Sunday, 17 August 2014

Book-banning and British values

Adapted from an article published in The Bangladesh Daily Star

The government has been making book-related news this year – and not in a good way. In May we learned that an intervention by Michael Gove, who was then still Secretary of State for Education, had prompted exam boards to drop non-British classics from their GCSE English syllabuses. Apparently Gove was particularly disappointed at the popularity of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Gove insisted that he wasn’t banning anything. He just wanted British school children to read more home-grown books. 
Under the new regulations, pupils must study a Shakespeare play, a 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789, and a work of fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards. I assume that start date for poetry is to make room for William Blake, an anarchic visionary loved by conservatives who misread 'Jerusalem' as a jingoistic poem, though I can’t explain the gap between the end of the nineteenth century and 1914, a black hole big enough to swallow most of the works of Joseph Conrad, one of our greatest immigrant writers.

Leaving those peculiarities aside, a teacher eager to engage the interests of students might well feel boxed in by a list with such a historical emphasis. But it’s the ‘British Isles’ requirement that is proving controversial, excluding as it does writers as varied as Chinua Achebe, Anita Desai and Harper Lee.

Countering the charge of parochialism, a spokesman for the department of education pointed out that, though the twentieth century work has to have originated in the British Isles, the 19th-century novel does not. This was probably not meant as a joke, though it spectacularly misses the point that it was in the 20th-century that English literature went global.  

In June it was the Prime Minister who was turning the clock back. In an article in the Mail on Sunday about British values, David Cameron said that ‘we are bringing proper narrative history back to the curriculum’, naming as his favourite book Our Island Story. Written for children at the height of the British Empire, this book could now only be read as a curiosity. It’s hard to imagine it featuring on any syllabus except as an illustration of Edwardian attitudes and it’s a dismal thought that it might actually be our Prime Minister’s favourite, or that he might really consider more analytical approaches to history ‘improper’. More likely this was a craven appeal to voters abandoning the Tories for UKIP.   
Meanwhile Justice Minister Chris Grayling was dealing with the continuing ripples of protest at his ban on parcels for prisoners. As Grayling was desperate to point out, he wasn’t actually banning books, just parcels, whatever they happened to contain – underwear, toiletries, presents from prisoners’ children. Cutting the supply of books was just a side effect. 

This argument didn’t seem to help. Grayling faced objections and protests from large numbers of British writers, including Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Bennett, Hari Kunzru and Irvine Welsh, before the story became international, with former political prisoners from around the world expressing concern. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, freed after 16 months in a Siberian jail, said that, for a prisoner, ‘Books make up your entire world.’ Dissident Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip put it this way: ‘In prison books become the air… No books – you cannot breathe.’

When the victim's of Putin and Lukashenko start calling you oppressive, you know you're in trouble. Democratic governments have no business directing what we may and may not read. But as long as books matter, they’ll go on meddling. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Is this the end for serious fiction?

This is reprinted from The Bangladesh Daily Star

On a visit to New York, I meet an old novelist friend in a café in Greenwich Village. He’s enthusing about Breaking Bad, the acclaimed American drama series about a chemistry teacher with lung cancer who, faced with prohibitive medical bills and an insecure future for his family, starts cooking illegal methamphetamine. My friend tells me TV drama has finally achieved the status of high art to rival the Victorian novel.

He suggests that Charles Dickens was the TV dramatist of his age. Being serialised in magazines such as Household Words brought Dickens’ work to a mass readership. It also enabled readers to respond while the story was still taking shape, just as modern dramas are subject to constantly updated viewer ratings, reviews, blogs and fanzines.

But why is Breaking Bad the break-through drama, I ask him, the one that has elevated the form to Dickensian heights? He tells me it’s because it achieves genuine artistic coherence. The Sopranos, though beautifully crafted episode by episode, under the pressure to generate fresh story lines while maintaining the essential dynamic on which its success depended, descended to the level of soap opera. Most original dramas are like this. Expensive to make, they have to be commercial products first and works of art second. And nobody knows if they’re going to last one season or ten. Uniquely, Breaking Bad followed the logic of its opening premise, taking its characters through life-changing experiences, resolving dramatic instabilities by smashing through into even greater instabilities, and finally resolving into a single coherent narrative structure.

