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.