Book review: Upheaval, how nations cope with crisis and change, by Jared Diamond, 2019

Tags

, , , ,

Diamond wrote the excellent Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, so I had high hopes and expectations of Upheaval. I have found myself repeating in conversation some of the points Diamond makes in these earlier books, not least the axiom that guns, germs and steel were the central components of the conquest of much of the world by the European powers in the later centuries of the second millennium. But sadly Upheaval is fundamentally and quite seriously flawed. That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting things to be found here, but before I go on to identify these I need to explain this central point.

Diamond argues that nations (and he doesn’t spend sufficient time in identifying what he means by this concept, which to my mind is much more fluid than he suggests) go through crises from time to time, and the way those nations respond to those crises can be compared to the way individuals respond to similar situations in their personal lives (e.g divorce, bereavement, etc). Using the work of psychiatrists he breaks these responses into twelve different categories. Just to offer one example, he argues that people who are able to isolate the problematic issues in their lives – building a psychological fence around the issue – move on more successfully than people who don’t. Similarly, countries bounce back from national crises and prove more resilient if they deploy similar responses.

I think I have represented Diamond’s thesis accurately. I hope so. He spends the bulk of the book considering crises in a series of seven countries. These potted histories – of the military coup against Allende in Chile, the Suharto anti-communist atrocities in Indonesia and the experience of Finland during and after the Second World War to give three examples – are interesting. I learned something. After each of these accounts Diamond then laboriously goes through the 12 techniques he identified at the beginning of the book, and tries manfully to explain in what way they can be applied to the case study. It goes without saying that very quickly he find the analysis pointless – either it is simply a way of categorising the response (so for example Finland could not rely on its neighbours for help in the Winter War against the Soviet Union, unlike people who turn to their friends when they are going through a divorce) without adding anything in the way of understanding, or the comparison does work but is trite. These analytical sections are without doubt the weakest part of the book, and I quickly learned to skim read them. Here’s an example of the knots he finds himself tied in:

“Individuals in crisis often receive help from friends, just as nations in crisis may recruit help from allied nations. Individuals in crisis may model their solutions on ways in which they see other individuals addressing similar crises; nations in crisis may borrow and adapt solutions already devised by other nations facing similar problems. Individuals in crisis may derive self-confidence from having survived previous crises; so do nations.” 

Do these parallels help at all? Do you feel you know more about how nations respond to crises because of these points? “These things are like these things but not like these other things” seems to be the sum total of the analysis.

Even had Diamond’s thesis been accurate, and national crises could usefully be compared to individual crises, there would still have been a massive “so what” to overcome. But nations aren’t people, and Diamond is forced to acknowledge that many of the typical responses he identifies simply don’t and can’t apply on a national or global scale. For example, countries respond more successfully to crises if the population is united in its response – this just doesn’t have a counterpoint in individual situations.

There were other issues. Diamond’s prose is often clumsy and laboured. He often appears to be working backward from a predetermined position. His defence of Finlandization for example, whereby Finland has aligned itself with the USSR and allowed Russian meddling in domestic Finnish political issues, is obviously driven by his affection for the country rather than any serious pretence that this is a successful strategy. Russian has plenty of other neighbours that don’t adopt this craven submission and seem to survive.

Diamond constantly assumes his readers are all Americans. I found this so irritating. It is understandable that an author’s work should reflect their national prejudices and perspectives. But I don’t think I have ever seen this done so openly and yet unthinkingly. And by the way Jared, the claim that the USA is responsible for the invention of the television and the internet is tenuous to say the least!

Diamond is quite open about that fact that the seven countries he chooses to analyse in this book are those he has lived in and knows extensively. In order to justify his case study choices he has to pretend that Australia has gone through a crisis comparable to that of Chile or Indonesia, when of course it hasn’t. Diamond has form here – in Collapse he argued that the Australian economy was on the brink of disaster, and while of course the country has some challenges to face, its economy is very resilient and it hasn’t been through a recession since the early 1990s.

I said earlier that despite some serious issues there were some positives in the book. The case studies are interesting, even if you have to wade through a lot to find the nuggets of value. The insights in the history of Japan in particular were new to me. Diamond is concerned about the prospects for his home country, rightly so, although his statistics lacked conviction and he didn’t seem to be up to date with the progress that has been made in third world economies for example. Ultimately this was a disappointing book, made all the worse by the strength of Diamond’s earlier work. The New York Times reviewer demolished it pretty comprehensively here if you are interested in another perspective.

