. The woman has no choice but to register as unemployed and fall on the state help. She is standing in the queue in the local centre of the town in which she lives for the registration, and remarks to the person standing next to her that she has tried hard but is simply unable to find work. A Stasi minion, a woman, is passing by and overhears the remark of the young woman. The Stasi woman is outraged, and screams at the young woman, “There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic. If you are hardworking you will find a job. It is because you are lazy you can’t find a job.” Unemployment and unproductivity existed only in the West, not in the Socialist Utopia that was the German Democratic Republic.

I have known no state in the world where Socialism has delivered. As the joke goes, the Socialists always run out of other people’s money to spend. And when that happens, the Socialist saviour invariably turns into a despotic dictator: all dissent is suppressed; political opponents are jailed; elections are rigged to centralise power into the hands of the increasingly unpopular dictator.

That’s what is happening in Venezuela. The current Socialist president, Nicolas Madura, has become a dictator. Madura might have come to power democratically in 2013 (after Hugo Chávez, an inspiration for Saint Jeremy of the UK, having started the economic meltdown of the country by reckless spending of money the country was not going have forever, on extravagant social projects, succumbed to cancer), but he has lost all moral right to govern.

To describe the situation in Venezuela as dire would be an understatement. Madura’s Socialist regime has presided over the worst economic crisis in Venezuela’s history. The inflation is running at 500%, and the exchange rate is more volatile than a stroppy toddler’s mood swings. The country is facing unprecedented food crisis. The hospitals are running out of medicines.

It can’t be, because it could never be, the major said, when he saw the giraffe. But it could be, and it is. How did this happen? What we do know is: this happened under the watch of the Socialists who have run that country for the best part of past two decades.

Venezuela is an oil-rich country. It is said to have the highest reserves of oil in the world, more than the Saudis (though perhaps not as accessible). Therein also lies the problem. Other than oil the country has not invested in anything over decades.

During the presidency of Hugo Chávez, the oil prices were astronomical ($ 100 per barrel). Venezuela cashed in on the boom, and dollars flowed in. This engendered in Hugo Chávez delusions of grandeur. The man believed he was the Socialist Messiah who was brought on this earth to free the world from the Capitalist yoke. Chávez not just took a moral high-ground, he took a hot-air balloon ride. Chávez, however, did not have the foresight to save for the rainy day (remind you of someone? Here is a clue: he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the UK for years and also (an ineffective) prime-minister: his name starts with ‘G’ and surname with ‘B’), and spent money extravagantly on food subsidies, and other social projects of questionable benefits. Then, to the horror of the Venezuelans, the oil prices tanked. Chávez was, of course, gone by then. His successor, Nicolas Madura, possessing the charisma of a boiled potato, does not have Chávez’s ability to unite the country behind him and his looney ideas.

Once the economy, dependent almost exclusively on oil export, started going down the toilet and the government revenues began dwindling, the Utopian projects started by Chávez became impossible to sustain. This is the other problem with Socialist Utopias. It is impossible take issues with them; and it is impossible to sustain them indefinitely.

During Chávez’s presidency, the prices of food and medicines were dramatically reduced—no doubt to the delight of many in Venezuela at that time (I know of no one who will push away free lunch)—to the point (and this is where the Socialist madness comes in) where the price at which these items were sold was less than the cost of producing them. Chávez, the Socialist Santa Claus, said, “Don’t fear; I am here. I shall subsidise all the basic items. The oil bonanza will go on forever, and we are all going to roll in wealth till the end of times.” Chávez requisitioned all the private companies in Venezuela (an obsession with all Socialist and Communist nut-jobs, a variant of which is nationalisation of industries—Socialists are very keen on it). Finally, Chávez restricted access of American dollar into Venezuelan economy to stop people converting bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, into dollars. Like all the Socialist dictators Chávez hated the Great Satan, and was incensed that many Venezuelans still had what he obviously considered was a pathological need for financial security, which they sought in the American currency.

