Book Review: Black Moses

Black Moses is the sixth novel by Congolese man of letters and literary award winner Alain Mabanckou. Published in an English translation (from 2015’s original French Petit Piment) in 2017, this has sat on my to-read shelf for a while and the work is already no longer Mabanckou’s most recent novel, having been surpassed (in English translation) in 2020.

Black Moses was long-listed for the 2017 International Booker Prize and tells the story of Moses – nicknamed occasionally ‘Little Pepper’ (hence the French title) – and his life growing up in an orphanage in Loango, a small way north on Congo’s Côte Sauvage from the major coastal town of Pointe-Noire, and then afterwards on the streets of Pointe-Noire itself, during Congo’s Marxist-Leninist revolution from 1969. Life in the orphanage is brutish and marked by casual violence both between the residents (mostly boys; there are girls too although they feature little in the story) and as administered by the director and his warden acolytes. Corruption is rife and shortages are plenty and Moses learns quickly of the need for allies as well as friends if he is to survive; and, as he grows older, those lessons serve him well as he swaps life in the orphanage firstly for the streets of Pointe-Noire, followed by a degree of comfort among a group of immigrant sex workers and work on the docks before, in a situation of rapidly deteriorating mental health in which neither a French-trained psychiatrist nor a traditional healer can help him, he is confronted with an opportunity to try and make a difference.

Reading through this brief summary of the plot, this all looks rather bleak and, while the themes and the conclusions are so, Mabanckou’s skill is to tell his story in a characterful way and with the use of as much colour as is encapsulated by the book’s cover (which, we should note, symbolically embodies the colours of the flag of Congo). Whether it is in the orphanage or on the streets, the sights and the sounds and the colours are vividly real and this ensures that the tale leaps off the page in a vibrant way, despite the tough subject matter and the toughness of Moses’s own life in each of its different stages. Mabanckou is also able to deploy a mischievous humour in the same direction albeit that the use of humour in a novel with these sorts of dark themes requires fine judgment both in getting the reader to the point of realising the urgency of the scenes presented and to accept the reality of the toughness of street life and the choices being exercised. Picaresque it may be but these are also serious themes which humour risks under-playing.

The shift in the title from the French to the English is interesting since it shifts the focus of the book from a potential reminiscence – the book is dedicated to a ‘Little Pepper’ whose stories helped inspire it – and more towards allegory. Here, a little biblical knowledge might be required although, for those without, whether Moses grows up to fulfil his destiny is also covered off in the opening chapter. Regardless, this subtle shift in emphasis occasioned by the title change heightens attention on the novel’s key theme which is that of the impossibility of escaping the life situation into which we are born, particularly in the book’s context of the circumstances of the poverty and oppression in the Congo of the time but, as is likely, given our shared human experience, more widely in other contexts (and country locations) as well. Despite the biblical theme, this is not just a question of the inescapability of destiny, or more correctly the destiny that we feel is imposed upon us, but more particularly the endless circle into which our social situation traps us.

Given the ready availability of an English translation of the original title, changing it thus seems to have been an editorial decision. Mabanckou, a full professor at UCLA, where he teaches literature and creative writing in the Department of French & Francophone Studies and African Studies Center, was surely at least au fait with the decision.

There are clear difficulties in any situation of translating local context into a different language, not least given the colonial aspects. Mabanckou comments – in relation to a previous novel – that he writes in French ‘but with an African accent’; as well as that there are more difficult languages into which to translate than English where anything missing as regards the sense is likely to be no more than ten per cent although there are always cultural aspects which differ. My own instincts tell me here that the shared exploitation of the African continent by the major western European powers may in some respects lessen those cultural aspects while evidently heightening them in others. The translator of Black Moses – Helen Stevenson – has translated Mabanckou before (in respect of a more technically difficult piece of work than this) and comments that the key is giving people a voice, which is not the same as aiming for linguistic equivalence, something which Mabanckou also echoes in his interview linked above.

The second thematic aspect to the novel is the extent to which people growing up in institutions can become institutionalised. Moses – the name is given to him by a priest – is left at the orphanage as a baby and never manages to leave institutional settings for very long. Meanwhile his relationships, few of which are lasting, highlight the abandonment issues which people in such a position frequently experience, along with difficulties in forming attachments, while the few attachments he does manage to form are quite closely linked to the desire for a mother – and, very occasionally, a father – figure in his life. The difficulty with what is quite a short novel (of 200 pages) is that there is not a lot of room for detailed characterisation and, with Mabanckou choosing to focus on the street smarts which Moses learns in the orphanage in the novel’s lengthy opening section (and which were probably critical to his later survival, given his choices), this is under-explored and both Moses’s sensitive, vulnerable side and the later mental health issues come not only as something of a surprise to the reader but appear thus as the rather too visible hand of the author. Either way, they don’t really convince in a context which requires the reader to connect with the main character.

Nevertheless, we have here a well-rounded tale, complete and entire in itself and where all ends are wrapped up (and with substantial pathos at the end) and which has an interesting tale to tell of the difficulties that social and political revolutions face in and, as here, of themselves in making life better for people; as well as of the difficulties people face in escaping their status and, indeed, their destiny. If orphanages were indeed the ‘laboratories of the revolution’ in Congo, Mabanckou is specific that they failed. Regardless, societies of all types need to do more to ensure that people are not trapped by either status or destiny as well as to ensure that all who need it get the help they deserve.

Book Review: Summer

Ali Smith’s Summer – the last in her quartet of seasonal novels – was published in August 2020. Autumn, the first, emerged in October 2016 which means that, within the life of this blog, whose first post was also October 2016, she has published four bestselling, critically-acclaimed novels. I have read – and reviewed – them all (Autumn, Winter and Spring). Smith’s is a phenomenal achievement whose origins might owe something to a long-rooted desire to produce a series of connected novels about the seasons but more so to a piece of personal misfortune – she was a year late with her manuscript for 2014’s How To Be Both, but the publisher still managed, somewhat heroically, to get the book out more or less on time. Among other things, this demonstrates something very interesting about Smith’s own writing process, of which more in a bit.

Summer, recently shortlisted for the 2020 Highland Book Prize, ties up some though by no means all the loose ends established in the earlier novels. For those with an interest in these things, others have exhaustively and painstakingly drawn the myriad links which Smith has made, connecting characters, motifs and figures in the art world, in the course of these four novels.

This one starts, however, with new characters Grace Greenlaw, recently divorced from a husband who now lives next door (interesting, but entirely coincidental, thematic echoes here of Our House which I read just previously), together with her daughter and son, Sacha (16) and Robert (13). In terms of the narrative arc, there is an entirely chance meeting with Art and Charlotte, who we met in 2017’s Winter (though this time it’s the real Charlotte), who are on a mission to reunite Daniel, the old man we met in Autumn, with something which Sophie, Art’s mother, wanted returned to him after her death. This they do. In the course of the journey, Grace and Daniel both revisit their youths, summer being a time for warm, even dreamy, recollection, her at the end of the 1980s, him in the 1940s, while the tale is spiced with latter-day notes prompted by the activism of Sacha, who is concerned not only with environmental issues but also with the fate of refugees in immigration removal centres whose story was central to 2019’s Spring. The item is returned and the tale reaches a surprisingly romantic (and, perhaps, a rather cliched) conclusion as a vehicle for Smith to relate her significant optimism and hopefulness for our future on this planet, born from the warmth of our essential humanity and the timeless things that endure about the human spirit.

The narrative arc is thus slight but, as in all the novels in this series, the point is indeed the journey not the culmination of the tale, just as summer is neither the end of the chronological year nor, indeed, is the end of the year ‘the end’ as the seasons continue rhythmically to roll around. The book, and thus the series, does have a conventional end – it would have detracted from the work had it not – but, in pointing us back towards autumn, we are reminded both of those seasonal rhythms, that eternal regeneration and the continuing evolution of the human story.

This evolution is naturally picked up via Smith’s literary reference points throughout the quartet to Shakespeare (in Summer, overtly, to The Winter’s Tale); and to Dickens (in terms of narrative genius as well as Dickens’s own writing of some of his stories, including Oliver Twist, serially for regularly published journals). Both would recognise Smith’s characters in their own times and their own tales feature recurrent human tragedies and heroism (and with a strong eye on the singular rather than the grandiose).

