Book Review: Heroic Failures by Finlan O’Toole

While Tim Shipman’s (as-yet unfinished) Brexit trilogy is the best history of Brexit, the most enjoyable analysis I’ve read is Finlan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure. O’Toole’s writing has the virtuosic enthusiasm of good literary criticism – his comparison of Britain’s EU membership to the bureaucracy in Fifty Shades of Grey is hilarious; and I loved his description of Boris Johnson being cross-examined in a select committee by Andrew Tyrie: “like watching a kitten bouncing into a combine harvester”. There are also considerations of Britain’s obsession with World War 2, punk and more.

The book’s main thrust is that post-Imperial Britain has become trapped by an ideal of ‘heroic failure’. “The English could afford to celebrate glorious failure because they were actually highly successful – the myths of suffering and endurance covered up the truth that it was mostly other people who had to endure the suffering.”

O’Toole is particularly good at showing how Englishness in particular is responsible for Brexit, and how England’s presence in the EU relates to its membership of the United Kingdom. O’Toole also puts forward the case the “gradual marginalisation of open racism” was one of the things that led to the EU being scapegoated instead. Ultimately, the problems that led to Brexit are too deep to be solved by so simplistic a solution:

Brexit is a crisis of belonging that was configured as merely a crisis of belonging to Europe. No outcome from it will really address that question of belonging – if anything it will become deeper and more urgent.

Towards the end of the book, O’Toole lays out the challenge for the English, particularly those on the ‘progressive’ side, to define what Englishness is:

One of the side effects of Brexit is to make progressives recoil even further from English nationalism, which they never trusted and now blame for the disaster. But they need to do what they mostly did not do in the pre-Brexit decade: take it seriously. Address it. Precisely because it remains so poorly articulated and self-contradictory, it is up for grabs. And there is surely enough in the English radical, socialist and liberal traditions – the traditions of John Ball and the Suffragettes, of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Maynard Keynes, of Stuart Hall and Thomas Paine, of Jo Cox and George Orwell and generations of fighters for dignity and equality – to inspire a more positive sense of national belonging. There is surely, in one of the world’s great cultures, enough wit and energy and creativity and humour to infuse Englishness with hope and joy instead of pain and self-pity.

Review: Boris Johnson by Tom Bower

Tom McTague’s recent profile of Boris Johnson, Minister of Chaos portrays Johnson as a master of narrative. It’s a well-written piece, but missed a number of obvious points. When McTague writes about Johnson’s condemnation of the Super League plans, he fails to mention Johnson’s earlier tacit approval of them. Mic Wright’s newsletter is a good overview, criticising the article for “barely concealing the writer’s joy at getting so much access, and mistaking neat connections and semi-polished lines for truths”. It was well-written, but I learned little from it.

Tom Bower’s The Gambler, a biography of Boris Johnson, is not very well written. Despite its many flaws (oh, so many flaws) I learned from the book, in part because of its biases. A friend recently told me that you can understand a lot about the media from hearing it talk about things you know. Discussing computer programming (specifically the Imperial College coronavirus model), Bower wrote:

Imperial’s model … was based on a programming code called either ‘C’ or Fortran that had apparently been used twenty years earlier by NASA for Mariner 1. Critics claimed its outdated language and design flaws produced numerical inaccuracies. One file alone contained 15,000 lines of code.

I mean… Yes? But not really. There are basic errors and inaccuracies in this simple quote. Bower’s biases also sometimes make this book awkward. Bower regurgitates many of the flawed arguments from the lockdown sceptics, which is not inspiring. His constant accusations that Corbyn is a “Marxist and anti-semite” are an over-simplistic view of Corbyn from someone who wrote a biography of him. But then, Bower’s wikipedia entry is very clear that, while his Corbyn book involved an significant retraction, “[he] neither apologised nor paid any money to the complainant or the lawyers”. However, this wikipedia entry cannot deny that republishing the claims cost the Daily Mail a large amount of money. Bower is not one for in-depth fact-checking.