There came a point, as it was ineluctably going to come, when the Venezuelan companies could no longer afford to produce goods. The Venezuelan government started importing all the commodities from abroad. How was it planning to pay for it? From oil money, of course. You don’t need to be a Harvard economist to figure out what happened next. The price of oil is lower than crocodile’s piss (a barrel of oil currently costs less than $ 40). The Socialist government can no longer sustain its outlandish (and unwarranted) subsidies and other profligate programmes, and the bolivar (which is about as much worth as the dollar—the Zimbabwean, not American—so worth nothing) can’t pay for the required imports. So, on to the next step—as inevitable as the yearly floods in the Bangla Desh basin—the rationing of food and other basic commodities, which are disappearing from the shops, and are ending up in the black market at prices reaching the current national economy of the beleaguered country.  People, who still have jobs and are earning wages in bolivar, which has lost its value, are barely able to keep themselves away from starvation. The rest are roaming the streets searching for foods in rubbish bins, before they start frying their children.

Some Socialist Utopia.

In April 2017 Madura announced a 35% rise in the salaries of Venezuelans—the 15th such increase he has announced since he came to power four years ago. Seeing as Venezuela can no longer produce anything (other than oil, for which there is little demand) and the current exchange rate is more than 700 bolivars for a US dollar (five-six times more than that in the black market, which probably reflects the true state of affairs), the increase in the people’s salaries will probably enable them to buy one extra grape.

Here is the situation, then. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2016, Venezuela, after years of Socialist rule, had a negative growth of 8%; the inflation was touching 500%; and one fifth of the country’s population had no jobs. The government has not made any economic data available in the last three years (no doubt for good reasons) but the Central Bank of Venezuela has announced that the country has less than $ 11 billion in foreign reserves left, and is leaden with debt of $ 7.4 billion. And, if one is inclined to blame the current unfolding disaster on America and Capitalists (I don’t know how this will be done, but I am sure it will be done; the Socialists have special talent for blaming America for all of their mis-deeds and incompetence), let me advise you that during the Chávez years, when the money was flowing into the country, Venezuela was the worst performer in the Americas with GDP growth per capita.  

On 30th July Madura held rigged elections, which returned him to power. He is attempting to destroy the power of the parliament, which is controlled by the opposition. In the December 2015 general elections the opposition won a landslide victory. All of the parliament’s decisions, since then, have been overturned by the puppet supreme court, filled with Madura’s cronies. In March 2017 the Supreme Court stripped the national parliament of all its power, which it redirected to itself. Madura is now in the process of forming a constituent assembly, which is his latest ploy to supress the will of Venezuelan people and subvert democracy. This assembly, which will have absolute power, will aim to sustain Madura’s Socialist regime, which is discredited and has lost all moral authority to govern. Madura, like his mentor, Chávez, is peddling the tired (and tiresome) argument that the assembly is the only way to achieve peace, even though there have been daily protests on the streets against his regime and hundreds have died so far, and—here you have it—to fight the “economic war” launched against Venezuela by America— the last recourse of all Socialist dictators, whose relationship with truth is roughly the same as that between Russia and Ukraine.

In the age-old tradition of dictators (Socialist or otherwise) Madura has jailed the opposition leaders under trumped up charges. After the fraudulent election in July 2017, which returned Madura to power, the two top opposition leaders, who were already under house arrests on charges of—wait for this—attempting a coup against Madura, were taken to undisclosed military prisons.

Madura is managing to survive because so far he has the support of Venezuela’s army. How has he managed it? The Socialist regime has inducted top army brass into its corrupt regime. Venezuelan army now boasts of 2000 generals (whereas in the past there used to be about 200). Madura has bought the loyalty of the generals by giving them the rights to control food imports, as well as control over banks and mining industry. While the ordinary Venezuelans are paying thousands of bolivars to buy a scrawny chicken (it is either that or eating candle-wax and imagining it is a cake), the generals are gobbling wealth like a stadium-full of Indians coming off hunger strike.

After the fraudulent elections and the arrests of the opposition leaders, America, alarmed, has announced individual sanctions against dozens of officials of Madura’s corrupt, and increasingly despotic, regime. President Trump has announced that Madura will be held personally responsible for the safety and well-being of Venezuela’s opposition leaders, who have disappeared. This is a promising start, although a little late in the day—a bit like trying to hire a window-cleaner when the building is on fire. America, really, should have used more of its diplomatic muscle to kick Venezuela out of the Organization of American States (OAS). As it happened, Venezuela managed to hold on to the membership of the organization by the skin of its teeth, with the support of its ideological allies and some Caribbean islands to which Venezuela offers cheap oil. What needs to happen next is what President Trump is supposed to be considering: broad and sweeping sanctions against Venezuela; banning import of oil from Venezuela into America and prohibiting American companies from doing business in Venezuela.

