Tuesday, 5 May 2015

And now the news where we are

On the TV channel we were watching yesterday evening here in Santa Barbara (Monday 4 May) the news was dominated by three stories. First came the “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas, organised by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which turned out to be no joke when two men were shot dead outside.

When I checked it out this morning, Jihad Watch’s website was full of vitriolic attacks on the “sharia-compliant” Daily Mail for publishing a photo of the event with the cartoons blacked out. In this way I learnt that there really are people who despise the Mail for its political correctness – also that this news story had reached Britain.

So that was the first item. Third was the naming of the royal baby. Americans seem to love William and Kate – even though they've named their children after the royal couple on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War – and now, apparently, so do we. Because what's not to like? British republicans are having a thin time just now, in spite of the nation's temporary love affair with Plaid Cymru’s magnificent Leanne Wood who once referred to the Queen as Mrs Windsor.

Understandably there wasn’t time for any of this context on the American news programme, though a commentator did point out that Prince William drove the baby home from hospital himself, in contrast with the rather too regal Hillary Clinton who hasn’t touched a steering wheel in years.

Sandwiched between these two items was election news. Not our election, obviously. Two more presidential hopefuls had thrown their hats into the ring. As of yesterday there were three days left before the UK election and 564 before the US one. I suppose there must be some formula for weighing temporal immediacy against geographical distance. So far, anyway, Americans are more interested in their election than in ours. And they’re probably right to be, even though our own offers more hope and seems less predictable even at this late stage.  

It’s a dismal thought, but in global terms the result of the UK election is relatively insignificant. We’ll be making choices about austerity versus public investment, the tone of our engagement with Europe, and the survival or destruction of the NHS – things that matter a lot to us. But whoever wins is unlikely to bomb Iran.

There’s been a lot of scare-mongering back home about the danger of a left-of-centre coalition that might tie Miliband to more radical policies than Labour’s own. But here in America, where the old two-party system is still intact and the only coalitions are internal ones, the Republicans seem hopelessly entangled with the kind of people who sound off on the website of Jihad Watch, and whose hostility to fellow citizens who happen not to agree with them makes the SNP's quarrel with Westminster look like a Downton Abbey cricket match.  

When their election comes, American voters will have to choose between two capitalist imperialist parties, one less rational than the other. Let’s hope they choose wisely. They’ve only got 563 days left to make up their minds.  

Friday, 10 April 2015

Ed's detractors can’t get their stories straight

Ed Miliband hasn’t found a way of being natural in front of a camera without looking weird. He works painfully hard at talking like an ordinary bloke but still sounds as though he has a mouthful of marbles. He’s young and inexperienced but at the same time inextricably linked with the Westminster establishment. He's supposed to be Labour’s biggest liability so he should be an easy target. But the right-wing attacks so far haven’t quite hit the mark.   

The article in the Times this week by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, illustrates the problem. “Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister” (9 April 2015). Scrapping Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, will be the price of getting the Scottish Nationalists into a coalition, and it’s a price Miliband will be willing to pay – that’s the essence of the argument.

As a soundbite, the back-stabbing analogy sounds sharp, but as a slur it’s muddled. Miliband’s weakness is the point Fallon would like to establish. Miliband will be weak in negotiating with Nicola Sturgeon, laying us open to the chaos (Cameron’s word) of a leaderless coalition. And he’ll cut a weak figure on the world stage, leaving us undefended against dangerous enemies. But Ed’s challenge to his older brother David was anything but weak. Ruthless, perhaps. Selfishly ambitious, possibly. Decisive, undoubtedly. In fact, Fallon’s accusation reminds us of what Ed’s supporters liked about him then – that he was willing to take that personal and political risk in order to distance the party from the mistakes of New Labour. After five years, that distance is finally playing to his advantage with a wider public.

Now the Daily Mail has decided to paint him as a womanizer and multiple love rat under the headline Red Ed’s jolly tangled love life (10 April 2015). The big print mentions his “secret girlfriend” and his “wife’s fury” alongside a large picture of “pregnant wife-to-be” in 2010. But once you start reading, you see why the headline is so feeble. It turns out all the relationships mentioned in the story date from his bachelor days. 

The Mail does its best to spin something out of this heap of nothing (apparently all these girlfriends were part of “the same incestuous, privileged clique”) but how bad can it be for Ed’s image that such clever, nice-looking women were willing to go out with him – before he even had a seat in parliament? The story initially focuses on a dinner party a couple of months after Miliband had returned from a teaching post at Harvard. “Ever the policy nerd,” the Mail reporter tells us, “the son of a Marxist professor waxed lyrical about economic theory.” What a clown! And yet somehow Stephanie, Alice, Liz and Juliet didn’t seem to think so. 