Suddenly my friends looks gloomy. ‘So where does this leave us?’ he asks me. ‘What are novelists for, now?’ I understand his concern. But television is the least of our worries. On the plane from London I was reading a piece by Will Self, arguing that the literary novel isn’t dying, but only because it’s already dead. In fact it’s been walking around in a zombie state for three quarters of a century, ever since James Joyce took it as far as it could go, and beyond, in Finnegan’s Wake. What does the future hold for serious fiction? In Self’s view, within twenty years it will have been squeezed out of cultural significance by the distractions of social media and our addiction to instant information.

It’s a bleak outlook. Leaving the café, I console myself with the thought that among anxieties about possible futures for the planet, the decline of the novel rates fairly low. I find myself outside the Strand bookstore, the biggest, longest surviving independent bookshop in Manhattan. Inside I find fiction prominently displayed, heaped on tables labelled Modern Classics, Just Arrived, and Best of the Best. I seem to be looking at all the novels I’ve ever read, all the novels I’ve ever thought of reading, and vast numbers of novels I’ve never heard of.  It’s a big scruffy space estimated to hold 2.5 million or 18 shelf-miles of books. It’s crowded with young people. And they’re all buying.  

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Are creative writing courses a waste of time?

This is reprinted from The Bangladesh Daily Star, whose literary pages can be seen here

Hanif Kureishi caused a stir at the Bath Literature Festival by describing creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’. He said that most of his students at Kingston University have no talent, and talent can’t be taught. He gets no marks for tact, but does he have a point?

In recent years in Britain there’s been a huge expansion in university courses in creative writing. It’s no coincidence that this has coincided with a shift from public to private financing of higher education, and the growing pressure to respond to consumer demand. Creative writing is what the customers want. But can the universities deliver on their promise?

Novelist Lucy Ellman thinks not. She used to teach creative writing at the University of Kent, but now describes such courses as ‘the biggest con-job in academia’, suggesting that universities charge fees on false pretences. If people take these courses in the expectation of getting published, many will be disappointed. If they have fame or wealth in mind, they’re almost certainly deluded. But students I talk to often have more modest ambitions. They speak of wanting to improve their writing, or of needing the structure to help them write a story they’ve been thinking about for years.

Asked if he would consider studying creative writing himself if he were starting out now, Kureishi said, ‘No… that would be madness. I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me.’ That’s easier said than done. Most aspiring writers work in isolation, sometimes with no one to consult but family members or friends who mean well but don’t really get what they’re trying to do. You can’t pluck a good teacher out of the air. The university course provides a community of students and teachers who understand the urge to write and respect the struggle to produce good work. 
The defenders of creative writing courses often talk about the elements of craft that can be effectively taught. Novelist Matt Haig says that courses can be ‘very useful, just like music lessons can be useful’.  I understand the temptation to liken this new subject to more established kinds of training, like studying an instrument. But there’s a huge difference. Playing music is a precise discipline. Predictability is an asset. It’s best to start young, and you can’t expect to think about self-expression before you’ve achieved some level of technical mastery. In contrast, people typically take up novel writing in adult life, sometimes in midlife. It’s an activity that springs from individual experience and celebrates personal vision. It’s not a skill that can be acquired in predictable stages. Publishers may value craft, but they continually seek fresh voices. 

To this extent, Kureishi is right to emphasise the importance of individual talent. But, for the very same reason, startlingly good work can sometimes emerge from apparently unpromising students. University courses may not be able to teach people to become writers, but they do provide an environment in which writers can find themselves. 

Friday, 13 June 2014

We still don't do God

A humble college lecturer by the name of Dave Brat has just made big political news in America by defeating House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in a Republican primary. Brat took an extreme line on immigration and rode a wave of tea-party anger against the Washington establishment.
We know Dave Brat is humble because he said so. Asked what he attributed his success to, he replied, 'What do I attribute it to? I attribute it to God. I am utterly humbled and thankful. I’m a believer. So I’m humbled that God gave us this win… God acts through people, and God acted through the people on my behalf.'

This kind of religious talk apparently goes down well in conservative circles in Virginia. But even in more northern, more coastal, and more cosmopolitan regions of America, some level of religious faith seems to be a basic requirement for political life, whereas here in Britain the leaders of two of our three major parties currently call themselves atheists, and members of parliament can survive whole careers without having to commit themselves one way or another.