There is a Hindu saying: misfortunes and disasters have no roots. Everything is brought upon by yourself.  The mess that is Venezuela today is the result of years of inept Socialism (this probably is a tautology), which has, as it invariably does, morphed into dictatorship.

Therein lies a salutary lesson, not least to the people of the UK, mesmerised by an aging left-winger, who has spent all his political life embracing terrorist organizations and Communist despots.

Beware of the Pied Piper who sells impossible dreams. There is no such thing as free lunch. Someone somewhere always pays.



Friday, 14 July 2017

Book of the Month: The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel (Deborah Moggach)




Deborah Moggach is a prolific British novelist who has published seventeen novels. Her 2004 novel, The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was made into a film a few years ago.

I haven’t seen the film and the only reason I picked up the novel from the local library was because I was looking for some light entertainment after finishing Howard Jacobson’s collection of articles in The Independent, published under the title Whatever It Is , I Don’t Like It. I liked Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It a lot, and found it very funny, too; but, at the same time it was “heavy” entertainment (I don’t know a better way of putting it).

I was looking to read something which wouldn’t tax my brain cells, something I could read without really having to take in the nuances (because there are no nuances), without the need to pay much attention to the plot (because there is either no plot or it is not incidental), and the sentences flowed easily enough without being too clever.

The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel seemed to fulfil the requirements. The blurb described it as an “addictive comedy”, “a glorious romp”, and “warm, wise and funny”. I was a bit concerned that one review, according to the novel’s blurb, found it “deeply poignant”; however, since that review was from Daily Mail, I thought I could safely ignore it. On an impulse I borrowed another Moggach novel, The Heartbreak Hotel, which, according to the blurb was all the things The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was, and some more.

Did The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel live up to my expectations? Well, yes, although, as mentioned above, the bar was not exactly set high in this instance.

The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel tells the story of a bunch of old biddies from different parts of the UK who are shipped off to an Old People’s Home in Bangalore, India, except that the chancers who have cooked up this scheme are calling it the eponymous hotel so that the old codgers can deceive themselves that they are on some sort of extended, indefinite even, vacation, and not a retirement home. The brains behind this scheme are an Indian doctor named Ravi Kapoor, a consultant in the increasingly overstretched NHS (no stereotype here) and his cousin, Sonny, a wheeler-dealer businessman from Bangalore who has his fingers in more pies than Dawn French can eat in a whole year. Kapoor has migrated to England because he hates India. Why does he hate India? Because India suffocates him. He is now a doctor in the NHS. During the day he takes abuse from the patients who don’t want to be treated by a darkie, and in the evenings he listens to Mozart. He is married to Pauline who works at a travel agent, and hates his father-in-law, who is more randy than a Billy goat and has been kicked out of every possible retirement home in the South of England because of lecherous behaviour which shows no signs of diminishing despite the advancing years. The father-in-law, Norman, is camping in Kapoor’s house and is making his life a misery. So Kapoor in the company of his enterprising cousin (which is one way of describing him), Sonny, opens a retirement home in Bangalore in a ramshackle bungalow owned by a Zoroastrian and his chiropodist wife who is impossible to please. In due course the “exotic hotel” is full of British geriatrics, who, for a variety of reasons, have decided that Bangalore, India, is where they want to spend their last days.  It is a diverse collection. There is Norman the lecher; the obligatory bigot (who, I am pleased to inform, is slowly won over by India’s charms); an over-the-top couple that gets on your nerves five minutes before you have met them; a woman who—would you believe it?—was born in Bangalore in the days of the Raj and had visited the Merigold Hotel—because it was a school—every day till the age of eight when her parents cruelly uprooted and sent her to a boarding school in England (which must have done something right because the woman became a successful BBC producer); and a genteel, middle class lady called Evelyn, whose children would rather send her to India than find her a decent retirement home in England (with its enchanting smells of boiled cabbage and stale urine).  As the story progresses (narrated mainly through the eyes of Evelyn) there are the expected twists, coincidences, reunions, people falling in and out of love, and—am I forgetting anything?— unexpected deaths (responsible, I guess, for the poignancy detected by a critic).