Advertisements

Book review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, 1996

Tags

, , ,

I don’t think you would be able to guess that Neverwhere is a novelisation of a television series – it has a dramatic range and scope ideally suited to the novel form, and must have been a challenge to film. It is rare for novelisations to be more than their original format, but here it is almost as if the novel was existing in concept all along, and it just took the development of the television series for it to come out.Neverwhere

In the introduction to this edition, which was published to coincide with the publication of American Gods, Gaiman describes editing the text to make it more accessible to American readers – explaining that Oxford Street is a main shopping thoroughfare for example. I suspect he was wasting his time, because this is a novel firmly rooted in place, written by a writer with considerable and obvious affection for the London landmarks that appear in the book: Blackfriars, Baron’s Court, the Angel Islington and Old Bailey, among many others.

Three years in London had not changed Richard, although it had changed the way he perceived the city. Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries. It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names – Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch – and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the need of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.” 

The novel’s springboard is the hidden issue of homelessness – how rough sleepers can live in cities such as London and be effectively invisible to the rest of the population. Gaiman takes this idea and has the homeless become residents of ‘London Under’ – a city existing in plain sight alongside London Above. I was reminded of China Meiville’s The City and the City  which is based on a very similar concept. But Gaiman’s hidden world is magical, peopled by fantastical characters and where the normal rules of time and space do not apply. In this it is closer to the Rivers of London series which I believe it directly inspired.

Neverwhere’s central character is the Arthur Dent-like everyman beloved of fantasy writers. Richard Mayhew is a young businessman, who one day helps a mysterious young girl, Door, who appears before him, bleeding and weak, on a London street. Gaiman makes Richard a Scotsman exiled in London – he already feels a sense of alienation from his environment, so when his contact with the people of the Underworld makes him effectively invisible to other Londoners the process is complete. Door, only surviving member of a family of underworlders with the power to open any door, sends Richard to find the Marquis de Carabas who in turn can help her escape her pursuers. They hire a bodyguard, the Amazonian Hunter, and set off to find out why Door’s family was slain by the infamous assassins Croup and Vandemar, who are now on their trail. They criss-cross London Under in their quest, meeting a series of fantastical characters in extraordinary places. This is an action-packed adventure full of twists and turns and incident – it’s a great story.

I was a little uncertain as to Gaiman’s target audience with this novel. There is a horrific element to the novel’s casual and brutal violence, particularly that of Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, the former all refinement and elegance, the latter the complete opposite, usually to be found munching on the remains of a puppy or a pigeon. Some characters die and don’t come back, and the happy ever after ending is not guaranteed. But while the peril in the novel is serious it is resolved quickly, and the one main character who is killed is resurrected with minimum suspense that it is not going to happen.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Neverwhere. The dialogue is outstanding, if fizzes with ideas, the aesthetic as evoked in Gaiman’s prose is wonderful, and the central relationship between Door and Richard is sweet, understated, and touching. There is a darkness to much of the humour (“Do you like cat?” she said. “Yes,” said Richard. “I quite like cats.” Anaesthesia looked relieved. “Thigh?” she asked, “or breast?” ) that is entirely unsentimental. Gaiman has promised a sequel, which would be fantastic although this novel stands up well on its own. Highly recommended if you enjoy fantasy.

Supplemental – Dystopian fiction and a quick quiz

My local Waterstone’s (a UK bookstore, in case you were wondering) runs a monthly competition asking readers to identify four books from their opening lines. To make it easier the novelists’ initials are also given. Each month there is a different genre, and the lines this month are from “Early Dystopian Fiction”. The novels’ opening lines are:

a) “The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.” (HGW)

Not one to break sweat over I think you would agree.

b) “Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning” (FK)

A fantastic opening line, which I think is even better when the earlier translation for “spreading lies” “traduced” is used.

c) “The handsome dining room of the Hotel Wessex, with its gilded plaster shields and the mural depicting the Green Mountains, had been reserved for the Ladies’ Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club.” (SL)

This line has really grown on me – the accumulated detail of the small-town America it describes seems so deceptively stable and secure.

d) “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” (AH)

Once you work out the initials the novel will come to you quickly enough.

