Friday, 28 July 2017

The exploiting of Charlie Gard

In a double-page banner headline, the Daily Mail calls Charlie Gard “the baby boy who moved the world”. I find myself drawn back 20 years to the summer of 1997 when I was thrown out of a tea shop in Monmouth for speaking of the late Princess Diana with insufficient reverence. My mild-mannered head of department and I were sitting, apparently alone, enjoying a cup of tea after a day of pre-term preparation. Tony Blair had spoken of waking up to a kinder, gentler Britain. But on my way through town I had seen people queuing in the square to sign the book of remembrance and the notice in the Oxfam shop opposite that read, ‘Closed for lack of volunteers’. I mentioned this to my colleague as an illustration of the self-indulgent sentimentality of the national response to Diana’s death. He murmured his agreement. A moment later, the proprietor appeared from the kitchen. “If you two are going to talk like that,” she said, “you can finish your tea and get out.”

I thought the country had gone slightly mad and perhaps I was slightly mad too, to mind so much. I was offended by what I experienced as a disproportionate outpouring of grief. But Diana was at least a public figure of constitutional significance. And there were legitimate targets of public anger – the Royal Family that had exploited, neglected and finally closed ranks against her, and the paid stalkers we had learned to call the paparazzi.

In the case of Charlie Gard, the grief expressed by those outside the family circle is more disturbing, and the anger is wildly misdirected. Great Ormond Street Hospital is not the enemy. It hasn’t imprisoned Charlie nor imposed a death sentence on him. Stories about experimental treatments not funded or approved by the NHS but available in America come round regularly. The right wing tabloids present them as heroic battles – the little guy against the system – but they serve the larger purpose of chipping away at our confidence in public healthcare.

Prominent US politicians have made this project explicit. For Vice-President Mike Pence, Charlie Gard’s desperate condition illustrates the dangers of the “single-payer” system favoured by progressives : “the American people oughta reflect on the fact that,” Pence said. “This is where it takes us.” Trump’s message of sympathy and support for Charlie’s parents rises from the same well of ignorance. Meanwhile the ongoing Republican attempts to repeal the moderate Affordable Care Act would put even the most basic health cover beyond the reach of tens of millions of US citizens.

Dr Hirano, who was heralded by the tabloids as a saviour – a lone ranger in a white coat – eagerly accepted his role in the narrative that socialized medicine is a dire fate from which British patients are occasionally fortunate enough to be rescued. Until this week, he was offering a 10% chance of improvement. It was never clear what this meant. If he had treated 100 patients in Charlie’s state and with Charlie’s condition and helped 10 of them he would have had a 10% success rate. But what if he had only treated 18 with a related but different condition and helped half of them but none of were as bad to begin with? Where did he get his 10% from? Let’s just say that with no clinical knowledge of Charlie Gard’s case and no experience with his particular condition he was willing to gamble that he had a slim chance of doing more good than harm.

The fact that Dr Hirano has a financial interest in the drug he’s offering is the kind of abuse that a joined up health service helps to guard against. But the entrepreneurial motive to recruit patients is equally dangerous. (I've written about these things before.)

The doctor was Charlie’s second high-profile American visitor. The Reverend Patrick Mahoney, who flew in to pray at the bedside, came to champion the God-given right of parents to decide the fate of their children. But civilized societies have long recognised that children have rights of their own and that the courts must occasionally intervene to determine what is in the best interests of children who are unable to speak for themselves.   

More surprising was the Pope’s intervention.  The Catholic Church, which tends to go off the deep end on sexual questions, takes a sane view of death. While forbidding euthanasia and assisted suicide, the Church makes a persuasive distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” treatment. Withdrawing food and water to shorten the life of a terminally ill patient is not allowed, even if sustenance must be intravenously delivered. But otherwise keeping a patient alive artificially is not required. According to one account of the official teaching, “When a person has an underlying terminal disease, or their heart, or some other organ, cannot work without mechanical assistance, or a therapy being proposed is dangerous, or has little chance of success, then not using that machine or that therapy results in the person dying from the disease or organ failure they already have. The omission allows nature to takes its course” (The Global Catholic Network).

Even for Catholics, who believe in the sanctity of human life, turning off the machine is sometimes the right thing to do. 

In the summer of 1997 I chose to distance myself from the national mood, but I see now that the wave of grief for Diana was genuine, widespread and largely benign. The feelings the Mail reports and encourages are more divisive, more dependent on the manipulations of the tabloid editors and social media trolls, and considerably more sinister in their political significance.  

