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 outrĂ© 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.