However, Bower is interesting as he attempts to defend every poor decision and gaffe Johnson has made. While I still think Johnson’s Spectator columns were racist, I can at least now see what he might have been trying to satirise with them. Looking at some scenes from another point of view was also eye-opening. For example, the gaffe with Johnson buying water-cannons was retold as a nasty trap laid by Theresa May. This is quite the revelation, given the usual portrayal of May as a dull and unemotional politician. This is certainly the shrewdest, most devious thing I’ve seen her accused of doing.

Bower’s book is also pro-Brexit, and in harping on about this, I saw some stronger-than-usual cases for Brexit, which was illuminating. But the main strength of Bower’s book was in its portrayal of Johnson’s childhood, a time of almost gothic unpleasantness. His father, the reality-TV star Stanley Johnson is revealed to be a vicious domestic abuser, and there were wretched periods in Johnson’s childhood. While these do not excuse his appalling behaviour, I feel more sympathy towards him.

Two portrayals of Johnson, one well-written and one not. But I think I learned more from the poorly-written one.

Book review: Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner

At the start of May, I read Alan Warner’s novel, Kitchenley 434. In a period where I was finding it very hard to concentrate, I quickly read through this slow book about a man working as housekeeper for a prog rock star. While I loved the book’s pace, this Spectator review by Jon Day took a very different view:

There are some very strange moments in this novel: a six-page disquisition on where to hang a washing line, and 12 pages on the procedure of drawing the house’s curtains (my heart sank when, 70 pages after reading this, I encountered the sentence: ‘Once again it was that time: to commence the drawing of the curtains throughout Kitchenly Mill Race’). It’s a book stuffed with untelling detail: ‘The pump did good work, but it needed frequent maintenance to stop it running rough’; and ‘half the house had been done in modern 13-amp rectangular peg BS1363 plugs and the rest in pre-war round peg’. If this sounds like an interestingly Oulipian experiment in the limits of exhaustive description I can only say that it doesn’t read like it.

While very little happened in the book, there was a great deal of tension. Part of this was wondering if the genre would suddenly switch – the absence of the house’s owner felt like a haunting. Sometimes, the book veered into comedy, but somehow kept everything together.

It was a book that showed rather than told – while the narrator told us things in great detail. Every description increased our understanding of the main character’s personality, making the reader unsure whether to trust him or not. Nothing needed to happen, rather the joy was in the details, in experiencing someone else’s consciousness.

One of the things I love about a good novel is how how every little detail, every word builds towards the setting. It reminds me of fractals, how each detail is a smaller-scale representation of a larger image.

This was an odd book, but incredibly fulfilling.

Book Review: Unofficial Britain by Gareth Rees

What would an archaeologist in 2000-years-time think of Junction 3 of the M32 in the centre of Bristol?”

Gareth Rees recently published a new book, Unofficial Britain. This emerged from the website of the same name about “unusual perspectives on the landscape and culture of these strange isles”. Rather than look at the obvious places and landscapes, Unofficial Britain writes about marginal spaces.

Rees is fascinated by how folklore emerges, and modern things that are becoming folklore. There are chapters on pylons, motorways, hospitals. It’s about the sort of suburban landscape that I grew up in, and Rees makes it seem strange and exciting. The book is intended as a rebuke to the idea that folklore is under threat or disappearing, and looks for the “first flourishing signs” of new mythologies.

In an interview with Folk Horror Revival, Rees was asked to recommend three places in Britain to visit. His response:

That’s a hard one to answer. The main point of the book was to avoid obviously extreme or interesting locations and show that there is fascination in the everyday. We all live in places that are full of magic, weirdness and stories, if we can just dwell in them a while, look closely, and allow our imaginations to roam. So really I wouldn’t recommend visiting three specific places in the map – but instead visit three types of place near you and see what happens. I’d recommend: an underpass (ideally beneath a roundabout); an industrial estate; and a multi-storey car park. Go there, wander, poke about, and get the feel of the place. See what happens. You never know.

The best thing about this book is that it is full of trailheads to interesting things. This is the sort of book which, if you found it at an impressionable age, could divert you into a stranger life.

Book Review: David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’

I’m very fortunate that my current job adds meaning to my life. This is not true of many jobs, including some I’ve had in the past. David Graeber describes these as ‘bullshit jobs’, which he defines as “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”.