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

What Trump doesn't get about Borough Market

Borough Market is one of the places I encourage American tourists to visit. Forget Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, I tell them – south of the river is much more interesting. From Westminster Bridge walk eastward along the South Bank. In the foyer of the South Bank Centre, which dates from the 1951 Festival of Britain, you might, randomly, at odd hours of the day, hear a gospel choir or see local children doing Indian dance. Then there’s Tate Modern, housed in the old Bankside power station, and the Globe, a faithfully reconstructed Elizabethan theatre, where performances typically combine the celebration of cultural heritage with an exhilarating ethnic variety both on and off stage. Skirt Southwark Cathedral through narrow medieval lanes and you reach Borough Market.  

People have bought and sold in the streets of Borough for at least 1000 years. Until the mid-nineteenth century London Bridge was the only way of crossing the Thames into the city except by boat, so it was the ideal place to capture passing trade. By Shakespeare’s time the neighbourhood was offering plays and bear-baiting and other lowbrow attractions that the puritan London council wouldn’t tolerate within the city walls.

By the twentieth century it had become a major wholesale fruit and vegetable market. The surge in supermarket chains in the 1970s put independent greengrocers out of business and the market’s future looked bleak. But in the 1990s there was a resurgence of interest in what people were beginning to call artisan food, London was increasingly open to global tastes and the market was reborn in its current form.

When Leni and I lived at the Elephant and Castle, 20 minutes away by foot, 10 minutes on the bus, I went regularly to a stall in the market for my favourite sourdough loaf. After her back surgery, Leni was in Guy’s Hospital for 8 days under the care of nurses from 3 continents, while they got her pain under control, and I’d cross Borough High Street every day for soups and other kinds of street food to tempt her with.

Through centuries of change there’s continuity in the spirit of the place. Four centuries after Shakespeare’s death, this is still a hub of entertainment and indulgence, a magnet for human life in all its diversity. Whatever its intended purpose, last weekend’s brutal attack, which has so far resulted in 7 deaths, was a rejection of all that.

With less than a week to go before a General Election, Britain’s politicians took a day off from campaigning. Donald Trump, in contrast, turned the attack into a showcase for his own ignorance. First he made it an argument, bizarrely, against gun control. Rob terrorists of automatic weapons, he pointed out, and they’ll use vehicles and knives to kill people. 

Then he criticised Sadiq Kahn for discouraging panic. Trump has a thing about Kahn. Apparently he can’t get his head round the fact that London has elected a Muslim mayor. Unable to see past Kahn’s religion and race, he doesn’t understand that he is essentially a Londoner. The fifth of eight children, his father a bus driver, his mother a seamstress, Kahn grew up in a council house in our own South London constituency of Tooting, and entered politics after getting a degree in law. His successor as Tooting’s MP, the wonderful Dr Rosena Allin-Kahn, for whom I’ve been out knocking on doors, is also Muslim and also a Tooting native, with a mother from Poland and a father from Pakistan.

Both Kahn and Allin-Kahn, incidentally, are passionate Remainers. While they argue the benefits of migration and the importance of progressive social policies, their own lives powerfully represent these things. Together with London’s three Bangladesh-born MPs (whom I've written about before) and all the immigrants and children of immigrants who live and work peacefully in London, including those who drive ambulances, work in Guy's Hospital and serve in the Metropolitan Police Force, they are, whatever Trump imagines, not a problem but valued contributors to the life of this dynamic city.

Monday, 24 April 2017

What the bloggers are saying

My third novel, The Book of Air, has been out for three weeks. The blog tour is complete. Fourteen literary blogs featured the book. Six reviewed it. Here are some of the things they wrote:

The Book of air is a compelling, character driven tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic future.  Beautifully paced, it weaves between Jason’s life in a society imploding in on itself when a deadly virus kills millions and Agnes’s in a community regenerating from the ruins of mankind’s near destruction. (BooksAreMyCwtches) 

A gripping dystopian fantasy… that puts a new twist on post-apocalyptic themes explored in different ways by both Margaret Attwood and John Wyndham. Treasure writes with fluency and pace and his characters are flawed and believable. (BookLovers’BookList) 

For me, the Gold Standard for any dystopian novel revolves around 2 things: originality and possibility. My two absolute favorites are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Giver quartet by Lois Lowery. The Book of Air will be added to this prestigious list. This story is so clever and original that I started recommending it to friends 3% into it! Simply put, The Book of Air is original, compelling and hopeful. A must-read for all dystopian fans. (I’dSoRatherBeReading) 

Written wonderfully, like a musical composition… this would be a fabulous book for a book group! (Utopia-State-of-Mind)

The Book of Air can be bought on online in the US or in the UK or ordered from your local independent bookstore.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Air time

It’s exactly ten years since my first novel, The Male Gaze, came out. The world of publishing and reviewing has changed radically since then. For my third novel the publishers have sent me on a virtual tour. The book will feature over the course of a couple of weeks on a dozen different blogs, where citizen reviewers, driven by an undimmed love of fiction, are free to communicate directly with like-minded readers. 

