Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Strange motivations

I’m grateful to the novelist James Meek for introducing me to a new critical term. Reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (‘From Wooden to Plastic’, LRB, 24/09/15), Meek writes that the first appearance of Leila Helou “is couched in the leaden terms of the Unaccountably Disrupted Normal: ‘Ordinarily, Leila looked forward to travelling on assignment…. But from the moment she arrived in Amarillo, on a commuter jet from Denver, something felt different.’”

I’d been reading William Boyd’s latest novel Sweet Caress: the many lives of Amory Clay (Bloomsbury, 2015) and had just marked this passage: “It was proving to be the strangest day, with my emotions veering around from soft and silly to cynical and uncaring; and my sense of adult responsibility seemingly switched off – what was I doing on this bike with Oberkamp heading to Highway 22? It was as if I was in some hallucinatory state.” By chance, Meek had provided me with a name for what bothered me about Boyd’s sentence. Oberkamp, an Australian journalist with whom Amory, a British war photographer, has had a one-night affair, is pursuing his Vietnamese girlfriend through Vietcong territory. Amory may well wonder how he managed to talk her into going with him!

I’m inclined to think that the behaviour of fictional characters should be self-explanatory. If the writer has to spend time justifying unlikely turns in the plot, something’s gone wrong. If a first-person narrator, as here, admits that her actions don’t make any sense, I want to say: if you don’t believe them why should I?

That’s my theoretical position, anyway. As a reader I find I’m much more easy-going. In some ways Boyd is a careless writer. But his brilliance more than compensates for his carelessness. I’m aware of the occasional rough patch but I keep reading. In fact, over the years I seem to have read all but a couple of his fourteen novels.

In The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993) Kay Fischer has been approached by a mysterious older man called Dr Salvador Carriscant. “I met Carriscant,” Kay tells us, “at the railroad station in Pasadena early in the morning. He had asked me to come with him to Santa Fe and, for some reason, and much to my astonishment, I agreed at once…”

One benefit of Kay’s astonishing compliance is that, as readers, we get to see what happens in Santa Fe. Likewise when Amory gets on the back of Oberkamp’s motorbike we all go along for the ride.

As a justification perhaps this puts too much emphasis on Boyd’s carelessness and not enough on his brilliance. There’s psychological insight here, as well as narrative convenience. Boyd gives us characters capable of sudden, reckless, self-damaging behaviour, whose lives are unexpectedly derailed by unconscious impulses. Some of his most memorable narrators look back on their lives as strangers to themselves, viewing the unlikely plot twists with as much wonder as we do.

Boyd reminds us that it isn’t only in bad fiction that the normal is sometimes unaccountably disrupted. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Tested to destruction

‘I have a higher IQ than Stephen Hawking. I have a higher IQ than Einstein.’  So said one of the boys competing in Channel 4’s Child Genius, which is run in association with Mensa, ‘the high IQ society’.   

Full disclosure: I have a lower IQ than either Hawking or Einstein. I know, because I was tested by an educational psychologist when I was 12 along with my three younger siblings – my mother probably negotiated a cut rate for the four of us.

Even fuller disclosure: I have a lower IQ than most of my siblings. You might think this explains why I believe IQs are a lot of hokum, and you may be right, though I’m inclined to attribute it to less subjective factors. I can’t remember what I thought about all this when I was 12, but since then I’ve interacted with a lot of people, and the idea that they could all be placed on a single scale and assigned a number that would tell me anything useful about them has come to seem increasingly absurd. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people a lot cleverer than me in lots of different ways. But I do think the different ways are as important as the cleverness, which can reveal itself suddenly in unexpected moments, or slowly over time.

IQ testing was once integral to British education policy. It came to light decades ago that Cyril Burt, the psychologist behind the tripartite system of secondary education established by the 1944 act, had falsified his research. In The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould raised the lid on the whole murky history of IQ testing, exposing the statistical fallacies, cultural assumptions and circular arguments on which the construct depends.

And yet as recently as 1994, a couple of American academics, Herrnstein and Murray, were willing to argue in The Bell Curve that IQ is real, measurable and resistant to change over generations – and that, by the way, the average IQ of African Americans was 15 points below that of white folks and likely to remain so.

At least Child Genius has a healthy ethnic mix. It is also essentially a game show, with ‘sudden death’ rounds that defy the most basic principles of educational testing, and therefore not to be taken seriously. It might be one of the more cruel examples of reality TV, exploiting children for our entertainment and turning their remarkable abilities into circus acts. But better that the concept of IQ should find its natural home here, alongside Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here than influencing public policy.   

Truth-telling and the right to publish

This piece has previously appeared in the Bangladesh Daily Star

The career of the British concert pianist James Rhodes has been anything but conventional. He was more or less self-taught until he was 13. He never attended music college. After leaving school, he gave up the piano for more than ten years. 

Driven to reconnect with music if only vicariously, he approached the agent of the renowned pianist Grigory Sokolov, not for an audition, but merely hoping to get a job representing musicians. At his first meeting with Panozzo, the agent, Rhodes admitted to having played piano a bit as a child. Panazzo asked him to play something and, astounded to hear an amateur perform so well, fixed him up with a teacher. A few years later, Rhodes was signing recording deals and winning prizes.

If that sounds like a fairy tale, it’s one with its full share of darkness. When Rhodes set out to write a memoir, he decided to give an uncensored account of the repeated sexual abuse he had suffered in childhood, the physical and mental suffering it had caused him, and the way music had saved his life. For almost a year its publication was prevented by a court ruling, after his ex-wife argued that the book would harm their 11-year old son. In May of this year, that ruling was overturned by the UK Supreme Court. Instrumental is now set to be published by Canongate.

Autobiography has a long history. Over the centuries, powerful men have often been moved to reflect on how they achieved greatness. A very different impulse towards confession is reflected in a tradition of conversion stories, such Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which John Bunyan wrote while in prison in the 1660s. Classic autobiographies have also been inspired by more material forms of salvation. Frederick Douglass, the African American orator and abolitionist, published his autobiography in 1845 with the subtitle: An American Slave.

Since the late twentieth century there has been an explosion in personal writing, often with an emphasis on stories of survival. These writers claim our attention because of what they endured rather than by the status they have subsequently achieved. Though there’s no shortage of celebrity memoirs, the interesting development has been these records of otherwise invisible lives.

The genre sometimes known as “misery lit” is open to satire. It’s also open to exploitation. When James Frey was discovered in 2006 to have exaggerated both his sins and his suffering in A Million Little Pieces, Oprah Winfrey expressed her outrage on behalf of the readers he had betrayed. The strength of this reaction was a reminder that, while we may require memoirs to engage us as novels do, their appeal rests on some level of factual accuracy. That is an essential part of their contract with the reader.

In the case of James Rhodes, the principle the Supreme Court upheld was the right of an individual to tell his or own story “in all its searing detail” for whoever wants to hear it.  

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.