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12zoewilliams
4Books
DBC Pierre, Booker Prize-winner and author of Vernon God Little, has moved to Ireland. The first rule of interviewing people in Ireland, before "Wear thermal pants" and "Remember some euros", is this: if they're a writer, an artist or a composer, they're there for the tax break. It irks me when these literary bad boys (especially Michel Houellebecq, who used to call himself a sodding communist) uproot themselves just, it seems fair to assume, to avoid a basic system of sharing stuff that your average apolitical cabbie seems able to manage. It irks me still further when they won't admit it. "No, no, no," says Dirty But Clean (that's what his initials stand for). "No. In the first instance, it was because I was in south London, and with the advance from Vernon I thought I should make something of it. I did, slowly, pay back my creditors. But I had to move somewhere I could afford to buy a place, and not fritter the rest of it in Soho." Not tax-related at all? "No. Also, in Balham, the property boom spread from Clapham, and people started getting really uptight. The neighbours started getting really antsy." Apparently, they complained when he shuffled about in the night. But did you have any friends in Ireland? "Well, no." The day he was leaving London was the first day they had parking restrictions on his street. "I'd left the car with the front wheels over the line, and went off to sleep. I woke up, and of course the car was gone. They'd towed it and given it to the mafia that runs that car-towing scam, and I had to go down and pay a fuckload of money. So I got the car, and said, 'I'm out of here.' Got to the place where I now live, put the car maybe half a kilometre up the road, and took a photograph of it, intending to send it to the car parking mafia, with a letter saying, 'Come and get it now, you cunts.' Until finally I thought, 'This is silly. Why am I being like this?' I really had city fever. I needed to get to the countryside. It's odd, because I was raised in the city, but I needed to get out of it." I still don't buy it, not a word, and I can't bear the Tory implications of having a go at a car pound, but I'm really having to force myself to bring it up, because the truth is DBC Pierre is the most ludicrously charming individual. He is exactly as charming as you'd have to be to do people out of tens of thousands of pounds (as he once did) without recourse to a shotgun. He reminds me of that speech in Pulp Fiction where Samuel L Jackson explains why pigs are filthy and dogs aren't. "I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they are definitely dirty. But a dog's got personality; personality goes a long way." "So, by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?" "Well, we'd have to be talking one charming motherfucking pig." DBC might be dirty, in other words, but he's too charming to be filthy. I know this isn't brain fever brought on by the landscape (which, in Leitrim, where he now lives for un-tax-related reasons, is daunting and lovely): people like this guy. He's sitting outside a shabby little bar with an unopened bottle of Martel. His face is pink with cold (you have to smoke outdoors in Ireland). I can't work out whether this is his weekly shop, and it includes only brandy. Or whether he's done the maths and figured that, for the amount of brandy he intends to drink right now, he might as well buy a whole bottle. Or whether it's brandy from home, and he couldn't leave it unattended because he had a delinquent staying with him. So it seems reasonable enough to ask, "Why have you got that?" "They gave it to me." "Why?" "It's a present." "For what?" "For Christmas." Never mind that it's January - they must love him. When DBC Pierre won the Booker Prize in 2003, there was something dodgy about him on every conceivable level. The Daily Telegraph headlined his victory, "Reformed cocaine addict is &pound;50,000 Booker winner." The Guardian reported, "Repentant rogue wins over Booker Prize judges" (more old-world charm to that, I feel). You can't throw a stick without hitting an ex-junkie in the literary world, but Pierre was much more than just a former cocaine addict: a con artist and fraudster, he'd appeared in court in Australia charged with almost every minor felony connected with cash scams. Besides all that, the book had come out of nowhere, the guy had no literary credentials - even that felt like a bit of a scam. He wasn't British, and wangled eligibility for the Booker on a technicality (he was born in Australia, in 1961, and grew up in Mexico). His name wasn't even Pierre; his real name is Peter Finlay. Even his author photograph lies: in it, he looks round and red and slightly distant, like a city boy who already knows you don't have enough money to be useful to him; in the flesh, he looks lean and enigmatic. Vernon God Little, Finlay/Pierre said at the time, and he confirms it now, was in many ways autobiographical. "Erm ... Vernon was a lot about me," he says with a friendly smirk. "It was a very easy sail to put up. I had lots of wind behind me." The story, naturally, wasn't his story: his teen protagonist is best friend to a kid who goes loopy and kills his classmates, then himself. Vernon, scapegoat for a host of adult idiocies in the aftermath of the crime, copes with stuff and amuses himself by making things up. He lies, in the most abundant and devil-may-care manner, and ultimately gets himself into trouble as serious as, possibly even more serious than, if he'd been the killer himself. It's a combination of his own mendacity and other people's stupidity that finally does for Vernon, and I suppose that this is how Finlay sees his own life. "Fact and fiction are a real problem for me. They've been a problem in my life, and they remain a problem still, in the way that we receive supposed facts, and the way that we distinguish them from fiction. You can watch whatever - pick any sitcom - one minute, and then the news, and then some bollocks, and then a documentary, and it's an act of concentration to distinguish them. What obsessed me is that novelists spend a lot of time trying to make their fiction resonate and sound real - to give it gravity, to give it a sense of reality. And that really interested me, because I find reality as it moves very whimsical and puerile and very simplistic. I wanted to spend no time at all on issues like plausibility. It's pointless to think, as you write, 'Nobody's going to believe that.' I watch the news and I don't believe that. It's horseshit. That's so obviously a con or a lie." In conversation, and in his work, Finlay operates best when you don't try to pin him down. In the past, as he says, he famously had a problem telling the truth. Now it's more a problem for his audience - he's put his fraudulent days behind him, paid back everyone to whom he owed money (with the exception of two people he can't find), turned over a new leaf. Still, though, he's slippery: when you try to unpick the narrative of his life, it is full of missing years, missing details, curious omissions. We know, for instance, that he grew up in Mexico City, where his parents' substantial wealth was magnified to a point of hyper-reality by the poverty of their environs. His father was a scientist, working on genetically modified crops, until he was diagnosed with a brain tumour; Finlay was 16. Both parents went to New York for his father's treatment, leaving their son technically in the care of servants, but more accurately making 10 kinds of mayhem with his friends. He started taking drugs. When he was 19, his father died, bringing to a close his insane upbringing, which accounts for so much. It accounts for his crazy accent, which is totally consistent and totally impossible to locate in time and space - it's more English than American, like a public schoolboy with a slight mid-European drawl. It accounts for his freakish relationship with money. "Where I grew up, money came into the house in envelopes. You never went to the bank. The maids would get paid, I'd get my pocket money, that would be it. I came out of there with no sense of civic duty. In Mexico, you dealt with things as they came to your face. There was no law, and there was nothing you couldn't get away with." In his early 20s, Finlay had his residency withdrawn (for bringing a foreign car over the border) and went first to Europe, then to Australia. "So I came to Australia and Britain, which actually had laws and statutes and shit, and that's what fucked me up. I came out of a melting pot into a bunch of cubicles. And it dismayed me. So you bank the cheque the day before the money's in the account. How can that be a crime? Then the money doesn't show up, so that becomes a crime. I spent a lot of my Australian visit in court. Literally every week." Whatever his creditors say, I believe him. I believe him when he says he never intended to scam anyone; most of his court appearances were for bank offences and bad cheques. I believe him when he says that he was constantly being offered personal bankruptcy and he never took it, because that would have been an admission that he'd never intended to pay these people back in the first place. Rackety characters such as Finlay, with his scrapes and his debts and his near-misses with incarceration, often sound rather romantic, and I assumed he might have some kind of attachment to this period of his life, but of course he doesn't. "It was a very painful time, incredibly painful. It kept me down for more than a decade." By the time he got to England in the early 1990s, he had been through the mill, and worked his only nine-to-five job, in an advertising agency. "It didn't last long. It was in the Caribbean. It was great, but then I would have had to live in the Caribbean for ever. You miss England, because it has a proper grounded feeling ... the smell of diesel in the air." Sure, I would miss England, but why would he, when, if he were to call anywhere home, it would be Mexico or Australia? (This is a tiny point, but it does crop up regularly, the sense that he's describing himself in terms of the person he's speaking to, using whatever information about them he has, however scant. That's probably what it means to be a charmer, I suppose.) In London, Finlay started work on Vernon God Little (before that, the only thing he'd tried to write was a radio play). The fact that his adolescence was interrupted by his father's death accounts, I think, for his very close rendition in Vernon God Little of how a teenager might think, and speak, and see things. I think it self-evident that the bereavement halted some part of his development, but he heads this off, rather gently. "There's a romantic answer to everything, where we're prey to these energies, and there's a psychological answer - you haven't moved past this or that. And both have validity. But it's not worth doing the chase. I've had therapy in the past, mainly because it was a requirement of court, and in the end I figured it was better not to understand, because that's the engine that drives you." This mysterious engine has now driven him to write his second novel, Ludmila's Broken English, which is about ... oh, it would be daft to tell you what it's about. It does conjoined twins, and terrorism, and the sad, postwar limbo of the formerly Soviet Caucasus; it does sex and the absence of sex; it touches briefly on music and silence and short bursts of structurally incomprehensible violence - and it is great, and rollicking, and mischievously disrespectful to the literary establishment. Finlay has said before how charmed he always is by vernacular twists of speech. In Ludmila's Broken English, this is more evident than ever: in the conjoined twins, separated at the start of the book, you can hear his fondness for English verbal quirks - "You silly sausage", "bloody 'ell". But none of it sounds quite right, in so far as it doesn't really sound English. Finlay doesn't sound as if he's closely observed or rendered this language, but as if he's pinched what isn't his, and now he's bloody well going to enjoy it. When it comes to the Caucasians, he concocts the most explosively intricate and vivid register of scatological insult and imaginative excursions on the theme of brutality, most of it sexual. "I'm really keen to be a good writer," he says. "I thought I'd come away from the comfort zone of the first person, come away from the comfort zone of it being anything to do with me, write something that could have been written at any point over the past 100 years, just in terms of its structure, stand back and not get so emotionally involved with it." It's true that the narrative engagement is less feverish than in Vernon, but one thing that strikes me is that, in deciding to move away from his own experience, Finlay produces something closer to himself. It's great fun to read because he understands so instinctively what carries you from one page to the next; but what makes it so much more than just a page-turner is the force of his anti-authoritarianism. There's no way this book could have been written "at any point in the past 100 years": structurally, it is crazily ill-disciplined, and takes a very modern delight in that. Using twins as his protagonists allows Finlay to have everything both ways: the two of them have all kinds of debates - on terrorism, on society - and Finlay never has to pin himself down. It often feels as if he is trying to decipher his own views through the conduit of twins, identical in every way, except that one is liberal, the other illiberal. "Personally, on terrorism, as everything else, I'm probably very liberal at heart, but it's unresolved. But I say this to you as a liar - I can tell better lies than any of these fuckers who get up on television and say they're going to do this or that because of terrorism. They're such flimsy and transparent people, they're much greater psychotics than me." (To clarify, I had called his self-confidence psychotic a minute earlier. I didn't mean to hurt his feelings, but think I may have done.) "Greater in that they're successful with it, we buy it - and that is the thing that has probably changed in me." He means his own life as a fantasist has made him more sceptical. "Terrorism in itself, I feel the same about. I feel we've largely invited it. But I grew up in violence; I saw a lot of death and guns when I was growing up, and that kind of thing isn't such a big deal. What I fear are the societal changes that will happen around it, rather than being blown up by anyone. I'll be pissed off if I do get blown up, though, obviously. I won't take kindly to that. At all." From Ludmila's Broken English, I get the sense that Finlay has a very idiosyncratic idea of sex. To go back to his twins, the chief respect in which they are opposite is that one has a consuming sex drive and the other has none at all. The one with none is by far the more intelligent, the more clear-sighted, the less confused, but also totally without hope. It is as though sex is this chimera that stands between all of us and despair. Is that really how he sees it? "I don't know. Probably not. You're only the second or third person I've heard from that's read it." Don't you show it to your friends? "I don't know anyone who would like it. When I finished Vernon, in the mental journal we all have of peers and friends, I couldn't think of a single person that would like it. Plus, I don't print them till they're finished. I just have them on screen. So nobody can see it." You could invite somebody over. "But who?" On the matter of relationships, it strikes me as deeply curious, for a person well into adulthood, that he is able to uproot himself to a place where he knows no one, and be content. "Well, I've had long relationships. I'm not that much of an enigma, really. I'm a bit of a loner, but I'm very gregarious. I don't have any conviction or opinion that will stand above my ability to chuck them out and have a good yarn and a beer with somebody. Because I've been so wrong. You have to understand, I've been shown in my life that I've been so wrong. Everyone tells you to trust your instincts, and to big yourself up, and go for it, and I did that and I was wrong." There's something about his delivery, something distant and playful, that makes you constantly wonder whether he's telling you the truth. I don't know if his penitence is real. I don't even know if it's true that he got into all this debt. His most famous debt, the one that attracted all the attention when he won the Booker, was to the American painter Robert Lenton. Finlay faked a letter in Spanish, which Lenton didn't understand, in order to finagle some money out of him for a property Finlay didn't possess. But the letters Lenton's family subsequently sent to the papers, I wouldn't put it past this Dirty Pierre to have written them himself, and somehow got them posted in Newfoundland as a jape. (Lenton's daughter-in-law wrote, "Sheathed in his tuxedo of humility and self-awareness, Finlay still refuses to acknowledge what he did", although Lenton himself said he had no axe to grind and had forgiven him.) Finlay says his third novel is seriously depraved, and he's just trying to finish it before the new atmosphere of moral rectitude starts making demands on the literary establishment - that, I believe. But when he tells me he's writing a children's book with animals in it, I can't ever see that appearing in print, and I couldn't say whether it's because I think he's joking, or lying. I do believe the great big scar on his head came from a car accident, but he says somebody told him it looked like a bullfighting wound, and if he'd told me that, I would have believed it, too. "This is all reconstructed, this side of my face. If you look really close, my eye has been out. The skin is discoloured. It's off my back or my arse or something. I can get people to kiss me there, and they will never know they're kissing my arse." He could tell me the Pope had kissed his arse, and I wouldn't know if he meant his regular arse, the arse-section of his face, the regular pope, a person called Pope he'd met on his many travels, or whether he was making the whole thing up. Reading his books, it is obvious that there is an honesty and authenticity in the way Finlay writes, and in the way he relates to the world, that renders his reliability when it comes to real events more or less irrelevant. Still, I wouldn't lend him any money.
12zoewilliams
4Books
Okay, here's the story - there's a widow, a very pretty widow, with four very pretty children. She locks said children in an attic. They grow up, and the oldest two do the nasty, even though they are siblings. Well, come on, they're in an attic! What would you do for fun, teach yourself Latin? The reason they're in the attic is because the house belongs to their grandfather, who won't acknowledge the existence of the children because of their shameful beginnings - they were sired, you see, by the late half-uncle of the pretty widow. As it turns out, though, their father was both their mother's half-uncle and her half-brother, the product of a brutal rape (by the grandfather, of his step-mother), which wasn't strictly speaking incestuous (the rape, that is), and certainly wasn't incest compared with what happened later, but was still very wrong. So, back to the attic children who have just had sex - they are both the spawn of sibling incest and engaged in sibling incest. Oh, and the widow has decided to poison them with arsenic, which makes them very pale, but still extremely attractive to one another. They realise their peril and escape, with one younger sibling (the other has died). They lead a full and unhappy life of mistreatment and suchlike. A rogue doctor has an affair with the girl sibling - it results in a pregnancy, he performs a quick DIY abortion and keeps the foetus in a jar on his desk for a laugh. In the end, the siblings marry at the age of about 50 - they pretend they are unrelated, of course. No good comes of it. I'd estimate that anyone born after 1970, who ever came into possession of breasts or a sister, will know what I'm talking about. We are in the land of Virginia Andrews (originally known as VC Andrews) and her Flowers In The Attic quintet (aka, The Dollanganger Series). She completed three other books besides this series - My Sweet Audrina, and the opening two of the Casteel quintet - before her death from breast cancer in 1986. She is still making the bestseller lists in 2001, with new novels, which is not as spooky as it sounds. Shortly before she died, Andrews mentioned, in the one interview she gave, that she had the plots in place for 63 further novels. It was no great surprise, therefore, when Garden Of Shadows, the prequel to Flowers In The Attic, was published posthumously. Then came the third book in the Casteel series, which is again attributed to Andrews. At this point, briefly, the Andrews estate claimed that there were many more completed manuscripts, so readers could look forward to a steady stream of fresh gems from the dead writer. This was not the case - in fact, it had brought in a ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, who shared an agent with Virginia Andrews and furthermore had taught in high school for 23 years, so had a good idea of her teenage-girl constituency. The estate came clean about the existence of a ghostwriter in an open letter in 1987, explaining that it had chosen a gifted author to "organise and complete Virginia's stories and to expand upon them by creating additional novels inspired by her wonderful storytelling genius". It did not mention him by name, and it was six years before anyone discovered Neiderman's identity (he also writes under his own name - most famously, Devil's Advocate, which was turned into a lame film in 1997). Since 1986, Neiderman has completed the Casteel series, and written six more - The Logan Family, The Cutler Family, The Hudson Family, Landry Family, Orphans and Wildflowers - most of them containing five individual novels. Readers are undeterred by the change in author - judging from the web fanzine, they generally can't tell the difference (or, as one joyfully put it, "I can't believe these books! Every one is so good, you think it's better than the one you just read! I'm going to collect them all, so that when I have children I can present them with the full set!"). Kate Lyall-Grant, from the English arm of publisher Simon &amp; Schuster, says, "As far as I'm concerned, it's pretty much an open secret that the real Virginia is no longer with us." The dust-jacket biography, however, says, "Virginia Andrews is a worldwide bestselling author. Her novels have sold more than 80 million copies and have been translated into 22 languages." It makes no mention of her productivity being in any way muted by death. Virginia's "storytelling genius" rarely detours from the incest theme. Indeed, her first published work was a short story entitled I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night. (There were, apparently, decades' worth of short stories, which were never unearthed. If only those secret texts were found - you could probably discover a whole series, comprising I Slept With My Father On Prom Night, and I Jerked Off My Brother Just Before I Had A Bath). What makes her books so strange, however, is not the incest itself but Andrews's oddly wholesome, home-baked way of writing about it. Don't get her wrong - she never comes out in favour of incest, but she does tend to present it as human error, rather than, say, grotesque trauma. Her writing is, frankly, bizarre - if you had to read a sentence out loud, you'd choke on the words ("Golly-gee, but it was a beautiful day! If only we were allowed out, rather than having to sit in this musty old attic and starve to death!"). Paragraphs about the complexities of adolescent sexuality and brother-love might start with the phrase "Dolly-day!" ("However shall we erase the stain of our evil behaviour? Oh, but it seemed so right!"). It's like reading a court transcript of the Brady Bunch describing a decade of orgiastic abuse. This led to a ban on Andrews's books in many American schools, which still applies in some of them to this day. One critic at the Washington Post said Flowers In The Attic was the worst book he had ever read. The sales, though, were extraordinary - the unknown author made the bestseller lists within two weeks of publication. Petals On The Wind, the second in the series, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks. My Sweet Audrina trumped them all, making number one on the New York Times list just three days after its publication. By the time of her death, Andrews had combined sales of 24m, and had been named Number One Bestselling Author of popular horror and occult paperbacks by the American Booksellers Association, beating Stephen King. Neiderman is a different kind of creature altogether, although he is manifestly keeping within Virginia's girls' own fiction remit - if the heroines are not ballerinas, they're actresses, and they usually have a pony to turn to. They have frequently been orphaned tragically young. His style, though, is storytelling at its most functional - no "Golly-lolly, did it steal my breath away!" here. Packed, in the traditional way, with terrible events and curiously bad behaviour, his books nevertheless have none of the odd crepuscular feel of the real Virginia, whose determined clinging to the bright details of childhood - dolls' houses, matching tutus and slippers - felt unwitting rather than deliberate. Neiderman does not have Andrews's unfailing best-seller record, either, but he has shifted 50m books over his lifetime, so could hardly be called a dud. His 30th novel as Virginia, Eye Of The Storm, came out last month. There is no doubt that he still works from the novel plans left by Andrews, but that he has leeway to insert modern details, such as the internet. This latest trilogy features a heroine named Rain - there she is, happy-ish in her deprived Brooklyn home, when she discovers she was adopted. "I always knew there had to be a reason why I felt what I felt for you," says her brother (I paraphrased slightly), who turned out not to be her brother. "Let's get married!" But no, that can't be, not until Rain's real brother, who doesn't yet know of the blood connection, has also proposed. Then he dies and Rain becomes disabled by a horse incident - incest, or even the thought of it, exacts a heavy price, as ever. And yet you can't blame the kids - the Virginia world is not one in which regular people who don't share your blood ever just tip up and see if there are any other bodily fluids you fancy sharing. Apart from a mini-series about some unrelated girls (Jade, Misty, Star and Cat), every group of books features at least one incestuous couple, and usually there are two. Where this fixation comes from is unclear. Virginia Andrews did have a pretty rotten life - in 1939, at the age of 16, she was paralysed in a freak stairs accident, and lived with her mother for the rest of her life. She started writing at 25, after the death of her father. However, there's no evidence of incest within her family, although there are rumours of one finished novel that she wouldn't publish because it was too autobiographical and was, she thought, too damaging to her relatives. Considering that even small sneezes she did during her lifetime seem to have found their way, via Neiderman, into print, that's somewhat unusual. What her books suggest more strongly is not that she encountered incestuous relationships, but rather that she suffered from an arrested development, which bound her for ever into the concerns of the early adolescent. The novels have the core ingredients of a Judy annual, which give them the safe glow of childhood - an orphan wants to be a ballerina; adults around