The Book of Air follows the fortunes of Jason, a London property developer who lives through a virus that devastates the human population and has to work out a new way of living with a group of fellow survivors, and Agnes, a teenager in the far future, who has grown up in a community dominated by reverence for Jane Eyre.

Because of its themes, many of the blogs have a special interest in post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. I’ve been reviewed five times so far. A couple of the reviews are lukewarm and give three stars. The rest are hugely enthusiastic. Both the lukewarm reviewers mention that they find the book confusing and hard to get into at first. One concedes that “It was very clever how Treasure put it all together.” The other, a Texan author of Young Adult fiction writes, “I was drawn to Jason’s story as I enjoy post-apocalyptic literature and the virus aspect was really interesting, even if the supporting characters got on my nerves a bit.” She also notes that “there is some strong language throughout as well as several implied sex scenes, however nothing is really graphic”, which makes me wonder if she was reviewing with young adult readers in mind. I notice also that this blog lists among its interests Amish, Christian and End Times Fiction.

All reviews are a two-way street. The reader assesses the reviewer as well as the reviewed. But in this free-market online world, I’m struck by how openly the reviewers identify their particular interests and preferences. One of the positive reviews begins like this:

For me, the Gold Standard for any dystopian novel revolves around 2 things: originality and possibility. My two absolute favorites are The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Giver quartet by Lois Lowery. The Book of Air will be added to this prestigious list. This story is so clever and original that I started recommending it to friends 3% into it! (I‘dSoRatherBeReading)

Of course I’m delighted that this reviewer rates my book so highly. But it’s a particular thrill to get this response from a fellow Atwood fan.

A reviewer from Wales likes that the book champions “the power of the individual to fight against cruelty and oppression” (BooksAreMyCwtches).  And one says of Agnes that she “only wants to be free to think her own thoughts and make her own choices…Jane Eyre would have been proud of her” (BookLoversBookList). The impulse to cheer on sympathetic characters in their struggle against adversity seems to me like a basic element in what makes stories enjoyable. That this book is capable of having that effect on some readers feels like a real achievement.

There’s no claim to analytic detachment in these reviews. They speak about the qualities that make you want to turn the page, or not. Being confused is bad, being intrigued is good. There’s a preference for characters you can care about, plots that draw you in. On the whole the readers would rather be uplifted than depressed. Pleasure is a high value. The style of the reviews is generally conversational, sometimes dynamically engaging.
When I figured out what The Book of Air actually was, my level of excitement skyrocketed. I don't want to spoil anything. I just can't. Seriously, such a clever twist on what humanity will deem important. The anticipation of trying to figure out the link between Jason and Agnes was torture (but in a fun emoji face kind of way) (I‘dSoRatherBeReading)  

I wouldn’t swap the freshness and authenticity of this, with the feeling it gives me of the impact the book has had on this single reader, for any amount of judicious praise from professional reviewers.

Monday, 3 April 2017

It seems I have a book coming out

and it seems to be a dystopian kind of thing called The Book of Air.

In the attic of an ancient house, Agnes finds an empty journal and starts recording the events of her life. This wouldn’t be unusual, except that in Agnes’s community the few books, including a well-thumbed copy of Jane Eyre, are thought of as the only books that have ever existed or could ever exist. So this book, which has no words in it until Agnes writes them, is a mysterious object. And the unprecedented act of writing about herself has to be conducted in secrecy, and will lead her into deeper trouble, threatening the stability of the community.

In the same house, far back in our own time, Jason wakes from a fever, surprised to find himself still alive. The airborne virus that has swept through the human population at terrifying speed usually kills in three days. Two women, squatters on his country estate, have nursed him through the worst of his sickness and cared for his five-year-old nephew. There is a kind of peace – and time to reflect on the shattering events that led to this situation. Then three more people turn up, escaping the ravages of the plague. The balance shifts and dangerous secrets are uncovered.  