It was Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell who famously said, ‘We don’t do God.’ Far from being a statement of unbelief, this was an attempt to establish a kind of religious ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. If people felt Blair might be dodgy on religion, the fear was that he had too much of it rather than too little. When he was interviewed at length by Jeremy Paxman during the build-up to the Iraq war, one of Blair's most uncomfortable moments was when Paxman asked him whether he and Bush prayed together.

BLAIR: No, we don't pray together Jeremy, no.
PAXMAN: Why do you smile?
BLAIR: Because – why do you ask me the question?

Imagine an American president acting so coy and being made to look so shifty in response to a simple question about religious practice! What Paxman had done, of course, was to evoke an image of inappropriate intimacy between our Prime Minister and the American President, while implying that Blair’s determination to invade Iraq might be based on something other than a rational calculation of costs and benefits. These were the subtexts that made Blair squirm. We really don’t do God.   

Blair’s predecessor, John Major, once went so far as to speak nostalgically of an England of warm beer and village cricket and ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist,’ but he was only quoting Orwell. In one of her more grotesquely unctuous moments, Margaret Thatcher recited a 1912 prayer, which she inaccurately attributed to St Francis of Assisi, about replacing doubt with faith and despair with hope, but she was more in her element berating Anglican bishops for being soft on the poor and praying for the souls of dead Argentinian soldiers. No one really thought she’d got religion.

And no one really thinks David Cameron has got it either, even though he announced over Easter that 'we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.’

Is it just me, or does that ‘frankly’ sound like an awkward clearing of the throat before the scary reference to evangelism? And isn’t there just a hint of embarrassment in the way the indefinite article holds ‘faith’ at arm’s length? And what’s the sentence really about anyway, but getting Tory-like stuff done in the world and having a presence on the international stage, with some vague nod to religion in the middle? But in this country, where we don’t do God, it’s as close to a ringing declaration of belief as a Prime Minister can get.  

And who can doubt that Cameron’s religious revival has been inspired by the surge of support for the UK Independence Party? For the benefit of American readers, I should explain that UKIP is a bit like the tea party, though there are fewer cattle-ranchers armed with assault weapons among its members and more old maids bicycling through the morning mist.

Their leader Nigel Farage has called for a ‘more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage’. I’m not sure bluff, beer-soaked Nige would spot a Judaeo-Christian if it bit him in the leg, but I think he might recognise Dave Brat as the kind of bloke he could have a pint with – as long as Dave stuck to the immigration issue and didn’t go on about God. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Still armed, still dangerous

Expressing shock at the killing of six UCSB students in Isla Vista last week, a journalist on MSNBC said, ‘What a combination of anger, firepower and delusion.’

If firepower is only part of the problem it’s clearly the most urgent part, and the part most responsive to public policy. What can you do about an angry deluded man-child with a gun? Take his gun away for a start. Then you might think about diagnosing his psychological condition or exploring how his misogyny and sense of entitlement  may have been fuelled by cultural forces.

But what seems like common sense to most people is heresy to some. 

I’ve posted about the gun lobby before (Armed and dangerous, January 2013). There’s a new device, worn on the wrist like a watch, that allows a weapon to be fired only by its owner, so that a loaded gun found in the house by a child or snatched by an intruder becomes harmless. The people at the National Rifle Association are working hard to keep it off the market. They also object to new technology that could print every bullet, at the moment of firing, with a code unique to the gun that fired it, which would help police to solve violent crimes. 

On the other hand, they have a history of defending plastic assault rifles that could be smuggled past metal detectors, and bullets designed to pierce body armour, and they have no problem with child-friendly weapons made for small hands.  

The NRA is an industry lobby masquerading as a grassroots organisation and too many politicians are scared of it. But big money is only part of its power. You don’t have to dig very deep into online conversations about the Isla Vista shooting to find people who think guns are not the problem but the solution, and who blame California’s gun laws, which are marginally more restrictive than most, for the failure of anyone to gun down the killer. In internet forums the opposing sides face each across a chasm, shouting, ‘Look what your policies have brought us to!’

According to opinion polls, most Americans are persuaded that some minimal measures, such as requiring background checks for all weapon sales, would be a good thing. The gun advocates are not impressed by the evidence for this, or for anything else, because they are not focused on a pragmatic reduction of harm. 

