Tuesday, 3 December 2019

This is not good for the Jews

On the question of Labour and antisemitism, my Jewish friends are divided. My Jewish family, on the other hand, are all voting Labour, either in Canterbury, where Rosie Duffield won a historic but fragile victory over the sitting Conservative just two years ago, or here in our south London constituency of Tooting, where the admirable Rosena Allin-Khan has a relatively safe seat.

I suppose I am as personally invested in the fate of British Jews as a non-Jew can be. And I don’t dismiss the accusations of antisemitism within the Labour ranks as simply a right-wing smear campaign, though the tabloids have certainly played a role in distorting the facts and exaggerating the problem. But I’ll be voting Labour anyway.

This will be, at least in part, a tactical vote to defeat the Conservative Party and its vision for our country as an off-shore tax-haven subject to the ravages of global corporate asset-stripping (if I lived in Brighton, I’d vote Green; in Dominic Raab's nearby constituency I've been stuffing envelopes for the Liberal Democrats). It will certainly not be a vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. 

As a member of the Labour Party, I voted against Corbyn three years ago when his leadership was challenged. My objection to him was not that he came from a left wing faction of the party, whose priorities I mainly agree with, but that he was allowing the party to be divided by factionalism. There's a desire among his more enthusiastic supporters to purify the Party and remake it in Corbyn's image. I marched against the Iraq war and thought Blair too timid in his support for the public sector, but I don't see the point, 12 years after his departure, of labelling Labour moderates as Blairites and working to have them deselected. The bullying of MPs who waver from left-wing orthodoxy on the Palestinian question rises from the same well of self-righteous intolerance. 

It’s clear that among some Labour activists the line between criticising Israel and blaming Jews has been hopelessly blurred. Whatever his private convictions, Corbyn has been sloppy about this himself and has failed to take a firm stand against it as leader.

So how can I justify voting for his party? First, because the Corbyn faction doesn’t yet represent the party as a whole. The Conservatives, in contrast, have been thoroughly taken over by Brexit-mongers. And second, because Boris Johnson’s prejudices are not even in question and have been on display for years. Though he uses his bumbling comic style to deflect criticism, in a bigotry competition with Corbyn, Johnson would be the clear winner.

As the husband and stepfather of Jews, should I take comfort in the fact that Johnson’s sneers have been directed at Muslims and people of colour, rather than at our lot? Well, no, because I refuse to be pushed into making a choice between antisemitism and Islamophobia. Those in positions of power have always found it useful to turn the poor, the powerless and the culturally marginalised against each other. It’s not a game I’m willing to play.

And in any case, the racist impulse tends to be indivisible. People who express hatred of one group of foreigners are not reliable friends to any other group. An ultra-conservative Britain that isolates itself from Europe because it dislikes Poles, threatens to deport elderly British West Indians on a historical technicality, deliberately creates a “hostile environment” for refugees and other undocumented migrants, and gambles with the future of its own Irish citizens is not a trustworthy friend to Jews.

I think about those White Supremacists marching in Charlottesville. How easily their chant slipped from "You [brown people] will not replace us" to "Jews will not replace us". I wouldn’t trust Little Englanders not to engage in the same kind of slippage if it suited them, or if it suited their leaders to encourage it. Expressions of support for Israel from members of the extreme Right are not reliable indicators of an absence of antisemitic feeling any more than concern for the Palestinians necessarily means indifference to the fate of the Jewish population of Israel or of Jews around the world.

Last week a group of British writers published a letter explaining why they could not, in good conscience, vote Labour in this Election. Perplexingly, some of them have never been Labour supporters, so the suggestion that Corbyn’s views were causing them moral anguish was disingenuous. But for the progressive voters among them the dilemma is clearly genuine. “Antisemitism,” they wrote, “is central to a wider debate about the kind of country we want to be. To ignore it because Brexit looms larger is to declare that anti-Jewish prejudice is a price worth paying for a Labour government. Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?"