These two stories interweave, shedding light on each other, on the tensions between order and freedom, and on the way fragments of memory cling and become mythologised.   

For more information on The Book of Air and to see a 3-minute trailer, please visit my website. You can order it from your favourite bookstore or buy the paperback or ebook here in the UK or here in North America.  

Do please buy it, suggest it to your bookgroup and give copies to your friends for their birthdays, and I will be more grateful than I can adequately express.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Trump and Brexit: farce or tragedy?

On Saturday, with the Trump administration in increasing turmoil, Leni and I marched in London to protest the looming disaster of Brexit. We returned home, like Paul Simon’s “one and one-half wandering Jews”, to “speculate who had been damaged the most”. This is a genuine question. Which of us has most to fear for our country, me or my American wife? Trump, Brexit, Brexit, Trump… the options confront each other with the kind of grim symmetry Samuel Becket would have understood.

Estragon (looking at what’s left of his carrot): Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
Vladimir: With me it’s just the opposite. I get used to the muck as I go along.

When Marx, echoing Hegel’s comment about history repeating itself, added: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”, he was thinking of a period of a couple of generations. But if the US election was Brexit 2.0, we only had to wait a few months for America to get the farcical version of Britain’s tragedy, the version where the bumbling criminals trip over the furniture before exiting to howls of laughter, while Britain sinks into permanent decline.

All very well, you might be thinking, for me to make light of the Trump nightmare, but in the meantime what about the environment, what about global instability, what about the likelihood of a fascistic response to the next terrorist attack? Certainly the dangers are considerable and the time between now and Trump’s inevitable eviction from the White House promises to be very mean indeed, with sufferers including undocumented migrants, Muslim travellers, and anyone depending on the minimal safety net of Obamacare. But Trump will be evicted and, before that happens, there is at least furniture for the criminals to trip over, in the form of a written constitution.

In Britain, 52% of the 72% who voted, or 37% of the adult population, have been granted, more or less on a whim, the power to effect a huge constitutional change, undoing decades of carefully considered legislation, against almost all informed advice. Both a settled European minority living in Britain and UK citizens working or living in retirement across Europe face the threat of expulsion. The door is slammed against young Britons wanting to study or work on the European mainland. The Scottish are forced to choose between membership of the UK or the EU. Peace in Northern Ireland, which ended the 30-year misery of civil conflict, is recklessly endangered by new borders. Trade and investment between close neighbours, together with shared employment and environmental protections, are sabotaged for no coherent reason.

One of the most alarming comments I’ve seen from a Brexit voter was in a letter to the Forest of Dean Gazette. The correspondent was complaining of our slow progress towards fulfilling the dream of Brexit. She concluded: “Why can’t we just tighten our belts and get on with it?” I find this hair-raising because it reveals that the writer cannot be reached by appeals to enlightened self-interest or to self-interest of any kind. Even if we end up poorer, standing alone free from Polish plumbers is its own reward. 

Perhaps the writer’s appetite for belt-tightening is rooted in an irrational nostalgia for post-war austerity. But statistics reveal that, while older voters tended to go for Brexit, there was more enthusiasm for Europe among those old enough to actually remember the war. Like Churchill, who foresaw a united Europe, and like the generation of elder statesmen now sitting in semi-retirement in the House of Lords, they recognise the value of European cooperation.

The Republicans are setting themselves up for a well-deserved kicking in the 2018 mid-terms. Here in Britain, we won’t yet have begun to face the reality of our post-EU existence. If Trump survives his four years, barring full-scale war he’ll be out. We’ll still be scrabbling to fix up trade deals on any terms, tightening our belts and getting used to the muck as we go along.  

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Meeting Assange in Liverpool

I’m in Liverpool on the day the House of Commons votes to deny the House of Commons a vote on the eventual Brexit deal. Across the Atlantic, the new administration is defending its second attempt at a Muslim ban, while evidence continues to build of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In recent decades the area around the Liverpool docks has benefited from a huge influx of EU money. There’ll be no more where that comes from. Liverpool voted 58% to remain, but nationally the wall-builders prevailed. There’s a fresh wind blowing across the Mersey, but the sun is shining and the crowds are out to shop or eat, or to get a flavour of the city’s trading past among the red brick Victorian warehouses.

I wander into Tate Liverpool where My Bed, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, has drawn a crowd. Tracy Emin’s famously unmade bed with its adjacent clutter stands in the middle of a large gallery room with William Blake illustrations on the walls. A member of the Tate staff, an unpretentious scouser who obviously knows his stuff, is giving a talk that makes the best case I’ve heard for this celebrated piece of conceptual art, presenting it as an exploration, in the tradition of William Blake, of innocence and experience. He’s so good, I’m almost convinced.