Graeber’s book shows the misery, waste and lost potential of these jobs, then applies his understanding of anthropology to looking at how this situation came to be, and why no-one does anything about it. ’The economy’ is made by people and through their participation and it could be constructed in a different way.

for some reason, we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafés arguing about politics

When President Obama talked about the money that might be saved by an alternative healthcare system, he backed off from this, saying that it represented millions of jobs. He directly implied that it was important to keep these jobs, even while describing them as unnecessary.

This waste is everywhere, and contributes significantly to climate change through commuting and business travel. The arts are particularly wasteful, with bureaucracies consuming huge sums of money in managing grant proposals. A lottery might be more a effective means of producing great art.

Graeber also shows that, at the same time, jobs are eliminated as ‘unproductive’ simply because they do not produce profits. One example of this is the presence of staffed ticket offices on the underground. He points out that these roles were not just about selling tickets, but also provided a sort of ‘caring labour’, helping lost people and others in need.

One of the most satisfying jobs I’ve had was working as a hospital cleaner. It was hard and boring work, but it was good to know that I was doing something useful. As Graeber points out “Other jobs—ordinary cleaning, for example—are in no sense inherently degrading, but they can easily be made so”. One technique for this is through outsourcing. A present-day hospital cleaner is far less connected to the NHS than I was.

Graeber is cautious about discussing a solution to the problem, not wanting readers to get distracted from the book’s main argument by seeing it as simply an argument for a policy change. But he gently suggests that a Universal Basic Income might be a more humane and efficient way of managing the economy.

Imaginary Spaces (Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi)

A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. Tides flow in the lower levels where he fishes for food; to the east, some of the halls have collapsed. Sometimes, another man comes to visit.

Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi describes a man exploring a strange world. He makes his own calendar, and tracks his life through journals. This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.

Piranesi made me think of other books set in infinite buildings, such as the Library of Babel, or Ballard’s The Enormous Space. And, of course, House of Leaves, since Piranesi describes his building as ‘the House’. The TARDIS is another reference, and the book includes a subtle reference to the episode Blink. It also refers to Dunne’s Experiment with Time which just keeps turning up.

(Having said that, I totally missed the references of the name Piranesi, and it was only after reading that I went to google and learned about the Italian artist’s Imaginary Prisons).

While the book is not about memory palaces, it made me think about such uses of imaginary space. I’ve been reading about Ley lines again, thinking about the way space can be used to remember and to tell stories. Someone once told me about Fulcanelli’s book The Mystery of the Cathedrals, which claims that France’s great cathedrals are actually alchemy textbooks.

On the final day of the CERN pilgrimage, the Liverpool Arts Lab led a tour of Liverpool along the shore Lake Zurich. One place was mapped on another. I sometimes think about measuring out the distances between Varanasi’s ghats, and placing them along Brighton’s seafront. That way, I can take my daily quarantine strolls in an entirely different place.

Wintering by Katherine May (Day 301)

As the pandemic shatters my sense of time, I look for new ways to define it. Normally, I track the year by external events – the Brighton Fringe, Christmas parties, birthday parties &c. The usual markers have disappeared, so that things like moon phases and sunrise and tides have become more important. Back in the summer, I became obsessed with the fact that I could see certain planets with my naked eye. (I must have learned about this on my astrophysics degree courses, but there is a difference between facts and knowledge). As the weather has grown cold, I’ve become more aware of the seasons. We are deep in Winter, but the daffodils are growing tall already.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

I’m trying to buy fewer cheap books on Amazon, but Katherine May’s Wintering stood out. It’s an odd and elegant book. The writing is very much in the style of memoir/nature writing and there is an element of the non-fiction quest, where several people are interviewed around a theme. May admits “When I set out to write this book, I fully intended to do more“, travelling the world and interviewing experts. It’s a stronger book for the fact that she didn’t. Instead, this is a more personal book, full of deep wisdom about how wintering affects a person.

I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.

For May, wintering is a metaphor for dark times in life, and May gently draws out the comparison with how we survive winter to how we survive these dark times in our own lives. “Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” It’s a book about how to retreat. As May writes, “I have learned how to winter the hard way. It’s a skillset, of sorts.

There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world… Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there. Winter had begun.