My initial impression was that this selection stretches if not abuses the term ‘dystopian fiction’. Sure it has a fairly flexible definition, but are these novels really dystopias?

Dystopian fiction imagines an world in which society is grim and frightening. By that definition The Time Machine certainly meets the criteria. The future in Wells’ novel is one in which man has degenerated into two distinct species, one predating the other.

Kafka is hard to align to a specific genre, but I have never considered The Trial (b) as dystopian. Nightmarish without doubt, but far too strongly rooted in the real world. The Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, (c) which by coincidence I read and reviewed earlier this month, is set in the immediate future and again is firmly fixed in the real world of American and European politics – unlike say the 2004 Philip Roth novel The Plot Against America which imagines an alternative USA in which the aviator, anti-semite and proto-fascist Charles Lindbergh is elected President, which is more speculative despite the obvious parallels with the Lewis novel.

Finally I am sure you will have worked out that (d) is from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, probably the only purely dystopian novel here, although they have cheated and given the end of the opening sentence only rather than the whole thing, (“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” Two sentences, I know) presumably on the basis that giving just the first sentence it would have made it much too hard, and the first two sentences too easy.

I don’t think we need to try and squeeze novels into constricting boxes with genre labels on them, and I appreciate the quiz was just a bit of fun. If it gets people reading these books then great.

For what it is worth my four dystopian novels would have been:

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” (GO).

Easy I know, but quite possibly one of the greatest opening lines in literature, full stop.

What’s it going to be then, eh?’ That was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.” (AB)

Not getting any harder are they?

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. (KI)

This one I think is genuinely tricky but I did review it quite recently.

“All this happened, more or less” (KV)

Good luck! What would be your choices?

 

 

 

Book review: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, 1935

It Can’t Happen Here was Lewis’s response to the much-repeated political assertion of the novel’s title, which in turn was a common reaction to the rise of fascism in Europe and the parallel rise of American demagogues. Lewis believed that American complacency about the robustness of its constitution and political institutions was dangerous and issued this novel as a wake-up call.

Set in the (then) very near future, the novel sees charismatic Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, elected President of the United States on a brazenly populist platform. Ostensibly a Democrat, Windrip is uninterested in party politics. He freely promises things he knows he cannot deliver, such as $5,000 a year for each citizen. On election he declares an emergency and effectively suspends the constitution. Following the rapid take-over of all institutions, an approach modelled on that used by the Nazis in 1933, Windrip outlaws dissent, incarcerates his political enemies in concentration camps, and trains and arms a paramilitary force to act as his enforcers. He curtails women and minority rights and removes any opposition by individual states by dividing the country into administrative sectors managed by “Corpo” authorities. The surviving opposition members flee to Canada where a Government in exile is formed.

The events of the novel are told from the perspective of Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor. Jessup is a familiar archetype – a paternal figure, well-known and respected in his community in Vermont, near the border with Canada. He is a liberal figure instinctively sceptical of the easy solutions offered by Windrup, but equally questioning the communist ideas of a local trade union activist. He is an early prototype of Atticus Finch, determined to do the right thing even at a huge personal cost. He bravely prints an editorial critical of the new President, which quickly leads to him being arrested and his paper seized by the authorities. His son-in-law attempts to intercede on his behalf and is summarily executed, in one of the novel’s most brutal and unsettling scenes.

Jessup’s joins and begins to organise the resistance, printing in secret the “Vermont Vigilance”. But it is only a matter of time before his role is exposed and he is thrown into a concentration camp, beaten and tortured along with many of his friends and companions. Lewis cleverly includes several extracts from articles by European journalists who claim to have inspected these camps and found them harmless centres for the unemployed and homeless, re-education camps, in a chilling echo of the white-washing of the Nazis camps in Germany. He further anchors his narrative in the recent American political landscape by introducing characters from the real world.

Shad Ledue, the local district commissioner and Jessup’s former hired man, is a menacing threat throughout the novel. He resents his employer and menaces his daughter Sissy. However the women in this novel are not just passive victims. She discovers evidence of his corruption and exposes him, leading to his imprisonment in the same camp as her father, where the other inmates waste no time in murdering him. Jessup’s other daughter takes revenge on her husband’s executioner by crashing into his plane in mid-flight.