her behave outlandishly badly; she, nevertheless, keeps her beauty; a peer sustains her spirit throughout the maltreatment, and, presto, 15 years of untold abuse later, there she is on stage with a tutu on her trunk and a song in her heart. Small moments from the tail-end of childhood - the breakage of a favourite musical box, the pleasure of eating a doughnut - have peculiar prominence. And yet, at the same time, she delves into the deepest reaches of adult depravity and societal aberration. You couldn't find a more exact formula for teens if it were done by computer, with a built-in Teetering On The Brink Of Womanhood template. Even if you couldn't feel in your gut that these books are aimed at a specific readership window (11-15, I'd say), you could tell from the reader reviews. There are thousands pasted on the net, and, generally speaking, they take a book-critic clich&eacute; and give it a charming angst-wracked spin. "I just couldn't put this down. Not that I had a reason to. I didn't have anything else to do." The reviews are a million times more touching, and more speechful, than the books have ever been. "Normally, I can't wait for books to end. I didn't feel like that at all," said one homework-beset individual. "I would hate to be locked in an attic," said another, evoking that terrible blurry time when everything you see or read or hear seems as real as everything else. A child's desire to apply real solutions to fictional scenarios sneaks into the quasi-adult chat - "Well, if I was the grandmother, I would never have allowed Corrine to come back to Foxworth Hall. Instead I would have paid off all her bills, and made her and the children live in a small apartment while she trained to be a secretary." The readers rarely mention the incest, which is odd, considering it's the sine qua non of the oeuvre. When they do, they are very forgiving - "I know that the incest parts are kind of weird but in a way it's interesting, even though it would be very sick in everyday life. But I could not blame Cathy and Chris for doing what they did." If people rarely mention the dirty stuff, there is a reason for that - these books share with fairy tales the role of addressing the most absurdly transgressive notions, in order that the more subtle psychological nasties giving rise to them needn't be scrutinised. It's classic pre-Freudian feverishness, coming out a good half-century after Freud. Virginia Andrews is basically a Gothic novelist, and much closer to her 19th-century forebears than a self-aware, exploratory, progressive Goth-merchant such as Angela Carter. Andrews's tools are the old classics - secret rooms within the larger castle to equate with the danger of the "inner space" within the body; characters who basically seek a pre-adolescent love along brother-sister lines (as they do in Frankenstein and, oh, loads of others), only to find that they've accidentally slipped into the realms of untold depravity. The feminist critic Edith Birkhead maintains that as fairy tales are necessary for children, so Gothic novels should be the next stage in our development as adolescents. This was said in reference to 19th-century fiction, when no one ever expected to deal with their sexuality beyond actually having sex now and again, when taboos were everywhere and when more prosaic teen fiction such as Judy Blume, which gave you the nuts and bolts of making out with boys, had not yet been invented. As it turns out, even now, with the broad array of frank and open discussion aimed at the inchoate sexual soul, people still have a yen to see the business rendered as a truly disastrous, irredeemable, abhorrent act. It's hard to say how much longer the current Virginia Andrews can keep it up - and what will happen when he tires of his ludicrous contortions to find new ambitions for the quintessential girl (ice-skater? Tennis ace? Model? How many opportunities can a girl find for a short skirt fashioned of net?). There are another 30 plots left of the first Virginia's literary estate. Can he face it? If not, can a new head grow out of the bloodied stump of his literary career? How much almost-but-not-quite incest can the next generation take before they go back to Wuthering Heights? Will anyone ever match up to the quagmire that was the original Virginia's imagination? And if they can, won't they want to do it under their own name (it would seem a waste not to)? Well, obviously there will always be a Virginia - there's been a Virginia-shaped hole in the market since about 1890, when people started uncovering their table legs and everyone thought the great repression was over. And it was - but this incest business runs deeper than we thought everyone thought the great repression was over. And it was - but this incest business runs deeper than we thought.
12zoewilliams
4Books
A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi, a brilliantly acute, confused, generous-spirited 16-year-old growing up in a Mennonite community some miles from Winnipeg. Its author, Miriam Toews, was raised in just such a place, and got out as fast as she humanly could (the day after graduating from high school). The narrative voice is so strong, it could carry the least eventful, least weird adolescence in the world and still be as transfixing, but the fact is, this community is compellingly strange. The shorthand for Mennonite is "like Amish, only in Canada" (there's a large Mennonite community in the US, too, but that rather spoils the analogy) - Nomi gives the terse specifics in the opening pages of the book: "We're Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager ... A Mennonite telephone survey might consist of questions like, would you prefer to live or die a cruel death, and if you answer 'live' the Menno doing the survey hangs up on you. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock'n'roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o'clock. That was Menno all over." Mennonite diktats express a deeply-held horror of almost all aspects of modern life. Emphasis on "plain" dress means that, in some households, even buttons and zips are a sign of inadequate faith. Ownership of a Janis Joplin record is the most direct known route to hell, apart from all those millions of other routes. Literature is an irreligious diversion; indeed, the life of the mind outside worship is utterly abrogated. Toews's experience was by no means the full Mennonite monty. "My parents both had masters degrees, they were educated, so it was a very tolerant, liberal family within the grander scheme of things. We were allowed to read." Yet she recalls, in all the time she grew up, going to see only one film (Tom Sawyer): "I remember us all sitting there, sitting up really straight. And nearly fainting when the lights went down." This faith sprang up as a frond of the Europe-wide radical religious ferment of the 16th century. In tenets, it is closest to Anabaptism, though there is also a Calvinistic tang to its competitive holiness. (Calvin believed that ascension to heaven was predetermined - your actions made no difference: you were either part of the elect or you weren't. And yet, a good sign that you were a member of the elect was the righteousness of your behaviour. So, unlike traditional Christianity, where there is a set of rules and you strive to live by them, this thinking compelled followers constantly to be finding new rules, the better to emphasise that they were inexorably heaven-bound.) Menno differed from the Anabaptists in his belief in law and order (Anabaptists loved to riot). This didn't stop him being persecuted, or his followers fleeing all over Europe (mainly to Russia), but it did mean that once they found a place where they could be tolerated (Canada, and parts of central America), their societies remained curiously static, since they posed no structural threat to mainstream society and were therefore never forced by clash or friction to adapt to new times. Toews's novel is a wonderfully acute, moving, warm, sceptical, frustrated portrait of fundamentalist religion. Besides the fervent sanctimony, Mennonite communities are wilfully antique and retrogressive - they have lifestyle museums where regular Canadians and Americans turn up to point at the teenagers churning milk while trussed up in elaborately drab bonnetry. It sounds weird and rather sinister, like a petting zoo where the animals have opposable thumbs. Nothing expresses the falsity of the olde worlde parade better than an episode in the book where Nomi sets fire to her bonnet while having a sneaky fag and has to be dunked in some kind of rainwater barrel by a tourist. It's hilarious. The relationship between mainstream Canadians and the Mennonite communities is skewed - Toews says, "We were this quaint little society, charming, fun, kids go there for field trips the whole time. My own kids have been there. It's all very picturesque and simple. But it is a way of dehumanising Mennonites. It's not serious evil. But you'll hear people sitting at a table talking about Mennonites, 'Yeah, I was doing business with one of them', and others going, 'Really? They do business?' There is that level of patronisation - is that a word? - that Mennonites experience all the time. But then they set up these museums to make money. They give people the horse and buggy because it's a money-spinner." Toews grew up in just such a town herself - the events described in the book, she says wryly, are entirely fictitious, but much of the texture is located in her own early life. "I was very conscious of making sure that my character's relationships with the community were authentic. Mine were something else entirely. Obviously. But the emphasis in the town on punishment and shame, and joylessness, that degree of severity and intolerance - all those aspects I certainly experienced." I get the impression that Toews's actual response to the absurd and abundant strictures was pretty close to her heroine's, but the defining events of the work, the desertion of Nomi's mother and older sister, are very clearly fictional. Toews was the first in her own family to quit the town of Steinbach, on which the fictional East Village is kind-of-yet-not-exactly based. (Toews says vaguely that the places have similarities. Though when I met her friend Reverend Moon (not the Moonies one), who thought - mistakenly, it turned out - that he would be passing through Steinbach on his way to pick up his son from Bible camp the next day, he said, "Why don't you come along? You can see all the places from the book!") Her older sister left two years after her, and her mother remained there until the suicide of her father six years ago. And there are elements of the protagonist's character - an immensely strong bond of care and duty to her father, her terminally ill friend, the needy next-door child, above all a precocious and touching selflessness - that Toews herself is far too humble to appropriate. Toews realised she had to leave with a certainty and urgency that surprises me, because she doesn't seem anything like strident or abrasive enough to alienate anyone, not even religious nut-nuts. She reminds me a bit of Mia Farrow in Hannah And Her Sisters: laconic, fine-boned, slightly undefended, wearing her perspicacity and intelligence very discreetly. Upon leaving Steinbach, she travelled all over the place: to Montreal, to London on an exchange programme, working her way round to Europe on wages from a job in a bakery in Finsbury Park, north London. She took a film studies degree at the University of Manitoba, then moved to Halifax to study journalism, before settling in Winnipeg 12 years ago, when she was 28. It's a city of bafflingly broad streets and meticulous town planning. It used to be called the Chicago of the north, though isn't any more; it seems faded and contradictory. Most of the time, it feels like a warm, leftie, Bohemian utopia (that's a figurative "warm"; it's bloody freezing most of the year). Unfailingly, wherever you go with Toews (it's pronounced "taves"), she meets people she knows, whose habits and interests she also knows, who congratulate her on the book, which, besides being so good, has also made a big noise. And she says, "Oh, well, you know ... How's Emerice?" trying to deflect the flattery, for sure, but also far more interested in people's daughters and aunts and such than in her own success. Winnipeg's the kind of place where it's very easy to find a vegan meal and very hard to get tickets to see Fahrenheit 9/11 unless you book a long time in advance. But, at the same time, there are more bridal shops than bars, which must be the best index of borderline depression a place could give you (you know, 18-year-olds feverishly trying to hold on to each other, rather than just getting drunk and seeing what happens). And the liberal pleasantries coexist with a disturbingly quiet racial tension, where all the tramps are Native Canadians, and Toews's neighbour's foster son was recently beaten to death in a car park. (Mind you, while I was marvelling at Canada's rotten underbelly, someone was shot in the face outside my local, so I'm not one to cast the first stone.) The point is, though, while Winnipeg in no way approximates the isolation and rigidity of a Mennonite town, neither is it the farthest away from one you could possibly travel. It's only about 70 miles away, to start with, and shares the spookily uniform terrain. This area is -40C in winter, plagued by mosquitoes in the summer. Actually, the bugs probably aren't so bad, and cold you can protect yourself against, but the landscape is vastly, oppressively flat. You can fly from Minnesota to Winnipeg without seeing a single geographical feature, just endless, even fields, riven by the occasional correction line where the horizon interferes with the 90-degree arrangement of the boundaries. If you weren't used to it, it would drive you loopy. It is a characteristic of Mennonite communities that they congregate in places no one else would want to live; hard-core followers have formed enclaves in the most inhospitable bits of Paraguay. Geography aside, Winnipeg is urban enough to be a breeze - albeit quite a strong one - compared with the farther outreaches of Manitoba (the state of which it is capital). Toews lives around the corner from her mother and sister, and there is a constant traffic of family members through her house. She still calls herself a Mennonite, yet calls herself agnostic at the same time. Alongside the Mennonite intolerance and peculiarity, the book draws a community of, well, enormous community spirit. "I remember a very nurturing, safe environment, everybody knew who I was, who my parents were, who my grandparents were, what part of Russia we were from originally. That was a really comforting feeling. Non-Mennonites, when they see that aspect of it, think it's a beautiful thing, and it is, but there's so much going on besides. So people who leave, people like me - and there are lots of us, especially in this town - have very complicated relationships with the places we grew up. We want to love them, and we do love them, but there's so much of it that's so harsh, so unforgiving." Her life is shot through with this ambivalence. Many of her decisions have been taken along traditional Mennonite lines - she had children young (she was 22 when she had Owen; now she's 40, and her youngest, Georgia, is 14). She loves being a mother and has a fierce sense of family. "You know, these sacrifices you make of time and energy to raise your children properly, I wouldn't spend it any other way." And yet, to a religion run along patriarchal lines, where "a 15-year-old boy can stand up and preach, but a 75-year-old woman who's borne 13 children can't", the very fact of her assuming any kind of right to artistic self-expression, before you even consider how critical the book is of Mennonite ways, would have been enough, had she stayed in the fold, to spark one of those bizarre public shunnings where some or other miscreant is ejected from the church. This is substantially more life-changing than being barred from your local pub, say. While you could remain in town, it would be very difficult to make a living. It would be unlikely for anyone to talk to you. It sounds extremely Breaking The Waves. In other ways, though, Toews's agnostic side shows itself in her pretty regular family set-up, which she describes in an endearingly abashed tone of voice. "I had my first kid as I was completing my BA. And, well, no, I wasn't married, see. I've only just recently got married, four years ago, in Vegas, because Georgia thought it would be a good idea. So I had Owen with this one guy, who has just disappeared - apparently he lives in Tokyo now. So I have to deal with this whole men-disappearing syndrome. But then I hooked up with another guy - oh, this sounds bad - but we're very happily together, we've been together for 16 years, and he adopted Owen and then we had Georgia together." It's funny, because Toews has a rounded, self-critical, open-minded, human kind of morality that amounts to what the best of people live by; and yet, at the same time, you get a whiff of the strictness of her upbringing, an intimation that the spectre of Menno once in a blue moon intercedes and chews her out. She maintains that, had she been writing a factual essay about the Mennonites, she would have been far more critical and damning than her protagonist ever is. But it's ambiguous: there's a lot of complicated fondness there. Which isn't to say that she hasn't, ultimately, come down on the side of Winnipeg liberalism. Her children weren't raised as semi-Mennonites ("Kind of Menno-lite?" she says. "No. Not at all. My mum would take them to church on the sly. It was like, 'Quick, your parents are hungover, let's go'.") "There are so many things in my life that would be completely not on within the conservative church. And yet I think of myself as a reasonably decent human being. With all sorts of flaws, you know, but still reasonably decent. If I did believe in heaven and hell, I would really, honestly, believe I was going to go to heaven." The complexity of distancing oneself from one's formative faith is redoubled when the community is comically inbred (as Nomi remarks wryly, "Our gene pool has no deep end"). Doctrines can be rejected in a way that genetic legacy can't. Well, up to a point - if you all share the same chin, that's something you could handle, but there seems to be a melancholic streak running through this faith that can neither be ignored, nor wholly distinguished from the faith itself. While she was at the University of Manitoba, her philosophy tutor was discussing a young Mennonite who'd gone to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. "It turns out he was a cousin of mine. Of course. Right. He came from a very strict family and just couldn't handle the sudden freedom, the drugs, the sex, the total openness, the anything-goes attitude. And it's suspected that he killed himself, or that he overdosed on drugs. It doesn't matter how intelligent or academically inclined he was, the culture shock was still too huge." This is instructive not just in the sense that you can't mention a Mennonite to any other without it transpiring they're related. Toews's family is scarred by suicide. She lost her father when, having suffered from manic depression since he was 17, he threw himself in front of a train. She wrote Swing Low, a factual account of his life and illness, in 2001, to great acclaim. Another, much closer cousin also killed herself. Perhaps all families, were they to stay close enough to track each other, would find a pattern this brutal, but I doubt it - besides, most families simply aren't inbred to this degree and never have to consider that the isolated temperament of their forefather might be echoing down through centuries. That gives an impression of what it's like to be an ex-Mennonite, or a semi-Mennonite, or a "liberal" Mennonite that is way too bleak properly to describe Toews or her family. Her husband, Neil, was also raised a Mennonite, though not in the most rigid, conventional way. Neil's relationship with his branch of the Menno clan (the two families' names are Harder and Dix. Well, it made us laugh, and they must have been laughing over it for years) is distinctly different from Miriam's - they go to family reunions and such, but he has no nostalgia for the religion itself. He laughingly says they were nasty, money-grubbing people (certain Mennonites, this is, not his family), with a verifiable record of peddling drugs to the faithless as a business venture. This does sound unpleasant - even though the net result is the same, it's way more cynical when people spin cash out of a vice that they specifically disavow. But this has to be set against a long record of humanitarian aid - many of the families who sponsored immigrants, notably Vietnamese boat people, were Mennonites, and the religion has a tradition of supporting foreign communities with money and medicine. It's not all peaches, in other words, but peaches exist, within reason. And Miriam's mother, Elvira, has a different perspective still. (She's a brilliant raconteur, and extremely supportive of the book, especially considering that its central event is the mother's desertion and she's had people ask if it's a true story. When she lives round the corner from both her daughters!) Having left Steinbach, Elvira is still a Mennonite and attends their church in Winnipeg. She gets the magazine, which has headlines such as Your Only Way To Heaven Is To Understand And Admit That You Are A Complete Failure. And yet, again, she is ambivalent about the community in which she spent her adult life. Or, rather, she is bemused at how little she misses it. She never visits; she finds this perplexing but not distressing. But then, of course there would be multiple perspectives. Toews's work never claimed to be a definitive portrait of the right-thinking response to anything. It is a work of fiction and, while the peculiarities of the environment give it its flesh and structure, the beauty of it is all in the prose, which is so sensitively and delicately balanced that the most caustic humour and poignant act of love can coexist in the same line. It reminds me a bit of George Saunders's Pastoralia, to which Toews replied very warmly, "Oh, he's brilliant. And very nice." "Is he a friend of yours?" "No, but he returned an email my friend sent him. Which I thought was really nice of him." The impossibility of writing without humour consigned Toews for a long time to the comedy circuit. She won countless humorist prizes for her first two novels, which she's keen to point out she was very grateful for, before adding, "The British are actually a lot more appreciative of the comic. In Canada, if you're perceived as a comic writer, there's a real snobbery and you can't be serious. You're not a big hitter." Her favourite authors are "British men, mainly - Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Patrick McCabe". There's a lot of courtesy here, though; I wouldn't put it past her to be just saying that to make me feel welcome, or so that I would have read them and so not feel stupid. I mean, I'm sure she does like them, I just bet there are some Americans or Canadians or, who knows, a whole host of other nationals whom she likes as well. Toews's next book is currently just a series of impressions, nowhere near finished, lacking a basic structure of any kind, she says, frowningly, as if she'd forgotten for a while that there was something she really ought to be getting on with and had suddenly remembered. "I have a problem with beginnings ... and endings ... and middles. But I don't know what else I would do. I find it very, very difficult to write. It takes everything, it's physically and mentally and emotionally exhausting for me. And my neighbours. And my dog." It never shows, the exhaustion. The book is fascinating, and resonant, and inexorable - but then, it's like trapeze, isn't it? That's the way this stuff is supposed to work
12zoewilliams
4Books