There are two kinds of fundamentalism behind this attitude, each with its sacred text. There’s an apocalyptic kind of Christianity that encourages hostility to social progress, while emphasising personal salvation and self-reliance. And there’s a form of libertarianism that treats the Constitution as Holy Writ, especially the Second Amendment, which the true believers misread to suit their prejudices, being resolutely opposed to anything that would weaken the ability of the private citizen to defend himself against his neighbour or the federal government. 

If unregulated gun ownership is an inalienable right, any inquiry into what happened at Isla Vista must begin and end in Elliot Rodger’s soul, about which nothing can ever be done.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Work in progress

It’s been a while since I posted. But silence doesn’t mean I’ve been doing nothing. Among other things, I’ve been working on a novel. I’ve got about 35,000 words and have reached the stage where I begin to wonder if it’s going where I expected it to, whether the conclusion I vaguely envisaged when I started out is strong enough, and whether I’m giving my protagonist a hard enough time, or giving him sufficient scope to transgress, along the way.

I also face more profound doubts. How can I hope to find another 50,000 words to fulfil the promise of what I’ve done so far? And how much of a promise is that anyway? Is it even a premise? And does anyone apart from me really care whether I finish the book or not?

I read and re-read, trying to be open to the story that’s struggling to emerge. I prune ruthlessly, eradicating jokes, random surprises and other local effects that draw attention to themselves and stall the momentum. I delete modifiers and metaphors, simplify complex sentences, remove words that might send an averagely intelligent reader to the dictionary. I lose half a dozen pages.

I read aloud, listening for an authentic voice (I’ve come to feel more comfortable with first-person narrators who will talk like real people if I can get out of their way). I challenge the other characters to work harder for the space they’re taking up. I interrogate moments of drama and expressions of emotion. Is this the way it would happen? Is this what it would feel like? Is it believable? Is it true? More pages go.

Resisting the temptation to entertain, I push myself to engage readers at a deeper level. My draft begins to grow again.

In the middle of this process I get an email from the literary editor of the Bangladesh Daily Star, who has been given my name by a friend. Would I be willing to write a monthly column of 500 words on any literary topic of my choice? I learn that The Daily Star is Bangladesh’s largest English language newspaper, with a print circulation of 40,000 and a considerably larger reach. I don’t hesitate.  The greatest anxiety for a writer is whether the words will come. The second greatest is whether anyone will read them. The email offers me a potential readership – not for a novel, but for something.

I’ll be posting those pieces here, once they’ve appeared in print– along with other non-literary pieces if I find myself drawn back into the blogging habit. Meanwhile I’ll be pushing forward with the book, submitting myself to the long silence.    

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Life, the Heart, the Elephant

In his 1967 novel, Towards the End of the Morning, Michael Frayn describes the house-hunting strategy (hopelessly optimistic, as it turns out) of John and Jannie Dyson:

They decided to find a cheap Georgian or Regency house in some down-at-heel district near the centre. However depressed the district, if it was Georgian or Regency and reasonably central, it would soon be colonized by the middles classes. In this way they would secure an attractive and potentially fashionable house in the heart of London, at a price they could afford; be given credit by their friends for going to live among the working classes; acquire very shortly congenial middle-class neighbours of a similarly adventurous and intellectual outlook; and see their investment undergo a satisfactory and reassuring rise in value in the process

In the end they settle for a Victorian house in an unfashionable district, which remains, to their disappointment, stubbornly ungentrified. 

Kingsley Amis takes a sharper crack at the self-congratulatory attitudes of the Dyson class in his 1971 novel, Girl, 20, when his narrator, Douglas Yandell, visits Islington:

I had been rather expecting to find the streets deserted, the buildings uninhabited, having been quite recently told by a left-wing bassoonist friend and his left-wing harpist wife that they were among the first people to have moved into the area. 

It was in Islington that my parents began their married life and had their first five children (I came along later). But they left in the 50s before it was smartened up. Forty years on, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made their alleged pact in an Islington restaurant to take turns at being Prime Minister, Islington was already well established as a yuppie enclave. The descendants of Amis’s left-wing musicians had shifted their attention to Notting Hill and the East End.

