Thursday, 4 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'I Am, I Am, I Am'

This is an account of Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 brushes with death, her own and those of her children.  Some of them would be seen that way by anyone – her own serious illness as a child, her own child’s severe anaphylactic shock – and some brought her close to death perhaps only in her own mind – a frightening encounter with a man who might have murdered someone else, being caught in a riptide, her mother almost, but not, slamming a car boot on her head – but all of them caused her to meditate on the closeness of death, mainly without fear. She suggests that once you have confronted the immediate possibility of dying, which she did aged eight when she contracted encephalitis, there is never again any cause to fear death. I think this is right. I had my own encounter with the Grim Reaper much later in life, in the form of an ectopic pregnancy when I was 38. Undiagnosed it would have killed me within hours (thank you my GP at the time, Dr Asghar), and in the two or three hours from first symptoms to emergency surgery I knew perfectly well what I was facing. There was no fear, and there has been none since, including when I was suspected of having oesophageal cancer two years ago (I haven’t).

She writes it interestingly, setting the scene for each encounter and then veering to another time and place in her life, and then back to the history that led to the encounter itself. In the process she tells what seems to be the whole of her life. I liked the way she describes the men in her life, briefly and obliquely, but tellingly and vividly. There is a lot of love in these stories.

Maybe this work will set a new trend, for an episodic picture of a life, on a theme, rather than straight autobiography.

I hope so.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'This Must Be The Place': a gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover

This is an accomplished work, and is the story of a man, Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker who is a linguistics professor living in the wilds of Ireland, and his relationship, mainly, with his second wife Claudette. There is a shifting cast of other characters, and notably of children and adolescents. It is stupendously atmospheric in places, although a bit annoying as it jumps around in time and place, and, particularly if you put it down for a day or so, you have to remind yourself what time and place you are currently in. Two of the female characters, Teresa and Rosalind, are under-used, so that I wondered why they were even there. Some are dismissed too glibly "Maeve always did as she was told", and the second wife, reclusive ex-actor Claudette, becomes more and more perfect as the story goes on, so that I wanted to mess up her perfect face, or for her to actually do something WRONG for once. Also, the total recluse business - Claudette lives in a remote place and no one knows where she is; she also has a demonic Max von Sydow-like Swedish ex-lover who is her nemesis - would never have worked. Those people always have People, who Know Their Secrets. A tour de force, this, but I'm not sure I actually liked it all that much. And there are gaps in the story, but I can't even be bothered to go through it and identify them. I can though forgive a writer a lot if they quote, and use as a conceit, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover".

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My 2017

January came in on the beach on Rabbit Island (so called for its shape not its animal population) on the Gulf of Thailand, a short boat ride from the southern coast at Kep, where Cambodian families go at holiday times to dance in the water, fully clothed.

We’d slept in a tent on the sand, as there were no beach chalets left – as with most things in Cambodia, you can’t easily book in advance – and I woke at first light as I usually do, about 6 am here. Straight into the water (I still had my swimsuit on under my clothes from the night before, and modesty is a thing here) with a pink light on the ripples, and a boat rocking. Two little boys swimming and jumping around the boat. Plastic bottles in the water. The first time for me.

There is no winter here, only a time in December and January of breezy blue mornings and no rain, with a light coating of dust and dead insects on the faces of the tuktuk drivers on Monivong Boulevard. I think sometimes about the four years in the 1970s when Phnom Penh was empty. No people at all. They were driven out, and some were even pushed along the roads in hospital beds, with drip stands rattling at their sides. Money was burned in the streets. The people would have no need of it now. It was April, when the heat is like a punishment. The 17th of April, which is my birthday. I cannot tell Khmer people when my birthday is, though they sometimes ask. The date is one of infamy and the deepest of bad fortune. It is also the date of the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954, the day I was born in fact, when the French lost their empire in Indochina. I am quite sure that Brother No. 1, Pol Pot, and his henchpeople chose this date for the boy soldiers in black pyjamas to go in and take the capital, as a deliberate reminder of the end of war and colonial bombing. Of course the Khmer Rouge were welcomed at first, which is how they were able to fan out and take over the city. The people were told at the beginning that they were being evacuated to protect them against American bombing. Some of them even believed it, at first, but none of them had a choice. Four years later people began coming back to the city, though a civil war of sorts dragged on until the 1990s. The people just moved into houses. Not necessarily their houses, any houses. They and their children and grandchildren still live in them today.