Windrup’s administration crumbles and he is deposed by his deputy, who in turn doesn’t last long. The novel closes with America in chaos but with the opposition to the Corpo-Government fighting back and Jessup still doing what he can to organise resistance.

In marketing the novel in 2019 the publishers are understandably emphasising the parallels between Windrup and Trump, a populist idiot, “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected.” While their personal qualities are indeed similar, Trump has not yet suspended the Supreme Court, arrested members of Congress or abolished states. (I’m sure he has considered all of these at one point or another!) The point is that It Can’t Happen Here was a response to the rise of 1930’s fascism, and we aren’t quite there yet in the 21st Century, however scary some of the parallels might be.   Hopefully I won’t look back on this review one day when President for Life Trump is inaugurated, and wonder how I could have been so complacent.

Book review: Smiley’s People by John le Carre 1979

Tags

, , , ,

I’ve written previously about how I prefer not to read too much about a novel in advance of reading the novel itself – how it can prejudice the reader, shaping their expectations one way or another. But you can take that approach too far, and I think I did here. I knew Smiley’s People was one of le Carre’s series of novels about espionage during the Cold War, but it wasn’t until I glanced at the back cover after completing the novel that I found out it was the seventh in the Smiley series. Each of these novels are capable in theory of being read independently of one another, of course, but they accumulate a depth of background that over time makes the idea of them being stand-alone novels harder to sustain.

Smiley’s People, as well as being the seventh Smiley novel, is also the third and final novel in what is known as the Karla trilogy, the others being Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable SchoolboySmiley’s People presents itself as a novel of byzantine complexity, with plots within plots. But if you take a step back in some respects it is quite simple. Karla, Smiley’s Russian nemesis, has a daughter who needs psychiatric treatment not available inside the Soviet bloc. Through an admittedly complex route Smiley eventually discovers the identity of this daughter, and the rest is relatively simple –  Karla is blackmailed into defecting to the West, the alternative being the loss of both his and his daughter’s safety and security.

What I can’t be sure about is whether reading this novel out of order, as I did, would have made much difference to my appreciation and understanding of the complexities of the plot. I suspect it might have made things easier, although now I have committed this mistake I don’t think reading the earlier novels in the series would remedy the situation.

Is the novel any good? Did I enjoy reading it? Well Smiley is an enigmatic, closed down character – we really only get glimpses of his personality in, for example, his relationship with his ex-wife. He is not all-powerful – while he comes out on top in the struggle with Karla, there are avoidable losses along the way. Without giving too much away, there are deaths in the novel which are foreseeable and avoidable. If you enjoy complex novels where staying one step ahead of the protagonists is a challenge then this is one to definitely add to your TBR list. Stylistically I noticed little of the prose which made The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stand out. Here’s a scene setting from the later novel:

The café was the last in the street, if not in all Paris, to lack both a juke-box and neon lighting – and to remain open in August – though there were bagatelle tables that bumped and flashed from dawn till night. For the rest, there was the usual mid-morning hubbub, of grand politics, and horses, and whatever else Parisians talked; there was the usual trio of prostitutes murmuring among themselves, and a sullen young waiter in a soiled shirt who led them to a table in a corner that was reserved with a grimy Campari sign.

And this is from the earlier novel:

They walked to her flat through the rain and they might have been anywhere—Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.

For me there is no question as to which excerpt captures the atmosphere more effectively and concisely. I appreciate you could do the same with just about any two novels using selected quotes, but I think my point is that in the later novel le Carre gets bogged down with the procedural elements of the plot and overlooks the need to capture the moment.

To do le Carre justice I probably need to read more of his work, but one as always comes up against the conundrum of there being so many books, and so little time.

Book review: Men at Arms (Discworld 15) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 1993

It is incredibly hard to choose a favourite Discworld novel. It’s like choosing a favourite ice-cream (what, only one?!).  But if forced to choose it might well be Men at Arms. I have a suspicion I have said the same thing about previous novels in the Discworld series, but I am too lazy to go back and check, and it wouldn’t invalidate the choice in any event.Men at Arms

Men at Arms novel opens with Edward D’Eath, an assassin becoming convinced that the restoration of the monarchy will cure Ankh-Morpork of its various problems, and restore his family to their rightful place in its heirarchy. He discovers after a suspiciously brief and cursory amount of research that Corporal Carrot Ironfoundersson, recent recruit to the City Watch, is the rightful heir to the AM throne. He charts of course for the restoration of the monarchy by plotting to make the Patriarch deeply unpopular, assuming that the populace will want the intervention of a fairy-tale king to right all the wrongs.