Moggach leaves nothing to chance, and packs the novel with clichés about India. The beggars, the crowds, the call centres and the oh-so-well-behaved young men and women who work there and make futile attempts to pass themselves off as Bobs and Marys from Enfield to their British customers, the unfathomable serenity and passivity of Hinduism that enables people to lead their terrible lives without complaining, the mysticism, the exoticism of India—you name it and Moggach has supplied it in the novel. The portrayal of India, or, of one of its sprawling metropolises to be exact, is, despite all the clichés, compassionate. One does not expect icy objectivity in novels such as this, but neither does, to her credit, Moggach allow the novel to swoon in saccharine emotions. Well, just a bit, not too much.

On her official website Moggach says that The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel came out of her reflections on getting older, about what is going to happen to us all. She wanted to explore questions of race and mortality but also wanted it to be a comedy of manners between East and West. The novel doesn’t offer any insight into how Indians view mortality, unless the sayings from various Hindu and Buddhist sacred books quoted at the beginning of each chapter (and which have no connection with the contents of the chapters) are supposed to provide the reader with insight into the Hindu way of understanding mortality. What the reader gets is the British approach to mortality (denial, self-pity, bitterness), only that these people are gathered in a crumbling old bungalow in Bangalore instead os a miserable retirement home in Dulwich.

I give The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel A minus for vocabulary, B + for efforts, and C minus for entertainment.  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Britain in Despair


It gives me no pleasure to say this, but things are not looking good for the UK. The UK is staring down the abyss.

The emotional wellbeing of the country is in peril. Everyone is angry and frightened.

The poor are angry because they are poor. They think it is utterly unfair and diabolical that others are rich when they are poor. They are infuriated that the government and councils have capped their benefits; they are expected to demonstrate that they are trying to find work if they want the benefits to continue, which is clearly an outrage. It is diabolical that they can’t go on producing children and raise them at tax-payers’ expense. The government will not give them child benefits from third child onwards, on the questionable premise that they have already brought into this world two children whom they can’t afford to raise.

The disabled people are distraught because the government has unreasonably decided that it will not take their word that they are disabled and will not continue dishing out allowances. They are forced to—shock! Horror!—undergo assessments by doctors to determine how disabling the low back pain or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is. It is humiliating and unnecessary. The prime minister Theresa May was confronted during the election campaign by a woman with learning difficulties, who shouted at May that she wanted (in no particular order of importance) Disability Living Allowance (DLA), carer, cosmetic surgery, face-lift, a paid-trip to Bali, and a flat in Kensington (why not?). This is a clear-cut case of discrimination. You may be so intellectually challenged that a hedgehog could beat you in chess in three moves (if a hedgehog could move pieces), but that does not mean that you don’t have feelings. Or desires. Or needs. Or demands. And who is going to meet them, if not the government?  It is distressing to know that intellectually challenged woman is not alone in her suffering. Apparently hundreds of people are having their Motability cars removed every week, and are forced to hop to their local pubs.

The middle classes are losing the will to live because it has not rained enough this summer (what is going to happen to their gardens?) The GP surgeries are full to the brim with middle aged-women demanding Xanax because they are having nightmares that Waitrose has run out of Jerusalem artichokes. The middle classes are also upset that the government has completely removed their child benefits on the spurious grounds that they are affluent and, if they have enough money to send their children to private schools, they could probably do without child benefits.

And Boris Johnson can’t make up his mind whether he should be concerned that the price of a bottle of Chateau Lafite has shot up by several hundred pounds, and, when he takes his (legitimate) children on skiing holidays to Swiss Alps, he can’t help but notice that the price of Magnum ice-cream bar is creeping up.

The public sector workers—the nurses, the fire-fighters, the teachers—are demanding that the 1% cap on their pay-increments should be lifted. Experts and Think Tanks are producing statistics, complex enough to give Stephen Hawking a headache, to prove that despite the pay rise year-in-year-out given to the Public Sector workers (barring a two year period of freeze) in the last eight years, ‘if you take into account the inflation’, their actual monthly pay ‘in real terms’ is slightly less than the yearly salary of the barber of Henry VIII. Nurses can’t manage on their salaries and are leaving NHS by the droves to open toddlers centres; and those who are bravely continuing in their quest to help the ill, are having to supplement their meagre income by moonlighting as strippers in Devil’s Advocate, so that they can take a well-deserved break to Ibiza. If this is not cruelty, I ask you what is.

The hospitals can’t cope with the demands of the population, and are discharging people as soon as they regain consciousness after a road traffic accident, and move the fingers of their hands by a couple of inches. Everything is rationed, and the doctors are unhappy that they are not allowed to prescribe drugs (with prices that make them unaffordable unless you sell your children and pimp your wife) even though a trial carried in the Australian outback concluded that the drug might be effective for a condition (that is rarer than a democracy in the Middle East) but the researchers are not sure and it could all be a Placebo effect.