I have lived the expat life here this year, teaching English to Cambodian teenagers whose parents can afford to pay for lessons. The students have a fair knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, but they cannot pronounce or speak in any way that someone who is not Khmer or resident in Cambodia can understand. This is not a problem for most, as very few have any intention of ever leaving Cambodia. As far as I can tell they mostly want to be web designers and YouTube billionaires. They also cannot get information from what they hear or read, as they are used to being told what to think by their teachers. They do not willingly ask questions, and given the opportunity they copy each other’s work and cheat in exams. But there are many compensations and rewards in this work despite all this. We have talked about Cambodian ghost stories, of which there are many, and some of the students have written wonderful (and very scary) ghost stories in English. We have learned songs, and even written some. And I can teach past modals like a BASTARD.

The expat life here is a good one. I define an expat as someone who goes to live in a country where the cost of living is lower than their income presupposes, and they are not obliged to learn the language. By contrast, a migrant worker is someone who is poorer than their income presupposes, and who is obliged to learn the language to survive. The latter was the situation of my companion in France, which is where we lived for nine and ten years respectively before coming to Cambodia. I have of course been trying to learn the language in Cambodia, with so far limited success. One difficulty is that Khmer people assume that if a foreigner is speaking to them it must be in English, and so they patiently try and decode what they hear. If the foreigner is actually speaking in Khmer, they fail, and so does communication.

This has been 2017. I left Cambodia in June, taking a term out to go to the UK and see family, especially Third Granddaughter, who was born in early July. I spent five weeks on the campus of Brunel University, Uxbridge, outer west London (a mile or two from where I was born and spent my first seven years), teaching multinational teenagers at summer school, and topped this off with a week in Bloomsbury for the same organisation. It was surprisingly good fun, and I made some new friends too. One of them is even coming to work in Cambodia next month! I hope to be back next year. The rest of the chilly English summer was spent travelling around the UK seeing various friends and spending time with family, all good. I like the peripatetic life, only wish I could afford to lead it permanently. I made a short visit to France with First Granddaughter. She is now my travelling companion of choice.

A general election in the UK came and went in June. I didn’t vote. I had a proxy arranged, but seeing my (Labour) MP posing with Nigel Farage, and seeing the racist Jew-hatred at the heart of the Labour Party, made me draw the line. Anyway, I have been out of the UK over ten years now, and as an overseas voter you have to vote in the last constituency you were registered in, an area I no longer feel any connection with. Well, the time difference meant I saw the exit poll, ‘Hung Parliament’, at 3.45 am, and was able to follow the results through the morning, overnight UK time. Ultimately the only two I connected with emotionally were ‘Con Hold Reading West’ – cue much glee at the confirmed political ineptitude of the corrupt group of men (still) running Reading Labour Party – and, even better, ‘Lab Gain Reading East’. I hope Matt Rodda has as good a time representing Reading East for Labour as I did, and I say so without irony. I also hope he is better at circumventing the corrupt bullies at the heart of Reading Labour than I was.

Well, it doesn’t much matter what I think or feel about UK politics in 2017. I do hope though that something good can come out of all the crap, even Brexit. But it’s hard to be optimistic. I would say too that Theresa May is doing an almost impossible job not badly. I did know her when in politics – we represented neighbouring constituencies and went to some of the same functions.