Smith started writing Summer at the end of January, when the Australian wildfires which wrought such devastating environmental effects were much in the news, and just as stories were coming to the attention of the western media about Covid-19, with the narrative mostly taking place in March – Summer is not set in summer, but in late spring – handing in the final manuscript as Black Lives Matters protests took to the streets (there is an understandably brief reference to the murder of George Floyd, which took place at the end of May 2020). Thus it was written entirely during the early phases of Covid-19 and there are references to the ‘sickness’ – which is unnamed – in the novel both thematically as well as in terms of the events described, both Daniel and Charlotte experiencing their own lockdown imprisonments, both physical and mental. Six weeks from manuscript to finished product, in the middle of a pandemic, is indeed another heroic achievement by Smith’s publishing team.

Writing in this highly contemporary fashion allows Smith to use literature to shine a light on our own times as well as to draw illuminating connections with events in our shared history. This not only allows her to explore the circularity of events within the human condition, but also lends a considerable topicality to her work – Daniel’s (very real) recollection of the 1940s is as the son of an unnaturalised German living in the UK, and thus interned for a period on the Isle of Man (while his beloved sister Hannah is fighting the Nazis in occupied France): events called to mind later in 2020, and which have re-surfaced recently, as the Tories have openly considered sending asylum seekers to places such as Gibraltar and, indeed, the Isle of Man for the processing of their asylum applications (an idea immediately rejected by both). Lorenza Mazetti, related to Einstein and the artist whose spirit informs this part of the quartet, and who died only as Smith was getting underway with Summer, was herself an ‘undesirable alien’ in 1950s London. More humourously, the disagreement about sourcing a Hannah Arendt quote from the internet, the subject of a debate at the start of the novel between Sacha and her mother, crossed my Twitter feed on only Wednesday this week as Deutsche Welle wondered why so many famous quotes – many of them from Einstein – are fake.

As with the rest of her novels, Smith glories in language, both verbal and non-verbal, and in playing around with words and Summer is no different – I love, for example, the fun she has here with Einstein and ein stein; while here, the opening monologue takes on, and challenges, the simple word ‘so’, in the first place as an expression of jaded, shoulder-shrugging, care-free indifference and in the second as a word as resolute, determined, programmatic and as focused on action as any verb. This love of language dominates her work and its expression here – never forced, never apparently hard work – seems to come entirely naturally to her. The revelation that she suffered during the writing of Spring from a loss of faith in what she calls ‘dialogue with the form’ – the conversation between author and novel in progress – is thus a surprising one, Spring representing for me a return to form from what I saw as an over-hasty realisation of Winter.

All artists suffer at some times from a form of “writers’ block” – that crisis of confidence in which you read, or hear, or see only the weaknesses in your work accompanied by a stymieing inability to recognise that what makes something great can also be its weakness, whether you’re a late-20s New Jerseyan taking months to get right not just the sound but the opening sound on what will turn out to be your most famous record; or a member of a production crew walking around Los Angeles at more or less the same time wearing T-shirts carrying the legend ‘Stevie’s nearly ready’. It is therefore a sign of great confidence in her own abilities that Smith took on the task of producing such a masterwork in this timeframe, as well as in bringing it to its conclusion. Artists of all kinds have to have the confidence, but also the courage, to ‘let it go’ – to let things out in the wild despite what may be imperfections and such that they stand or fall as products of their time. Smith makes such a connection between art and literature in this series; I draw a similar connection between literature and music in the same way – not that literature needs to be the rock’n’roll more than anything else does (rock’n’roll being some way from falling on its back). But, a novel is much like an album: you let it go and it may turn out to be ‘long grass by the wayside’ in ten years’ time (as Smith herself self-deprecatingly thinks likely about these volumes) or your songs may still be being sung 120 years in the future (see Nanci Griffiths’s introduction before playing track ten).

It’s partly confidence but it’s also about process. Smith is able to get novels out in this short timeframe because she re-drafts and edits as she goes. Consequently, there is no lengthy period of to-and-fro between writer and production house: what the production house gets as a final manuscript is – give or take a bit of subsequent judicious editorial intervention – what the reader holds in their hand. This ‘dialogue with the form’ is the key: books don’t ‘write themselves’, but they do go down their own roads in the process of being written, sometimes in ways that surprise their authors the most successful of whom have that confidence in the natural evolution of what they are writing. Writing is, ultimately, about your own reading.

Summer starts out as a book about forgiveness, perhaps as befits a novel whose purpose, at least in part, is to bring about some form of closure to the series. But with the pandemic raging against the background of a government whose multiple failures, weak preparation and incompetent handling, alongside PPE debacles and cronyism, allied to its catastrophic trust in a murderous herd immunity strategy, this was clearly no time for a message of ‘forgiveness’. In lesser hands, this turn of events might have implied disaster to a novel written for the here and now but Smith has skilfully turned the book into an extended consideration of the collective implications of the occurrence of a national sickness.

Far, therefore, from Summer being ‘derailed’ by the pandemic, as some readers have alleged, it is in fact made by it. This is the case not only in that the pandemic forms the essential background to the novel – which would have been written to the same timeframe whether it had happened or not – but which also provides the key hook for the key message which she allows to evolve from it – that, given Smith’s ability to juxtapose opposites and enjoy doing so: a Winter’s Tale toured in summer; lightness in the middle of darkness; happiness in the midst of sadness; protests in the face of implacable opposition; hope for the possibility of another world when this one seems to be at its worst; health (and healing) coming after sickness – we may still, despite all the signs of loss of the times in which we live, find the hope of a healing which will resolve the fractures and the fractiousness of the years in which this series of novels has been set. That we cannot truly experience joy unless we have always seen despair – that, in terms of the theatre, we carry two masks: one for comedy and one for tragedy. There is, at least, hope and, indeed, times pass as time passes. Til then, our pandemic-influenced position is, as it is for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale which Grace interprets for her colleagues in the repertory company as follows:

A blight comes down on him, on his country, from nowhere. It’s irrational, It has no source. It just happens. Like things do. They suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. (pp. 282-3)

Smith is not for everyone – those who prefer a more linear narrative arc will find the novel’s extended flashbacks and playing around with the time sequence confusing and disorienting. Others of a less liberal mindset will find much that they will despise. Purists will hate the lack of quotation marks when characters are in dialogue. But, if you love words and enjoy the thought of watching a master writer at work, able to tell a story about the way we live in our times and, in doing so, relate much about the creative process that authors and editors experience, do engage with this: Summer, both in its own right as well as the summation and realisation of an immense literary ambition, deserves all the awards that ought to be coming its way.

Book Review: Our House

Our House, the twelfth book by Louise Candlish, was published in 2018 and was well-garlanded following publication, not least being selected as the British Book Award’s 2019 Crime and Thriller Book of the Year.

Set in the fictional London district of Alder Rise, which may or may not be the Herne Hill of the author’s own residence, or perhaps somewhere just a little further south-east, it features Fi and Bram Lawson, a forty-somethings husband and wife with two young children living in upwardly-mobile suburbia whose outward appearances, as is well established in literature, are not as they seem (and which is very well-captured on the hardback cover of the UK version). The house of the title is the source of the couple’s invisible wealth but visible relationship stresses, as well as the device around which the plot revolves: we learn in the first few pages that the house has been sold without Fi’s knowledge with the guilty party apparently her husband; the questions that remain are to do with the whats and the whys which are successively peeled back in the novel’s pages as the two relate their post-event stories of their rapidly-evolving relationship in the first place via a podcast called ‘The Victim’ and secondly via a Word document which, we quickly learn, is a self-confessed suicide note. These are interspersed with brief, in the moment, accounts of Fi’s developing horror as what has happened to her becomes evident, alongside comments from the Twitterati listening along to her podcast.

Now, I don’t read a lot of crime stuff but this looks to me to be well set-up as a highly plausible cautionary tale about property and aspiration as well as being probably somewhat unusual in the genre in that the thriller aspects lie not in uncovering the identities of victim and perpetrator but in the explanations of their behaviour. It’s certainly a page-turner and this is a tribute to the gripping descriptions of the initial set-up as well as the step-by-step reveals of how the main characters have got to this point. The ending, containing also a moral message albeit somewhat confused in a contemporary setting, is quite breathtaking and which will leave the reader with a strong sense of melancholy. Ultimately, this is a novel about how little we too often know about those with whom we set up our lives, not least in the light of the ‘laws’ of attraction between people, where Candlish has some interesting things to say; and it provides some interesting contrasts between our tendency to share so much of our lives online, increasing our own vulnerabilities, and the ease with which fraud can take place both in the property sense and in terms of the ease with which men and women can choose to cheat each other.