You might reasonably expect this plot line to be central to the novel, but it dwindles away rather quickly, or rather fades into the background, and only comes back when ends need tidying away. I think this is because Pratchett’s real interest is in the men and women of the Watch. Sam Vimes is preparing for his marriage to Sybil and his subsequent retirement from police work, while at the same time dealing with the new recruits to the Watch: Cuddy (dwarf), Detritus (troll), and Angua (female, and we soon discover, also a werewolf). Several murders follow swiftly on the back of D’Eath’s discovery of Carrot’s ancestry, and a standard police procedural begins to unfold, albeit in the bizarre and dangerous setting of Ankh-Morpork. Vimes eventually works out from a trail of clues that d’Eath has stolen a gun (‘gonne’), Discworld’s first firearm, from the Assassins’ Guild. This being Discworld, this is no ordinary gun – it seems to have a personality all of its own. The investigation’s conclusion is revealed with a flair that suggests Pratchett could have made a lively writing detective novels had he ever tired of Discworld. 

So while Vimes and Sybil are eventually married, Vimes’ reluctant plans to retire are foiled as he is appointed Commander of the Watch, to all intents and purposes his old job with a new rank. The temporary changes to the Watch that Vimes and Carrot have improvised during the course of the investigation are made permanent, and by the end of the novel it is on the path to becoming the formidable force that keeps the peace in the world’s most anarchic city. 

The debate about the best segment of Discworld novels and the best place to start will always crop up whenever Pratchett fans convene, and of course it doesn’t have a right answer, but if you haven’t read Pratchett before and are worried that the novels might be a little childish (they are, but in the best possible way) then Men at Arms might be the key to a lifetime of wonderful novels.

Book Review: Here be Dragons, by Stella Gibbons,1956

Long-term readers of this blog, if there is such a thing, will know of my futile quest to find a novel by Stella Gibbons that contains a scintilla of the wit and wisdom of Cold Comfort Farm. I keep buying the lovely Vintage reprints, knowing that it’s not going to happen, but each time hoping to be wrong.Here be dragos

But I’m not. This novel, like all the rest, shows glimpses of promise but would probably not have been printed without the huge affection everyone feels for CCF.

This is standard-fare Gibbons. A sensible, down-to-earth heroine in her late teens or early twenties, in the Flora Poste mould, comes into contact with a group of rather louche bohemians, who are gently poked fun at, with a lot less if any of the suppressed anger and contempt that characterises “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm”.

(‘Has Benedict a beard?’

‘Not so far,’ said Nell cautiously, ‘but they do tend to grow them suddenly, you know.’)

Our heroine, Nell Sely, is uprooted from her comfortable family life when her father, a Church of England vicar, loses his faith. The family moves to a flat in Hampstead provided free of charge by her generous but unappreciated aunt, a nascent radio personality. Said aunt gets her a job as a typist but Nell gives it all up for her remarkably modest dream, a waitress job at The Primula tea rooms. At the same time she falls inexplicably for her cousin John, a scruffy and mildly comic figure who thinks of himself as an artist, but is (depending on how you react to men of this ilk) a privileged, patronising fool or a charming free-spirit. After a lot of tea being drunk and minor incidents to keep the pages turning, the novel fizzles out inconclusively. Nell gets her teashop but not her man, John being called up for National Service after rather pathetically trying to avoid it by hiding from the police (who were sent out to enforce call-ups) in a little old lady’s cottage next door to the family apartment.

This is gentle observational comedy where the interest level never really ticks above medium. We don’t really care what happens to these people – they aren’t engaging or interesting enough. Although Gibbons evokes the grimness and griminess of 1950’s London wonderfully, the plot is paper thin, little happens, and an attempt to inject a little drama as the novel wanders to an ending falls flat. The humour can at times be diverting, even though this world seems very alien from the other side of the millennium, where the worst thing that can happen is for someone to lose their faith or be called up into the Army and where sex is only hinted at as something that only bad girls do.

