Monday 29 September 2014

How to choose a winner

A version of this piece has appeared in the Bangladesh Daily Star

In a previous post I commented on the relatively narrow range, in geographic terms, of the Man Booker long list. Reading the shortlist I’m struck by its artistic diversity. If you were a judge, how would you choose a winner from among such different books? Here are some possible strategies.

Go for an epic. Richard Flanagan and Neel Mukherjee both illuminate historic events with intimate human drama. In Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorrigo Evans, who has risen from poverty to become a distinguished surgeon, is invaded by memories of a life shaped by war and his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese working on the infamous ‘Death Railway’. Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others concerns a household in 1960s West Bengal caught up in violent social change. The three generations of the Ghosh family are brilliantly brought to life, with their squabbles and rivalries, struggling to coexist in the four-storey family home while endangered by external events beyond their control.  

Look for innovation. If you’re drawn to novels that extend the possibilities of the form, there are a couple to choose from. Howard Jacobson’s J drops us into a future, in which the unspeakable event that has changed everything comes slowly into focus through a collage of narratives. Ali Smith offers two stories that can be read in either order, one set in renaissance Italy, one in present day England. There’s a luminous sense of place and the dialogue sings. Always fresh and playful, in How to be Both Smith brings a light touch to big questions of art and mortality.

Demand the truth. The two American books contrast interestingly here. In Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the New York dentist-narrator, complaining in a characteristic moment how hard it is to get a table in a Manhattan restaurant, tells us that his girlfriend Connie “once told a reservationist that she was dying of stomach cancer and had chosen that restaurant as her last meal out”. A sentence like that has no purpose except to make me laugh. And if it fails at that, it fails altogether, because I don’t believe it. Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator in We are All Completely Beside Ourselves has her own kind of wisecracking style. “My father,” she tells us, was “a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.” That’s funny. But it doesn’t live or die on its ability to amuse.

Choose an author who gets out of the way of the story. Jacobson is never dull, often brilliant and constantly challenging, but too sure of what he thinks and too determined that we should think the same. Flanagan’s grasp is far less certain but his reach is considerable and the best of his storytelling can grab you by the throat.

Sunday 14 September 2014

A no to independence is also a kind of yes

I’m traveling in California so it’s on National Public Radio’s financial program Marketplace that I first catch wind of the swing towards Scottish independence. Marketplace covers it as a currency story: the British pound takes a dive in the wake of new polling news.

There are pragmatic concerns here that I suppose might interest me. But my first response is an emotional one. I’m not ready for Scottish independence. A Santa Barbara friend, with no ancestral connections to the British Isles, tells me she’s all for it. She’s rooting for the Scots and is delighted to see them standing up to the Brits, the bankers and big business. What’s my problem? I’ve got Irish roots, haven’t I? Why aren’t I cheering on my fellow Celts?

Well maybe that’s one reason why. I was born in England with an English father but never quite think of myself as English. My mother was Irish and my upbringing – our upbringing, I have to say since there were nine of us – had a distinctly Irish flavour. I spent twenty years of my adult life in Wales. My brother Wilfrid worked as a GP in Edinburgh for twenty years, where I visited him regularly, and in Shetland for a couple more. I have an instinctive preference for joining these pieces together than for splitting them apart. The same impulse will contribute to my vote against leaving the EU when it comes to that.

And I’m acutely aware, by the way, that Scotland's departure would increase the proportion of anti-Europeans among the rest of us.   

When my American wife Leni and I were in Inverness recently we asked people what they thought about independence and got some interesting answers:

It’ll force us to grow up and stop blaming everything on the English.... For me, it's like wanting to be your own boss instead of working for someone else.... Who hates the Scottish? No one. Who hates the English? Everyone.

They were the pros. The antis just came straight out with it:

It’d be madness.... Complete lunacy.

Incidentally, our tiny sample revealed an even bigger gender gap than the opinion polls do. All our yeses were men, all our nos were women. Listening to our no-voters I had the distinct impression that some heads would be knocked together if it was up to them.

The nice lady at the Culloden visitor centre was way too canny to express an opinion. Given that this is a place of bitter memories – the site of the final defeat of the Jacobites, leading to the brutal destruction of the highland way of life by the ‘Butcher’ Duke of Cumberland – and a place of pilgrimage for Americans seeking their Scottish roots, I admired her tact and was inclined to put her down as a no, though I would have had to count her as undecided if I’d been conducting a poll.

Considering the length of the campaign, the number of undecideds has apparently remained stubbornly high. For some, like the lady at Culloden, don’t know might translate as not telling. For others perhaps it reflects that heart-versus-head thing commentators have been talking about – indulging a wild yes impulse for as long as possible, maybe, before settling down to the practicalities of no.

There I go with the kind of patronising assumption guaranteed to irritate a nationalist. What would be wild or impulsive about voting for independence?  More important, it concedes too much in handing over all sense of imaginative possibility to the yes-voters, just as the Better Together campaign has done in emphasising fear – fear of change, fear of uncertainty – over hope.  