Jonathan Franzen is what you might call a tricky bugger. He is very hard to read. He can be puckish, but you can't rely on the mischief. He looks a bit like Monty out of Withnail and I must have, before fat got him. Now 47, he dresses like a trendy don. Loud noises pain him absurdly. He is all rufty-tufty in conversation but socially incredibly thoughtful and worried about causing offence. When he refuses a coffee from a waitress, he follows up frantically with about 17 different reasons: I've already had one. Your coffee's delicious! I'm allergic to coffee. I am already taking coffee intravenously, under the table I have a coffee drip ... The Corrections, the book that won Franzen America's National Book Award in 2001, put him immediately on to the global authorial A-list. A couple of notable things surround it, besides the great worth of the book itself, which has already been remarked upon by everyone - certainly that I have ever heard - who has read it. He refused to endorse his book's appearance on Oprah Winfrey's book club, a very public spat at the time, which gave him a reputation for wanting to be highbrow, possibly for wanting to be more highbrow than he was. It was a notion compounded by the fact that The Corrections was his third novel, his first success after two works - Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion - whose reach perhaps exceeds their grasp. And now he has written a memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, an extract of which appears in Review tomorrow. I suppose the danger is that it might be taken as an appendix to The Corrections, broadly, as a portrait of family dynamics, and more intricately about a father's Parkinson's disease and old age, and duty and recklessness, and was taken to be, if not autobiographical, nevertheless pretty close to home. The Discomfort Zone does nothing so obvious as sift out the fact from the artistic licence. He picks up episodes of his 1960s childhood - the time he spent loving Snoopy; the spelling bee he almost won but in the end drew, the semi-but-not-exactly Christian youth group that shaped his social persona - and buffs them to a high shine, refracts the rest of his life through them, realises their importance but also presents them as curiosities and doesn't make a great self-aggrandising deal out of them. I say I think memoir was an interesting genre to choose when he was at the crest of a fiction wave. "But that's why I chose it," he says, laconically. "I was on the crest of the fiction wave." But he also says: "I think one reason this book felt alive in the last few years is that I was extremely disoriented by my change in fortune, and it is a book about a feeling that I've lost the values of my youth. What I discovered in the process of writing it is that those values are not as clear-cut as I initially supposed. But still, it was elegiac in conception if not in final form." Generally speaking, its reception has been warm, though, of course, those aren't the reviews that have stuck with him. Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times's chief reviewer, absolutely hated it. "In the US," says Franzen, neutrally, "I seem to have tapped into a certain amount of hostility to me personally, so in hindsight it seems riskier than it actually felt when I was writing. In the hands of a particularly tone deaf and humourless reviewer [he is talking about Kakutani], my humble or self-satirising admissions come across as the declarations of a depraved person. I believe I was called a jackass. And the word self-absorbed was used as a pejorative. Unlike all those other, unself-absorbed writers." He is smiling his way through this, but it has definitely pissed him off. "I didn't see any of that coming, and it seemed to me that if you good-humouredly relate the story of your various failures, who could be mean about that? I've already been mean about myself." "It's a strategy," I say. "Yes." There is a long pause. I believe what he is about to extract is bathos. "But it turned out not to be very successful." I am amazed that he should be piqued by the review, even though I know nobody is immune to criticism - in his writing, he is prepared to leave himself totally vulnerable, in a way that you could only do if you were really self-aware. I still think he is self-aware, but I was wrong to think that makes him bulletproof. That morning, before I met him, Franzen was on Radio 4's Start the Week (with Craig Brown - there was a funny mix) and he said he had a love-hate relationship with America. I ask him to expand on that a little. "Expand how?" he says. Well, what does he love about it? "Why are you interested in knowing that?" Christ, I don't know . . . in the long run, I want to know where he stands politically. There is a section in The Discomfort Zone about Hurricane Katrina in which he allies himself unambiguously with the US left-wing and yet I don't think that allegiance could be taken as a given from the rest of the book, particularly his heartfelt and voluble affection for Webster Groves, the suburb of St Louis, Missouri, in which he grew up, the third son of a railroad manager and a homemaker. America seems very polarised, politically, and it would be interesting to hear whether that is true, or just seems like it from the outside, and if it is true, how he has managed to avoid it. All that doesn't come out in a neat nugget, though, not from me, anyway. Conversely, ideas issue from him in a complete and stylish state. He has a disconcerting habit of thinking before he speaks, and I suppose that is what comes of it. We get to politics eventually, when I posit that he is insufficiently liberal for the liberals and insufficiently reactionary for the conservatives. "That's the story of my life. I'm insufficiently elitist for the self-important, and I'm insufficiently populist for the Oprah-philes. I'm not bad enough to be bad and I'm not good enough to be good. I wasn't east enough to be east, I wasn't west enough to be west. That really is the story of my life. And when I was young, it all made sense because the middle seemed like a good place to be. That's the point of the book. The happy time when I didn't have to choose sides. Politically in particular, but culturally as well, you have to choose sides in the United States. It's a rabidly divided country, and it makes me miserable because both sides are wrong. Don't they know it? You don't make many friends that way, though. What you end up with for friends are the people who enjoy reading books. Which is fine - that's what I want. But it's not a very large group." I don't know about east and west, but I have always thought that Franzen fell between two stools in terms of the American literary scene, which consists on one side of very traditional storytellers, with a possibly highly complicated but nevertheless old-fashioned sense of narrative (John Irving, Anne Tyler, Garrison Keillor); and on the other side, the experimental writers (David Means, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Chris Bachelder), who are avant-garde, not as a pose, but because the innovation is the engine of the whole train. Franzen simply doesn't fit into either group - he is not defined by being experimental, I doubt you would even describe him as such at all. But nor is he a John Irving for our times. "I'm very flattered. Can you enrich the compliment by unpacking it a little?" (He does this a few times, assumes a compliment where there wasn't necessarily one. Distracted by something earlier, he returns to the conversation with "Sorry, you were just about to say something nice about me . . ." when I really wasn't. I still don't know if this is a mind game, or whether he just has rose-tinted hearing.) Let's clear this up, he says, George Saunders is not heavy-handed, he would be so amused to think that was how he was described. Oh, Philip Roth is, why didn't you just say that in the first place? Those two writers are nothing like each other! John Irving wrote the most political novel - The Cider House Rules is really the most intensely political novel, Garrison Keillor is a liberal spokesperson now, he hasn't been neutral since he was on the radio . . . I didn't really mean political, I mean concerned with formal experimentation. "I have no interest in avant-garde pretensions. Which is very, very different from saying I have no interest in serious literature. Pretension is the word - simply because I declare myself to be difficult, I am therefore worthy of extraordinary status and attention. "That would have been a strange concept to Kafka, I think. His methods were not a style, they were not an attitude. They were written in his own blood. It's very easy to pick up an avant-garde attitude - it's very hard to write anything that's good, anything that really matters. And I think a lot of the most intensely emotional stuff, the most deeply engaged stuff being produced in the United States is writing you would consider avant-garde or experimental. They are all formally wacky." Does he feel a part of that? Socially, yes. David Foster Wallace and David Means are his best friends. In terms of his work, I still don't know. He got pretty aerated without actually telling me. "I don't mean to be sounding defensive. I fear that I've already laid down on magnetic tape some quite defensive statements." "You do sound a bit defensive," I say. "I'm not. I'm just asking you to help me to understand . . . We've gotten off on to nomenclatorial issues. We should get back to something having to do, perhaps, with the book in question." He has quite a lot of verbal flourish - I wouldn't call him mannered but I can imagine, when the time comes for Philip Seymour Hoffman to play him in the biopic, that his friends will be lining up with funny (affectionate, experimental) impressions. I think the book is a bit self-flagellating - charmingly so, but all the same. As he describes his broken marriage, for instance, something that in reality he must have some grievances about, it sounds like yet another instance of a rather sticky situation coming about through his loveable wrongness. Well, you can kind of see why he would be sensitive to the feelings of his ex-wife, Valerie Cornell, a novelist herself (yet when you look her up on a search engine, the first thing that comes up is a footnote on Franzen's college alumni profile. Infuriating.). Sorry, back to the flagellation. "I felt like I was making fun of myself. But that feels like a different thing to flagellating myself. Perhaps in England those two things are indistinguishable. A lot of what I'm writing about, if not important, is at least painful. Early on, I got a very anguished letter from the mother of the little boy who dies in chapter two. Not complaining, simply reporting that it was extraordinarily painful to see her story - which was the story of a mother losing two sons in the space of two years; another son of hers died of cancer, I believe - become a small part of my story. "When you do non-fiction, you have to be aware of that. I'm joking about stuff that was painful to me and painful to them. I managed to make a comedy of errors out of a marriage that was extremely important and also extremely painful ultimately. Again, a memoirist would be well-advised to tread carefully, don't you think?" His parents are no longer living but don't his brothers mind all this revelation? "One of them does. This other brother said, several times, I hope you're not going to do too much more of this. But they are good brothers. There was never any likelihood that I was going to be excommunicated by the family. They're grown up, their lives don't revolve around me." He thinks for a minute. "I present evidence of their lack of rage as a form of character witness on my behalf. If I were a jerk, they would be mad at me".
3jonathanfreedland
4Books
We have Lord Hutton, the Americans have Bob Woodward. Both get the people who count to talk. While his lordship used the power of judicial summons, Woodward offers a deal. If you talk, he will faithfully present your side of the story. If you do not, your rivals will - and they'll end up looking good, often at your expense. That threat has persuaded Washington power brokers to cooperate on a series of bestselling Woodward books - and now it has worked its magic again to produce Plan of Attack, the inside story of the war against Iraq. Thanks to interviews with 75 key players, including on-the-record sessions with President Bush, as well as access to memos, transcripts of phone calls on secure lines (including those to Tony Blair), even Power Point presentations from military computers, this book is packed with the kind of high-grade information that traditionally stays hidden until the publication of memoirs years after the event. Here is the inside track on a crisis that is barely a year old and still unfolding. Woodward's style is not to present an overall analysis, still less a polemic, but simply to lay out the facts and viewpoints of the main actors. He rarely joins the dots, as those in the Bush administration might say. But it hardly matters: the dots themselves are compelling enough. What emerges is not only a fast-moving narrative of the build-up to war, but also a valuable resource - whatever your stance. If you reckon Bush is an intellectual featherweight barely up to the job, there is ammunition here - such as the January 2001 briefing at the Pentagon when the new president, not yet sworn in, struggles to pay attention to his generals: he is too distracted by the little peppermint at each place around the table. He gobbles up his own, then eyes those of the outgoing defence secretary and chief of staff until he has scoffed theirs too. On the other hand, there is rather more evidence leaning the other way - of a man fully in control. Those who believe Dick Cheney is the ventriloquist and Bush the dummy will be disappointed to read how hard Cheney pushed for the UN to be bypassed - and how Bush overruled him and went to the UN anyway (under pressure from Colin Powell and Blair). Indeed, the Bush that emerges on these pages is strikingly aware of his own role and status, constantly referring to himself by his title and emphasising the final power of his own decision. His closest aides seem intoxicated by that, too, as if playing out all the Oval Office movies they have ever seen: the grandeur of the office is almost sacral, to the extent that it can overwhelm them and cloud their judgment. Thus we learn not only that Bush never asked Powell whether he thought it was right to go to war with Iraq, but also that Powell never offered his opinion. "He would not intrude on that most private of presidential spaces - where a president made decisions of war and peace - unless he was invited." Even if he had, it's not likely he would have made much difference. For the theme that emerges most powerfully from this book is that this war was all but pre-ordained. Even before Bush was inaugurated, Cheney decided that "topic A" of the new president's first national security briefing should be Iraq. On Day 17 of the new administration, the "principals" met to discuss ... Iraq. The "axis of evil", we discover, was always about Iraq: North Korea and Iran were padding to make it look less obvious. When General Tommy Franks was charged with preparing a war plan, he was told that money was no object: he could spend whatever millions he wanted. Crucially, any countervailing evidence was ignored. Defectors told the CIA that the Iraqi military was so ragged that "Iraqi pilots were inventing illnesses on the days they were supposed to fly because they were terrified [their] inadequately maintained planes would crash". Yet Bush continued to tell the world that Saddam posed a military threat to the United States. In September 2002, during a meeting about possible targets, Franks gave it to Bush straight: "Mr President, we've been looking for Scud missiles and other weapons of mass destruction for 10 years and haven't found any yet." On every page comes evidence that Washington's mind was made up. No wonder Powell was "in the fridge," cold-shouldered by the inner circle. The rest of them were set on this course early, Bush taking Donald Rumsfeld aside and asking him to work on an Iraq war plan as early as November 2001. Powell is surely right to tell Woodward that Cheney was "terrified" of the UN route - lest it actually work and prevent war. This large theme carries others with it. One is the role of Tony Blair. Apart from reinforcing Powell on the UN, Woodward's account shows him to have secured little - save a delay here and there to help him win his vote in parliament. Woodward's picture of Blair is not flattering (next time he should make sure he's interviewed). In September 2002 he vowed to Bush that "I'm with you", pledging British military help even as he was telling close colleagues that no decisions had yet been taken. Publicly Blair insisted he was so passionate about ousting Saddam that he would have pushed for it even if Bush was not keen; yet Woodward quotes a Blair adviser admitting that of the three "axis" powers, the PM regarded Iran and North Korea as the greater threats. Most damaging of all - and a revelation that would surely have helped Lord Hutton in his inquiries - we discover that the head of the CIA regarded the notorious 45-minute claim as "shit" and had warned the British to that effect. Yet Downing Street went ahead and put the claim in the September dossier. In Woodward's account, the true special relationship is not with Britain but with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, is in and out of the Oval Office, granted extraordinary and constant access. Tellingly, he is the only person in the entire volume who talks back to Bush, interrupting him and even taunting him. That Bush takes it, and that Bandar is formally notified of the start of the war before Powell (or Blair), will have many wondering what exactly is the nature of the Saudi hold on the Bush administration. Woodward offers a tantalising clue: "The Saudis hoped to fine-tune oil prices ... to prime the economy for 2004. What was key, Bandar knew, were the economic conditions before a presidential election, not at the moment of the election." In other words, the Saudis were favoured because they were going to rig the global economy to ensure Bush a second term. Woodward's book has some heroes, too, in the form of the handful of Democratic senators who saw through the guff about WMD early. It has some splashes of colour, including the derring-do of a CIA team handing out wads of $100 bills in northern Iraq, and plenty to confirm that the Washington power bubble is one of the most dysfunctional places on earth. Bush goes to bed at 8.45pm; General Franks is at work by 3am; everyone phones every one else at 6am and Colin Powell takes a call from the French foreign minister to discuss the wording of a UN resolution 20 minutes before he is due to walk his daughter down the aisle. It all adds up to a volume as gripping as a bumper episode of The West Wing, with the added advantage that it's all true. Make that a disadvantage: for this book also confirms our worst fears, that the world's hyperpower is in the hands of a dangerous gang - and our own PM is with them every step of the way.
3jonathanfreedland
4Books
Bill Clinton had barely been unleashed upon America, when the mythology started to grow. In 1992 the Republicans insisted he was nothing more than the "failed governor of a small southern state", but Americans had a feeling he would soon be running their country so they wanted to know more. They gobbled up every morsel, from the story of Gennifer with a G to the legend that the young governor could eat an apple in a single bite. On the press bus we were no different. We heard that the candidate didn't snooze during the long-haul flights or late-night drives through the rural heartland. We heard he stayed awake, gulping coffee or Diet Coke, playing cards - or simply talking. Talking, talking, talking. We heard that one journalist, a young reporter from Newsweek who had been with the campaign since the very start in Little Rock in 1991, had become part of the family: he would sit up at the front of the lead bus, playing hearts with the man who would be president. They may not have admitted it, but every journalist who heard that felt a stab of envy. Everyone wanted to sit, hang out and shoot the breeze with Bill Clinton. Now comes a surrogate for that experience. My Life is not a great book, in places it's not even that good - but when you read it, you can't help but feel you're in the company, one on one, of the man himself. It's his voice you hear on the page, for good and sometimes ill. The fact that it's 957 pages long only adds to the effect: it's as if you've been caught on a train from Boston to San Francisco and ended up sitting opposite the last president of the United States. He's got all the time in the world and he's in the mood to talk. It helps that the style is folksy and conversational. The prologue sets the tone when Clinton reveals that, fresh out of law school, he bought a self-help book that encouraged the reader to list his chief life goals. "I wanted to be a good man, have a good marriage and children, have good friends, make a successful political life, and write a great book." Clinton then ticks off how he did and how he "kept score". Finally he writes: "As for the great book, who knows? It sure is a good story." That's the style throughout, warm and approachable - just like the Clinton persona itself. And it is quite true that the book resembles both the man and his presidency. There are flashes of brilliance, just as there were some dazzling fireworks in the Clinton years: from the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn to the beating back and outsmarting of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution of 1994. Clinton the author shows off his talent best when he summarises the political dilemmas of rivals, foreign leaders or himself with concise acuity. (This was always a great Clinton skill: low-level congressmen would come away from an encounter with the president impressed and ever so slightly humiliated, as he would rattle off the latest polling data from, or political strife in, their district in distant Indiana or faraway Maine.) The narrative is engaging, too, just as the rollercoaster ride of those eight Clinton years in the White House was compelling. The accounts of high-wire diplomacy in the Middle East or Northern Ireland, the eyeball-to-eyeball brinkmanship against Gingrich, the entire Monica episode - they are all riveting. As long as you train your eye to skim over the paragraphs on the minutiae of US domestic policy, your interest will be held. But there are deep flaws, just as there were in his presidency. The first is common to both: indiscipline. His administration was often faulted for failing to focus on one or two large goals, pursuing them vigorously. Instead, especially after the congressional defeat of his plan for comprehensive healthcare in 1994 and the Republican ascendancy, Clinton chased a host of small-bore issues - what one commentator at the time mocked as "teeny, tiny politics". My Life can be like that, too. It does not structure itself around one or two all-encompassing themes. It is instead doggedly chronological. The US critics who have mocked the book as a "diary dump" are right: whole sections seem to have been written by a man flicking through past appointment books, jotting down whatever he can remember. The unhappy results are pages consisting of non-sequiturs: I vetoed a bill on seat belts; later I met the prime minister of Latvia; that evening I apologised to Hillary. I parody, but only slightly. The other structural problem also mirrors a Clinton trait. This fat tome could easily have been split into two books. The first is a rather charming recollection of an Arkansas boyhood, filled with choice southern characters such as Vernon the science teacher or Uncle Buddy the storyteller. The quality of the writing is better here - helped, perhaps, by the absence of appointment diaries to dump on the page. The second book within is the presidential memoir. It begins late: Clinton is not even elected until page 444. Yet it's fitting that these two books go together. For one thing, so much of Clinton's later actions is explained by the nature of his upbringing. (The child in an alcoholic household with an abusive stepfather, constantly playing peacemaker, constantly craving affection. It doesn't take Freud ...) But housing two radically different lives between one set of covers makes a deeper sense. For, as Clinton himself writes often, he learned early to lead "parallel lives", one tormented by "demons" on the inside, the other marked by great success on the outside. That's the nature of the man and it was the nature of his presidency. It's only right that the book should follow the same pattern. Where an editor might have helped is in curbing the habits of the politician. Too much space is wasted in tributes to colleagues or thanks to foreign counterparts; at its worst, My Life can read like the longest Oscar speech in history. It's hardly a surprise: patting backs is a campaigner's reflex. But there is a more interesting explanation. For My Life is not only a bid to restore Clinton's own reputation - chiefly by pointing up his achievement in securing a decade of relative peace and prosperity - but also the second wave of a double literary offensive aimed at propelling Hillary Clinton to the White House. The first wave was Hillary's own memoir, Living History, but this picks up where that left off. The former president exonerates his wife for the healthcare debacle, blaming himself, and never misses an opportunity to praise her skills as an advocate for children, a strategist or judge of character. On these pages, she is not the "feminazi" imagined by the US right. She is Saint Hillary. This might be the simple, political calculation that explains why My Life lacks large quantities of the basic staple of most political memoir: revelations of behind-the-scenes powerplays. He tells us that his staff were split on the 1994 granting of a US visa to Gerry Adams, for example, but reveals nothing that we didn't already know - even at the time. He gives little colour, describes no rows. It's as if Clinton, a politician to his marrow, just cannot bear to offend anyone too badly. He needs to stay friendly with folks, just in case. The exception is his excoriation of Kenneth Starr, the witchfinder-general who, Clinton writes, was determined to drive him from office. The case against Starr is powerful - though it may be too complex, too legalistic, to be clear to the non-anorak reader - yet it somehow undermines My Life. The book strives to show how Clinton has battled his demons, learning forgiveness from some of the greatest men in the world (starting with Nelson Mandela). But the Starr passages reveal that Clinton is still angry and determined to get even - via the political career of his wife if necessary. Once the train has pulled into San Francisco, and the 957th page has been read, what do you think of this man? That he was surely the most intellectually well-equipped occupant of the Oval Office since Thomas Jefferson; that he was a master politician, even if he could not be a great president; and that he had an intense lust for life. And you realise, just from hearing about it afterwards, that it must have been a hell of a ride.
4martinkettle
4Books
That Christopher Meyer's memoirs have been as controversial as their subtitle confidently asserts them to be is already a matter of record. But, read in the round, how does the book as a whole actually emerge? My answer is that Meyer's book is both better and worse than the headline-generating extracts suggest. It is better because, contrary to the implication of its subtitle, this is not only a book about 9/11 and the Iraq war, crucially important though these subjects are. Meyer's account of these events is painted on a wider canvas. His Washington years stretched from autumn 1997 to the start of 2003, so he was gone by the time the war began. The majority of his time in DC fell within the Clinton presidency, not the Bush one. Indeed Bush barely makes an appearance in this memoir until around half way through. Seen in that light, this is an important book about what it was like to be Britain's most senior and lustrous ambassador at a time when the prime minister enjoyed a direct line to the White House for which there are few precedents. The strength of the Blair-Clinton and the Blair-Bush relationships was of vast advantage to Meyer, as he acknowledges. It meant that long before 9/11, though certainly in its aftermath, he was able to bathe in reflected glory. It was, as he rightly says, a good time to be British in America. That was just as true in the Clinton as in the Blair years; there were "Blair for President" chants in Chicago as early as 1999, Meyer recalls. But the Downing Street-White House relationship was always the worm in the bud for the embassy, and by the time of Iraq it became both pettily and substantively intolerable to an ambassador who had an unusual taste for the limelight. Even before Bush, a lot of British discourse about America was mere caricature: under every president since JFK, too many British commentators have succumbed to the lazy temptation to regard the United States as a country of mad people governed by buffoons. Under Bush that tendency has become much more extreme. So it is useful to be reminded by Meyer that Bush is a more substantial figure than most here have come to regard him. And it is gratifying to read Meyer expounding wisdoms about America that can only come from experience. Every September, Meyer recalls, he would gather new arrivals to the embassy together and give them a little pep talk. The core of that message was always the same: "Think of the US as a foreign country, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the many things you find in common with this most generous and hospitable of people. Think of America as Britain writ large and you risk coming to grief; American attitudes to patriotism, religion, crime and punishment, schooling, sex, the outside world, can be very different from those of Europeans, including the British." Anyone who has spent time in America will recognise the accuracy of that. Meyer is wisely unsentimental, too, about the so-called "special relationship". The phrase was banned from use while he was ambassador, quite rightly, and he smartly observes that the only countries that can truly lay claim to such a status in Washington - in the sense of being able to have significant influence on US politics and policy - are Ireland, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, and certainly not Britain, even under Blair or Thatcher. My dissatisfaction with Meyer's book is not that he has written it. It is that his indiscretion is selective and even calculated. As the now celebrated extracts showed, Meyer has little compunction about putting the stiletto into politicians - and into Cherie Blair, who did the Meyers many kindnesses in her time, for which she is meanly rewarded here. Meyer is also more generous to Gordon Brown in these pages - I wonder why that could be? - than he was in private, when he regularly complained about the chancellor's repeated and childish snubs. He is also protective towards fellow diplomats, officials and mandarins. Meyer's relationship with the former diplomat Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief-of-staff, was pivotal to his Washington years. So were his connections to John Sawers and Matthew Rycroft, both of them senior ex-Washington embassy figures who worked for Blair in vital periods. Crucial players all, yet they move as silently through Meyer's account as Inspector Bucket does through much of Bleak House Then there is the Catherine question. Christopher Meyer was an ambassadorial moderniser - nice, approachable, sociable and very comfortable with the media. He and Catherine were high-profile Washingtonians, and there was much talk towards the end of his term that they would decamp to New York on his retirement to become a Manhattan power couple to rival Harry and Tina themselves. It sometimes seemed to me that they risked overstepping the mark in this networking, and Meyer's account of Catherine's eurosceptic conversations with Rupert Murdoch and Richard Perle rather confirms that. Running through this book there is not just a mandarin's frustration with ministers but a radical Conservative's disdain towards Labour, even though I firmly believe that Meyer mostly did an exceptional job on Blair's behalf. In the end, though, it all comes inescapably back to Iraq. Iraq is inevitably both the pivotal subject in Meyer's account and the one on which he allows himself the most sustained exposition of his own views. Meyer makes a powerful case for the view that Britain could have caused the Bush administration to delay the invasion until late 2003, giving time to bring France and Russia onside for a second UN resolution, perhaps even forcing Saddam to quit, but certainly enabling proper attention to be given to a UN-centred plan for the post-Saddam Iraq. Would it have worked? Who can now say? But Meyer and many others of us have every right to be extremely angry that it was never given a chance. Martin Kettle was the Guardian's Washington bureau chief from 1997 to 2001.