I started learning Khmer (pronounced K’my), the language spoken by the overwhelming majority of Cambodia’s 13-million population, in January. I unashamedly plug the school, Gateway to Khmer, who do not know I am writing this. They use the CELTA method (those who know, know) and the teachers, all native speakers of Khmer, are not allowed to speak English to the students, even absolute beginners as I was in January. There is a strong emphasis on phonics and phonetics, a Very Good Thing in my view. It means I can PRONOUNCE yay! Well, trying to speak Khmer when all Khmer people seem to assume that if a foreigner is speaking to them it must be in English, and patiently try to decode your Khmer into the English they don’t know, has its moments of misery and frustration. But I am keeping on. It has been striking that ALL my fellow students so far, almost all USians, with the occasional Australian and Brit, have been Christian missionaries. Because all those people have it as a rule that you have to learn the language before you can do the missioning, so that is where the market is. I’ve learned a lot from them. My failings as a language learner so far are however all my responsibility.

September to December, back teaching in Phnom Penh. Also going to the gym and having adventures in sobriety, all part of my preparation for being old, which some would say I am already. Some days in Penang, Malaysia (go there! it's fab!), when term ended in December, followed by a lovely laid-back Australian Christmas with Andrew’s family. Thanks to them all for their kind and generous hospitality, and for the opportunity for Andrew to get to know his niece and nephew. Now we’re back, and I’m still here, still negotiating the Phnom Penh traffic on my bike with what I hope is aplomb.

See you in 2018.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

J.G. Ballard, 'The Drowned World'

The word "dystopian" has been over-used I think, and is not really the right one here - the world has lethally heated up because of massive instability of the sun, and most humans are living on bases in the Arctic Circle. It's a fable set in the future, and its debt to 'Heart of Darkness', to the seafarers' Neptune myths, and, probably, to the 'The Golden Bough' are clear. J.G. Ballard had an imagination like no other, and descriptive powers not often rivalled. The world of albino lizards, shrieking iguanas, and a booming, elliptical sun turning the fetid lagoons of England into stinking fire, is one that will stay with me. Although it is a bit 1970s album cover in places. Published in 1962, it has the sexism of that time. The Girl Love Interest, whose only point is to be decorative and look the heroine in a B-movie of the time, covered in jewels in a pagan ceremony as society disintegrates into savagery, is plain silly. And the "curly-pated mulattoes" who are the evil Strangman's voodoo hit squad are pure sub-Conrad. If anything, better than Conrad was though, because of Ballard's utter lack of pretension. Yes, really. He hardly ever lapses that way, and "real" science-fiction writers do it all the time. That's why Ballard left "true SF" behind, and began to write - something else. And I just LOVED that (not a spoiler in the unlikely event you haven't already read this) instead of rejoining the brisk uniformed squadron that arrives to mop up after the action and heading back to the Arctic Circle, where the only habitable places are, our hero turns and heads south, to madness and certain rapid death.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Sex-Pest Westminster

Royal weddings, Budgets, they come and they go, but the sex-pest culture never goes away, or so it seems. Here is my take on it, as one who is rather distant from Westminster these days but who knew it well at one time. Depressingly, very little seems to have changed. It may be that behaviour which was viewed as normal 20 years ago is less tolerated now, and if so that is a good thing, but no parsnips are currently being buttered by any of the fine words being spoken (and careers ended, often with spiteful glee) on this matter at present.

«It’s about power». Someone said this to me once, when I was fairly new to Labour activism. And of course, it’s true. I had come into active politics in the 1980s, late in the period when the Trots, aka Militant, were being driven out of positions, and membership too, of the party. Something of a Stalinist and tankie in my youth, when I studied Soviet history (“you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” was my take on Uncle Joe’s excesses in my student days), I would have worn those near-mythical ice-pick earrings if I could.

I’ve been a Blairite, and a keen disciple of the Chicago Doctrine (liberal interventionism, since you ask), since the late 1990s,  Euston Manifesto and a Gerasite, since. But that is another story.  I was a Labour MP for eight years, from 1997 to 2005, and that is part of this story.

As I write this at least two male Labour MPs are under investigation for alleged inappropriate behaviour towards younger women. Another, a member of the Welsh Assembly, is dead by his own hand, following similar, but non-specified, allegations. At least two male Tory MPs are similarly under investigation, and at least one of them has claimed he has no idea what the allegations against him are all about. Michael Fallon has resigned as Defence Secretary because of instances of alleged inappropriate behaviour towards women in the past.

