Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.

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Recycled independents

I watched with bemusement and a certain sense of déjà vu the decision of seven Labour MPs (now apparently eight) yesterday to resign from the Party and sit as independents. The echoes of the formation of the SDP back in 1981 are strong – and well explored elsewhere, most recently by Keith Flett in a thoughtful post on unintended consequences – not least with the SDP also having sought, and failed, to ‘break the mould of British politics’.

As someone who also resigned from the Party on a point of principle (the ludicrous scenario of the party of labour digging up long-lost legislation from the statute book to get around the 2000 firefighters’ dispute), though I’m not sure that anyone actually noticed back then, I understand that discontent sometimes comes to a point of no return. And, some members of the group are clearly highly uncomfortable with, and angry at, aspects of the Party’s direction and approach. Not currently being a member of the Party, however, it’s really not up to me to comment on what is someone else’s point of principle other than to say that such departures are always regrettable.

The SDP had its Limehouse Declaration, but the gang of eight appear to have very little as regards an attempt at policy direction. Braving the ‘Whoa! are you sure you want to go there?’ pop-up from my McAfee Web Adviser tool which, somewhat comically, rated the group’s website as ‘slightly risky’ when I dialled it up earlier this evening, I can see a set of fairly loose motherhood-and-apple-pie values – but, on the issue of the day, very little as regards what the group might be calling for on Brexit. 1981 still casts a long shadow on UK politics and it might be that the group is extremely hesitant to engage with policy formality in terms of anything resembling a Council for Social Democracy. The fate of (rightly) much-derided blue Labour/red Tory initiatives also has a comment to make on this. Perhaps, on the other hand, this is still coming – and it may be that the realignment of UK politics in the wake of the Change wrought by the 2016 referendum may still come about if UKUP entryism into the Tory Party represents more than just the usual relentless self-promotion; or if the current crop of cabinet ministers ever actually have to make good on their threat to resign in the face of a no-deal Brexit – and it may be with these things in mind that any attempt at a policy programme has yet to appear.

I’d suggest, however, that this group’ll be a long time waiting, splits by moderate Tories continuing to be a somewhat less likely outcome, even if Brexit does change everything, particularly given what seems to be the major driver behind the group’s decision: discontent with their own party never looks attractive to members of another, even if there are reasons for discontent over there, too.

Given that Brexit was one of the prompters of their decision to leave – all are supporters of putting the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU to the people (as, in principle, am I) – I might have expected a bit more. Or, actually, quite a bit less – since it’s not only the programme which is somewhat nebulous; the timing of their departure from the Party is also extremely puzzling.

Their departure may not make the mathematics on a people’s vote any different – but it does deprive the Parliamentary Labour Party of a strong voice on behalf of a people’s vote; and, furthermore, it may well undermine it among the Party’s loyalists who would not want to espouse policies supported by breakaway MPs. It also, for the same potential reasons, complicates the arithmetic around Yvette Cooper’s attempt to compel the Prime Minister to request more time from the EU to prevent the UK crashing out on 28 March, as it will by default unless something is done to prevent it. Furthermore, the Party’s conference programme is clear and encompasses a referendum, reiterated regularly (and most recently on Sunday) by John McDonnell, should no deal be possible or should the terms of the deal fail to protect jobs and the economy – regardless of the fall-out from Honda, among others – workers’ rights and environmental protection standards. That is, at least, still on the table and, the circumstances for resignation should that policy be ignored are clearly therefore not yet in place. The departure – on these grounds – is evidently premature.