4martinkettle
4Books
It would be a dreadful mistake to suppose that George W Bush was the first American president who has failed to capture the hearts and minds of liberal-left British opinion. In fact, over the past half century, such disrespect towards the man in the White House has been far more the norm than the exception. We may think we love Bill Clinton now, and we may yearn for him to be miraculously - and unconstitutionally - restored to the presidency, but my God, we patronised him something rotten when he was actually there. Our appetite for tittle-tattle about Clinton's sex life and speculation about his marriage was endless, but too many of us glazed over when it came to the boring old political strategies and policies that were at the real heart of his heroic - yes, heroic - attempt to pick progressive politics up off the mat in the wake of the new right's transatlantic counter-revolution in the 1980s. This failure to take Clinton seriously was characteristic of too much of the liberal left's trivialised disdain towards real politics. It was not much different from our attitude towards most of his immediate predecessors: we were sniffy towards the elder Bush, we never got it about Reagan, we mocked Carter, laughed at Ford, despised Nixon (sometimes even we get something right) and saw only the bad side of Lyndon Johnson, arguably the greatest American politician of the past half century. We see America as a country inhabited by mad people and ruled by buffoons. Our default position was and is condescension, and it says far more about us than it does about them. John F Kennedy was the last American president who was respected by the British liberal left while he was actually in office. Even as an 11-year-old in 1961, I can still very clearly remember the sheer excitement that swept across the Atlantic as Kennedy took his place in the White House. What a speech he gave at that inaugural back in January 1961! What a model of political oratory it still remains. And it wasn't just impressionable Yorkshire schoolboys who were caught up by the heady sense that Kennedy projected of politics as the noblest of all human callings. In the Kennedy years Washington itself was seized with an enthusiasm for public service of which neither America nor Britain has ever since seen the like, which one still lives in the hope of one day seeing again, and which brought the pudgy 16-year-old William Jefferson Clinton to Washington for a handshake and a justly poignant photograph with Kennedy in the Rose Garden in the president's last summer. All of this stemmed directly from Kennedy himself, and later from his brother Bobby too, and it is this idealism - not the glamour and Camelot and Marilyn Monroe and the rest of it - that remains at the heart of the legend. Yet, 40 years to the day since he was gunned down in Dallas, a date which for some of us can never pass without the tears that well again as I write these words, we have managed to turn even Kennedy into just another celeb with feet of clay. Today it is the philandering, the mafia connections and all the other hypocrisies of what Seymour Hersh called the dark side of Camelot that too many of us think of first. Barely pausing after completing an admirable two-volume biography of LBJ, Robert Dallek has now turned to the man who put Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1960. There must be more books about the Kennedys than about any other family in American history, and many people will wonder whether there is anything new to say. The good news is that there is, and while nothing will quite supersede the reverential tomes written by people such as Schlesinger and Sorensen who were actually there, Dallek has produced easily the best and most objective modern account of JFK. Dallek's unique selling point is that he has had access to previously unreleased records in the Kennedy Library in Boston which detail the full misery of the president's health problems - as well as the immense efforts to which he went to conceal them. How one responds to the mass of detail about Kennedy's ailments, operations, hospitalisations and medications will depend in part on whether one sees Kennedy more as a scoundrel who lied to the voters about ailments that would make him unelectable today, or more as a dreadfully afflicted man who overcame his indignities to rise to the highest seat of power. On November 22, though, it is appropriate to record that were it not for a back brace, which held him erect, his head would not have provided such a clear target for the third shot that ended his life. If Dallek perhaps goes out of his way to underplay the genuine sense of newness and excitement that Kennedy ignited in so many countries as well as his own, he nevertheless provides a very balanced account of the famous Thousand Days, stressing the very limited domestic achievements of the presidency and the distinctly mixed record in foreign affairs. What would have happened had Kennedy lived is, of course, both a fascinating and pointless topic for discussion. That he would have comfortably defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964 seems likely, in which case he would have brought many liberals to the Senate and Congress on his coat-tails, and might have pushed through the same kind of civil rights reforms that Johnson, elected on a landslide in the wake of the assassination, was able to achieve. On Cuba, suggests Dallek, Kennedy was on a radical learning curve. The Bay of Pigs was a disgraceful episode, urged on - topically, in the post-Iraq context - by advisers and exiles who exaggerated the readiness of Cubans to rise up against Castro and in support of a US invasion. At the time of his death, Dallek suggests, Kennedy could have been moving towards a rapprochement with Cuba that might have had major long-term consequences for US foreign and domestic policy alike. The great unknowable, of course, is how Kennedy might have handled Vietnam, which was the defining political experience of Bill Clinton's generation and which therefore forms the backdrop to a large section of Nigel Hamilton's biography. Hamilton's is an ambitious undertaking, as it takes Clinton only to the threshold of the presidency that will form the subject matter of volume two (and who knows what a future volume three may yet contain?). Even so, this first volume is in sensitive territory throughout, since Clinton's background and early career were and perhaps still are a political battlefield, largely because conservatives chose to take their stand against his challenge on the man himself rather than on what he stood for. No other presidential candidate in history has had to fight such a cultural war about the kind of person he is. His contemporary, George W Bush, has had an unbelievably easy ride over his own early career (including his avoidance of the Vietnam draft) by comparison. But Hamilton, who has also written a successful book on the young JFK, is right to give a very prominent place to the Arkansas issue in the Clinton story. When conservatives rage against "that man" it is not just the libertinism or even the liberalism that provokes them. It is the fact that he comes from a small, poor state that almost the entire political establishment looks down on. It would be wonderfully ironic if Wesley Clark were to unseat Bush next November, since Arkansas would then have provided two of the last three presidents. Clinton is a man of paradoxes, and Hamilton delves deep into all of them. To some, Clinton is a serious and brilliant figure who understands the transformational character of modern times better than almost any other world leader of his era. To others, he is a man without principle or scruple whose primary and perhaps only importance is as a figure of gossip and entertainment. On the one hand, there are those who see Clinton as he sees himself, as a moderniser who reshaped his party and the role of government in changed times, and whose pivotal importance will only grow with time. On the other, there are those who see him as an emblematic politician of an essentially depoliticised era, in which the presidency is of diminished and diminishing importance. Perhaps the single most difficult question facing all those who try to sum up the Clinton years is the one that Hamilton will reach only at the end of his next volume. Did he reinvent and thus save the American progressive political tradition which he inherited from Bobby Kennedy, among others? Or is his achievement essentially opportunist, sacrificing progressive ideas and aspirations in favour of the desire to stay in office at any cost in a generally conservative country? The conventional view of Clinton is that he is a bad man but was a good president. Rather similar to the general verdict these days on John Kennedy, in fact. In both cases there are few who can agree on exactly how these two contrasting judgments can be meshed together, even now.
6nickcohen
4Books
The Author of Himself: The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki<br />Marcel Reich-Ranicki<br />Weidenfeld &amp; Nicholson 25, pp405<br />Buy it at a
6nickcohen
4Books
The Triumph of the Political Class by Peter Oborne Simon &amp; Schuster 18.99, pp390 During an interview in 2003, Gordon Brown took the trouble to argue with a long-dead academic, all but unknown outside conservative intellectual circles. 'There is a Namier school of history, which suggests that everything is less to do with ideas and popular concerns than with the manoeuvrings of elites,' he told the Times. 'I do not accept that ... politics is about ideas and ideals and is about the policies that reflect the concerns of people.' Lewis Namier (1888-1960) argued in his masterwork The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III that talk of great battles of principle between the Whigs and Tories of Hanoverian England was nonsense. Ministers were in politics for the money and to advance the interests of their cliques. MPs who boasted of their independence were forever seeking favours from the public purse. Ideology mattered so little that 'the political life of the period could be fully described without ever using a party denomination'. You can do the same today, argues Peter Oborne in this thought-provoking polemic. Members of the 21st-century 'political class' are as isolated and self-interested as their Georgian predecessors and Brown's outburst against the realism of Namier was nothing more than the rage of Caliban at seeing his face in the glass. Oborne is a muscular writer who values intellectual clarity and he works hard to explain that he does not regard the political class as a continuation of the old establishment. On the contrary, it despises the values of traditional institutions that once acted as restraints on the power of the state - the independence of the judiciary, the neutrality of the Civil Service and the accountability of ministers to the Commons. It takes a while to be convinced because, like the Prime Minister, the British tend to think of political parties, in a watered-down Marxist way, as manifestations of class interests fighting for different visions of how society should be run. Oborne neatly turns conventional wisdom on its head and argues that the modern elite is contemptuous of traditional constraints precisely because it has been taught by Marxist academics that the rule of law or the personal responsibility of politicians are just fictions that hide the power of the privileged. The modern political class thinks it can override these discreditable constitutional conventions because it has been elected, albeit by an ever-diminishing proportion of eligible voters. If you are young and ambitious and want to join, Oborne sketches out a career path. First, you must set yourself apart from your contemporaries at university by taking an interest in politics. You must join a think-tank or become researcher to an upwardly mobile MP on graduation. Before getting to the top, you will have eaten with, drunk with and slept with people exactly like you, not only in politics but in the media, PR and advertising, trades the old establishment despised, but you admire for their ability to manipulate the masses. You will talk a language the vast majority of your fellow citizens can't understand and be obsessed with the marketing of politics rather than its content. You will notice that once in power, you can get away with behaviour that would have stunned your predecessors. You can use your position to profit from lecture tours and negotiate discounts, as Cherie Blair did. You can try to find your mistress a job in the Civil Service, as Robin Cook did, or make love to your mistress in government offices on government time, as John Prescott did. When challenged, you will say that 'everyone in business behaves like this' when, in fact, they don't. Politics will be your career. You will have no experience of other trades and, paradoxically, be a worse politician for it. Because you've never managed a budget or a large institution or served in the armed forces, the likelihood is that you will waste vast amounts of public money and send British troops into battle unprepared. Oborne marshals his facts impressively. As a political commentator first on the Spectator and then on the Daily Mail, he has seen at first hand the subservience of lobby correspondents to New Labour and presents the reader with gruesome scenes of Alastair Campbell being cheered on by sycophants at lobby briefings. But although Oborne loathes the Westminster beat where he has spent his adult life, he can't escape from the narrow-mindedness of Westminster journalism and see the wider world beyond. He denounces politicians for their soundbites, but fails to mention that television news will broadcast only those politicians who deliver soundbites. He deplores ministers' criticisms of judges, but fails to understand how the Human Rights Act has given judges political power. And having condemned the effects of Marxist teaching on today's politicians, Oborne metamorphoses into a Tory version of Noam Chomsky as he wails that democracy is a facade and media independence a myth. Hysteria inevitably follows such a descent and he concludes by muttering that England is on the edge of fascism. Such blemishes detract from but do not destroy a powerful and troubling study. At his best, Oborne is a patriot who wants to protect the best of his country from smarmy men and women who know everything about power except how to use it wisely.
6nickcohen
4Books
Three Victories and a Defeat<br />by Brendan Simms<br />Allen Lane, 30, pp800 British Eurosceptics live with a paradox as close to tragedy as anything can be in high politics. A determination to disentangle Britain from Europe drives them into public life. To their delight they find the overwhelming majority of public opinion agrees with them. Passion, flair and the best democratic arguments are on the Eurosceptic side. Yet parties that oppose Europe always lose elections. However much they agree with them, voters sense a danger and turn away. Bennite isolationism wrecked Labour in the Eighties. Harder to explain is the failure of the modern Tories. In an age of globalisation, their policy of putting clear blue water between Britain and Europe and looking across the oceans to the trading stations of the old empire sounds practical, but a sympathetic public can never be persuaded to vote in large enough numbers to implement it. Brendan Simms is too good a historian to exploit the past to score a point about the present. Rather, Three Victories and a Defeat is an argument about the constants of foreign policy; about how in the 18th century the knowledge that Britain wasn't 'an island entire of itself' made it a superpower, and how the American colonies were lost when the British tried to manage on their own. Like everyone else who tosses the quotation around, I'd assumed John Donne was talking about the human condition not the balance of power. But, as Simms points out on his first page, Donne was writing when James I had outraged respectable opinion by failing to help European Protestants. 'No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...' was written at a time of fear that Catholic Spain would overwhelm the Low Countries and seize the ports it needed for an invasion. From 1688 through to 1763 statesmen sought to prevent a 'universal monarchy', whether Hapsburg or Bourbon, dominating the continent and thus threatening Britain. With great skill and a light touch, Simms tells the complicated story of how a country that under Charles II and James II was little more than a French satellite searched for security by becoming involved in the politics of every country from the Ottoman Empire to Sweden, built alliances, switched sides, paid bribes, sent off armies and developed the navy. As now, resentment at involvement in Europe was always present. Patriotic and often xenophobic opinion loathed the Whig oligarchs for their willingness to spend blood and treasure on the wars of the Dutch William and German Hanoverians. In 1711, Swift asked in his great polemic, The Conduct of the Allies, why the English should support the cause of the hated Dutch, fight their battles and pick up their bills? Why bother when the only part of England to benefit was the City - 'that set of people who are called the moneyed men... whose perpetual harvest is war, and whose beneficial way of traffic must very much decline by a peace'? To my mind Simms doesn't acknowledge the force of Swift's questions or the Tory and radical criticisms of the wars and corruption of the Whigs. But then I suppose he feels he doesn't have to, because after winning the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, Britain turned her back on Europe as the Tories had always wanted and the result was catastrophe. Simms, a Peterhouse don, has become the most formidable modern enemy of the Conservative tradition in foreign policy. His last book, Unfinest Hour, so excoriated the Major government's behaviour during the Bosnian crisis that I know people who have refused to shake the hand of Douglas Hurd or Malcolm Rifkind after reading it. Three Victories and a Defeat does the same to their predecessors. The Tories assumed that Britain could forget about Europe and hide behind the Royal Navy. But because the British stopped diverting France and Spain with alliances in Europe, their enemies could build up their navies and combine to challenge Britain when the American War of Independence began. Simms is refreshingly unsentimental about the revolution, seeing it, quite rightly, as a clash of imperialisms. Benjamin Franklin and many others had been empire loyalists. When they realised that the Tory policy of avoiding conflict would stop the 13 colonies expanding across the continent, they revolted. Britain was never as alone as it was in the American War of Independence. Even in 1940, Greece was still an ally. In 1776, there was no one. Prescient men of the day realised the scale of the rout. Horace Walpole predicted that one day Europeans would take instructions from Americans, while the American delegation in Paris told the French that a great empire would emerge from the scattered settlements on the Atlantic seaboard, 'and they will all speak English, every one of 'em'. This book is a strong riposte to Linda Colley's argument that the British defined themselves against the European 'other'. Not so, Simms replies, 'Britain's fate' is decided in Europe 'always has been and always would be'. History doesn't repeat itself, but geography doesn't change. We do not live on 'an island entire of itself' but in a European country. Unless Eurosceptics can find continental allies against Brussels, they are as certain to fail as their ancestors.
6nickcohen
4Books
Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles<br />by Dominic Sandbrook<br />Little, Brown 20, pp823 At the Queen's coronation in June 1953, Dutch historian JH Huizinga looked at the happy crowds greeting the new monarch and 'grieved' for the British. They thought that 'history would not deal with them as it had dealt with other nations which had strutted their brief moment of power on the world stage ... the more sympathetic comprehension one had for the high hopes with which they embarked on the second Elizabethan era, the more acutely one realised what a painful era it would be, how rich in disillusionment, frustration and humiliation'. The first volume of Dominic Sandbrook's spectacular history of the Sixties is a chronicle of how the realisation of irreversible national decline hit the British after the Suez crisis. Alert readers will have noticed that Suez was in 1956, but Sandbrook breaks with precedent and yanks the Sixties out of the culture wars in which, according to taste, it was either the devil's decade or a time of liberation for the oppressed, and seeing it as a part of long, slow changes in British society. A second novelty, and for baby boomers an ominous one, is that he can't remember the Sixties. He wasn't born until 1974. Never Had It So Good is a sign that the period is slipping from memory into history, and young Sandbrook's great advantage is that he can see how the similarities between people who then saw each other as enemies were as striking as the differences. The supposedly socialist film director Lindsay Anderson sounded like Colonel Blimp reviewing a shabby working-class regiment when he lamented the backwardness of British proletarian life. Every return from sophisticated Europe was 'an ordeal. It isn't just the food, the sauce bottle on the cafe tables, and the chips with everything. It isn't even saying goodbye to wine, goodbye to restaurants. For coming back to Britain is like coming back to the nursery'. The middle-class leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were as convinced that the British could continue to lead the lesser breeds as the most diehard empire loyalists. 'We thought that Great Britain was still a great power whose example [of unilaterally renouncing nuclear weapons] would affect the rest of the world,' wrote AJP Taylor when he looked back. 'Ironically, we were the last imperialists.' Sandbrook is as at ease discussing the treacherous way Harold Macmillan dealt with his colleagues as the passion for apocalyptic science fiction when the Cold War threatened to turn hot. He explains the vicious misogyny of the 'new wave' working-class films by pointing to how the consumer boom encouraged domesticity and the power of women, and shows how that consumerism meant most people didn't give a damn about the loss of empire. There are hundreds of killer quotes and anecdotes. Colin Wilson whose demented claims to be the 'major literary genius of our century' were taken seriously by literary London for a year or so, fell from grace when the father of his girlfriend burst into his flat with a horsewhip crying: 'Aha, Wilson, the game is up! We know what's in your filthy diary!' and forced Wilson to hand his mucky and grandiose ramblings to the Daily Mail. When Selwyn Lloyd was offered a post at the Foreign Office by Churchill, he replied: 'But, sir, there must be some mistake. Except in war, I have never visited any foreign country. I do not like foreigners. I have never spoken in any foreign-affairs debate in the House. I have never listened to one.' 'Young man, these all seem to me to be positive advantages,' growled Churchill in return. Sandbrook covers a vast amount of ground. But he does have a theme: 'The yearning for an alternative to the old-fashioned, complacent Conservatives who were thought to be running the country into the ground.' The revolt of the early Sixties against the old Tory order was social rather than political. The mood articulated by the casts of Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week That Was or the staff of Private Eye wasn't a desire to change the system but to open it up. It takes a very closed ruling class to turn such natural Conservatives as Richard Ingrams into rebels. So tight and secretive was it that a journalist didn't realise that Sir William Haley was the editor of the Times and a former BBC director general, and went through a whole interview thinking he was Bill Haley, the rock'n'roll pioneer. As a scrupulous historian, Sandbrook avoids drawing modern parallels, but the reader can't avoid being struck by the cunning of history. With the old Tories gone, the Sixties were meant to end elitism and bring a meritocracy. Instead they cleared the road for a new elite which sustains itself in power by insisting it is against the establishment and an education system which makes it all but impossible for bright working-class children to get on. The book begins with the failure of Sir Anthony Eden's Suez adventure, which allowed all the tyrants in the Middle East to buttress their power by posing as anti-imperialists. Today, Tony Blair is accused of being the new Eden, although his Iraq adventure has shaken the foundations of Middle Eastern tyranny. It is a tribute to Sandbrook's literary skill that his scholarship is never oppressive. Alternately delightful and enlightening, he has produced a book which must have been an enormous labour to write but is a treat to read.
6nickcohen
4Books