I won’t stop reading Gibbons, but I will continue to do so with a sense of melancholy that each novel isn’t Cold Comfort Farm, and a sense of delight that at least Cold Comfort is!

 

Book review: How to be Right by James O’Brien, 2019

James O’Brien is that rarity, a progressive talk radio host. While most of his fellow talkshow hosts seem to actively encourage people to spill their prejudices, O’Brien confronts them. His technique and reasons for doing so are the heart of this book – it’s not really a handbook for being right (I think the structure of the title is self-consciously copying Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman‘ and similar works) more a series of essays about current affairs and controversial issues, illustrated by extensive extracts from O’Brien’s many conversations with right-wing callers.

As you would expect, Brexit is front and centre of the book, together with the closely related issue of immigration to the UK. O’Brien cleverly unpicks the prejudices of his callers, exposing their logical fallacies, lack of understanding of the issues, and his command of the facts. Whether he is ever bested in argument – it is what he does for a living after all, and has plenty of time to choose and prepare his field of battle – we don’t learn, I doubt it.

How to be Right is both the Waterstones and WH Smith’s non-fiction book of the month for June (2019), and not surprisingly is selling very well. How to explain the popularity of this book? The sub-title provides a clue – How to be Right – in a World gone Wrong. There is unquestionably an appetite for answers to the question of why the world feels to many people as if it is going wrong, and specifically as if years of progress in which civil and human rights have been taken forward have all of a sudden started to go backwards. We see this most vividly in the USA where women’s productive rights are under open attack, although best not to forget that one of the allegedly moderate candidates in the campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party underway right now is in favour of more than halving the period within which abortions can be performed.

So the world feels as if it has gone wrong, and people are hungry for answers as to why, and what can be done about it. Which is where O’Brien’s book falls short. Because while it is excellent at pointing out, often using their own words, the weaknesses in the arguments of racists, homophobes and Brexiteers, O’Brien hasn’t any constructive alternative, other than not being racist, homophobic, and staying in the EU. I am aware I am being very unfair here. First, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with arguing that the best reaction to racism is not being racist, and so on. Although I suspect that few people listening to his programme or reading his book will have said “you know what, I am being a bit of an idiot, James is right, and I will renounce my former unpleasant and regressive attitudes”. It would be nice if they did of course. The other reason for considering this argument as unfair is that O’Brien makes no claims about his ability to articulate a vision for a better world. His book is simply a handbook for winning arguments with idiots, not a manifesto.

O’Brien has done his homework. He has taken time to read all the relevant background issues and understand the difference (for example) between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. He knows his stuff, and is able to deploy lots of facts and figures to win his case. Would I have enjoyed this book a fraction as much if O’Brien had been a persuasive, charming, well-informed conservative? I doubt it, which means I am still stuck in the progressive Remain echo-chamber. But at least I am better informed than I was before I learned how to be right.

This is an entertaining and straightforward read. O’Brien seems a nice bloke, and he is on the side of the angels. If you want to see how he does it, recommended.

Book review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre, 1963

Tags

, , , , ,

I read ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, as a standalone novel, without realising that it is to all intents and purposes a sequel to A Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s 1961 debut novel. Reading the novels out of sequence meant that the central plot twist here – which I won’t give away here even though I usually very relaxed about spoilers – was kept disguised for much of the novel, even if on reflection it was fairly guessable.

Why read a Cold War spy novel now? Is it in any way still relevant? Certainly the political context of the novel has changed dramatically – when The Spy was first published it had an immediacy and relevance it has now lost. It exposed the dark underside of the world of Cold War espionage, in which each side, East and West, were both morally equivalent and ambivalent, where murder was commonplace, and where the only justification for one’s actions was the final outcome. Now it is just a historically based adventure novel, with as much relevance as The 39 Steps or The Riddle of the Sands.

Alec Leamas runs the Berlin office of the British secret service. Berlin is divided between East and West by the recently constructed Wall (a landmark point was passed recently when the time the Wall has been down became longer than the time it stood).  The novel opens as Leamas’s operation loses its last double agent, shot whilst defecting from East Berlin. Leamas is recalled to London by his boss, ‘Control’ and is given one last mission: to fake his defection to East Germany and to undermine their ruthlessly efficient secret service. There is very little exposition setting all this out – we learn of this plot only gradually as it unfolds.