The Mail has overlooked the basic principles of the sex scandal. First, it helps if it’s scandalous. Second, humiliation depends on some obvious asymmetry in the match – in age, attractiveness or IQ.  An overweight, balding cabinet minister caught in bed with a 19-year-old glamour model is the classic format. “Decent-enough-looking bloke once had quite pretty girlfriend” isn’t anyone’s idea of news.  

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Pragmatists, prophets and pranksters

In my early years the factions within the Labour Party were held together by Harold Wilson and later, less successfully, by Jim Callaghan. These men had convictions, but they hardly wore them on their sleeves.

Sandwiched between them was the Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, whom in those days I viewed as the enemy. A veteran of the Normandy Landings, Heath’s strongest conviction was his attachment to the European project, and his great achievement was to bring Britain into the Common Market. His humane response to the economic crisis of the early seventies was to distribute the pain, rationing electricity and imposing absolute limits on wage and salary rises across the economic spectrum. A policy of austerity for the poor and business as usual for the rich did not occur to him. Challenged by the mineworkers’ union he lacked the killer instinct of the free-market ideologue who would succeed him as Conservative leader. Instead of waging war on the miners and their communities, he appealed to the voters, calling an early election on the question Who rules Britain? (and getting the answer Not you). For all these signs of decency he was later condemned by his own party. 

For some, such as my father, it felt like an era of low deals and muddy compromises, in which Britain seemed permanently blighted by post-industrial decline. Wilson, Heath and Callaghan certainly had their faults, but the more time passes the better they look, particularly Wilson, who oversaw a range of progressive legislation that had a positive impact on race relations, gender equality and gay rights, while maintaining the welfare state through rising economic difficulties. One of his achievements, unremarkable at the time but noteworthy in retrospect, was to withstand pressure from Lyndon Johnson to take Britain into the Vietnam War. He retired having acquired no great wealth. This also seemed normal back then, but now looks like a striking failure to capitalize on a position of political influence.  

The pragmatists were followed by Thatcher and Blair, the prophets of change, one determined to transform the country by rolling back the state, the other set on ridding his party of the taint of socialism. Though Blair did more than Thatcher to invest in the public sector, he seemed to inherit her assumption that Britain’s future would best be served by a deregulated financial sector and a docile and powerless workforce. They relied on their personalities to push through policies often in the teeth of opposition from within their own parties as well as without, and were undaunted by mass protest on the streets. Thatcher’s war, a relatively discrete affair, allowed her to strike a Churchillian pose. Blair’s wilder military adventures left him desperately parading his clean conscience as things unraveled. 

So what about the present generation of leaders? David Cameron’s flirtation with UKIP-style attitudes to immigration and the EU reveal a striking lack of principle. Nick Clegg seems hollowed out by compromises too extreme for many of his previous supporters. Poor Ed Miliband, who has some decent convictions and whose party I may vote for, is squeezed almost to the point of invisibility between a hostile press and the handlers who feed him his soundbites (Am I tough enough? Hell yes!).

No wonder our attention has wandered to the margins – to UKIP’s bumptious leader Nigel Farage, who no doubt fancies himself helping Cameron to form the next government, and to London’s mop-top mayor Boris Johnson who is busy positioning himself to challenge Cameron for the leadership if the Conservatives don't get that far. Farage’s party trick is to mince tipsily along the narrow line between the politically incorrect and the downright unspeakable. Johnson’s is to disarm truculent interviewers by acting the buffoon and spouting Latin. For all their jokiness and bonhomie they offer a grim choice between a Britain closed to foreigners with whatever economic consequence and one open for business at whatever social cost.

But there is hope. The right wing pranksters might not be the big story of this election after all. The seven-party leadership debate offered a new narrative. The advantage of this unprecedented format for Cameron, apparently, was that it would protect him from a direct confrontation with Miliband. Perhaps he was meant to look prime ministerial while the six lesser parties squabbled. It didn’t turn out that way. For one thing it reminded us that we don't elect a prime minister. We don't even elect a government. We elect a parliament, and it's up to them to sort out the rest. For another thing, the clear winners were Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, with Natalie Bennett of the Greens close behind. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s only MP so far, is even more impressive than Bennett. A coalition led by these talented women would certainly be a breath of fresh air.

Of course, they’d have to let Ed Miliband in to make up the numbers. Time for some old school pragmatism perhaps. 

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Two mockingbirds with one stone

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

HarperCollins caused a stir with its announcement in February that it would be publishing a second novel by Harper Lee. 

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1960 at the height of the American Civil Rights movement. Set in 1930s Alabama, Lee’s story of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman hit the mood of the time, won a Pulitzer, and rapidly became a classic.