Wintering is the first book I’ve read in 2021, and was the perfect companion at the start of a fearful new year. It’s a reminder that I should take things slow, that these are hard times, but that we will get through them.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.

Recently, the seafront has felt uncomfortably busy. Rather than walk there, I’ve been pacing the parks inland. I’ve taken solo daily exercise walking laps of Hove Recreation Ground. A couple of times recently, I’ve walked with friends around St. Anne’s Well Garden. Much of the ground here is bare, reduced to mud. The squirrels scamper, patting the ground, looking for caches of food. Someone told me that squirrels have little memory for their stores, that they recover them more by chance than instinct. In St Anne’s Well Garden the squirrels are almost tame, and will sometimes walk up to people, walkers without dogs, to see whether by chance they have any food to offer.

But we are brave, and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things.

Book Review: Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn

Even as someone who reads a lot of political books, Left Out probably had a little too much detail about internal Labour process for my taste. The book is incredibly thorough, sometimes at the cost of storytelling, but it would have been a weaker book without those details. Besides, any quibble I have are blown away by the impact of the revelations.

Corbyn will be argued about for years. It was remarkable to see a leader who had not intended to lead, or plotted for years to be in charge. This made his presence disarming, and many people were impressed by the lack of spin, which stood in contrast to the Blair years.

This strength was also Corbyn’s biggest weakness. It was refreshing to see a principled politician with nobody to answer to, and who refused to compromise. But Corbyn had also not established the relationships that enabled him to manage a party. There are remarkable similarities between Corbyn and Theresa May in how they led their parties – as well as their disastrous elections.

I was enthusiastic about Corbyn in the run-up to the 2017 election. Some time after, I read All Out War, the first book in Tim Shipman’s Brexit Trilogy. This contained some shocking accounts of Corbyn’s behaviour and poor management in the referendum campaign. Fortunately, in 2019, I was voting in a Labour safe-seat, so could safely vote against both Corbyn and Johnson. If I’d been in a marginal I would have had a very hard choice.

For many voters, Corbyn’s behaviour over the Skripal poisonings made him unacceptable, and that was an entirely self-inflicted injury. On top of that came Corbyn’s inability to get on top of the issue of anti-Semitism – as revolted as he was by the accusations, Corbyn never managed a clear response. A mainstream politician who cannot escape accusations of anti-semitism is probably not that great at politics. I know there was mischief-making from the press and other parties, but that was always going to be the case for a left-wing labour leader. You have to deal with the situation you actually have, not the one that would be fair.

Between the 2017 and 2019 elections, Corbyn failed to come up with a clear or satisfactory Brexit position. The book describes how excruciating this process became:

Another aide recalled: ‘Jeremy was sat there, and didn’t speak to offer any clarity whatsoever on what he’d meant. So he was just there, and I remember thinking, “this is mental”. They were interpreting his words in front of him, while he wasn’t saying anything. And he’d just sit there and he’d always have his notebook and just … It was like he didn’t feel the need to clarify or to take control of the situation.’

(Starmer’s position might not be what I want, but it at least moves beyond the remain/leave binary: Brexit happened back in January and Johnson must now deliver the great deal that was promised).

Aside from the internal shambles that Labour became under Corbyn’s leadership, his charming spontaneity caused a great deal of problems: ”some aides had arrived at the extraordinary conclusion that he was sabotaging his own campaign. Corbyn was often late and appeared to purposely overstay at events in order to minimise his day’s commitments.

The most shocking thing in this book was learning that some within the Labour Party did actively sabotage the 2019 election. I’d dismissed any idea of this as conspiracy theory, but it turns out that even the Canary is right occasionally.

As an aside, It was odd to read a book about recent history, and see how it mentioned the pandemic. While the book covers the Labour leadership contest, discussion of the pandemic is limited to a single paragraph, talking about how Covid-19 shut down campaigning. It was odd to see an event that is currently so huge and dramatic being mentioned in passing. It was a strange moment of perspective.

While I was not a fan of Corbyn, I loved many of his policies; I just doubted that was the person who could deliver these things. The book ends on a hopeful note, that the Corbyn revolution may not yet be complete, despite the ejection of Rebecca Long-Bailey:

The 2019 intake of MPs was further to the left than ever…. Keir Starmer won power by embracing Corbynism, rather than repudiating it. The Project’s legacy is a parliamentary left that can no longer be ignored.