That question, with its distant echo of Niemöller's confession, correctly identifies the sliding nature of prejudice. But it is misleading in implying that, in contemporary Britain, the Jewish community is at particular risk. We don’t need to ask who would be next because the victims of prejudice are all around us. One way of compiling a list would be to start with a compendium of Boris Johnson’s jokey ethnic slurs.

My late and much lamented mother-in-law would occasionally, in response to some turn in American or global events, drily observe that “this is not good for the Jews”. The Brexit project, if and when it is completed, will be no better for British Jews than for the British people in general.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

10 reasons why I voted for Kavanaugh

Because Dr Blasey Ford was way too credible to convince me. A little bit truthy, a little bit sleuthy and a whole lot too mouthy. Indelible in the hippocampus? What the hell was that?

Because how can such an obviously traumatized woman be sure what happened to her?

Because if the PC Nazis and their friends in the Democrat Party are going to start holding us responsible for what we did to girls in our fratboy days, no one’s safe. 

Image result for kavanaugh's angry face
Because who wouldn’t be moved by Judge Kavanaugh’s sniffling, red-faced rage? We’ve all been there.

Because so what if a devil's triangle isn't really a drinking game? Are we going to hang a guy for bragging in his high school yearbook? 

Because, sure, I’m undermining the integrity of the Supreme Court, but I’m doing it for a higher good – to undermine reproductive rights, voting rights, employee rights, LGBT rights, environmental protection, and the possibility that you’ll ever be able to get healthcare without going bankrupt.

Because the Clintons.

Because, as a US Senator, it’s my duty to respond to the concerns of my Trump-voting constituents.

Because women have had their say. 

Because the Republican Party’s got all the dirt they need to bury me. 

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Sex and power revisited

Like me, Samuel Richardson was the son of a joiner and one of nine children. Those are just two of the reasons he interests me. He showed a precocious talent for writing. By the age of 13 he was helping girls of his acquaintance reply to love letters, which brought him close to the drama of romantic love at an early age. Too poor to train for the ministry, he was apprenticed to a printer, after which he opened his own printing shop and went on to earn a very good living as a publisher. He had a dozen children, of whom four daughters and one son survived into adulthood. He came to fiction late. His first novel Pamela was published in 1740 when he was 51. It was a huge success, immediately resonating with the novel-reading public.

Early in the story the young maid, Pamela Andrews, is cornered in the summer-house by her master. This (edited slightly for length) is from her account of the experience:

Well, says he, I have a mind you should stay to hear what I have to say to you. I stood confounded, and began to tremble, and the more when he took me by the hand; for now no soul was near us. He said, I tell you I will make a gentlewoman of you, if you be obliging, and don’t stand in your own light; and so saying, he put his arm about me, and kissed me!

Sobbing, Pamela pushes him off and angrily tells him that he should treat her properly. The master, “vexed and confused”, does his best to calm her down:

If you can keep this matter secret, you’ll give me the better opinion of your prudence; and here’s something, said he, putting some gold in my hand, to make you amends for the fright I put you in. Go take a walk in the garden, and don’t go in till your blubbering is over: and I charge you say nothing of what is past, and all shall be well, and I’ll forgive you.

I draw three conclusions from this scene: there’s nothing new about narcissistic or unscrupulous men exploiting their power for sexual purposes; there’s nothing new about women not liking it; and there’s nothing new about the perpetrators wanting to hush it up. All that’s changed is that the hushing up is getting harder to do.

No doubt there were people who bought Richardson’s book for its tabloid content, because they liked being shocked and enjoyed the salacious details. But enough readers must have strangely anticipated modern progressive opinion in finding the master’s behaviour thoroughly reprehensible, while others, like today’s scoffing fogeys, dismissed such disapproval as political correctness gone mad.