There are, however, several difficulties, betraying the period of writing coinciding while the author was partially out of contract and, perhaps, with her mind on other issues. The book is under development for a four-part TV series now in production for ITV and due to be filmed this summer; and it will be interesting to see how the scriptwriter resolves these for TV.

Leaving aside some of the plot twists, which owe a remarkable amount to chance, this ought, firstly, to be a character study. Our sympathies may – and indeed should – shift as the accounts slowly reveal motivations and explanations; voice and the reliability of witness are important elements of a good crime novel. However, the characters are not only shallow in their obsessions but also rather shallowly drawn to the point where the reader realises that they actually care rather too little about either one. This makes it impossible for those sympathies to develop, or to shift. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t occasional elements of real pathos affecting not least Bram, or sadness about poor choices affecting not least Fi, or a sense of bewilderment about their inabilities to communicate with each other. Secondly, the set-up of the novel ought to see it evolve as a psychological thriller; certainly it has some psychological elements but it contains too little in the way of the sustained sense of threat which would contribute to our growing understanding of why they act as they do (and which underpins the YouTube video made in support of the publication). This is partly a function of the author’s rather weak characterisation – had these been drawn deeper, psychological terror could have take a stronger root – but it also reflects the manner of the telling of the tale: step-by-step reveals told in reflective flashback do miss the terror of the motivations for actions as described in the moment.

The structure of the tale is somewhat odd. It’s not that the book is, at 435 pages, too long – although that is one criticism that has been levelled at it but which I suspect stems more from fans of a genre in which pace and mystery is key. Fi’s ‘The Victim’ podcast, however, stretches out over three hours. Now, I absolutely defy anyone to listen to a three-hour podcast – I top out at about an hour and it takes a lot for interest to be sustained over much more than about forty minutes. However ‘interesting’ other people’s ‘true-life’ stories are to fans of this sort of thing, I simply don’t believe that Fi’s podcast would still have listeners at the two-hour mark, let alone three. Bram’s Word document, we learn towards the end, has been written over a period of six weeks surely qualifying it, at least in literary terms, as the longest suicide note in history. The problem is not that these as vehicles for a tale are poor in themselves – they demonstrate an eye for a structural hook – but they are clearly inappropriate vehicles for the amount of detail the author wishes to convey. Additionally, at key points in the text, Twitter threads developed from the listeners’ comments could have acted as a kind of Greek Chorus, prompting deeper reflections in the reader, but they are used more to generate light relief and, while the author might have had a bit of fun with them, they turn out to be rather tiresome, adding simply too little.

Additionally, the essential set-up for the novel’s denouement also contains weaknesses – it’s not actually clear why Bram chooses ultimately to go through with his scheme – while the key event in the middle of the novel is poorly described and, as a result, somewhat hard to visualise. These are rather basic plot development faults which an author of this experience ought to have ironed out by now.

We are left with a well-conceived tale which has an interesting twist in its conclusion and which spirals outwards from a very well-conceived, imaginative starting point. The middle of the journey – the story’s engine room – is, unfortunately, not as well captured as it ought to have been and this leaves it with an absence at its core which is as full of emptiness as the couple’s obsession with property rather than with each other. As much as concern about property ownership might have lain at the heart of Candlish’s purpose in developing and writing the work, the nature of the development between the praiseworthy start and end points leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment.

Book review: Four Futures

This slim volume (150 pages) is a joint product, published in 2016, between Jacobin magazine (for which the author, Peter Frase, is an editor) and Verso Books. The book contains scant biographical details about Frase and neither does the author’s own website say too much (the ‘about’ page merely contains quotes from three well-known intellects and philosophers); but Jacobin I do know a bit about: being ‘reason in revolt’ and ‘a leading voice of the American left’ it may claim, but it has published theories denying that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide and falling for the conspiracy theory that the camps run by Bosnian Serbs were exaggerated in the effort to gain sympathy – comprehensively debunked by Peter Maass and by Adnan Delalić during the entirely justified furore over the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke.

Imperialism (not only of the US) remains a problem but the desire to see my enemy’s enemy as my friend (as I heard articulated at meetings in London in the 1990s) is an over-simplistic cliche while it is perfectly possible to take a standpoint which both accepts that the actions of the Bosnian Serb militias were genocidal while leaving the individual free to criticise imperialism in general. The ethnic division of Bosnia as promoted by the Dayton Agreement (and, presumably therefore, at the instigation of US imperialism, in this view) has left the country not only divided and sclerotic but has also established perennial fault lines which, until they are finally addressed, continue to leave the country permanently prey to being placed in a choke-hold by ethnic extremists. The gains from that to monopoly capitalism are not obvious and, furthermore, they have, at the very least, been somewhat slow to emerge. It may still be a bit too early to tell (at least in historical terms), but it has now been 25 years since Dayton.

There are of course known links between imperialism and capitalism, so this introduction to my review is not so much of a digression – Frase’s book is sub-titled ‘life after capitalism’ and his ‘four futures’ does some thinking about the alternative organisation of life and work in a post-capitalist context: two favourable and which put people first; the other two more favourable to hierarchies, or elites. A lot of thinking has been done post-2008 about whether we are in a post-capitalist state and, if so, how we define the tools and measures of economic management in view of establishing a fairer, more sustainably secure society. The starting point of this brief contribution is that, if we are not already in a post-capitalist state, the combination of rapid automation and increasingly scarce resources at a time of intense climate change will soon put us there.

What works well is Frase’s linking of theoretical thought with totems of popular culture, including TV and literature. The bringing together into one volume of speculative thought about very different futures linking four concepts of abundance, scarcity, hierarchy and equality in different combinations also has substantial merit. The first chapter explores a post-work scenario prompted by advanced robotisation at a time of an increasingly predominant universal basic income; the second a rentier economy based on the prevalence of intellectual property; the third climate change amidst scarce resources; the fourth our domination by rich hierarchies.

What doesn’t help is his choice of format: the brevity of the individual essays setting out the four different futures means that his choices take on, necessarily, a selective and somewhat random appearance; illustrative rather than explanatory; and occasionally oddball rather than pervasive. His arguments run the risk of being superficial and, while the format mostly works in enforcing a straitjacket of clarity on the thought process, Frase is not free of sections of prose that strive for intellectualism but which actually turn out to say very little. I’m always wary of taking quotes out of context but if anyone can explain what this, in the comparatively lengthy introductory chapter, means, I would be grateful:

Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or, to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism).

p. 27

For a minute, I thought I had already advanced into a future in which even our prose was being written by robots.

The chapter dealing with abundance and equality, while looking at the principle of universal basic income, ends with a lengthy and rather odd celebration of alternative currencies (while the notion that robots will take all the jobs is in itself controversial); the chapter on intellectual property doesn’t reference the right of creative artists to earn from their creations; and the chapter on climate change has an odd belief in the ability of markets to drive socially-useful gains, prompted (apparently without a trace of irony) by the differential pricing scheme for car parking operated in Los Angeles in which more popular times of day for parking attract higher prices. Additionally, the effect of this in allowing the rich to park where they want when they want, and without any consideration of the effects on the elderly and the disabled, seems to have bypassed Frase completely.

The chapter on hierarchy and scarcity, while looking at the issue of ‘exterminism’, takes on much stronger relevance at a time of the pandemic than Frase could have foreseen before publication, but focuses only on individual examples of state agents taking out people and makes no mention of eugenics, which has quite a history in the US, for example in the US prison service. Writing at a time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have better insight into the chilling examples of precisely the issues that Frase was considering – earlier this month, the British Medical Journal was editorialising on the ‘social murder‘ that the response to the pandemic represents globally, led by the US, Brazil, Mexico, India and the UK (which together account for one-half of the world’s deaths from the virus); while we also have other examples of forced sterilisation operations on women held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Trump’s America. There is, as we know, nothing new here – yet Frase makes no mention of any exterminist actions that have a class-based focus. Neither do the chapters referencing work and UBI make any mention of trade unions – which is odd, even in a post-work scenario – or, alternatively, any other form of the collective organisation of people in response to threats to them.