And, furthermore, like all breakaways, it has redirected the pressure within Westminster away from the government’s farcical Brexit negotiations process and preparations; and away from the Prime Minster’s albeit incredibly half-hearted attempt at political engagement among MPs. It might, in extremis, lead to Theresa May seeking to exploit the split by calling a snap election – though it may be that she has learned from the last time. Nevertheless, with this in mind, discipline remains the key since a loss of focus will represent a loss of opportunity. Ultimately, such intense failures of policies and of personality from the Prime Minister need to be continually at the centre of attention and continually ratcheting up the pressure if there is to be a proper, decent deal on Brexit or, otherwise, a people’s vote. Any such breakaway provides a valve to relieve that pressure, with the Prime Minister thereby able to get one step closer to a crash-out which will keep the hard right in the ERG on board and a Tory Party together, if not exactly united; splits from the moderate side of the Tories being, when push comes to shove, a somewhat less likely outcome, in my view, whatever the rumours.

Whatever the gang of eight think are the chances of gaining the actual support of their Party for a people’s vote, their departure not only does not make it more likely, it actually makes it a bit less so. And, at this stage, that’s very frustrating.

Book review: Long Road from Jarrow

I was given this as a present (thanks, Tracy!) a couple of years ago and immediately relished the anticipation of reading it, although it has had to wait more than its fair share of time sitting on my to-read shelf. It ought not to have: it’s clear that Maconie is as much of a fan of Newcastle as I – and I mean here the city, not the Toon. At 17, applying for several of what were then called polys, I arrived in Newcastle and, in an echo of Maconie’s opening paragraphs here, sweeping over the King Edward Bridge with the city spread out before and below me, I was sold on the prospect of living and studying here long before I ever got anywhere near the campus.

Not only that, I was a sand dancer for a while – although that’s not a term I recognised until Maconie’s earlier book, Pies and Prejudice. In the summer of 1984, I had a job working in the South Shields branch office of the Northern Rock, alongside David, Carol, Jean, Lesley, Alison, Anne-Marie (whose maternity cover I was) and June, whose husband was a striking miner up at Westoe Colliery. In almost daily conversations about the strike, I came to realise for the first time the value of taking collective action for something you believed in – June was herself the embodiment of the notion that the miners’ strike was fought equally by strong families as much as by strong miners.

My route into Shields on the metro from my Tyneside flat along Sunderland Road in Gateshead (bulldozed into a new development some time ago, I note) took me through Jarrow (if I was lucky, sharing the ride alongside Elizabeth, who also worked in Shields three doors up at the Newcastle Building Society and whose stop was Jarrow. The Rock – in those days still a building society prior to its transformation by rapacious gold-diggers into a risk-taking ‘proper’ financial institution – is no longer there, of course, but the Newcastle, which remains a building society, has relocated further down Fowler Street, and expanded, while Virgin Money, which took over parts of the Rock, now seems to occupy the place, and the footprint, formerly vacated by the Newcastle).

In October 1986, three months after graduating and newly installed in work on Teesside, I found myself back in ‘Jarra’ and listening to the general secretary of GMB, John Edmonds, at the fiftieth celebration issue yet another apology for the failure of the labour and trade union movements to offer better moral, practical and indeed financial support to the marchers, ahead of the departure the following day (IIRC) of the 1986 version of the Jarrow march. As he invited one of the few remaining 1936 marchers to join him on the stage, there was a small shuffle behind and just to the right of me – and up stepped a man whose name I can’t quite remember, but who might possibly have been Jimmy Foggon. I was standing feet away (and in front of) a living legend, himself (and again) just a part of the crowd. This might have been for personal reasons, but I found it very odd.

The reasons for the lack of solidarity from the organised labour and trade union movements for the 1936 marchers are fairly well explored in Maconie’s book, although his aim here is not to provide a history of the march, of which there are several also referenced here. It would of course not be possible for one man walking alone (and sometimes taking buses and taxis) to recreate the collective endeavours of 200 men – the logistics of keeping that many men on the road for three weeks are clearly considerable; and we should not lose sight that one of the strengths of the original march was its collective nature. However, by following the same route, and on the same days in October, Maconie’s aim was to take the temperature of post-Brexit referendum Britain in a series of conversations with the people he encountered en route. As a sociologist, and a wry but clear-sighted commentator on the foibles of modern day living, Maconie is well equipped for the task even if, on occasion, he appears a little lost and somewhat lonely – an observer rather than a participant – and even though the politics will not be for everyone (on the left, but equally certainly no fan of Jeremy Corbyn).