That’s just in politics. I say nothing of the men with high-flying and celebrity status in other walks of life (not of course the late Jimmy Saville, who was a special case in more ways than one) who have been variously dumped from their careers, driven out of public life, and in some cases are doing or have done prison time, for behaviour that was normal and unexceptionable, if deplorable, at the time they engaged in it, although not usually popular with the mainly young women at whom it was directed. The late John Peel got away with the same behaviour, self-confessed, and it is not clear why; perhaps he died before the mood changed, when only women and children were victims. He remains a secular saint. His widow is called Sheila, and that is how he referred to her in his later years; earlier in his career (though after he was famous) he always called her “The Pig”. That’s how it was, and that’s how it remains, despite fine words to the contrary.

It’s about power. Not about sex. If men with power truly acknowledged the women they associate with in professional life, they would not behave in these “inappropriate” ways – the hand on the knee under the table, the hand up the skirt where no one can see. We’ve all been there, girls. And most of us didn’t complain, because we knew exactly how seriously we’d be taken – and we also knew that it wasn’t about sex. Those men weren’t besotted with us. They didn’t want to have affairs with us. We were objects, to them. Young flesh, to be squeezed and then discarded. A clear message, in case we ever got the idea, once we were working in junior roles as researchers and assistants and so on, that we might one day play an equal part in professional life with the men. Oh no. Not you, girl. And we were the ones who persisted, who insisted that we too could be journalists and technicians and business executives, and, yes, MPs. How many more went away forever discouraged?

It’s about power. And so it is in today’s Westminster. I saw a government minister fall off a bar stool, having just made a grab for the rear of a passing female colleague. Who got into trouble with the Whips? You guessed it: the female colleague. In the 21st century.

I notice that former Labour Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, a person who got her parliamentary seat through nepotism and who has no discernible personal, political or intellectual acumen or  merit, said recently that the appointment of female senior Whips by Labour in government was intended to protect female colleagues from the kind of behaviour mentioned above. Was it, Hilary? Was it really? Didn’t work then, did it? Tell it to the family of the late Fiona Jones MP, hounded into oblivion and early death by her own Labour Party. For goodness’ sake, I was subjected to sexual assault by a fellow Labour MP myself. I knew better than to complain. It was done, not because said MP was bowled over by my charms, but because I wouldn’t be under his thumb. That’s how it is. Not about sex, but about power.

So don’t give me your pious bleating about inappropriate behaviour, girls and boys. Women in politics are routinely subjected to savage bullying and psychological torture, at least as much by women in power (yes, you, Hilary Armstrong) as by men. Read Harriet Harman’s excellent memoir, ‘A Woman’s Work’, if you don’t believe me. It’s not about sex, but about power.

An illustration: several MPs attended a lunch hosted by a defence minister in the then Labour Government. That minister let slip that he believed there “was no such thing as Gulf War syndrome” (post-traumatic stress disorder, as it would now be called, suffered by military personnel who had served in the Gulf – this was before the 2003 action in Iraq). This statement by the defence minister reached the attention of the media. Before it had become public, the other (female, Labour) MP present on the occasion, and I, had received letters from the Chief Whip instructing us to inform the media that the minister had said no such thing. Lie for us, girls. Lie down.

When I was the unwilling witness to sexual shenanigans involving a (female, Labour) MP and a military officer while on a parliamentary visit, my recounting of which tale on my return prompted a story in the News of the World headlined ‘Woman On Top’, I was contacted by a party apparatchik and instructed to tell the media the story was untrue. I declined. Because it was true. This was and is normal.

It’s not about sex. It’s about power. Why do victorious troops in war rape their victims, men as well as women?