As Frase concludes, our future is likely to contain individual elements of all the four futures he sets out – although, as of now, some elements do look more a part even of our present than others. Ultimately, we are likely to need new names for systems in a post-capitalist world that were themselves developed in response to the problems set out by industrial capitalism (one reason for not mentioning them by name here). The key debates set out out – over robotisation, universal basic income, sustainability and climate change amidst increasingly scarce resources – are far from resolved and will continue as we define our future. We need only to think about the issues caused by tensions over availability of Covid-19 vaccines. But it is in the area of hierarchies – or elites – and our response to them that Frase’s book has, unwittingly, most resonance as well as, critically, being the one which, in our pandemic current, is thereby responsible most for dating his contribution.

Book Review: Private Island

As my previous review of Stuart Maconie’s Nanny State mentioned, this one by James Meek has been sat on my to-read shelf for far too long – since 2017, in fact (and in spite of the recommendation in my comments to read it. I did get around to it. Eventually.).

Maconie quotes lengthy passages from Private Island – and no wonder since this is the product of lengthy research, detailed and time-consuming interviews, preparation and observation, and, I suspect, a certain ability not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Private Island – subtitled ‘Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else’ – was published in updated form in 2015 and is the product of a series of essays written largely for the London Review of Books, for which Meek himself is still a commissioning editor. It is written in an appropriately literary spirit of enquiry and seeks to explore the privatisation dogma under which this country has laboured over the entire period of the forty years since 1979, with separate chapters focused on the mail, railways, water, electricity, health care and housing alongside a look at Thanet where Nigel Farage stood for Parliament, again unsuccessfully, in the 2015 general election.

Appropriately for a book published by Verso, Private Island wears its radical heart on its sleeve – the cover portrays a vulture, beak dripping red, hunched over this green and pleasant land – although the content is far from polemic. The cover nevertheless provides a suitable introduction to the theme since the decision at least to think about it came from when Meek was living in Kiev at the time the Soviet Union came to a crashing end (in 1991) and finding himself ‘Watching the vultures come to feast on the carcass of the world’s largest state-owned planned economy,’ while beginning to wonder ‘what had been done by politicians, economic theorists, lobbyists and business people in my own country’ (p. 2).

In the ensuing pages, none of these groups are spared, but all are speared with the calmly-stated wrath of Meek’s cool, factual analysis of the venal, self-interested, naive plays of which all were successively guilty at one point or other, coming together in a cabal of fundamentalist opposition to the public sector and, indeed, of the welfare state. Meek wonders not just why but how this was allowed to happen and, in lessons that also echo those of Britain’s failed relationship with the EU, the answer is not complex. We have been – deliberately – blinded to things that are of value but which are easily castigated because they are not obviously valuable, are sometimes guilty of egregious errors and are all too easily the butt of jokes (or jokey analysis which becomes a version of the truth). We have, as a result, had the wool pulled over our eyes by governments of all colours (including vaguely pinkish ones) and that has led us to where we are: an underclass getting further and further left behind as those that have gone ahead pull the ladder up behind them (about which Thatcher was astute in one critical respect), increasingly needing the benefits of the welfare state but ignored by political parties maintaining the illusion that the free market is the only answer. And to Brexit. Privatisation has been an utter, colossal failure both in terms of public policy and in terms even of its own agenda, as Meek sets out for example in the chapter on housing. Calling an end to it is thus long overdue.

The trick, however, is how we build back to what we have lost. The year zero fundamentalists of the Vote Leave illuminati now in control of the government might provide a few opportunities in this respect, as might the similarly corrosive economic effects of the pandemic. It would clearly be wise not to overstate the case – many of the Vote Leave fundamentalists see themselves as the true heirs to the Blessed Margaret while economic fundamentalists are still in charge of the Treasury (Sunak has ties to the small government economic liberalists at the Centre for Policy Studies, set up by Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s gurus) and the road ahead is firmly uphill, whatever the Pink ‘Un might have been saying this morning about the futility of austerity (the full original lies behind the FT‘s paywall). Too many of those in power are still in thrall to Thatcher’s legacy; and forty years plus of antipathy to the public sector is tough to overcome.

Current events, as always, provide game-changing points and there can be none clearer than this week’s social media-led furore over the free school meal ‘hampers’ provided (to children in England) by private firms, substantially Tory donor Chartwell UK. Charging the UK taxpayer £10.50 for items costing – at retail price – £5.22 is shameful profiteering in the first place. In the second, as Meek would point out, neither should it be surprising to any of us: this is what private firms do. They are there to make money and, by searching out the cheapest and the lowest cost, will thereby maximise the gains to themselves from profit that is already built in. It is no wonder that the ‘hamper’ looked so anaemic and processed to within an inch of its life: it might have fitted in with advice in which the government itself is absolutely complicit (the original food guidance is here, by the way) but it looks a long, long way away from the Eatwell Guide which inspired it. Child Island, indeed.

This particular story seems to have ended (for now) with the restoration of vouchers, but how many of us think that the public sector – freed from the profit motive – would have produced on its own account such a paltry ration? My friend and colleague Keith Flett is entirely right to point to the workhouse origins of poor law relief – and the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’ lingers in modern day parlance, too: check the comments of Ben Bradley MP (I’m not linking) – and it’s clear that we are likely to see a return to Victorian Britain (days of the sun never setting on the Empire etc. etc.) as a consequence of the current direction of government policy, if indeed we are not already there in several respects. The welfare state – against which privatisation was the response – was set up to do better than this: and it still would if given the chance. There should be no way in a rational society for private companies to be anywhere near providing free school meals for vulnerable children. It is a scandal that they are. Furthermore, we need to call it what it is: a private company charging the taxpayer £10.50 for something that taxpayers can buy themselves for half that is not just extraordinarily inefficient: it is guilty of ripping people off. Vouchers might be the obvious point of return – giving people dignity but also, critically, £10.50 of value for £10.50 of cost – but, otherwise, I’d have worked with a new poverty ‘czar’ that I’d appoint to come up with a proper hamper: Jack Monroe knows a thing or two (or even three), from own, hard-lived experience about eking out low incomes and still providing nutritious food. Hell, for the difference between £10.50 and £5.22, someone could even throw in a copy of one of her books.

This fairly lengthy digression illustrates well one of the three main points to emerge from Meek’s analysis: that the private sector should not be involved with things that are a matter of policy concern. This perhaps needs bottoming out a little – a positive sport-for-all policy probably shouldn’t imply a desire to nationalise the Premier League – but things like green energy, environmental health, public healthcare and housing, to name some other examples on top of children’s free school meals – are all, being matters around which public policy has an interest, issues that should rightly be reserved in principle to a rejuvenated public sector.

Secondly, that there has never been a proper debate about alternative ownership patterns is indeed a shame. There is a wealth of options in between a nationalised, dusty government department on the one hand and rapacious private ownership on the other; and these need to be explored (and in ways that, unlike the history of much of employee share ownership initiatives, has longevity) as a result of a desire to take things back public. And here I don’t mean the nonsense of it being fine for state agencies from countries other than the UK to take ownership of large swathes of our public services, a fact to which Meek also points.

Thirdly, the notion that taxes are lower when the costs of financing, for example, new power plants have been simply shifted on to the bills we pay for electricity is clearly the pursuit of a chimera (albeit one that has been remarkably convincing to large numbers of people – though there leads another lengthy digression). Proper accounting of what we, as citizens, are paying the state (or its privatised agents) to do on our behalf needs to be correctly done and then, perhaps, we might be in a better position collectively to undertake the critical evaluations that we need to make which will allow us to call this failed experiment what it actually is.

It is not too late to avoid the return to the evils of Victorian Britain which the welfare state sought to end. Buy Meek’s book (and don’t leave it lying a-mouldering on a book shelf for three years or more!) or pick up his analysis via the LRB website (links as above). But do choose to get angry about the facts about which the slightly dispassionate, matter-of-fact telling deployed here can sometimes mitigate against.