The discrimination in the NHS is rampant. Hospitals are turning away people who like to eat a lot and have clogged up their arteries, worn off their hip joints and vertebrae and in general ruined their health, and therefore are desperately in need of stomach-banding, telling them (heartlessly), instead, that they ought to take some responsibility of their life-style and turn away from years of gluttony. Does the NHS not realise the efforts that go into cultivating bad habits? The hospitals are insisting that smokers must stop smoking without which they will not receive free heart bypass. It is clearly unfair, and, for that reason, unacceptable. As John Prescott, that intellectual giant in the Blair government, once remarked with great compassion, smoking and eating greasy burgers (because the poor people can’t be expected to cook healthy meals at home with  boiled cabbages and spinach) are the only recreational activities left for the poor, and how dare the government deprive them of it? Some bigots and misogynists are suggesting that breast enhancement surgery should not be offered free on the NHS. It is only a matter of time before the NHS says that you should scoop out your own appendix at home with garden shears instead of coming to the hospital.

The mental health services are overwhelmed. They can’t cope with the demand, and have absolutely no clue what they can do to help people who will not go out of their houses because they have no friends, no skills, no talent, no purpose in life, and who believe that they are ugly and stupid and unattractive and not fit for human company, and who clearly need someone to do their shopping, pay their bills, come to their flat every day to check whether they have taken shower, and run their lives for them. Their families won’t do this. It is clearly the government and social services’ responsibility. These inadequates, I am sorry to say, are horribly let down by the cuts to mental health services.

And let’s not forget the suffering of drug addicts. These poor, vulnerable individuals, who, through no faults of their own (I don’t know whose fault it is, but I am inclined to blame either Tony Blair or the Tories; it’s a safe bet, when in doubt blame them), are reduced to burgling old grannies and selling crack to school children, are being deprived of their daily methadone fix. Very unreasonable demands are being made of them, such as they should stop taking drugs if they want the prescribed drugs to continue. It is patronising to be told that sitting on your backside and watching the Jeremy Kyle show is not ‘recovery’. The government simply does not realise (because the Tories don’t care) that the unbearable ennui of existence and lack of any skills can only be relieved by class A drugs. And day-time television shows where stupid people talk about the unbelievably stupid things they have done serve the very useful purpose of improving the self-esteem of stupid people watching the programmes, who are buoyed up by the hope that they too can become television stars because they too don’t have any talent.

The students are upset because the government will not make their university education free, so that, by the time they complete a three-year degree course in flower-arrangement or Ceramics at the University of Garboldisham (which used to be a village school before New Labour decided it was University), they have debts bigger than the combined national debts of Greece, Portugal and Spain. The students are upset that they would be paying student-loans until they die, and refuse to be assured by the assurance that they will in effect not pay a penny of the student-loan, because no one is required to start repaying the loan until they start earning a decent income, which they are never going to be able to earn, because, once they get their degree in dog-grooming, no one in his right mind is going to employ them. Is it any wonder that young people in Britain have the poorest mental wellbeing in the world, according to a report in the Independent? (Yes, you read it correctly, the emotional wellbeing of the young people in Britain is worse than the emotional wellbeing of young people in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, where it is a cause for celebration if you have all your limbs intact when the day ends.)

Britain is becoming a nation of Philistines. In Norfolk, incensed middle-aged ladies with salt-and-pepper hair and crew cuts reminiscent of inmates of mental asylums, jug-eared men with suspicious stains on their trousers, and other ne’er-do-wells with faces that look like they have been stepped on, are jumping up and down, waving placards, and making a racket louder than a lobster boiled alive, about the closure of local libraries, and not prepared to listen when you tell them that they can get all their Jilly Coopers in the Oxfam shops for 50 p, and closing the libraries with carpets that look like they have been left rotting for hundred years is probably a good thing.