Henry Fielding responded to Richardson’s success by writing a parody called Shamela. Here’s how his heroine recounts her experience of being molested:  

He took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: Laud, says I, Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude; no, says he, my Dear, and then he kissed me, till it took away my Breath – and I pretended to be Angry, and to get away, and then he kissed me again, and breathed very short, and looked very silly…

Fielding had had considerable success as a playwright, but this was his first attempt at fiction. Meanwhile Richardson, coming from nowhere as a writer, had more or less invented the bodice-ripper. With some justification, Fielding found Richardson’s style overheated. He was also bothered by the way Pamela’s story reduced moral virtue to a bargaining chip on the way to an advantageous marriage, and the hypocrisy of readers who tutted with disapproval as they lapped up the sex. Fielding’s parody turns the woman into the predator. Shamela is on the make and ready to use her assets to trap a wealthy squire.  

CoverFielding was on a roll. He followed Shamela with a novel-length gender-bending narrative, in which Pamela’s virtuous brother Joseph, also a servant, has to fight off the sexual attentions of his mistress, Lady Booby. Then, having created his very own comic-epic style, he wrote Tom Jones and the rest is literary history.

Fielding has generally been considered the better writer. Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, is more highly rated than his first. But at a time when women’s voices were rarely heard, in Pamela he gave voice to a female perspective, opening a window on a problem that, in real life, wasn’t funny then and isn’t funny now. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Sex and power in Jane Eyre

The latest crop of sexual predators has me searching for literary precedents. 

An orphan, dependent on charity in childhood and on her own industry as an adult, Jane Eyre understands the importance of money and the necessity of working for it. When she runs away from Rochester’s house, having discovered that he’s already married, she leaves the pearl necklace she would have worn as his bride and takes only what she has earned as his employee. “My purse, containing twenty shillings (it was all I had), I put in my pocket.” Both the integrity and the precision are characteristic. 
Image result for image for jane eyreExposed as a would-be bigamist, Rochester has made Jane a tempting offer. He has enough money to keep them both in comfort. Who needs a wedding? They can live as husband and wife in France, where no one will know or care about the technicalities. Though it means giving up her home and her only source of income to face loneliness and destitution, Jane turns him down. Her reasons are both principled and pragmatic. Rochester has recounted his search for love in all the wrong places, specifically Parisian music halls, setting up a series of mistresses in lavish comfort. He concludes that “I now hate the recollection of the time I passed with Celine, Giacinta and Clara”. Jane fears that if she allows herself to become “the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory”.

As Jane’s patron and employer, Rochester invites comparison with Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and the rest. If Jane is a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, she’s in good literary company. A hundred years earlier, Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela, which some consider to be the first fully fledged novel in the English language. Scandalous and much parodied, it was also hugely successful. Teenage maidservant Pamela Andrews has to fight off the groping advances of her boss, a country squire identified only as Mr B, for hundreds of pages before Mr B is moved by her virtue to propose marriage.

Half a century after Jane Eyre, Thomas Hardy recounted the rape of Tess by her employer, Alec D’Urberville, an event that blights her life. The Victorians wouldn’t have called this rape, though Hardy is clear that Tess is in no position to give consent. There was a lot of scholarly debate about this during the twentieth century. In an online forum, I just came across a question posted as recently as 2012 by a first-time female reader who wonders whether Alec was “a monster for raping a woman or… a licentious cad for seducing a virgin.” The question is answered, I think, by the archaic language used for the second option. It’s hard to read this phrase without imagining the writer's air-quotes.

The history of the English novel is full of such stories. John Jarndyce, the owner of Bleak House whom Vladimir Nabokov described as “one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel” seriously blots his copybook when he wins the hand of the sweet-natured and self-effacing Esther Summerson.  The problem isn’t just that he’s too old for her: Esther happens to be an orphan living under his roof as a ward of court, a charity case until he elevates her to the status of housekeeper. When I first read Bleak House and got to this bit, I assumed that Dickens must have considered such creepy Allenesque boundary-crossing just fine. Not so. Later on, seeing that he has exploited Esther’s youth and gratitude, Jarndyce releases her from the engagement. Perhaps it’s this act of renunciation that earns him Nabokov’s praise.