Men are being made victims now, too. I take no pleasure in that. I thought, decades ago when I was a young feminist, that these battles would have been fought and won by the time I was the age I am now. I was wrong about that. But power can be fought for, and won, while treating opponents with decency and respect – can’t it? I’m not seeking a Milly-Molly-Mandy world of impossible saccharine niceness. I know that a measure of ruthlessness is necessary in politics. If I have a criticism of Tony Blair it is that he lacked it, rather.

Decency and respect. It would be nice to see it tried.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Sarah Gainham, 'Night Falls On The City'

A long read, and a powerful and intelligent one. Of course, we know the story, and we know the ending "this man Hitler, they say he is dangerous". But the milieu (an actors' troupe in Vienna in WWII) is interesting, and the characters subtly and compellingly drawn. I found it quite mesmerising, and am not sure why Gainham is not read any more. (She lived most of her life in Austria, and died there in 1999. This book was published in 1967, to great acclaim at the time, and is a love song to Vienna as perhaps a native Viennese could never write it). She is wonderful on place and atmosphere - the claustrophobic Vienna apartment; a village church in the Tyrol as war is declared and the sound of the boots of the "young men at the back of the church ... it was for them the prayers were meant, the young who would be sacrificed". One character says, in what could be the book's slogan, "There is nothing we can do, except survive."

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Ken Clarke, 'Kind of Blue'

An accomplished, and at times very interesting, political memoir from a politician who said he would never write a memoir. No surprises here, but why would there be, from one of the few politicians of any party who is instantly recognisable by the public, and whose views are well known by everyone – or so we the public think. There is a bit too much I Was Right All Along, but you always get that with political memoirs. Ken Clarke seems, it emerges from this book, to have been oddly distant from most of his family for most of his life. His marriage, he says, was a long and happy one. He mentions outings with his son during the latter’s boyhood, and says family holidays were always enjoyed, but nothing more. This is contrary to the public image Ken Clarke has always had, but then this is true for almost all politicians.

He is not perhaps a very complex political thinker, but complexity is not a virtue in a politician. He is not dull, and dullness is most certainly a vice in one. He is an admirer of Iain Macleod, who was Foreign Secretary at the end of Empire, and who was criticised, Clarke says, for giving the British Empire away, which he says had to be done “if we were to avoid the post-colonial wars in which the French had been immersed”. Well, I guess. But we did have them, in Malaya and Cyprus, and Burma wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, and there was that little matter of Partition in India, and – oh, please yourselves.

On Europe, of course, Ken’s position is clear and well known, and he has never wavered from it. (Not always a good sign in a potential political leader: ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeremy Corbyn). Ken Clarke is the go-to pro-European Tory, and that being so it is perhaps surprising that he has been in Tory governments as much as he has. Here at least he has the benefit of clarity, and it is welcome: “People had been told that the Community was intended to be a free-trade area only, without any political commitments. This is wholly without foundation; a total fiction.” Thanks, Ken. That’s how I remember it too.

He can be patronising, especially to women: the In Place of Strife debate “did succeed in bringing the best out of Mrs Castle as a parliamentary performer”, which seems at best unfair to Barbara.

The title, ‘Kind of Blue’, is a splendid one for the memoir of a jazz-loving Tory who has often seemed semi-detached from the party. But of course he never was so. He was, and remains, a true Tory. Another reviewer has remarked that his memoir shows Clarke, surprisingly to the reviewer, to “lack empathy for the poor”. Well, of course he does. He’s a Tory, innit.

“The Thatcher government never cut public spending on any mainstream public service such as health, education or welfare”, he proudly asserts. If he says so, and in monetary terms I am quite sure that this is true. But it is not how it felt at the time.

He can be waspish. He appears to have got on rather well personally with Margaret Thatcher, despite their sometime differences and their avowed occasional stand-up rows. He says his losses of temper on those occasions were acting, as his temperament is too equable for them to have been real. And also that “Margaret Thatcher was always very lucky in her political opponents.”