It was a surprise to see for how many of those he meets that the 1936 march was not a total blank: a relative success for the teaching of relatively recent social (and labour) history, I feel, as well as the presence of the march in the collective consciousness. However, Maconie’s biggest achievement in bringing this book to life is its reminder that we have been here before: the cry of the working class to be heard, and for good quality, skilled jobs – frequently at the forefront of analysts and Brexit apologists – is not a new phenomenon. Capitalism in crisis, bringing devastation to towns dependent for work and a living on a single source (or a series of chained sources), can be seen not just in the outcome of the 2016 vote and in the miners’ strike, as well as in the loss of steel industry jobs in Consett and Corby and Motherwell and Port Talbot and Redcar, and with new jobs frequently being low-skilled, low paid and insecure; it is certainly also there in the decision of 200 men from Jarrow to walk to London carrying their petition about the closure of the shipyard and the need for more work to save the town. And being ultimately fobbed off. That we are still having the same debates eighty-plus years on is evidently a reflection of the continual failure of neoliberal economics based on the laws of the market, alongside its continual success in the perpetual selling of promises and in the trading of lies to the working class by rich elites. The answer to all that is reasonably clear – and there is a message there too for labour organisations.

That Brexit will also lead to job losses amongst the working class is also clear: the cry to be heard is likely to lead to the cry for further investment in working class communities and no-one, ordinary voter or elected representative, ought to be trusting the promises of this government on that. But it is the greatest tragedy that those who responded to the lies of the Leave campaign are those who are likely to lose most from it, while those elites who teased it and led it are those who will be among those who profit the most. It is the outcomes of that which probably need to be feared more than the question of ‘undermining democracy’ by the simple expedient of asking people whether, three years on, the bright future outside the EU sold to them and for which they voted back in 2016 is indeed still what they want or whether they now see it for what it is: a mirage, or a chimera.

Maconie concludes with a fairly rosy passage on the liars and the bullies, the loudmouths and the puritans, the pub bores and the ineffectual commissars not being the best of us and, while that’s true, it’s also true that our public discourse has chosen to put the views of these same groups in an elevated position. The referendum itself, the way it was conducted and its aftermath in naturalising the telling of lies and in the trashing of political standards and discourse, as the Article 50 process speeds towards its irrevocable conclusion, will continue to reverberate not least in terms of a decision over whether the Scottish working class, which is fundamentally pro-EU, will continue to align itself with an English working class which is anti-EU stemming, at least in part, from an unresolved and boorish English nationalism* or, instead, with the working class on the rest of the continent. Inevitably, there are many in Scotland who will see the establishment of a hard border on the island of Britain, to the north of Carlisle and Berwick, as A Good Thing.

The more telling passage in Maconie’s journey perhaps came a little earlier, however, when Maconie, an Italophile, discovers that Bedford has a population of 15-20,000 Italians – around one-fifth to one-quarter of the population – originally as a result of the brickworks needing labour in the 1950s in the literal reconstruction of Britain and many Italian men from the Mezzogiorno needing work. They were given four-year contracts with the right to stay at the end and many did – though many also returned home for personal reasons. During that time, their continued presence would have been at the whim of the brickworks managers and, despite tough living and working conditions, workers would have needed to keep their noses clean or lose the right to stay – a post-Brexit future based on a return to the past and to the exploitation of migrant labour for which no trade unionist can be in favour but with which we continue to be ill-equipped to deal. We can note that Bedford probably voted for Brexit in around the same proportion as the UK as a whole and a little higher than in the rest of the south-east (c. 53%). Building solidarity among the working class continues, it seems, to be a long-term project, as much now as in 2016, and as in 1956, and as in 1936.

*text in italics originally included in the draft mapped out in my head but which then failed to make it on to the page.