In closing, I note that December next year is the eightieth anniversary of the Beveridge Report which, during wartime, paved the way for the welfare state which the Labour government coming to power in 1945 chose, despite all the other calls on public finance at the time, to implement. If I was a young SPAD unable to believe my luck at being in Westminster (or in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast for that matter), I’d be keenly pitching a report which, in commemoration, sought to identify the five giants preventing people from escaping poverty and bettering themselves in 21st century Britain and on which governments coming to power in the years to come might build. After we are done with Covid-19, we are again in a position of needing to construct a future fit for heroes. The road from here might be uphill but, if they can do it, then so can we.

Book Review: The Nanny State Made Me

I received Stuart Maconie‘s The Nanny State Made Me as a birthday present back in September (thanks, Tracy!) and, of course, it therefore jumped to the top of my reading list not least owing to the title.

Part-autobiography, part-paean to Stuart’s own upbringing and development within the arms of the Welfare State, this was written during 2019 and published, following a revision which took account of the results of the general election (the anniversary of which is of course a year ago next week), in early March. This was, quite clearly, an inauspicious time to be publishing a book about public policy; Covid-19, like the internet, having changed everything.

Following introductory chapters setting out the remarkable immediate post-War timing of the introduction of the Welfare State, and the sustained attacks on it during the Thatcherite years in which we have been living since 1979, each chapter then takes young Stuart through a stage of his life through birth (in 1961, in an NHS hospital), early education and teenage years to the worlds of work and the dole queue, housing, public transport, and BBC and the media; before, eventually, winding up with a few thoughts on getting back what we have lost.

Fans of Maconie’s work (and I am one, as my book-giver clearly also knows!) know what to expect: wry observation drawn from contemporary interviews illustrating his theme; a sprinkling of sharp epigrams drawing attention to the absurd (Maconie continues to have a sharp eye for a well-turned phrase); and a clear and engaging writing style mixing a patient, but quizzically frustrated, tone with occasional righteous anger at the absurdities of modern day living. Describing him as a ‘man of the people’ sounds somewhat pejorative, but Maconie is clearly interested in people and the combination of that and the ability to translate such interest into warm, affectionate writing detailing (or referencing) brief encounters and events, some contemporary, some historic, makes him always worth reading (or listening to, as his BBC 6Music shows also prove).

On top of that, there is also a very touching dedication which says a lot more – about theme and about author – than its 19 words allow; while it commences with a lovely anecdote involving a landmark famous on the London skyline, Tony Benn and an anonymous operative of a long-privatised business. And there is the – by now obligatory – puntastic title whose phrasing is capable of a dual meaning while also being inspired, at a deeper level, by the honourable member for the 18th century.

There is, of course, a lot to be angry about when it comes to what has happened to our public services in this now 40-year experiment of privatisation and liberalisation. The NHS is still – just about, perhaps – hanging together but public transport is a disaster and the nonsensities of trying to introduce competition into the supply of essential services like energy has been, at best, a failure and at worst, a scandalous scheme under which the public has been ripped off with a deliberate view to the enrichment of those few who are already well-off. The current controversy over NHS data contracts being sold to Peter Thiel, the shadowy billionaire behind the Cambridge Analytica data mining operation, and over the cronyism with which this government views its public service obligations during the current crisis, add to the frustration – as well they ought. Some of this is quite familiar – albeit that the decades-long failure to do much if anything about it means that to repeat the message is not, by definition, over-stating it. In particular, it is ground well-trodden in James Meek’s London Review of Books essays collected together in Private Island. Maconie’s quotes from this make me realise that this has also languished, in its 2015 (though still current) edition, too long on my to-read shelf.

What underpins the arena of Maconie’s theme is the growth of inequality in the UK. The post-war welfare state was, ultimately, inspired by the need to deliver a more equal society in which the resources of the state would be invested deliberately and practically to address sources of inequality. Any attack on the welfare state can thus be read quite easily – whatever mealy-mouthed arguments made on behalf of doing so by whichever vested interest is mounting them – as an attempt to undermine the perception of that need and, thereby, the goal of reducing inequality itself. It is clear from a look at the Gini coefficient (a flawed, perhaps, but clear yardstick against which a state’s progress in overcoming, or otherwise, inequality can readily be measured) that the UK has become a much more unequal society in these years. The bulk of that growth occurred the 1980s while little has happened in the last thirty post-Thatcher years to address that: the coefficient has, with some volatility as a result of some of the recent circumstances of our times, bumped around the same level ever since. This includes during Labour governments which, despite the good things that they did do, failed to address the growth in inequalities that the welfare state was set up to deal with and which had risen so sharply during the years of Thatcher:

Indexed series; 1997=100. Break in series in 2001. Source: Office for National Statistics

In this context, the arguments made by leading Brexiteers on the far right of the Tory Party of the opportunity which Brexit gives (and which indeed drove Brexit) to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution‘ need careful attention since they clearly herald a further rise in inequality.

The earlier, more autobiographical chapters of Maconie’s book work rather better than the later ones. In particular, chapter 2 on schooling, in which Maconie’s arguments on behalf of comprehensive education shine with undimmed passion (I write as a grammar school boy who did actually benefit from the social mobility arguments – though of course exceptions don’t prove the rule), is a marvellously sustained piece of writing. The later chapters suffer, in a lengthy section on the BBC by appearing a little defensive (and there’s a lot to defend, I know); as well as in arguments for the nationalisation of the internet appearing a little illiberal (and, also, would you really want a crony appointee of this government in charge of erecting garden walls around your internet? Better to regulate the abuses/abusers, I think – and there are many of both – and to break up the over-mighty and the anti-democratic among the giants of those that have exploited the ‘net. That quite clearly encompasses Amazon, Google and Facebook. For that, of course, we need a stronger hand than ‘global Britain’ alone.)

In particular, I feel he pulls his punches in the final chapter which sets out the ‘how to save it’ mission described on the cover but which is, unfortunately, episodic and indeed a little unformed. There are some useful conversations around the Norwegian example; and the references to the extraordinariness of ordinary, heroic people are timely (even if our essentially conservative nature and belief in sweet moderation means we keep on electing Conservative governments whose wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise proves of apparently perennial value). But, aside from a call to ‘bring the Nanny State back’, just precisely how to do that proves a rather elusive target around which Stuart boxes well but on the practicalities of which he never really lays a glove.

Those farther to the left will identify a possible reason for this; while, as I said at the outset, this also reflects a timing problem of publication and deadlines: Covid-19 has laid bare that the priorities of the governments we elect, in what they choose to do in office, are very much a matter of choice – and especially at a time when interest rates are low enough to mean that borrowing money is not only extremely cheap but actually financially attractive. In this way, the rather public noise over the economic illiteracy of ‘maxing out the credit card’ – Thatcher’s Grantham grocer-shop ‘economics’ written for the 21st century – is a very welcome add to the public debate.

In short, the practicalities behind Maconie’s desire to bring back the Nanny State – kicking out the private sector from the NHS; achieving a comprehensive nature to the education system; restoring democratic power to local councils, not least as regards the building of homes; ending the farce and rip-off pricing of bus and rail privatisation; putting control of energy supply back in the hands of the nation as opposed to abiding by a figleaf of market economics (not least with green, sustainability goals in mind – this week’s collapse of BiFab proves that green jobs need to be worked for); and freeing the BBC from the straitjacket of the much-abused concept of ‘impartiality’ to abide by its Reithian objectives of public entertainment and education – are now more, perhaps oddly, a little visible than they were when he was finalising his draft. Maconie hints – strongly, even – at all this, but is missing a few of the ‘action words’ set out above.

If we can have the vision to develop a Welfare State in the midst of a war; what might we do now to develop that vision to restore it in the middle of a pandemic? If the country is to emerge from its mishandling by the over-promoted bunglers we’ve placed in charge, that manifesto needs to be put in place now. In retrospect therefore, this is something of a missed opportunity for Maconie to be this generation’s Beveridge – but, on the other hand, I might, therefore, look forward to a 2021 edition with a re-written final chapter which identifies the ‘how’ a little more explicitly. If the pandemic has been good for anything, it is at least that it has facilitated the ground for such thinking.

Book review: The Constant Rabbit

The rather cryptic reference at the foot of the previous #NewMusicMondays post, about a rabbit holding an accordion by a stone marker at the end of the Julia Jacklin video, was a bit of a link to what was then planned as my next post (this one): a review of Jasper Fforde‘s The Constant Rabbit, published at the start of July. A happy, and entirely unplanned, coincidence.