Despite pressure from her publishers and enthusiastic demand from readers, Harper Lee failed to provide a follow-up. Until HarperCollins’ announcement, she was firmly in the category of single-novel authors, keeping such distinguished company as Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things). Meanwhile Lee avoided interviews and publicity as assiduously as her contemporary JD Salinger.  

Now, after 55 years, a second Lee novel is about to appear. HarperCollins has described Go Set a Watchman as recently ‘discovered’, tapping into the romantic mythology of famous lost manuscripts.

By his own account, TE Lawrence had to revert to an earlier ‘inferior’ draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom after he accidently left the manuscript at Reading Station. A suitcase containing almost everything Hemingway had written by the age of 23, including short stories and part of a First World War novel, was apparently stolen from a railway compartment at the Gare du Lyon. Malcolm Lowry had to rewrite his first novel, Ultramarine after it was stolen from his publisher’s open-topped car. Lowry was particularly unlucky with manuscripts: years later, after Under The Volcano had made him famous, his beach shack in Canada caught fire and he was injured trying to rescue the only copy of a novel called In the Ballast of the White Sea.

So it’s exciting to hear that an unpublished work by a writer of Harper Lee’s stature has been rescued from oblivion; unless accounts of its disappearance have been exaggerated as some have suggested, and it turns out to be not altogether new.    

The publishers have presented Go Set a Watchman as a sort of sequel, in which the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch, now an adult, is ‘forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood’. But they acknowledge that it was written first. Lee’s account, as reported by HarperCollins, is that the editor who read it in the mid-50s, ‘taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood,’ persuaded her ‘to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout’. It was this that became To Kill a Mockingbird

Inevitably, Go Set a Watchman is already a bestseller four months before its release date. Will it turn out to be a sequel, or a superseded draft? A curiosity or an instant classic? We’ll find out soon enough.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Embarrassed by fiction?

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

An American novelist writes to tell me he’s read one of my books. There are things in it he admires, such as ‘the evocation of atmosphere’ and ‘the urgency of suspicions of adultery’. But the plot bothers him – the fact that there is one. ‘Plot always bugs me,’ he says, ‘and I couldn’t help thinking – if you’ll forgive me – that almost all novels would benefit if they (we) could break loose of the imperative of A leading to B leading to C, etc.’

A friend, writing from Japan, is less apologetic. He has already told me, to his own great amusement, having read only the publisher’s blurbs, that my books are ‘silly’. A social historian who has lived on four continents, he just can’t see the point of made-up stories when there’s so much real life to learn about. He writes, ‘I’m reading about Karl Ove Knausgaard and he says the same kinds of things about fiction as me. I’m not as mad as I’d thought!’

Knausgaard’s unflinching memoir has won him notoriety far beyond his native Norway and has given new impetus to an old critical trope: the death of the novel. ‘Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,’ he writes in the second of six fat volumes of the bizarrely titled Min Kampf. The British novelist Rachel Cusk is also reported to have given up on fiction, finding it, according to a profile in a recent New Yorker, ‘fake and embarrassing’, and the creation of plot and character ‘utterly ridiculous’.

As I wrestle with the familiar challenge of bringing fictional characters to life and giving shape to their experiences, I begin to feel disheartened. Perhaps I should just write about my life. But I have no appetite for self-revelation. On an impulse I download Cusk’s latest book, Outline.

Some books I buy in the expectation of pleasure, others for work. This one I encounter as an enemy. If Cusk considers ridiculous what I put so much energy into, it follows that I will either hate what she’s doing or be defeated by it, recognising that my craft has indeed been superseded.

But the headlines have misled me. Outline is no memoir. The first person narrator, of whose life we gather only fragments, is mainly a recipient of other people’s stories, which are delivered with arresting eloquence. I’m reminded of the strange fictions of Borges, or of a Chekhovian play in which characters take it in turns to reveal something of themselves. Many of these narratives lead to moments of illumination. The effect is elaborately fictive.

It occurs to me that I have mistaken Cusk’s self-reflective musings for literary analysis. Her embarrassment is, of course, purely personal. Pushing herself to solve problems thrown up by her earlier works, she is acutely aware of what she perceives, justly or not, to be their shortcomings. This is a feeling I understand. I finish Outline exhilarated and ready to get back to my novel. 

Silk purse or sow's ear?

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

“The writing is overstuffed and leaks sawdust.” So writes Michael Hofmann of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books. The novel’s many admirers, like the tourists recently observed by Hofman throwing themselves out of the path of a monumental granite ball that turned out to be fake, have been “hoaxed by polystyrene”.