On the NHS (after all he was Health Secretary for quite a long time), he says “there would be riots if we were plunged back now into an NHS that looked as it did in the 1980s”. Probably true. But that would also arguably be true of a lot of other aspects of society in the 1980s – when there were quite a lot of actual riots. But for myself, having lived outside the UK now for over 10 years and experienced a health service which is probably the best in the world (the French), I’m quite surprised nobody riots now at the abominable care they receive.

He points out, perhaps rather irritatedly, that his shoes are not Hush Puppies, but are hand made by Crockett  and Jones in Northamptonshire. Shoes are often an issue in politics (leaving aside the current prime minister) – I had some yellow Clarks suede desert boots I was rather fond of at one time when I was an MP, and used to wear them when out knocking doors as they were comfortable and took me many miles with never an itch or a rub or a blister, and was roundly castigated by the local LibDems for wearing them. I was never quite sure why. I always liked them. I wish I still had them now.

A word on Ken Clarke the politician – we were colleagues in the House, and although we never had anything much to do with each other he always knew my name when we passed in the corridor – and why should he know the name of a humble and obscure Labour (then in government) back-bencher? Well, because politics. Fibromyalgia is a health issue which is a very severe and debilitating one for those who suffer, and there are many local support groups for sufferers, usually membered by the sufferers themselves and their immediate families. I was often surprised by the energy and fortitude displayed by the fibromyalgia lobby, this being the case. The two strongest local fibromyalgia support groups in England were in Reading (which I represented) and in Nottingham (which Ken did). I therefore found myself chairing the group, and most of its meetings. True to form, the other Reading MP, Martin Salter, trumpeted in the Reading media that he was “spearheading” the lobby for fibromyalgia sufferers. However, Salter was so rarely in the House, choosing to spend most of his time in the Reading constituency that I and not he represented (the reasons for that are a matter for mental health practitioners rather than for politicians I fancy) that he did not actually attend any of the meetings. Ken Clarke also rarely attended, but he had better excuses, with front-bench and other responsibilities Mr Salter has never had. Whenever he could not attend he would put “on the board” (an actual pinboard at the time that MPs could use to send each other direct written communications) for me any communications from his constituents he thought relevant for the meeting, always with a handwritten compliment slip from Ken. Good politics, man. The other Nottingham MPs were similarly assiduous, but it was only from Ken that I got the “on-the-board” letters – and these are delivered personally to the Member addressed, by the House badge messengers, rather than going through the internal mail system office to office.

Of his time at the Ministry of Justice, which seems not to have been a very happy one, he notes that all three of his challengers on law and order matters, namely David Cameron’s erstwhile director of communications Andy Coulson, Michael Howard’s former special adviser at the Home Office Patrick Rock, and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, have faced criminal charges: Of the three, only Brooks was acquitted: Coulson did time and Rock has been convicted on child pornography charges. I suspect a very sweet moment or moments for Ken.

He doesn’t have that much to say about the Brexit referendum, perhaps wisely. His position is well known, and has always been clear. Always an advantage for a politician. He does describe David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum, which he says he discovered by reading about it in the newspapers in January 2013, as “reckless and irresponsible”. Which, of course, it was.

Ken Clarke doesn’t have much to say about the illness and death from cancer (lymphoma) of his wife Gillian. Perhaps rightly. He does say that when she died, in July 2015, a few hours after a bedside gathering of himself, his son and daughter, and his granddaughter, “We were devastated by the loss but I think that I was made closer to my children and grandchild by our bereavement.” Not much of a loving tribute to Gillian, I churlishly surmise. And is it my nasty suspicious mind, but WHAT does he mean by this: “I had lost my lifelong companion and beloved wife who had been so important to me in her more active days.” Is there more to come? Does Ken suspect there is?

He ends, self-importantly, with the Hansard of his speech in the Brexit debate. But then again, why shouldn’t he?

Ken Clarke is a kind of National Treasure. He knows this, and has built himself up to it over the decades. I’m not sure if he meant to shore up that image with this memoir. Perhaps he doesn’t care. It’s an interesting read, and sometimes a very entertaining one. I am sure it will be cited, in years to come. I am not sure it will ever be a political science text or a sourcebook. But then, why should it?