If Rochester is less scrupulous than Jarndyce, he isn’t an unambiguous predator either. Jane falls for Rochester long before he makes any discernible move towards her. He is the most hesitant and respectful suitor, not without reason as it turns out. His crime is not that he exploits his power as her employer but that, once they’ve acknowledged their feelings for each other, he attempts to involve her in a fake marriage. What’s more, he’s got the wife, Bertha, locked away upstairs. What that’s about?

More than 50 years ago, Jean Rhys upended Charlotte Brontë’s story of that relationship, offering an alternative version from Bertha’s point of view. A powerful feminist text and an early classic of postcolonial fiction, Wide Sargasso Sea makes it impossible to swallow Rochester’s own victim narrative whole. As a representative of his race and gender, Rochester is the one with the power, even if we overlook his current role as jailer. And, in any case, a modern reader is bound to rebel against the image of the madwoman as caged animal. But in the context of the novel, Rochester’s personal story is compelling. Having been manoeuvred as a young man into a marriage with an older woman he hardly knows, as a result of a squalid deal between her father and his, he has carried the burden of that youthful mistake ever since.

For Charlotte Brontë, placing Bertha in the attic of Rochester’s house, from which she can escape periodically to haunt the bedrooms, is a brilliant Gothic device. It also has archetypal resonance. Just so in The Tempest, Prospero lives in close quarters with Caliban and must claim ownership of him: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. Thornfield is not only Rochester’s house, but his psyche, containing the past from which he is unable to free himself.       

On a practical level, Rochester could so much more easily have dumped Bertha in a lunatic asylum. This possibility was perhaps so obvious in Victorian England that Charlotte Brontë saw no need to spell it out. Running private asylums was a growing business during the early nineteenth century. In 1828, 19 years before the publication of Jane Eyre, Commissioners in Lunacy were appointed for the first time to licence and inspect them. Hiding one’s mentally disabled or otherwise embarrassing female relatives in institutions continued into the twentieth century. Katherine Bowes-Lyon, cousin to the Queen, died only three years ago at the age of 87, having been incarcerated with her sister Nerissa since 1941 in the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Mental Defectives. In this context, Rochester’s personalised service looks positively conscientious. 

Given that his marriage is beyond rescue, and without the option of divorce, Rochester must choose between, on the one hand, relationships corrupted by money with women for whom he feels passion but no respect and, on the other, unfulfilled love for “a good and intelligent woman” such as Jane. The Madonna-whore dichotomy is written into his social condition.   

Always straightforward about money, Brontë is obliged to be more allusive on the subject of sex. Even so, she finds a way of saying what needs to be said. For example, when Jane considers a later offer of marriage from the evangelical minister St John Rivers, she wonders if she would be able to “endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe)”. The abstract language is chilling. That scrupulous observance, which may be admirable in Rivers’ professional role, would be distinctly unpleasant in the mariage bed.

Rochester’s sex life is discussed in more sensuous language, but its details remain somewhat oblique. In confessing to Jane, he says, “I tried dissipation – never debauchery: that I hated, and hate.”  I must have skimmed that sentence half-a-dozen times over the years, assuming it was making a subtle distinction significant to Victorians but lost on the modern reader. Both nouns suggest an indulgence in sensual pleasure. Only now that I give the language the attention it deserves does it occur to me to refer to the verbs on which the nouns are based. To dissipate is to waste or squander something – energy, passion, time. To debauch is to seduce someone else from virtue. Dissipation is a waste of what’s yours. Debauchery requires a victim. It is the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable for sexual pleasure that Rochester is condemning.

When Jane leaves Rochester’s house it takes every ounce of her courage and resolve. It isn’t Rochester she is running from but her own feelings for him. Rochester is far from faultless, but he’s no Harvey Weinstein. 

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.