The yes campaign has not made the mistake of dwelling on the past – ancient grudges have not featured. But it’s hard to ignore the more recent grudge that must fuel the urge to go it alone – the feeling that since the 80s the British political establishment has engaged in a process of neo-liberal economic restructuring that Scotland never signed up to. Half the population of Britain south of the border could raise their hands and say we never signed up to it either. Understandably, Scottish nationalists don’t see this as Scotland’s problem. And I can certainly see the appeal to disaffected Scots of wiping the smug smile off Cameron’s face and giving him a bloody nose on their way out the door. 

Paradoxically the very features that have enabled the Scots to protect themselves from some of the ravages of this right-wing project, including the creeping privatisation of the NHS – Scotland’s historic identity as a country, its tradition of separate institutions, and its 15-year-old parliament – have provided the platform, unique in mainland Britain, for its departure. Other disgruntled regions and disregarded minorities don't have the same option.  

So my heart and my head are united on this issue. My heart says I don’t want Scotland to leave the family. My head says my political interests, and the interests of those I care about, will suffer if it does.

I strongly suspect that Wilfrid, who loved Scotland’s more rugged landscape, taught himself the bagpipes and took to wearing the kilt at family celebrations, would have voted yes. If something in Scotland claimed his soul, his political calculations also saw the benefits of living and working north of the border – years ago he told me, with a baleful shake of the head, that the NHS in England and Wales was finished.  

But I would have argued with him about how to vote. On the one hand, independence is no guarantee of a socialist future – a Scotland having to clamour on its own behalf for international investment might find itself settling for something less idealistic. It's possible that independence would result in a shift to the right on both sides of the border. On the other hand, walking out on the UK’s problems is, in its own way, a failure of imagination. Austerity will not serve as a permanent excuse to screw the poor and reduce taxes on the rich. We won’t be ruled by Cameron and Osborne forever. And we have more chance together than alone of ending their temporary ascendancy. 

Running deeper than the ebb and flow of politics, there are surely bonds of culture and history and shared interests that unite us across our geographic borders.

Thursday 11 September 2014

How would you choose the year's best books?

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

Last year’s Man Booker prize long list represented five continents and seven countries, with authors from Australia, Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, alongside three from Ireland and five from Britain.

This year, for the first time, the prize has been opened to writers from the USA. Oddly, the widening of its geographical scope seems to have coincided with a narrowing of its cultural reach. On the recent long list a single Australian novel represented the Commonwealth, with two from Ireland, four from the US and six from Britain, though these six include Neel Mukherjee who grew up in India and whose novel tells the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta. With this exception, in subject matter as well as authorship the chosen novels seem to be largely rooted in Western experience, And there’s a marked gender imbalance – only three female writers out of 13, whereas last year’s list was evenly split, with 8 women and 7 men.

Publishing that 2013 list, the judges, chaired by travel writer and scholar Robert MacFarlane, described it as ‘surely the most diverse’ in the prize’s history, evidently considering that something to brag about. This year’s judges have apparently taken a different approach. The chairman, philosopher A.C. Grayling, said, ‘Our guiding principal was merit. We didn’t ask about the nationality or gender, there was no question of tokenism.’ That sounds admirable – as a philosophical abstraction. Tokenism is generally objectionable, and what could be wrong with basing your judgements on ‘merit’?

But artistic merit is a slippery concept. Three years ago, some of the judges raised eyebrows when they revealed the basis on which they’d made their decisions. That year’s chairman, retired spy Stella Rimington, set the tone, saying they’d been ‘looking for enjoyable books… readable books.’ MP Chris Mullen had been in no doubt from the start that the winner would have to ‘zip along’. It seemed not to have occurred to them that a book might make demands on a reader and offer more subtle rewards, or that as judges they had a greater responsibility than someone sounding off at a party about what kind of books they happened to like.

In an article in the Guardian accompanying news of this year’s long list, the American writer and critic Erica Wagner indicated a more thoughtful set of criteria. She and her fellow judges had been drawn to ‘vivid characters’, and impressed by books that would bear re-reading or that stand out for the quality of their language, ‘ambitious’ books that deal with large questions, about ‘the making of art’, or about ‘what it means, finally, to be human’. 

These judges had clearly applied their minds to an informed discussion of what ‘best’ might mean. And yet I can’t help wondering whether, if I were a judge, I would have the confidence in the objectivity of my judgement not to step back and take a look at the overall shape of the list I was helping to construct, not to take note of nationality or gender, and not to wonder if, in favouring writers whose cultural experience happened to be closer to mine, I might be underappreciating less familiar qualities.

Monday 1 September 2014

Healthcare and the great privatisation scam

To join day 3 of The People’s March for the NHS, I planned to catch the 7 am train from King’s Cross to Darlington. To cover the remaining 12 miles to Ferryhill in time for the 10am set-off, I would have to hitchhike – the country bus would take too long. 

The hitchhiking might have seemed the riskiest part of this plan, but I was more apprehensive about the train journey, having endured a chaotic rail trip to the Cotswolds the previous weekend. That train left Paddington 12 minutes late, so crammed there was hardly room to move, with passengers standing or perched on suitcases all down the aisle. As we crawled out of London, I had plenty of time to reflect that there was no financial incentive for First Great Western, a private company, to lay on an extra service – we’d all paid for our tickets already. 