I am not sure Leamas would have made a convincing potential defector. Yes he is fired, starts drinking, has money problems and serves a short prison sentence. But there are surely flags that this is a trap. He falls into the clutches of the East Germans far too easily. A menial job in a library leads him to meet Liz Gold, who just happens to be secretary of her local cell of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This obviously isn’t a coincidence – Liz is unknowingly part of the plot. After his release from jail Leamas is approached by an East German recruiter and with little pause for breath he defects and sells all his country’s secrets – or what little he purports to know – for a few thousand pounds.

During his interrogation Leamas mentions British payments to a double agent in the East. This, we later come to understand, is part of the plot to sow discord among the East German spy operation, which culminates in a trial of the Communist spymaster Mundt. During the trial the British plot is exposed when Liz is called as a surprise witness, only for a secret underlying plot, to which Leamas has been oblivious, to be revealed. The novel’s tragic denouement comes swiftly thereafter with a degree of inevitability.

This is a well-written page-turner. Le Carre evokes the seediness of Leamas’s world with very precise prose and imagery:

“They walked to her flat through the rain and they might have been anywhere—Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.”

Although there is a moral ambivalence about the novel’s portrait of espionage, Le Carre still takes sides – he is disgusted by intellectual, moral and actual poverty of the East. Although the world Le Carre portrays is now gone, this didn’t feel like an anachronism (in the way the Buchan and Childers books now do). In part this is because of the enduring popularity of Le Carre’s work to film and television adaptations, which keep it current, and in part due to his cynicism and amorality which is very modern in its sensibility. I am glad I have now read Le Carre – he was a novelist I have skirted around many times but never quite got round to – but I suspect his other spy novels will be very similar to this one. But next time I am looking for a book to help pass a train journey I will know not to overlook Le Carre.

 

Book review: Lords and Ladies (Discworld 14) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 1992

Tags

, , , , , , ,

“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded”. I suspect most readers would identify this as something Douglas Adams wrote, rather than his successor in genius, Sir Terry Pratchett.  It sets the tone for this wonderful novel. But perhaps I shouldn’t use this term, because as Lords and Ladies points out

“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.” 

This is just one aspect of the genius of Sir Terry – his ability to use language creatively to make us think deeply about language and beyond, to a very serious discussion about power and responsibility within society.

Of course there is a lighter side to this novel. It includes one line much loved by Discworld fans:

“Nanny Ogg looked under her bed in case there was a man there. Well, you never knew your luck.”

I first read Lords and Ladies a long time ago. I have a vague memory of being slightly disappointed. But one of the many wonderful things about STP as a writer is his re-readability; I honestly can’t think of another writer whose novels retain their freshness and originality on multiple re-readings in the way Sir Terry’s do. In a word, I was wrong, Lords and Ladies is magnificent.

It follows chronologically immediately following the events of Witches Abroad. I could easily be wrong about this but I think this is one of the few times in the series that STP does this (The Colour of Magic/The Light Fantastic being the other example that springs to mind.) This gives the reader the impression that they are enjoying a continuing narrative, an adventure in real time. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick return from their adventure in Genua to find that while they have been away the people of Lancre have neglected their defence against the dark arts lessons. In particular the witches’s warnings about the Dancers, a mysterious stone circle outside the village have been ignored. With Lancre’s magical protections weakened and unguarded, a portal to the world of the elves is opened.

But as you will have seen above, these elves are not the noble creatures of MiddleEarth- they are amoral monsters that use “glamour” to alter human’s perceptions of them. The elves break into the Discworld and cause carnage at Magrat’s wedding, to be confronted (and OK, yes, spoilers, ultimately defeated) by a feat of magic that only Granny W could pull off. There is a sub-plot featuring a visit by the Arch-Chancellor and the Librarian to the wedding, but otherwise that is pretty much it – a fairly unsubstantial piece in terms of the plot. But reading STP for this plotting would be very much missing the point – you need to read him for his characterisation and his ideas.

STP really hit his stride at this point in the Discworld history, and never really took a misstep thereafter. So many great novels to come.