There are no rabbit-playing accordions in The Constant Rabbit – but perhaps there could be: an apparently spontaneous, but unspecified and probably unknowable, Anthropomorphic Event happened back in 1965 which saw eighteen rabbits, alongside some other animals, take on human characteristics so that they become part-human while still retaining their animal characteristics. The rabbits are 6′ tall, use human language, they reason, decry the pictorial representation of rabbits in human culture, live in houses, go to the cinema, shop in supermarkets and drive cars (slowly) – but are vegan, continue to burrow, enjoy the delights of lettuce and, well, being rabbits what was a few has now become over 1.2m in the UK alone. Faced thus with a rapidly growing humanised rabbit population, a post-Brexit UK, headed by Prime Minister Nigel Smethwick’s UK Anti-Rabbit Party, also has a solution – ‘Rabxit’: the packing of all rabbits (who are, largely, already segregated) off to a MegaWarren in Wales, aided by the middle-class militant thugs of ‘TwoLegsGood’.

In my review of Fforde’s previous novel, Early Riser, I noted that the somewhat whimsical tone of much of Fforde’s (otherwise engaging and interesting) work (his debut novel was in 2001) had taken on a significantly dystopian note. 2010’s first volume of Shades of Grey (the long-awaited second is now formally planned) likewise. With humanised rabbits the theme of this work, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a return to whimsy – but this would ignore the deeply allegorical, and utterly chilling, nature of the novel. Take the Prime Minister, for example, whose name is extremely well-chosen: Nigel is of course evident, especially given the initials of the party he leads; but Smethwick – well, back in 1964 (one year before the event initiating Fforde’s novel), Smethwick was the electoral constituency which defied the national trend and went Tory, and where campaigning was famously accompanied by the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’.

The central theme of The Constant Rabbit is, therefore, racism and, quite specifically, the modern notion of ‘replacement theory’, with UKARP expressing fears around ‘litterbombing’ – fast-breeding rabbits soon outnumbering humans in their own country. Fforde uses the duality of the novel – rabbits make fine neighbours since they are unselfish, live in harmony with the environment and practise sustainability while having a strong sense of social responsibility; but are the targets of a peculiarly English type of casual racism (class snobbishness mixed with outwardly pleasant indifference but disguising cold rejection) – in a way in which wit, satire and intelligent humour are allowed to carry the novel’s predominant approach to its theme.

It is of course difficult to carry off a treatment of an extremely serious issue by using humour. Fforde is clearly aware of this and has expressed in several interviews (in a podcast for the New Books Network, in a piece in The Guardian, and an interview for SciFi now, for instance) that he is alive to the dangers of someone – never discriminated against once, in his entire life and with all the luck of privilege being defaulted to him at birth – talking about racial discrimination and prejudice. He has also posted a reading list on his website, and it’s clearly informed by some important works, Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s among them.

He addresses this not by trying to put himself into the shoes of someone without that privilege – an object of racism – but by putting it from one of the other sides, not from the perspective of a worst-of-the-worst member of a hate group but from someone whose unthinking ignorance and bystander complicity has allowed such a group to continue their narrative unchallenged and away from the spotlight. Peter Knox – likeable, but spineless and also flawed – is the central human character and the narrator of the novel who works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce: an agency charged with enforcement activities because of his ability to tell rabbits – which otherwise all look alike – apart. Humans don’t come out of the novel particularly well, being substantially leporiphobic, regarding rabbits in all the demonising and dehumanising ways in which one group will ‘other’ a minority group, and the plot of the novel concerns the extent to which Knox (and, by extension, humans more generally since he does stand as a privilege-based ‘everyman’) is able to redeem himself.

It’s also a valid criticism that Fforde risks trivialising the issue firstly by using (evidently non-human) rabbits as his minority group. Allegory and tragi-comedy, however, has a long-standing role in pointing out failures – TwoLegsGood is, of course, a tribute to Orwell’s own allegorical powers in Animal Farm – and I think is justifiable in a literary context. Humans are fully capable of mixing, at one and the same time, the cruel and the unpleasant with the comedic – Fforde has, for example, pointed in interviews to the role of M*A*S*H in mixing laughter alongside the evils of war, while the science fiction of District 9 uses comedy to sharpen the sense of tragedy. A book without comedy is indeed not a book about human beings and, consequently, the comedy makes the darker themes more recognisable and therefore more identifiable and, as a result, it is easier to be more empathic about the lessons being demonstrated. A spoonful of sugar may indeed help the medicine go down.

Amidst the humour of the opening chapter’s ‘Speed Librarying’, enforced as a result of cuts with the resource going instead fully into the monitoring of libraries’ compliance with the new rules (in a parody of curtain-twitching watch schemes), Fforde has written some genuinely horrifying scenes: Mr. Ffoxe (foxes and rabbits of course do not mix) is a terrifying character; while one scene set in a prison (which, otherwise, contains two of about the only good humans in the book) is quite shocking. Amidst the comedy, such moments of pure evil have to work if Fforde is to carry off his purpose.

Fforde’s ultimate message here is, I think, a two-fold one.

Firstly, that the Anthropomorphic Event contains a message: the rabbits came with a warning for humans also about the unsustainability of our ways and what we are doing to the planet. Furthermore, in listening to others tell us of their alternative conception of the fundamentals on which a society should be based, we are allowing them to teach us: and we all of us need to be reminded of that.

Secondly, that we can no longer stand by when something has become obvious which was hitherto invisible. Individual and incremental, not heroic, action can be enough given that we are ‘not all revolutionaries’ and that ‘enough people challenging the problem can make a difference.’ Choosing no longer to be ‘constantly rabbiting’ on about a subject (one of the ways in which the title of the book works on several different levels), but deciding, as a result of realising the need no longer to be in denial, to increase our self-awareness and then to convert that into action is one way in which we can stop being, like Knox, an unconscious part of the problem. For Fforde, if readers ‘laugh when… reading this book, and frown a little when… finished – and that together, eventually, as part of a much larger and broader and more principled coalition, we can start to loosen some bricks in that wall’ the work will have served its purpose.

About the chances of this, Fforde seems in conclusion to be mildly optimistic – although with the clear warning that messages such as this one don’t come along very often; and that, critically, as Smethwick well realises, ‘the language of division can always be monetised’.

Book review: Before the coffee gets cold

Having recently finished David Mitchell’s weighty tale about rising musicians looking for their own creative avenue towards Utopia, I was looking for something a little lighter; and Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before The Coffee Gets Cold, published in 2015 and now available in an English translation by Geoffrey Trousselot, was the intriguing wild card in an established chain’s long-established buy-one-get-one-half-price offer.

Having researched industrial relations in Japanese companies in the UK, and even learned a few words of Japanese, and spent a week in Japan as part of a union delegation, this was a choice that ticked an evident number of boxes; on top of which was the book’s prime offer, in marketing terms: ‘If you could go back, who would you want to meet?’ For the Funiculi Funicula cafe (the name reflects a Neapolitan song which has a role in Japanese anime) is no ordinary coffee house: according to an urban legend, it is able to transport people across time – provided they observe a number of protocols and rules (this is Japan). One of these is that they have to return before their coffee goes cold; and another is that the present cannot be changed. As Kawaguchi comments, this means that his characters have to face their reality and that the story is more than just a dream.

Four people – all women – take up the challenge in this short book (of a shade over 200 pages) and its four chapters tell the story of each, although many of the same characters appear in all of the four stories. Or rather, four acts, this being originally a play (and then a film), with the characters on stage for long periods before each evolving to take their turn in the spotlight. As such, much of the tale’s work takes place in dialogue while the descriptive detail tends towards establishing stage directions while setting very careful and highly elaborate scenery and a charged atmosphere appropriate to the cafe’s own history (dating back 140 years to the end of the Edo period) as well as its own, contemporary, legend. Thus, we hear the bell ringing as customers enter the subterranean cafe almost as a familiar character; clocks on the wall idiosyncratically tell different times; and the decoration is sepia-toned: at once classical and reinforcing of the importance of the events that take place within its walls. There is, of course, also a neat nod to Japanese attention to ceremony within the pouring of the coffee for the travellers – only by Kazu, who helps to run the cafe, and with the same mantras and routines accompanying each person’s journey. Both the cafe’s setting, as well as those who inhabit it, leap off the page at the reader.