You can never predict which writers will survive, but tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of readers believe that Stieg Larsson's Millennium series places him in that small group of thriller writers whose books future generations will enjoy long after many "serious" producers of literary fiction have been forgotten. An unsympathetic critic might look at The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, the final volume of the 2,100-page trilogy, and wonder why. Unlike Raymond Chandler or John le Carr, Larsson cannot take you to another place with a few strokes of the pen. The novel opens with Lisbeth Salander lying in a remote homestead with a bullet in her head. She has just taken an axe to her father, Alexander Zalachenko, a KGB defector whose sex trafficking business is protected by a corrupt sect in the Swedish intelligence service. She was provoked: Zalachenko had tried to bury her alive. Somewhere in the woods, the hero, Mikael Blomkvist, has confronted Zalachenko's hit man, a giant with a taste for snapping necks. Yet Larsson cannot conjure up a menacing atmosphere in a remote Scandinavian forest and does not try. The action takes places in a "white farmhouse somewhere near Nossebro", he says, and leaves it at that. The rest of the book is set in the police stations and newspaper offices of Stockholm, as the secret police try to protect themselves by rigging the trial of Salander, who was badly injured but not killed by the bullet. For all the local detail Larsson offers, a foreigner cannot get a sense of the city from reading the Millennium trilogy, whereas people who have never been to Edinburgh feel they know it from reading Ian Rankin. Salander herself is a magnificent creation: a feminist avenging angel. But elsewhere Larsson's characterisation is perfunctory. All the decent journalists, police officers and secret servicemen who help Blomkvist bust open the conspiracy are essentially the same: good Swedish social democrats, sexually liberated and tolerant of everything except the abuse of human rights. Quite rightly, Larsson's admirers do not care. His phenomenal, if sadly posthumous, success comes from a combination of moral clarity and narrative skill rather than descriptive ability. In the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire, he announces his creed when he has a reporter tell Blomkvist he wants to go after the men shipping Russian girls into Sweden: "Blomkvist smiled. He had never met Svensson before, but he felt at once that he was the kind of journalist he liked, someone who got right to the heart of the story. For Blomkvist the golden rule in journalism was that there were always people who were responsible. The bad guys." As a left-wing reporter who had investigated neo-Nazi gangs, and lived in fear of murderous reprisals, Larsson had learned to mistrust non-judgmental pieties about there being "good and bad in all of us". Hard-won experience taught him to avoid the shades of grey, which reduce so much contemporary fiction and political thought to a formless blur. Specifically, Larsson believed misogyny to be an unpardonable evil, and wove a feminist argument through the trilogy with enormous skill. All thriller plots are ludicrous when you to stop to think about them, but Larsson uses male hatred of women to make his uncomfortably plausible. Without giving too much about the final volume away, it turns on a secret police plot to keep Salander quiet by duping a pompous prosecutor into seeking a court order to confine her to an asylum. The prosecutor isn't part of the conspiracy. But he has already confidently if falsely accused her of three murders and fed the press with stories that she was a member of a satanic lesbian cult. He does not repent his mistake but turns on his victim: "Everything had gone haywire, and he had found himself with a completely different murderer and a chaos that seemed to have no end in sight. That bitch Salander." When the crooked psychiatrist who had tried to drive the young Salander mad by keeping her tied to a hospital bed prepares to take her back under his control, he gloats that he "had not become an internationally respected psychiatrist for nothing. He could sense a cold shadow passing through the room, and interpreted this as a sign that the patient felt fear and shame beneath her imperturbable exterior. He was pleased that her attitude to him had not changed over the years. She's going to hang herself in the district court." I cannot think of another modern writer who so successfully turns his politics away from a preachy manifesto and into a dynamic narrative device. Larsson's hatred of injustice will drive readers across the world through a three-volume novel and leave them regretting reaching the final page; and regretting, even more, the early death of a master storyteller just as he was entering his prime.
10simonhoggart
4Books
We buzzed at the door of the magnificent htel particulier in Gaillac, just facing the abbey, and few yards from the River Tarn. Madame Pinon, the patronne, came down to welcome us and guided us up the massive winding staircase, along stone-flagged corridors, past trompe d'oeil marble alcoves, by tantalising glimpses of large cool sitting rooms, the kind where Madame Bovary wished she had spent her days, up to our own rooms, which were filled with antique furniture and big, comfortable beds. Our room had a view of the river; the children's overlooked the square. We'd just flown in to Toulouse from London after an early start at home, so I left the family to nap while I explored the town, much of which consists of similarly superb htels particuliers. These were huge private houses in which several generations of one wealthy family might have lived on the separate floors: grandparents, two brothers and a nephew, say, all with their own wives and children. I popped into the wine museum (Gaillac wines are good, and better value than the more famous names in the rest of France, if not perhaps quite as wonderful as the publicity suggests: "Gaillac, enchanter of palates since the year 1000," they say.) Among the very best we found was made by a Scotsman, Alan Geddes, whose dessert wine is not only much better than a cheap Sauternes, but at Fr55 for a 50cl bottle, cheaper than a cheap Sauternes as well.) There is a tasting booth in the main place , where willing helpers offered samples of any wine you choose. Mme Pinon had recommended two restaurants and I made reservations at the Relais de la Portanelle, which was five minutes' walk from the B&amp;B, and looked slightly more child-friendly than the competition. Indeed our first-rate dinner, including drinks, service and two menus enfants, was excellent and came to 490 francs, around 50 all in. Breakfast next day was on a terrace overlooking the abbey and the Place St Michel - fresh bread, hot flaky croissants, yoghurt, fruit, and plenty of excellent coffee (why are some French hotels so mean with coffee, quite as miserly as they would be with 60-year-old armagnac?) The whole visit was a delight, and since Madame charges a mere 25 for two people, including breakfast, a very affordable delight. Next day, we took the motorway south for a short distance back towards Toulouse, then headed off onto D roads and finally bumpy lanes without any numbers at all, until we reached la France profonde, that mysterious, sun-baked, sleepy place which exists everywhere and yet remains frustratingly elusive. Just when you imagine you've found la France profonde, you hear the noise from a cement plant, or sniff a municipal tip, or spot the preliminary levelling for a new autoroute. But Madame Fieux's place in the tiny hamlet of Montpitol is as close as you're likely to get. A lake in the distance; a stand of oak trees; cool, shaded walks, the silence shattered only by the occasional bee - it would be hard to find a more peaceful place. She showed us outside and we exclaimed at the superb panoramic view and the pretty garden. "Not a garden," she said firmly, "un parc." "Comme Versailles," I said merrily, a compliment which she took as no more than the garden's due. Moments later, we were lying on loungers, gazing out at what we could see of the view through the heat haze, and Mme Fieux arrived with a tray loaded with ice-cold beer, tonic, orange juice and Coke. Again, dinner was a short distance away - a 10-minute drive - and again the full meal for four, including one of the best Gaillac wines on the list, was just a fraction over 50. Breakfast was, if anything, even finer than the day before, and taken on the terrace in front of the house. Mme Fieux could not have been friendly. She charges a little more: 400 francs for a double room and breakfast. We had found both places in Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay in France, one of a series which includes volumes covering Britain, plus Spain &amp; Portugal. These guides are quite open about charging for inclusion on the grounds that the books would be prohibitively expensive if they didn't. On the other hand, Sawday says, nowhere gets in if it isn't up to his standards, though presumably the most idyllic place in the world would be excluded if the owners didn't cough up. I have to say that we have never had a failure. Looking through the guide is like reading the leaflet which comes with a particularly nice box of chocolates - you want to experience the lot. In France, there are converted castles, ancient farmhouses, mills, cottages, a bishop's house, townhouses, forges, bastides, hunting lodges. Some are luxurious, stuffed with antique furniture, surrounded by fine formal gardens. Others are much simpler, and the prices can be as low as 18 for two people. We stayed at three Sawdays in Britain, though it's a measure of the turnover in the B&amp;B trade that two of them have now stopped taking in visitors. A lot of people offer B&amp;B because they imagine it's a simple means of making extra money out of rooms they don't use, and an agreeable way to meet interesting folk. Which it is, up to a point, though after a while the sheer labour of making half a dozen cooked breakfasts in the morning while the children need to be taken to school, followed by heavy-duty skivvying in the bedrooms, plus a daily linen wash (or the cost of a professional laundry) and the many extra expenses, put a considerable dent in that money supply. People who find that a year's hard work has netted them only around 3,000 may wonder whether it's worth going on. Those who've done it tend to say that yes, most of the guests are agreeable, and some are a joy to welcome back, but it only takes one miserable couple who wake up the house coming home at 3am, or treat you like a particularly stupid chambermaid, or leave their room looking like a pigsty, to make you feel that your home has been unpleasantly invaded. One of our best experiences was two years ago, in Wiltshire. Our room had a balcony overlooking the owners' great pride: a lovely flower and herb garden, with a lawn stretching down to a stream and a mill race. It was early summer, and we spent the day stretched out on the lawn, wrapped in the warm scent from the vegetation, listening to the water trickle by. Friends came to join us later and we sipped gin-and-tonics on the balcony while watching the sun go down. Dinner was at a perfectly decent pub a half mile walk away and, no, I won't tell you where this Elysium is because they don't do B&amp;B any more. Luckily there are plenty of other, similarly nice, places which do. This summer, I went to Adlestrop in Oxfordshire to write about the 85th anniversary of Edward Thomas's famous poem. (Incidentally, Anne Harvey's gorgeous book, Adlestrop Revisited, packed with essays, pictures, research about the poem - and poems that pay tribute to the poem - is just published by Sutton Publishing at 12.99.) We had arranged to stay with John and Camilla Playfair at their Sawday-listed house in Aston Magna, just north of Morton-in-Marsh. John welcomed us as if we were his oldest friends down for the weekend. We were shown to our suite, overlooking the swimming pool and the tennis courts, and my son and I settled down to watch the Cup Final. Meanwhile my wife and daughter took tea in the lounge and were given the guided tour, including the Japanese water garden the Playfairs made themselves. Again friends joined us, and large gins were pressed on everyone. The Playfairs' daughter, an ex-student of Pru Leith, had cooked supper: a mountain of local asparagus, bought that morning and topped with balsamic vinegar and parmesan; chicken in honey with more local vegetables, then homemade praline and hazelnut icecream with a vast bowl of strawberries. And a superb cheese board. We had brought our own wine, but the Playfairs, who'd spent the evening at a charity ball, returned in time to press port, brandy and stickies on us. Next day, we couldn't face a full cooked breakfast, though it was willingly offered, and somehow made do with cereal, breads, toast, fresh fruit, and yoghurt. Before we left another cafetiere of coffee arrived and we were sent on our way to an excellent lunch at the Fox in Lower Oddington, a famous local pub where you need to arrive early, even on weekdays, because they don't take bookings. The Playfairs charge 35 for a double room, which is slightly more than most B&amp;B's, but around half what you'd pay for a hotel room less than half as pleasant. For dinner they charged 48 for the six of us, but asked us to make the cheque out to the charity. It was quite the nicest, as well as the grandest B&amp;B we've ever stayed in. The practicals<br /> Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay series comprises: British Bed &amp; Breakfast, 4th edition (12.95); British Hotels &amp; Inns (10.95); French Bed &amp; Breakfast, 5th edition (13.95); Paris Hotels (8.95); Special Places to Stay in Ireland (10.95), and Special Places to Stay in Spain &amp; Portugal (11.95). A new title, Special Places to Stay in Italy (10.95), is due out in Spring 2000. All the guides are available in major bookshops, or by credit card order from Alastair Sawday Publishing on; 0117 929 9921. For more information, visit: .
10simonhoggart
4Books
Chance Witness<br />by Matthew Parris<br />528pp, Viking, 18.99 I've known Matthew Parris pretty well for nearly 10 years, and he has always been kind and helpful and thoughtful, with only the occasional whiff of cattiness carried faintly on the breeze. He is also very kind about me in this alarmingly good book, so you might want to discount what follows. The cover shows Matthew with his hand over his mouth, as if he had just let slip a dangerous indiscretion. Yet I've read few autobiographies that are so carefully considered, so empty of anything glib or cheap. The only damaging material is about people who are already dead, or who are big enough to take it. (Among the many wonderful vignettes of Margaret Thatcher is one illustrating her reliance on the Sun, and in particular the two-bullet-point editorials that used to appear opposite page three. "One day she plonked the paper down in front of the assembled male company, open at this spread, and said 'what do you think of those two, eh?' No man present dared catch another's eye.") The book also made me laugh out loud several times. Parris is savage about the late and little lamented Dr Sir Alan Glyn, a Tory bore whom even the bores avoided. The descriptions of him eating langoustines, shell and all ("I remember especially the feelers poking through his moustache and waving wildly as his yellowed teeth chomped the heads"), and of the time the wardrobe fell over door side down with Dr Glyn inside are alone almost worth the price of the book. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then Matthew's life has paid for itself several times. He learns from almost everything - his boyhood in Africa, his homosexuality, his work with Mrs Thatcher, his time as an MP, his disastrous stint on Weekend World, subsequent huge success as a journalist, and the inexplicable decision to spend four winter months on an almost uninhabited island near the Antarctic circle. There is the occasional infelicity, such as his description of the one time he had sex with a woman ("it could have been a goat as far as I was concerned") but far more perfectly expressed truths that illuminate and inform. My favourite is this: "Being an MP feeds your vanity and starves your self-respect." This is a book full of wisdom and if we are invited along the way to share Matthew's many triumphs, why not? Is he expected to leave them out? I had vaguely thought of writing my own autobiography at some stage, though my plan was to exclude myself almost entirely, since readers might be entertained by some of the events and people I have encountered, even if they had no interest in me. Having read this book I realise what a silly idea that is. Matthew has done much more than me, and thought about it all much more deeply. I was reminded of the Peanuts cartoon in which Linus and Charlie Brown are lying down looking at clouds. Charlie Brown asks Linus what he can see, and he replies (something like), "I see a map of Prince Edward Island and a profile of the composer Aaron Copland. What do you see, Charlie Brown?" "I was going to say a horsey and a cat, but I don't think I'll bother now." Nor me.
11willhutton
4Books
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein Penguin 25, pp560 Naomi Klein is confused. She has written a tough attack on capitalism's capacity to insist that public policy be run wholly in its own interests and its conspiratorial capacity to capitalise on all forms of disaster and social distress to get its way. Fine. 'Disaster capitalism' is an insightful way of looking at how the free marketeers have spread the gospel. Sometimes you cheer her on, but nowhere does she concede that markets can have good results as well as bad. Nowhere does she explore what those circumstances may be and why economic freedom is so appealing to so many. And nowhere does she set out an alternative manifesto for running economies and societies. In her delusional, Manichaean world view, privatisation, free markets, private property, consumer freedom, the profit motive and economic freedom are just other terms for corporate self-enrichment, denial of voice, limitation of citizenship, inequality and, sometimes, even torture. The discredited electro-shock psychological treatment of the Fifties, we learn, informed the thought system of the free marketeers; it is guilt by association and assertion rather than proof, a weaknesses of too much of the book. Nothing good can ever come from globalisation, which is just more capitalism. Democracy, however, is a halcyon world of political and economic co-operation, citizen voice and engagement, with a freely arrived- at assertion of the common interest in which most think along the same lines as, say, Naomi Klein. She and free-market economist Milton Friedman, whom she has in her sights, are mirror images of each other in the absolutist categories in which they think. So she is unlikely to convince anybody new, which is a pity, because she does hit some bull's eyes. Her description of the way corporate America has exploited the disasters of hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Iraq war and even the 2005 tsunami is devastating. The natural disaster that destroyed tens of thousands of lives in New Orleans was seen as an 'opportunity' to put the city's schooling and public housing in private hands. 9/11 became the excuse for the creation of a vast, private-security industry. And the Iraq war was organised around the idea that following the shock and awe military strategy, the country could be organised as a pure, free-market paradise, partly because country and people alike were so traumatised that they would offer no opposition and partly because of the ideological belief that only unalloyed markets could deliver results. It was in Iraq that disaster capitalism had its purest, most self-destructive impact. Her account of the ideological zealotry, stupidity and greed that informed how Iraqi reconstruction was handled is among the most original and revealing in the book. The ambition to have low taxes, minimal regulation, no state, free markets, low tariffs and maximum corporate involvement because they conformed to the free-market blueprint distorted economic priorities and generated huge opportunities for waste and racketeering. Worse, they involved a scorched-earth policy towards Iraqi institutions that created the vacuum occupied by the sectarian, murderous militias. It was the true denouement of disaster capitalism. There are many lessons from Iraq, but they elude Klein. The fact that the neocons were wedded to an economistic and wrong view of democracy does not mean that the left should be automatically against all forms of market and conceive of democracy as a surrogate for socialism. Rather, democracy is shorthand for a network of painfully constructed institutions: a free press, free unions, an independent legal and judicial system, the rule of law, the capacity to whistleblow, audit trails, transparency of decision taking, political parties, constitutional checks and balances to hold executive government to account, local power and free elections. When capitalism works well, these institutions are well-functioning. But they are more important than even that. Paradoxically, successful capitalism depends on the integrity it brings to the operation of markets and the organisation of corporations. What was wrong about so much shock therapy and the brutal introduction of markets that Klein describes was not that societies should have cleaved to a quasi-socialist alternative under the rubric of democracy. It was that they should have paid infinitely more attention to the building of the 'soft' institutions of democracy, including universal education and health care, as the vital precondition for successful markets. She does not recognise it, but the debate has moved on since the bad old days of the 'Washington consensus'. Some of the economists she eviscerates, such as Harvard's Dani Rodrik, have become leaders in building a new consensus that acknowledges the importance of such institutions and are no less tough on how the reconstruction of Iraq neglected them. It does not suit her case, hence no mention. Klein is so anxious to prove that all capitalism is bad, even, on occasion, relying on torture to get its way, that she never allows for the possibility that markets can deliver beneficial results. Or that the demand for markets comes from the bottom up, as it did in China between 1980 and 1983. Nor, in her account of the shock treatment of the former communist Eastern Europe, does she explain why some countries - the Baltic republics and the Czech Republic - have done so much better than others. So The Shock Doctrine is a lost opportunity. It is hardly new that disasters and shocks are often triggers of change; her insight is to apply the thesis to turbo-capitalism and its ideologues. If Klein had been fairer, she would have had a smarter thesis that could genuinely have changed the intellectual climate. As it is, she will be dismissed by her critics as a confused ranter. We need critics of free-market fundamentalism to do better than that.
11willhutton
4Books
High Society<br />by Ben Elton<br />Bantam Press 16.99, pp352 Ben Elton is not a neutral in the debate about drugs. Not for him the compromises of the current Home Secretary (curiously similar to those of the imaginary Home Secretary in his book) or, for that matter, The Observer. He wants complete legalisation of all drug use - from heroin and crack cocaine to cannabis. Anything else is deceitful and purposeless because, as the central character in High Society - campaigning Labour MP Peter Paget - puts it, either we are or have been users ourselves or know someone who is or has been a user; we are thus law-breakers or condone law breaking and so undermine the cornerstone of social order. If the law does not go with the grain of social reality, then it is an ass. Drug use is now so extensive that trying to draw boundaries between class A and class C drugs is futile - and what results is the devastation and hypocrisy portrayed here. Better legalisation of all drugs, opening up the possibility of their proper regulation and of honestly confronting what they do to people. Elton's book in many ways should not succeed. His characters are one-dimensional and when he uses them to deploy the arguments for legalisation the results are gawky; a very good comedian abandoning his craft and instead lumbering into the pulpit to preach. The main plot is predictable; we know from the moment Paget's assistant admires her boss that the subsequent affair and its denouement are inevitable. The drug-saturated rock star Tommy Hanson is a cartoon cut-out and his adventures stretch credulity to the limits. Elton should take a self-denying ordinance and be more sparing in delivering sex scenes; despite his best efforts they do not work. And yet. The book is saved by its pace and verve and the author's passion for his subject. Involvement with Britain's drug laws has laid all of his characters low and Elton's portrait of Jessie, the Scottish prostitute kept in thrall to her minders by their making her dependent on heroin, shows how it is on the streets and how illegality, expense and heroin's cruel addictive quality make the bonds close to impossible for her to break. For vast swathes of the British, experimenters with illegal drugs perhaps in their youth but now lapsed into alcohol and tobacco, the current evolving compromises seem a reasonable halfway house - recognising reality but also cautious about signalling that heroin is no more problematic than coffee. This is the overstated premise at the heart of the book. There is certainly a very strong British drug economy and drug subculture but, unlike alcohol, it remains a subculture - so the comparison made with Prohibition by Peter Paget does not stand. The book would have had more tension if Elton had allowed the anti-legalisation arguments to be marshalled by someone more sympathetic than an unsatisfactory Tory Shadow Home Secretary and in the end his hero undoes himself by lying to a mendacious press about his affair rather than losing the argument on drugs. Yet as I raced to the end, I found myself applauding Elton. This is a tough subject tackled with courage and commitment. The great Victorian novelists managed to crusade and to entertain. Elton's book, despite its weaknesses, is cast in that tradition.
11willhutton
4Books