Hofman is not the only dissenter. In the TLS, Craig Raine described the novel as “saturated, not always judiciously, in poetry,” poetry, for Flanagan, meaning “exaggerated imagery, an uncertain, elevated tone, and generous rights on repetition”.

This is the same book that was praised by Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph for its “grace and unfathomability” and whose war scenes were described by Leyla Sanai in the Guardian as “devastating”.

The Man Booker judges sided with the novel’s admirers and gave Flanagan the prize. They took a different view of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. With the competition open for the first time to American authors, expectations were high for Tartt’s third novel, which had already won her a Pulitzer, and when the judges announced their longlist in July, its absence was, for some reporters, the big story.  

Early reviews had been mainly positive, some verging on the ecstatic. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it a “glorious Dickensian novel… that pulls all [Tartt’s] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole”. Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian that to say too much about the events “would be to deprive a reader of the great joy of being swept up by the plot.” The Telegraph’s Catherine Taylor found the grief of the young hero for his mother “so tangible the pages appear tear-sodden”. 

But there was a growing band of sceptics. In the Guardian, Julie Myerson described it as a “mystifying mess”, wondering why a writer of Tartt’s talent was wasting her time on this over-long and slackly written “Harry Potter homage”. In the New Yorker, James Wood agreed that “its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature”.  

What are we to make of these starkly diverging opinions? Is there something about these books in particular that scrambles reader’s critical faculties, inciting them to hyperbolic gushing or sneering put-downs? Or are they just the extreme cases, reminding us that all literary opinions are utterly subjective and any attempt to judge artistic merit is futile? Should we perhaps question the motives of the writers, suspecting the favourable reviewers of sycophancy, the detractors of envy?

I resist all these conclusions. As a novelist I find I’m attached to the notion that there are worse ways of writing and better ways, even if only in some Platonic sense. Why else is it so hard to get it right? And it’s good that people care enough to argue fiercely about what those ways are. I find their arguments, and my responses to them, sharpen my own sense of what fiction is for and inform the choices I make in my work. 

Diversity on the page, on the screen, in the studio

I've been neglecting my blog recently, mainly because I've been pushing forward with my novel-in-progress. It certainly isn't for lack of blogworthy material. What about the government's plan to make creative writing courses redundant by requiring all 11-year-olds to be able to write "a coherent short story"? I should take that class! Meanwhile I've been keeping up my monthly supply of pieces to the Bangladesh Daily Star, but failing to republish them here. This is November's piece, so there are a couple more to follow.

A headline in the London Evening Standard caught my eye recently: “BBC in race row.” The Corporation has been getting a lot of bad press and I feared another damaging scandal. But as I read on, this one began to look like a storm in a teacup. The BBC was under attack “for casting a white actor in a role originally written as black for a new thriller.” It seems the author of the new 5-part series London Spy, best-selling novelist Tom Rob Smith, was still writing the script and the identity of the lead character was fluid when casting began. The black actors who auditioned all lost out.

I can’t help feeling sympathy for Smith, whose mind was probably on art rather than demographics, but I sympathise with the rejected actors too. In the novel I’m currently struggling with, a character I had thought was West Indian turns out to be Kurdish. Another I had conceived as a native Londoner has become a Hungarian immigrant. The cultural impact of these changes, outside my own head, is precisely zero. But perhaps the writer of a high-profile TV drama has a wider responsibility. There are two distinct issues here: how will the diversity of modern Britain be reflected on our TV screens? and what work opportunities will be offered to black, Asian and ethnic minority actors?

There’s no doubt that white actors are over-represented in British TV drama. If you’re inclined to blame the writers, you should probably start with Jane Austen and then move on to Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope. You might also blame a viewing public that seems to have a bottomless appetite for classic adaptations, lapping up weak substitutes such as Downton Abbey when the real thing isn’t available. This includes viewers in America, where this kind of programme finds a lucrative market. The focus on the picturesque past keeps the British acting establishment busy dressing up in corsets and frockcoats but leaves thin pickings for minority actors.

Commissioning editors must also take responsibility. The success of Luther, a crime drama that ran for three seasons between 2010 and 2013, and for which the star Idris Elba won a Golden Globe, demonstrated that viewers are ready for compelling stories about non-white characters. But we can only choose from what’s offered. Speaking in June at the launch of Act for Change, a project designed to address the lack of diversity on British television, actor and writer Meera Syal made an eloquent plea for a fresh approach to a problem that people have been talking about, she said, for 30 years. So Tom Rob Smith’s artistic choices take place in a broader context.

In some ways it’s a relief to know that the changes I make to my own story won’t affect anyone else’s career. Meanwhile diversity is working for me. The south Asian character I’ve just introduced looks set to have a significant impact, unless the plot takes an unexpected turn – or I decide to make her Norwegian.