The four people who travel – a young woman looking to change the course of a conversation with a boyfriend; a nurse seeking to secure the delivery of a personal letter she knows her husband living with advancing Alzheimer’s has written her; a woman trying to escape her destiny seeks one more conversation with her sister, on whom the load has otherwise fallen; and a pregnant mother seeking to meet the daughter she never knew – are all clearly looking for something and with successively more intense levels of emotion: and this is where the book really works. The tales all set highly believable, increasingly tragedic situations for their characters to inhabit and, while the sentimentality and romanticism of the stories is evidently strong (this is Japan), the author/playwright’s skill in relating them means that he never descends into corny mawkishness or nostalgia. There is both a tenderness and a kindness to the tales and we all need more of both.

The book’s translation is perhaps not quite fluent: the text has a tendency to stop and start rather than flow naturally, although this might also reflect the differences in the natural skill sets of authors and playwrights; and, while clearly also within the traditions of minimalism, it also appears excessively formal although the culture differences between 2014 Japan and 2014 Glasgow, for example, means that we shouldn’t read too much into that. Conversely, that means that it does sit somewhat oddly out of its form and original context and this rather impedes the delivery of the message. Some of the events require the reader to suspend not only reality but also overlook some of the weaknesses in the plotting.

The major criticism that could be levelled, however, is of the book’s gender-based differences: the men tend to be strong, silent types while the women, the travellers, are the ones who engage therefore in more of the sentimentality and romance of the theme. That would be a fair enough point, although there is also the practicality that the theatre troupe for whom the play was written had more women than men. Furthermore, I think the author is seeking to engage more in highlighting the emotional maturity required to understand both ourselves and, equally importantly, the others with whom we share at least parts of our lives. That’s of course not a preserve only of women – but none of the novel’s male characters, while themselves nuanced, have the maturity required to deliver the depths of such a message. In a short work with relatively few characters, this means that it is women who are called upon to deliver the insights that the author wants to get across. There’s power and strength conveyed in that, too.

At the same time, this provides an interesting study of the ability of the author – a man – to write convincing women characters while nonetheless delivering the insights and the messages that he has developed as a man.

Whether or not the urban legend about the cafe’s mystical powers is true is an open question, but the takeaway message is that we frequently have powers to change our futures, even if we are denied the opportunity to change our presents, provided that we understand both ourselves and the motivations and desires of others; and where we have the courage and the heart to change things. That’s an eternal message, perhaps, but it’s not one whose message has ever been lost however frequent the re-telling; and here we have a book whose premise delivers an interesting, and thoughtful, twist on precisely how to get that across.

Book Review: Utopia Avenue

From very little on this blog about music to a surfeit of musical goodies all at once! Alternatively, in book-only terms, we proceed here from a review of a book about an automated human to a writer whose first novel, Cloud Atlas, also featured a created hero (and a female one, at that).

Utopia Avenue is David Mitchell‘s eighth book and whose title is the eponymous band – the ‘strangest British band you’ve never heard of’ – emerging out of the Soho scene in the late 1960s. A four-piece (keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, with vocal duties shared between the first three who also contribute most of the songs), featuring one woman and three men with disparate class backgrounds, Utopia Avenue mix elements of folk, jazz, psychedelia and blues into a successful, and chart-busting, brew. The band were deliberately put together – curated, in modern parlance – by a manager seeking a new project after the break-up of a previous band: but Utopia Avenue are no Monkees put together largely for their looks: despite diverse backgrounds, all have pedigrees in their fields and no little amount of musical chops. Utopia Avenue play gigs, get noticed and signed, make a couple of records, be seen, and get the chance to try and break America before the band’s rising star is extinguished just as things start really coming together.

This being David Mitchell, we also have a sub-plot featuring some pyschosoterica – Mitchell’s term for the psychic abilities of some of his characters and the compelling good vs evil struggle in which they are engaged – although this does not include epic battles akin to The Bone Clocks, his previously published work. Mentioning that the character involved here is the guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, immediately strikes a chord for those familiar with Mitchell’s oeuvre, but this aspect doesn’t take over the novel and it reads well as a study of a genuinely terrifying mental illness and a character’s own neurodiversity, as well as the links between mental health and tortured virtuosity (Mitchell is currently reading about Vincent van Gogh, which may well indicate some planning for a future work). At the same time, the late 1960s provides some fruitful contextual background for the study of mind-altering abilities.

Each of the chapters is titled for a song on the two Utopia Avenue LPs and tells of a stage in the band’s development predominantly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of that song’s composer. This leaves the drummer (and the manager) somewhat unstoried (this is, of course, a running gag when it comes to drummers) although they each get one writing credit and thus one chapter. Nevertheless, both are well fleshed-out characters – indeed, Griff, as might seem befitting for the drummer in a band in a Mitchell novel (i.e. the one whose responsibility it is to keep time), gets a lot of very good lines during band interviews and press conferences. This sort of structure gives the work a clean, chronological progression (even if it does deal with only with a highly compressed period of time) in Utopia Avenue’s rise to fame – this is quite clearly (and deliberately) written about on the way up – and, as such, this is one of Mitchell’s more conventionally structured novels, as the writer himself has acknowledged. Nevertheless, Mitchell is careful enough to sow sufficient seeds of the many petty trivialities that end up destroying bands.

Where Utopia Avenue really scores, however, is its depiction of scene. There are three aspects to this. Firstly, Mitchell has evidently done a phenomenal amount of research into the period which allows him to describe the scene predominantly in London, but also in New York (the band stay at the legendary Hotel Chelsea) and at Laurel Canyon in the US, accurately and with impressive detail and yet without succumbing to nostalgia or sentimentality. In the process, he read 50-60 music memoirs, biographies and autobiographies (including, I suspect, Springsteen’s Born To Run). It might be true that, ‘If you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there,’ but there are enough accounts around to allow Mitchell to be absolutely authentic in his descriptive detail of the bars and the dives of Soho (this being a band, much of the action takes place inside and after dark), although Mitchell is also very capable of describing the dynamics and breathtaking stillness of nature at work. This is done with such an easy touch that the essential detailing never appears laboured.

Secondly, Mitchell took piano and guitar lessons some ten years ago because he knew one day he would be writing some kind of rock novel. Consequently, he can write with accuracy about musicianship and the creative process. This is as true of guitar tunings, for example, as it is of the on-stage scenes as the band are playing at gigs. I’ve never been in a band, though I have been around them, and the dynamics and conversations between and about the band members, both on stage and while endlessly travelling to and from gigs, ring absolutely true while rarely falling into cliche. Mitchell is persuasive in letting the reader develop the impression that this might well be the best band they’ve never heard.

On the other hand, for all the excellence of his prose, Mitchell is not a lyricist – song lyrics appear throughout the book as the band perform their songs, as they have to in order to provide at least a ghost of how the band sounded, but several are not particularly convincing either in themselves as songs or in terms of aiding the impression of the star quality of Utopia Avenue. As Mitchell notes, there is no speaker in a novel to let you hear the music – and putting one in presents real challenges which, here, he is not fully able to overcome. It is – without the music – a tough thing to do to write song lyrics.

Thirdly, authenticity is hugely increased by the appearance in the novel of a large number of well-known contemporary names and faces. All of Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Keith Moon, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead – amongst dozens of others – have small walk-on parts and dialogue. This not only places Utopia Avenue at the heart of their milieu, while also increasing the accuracy of Mitchell’s scenic depiction, but also allows him to develop characterisation further as the members of Utopia Avenue become accustomed to their own growing stardom. At the same time, this adds additional strength to the novel’s exploration of the brief hopes of 60s musicians for a route to an alternative way of organising society – for a Utopia Avenue – before being dashed amidst commercialisation as well as rising violence.

It has to be said that this sort of placement doesn’t always work, either in terms of dialogue or in terms of accurate placement. Rick Wakeman appears on the first page of the novel – but he wouldn’t be building a reputation as a session man until 1969, after Utopia Avenue had already called it a day. Brian Eno also appears, not personally but in the sense of his description of the ‘scenius’ (the relationship between art and place); again, the period covered by the novel is simply too early for this. Mitchell does attach an acknowledgment that there are ‘lyrical anachronisms’ but invites us to look the other way on the basis that ‘music is timeless’.