The Great Unravelling: From Boom to Bust in Three Short Years<br /> by Paul Krugman<br /> 464pp, Allen Lane, 18.99 The Roaring Nineties<br /> by Joseph Stiglitz<br /> 432pp, Allen Lane, 18.99 Britain's political class and commentariat just don't get contemporary America. They don't understand the revolutionary nature of US conservatism and the profundity of its ambitions. They don't understand the extraordinary self-serving venality of corporate America and its Republican allies. They don't understand the ruthless pursuit of radical conservative interests and disregard for all others. They think, like Tony Blair, that America is having an eccentric wobble - and that if George Bush is engaged with, it will sooner or later be business as usual. They should read these two books, by two of America's best economists and most forensic critics, and be disabused. I should declare an interest; I have long regarded the Nobel prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz and Princeton University's Paul Krugman as two of the best around. And so it proves. Stiglitz's careful dissection of the follies of the "Roaring Nineties" and the conservative thinking that produced them - penetrating the Clinton administration - is as good as it gets, and while I am wary of collections of columns as dull retreads (I plead guilty to having inflicted one upon the reading public myself), Krugman gets away with it on two counts. First, I only read a few of them in the original; and second, he begins his book with an introduction of such power that it is worth the price alone. Krugman states quite baldly a truth from which many still shrink: today's conservatives are radical revolutionaries who do not accept the legitimacy of America's current political system and aim to subvert it. Their goals are the establishment of an American military imperium abroad, under American rather than international law, and to minimise the responsibilities of the rich and corporate America to the common weal at home. This is so breathtaking, says Krugman, that to say it risks being condemned as alarmist. Indeed, quoting Henry Kissinger, he argues it is one of the characteristics of revolutionary power that it draws just this response; it is those who "counsel adaptation to circumstances who are considered balanced and sane". Consensual mainstream opinion cannot come to terms with the radicalism of the revolutionaries - it is too far outside its ambit. It seems delusional, almost hysterical, to acknowledge what is really happening. Krugman sets out the five maxims that must govern reporting in such a context: don't assume any policy proposals make sense in terms of their stated goals; do some homework to discover the real goals; don't assume the normal rules of politics apply; expect a revolutionary power to respond to criticism by attacking; and don't think there's a limit to a revolutionary power's objectives. His columns set out how he follows his own maxims in explaining the range of Bush's policies since he took office - from the conduct of economic policy, to how Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove, shamelessly exploited September 11 for partisan ends. It is a revelatory picture, and it will leave those who don't know America well shaking their heads in disbelief. Can it really be true that the regulators of the media and the securities industry are so completely compromised by their association with their Republican bosses and the industries they regulate? How is it possible that any government at any time could organise tax cuts to the rich on Bush's scale and present them as a patriotic economic stimulus that only traitors disagree with? Is it possible that any group of men and women could reward themselves as extravagantly as contemporary American chief executive officers, claiming enormous benefits for the companies they run, when in fact the benefits are paltry? How do people become this self-serving? And perhaps most worrying of all, Krugman shows how the American media have given up on active scrutiny - partly because the truth seems so incredible and partly because a sizeable proportion is owned by Republican interests. Why has this happened? Stiglitz's answer is that the American centre and left have allowed the right to win the economic argument with a set of market fundamentalist propositions that are downright wrong - but which have the pleasing consequence for conservatives of validating their every prejudice and allowing them to dress up serving their own interests as promoting the common good. It was the confluence of this thinking with the unique circumstances of the post-cold war 1990s that led to the extraordinary and unsustainable boom. As chair of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers for four years and chief economist of the World Bank for three, Stiglitz had a bird's eye view of how the contagion infected the Democrats - and made them collaborators with the trends they deplored. There is an element of confessional breast-beating in Stiglitz's book - and occasionally the overlap with his previous work, Globalisation and Its Discontents , gives you a sense of dj vu. Some of this Stiglitz has said before. None the less his account of how a group of smart economists and policy thinkers with impeccable liberal credentials found themselves zealously cutting public spending, deregulating, privatising and even cutting capital gains tax, is important and well-marshalled. Time and again the combination of powerful corporate lobbies and appeals to the "rightness" of the new conservative economic consensus made it impossible for the Clinton administration to make progress, or even to shape deregulation in a less damaging way. Stiglitz is a stout defender of the role of government, basing his view on the economics of information for which he won a Nobel prize. Of course markets don't work perfectly; they are structured so that insiders have more information than outsiders - so that prices don't reflect costs and excess profits and rents abound. Unless government is on hand to correct the imbalance with regulation, promoting competition and acting itself, markets will produce all kinds of follies - of which the 90s boom was the quintessential expression. The hangover of debt and bankruptcy is costing the US economy hundreds of billions in lost output; and all because the insiders - CEOs, investment bankers, corporate lobbyists - went on the rampage, aided and abetted by Republicans. Stiglitz's account of how the lobbyists shaped the 1996 Telecoms Act, opening up telecommunications to new entrants with minimal regulation in the name of "competition", is an eye-opener. In effect, despite self-serving talk of competition, they were giving a licence for an orgy of bids and deals as the industry jostled for what it knew were captive franchises (mobile and cable networks). The strength of the two books is their authors' deployment of economic analysis to expose the duplicity, wrong-headedness and costs of conservative economic policies - and their streetwise awareness of who benefits and why. The weakness is that, while both deplore what is happening, neither offers a satisfactory explanation of quite why conservative America has the grip it has. Krugman at one juncture throws his hands up in the air: "I should admit," he writes, "that I am not entirely sure why this is happening." It's just clear that "the right want to do all these things" (abolish tax on capital, strip away all regulation, even of the environment, and invade foreign countries). For Stigtlitz it is about intellectual argument; if the Clinton people had been more convinced they were on the right side of the argument, they would not have cut the budget deficit so aggressively - and the US would now have more research and a better public infrastructure. Maybe so, but Clinton was governing within a conservative maelstrom. My own view is that market fundamentalism has been shaped by the American conservative think tanks to dovetail so neatly with great American myths - individualism, the frontier, self-reliance, redemption through hard work, from log cabin to White House - that it has become a self-reinforcing ideological thought system that is impervious to rational argument of the type Krugman and Stiglitz marshall. Appeals to liberty overwhelm arguments for government and fairness, because they appeal to the gut of middle America and the raw prejudices of working-class America. I've been told of country clubs still operating informal bans on membership of Jews and black people; and in the south and west of the country - the core of which is the old Confederacy - deplorable attitudes towards women, black people and even Darwinian accounts of human evolution lurk just below the surface. Market fundamentalism, coupled with calls for liberty, legitimise this cocktail of prejudice - and the fall of the Soviet Union gave the whole story renewed and urgent legitimacy which has not burnt out yet. The US is a very foreign country; and Stiglitz and Krugman, both East Coast intellectuals who think like Europeans, have yet to come to terms with just how foreign it is.
11willhutton
4Books
How to Be Idle <br /> by Tom Hodgkinson<br /> 288pp, Hamish Hamilton, 12.99 In Praise of Slow<br /> by Carl Honore<br /> 310pp, Orion, 16.99 The Play Ethic <br /> by Pat Kane<br /> 458pp, Macmillan, 12.99 Soft Power <br />by Joseph Nye <br />208pp, Public Affairs, 18.99 Status Syndrome<br /> by Michael Marmot <br />320pp, Bloomsbury, 12.99 It's that time of year. The children have started a new school year, and their parents are beginning a new work year. It's a fresh term; the transition from the holiday to the work season is upon us. And every year there is the same cancerous question: why is the acceleration in tempo and pressure as we leave those restorative holidays behind not a source of well-being and happiness? There must surely be ways of marrying work and life that are more accommodating to our humanity. Are holidays really the only time when we can find time for living at a human pace? The quest for happiness is starting to preoccupy the national conversation more and more. The work-life balance movement, at first derided as the obsession of New Labour ministers and some trendy employers, is coming of age; more and more companies want to offer their workforces some autonomy over how they use their time and are finding that if they don't, they lose their best and brightest. Workers will go on strike to insist that they have more control over their time. A new generation of economists is inquiring into whether the century-long assumption of economics - that economic man and woman have an inbuilt motivation to want more profit, more wages and more material goods and that monetary motivation is always a reliable compass to action - is still correct. If money doesn't reliably make us happy, then economics had better remodel how it conceives of human behaviour. We might be less self-interested; maybe even concerned about our happiness in the round. And then what happens to the profit motive? A growing number of men and women in mid-career seem ready to abandon the prospect of material wealth for a downsized life in which they are in control of how they spend their time. The interest in alternative medicine, therapies and diets mushrooms; pharmaceutical companies offer us lifestyle drugs that keep depression at bay. We want well-being. And now comes a rash of books from some accomplished journalist/commentators (Tom Hodgkinson, Carl Honore and Pat Kane), all of whom seem to be practising what they preach (damn them), urging us variously to take play seriously, to go slower and to celebrate idleness. On top there is an American academic - Joseph Nye - arguing that how the west lives can be a source of compelling "soft power" to the rest of the world, persuading it voluntarily that because it wants to be like us it will be readier to do our bidding; and a British academic (Michael Marmot), who shows how good health, an essential component of happiness, is crucially determined by the higher your standing in the organisation for which you work and society at large, rather than the amount of money you earn. Taken as a whole, these books at the very least suggest that something is going on. If Nye is right, could the idler (Hodgkinson), the player (Kane) and the slowcoach (Honore) offer a better response to terrorism than shocking and awing cowed Muslim populations? Their preoccupation, freely expressed in a typical western society, is how to live well free from the injunctions of the state, church or social compulsions - more appealing that we might guess to populations in thrall to the unrelenting rhythms of religion. Of the three invocations to live differently, Kane's is the most arresting, with its appeal to celebration of a play ethic; Hodgkinson and Honore are treading well-worn paths in their appeal to be idle and slow respectively, although they do it well. Hodgkinson, in particular, glories in reminding us that idleness has a long tradition. But taking play seriously? Kane is certainly on to something fresh and insightful. He rebels against the notion that purpose can be achieved only by the disciplines of work, and against those who argue that work is what gives meaning to our lives because it is via work that we act on the world, via work that we interact socially and via work that we achieve status. He chides the Calvinistic Gordon Brown for his view that work is the salve for every economic and social problem. For Kane the point of life is not to work and be a worker; it is to play and be a player - and thus be both a better worker and solve that happiness riddle alike. What we want is less work-life balance, more a recognition that the alpha and omega of good living is to know how to play - and to insert the play ethic into everything we do. Play is about imagination, experimentation and being confident enough to take a chance, all in a context in which, because it's a game, nothing vital attaches to the outcome; and if we start with the notion that we are "players" and that the world will not come to an end if what we plan doesn't come off, there is much more chance of living edgily, of finding time, of building rewarding relationships and of being genuinely creative in how we live and work. Kane argues that our language subliminally recognises the role of play: we talk about putting an idea or concept in play; a company that is the object of takeover speculation is "in play"; a politician on the up is a "player". Yet we never stop to think about why we use play in contexts that the wider work ethic would insist are the ultimate in seriousness. Kane insists that the language is pointing us in the right direction, if only we recognised it. Of course all the world's a stage, and we are merely players with our exits and entrances; the trick is to lighten up and recognise that all aspects of life are more about gaming than working. There's fun to be had in taking over a company or challenging for the leadership of a political party - and once you locate what you are doing in those terms you are readier to experiment with the unexpected or devise a winning stratagem. Moreover, our language - talking about play and players - recognises that this is what is going on. It's a nice thesis, except that Kane doesn't know whether he is inventing a universal theory of life or merely saying play is valuable, even for those in work. He is not sure whether he wants us just to play at everything, or that to play is a better way of achieving the outcomes that we normally look to work to provide. Every trendy button is pressed, whether the role of hackers in spreading the IT gospel (particularly in Finland) to, inevitably, St Luke's advertising agency - with lots of indulgent meanderings about his own life. It's very easy to get lost. Nor does he recognise the way in which work confers status, and thus wellbeing. Michael Marmot's important study Status Syndrome shows that - in every culture - our happiness and health are closely related to the place we occupy in the status hierarchy, and that that the key to status is our occupation. Happy, healthy, long-lived civil servants don't play more than their peers; they just need to be one rung above them in career grades. Kane, enjoying his status as writer, thinker and provocateur, has lost sight of the fact that what motivates everyone else is just the same - and climbing up an organisation's grades or doing enviable, well-regarded work is fundamental to most people's sense of themselves. Work is where it's ultimately at. None the less you can't read his book without accepting that we all could play more while we do it. The question is whether we could also go slower and find more time for idleness. I found Honore's and Hodgkinson's books not only entertaining, but getting under my skin. Reaching middle life - or even late middle life - with a growing sense that I need to reorder my priorities made me a receptive reader. Honore's hymn to the pleasure of allowing everything its proper time - from eating and cooking to just moving around - is well executed and persuasive; and you learn about a worldwide "Slow Movement" that seems to be gaining ground everywhere. There are slow food groups, slow sex therapists (tantrists), slow doctors, slow sports experts - and so it goes on until finally you wonder how you ever could have mixed with all those fasties. I'm not sure, however, whether he concedes sufficiently the pleasures of doing things fast. At one stage he acknowledges wryly how quickly he was driving to make an appointment to enjoy a meal of ritualised slowness in Italy - and reproaches himself. But the paradox is that Honore could never have accumulated the impressive evidence for the case he makes without the whole fast infrastructure of modern life, from the internet to air travel. Like Kane, he falls into the trap of trying to turn an important corrective to too much speed into a philosophy of life. I enjoy the (too few) occasions when I chop vegetables, linger over a meal or just hang out; but I enjoy speed, too. There is pleasure in crossing the Atlantic in a cruise ship; but most of us opt for the 747 not from perversity, but because we value our time. Life is finite. Most of us want to die with a sense of a life well lived rather than the satisfaction that we took our time. That said, there is no doubt that we overdo speed. And we overdo being busy. Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler magazine, takes us on an indulgent (but that's his mission) tour of the satisfactions of being idle. Indeed I was so impressed by his chapter on the virtues of the nap that one sunny lunchtime I headed for the park to fall asleep in the sun - which I did, feeling gloriously guiltless and assertive about it. The directionless ramble; the joy of inhaling cigarette smoke; the pleasure of sleeping in; the anticipation of the first drink of the day - Hodgkinson knows where pleasure is to be found. The more I read, however, the more I felt that he protested too much; that we don't need citations from long-dead poets and scribes to justify napping in the sun. The point about being idle is not to work at it, surely; indeed one of the virtues of work is that it offers us something to be idle from - as well as offering us a sense of purpose. To make idleness our central purpose is to turn it into work - and then even idleness becomes infected by the work ethic. It's all, as with Kane and Honore, about proportion. The debate about idleness, play and speed would strike any one of the billions of workers in the third world who earn no more than a couple of dollars a day as something from another planet - but one none the less to which they aspire. Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government, has built upon one of the themes in an earlier book - The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Superpower Can't Go it Alone - arguing that what he calls "soft power" is an indispensable element in contemporary diplomacy. Hard power is the coercive military strength of the 19th century; but it doesn't work in the 21st. Threats come less from competing nation states than from terrorist sub-groups; and most diplomacy these days is about persuading states voluntarily to sign a treaty or join an alliance to help us in some endeavour - to fight terrorism, say - for which they in turn have to win domestic support. And that can best be won, certainly in relations with the less developed world, if their elites and citizens alike want to join the alliance because they like their ally's values and the lifestyles it boasts. Nye cites the BBC World Service as a key element in Britain's soft power; it is a window on a universe that its listeners worldwide respect and want to emulate. Thus, if you agree with Nye's thesis, the other authors under review are not just advocates for seeking wellbeing; they are advertisements for the way the British are trying to live, part of our soft power. Nye is excoriating about the way Bush - and by implication Blair - has undermined the west's soft power in the Middle East by their invasion of Iraq. I know the British Council, for example, feels profoundly compromised by Britain's close association with American foreign policy, and many CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are uneasy about how British companies are seen as American surrogates and fear for their long-term prospects in some key Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Soft power - and the values and lifestyles behind it - may be invisible, but it is nevertheless potent, and we sacrificed a lot of it to make common cause with US neo-conservatives who want to make America feared for its uncontestable military might. But we can relax a little. Kane, Honore and Hodgkinson are doing their small part to help our image and limit the appeal of al-Qaida. It's a far-fetched thesis, but not so far-fetched that it can be rejected out of hand. The happier we are, the better - not just for ourselves, but as a reason to be copied rather than opposed.
11willhutton
4Books
Globalisation and Its Discontents<br />by Joseph Stiglitz<br />304pp, Allen Lane, 16.99 Up the Down Escalator: Why the Global Pessimists Are Wrong<br />by Charles Leadbeater<br />384pp, Viking, 17.99 The rise and fall of Joseph Stiglitz is one of the telling parables of our age. One of the world's great economists - he won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his elegant demonstrations that markets necessarily work imperfectly, on any reasonable assumption that market participants are not all knowledgeable - he is also not afraid to get his hands dirty in the world of policy-making. President Clinton made him chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, but not before he had given some wise advice to the Chinese about how to go about liberalising their economy. China, unlike Russia which took a more overtly free-market path, has been chalking up double-digit growth rates ever since. The development of the world's poorest countries was always closest to Stiglitz's heart, so when James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, offered him the job as its chief economist in 1997 - as part of an attempt to carve out a different approach to third-world development - he jumped at the chance. Wolfensohn wanted to create a more rounded approach - stressing the role of education (particularly of women), disease prevention and good governance in the development process - rather than the so-called Washington consensus of simply privatising, deregulating and instantaneously opening up fragile economies to free trade and free finance. Stiglitz seemed to be the man with the intellectual authority and connections within the Clinton administration to help him. But it didn't work out like that. Stiglitz arrived at the bank as the US was moving into what we now know was a phoney boom, but which had made the conservative economic intellectuals, who claimed authorship of it, extraordinarily hubristic. Their market-fundamentalist ideas, they supposed, were wholly right, and they insisted on them being implemented internationally, through what had become an arm of the US treasury - the IMF. Stiglitz vainly campaigned against what he saw as ridiculous, self-defeating and enormously damaging policies - allowing his feelings to surface too openly in public. Stiglitz was acknowledged, even by his critics, as one of the world's best economists. But he dared to cross the high priests of conservative international finance in their pomp. He was marginalised and briefed against, and his position was made insupportable. Finally, three years later, he resigned. Stiglitz's return to the groves of academia is a salutary lesson about where power lies in today's world. The kernel of Globalisation and Its Discontents is his account of those years at the World Bank and his arguments with the IMF and US Treasury, and as such is a massively important political as well as economic document. That Joseph Stiglitz could not survive - even before the arrival of the Bush administration - tells you all you need to know about the chances of a more sane economics re-entering the American discourse. It is also a sharp reproach to the boyish, almost glib optimism of Charles Leadbeater's Up the Down Escalator - an account of globalisation as naive as Stiglitz's is sophisticated. In a sense, Leadbeater epitomises the scale of the opposition that a rational economist like Stiglitz confronts. He is not a man of the right, and for all his neglect of economics, political economy and the realities of international finance and realpolitik that Stiglitz describes, he is a well-intentioned and skilled cultural commentator. I found the first 100 pages of his book, in which he reframes all the current political and cultural arguments as one - at heart - between pessimists and optimists, original and entertaining. Cultural pessimism does unite, say, a Daily Mail worldview and anti-globalisers alike. And while the rest turns into a relentless, rather dull Panglossian account of why globalisation, technology and science are all good for us, so that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds - even the anti-globalisation movement, you see, is part of the debate that will make globalisation still better - it is useful to have our very own Pangloss in our midst. It shows the limitations of the creed, while offering a useful counterweight to too much gloom. Doubtless Leadbeater would categorise Stiglitz as a pessimist - but a useful pessimist, in that his contributions to the debate will only make the world, already very good, even better. Globalisation is creating so much opportunity and wealth, and we are already so far advanced in the creation of an environment that reflects our own wishes and aspirations, that everyone is welcome to take part in the tumultuous exchange of ideas. Leadbeater, a former Marxist, sees everything as part of a benign, Hegelian dialectic in which any contribution only serves the general march of progress. Yet as Stiglitz would reply, the world is not so benign, nor the march of progress so inevitable. It has to be fought for - with weapons more powerful and fundamental than optimism alone. He watched, largely helpless, as the IMF and US treasury, in a kind of institutional and intellectual lockstep, imposed needless suffering on millions of ordinary people in East Asia and Russia through free-market "shock" programmes, forcing massive economic adjustment, centring on making countries keep their financial systems as open as possible to inflows and outflows of private capital. This was the result not just of bad economics but, as Stiglitz tells it, a redefinition of the IMF's role. Its intellectual father was Keynes, who argued for the creation of a global institution that could take global collective action because markets can fail. Its role was to ensure that, unlike in the 1930s when global demand fell away disastrously, there would be a global mechanism to keep demand up by allowing countries an orderly framework in which they could maintain full employment. They could borrow from the IMF when they needed to, rather than resorting to crash programmes of deflation or beggaring their neighbour through trade protection. The view of international finance - that its interests should come first - was firmly refuted. Instead it had to play by the rules of the game set up to establish a global interest. But now a new doctrine holds: what the financial community views as good for the global economy is good for the global economy and should be done. The IMF has become the servant of the financial system it used to shape. Stiglitz explains this change as having essentially three causes. First there is no longer an intellectual belief that markets fail. Secondly, the IMF has been allowed to become poorer as faith in government nationally and internationally has dwindled, so it has had to enlist the support of the great international banks when it lends to countries in trouble - and they have very particular interests. They want to get their money into and out of all countries as freely as possible, and are thus always advocates of "financial deregulation" - so that this always plays an overwhelming part in any support the IMF provides. And because countries have to borrow in dollars, the interests and preoccupations of American banks and the US Treasury have become paramount - reinforcing the bias to make countries bend the knee to the interests of Wall Street rather than full employment, growth and the maintenance of their social contracts. There has never been official recognition of this fundamental change of policy, but Stiglitz draws attention to how key personnel switch from Wall Street to the IMF and back again - having served the financial community's interests well. Stan Fischer, for example, deputy managing director of the IMF, went directly to become a vice-chairman of the vast international bank Citigroup. "One could only ask," writes Stiglitz, "Was Fischer being richly rewarded for having faithfully executed what he was told to do?" It's a pertinent question. If the 1930s were characterised by beggar-my-neighbour policies, the 1990s have been characterised by what Stiglitz describes as beggar-myself policies - all to promote Wall Street and the US Treasury's aim of creating one single global financial market in which the over-riding concern of every government is to keep its financial system open to international finance, whatever the domestic cost. Those at the top have benefited hugely, while creating a system that is massively unfair - not to mention its volatility and extraordinary capacity to transmit economic shocks simultaneously across the globe without any check. Stiglitz finishes his book with seven action points for change. He is not a global pessimist, but a realist - and instead of placing him in a neat box labelled "important contribution to the debate", we should listen to him urgently. The biggest indictment of Leadbeater, and those like him, is that they make it harder for us to hear, and to act, on what Stiglitz is saying.