Ten minutes’ walk from the Tate, in the historic rope manufacturing district of the city, sandwiched between long, narrow backstreets, I find the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology. FACT makes room for three Picturehouse cinema screens, a bar and a café, as well as its own galleries, all opening off a free-flowing atrium. The leafy café is flooded with sunlight and is clearly drawing the laptop crowd. FACT’s current exhibit, conceived when presidential victory was still no more than a twinkle in Trump’s eye, is startlingly topical. Called How much of this is fiction, its theme is the faking of news and the blurring of lines between truth and propaganda.

Documentary footage, created by US artist Ian Alan Paul, on the imagined EU Bird Migration Authority takes an unsettling look at the policing of human migrants. A Swiss-Austrian artist duo called UBERMORGAN provide a spoof promotional video featuring music actually used by prison guards and interrogators to break down detainees: chart-topping tracks from the “golden era of Torture Music”, featuring over sixty “sweet and painful torture hits” from Metallica to Britney Spears. It manages to be funny and horrifying at the same time. Three minutes of the Meow Mix song, which began life as an advertising jingle for cat food, would make me confess to anything.

Arabian Street Artists in collaboration with filmmakers Field of Vision, provide an inside look at the prank that embarrassed the producers of the Showtime series Homeland. The artists, who were employed to embellish a set representing a Syrian refugee camp with Arabic graffiti, wrote messages such as ‘Homeland is racist’ and ‘This is not my homeland’. Presumably the artists were the only people involved in filming the episode who could read Arabic, because no one noticed until it aired in October 2015. And then a lot of people did.

Last summer, shortly after the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, a website, was launched purporting to advertise an initiative by the National Rifle Association. Customers were promised that “for each handgun purchased, one will be donated to an at-risk American citizen in the urban center of their choice”. Though this offer was a work of fiction, the actual policies of the NRA are sufficiently mad that a lot of people were taken in. The website and the press conference at which The Yes Men, who were behind the satirical project, posed as NRA spokesmen to defend the scheme on philanthropic grounds, is the subject of Share the Safety, 2016.

I end my visit to FACT in Julian Assange’s office in the Ecuadorian Embassy. It stands in the foyer, part of an installation called Delivery for Mr Assange, 2013 by !Medengruppe Bitnik. The brochure informs me that the room, with all its clutter, has been “meticulously constructed entirely from memory” after several visits by the artists. Something about it holds my attention, though it has less identifiable political content than almost anything else in the exhibit. There’s the accumulated equipment you’d expect from an IT geek, though a lot of the laptops piled in a plastic tub on the floor and the mobile phones lined up along the mantelpiece look surprisingly antique. There’s a white shirt hanging on a coat stand and a pair of Chelsea boots by the door. The books suggest that Assange’s reading is eclectic, but he seems to have a special fondness for TC Boyle.

The room has the effect on me that Emin’s bed apparently has on some people. I am aware of an unwelcome intimacy. Being inside this room I’m drawn inside the mind of the absent occupant. My interest is uncomfortably voyeuristic. But the room has a stronger hold on me than the bed, perhaps because Assange has had an impact on the world that more than matches his self-regard.  

There’s an interesting tension between this room and the rest of the exhibition. Assange is an asylum seeker. This place is part prison cell, part sanctuary. He’s also a political activist. But the political purpose of his activism has become increasingly enigmatic. Is he a utopian cyber-anarchist, championing the rights of the individuals to know the secrets of the power elite whatever the consequences, or a self-publicist whose grip on reality has been weakened by his strange incarceration? As a participant in the US election, was he duped by the Putin-Trump alliance or has he been a mole of the pseudo-populist right all along?

Perhaps it isn’t Assange’s fault that, out of all Britain’s recognisable politicians, it was the xenophobe and Trump toady Nigel Farage who recently dropped in for a chat. After all, everyone knows where Assange lives and he’s always at home.  But something must have made it worth Farage’s while to be seen keeping such dangerous company. The meaning of his reconstructed room seems as dynamically mutable as Assange’s identity. 

I leave FACT with a fresh perspective on contemporary events. Physically it’s easy to miss. As a tourist destination, its location can’t rival the Tate’s, overlooking the water of the old Albert Dock. But closer to the heart of the city, it has a vibrancy that makes the detour worthwhile.