That may be so, but I’m reluctant to call these – along with a small number of other aspects of dialogue that appear more 2020 than 1967 – as mistakes firstly because of the quality of the attention to detail that has otherwise gone into the work; and, secondly, because Mitchell is a writer whose work describes some aspect of people travelling through time. My suspicion, which is drawn not only from a desire to give Mitchell a bit of leeway on this, as he’s a writer I admire hugely, is that these things are not errors at all and may indeed be resolved in a later novel, perhaps in the Über-novel dealing with ‘unresolved characters with unfinished business’ about which he has frequently spoken in interviews and as he finds out more about his cast of characters.

For this is the thing with David Mitchell novels – not only is it a feature of his work that his characters (Levon Frankland, Utopia Avenue’s creator and manager; Luisa Rey, Crispin Hershey), places (Gravesend, here for Dean Moss, bassist, and previously for Holly Sykes in The Bone Clocks) and motifs (the ‘Star of Riga’; the Cloud Atlas Suite; the film PanOpticon; cats; butterflies; N9D) repeatedly appear and add richness to the ‘shared universe’ in which his novels exist, but he has his future novels already mapped out. As far back as 2014, for example, he was talking in interviews, and in a detailed way, of his next five novels (of which this is only the first). A writer who knows that much about his forthcoming works and who is in absolute command of his abilities as a writer tends not to make such basic errors, especially when the research is evidently otherwise so sharply on point and when such facts are easily checkable. I’m fully therefore expecting to see Elf Holloway, the woman keyboardist in Utopia Avenue, in one of these future books.

Ultimately, Mitchell has written a lucid, elegant narrative about people’s journeys of self-discovery and, in a musical context, of the connections they make which drive them in the process of making a band greater than the sum of its parts. He is a writer of great technique (repeating paragraphs at the end and start of chapters, for instance, thus creating a moment in and out of time for the ones in between). It’s no mean feat to extend such a narrative over a novel of some 560 pages without losing pace or direction, and to keep the reader turning the page and guessing as to the likely reason(s) for the band’s break-up. And, when it does, it has the capacity both to shock and to break your heart, as all great music can do. Pitch perfect.

Book Review – Machines Like Me

One of the UK’s foremost novelists, Ian McEwan has written 18 novels, of which Machines Like Me was the 17th. I’ve read many of its predecessors, and all since Enduring Love, but I only managed to catch up with this one in its paperback edition.

McEwan’s greatest skill as a writer lies in making us confront topical aspects of our own existence, whether it be terrorism (Saturday), climate change (Solar) or the extent to which the courts are able to adjudicate on matters of individual morality and belief (The Children Act). He writes most comfortably in terms of developing middle class characters, perhaps, but the situations which each of them have to confront are universal. He’s also of course no stranger to writing historical fiction, with many of his novels set at least partly in the past.

Told in ten chapters, Machines Like Me is no different in these respects. Charlie is a bit of a drifter but has come into an inheritance which he uses to buy Adam, an artificial human – a first (and limited) edition of ‘truly viable manufactured humans with plausible intelligence and looks, [and] believable motion and shifts of expression’. Together with Miranda, his upstairs neighbour and herself the daughter of a man of letters, he sets about creating Adam’s personality and the three set up an existence together. The novel is set in the 1980s, but an alternative reality, counterfactual version in which certain historical events have not happened, or happened differently. Most significantly, the Falklands War has been lost and, in the aftermath, Thatcher is facing political oblivion in the face of a Benn-led Labour Party; but, critically, Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaking and early computer genius of Bletchley Park, and a figure of long-standing literary interest for McEwan, has not committed suicide/suffered a careless accident/been killed by agents of the state but lives free and able to use his brilliance to develop and refine theories of the construction of artificial intelligence.

This has left the 1980s UK in a state of technological development much greater than we have even now, in the 2020s: autonomous cars, for example, have been on the streets since the 1960s – though Britain still suffers intense pollution – mobile phones are cutting edge rather than bricks; and Adam is here to carry out the tasks expected and desired of a creation deliberately constructed by humans.

Thus McEwan is able to confront the concerns now being raised by artificial intelligence – the future of work (and workers), and class, and whether and how humans can live alongside robots – in a way that does not potentially date by being set in the future and by concerns either that this or that event was ‘not going to be likely’ or which ‘did not turn out like that’. This is not science fiction and it does not predict; therefore, because the ‘facts’ of a historical novel are those which are set out within its pages, the morality issues which McEwan wants the work to confront are allowed to take their proper place at the centre of the novel.

Chief among these is the ability of humans and robots to live alongside each other and how those relationships can be regulated – the rights and responsibilities appropriate to each – within our existing understanding of the rule of law. This is not just a question of the lack of understanding of the illogicality of humans, and the question of ‘Who will write the algorithm for the little white lie?’; but also, and more critically, one of how the one can be held responsible for his or her actions vis-à-vis the other. In the process, McEwan raises issues of mental health – in a cutely aware nod to the demise in real life of Turing – as well as the moral choices we face when confronted with a dilemma. The shocking end to the work reveals the crucial truth present in all of McEwan’s novels – that you always have to be paying proper attention.

If the book is indeed a ‘novel about the power of novels… a celebration of the flaws that make us human‘ it’s only correct to point out the flaws in the work.

Firstly, the alternative reality 1980s is, in many cases, rather familiar – for Benn and Labour in the early 1980s, read Corbyn and Labour at the end of the 2010s – while there is also a reference to leaving the EU (to be fair, this was Labour Party policy at the time). Protest rallies and confrontations on the streets which set the popular background to events in the novel appear highly contemporary in the US (Black Lives Matter) and with the third Extinction Rebellion now taking place on the streets of London (and elsewhere), and convey the same impressions of social and political breakdown. Here, it is as if McEwan’s alternative reality was simply the product of reading today’s newspapers – and, probably, The Guardian – rather than one of powerful imagination. This does give a reminder of the contemporary nature of the conundrums that McEwan is raising – the novel is, after all, about the present not some alternative dystopia, but the counterfactual does appear to be somewhat easily, if not lazily, created.

Secondly – and somewhat stemming from the above – McEwan might well have set out both here as well as in Nutshell just to write, free of the detailed research that informed previous works, but there are several extended, McEwan-like discourses on different issues stemming from his research which are shoe-horned into the text and which disrupt the flow. The impression of wading through treacle is, when viewing the novel as a whole, fleeting – and, as above, the need to pay attention in a McEwan novel remains ever-present – but there is the thought that sharper editorial control would have produced a better, tighter novel.

Thirdly, Machines Like Me indicates a first person narrative, i.e. from the perspective of Adam, though the work is actually narrated by Charlie. It’s not that the title is odd – there is a reason for it, which appears late on in the text – but that the dialogue between Charlie and Miranda is curiously stilted. It doesn’t crackle with tension and desire, and neither does it convince. The characters simply do not leap off the page at you. This is particularly a problem when there are really only three characters in the novel (Turing is a fourth): the interactions that takes place between them is the novel’s only dialogue and thus greater emphasis is thrown on it. My impression throughout most of the work was that McEwan was running his own version of a Turing Test (whether you can tell the difference between a human and a robot mind) on the reader and that one – or even both – of Charlie and Miranda were also (earlier prototype) robots. This is not the case – but it’s as if McEwan has been unable to write dialogue between humans and robots at the same time, within the same novel, as between humans. It might well be that one of the problems of robots and humans living side-by-side turns out to be that dialogue does become stilted, but this doesn’t appear to be one of McEwan’s themes. Consequently, this leaves behind it the question that the dialogue is, disappointingly, awkwardly constructed.

Machines Like Me is a profound, uneasy and ultimately rather disturbing novel which thus fits rather well within McEwan’s 45-year canon concerning human beings in some way out of control. The questions that it raises are real and need to be confronted the closer we get to situations in which robots take a greater role in our actual everyday lives as opposed to simply in the manufacture of the products we consume. Autonomous driving (and the use of piloting software in aeroplanes) is a very real example of this, as indeed is the use of algorithms whether in the classroom or in the workplace. Whether we have the minds capable of producing answers to them – in government or in society more broadly – is an open question.