11willhutton
4Books
Vision: The Lessons of the 20th Century for the 21st<br />by Bill Emmott<br />336pp, Allen Lane, 20 The editor of the Economist has been wrestling with what the future holds - on all our behalves. We can rest easy. There will, of course, be setbacks and alarms but essentially the future is good. America, which of course has its problems and difficulties, will underwrite and protect the advance of capitalism, which of course has its ups and downs too, but that twin combination of American hegemony and liberal capitalism that has served us well up to now (with, of course, some exceptions) will serve us well in the future - with possibly some downward interruptions to the upward march of progress. We can be paranoidly optimistic. Bill Emmott's crystal-ball gazing suffers from all the deformations of books of this type. He has no better idea of what the future holds than Gypsy Nell, and sometimes his honest recognition that the evidence which allows him to be sanguine could just as well work out very differently leaves the reader with an unsatisfactory sense of wading through acres of well-intentioned bullshit. On the one hand there are all these things that could go wrong; on the other hand they might not - usually because America and capitalism always win out in the end - so everything is ultimately for the best in this curate's egg of a world. Emmott might have written a more illuminating book if he had asked more interesting questions and applied more rigour in answering them. As he declares at the outset of his enterprise, he believes the two questions anybody curious about the world's future has to ask and answer are whether America will maintain the military and economic strength to champion peace and progress globally, through which capitalism flourishes; and whether capitalism itself is going to continue to deliver the goods. Anybody familiar with Emmott's leaders in the Economist will guess the conclusion to his questions - so this is a detective story with zero tension. Even those sympathetic to Emmott's case (and he will be surprised that I include myself, given his Manichean view of the universe about which, as a critic of present America and defender and advocate of contemporary Europe I plainly have little understanding) will feel very uncomfortable about his intellectual method. It is little more than a cook's tour of the world according to Emmott; the reader has little sense that the relevant literature has been surveyed or many primary sources talked to. In a typical passage he opines that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are no more than representatives of a long tradition of terror (albeit on a more extensive scale) with no chance of capturing a state from which to operate. Confronted by focused American leadership they will finally be bested, although, to protect his flank, he adds that there must be no complacency. He may be right, but his judgment would have been a great deal more impressive had it been informed by an attempt to get behind what drives Islamist terrorism, some insight into the possible secret relationships between the terror networks and some Arab states and a recognition that American leadership by itself does not guarantee the outcome we all want - a lot depends on how legitimately and skilfully that leadership is exercised. Western security forces, to the extent we know much at all about what they think, seem much less optimistic than Emmott, and some scholars of Islam worry that its cultural predisposition towards jihad and terrorism is so embedded that not even liberal democracy - again a fanciful notion in some Arab states - could remove it. In any case 21st- century terrorism, based on networks without centres and on new technologies, may not need a state base from which to exercise enormous leverage. Emmott's opinion would have much more force were it backed by more substance than musings conceived in his Wiltshire study. On one aspect of this debate, though, he is wrong. The success of the US's confrontation with terrorism depends on the framework in which it is conducted. For Emmott, however, the crucial and over-riding question, given the way he frames his book, is simply whether America will engage and sustain its engagement. The hows of the engagement are second-order issues. Emmott thinks that multilateralism would be better than unilateralism, but that while the trend in the Bush administration towards unilateralism will create "frictions" it will not upset the ultimate prospects of success. This, a judgment also made by the American right, is woefully inadequate. The war in Iraq, if not triggered by a second UN resolution and with unambiguous evidence of a material Iraqi breach in its obligations, will not be legitimate - and will thus make any subsequent peace settlement difficult, if not impossible. Without international legitimacy, a successor Iraqi regime - the country is barely governable even by Saddam - will have little or no chance of long-term survival. The world's stock markets are correctly apprehensive that we are entering a new era of possibly prolonged instability, but the banal way Emmott casts his two questions and conducts his analysis throws little light on why this should be so. The right question is not whether America will engage with the world (that is inevitable), but rather what the balance of forces is within America that will determine the character of that engagement. Emmott, a largely uncritical British proselytiser of American conservatism, is indifferent to the way America is changing under the influence of the American right. It is not a drift to unilateralism; it is a headlong charge. At one point he acknowledges and regrets that America's insistence that it will not join the international criminal court undermines the international fight against terrorism. Yet he does not think to examine why such opposition is so deeply rooted - and, if anything, growing. Nor does it create "frictions"; it undermines, as wise American commentators and analysts recognise if Emmott does not, the basis on which America can legitimately promote the peace and progress on which globalisation depends. There are two Americas: the liberal, internationalist one whose engagement with the world both Emmott and I regard as an imperative; and a highly conservative, nationalist and atavistic one that is insular, unilateralist and culturally xenophobic. That this is so, and the influence it has on the US's relationship with the rest of the world, does not change his conclusions; his ideological prism is such that America is in favour of free markets and democracy, and that is all that counts. By not marking or even understanding the fundamental divisions that are emerging in contemporary America, or acknowledging the debates about how capitalism can be configured, Emmott's analysis is rendered threadbare. He may, fair-mindedly, recognise that capitalism generates instability and inequality, but he has little time for alternative philosophies to the pure milk of free market economics that offer national communities social contracts and insist that enterprise be fairly run to embed countervailing forces. Essentially he buys the American conservative view that enterprise is about buying cheap and selling dear, motivated by a quest for lucre that should be uninhibited by regulatory constraint. Yet the building block of capitalism is the firm - a business organisation - and building and leading organisations that survive and prosper is much more sophisticated than the economics of the street market. As business leaders know, you need the active participation and support of a committed workforce to create a great business, and that in turn needs a sense of economic and social purpose other than simple profit maximisation; but the system built in America, in which workers are disposable commodities consecrated to the growth of shareholder value, makes that task harder rather than easier. The answer to the second question Emmott poses - about the sustainability of capitalism - would have been much more subtle had he thought to explore such notions, even if he disagrees with them. The American economic and social model has strengths, but to regard it as the model for the world to emulate, and all other models (notably those in Europe) as weaker because they deviate from the American model, is a grievous mistake. We need capitalism and globalisation to advance and prosper; and we need American participation in any global form of governance. To get there we will need better analysis and guidance than that offered by Gypsy Bill.
11willhutton
4Books
The first problem with this book is its title. There is no prospect of China ruling the world. This is a country whose uncertainties of identity and economic frailties prevent it from ever projecting hegemonic hard and soft power. Its authoritarian institutions, far from being a source of strength, are a source of weakness. China is simultaneously big but poor, powerful but weak. And there, until wholesale political change occurs, it will stay, notwithstanding its considerable growth rates and economic achievement. Indeed, its current economic model, dependent on high exports and mountainous savings, is disintegrating, as both insiders and close observers recognise.
8pollytoynbee
4Books
Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the Corporate Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich (256pp, Granta, &pound;9.99)<br /> Rich Britain: The Rise and Rise of the New Super-wealthy, by Stewart Lansley (265pp, Politico's, &pound;18.99) How extraordinarily misleading economic statistics can be. Talk of "average" earnings or "per capita" wealth is virtually meaningless as a true description of a nation: if Bill Gates moved to Albania it would soar up the league tables without a single Albanian being a penny better off. This mendacity has never been more grotesque than in the US right now. The myth of America the thriving, booming, prospering envy of the world is most chillingly exposed in the writings of Barbara Ehrenreich. How she strips away the varnish to reveal the lives of the slaves toiling beneath the surface to prop up a curiously hollowed-out empire. In her most celebrated book, Nickel and Dimed, she took jobs among minimum wage workers, living in a caravan and a motel, failing to survive on $7 an hour. It left the British reader aghast at a far more brutal capitalism, redder in tooth and claw with no safety nets, no health care, no social security. Only charity food parcels stave off starvation for people doing America's essential work, sometimes two or three jobs at once in the richest nation the world has ever known. Now, Ehrenreich turns her razor-sharp reporting skills on the corporate world. She sets out with suit and briefcase to join business America, the offices of middle management to which most graduates aspire. Unfortunately she doesn't make the grade in the white collar world. As a reporter, this might have been a failed enterprise, a dead story. After all, she is not a good prospect. She is in her 50s, has never worked in business before and aspires to become a PR in the pharmaceutical sector. Even with a good deal of lying and friends to proffer references, frankly, it looks from the start like a doomed enterprise. By the end she concludes the only way she will get near the management suites is pushing a catering trolley. But Ehrenreich is the kind of reporter who could be put down just about anywhere and always come up with revelations and perceptions of the society around her, its people, their hopes and fears. So as she surfs the job boards on the net, rewrites her CV over and over, networks her way to follow every improbable lead towards the chance of a job, she finds herself down among the many fallers from corporate America. It is not just those who start out poor and uneducated who are destined to plunge into the abyss: it could be almost anyone. Downsizing after mergers, the arrival of a new manager or the constant cult of cuts keep managers on their toes. If they are "let go" and don't find another job fast, many, maybe most, are doomed to tumble down the social ladder. She meets them at expensive and futile networking conferences and motivational job search events. But a gap on a resum&eacute; - never called unemployed but "in transition" or "consulting" - is CV death. Most job applications receive no acknowledgment. From outside the office citadels become increasingly impregnable. Once hot personal contacts go cold, these fallers have no chance. But America the entrepreneurial has spotted a market here. These desperate people are preyed on by a whole industry of obnoxious (and themselves pretty desperate) career-coaches, "professional mentors" and trainers offering excruciating pop-psychology: reinvent yourself; smile. The psycho-babble of business spills into a kind of bullying, yet these frantic job-seekers shell out a fortune to receive it: it's their fault, their future is in their hands, there is nothing wrong the system, the only failings are all their own. Tragically, most sink into exactly the despair the career coaches say makes them unemployable. Many end up taking minimum wage jobs. Europe could do that tomorrow, if we abandoned social security to starve people into sub-subsistence jobs. The American dream is so powerful that even those living the nightmare still believe it. Ehrenreich often uncovers this depressing phenomenon in her rich portfolio of reporting America. She picks away at a brain-washed multitude clinging to a false idol. Without political leadership to suggest that the dream is all but dead and aspirational social mobility stuck in cement, the millions at the sharp end ignore the evidence of their own experience to believe still that anyone can make it. Those who don't are just failures. Only Ehrenreich's acid wit and caustic political intelligence makes this an enjoyable as well as a horrible read. But if you are in the mood for dark humourless mirth, then Rich Britain makes a good accompaniment. Stewart Lansley charts the progress of inequality at the top. The super rich are a new phenomenon whose fortunes took off in the 1980s and kept soaring. The late 70s were the most equal period Britain has ever known, a time when the onward march of social progress and fairer shares was taught in every classroom as if it were historical inevitability, from factory acts and boys up chimneys to universal education and health. What went wrong? This is a journalistic book, with more cuttings than original research, but it does the business. Well written and well analysed, it revolts and disgusts with tales of squalid greed at the top. All the statistics and the hard facts are there - how it happened, why it happened and how we are destined, unless someone stops it, to watch the pigs in the farmhouse continue to wallow in excess beyond the dreams of a Nero. The stratosphere of the boardrooms, where the likes of Lord Browne of BP now earn &pound;6.5m a year, has moved as far from the life of the average citizen as the addict in a blanket under Waterloo bridge. They no longer inhabit the same planet as the rest of us, hermetically sealed in smoke-windowed limo, private jet, private island, private everything. Yet they are more driven by the politics of envy than any mere socialist. They are driven on and on by that gross desire to be top dog, with top dollar, bigger bonuses than the boardroom next door, fatter jet and more richly bejewelled arm candy. Read this, keep it, store up some of its more pungent statistics and keep asking Labour what it's there for, if never to say enough is enough?
8pollytoynbee
4Books
All through her life Agatha Christie avoided the press, a secretive writer who hated interviews and never once agreed to appear on television. She saw no good reason why an inquisitive public should expect more from her than her books. Born in Torquay in 1880, she lived until 1976, and died the best selling author in the English language, her sales still on the increase even now, standing at somewhere above four hundred million copies world-wide. She came, as any reader of hers would guess, from a conventional middle class provincial background - that world or tea-parties, servants, tennis clubs, rectories, manor houses and public schools that dominates her books. During the First World War she was a pharmacist in a local chemists, which gave her a working knowledge of poisons, but that hardly seems an explanation. All her life she had strong and powerful dreams, which Janet Morgan tentatively suggests may indicate the rich vein of fantasy in her character. There were plenty of predecessors to her type of detective story writing - but after a few tentative beginnings, with fantasies and sentimental short stores, it was not long before she settled into this genre, for no apparent reason. She used to read her grandmother the crime stories out of the local paper, which may have aroused her interest. Certainly the morbid pre-occupations of her books seem to have had very little effect on the rest of her social life, for she was determined that her writing would always be of secondary importance to the living of her life, and the carrying out of her social wifely, and motherly duties. She rapidly became highly professional in her approach mechanical in the working out of her plots and the manipulation of her characters, and dependent all her life on the money the books brought in. The only really exciting event in her life was that astonishing disappearance, when half the Surrey countryside was scoured for her dead body after her car was found abandoned. The press were filled with reports of the hunt; some said it was a publicity-stunt (hardly likely in one who hated the press with such violence), others that she must suffer from amnesia, most that she had committed suicide. The author gives a plausible account of a woman suffering a severe mental breakdown, partly amnesiac, due to her husband's announcement that he was leaving her for another woman. It was an episode that dogged the rest of her life. The prolix 378 pages of this tome leave, not a stone unturned in the day to day doings of Mrs Christie; eighty-six years of bric-a-brac, people incidents houses, places, bills and interminable contract and copyright deals; and yet, oddly, the old lady herself has slipped away, vanished like Miss Marples. Janet Morgan treats her subject with the kind of reverent academic respect that might be appropriate if Christie were a great simpler and not a much simpler phenomenon. When the book needs is a dash of her own racy appeal, and a leap from fact into speculation about the nature of her astounding success, her readers, her world, and the attraction of her crime fantasies that have so little to do with real crime. It is, however, an official biography, and at every page the heavy breath of a most protective family can be felt blowing upon Miss Morgan's neck as she writes, keeping her to a plethora of facts which sink the book like a tombstone.
8pollytoynbee
4Books
Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy <br />edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild <br /> 336pp, Granta, 8.99 This is western feminism's dirty little secret. Behind the glorious image of the have-it-all woman in the Armani suit, with a Gucci briefcase on one arm and a baby tucked under the other, too often lies a tale of the oppression of another woman. Domestic servitude has only been escaped by passing it down to another cadre of oppressed women. Battalions of low-paid women - in America most of them foreign - have taken up the domestic duties, along with the dirty washing, discarded by professional women who have fled the home. Liberation for high-fliers breaking through glass ceilings is only possible because of a flotilla of unseen, unheard women who care for their children, clean their homes and cook their meals while they live liberated like men. This is a book to tear at the heart and wrench with guilt many women who already feel they are juggling their lives on a knife-edge. Their own deep anxieties about their children and their high-pressured lives are all too often passed on to the women who work for them, making them exceptionally bad employers. In America this is a story of the mass importation of a precious new raw material - care and love - from the third world. Take one typical case: Rowena Bautista left a village in the Philippines to work as a domestic in Washington DC - one of about 800,000 legal household workers (plus armies of illegals). In her basement room she has photos of four children, two of her own whom she has left behind and two of her American charges to whom she has to some extent transferred her love and care. She left her own children in the care of their grandmother five years ago when the youngest, Clinton, was only three: she could find no work to provide for them. The children's grandmother is herself so hard-pressed that she works as a teacher from 7am to 9pm each day, so Rowena has hired a local woman to cook, clean and care for the family in her long absence. (In her turn, that woman leaves her own child in the care of a very elderly grandmother.) Rowena hasn't managed to get home to the Philippines for the last two Christmases, but the family relies on the money she sends. Rowena calls the American child she tends "my baby". She says: "I give Noa what I can't give my own children." Last time she saw her own son, he turned away from her, asking resentfully: "Why did you come back?" The distress and damage done to such abandoned children is well-documented in this collection of research. A series of essays edited by two of the great American writers on work, it exposes a deeply shocking underworld of globally exploited women. This is one of those moments when things that are known but unspoken are dragged out into the light of day. Chapter after chapter reveals how women's traditional roles, rejected by western women, are now being filled by wickedly treated other mothers. Their love is bought, they give everything to their charges and yet they are often sacked on a whim, never to see their child charges again. Imported cleaners, cooks, old-age carers, nannies and housemaids are joined by mail-order brides for men who like the submissive "old-fashioned" values from the east. (That chapter is aptly called "Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-Wage US Husbands".) And there are the sex-workers and sex-slaves, some who knew what they were in for, others who were tricked or kidnapped. Horror stories abound, including child sex tourism. Countries such as the Philippines have become economically dependent on the remittances women domestic workers send home. They may leave behind men whose skills are in less demand in the west: demoralised by unemployment, some husbands turn to drink and gambling, wasting all the hard-earned money their wives send, leaving the children worse off than if their mothers had stayed home. This is a most brutal example of the force of globalisation, draining even love away from poor countries. It is the final depredation, exploiting the last resources the third world has left to sell - motherhood and sex. Since this is an American book, I checked the official number of domestic workers in Britain: it is 154,000 and not rising, though a great many more certainly work in the black economy. There have been enough cases of diplomats bringing in visa-slaves as domestics to make it clear that many of the same abuses happen here. In the UK the social injustice is mainly indigenous: professional women pass their un-wanted domestic work on to poorer British women at pitiful rates of pay. Only the richest 20% of working women can afford to buy childcare, paying very low wages to minders or nursery assistants. Well-paid nannies are confined to the topmost echelons. What is to be done? Barbara Ehrenreich's ground-breaking book Nickel and Dimed exposed the impossibility of living on the minimum wage in the US: one of her most memorable jobs was working for The Maids, a domestic cleaning service. Here, recalling that starvation drudgery, she offers a ferociously forensic dissection of everything wrong with a corrupted capitalism that has led to this exploitation of third-world women. Hers is a devastating feminist critique, almost as savage about high-earning women who pass on their domestic duties as she is about the sexist world in which all domestic work is consigned to women in the first place. In the "chore wars" of 1970s feminism, she says, men won. They took on almost no extra housework or childcare. "Enter then the cleaning lady as dea ex machina, restoring tranquility as well as order to the home," she writes. Marriage-guidance counsellors now recommend them as an alternative to squabbling. In the US, this is a race as well as a class issue: maids are mainly black, reinforcing rich kids' views that black means servant: a little white girl in a supermarket trolley passing a little black girl exclaims: "Oh, look Mommy, a baby maid!" The mistress-maid relationship is fraught, and Ehrenreich describes how an "overclass" has become deskilled in any domestic knowledge, unable to cook or clean, with children who would "suffocate in their own detritus" without someone to pick up after them. She twists the knife in overprivileged women who have "something better" to do with their time in a society where the rich get richer and the poor poorer. In Britain, this debate revolves around the state's failure to provide universal childcare with well-paid nursery assistants: there's nothing wrong with equal women working for good pay as respected childcare professionals. In the US, state provision is not even worth talking about. But Ehrenreich's eloquent moral fury is primarily directed at a capitalism that exploits every last drop of blood of the weak, wherever they are in the world, whatever they have to sell, even a mother's love. Unregulated, out-of-control capitalism creates a long-hours culture in which women cannot compete and still be mothers. Above all, the fault is with men who still refuse to take an equal share in everything domestic - thinking, planning and doing. If they did, the nature of work would change. This deeply disturbing book reaches right to the dark heart of society's worst dysfunctions, with stories to make you weep with outrage. If postfeminism means that it's all right for some other woman to be exploited instead of you, this should fire up some of that good old-time passion. Feminism always was a revolutionary project, and Ehrenreich bemoans a project left uncompleted: "Sooner or later someone else will have to finish the job.