Further delays and indignities followed, including being shouted at by a harassed conductor during an unscheduled change of trains at Reading station, before I found myself stranded in Oxford, still 40 miles short of where I wanted to be. Whatever the invisible hand of the market was up to, it certainly wasn’t getting me to the Cotswolds. As I learnt along the way, conversation being hard to avoid when you’re jammed up against other people enjoying the unexpected fellowship of disaster, this kind of thing is all too familiar to regular Great Western travellers.

As it turned out, my trip up the east coast to Darlington couldn’t have been more different. We left on time, the staff were cheerful and friendly and I had a seat all to myself. I discovered later that this line was taken back into public ownership in 2009 after its private operator had made a hopeless mess of it. According to the political economist Will Hutton, 'Directly Operated Trains is now the best run and most efficient operator, making a net surplus of £16m for the taxpayer.' So that's good then. Unless, of course, you're a free-market fundamentalist. The company's reward for this success, Hutton writes, is:

To be sold back to a private operator next February that will redirect the surplus through a tax haven as dividends, game the Department for Transport for higher support and walk away if the returns are not good enough. (Will Hutton, Stop picking passengers' pockets and bring trains back under public control, Guardian 14.08.14)

During the glory days of privatisation back in the 80s, selling a public company such as British Gas was trumpeted as the means to bring ordinary people into the shareholding class while extending economic freedom for all. Socialists might howl, old one-nation Tories long-retired to the House of Lords might grumble that we were flogging the family silver, but Margaret Thatcher was on a mission and enough people went along with it to keep her in office for 10 years. The privatising of the railways, always a dodgier proposition, wasn’t pushed through until three years after she’d gone. By the time the Royal Mail was sold last year, the great privatising project had been reduced to the level of farce, with shares snapped up for a bargain price and sold on for big profits and no pretence that any of this was for the public good. 

This was a small loss. We'll get by with email, mobile phones and FedEx. But some services are so essential, so complicated or so unsuited to competition that private ownership just doesn't work. All of these are true of healthcare (see my previous post) and most British voters know it. No major political party in Britain has ever campaigned on a promise to privatise the NHS. The Conservatives made no mention of such a policy at the last election. At the 2006 party conference, reassuring voters that it was safe in his hands, David Cameron said, ‘Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS.’ 

It could never be formulated explicitly as a policy. It could only be done, as it is being done, piecemeal and by stealth. The Health and Social Care Act 2014 is a murky piece of legislation. One of the clearest accounts I’ve read of it appeared in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper not known for championing socialist causes, under the headline, ‘Read this and prepare to fight for your NHS.’ The writer, Max Pemberton, a practising doctor and regular Telegraph columnist, emphasises his non-ideological position, but also his absolute commitment to fair and affordable provision:

Let me make clear: I am not ideologically wedded to a nationalised health service. My only concerns are that access to health care is affordable for all and that it is equitable. For me, it is a fundamental part of living in a fair, just society that all members are free from the fear of destitution should illness befall them. When a cohort of people live in the shadow of the fear of sickness, society is impoverished and weakened. The reason I support the NHS is because countless pieces of international research have shown it to be the fairest and cheapest way of providing health care. (Max Pemberton, Read this and prepare to fight for your NHS, Telegraph 31.08.14)

Concern that the NHS is suffering irreparable damage has motivated a group of women from Darlington – the Darlo Mums – to re-enact the 1936 Jarrow March from county Durham to Westminster, and a few dozen more to join them in walking the entire 300-mile route, averaging between 13 and 14 miles a day.

In 1936 the decision to march on London was an act of desperation for men whose town was suffering over 70% unemployment, widespread malnutrition and rising infant mortality. Enjoying support and encouragement along the way they also suffered guilt at eating so well. Ham sandwiches were a luxury their families back home in Jarrow couldn't possibly afford.  

Better fed and no doubt better shod than those working men, I joined this new Jarrow March for days 3 and 4, crossing the county border from Durham to Yorkshire. I was back a week later for day 12 with my wife, Leni, and brother and sister, Tom and Liz. I was happy to be reunited with the 300-milers for one more day, and to meet other day-trippers like me. I spoke to nurses, paramedics, administrators, schoolteachers, veterans from the 1980s anti-nuclear camp on Greenham Common, a retired psychiatrist, a local mayor, a parliamentary candidate, an MEP, an opera singer and a lay clerk from Ripon Cathedral. By day 12 the numbers marching had swollen to hundreds, with large crowds turning out at various stopping points. People stood in front gardens and shop doorways to clap and express thanks. Passing drivers sounded their horns and waved. It was a moving and exhilarating experience. 

It’s obvious that, as it makes its way down through England, the march is meeting broad and enthusiastic approval. Perhaps by the time it reaches London on Saturday 6 September, it will be big enough to attract some serious media attention as well. I hope so. A bad train service causes waste, inefficiency and frustration. A failing healthcare system is a more frightening prospect altogether.