And, if all of the above was not enough to make you feel wanting to drink rat poison or relocate to Luton, Bradly Lowery has died. I have no idea who Bradly Lowery is (or was) other than that he was one of the many thousands of young children who die of cancer every day. Young Bradley was a fan of Sunderland football club. Don’t ask me anything about Sunderland football club, or Sunderland, for that matter. Sunderland, I have heard, is a piss-poor town in the North where the natives speak in a patois which has superficial resemblance to English, but, still, is not easy to understand. As for Sunderland Football club, it may or may not have managed to stay in the Premiership Football (I don’t know and I don’t care). Nevertheless, the death Bradly Lowery has made the front page news on the BBC website, and we are all devastated. I read in the BBC news that Bradly, the Sunderland fan, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was 18 months old. (Was Bradly a Sunderland fan before the brain tumour was diagnosed, or did he become a Sunderland fan after the diagnosis? In which case could his choice be explained as a symptom of the tumour?)

Oh! Lest I forget, we are all going to become very poor because of Brexit. That is a given. It is not going to end well, no matter what positive spin the Brexiteers try to put on it. To give a sophisticated literary analogy, if you set out to write an essay about two donkeys fucking, and if you write an essay about two donkeys fucking, then you have written an essay about two donkeys fucking; and you will have trouble convincing people that the essay is in fact about daffodils. The trade secretary Dr Liam Fox, who has the charm of a camel with gingivitis (and temperament to match), is trying his best—bless him!—and going round the globe grovelling to the dictator in Philippines one day, schmoozing up to oily businessmen shiny suits in New Delhi the next (much preferable to dealing with our European neighbours), to attract trade, but it is not working. The Chancellor Philip Hammond keeps on hammering the point that Labour’s sums in the election manifesto don’t add up and people should not trust Labour with the economy, which suggests that the Chancellor is experiencing worrying lapses of memory: the election is over; the British public has not trusted Labour with the economy; and, he in fact, has the responsibility to come up with plans for the economy. Which he doesn’t have. Finally, we have David Davies, the man we have put our trust in to negotiate Brexit with the EU. Given his performance so far, we might as well have put that chap Boycie from Only Fools and Horses in charge of the Brexit negotiations. David Davies keeps on repeating that Britain will come out of the single market and customs union, and everything will carry on as before; we will somehow wing it (looking very smug and happy with himself, like a man, who, after a life-time of search, has found the location of clitoris; but just because you know where it is does not mean you know what to do with it). And in the BBC Question time old folks with hardly any teeth in their mouths are shouting let’s get the hell out of the EU and bring back the Empire.

The country is divided. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. The poor are no longer prepared to stay poor. They want a slice of the goodies the rich are enjoying and become rich themselves. This is the kind of environment that is ripe for revolution. And that is exactly what Jeremy Corbyn is plotting with his mates McDonnell and Diane Abbott (so success is assured, then). There will be a revolution, Jezza is confident, that will sweep him into number ten, so that he can spread the good work, started in Cuba by the dictator Fidel Castro, throughout the UK. Never mind that we as a nation are incapable of storming a train without first forming a queue; and never mind that Corbyn is incapable of deciding whether the toilet seat should be up or down without a five-hour meeting with a committee, there will be a revolution. Jezz we can.






Friday, 30 June 2017

Book of the Month: The Windsor Faction (DJ Taylor)


D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction imagines a scenario in the 1930s, as the war in Europe approaches, which is different from the history. Edward VIII has not abdicated. His American lover, Wallis Simpson, has died of cancer in 1937, and Edward has assumed throne. The stammering younger brother with his wife and ‘girls’ has been dispatched to Sandringham. Hitler, in the meanwhile, has assumed control of Germany and has started occupying sovereign nations on the dubious grounds that he is protecting the interests of the German minorities in these nations. He has also not left anyone in doubt about what he intends to do to the Jews. Kristallnacht has happened. The British government, still led by Neville Chamberlain, is deeply uneasy about the intention of the Germans, and has been making disapproving noises about the aggressive German tendencies. The German army has gathered behind the Maginot Line, and many in Britain feel that the Germans are going to invade France, which would make war inevitable. In fact the war has already begun, officially, but both sides are waiting for the other to make the first move. The British are waiting to see whether the Germans would cross the Maginot Line.