Dataset Card for "guardian_authorship"

Dataset Summary

A dataset cross-topic authorship attribution. The dataset is provided by Stamatatos 2013. 1- The cross-topic scenarios are based on Table-4 in Stamatatos 2017 (Ex. cross_topic_1 => row 1:P S U&W ). 2- The cross-genre scenarios are based on Table-5 in the same paper. (Ex. cross_genre_1 => row 1:B P S&U&W).

3- The same-topic/genre scenario is created by grouping all the datasts as follows. For ex., to use same_topic and split the data 60-40 use: train_ds = load_dataset('guardian_authorship', name="cross_topic_<<#>>", split='train[:60%]+validation[:60%]+test[:60%]') tests_ds = load_dataset('guardian_authorship', name="cross_topic_<<#>>", split='train[-40%:]+validation[-40%:]+test[-40%:]')

IMPORTANT: train+validation+test[:60%] will generate the wrong splits because the data is imbalanced

Supported Tasks and Leaderboards

More Information Needed

Languages

More Information Needed

Dataset Structure

Data Instances

cross_genre_1

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 3.10 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.74 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.84 MB

An example of 'train' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 4
}

cross_genre_2

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 3.10 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.74 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.84 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 1
}

cross_genre_3

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 3.10 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.74 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.84 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 2
}

cross_genre_4

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 3.10 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.74 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.84 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 3
}

cross_topic_1

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 3.10 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.34 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.43 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 1
}

Data Fields

The data fields are the same among all splits.

cross_genre_1

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_genre_2

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_genre_3

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_genre_4

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_topic_1

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

Data Splits

name train validation test
cross_genre_1 63 112 269
cross_genre_2 63 62 319
cross_genre_3 63 90 291
cross_genre_4 63 117 264
cross_topic_1 112 62 207

Dataset Creation

Curation Rationale

More Information Needed

Source Data

Initial Data Collection and Normalization

More Information Needed

Who are the source language producers?

More Information Needed

Annotations

Annotation process

More Information Needed

Who are the annotators?

More Information Needed

Personal and Sensitive Information

More Information Needed

Considerations for Using the Data

Social Impact of Dataset

More Information Needed

Discussion of Biases

More Information Needed

Other Known Limitations

More Information Needed

Additional Information

Dataset Curators

More Information Needed

Licensing Information

More Information Needed

Citation Information

@article{article,
    author = {Stamatatos, Efstathios},
    year = {2013},
    month = {01},
    pages = {421-439},
    title = {On the robustness of authorship attribution based on character n-gram features},
    volume = {21},
    journal = {Journal of Law and Policy}
}

@inproceedings{stamatatos2017authorship,
    title={Authorship attribution using text distortion},
    author={Stamatatos, Efstathios},
    booktitle={Proc. of the 15th Conf. of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics},
    volume={1}
    pages={1138--1149},
    year={2017}
}

Contributions

Thanks to @thomwolf, @eltoto1219, @malikaltakrori for adding this dataset.

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