Among ‘down-at-heel districts’ near the heart of London, our own neighbourhood, the Elephant and Castle, has been relatively neglected by the colonizing middle classes. In contrast with Islington, where old buildings cluster around a village green, the heart of our neighbourhood is a frenetic figure-of-eight road junction, and a shopping centre whose main floor, both inside and out, is at a subterranean level to allow convenient access through concrete underpasses. This probably looked stylish in an architecture’s drawing in 1960. Now its Bladerunner grimness is redeemed only by the people who inhabit it – market traders, shoppers, commuters, mothers with pushchairs, old people sitting on the bench outside the hardware shop as though this really was a village green – as cheerfully diverse a crowd as you could hope to meet anywhere on the planet.

In the immediate vicinity, the kind of terraced housing the Dysons were looking at is in short supply. This was always an ill-favoured area. In Shakespeare’s day, the suburbs south of the river had more than their share of prisons, brothels and slums, and were a natural home for the disreputable theatre business, beyond the puritanical jurisdiction of the City of London.  In George Gissing’s 1894 novel, In the Year of the Jubilee, Nancy Lord is overwhelmed by the place. ‘It was a district unfamiliar to her, and repulsive. By the Elephant and Castle she stood watching the tumultuous traffic which whirls and roars at this confluence of six highways.’

After the war, an extensive area of Victorian back-to-back housing, of the kind that now – damp-proofed and fixed up with indoor plumbing – would change hands for upward of half a million, was marked for slum clearance. The houses were demolished in the 60s to make way for the massive council blocks of the Heygate estate. The nearby Pullens estate, an area of tenement flats named after their enterprising Victorian builder, narrowly escaped demolition in the 70s and is now a local landmark, with its cobbled yards leading to purpose-built workshops that are still rented by the council to jewellery makers, potters, photographers, architects, web-designers and other creative types.

With terraced housing now out of the reach of most first-time London buyers – even reasonably affluent professionals – the new trend is for apartment-living. Recent private developments, each with its allocation of social and affordable housing, have filled industrial spaces on either side of the railway line that runs southward from Elephant and Castle station. Not far away, our own new building stands on the site of the Victorian workhouse that was, some believe, Charlie Chaplin’s childhood home.

Such developments offer rich pickings, for the developers themselves and for global investors seeking trouble-free rentable units. The 22 acres of the Heygate estate, whose unfashionably Corbusian buildings have been allowed to fall into neglect, has proved irresistibly attractive. And in the current political climate, which favours economic brutalism over the architectural kind, requirements for affordable homes are being squeezed. After a war of attrition between Southwark Council and the remaining lease-holders, the whole estate is ready for demolition. Like Islington before it, the Elephant and Castle seems destined to go up in the world.

And as in Islington, there will be winners and losers. The winners in Islington included existing home-owners who lived through a boom in house prices, those who had the good luck to move in early, and the estate agents who rode the wave. Losers included the renting class, people living in bedsits and boarding houses who had to make other arrangements when their private landlords sold to owner-occupiers. The story at the Elephant is more stark: a community of 3,000 people broken up, council tenants dispersed to outlying areas, lease-holders bought out, some with compulsory purchase orders, at prices equivalent to a one-third down-payment on a new apartment on the same site.

Southwark council looks like a loser too, having spent almost as much money emptying the flats as it got for the land. Truth also loses out. Along the way, Heygate acquired an undeserved reputation for crime, partly because, in its neglected condition, it became a popular location for TV series, including Luther and Top Boy, and for films such as Harry Brown. After filming there, Michael Caine called for its demolition, describing it as a place where children ‘grew into animals’. The crime figures for the estate, which were, in fact, relatively low, suggest that he was mistaking fiction for reality.

Winners include the developers, a global corporation based in Australia, who have no investment in the social fabric of the neighbourhood, only in its property values. The change to Islington was made up of thousands of private decisions. Here the whole thing is being managed on a monolithic scale and proclaimed on hoardings and banners like a new gospel.

Change is here.
Transformation starts now.
Be a part of it.
The Life. The Heart. The Elephant

Kingsley Amis generally reserved his scorn for left-wing pieties, but I like to think these exhortations from the Church of Capitalism would have provoked him to comic paroxysms of rage. 

So where do we stand, Leni and I? Are we, like the Dysons, roughing it in the hope of future profit? Hardly. Our motive for living here is probably typical of most home buyers: we found the best compromise we could between location and living space, and settled for what we could afford. And what are our hopes for the neighbourhood? Mainly this: that the developers don’t go bankrupt before they’ve finished the job and that, for as long as there’s profit in it, they take good care of the goose that’s laying their golden egg.