Not everyone in Britain, though, is in favour of the war, or thinks that war with Germany would be in the British national and international interests. They are concerned that a protracted European war, as this one is bound to turn out to be, would be the death-knell of the Empire. “It’d be impossible to hold on to India,” Captain Ramsay, one of the few real-life- characters (Ramsay was a Tory MP from 1933 to 1945, the novel informs the reader at the end; and, fiercely anti-War and anti-Semite, was interned during the war) that play a pivotal role in the novel, says. The political faction that is against the war, the so-called pacifists, comprises Back-bench Tories, some of whom fought in the Great War; right wing intellectuals; isolationists in the American Embassy who believe that America should not get herself embroiled in the European conflict; and nut-cases who believe that the war is a world-wide conspiracy of Jews, and the only community that stands to benefit from this is of the profiteering Jews. The anti-war lobby suspects, and the suspicion lifts its spirits, that the King, Edward VIII, is against the war, and is sympathetic to their position: a negotiated peace with the Germans, in a neutral territory, such as Ireland, should be attempted. Germans, on their part, are giving coded signals that they would be willing to negotiate, but would not give back the territory that they have appropriated.

The Windsor Faction is the story of the frenetic months that lead to Second World War, in its alternative reality. Taylor has chosen to tell the story from the point of view of a fictional character, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who, unwittingly, gets involved in the cloak-and-dagger game. As the novel opens, Cynthia is in Ceylon, where her parents made a tidy fortune. Cynthia returns to England as the drums of the war in Europe begin to sound. In London she finds herself a job in a literary rag called Duration. In the office she meets Anthea Carey, who, it seems, is not what she appears to be. Cynthia also begins an affair with Tyler Kent (another real life character, who apparently worked in the American Embassy and was also interned during the war because of his anti-war activities), a clerk in the American Embassy. Captain Ramsay, Tyler Kent, and Bannister (a fictional character), another Tory backbencher MP who is anti-war (as sinister, though not as unhinged, as Captain Ramsay) are all in cahoots, and, it would seem, stop at nothing to stop the war unleashed on Britain by the Jews. The Bannisters are family friends of the Kirkpatricks, having made their ill-deserved fortune in the colonies, and to whose son both sets of parents once hoped Cynthia would marry (although it did not happen as said son perished in a freak car accident when he took Cynthia out for a drive in Kandy, though not before, in the good old English fashion, he had had clumsy sex with her). Tyler Kent, who works as a clerk in the American Embassy, is smuggling out telegrams of the president, into the hands of Ramsay. MI5, needless to say, are aware of these shenanigans and are keeping these characters who, they have a strong reason to believe, are up to no good, under surveillance. MI5 are also keeping a close eye on the king, who, they rightly suspect, is against the war and might act in a manner that might compromise the official position of the British government, not to mention the country’s security. It’s all jolly good fun, and, although the novel does not trigger a lava-flow of adrenaline through your arteries, it keeps you riveted as it rattles along at a comfortable pace. If the end seems a bit anti-climactic it is also plausible.

Reading The Windsor Faction is a strange experience, in the main, I think, because the reader is not sure whether Taylor wants to write a political noir thriller or a slapstick social comedy. (Perhaps Taylor himself isn’t, either). There is no settled tone to the narrative voice (this is not a criticism). Indeed the opening pages of the novel, set in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) are very reminiscent of the comedy of Evelyn Waugh, who is mentioned more than once in the ‘diaries’ of the gay bon vivant, Beverly Nichols—another real life character, according to the ‘author’s note’; the real Beverly Nichols, Taylor informs, was a prolific author, journalist and librettist—although the tone becomes much more sombre and dark once the action shifts to London, only to slide, every now and then, into slapstick.

Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the main protagonist of the novel, is a pleasant enough character, not unduly encumbered by anything by way of personality. To the extent that Cynthia is able to make up her mind, she is pro-war. She does play a vital role in unravelling the plans of the anti-war faction (you expect no less from the main protagonist of the novel), but the reader gets the feeling that Cynthia does this not so much out of string political convictions as because of her weak character that makes her susceptible to the manipulations and machinations of other, strong-willed, characters. While this is not at odds with how Cynthia is portrayed, it has the effect of the character not making a lasting impression on your mind. Cynthia, not to put too fine a point on it, is dull. The supporting characters, Beverly Nichols and Captain Ramsay, for example, are far more interesting—and for that reason entertaining—that Cynthia. Tayler’s depiction of Edward is humane enough. Taylor desists from portraying Edward as a caricature and does not ‘give’ him anti-Semite tendencies, though ‘the king’ comes across as an empty suit.

Taylor excels in depicting for the reader the London in the 1930s, as Europe stands on the cusp of war (dark, gloomy, grubby, uncertain, fearful), which, in the end, is the most persuasive portion of this novel about the ‘phoney war’.