My favourite books of 2020

Despite having more free time in 2020 than in most years, I’ve done very little reading. I finished 11 books in January, and I read the same number of books in the four months between August and November. The ongoing pandemic has done very little for my concentration. I’m not sure quite what I’ve done with my time dividend, but it certainly hasn’t been reading.

The total number of books I read this year is 52, but I am going to pick ten as in previous years, although the odds are a little higher for a 2020 book. So, in title order, here are my favourite books for the year:

  1. 4,3,2,1 by Craig Brown – There are a lot of books about the Beatles, all of which tell the same story. Brown’s book uses a variety of techniques to draw out new angles, and I was surprised at how fresh it felt. Given that the book was mostly research-based, this was an impressive feat.
  2. The Book of Trespass by Nick HayesReviewed here
  3. By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar – Another retelling of legends, this time an Arthuriad. Tidhar mixes previous retellings with pop-culture to come up with something fresh. Even familiar ground can reveal new things.
  4. Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk – Yes, it’s a how-to-write book, and it’s basically how-to-write-like-Chuck-Palahniuk. But there are some great insights about writing and community, and it’s made me miss writing workshops.
  5. Exit West by Mohsin HamadReviewed here
  6. The Glass Hotel by Emily Mandel – Easily my book of the year, and I knew this when I wrote about it back in June. You should read this.
  7. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – a powerful mix of art criticism and memoir, and a book that made me want to applaud as it reached its final creshendo.
  8. The Museum of Whales You’ll Never SeeReviewed here.
  9. Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers – I was quite late coming to this, but it was a brutal and captivating book which made a strong impression.
  10. Weather by Jenny Offill – an amazing novel of fragments, which I reviewed in February. Much of the detail of the book has faded in my memory, but this makes me want to return to it.

Fewer books than last year but, I think, a more consistent top ten. A surprising number of books that were published this year, as well as a lot more fiction than last year, when I only picked one novel. I feel quite inspired looking back at this list.

Thinking About American Utopia

Kate Shields will not shut up about Talking Heads. At lot of this time it’s been about the 1984 movie Stop Making Sense. This year, David Byrne released a new movie with the great Spike Lee, and it was obvious that something had to give. Kate and I have been friends for over a decade and I’ve yet to see Stop Making Sense; but on Christmas Day we watched American Utopia.

(It might not sound like a Christmas movie, but I asked Kate to pick the films. I have a bit of a tradition of watching incredibly bleak movies over Christmas – Threads being a nadir. This was not an option as far as Kate was concerned)

The main innovation in the American Utopia show is that the band’s 12 performers are not tethered to a particular location. This requires the use of harnesses to attach their instruments, and three independent percussionists. Seeing the emptiness of the stage, and the movement that the show allows, I was impressed. I wondered why no-one had done this before.

When I thought about it, the answer was obvious. Allowing the performers to move like this requires a load of technology. You need consistent wireless connections and good batteries that are small enough to be unobtrusive. The best thing was that the technology was used invisibly, even while it was essential to the show.

One of the things I miss from my MA was being exposed to culture I would not watch off my own back. American Utopia is a perfect example of this, and it made me think a lot about how I can use technology in similar ways in my own work. Through email and social media, text has become a far more significant experience in most people’s lives, yet fiction doesn’t seem to have benefitted from this.

There is also the question of what a book is in this age (something Craig Mod and James Bridle have both interrogated at points). The boundaries of the covers no longer exist in the same way – I can switch between audiobook, Kindle and hardcopy. A physical book isn’t so important as a way of enjoying stories.

And much of the text we read is fragmented. I’ve long been fascinated with micro fiction and fragments. These should be a much more successful medium in a world where we can ricochet between baby photos, doom scrolling and parody memes. (One example of this working being, of course, creepypasta).

The web is a much more complicated place than it was before, and much harder to navigate technically. But there should be interesting ways to use this technology – but while also placing it in the background.

American Utopia was simply a recording of a concert show, but it has inspired me and made me think. I am going to watch Stop Making Sense soon. But I want to think a lot more about this one first.