Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Syrian

I read this because she lives/has lived in Lebanon for many years and has written on the Middle East, so I thought a political thriller by someone like that might be interesting. How wrong I was. Clunky cliched writing, no sense of atmosphere or place, a love story that was embarrassingly unreconstructed (Boring Good Girl v. Sultry Man-Eater Bad Girl), and no disguise at all for the anti-Israel tract it actually is. Apparently Israel killed the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, she says, despite there being no evidence of or motive for this. Oh and Hezbollah, despite their Nazi salutes and gay-killing, are Not So Bad Really. Disgraceful.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Margaret Drabble, 'The Dark Flood Rises'

I love Margaret Drabble anyway, and this was no exception, and also a new development. It is a novel, and it is also a meditation on ageing. It is about three women (all her books are, pretty much) and, by the end of it, two of them are dead - not a spoiler. Other ageing people are there, and some younger ones too, who contemplate the ageing and approaching deaths of those around them with varying degrees of equanimity and fear. There is Sir Bennett Carpenter, the terrifyingly selfish old scholar, who doesn't seem to have much wrong with him but who is cared for in the Canary Islands by his long-term partner Ivor - of whom I hope we hear more, as he is very interesting. Francesca Stubbs, the "main" character, is still working in her seventies, and travelling around England as much as she can, staying in Premier Inns and striking up unlikely friendships.There are the indigenous people of the Canaries (or if they were not, how did they get there?), there is an Edwardian lady novelist, there are Jose Saramago and Yves Bonnefoy, and human selfishness and greed and kindness, and Midlands girlhood memories, and - oh, it's all fascinating, go and read it.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Anthony Doerr, 'All The Light We Cannot See'

Here is my Goodreads review of this book, historical fiction which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. No spoilers.

Very beautiful writing. I like historical fiction, and I liked the characters, but the character tropes - the blind girl, the good German, the precious jewel, are a bit of a cliche, are they not? It made me cry a lot because it was so beautiful, but all the time I felt manipulated, and was actually relieved when it was over. But I still recommend it, because it is compelling, and others may not respond as I did. I loved some of the themes - the voice going out on the radio explaining light, the model houses, the women. The little snails.The key, the bakery, and the smell of the sea. And how can a chapter even be called The Blade And The Whelk? Ah well, there it is. You can read my notes and highlights from Goodreads here too, I think - this is a new feature.

the only Jew in the village

Ben Coleman is Labour councillor for Fulham Broadway in the constituency of Chelsea and Fulham. A fellow ward councillor is Alan De'Ath, who is Labour parliamentary candidate for the Chelsea and Fulham constituency. More than 20 years ago Ben Coleman was shortlisted for selection as Labour candidate in Reading East. The shortlist was four. Three were men, and Ben was the only non-local. He made quite a good impression on party members, and picked up some nominations, and plenty of votes, among the more affluent wards and branches - the northern fringe of the constituency is on the edge of the Berkshire celebrity belt and contains several prestigious private schools, while in the south there are many low-income families in present and former council housing -  but ultimately he was unsuccessful. They selected me, and I won the seat for Labour in 1997 and held it with an increased majority in 2001, standing down in 2005 when a group within Reading Labour Party decided they would prefer a Tory MP to a Labour MP who would do the bidding neither of then Reading West MP Martin Salter nor of Reading Borough Council's Labour group. The seat has remained Tory, and MP Rob Wilson is likely to be re-elected with an increased majority on 8 June.

But back in 1995 Ben was sent on his way with good wishes and the belief that he would soon find a parliamentary seat which would suit his talent and ambitions. It hasn't happened, and I have no idea why. I have not followed Ben's career in recent years, though I had heard that he was a councillor in London. Quite a long time ago then Swindon Labour MP Julia Drown, who described herself as a friend of Ben Coleman's, said to me she had not thought, although she liked Ben, that he was the right candidate for Reading East. I got the impression that she thought he didn't have the common touch in sufficient measure, but I could have misunderstood. Whatever.

I am indebted to the eagle-eyed Harry Phibbs for his recent alert to a speech made by Ben Coleman in October 2016, apparently following an account by a fellow councillor of harassment that councillor had experienced outside a synagogue. In that speech Ben Coleman was highly critical of the anti-extremism Prevent strategy, introduced by the last Labour government (how long ago it seems!) and still in place today. He followed criticism by fellow councillor and now parliamentary candidate Alan De'Ath of Prevent as "Islamophobic", and also used the following words:

 “Sometimes people in the Jewish community think they are the only Jew in the village."

 For good measure he then said that concerns about anti-semitism in the Labour Party were “overblown”.

Well, I don't know. This stuff undoubtedly goes down well with those around JC. But with the electorate?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

War, what is it good for?

Here is my Goodreads review of 'War, What Is It Good For?' by Ian Morris.

It is an interesting and counter-intuitive piece of historical writing. Morris indicates that casual violence has reduced over history, and that this is because societies become more stable as they become more prosperous, and that they only become more prosperous once they have been subdued - by war. And that this has always happened, and probably always will. A fascinating read. He is not afraid of big ideas, or of uncomfortable ones; and that is always a good thing.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Robert Harris, 'Imperium'

This is a cracker of a read, as Robert Harris always is. A political thriller, and a courtroom drama, and while there are crucifixions and other kinds of torture aplenty, Cicero (for it is he the hero) does not perpetrate or get involved in any of them. Ancient Rome was bloody, but Cicero changed the world with words, and wit, and the lowest of cunning. This book, the first of a trilogy I am eager to finish reading, has been called "Labour in togas" and it's easy to see why. For anyone who was around the Palace of Westminster during the Blair years the parallels are unmistakable, and perhaps reveal more about Harris than he would like to have revealed. "If you find yourself stuck in politics, the thing to do is start a fight - start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through."

Rather fun on political hatreds, too. There have always been politicians who simply hate each other. Of whichever politician it was said "He is his own worst enemy" and of whichever politician it was said that he replied "Not while I'm alive, he isn't" - well, that has been around down the ages, and still is today. In this he gives the lie to the Stoics, of whom Cicero, it seems, was a fan. I certainly am. Epictetus, my hero.

Thursday, 6 April 2017


Now I am not a logician or a philosopher, but I know an argument that does not stand up when I see or hear it. I also know a person who is prepared to believe the impossible or the ludicrously improbable to suit their ideological purpose when I see one. There has been too much of this lately. Down with this sort of thing, say I. Example (admittedly from the deranged wing of the so-called left): Israel has denied licences to "Palestinian" fishermen to fish in the Dead Sea, thus depriving them of a livelihood and confirming Israel's status as an "apartheid state". There are people out there who actually believe this, and who have not been sectioned or otherwise dealt with by mental health services. There are no fish in the Dead Sea. Never have been. The clue is in the name, folks. The Dead Sea is so saline that it can support only certain microorganisms. Not fish. The Dead Sea is fed by the Jordan, and fish are carried into it from that river, but they die almost immediately. These are facts.

I remember a line from 'The Golden Notebook', the seminal political feminist novel by the late Doris Lessing, a great influence on me when I was young, where a woman in East Germany informs a (German) visitor from the West that " they [the West] have no consumer goods". She leaves, and he tells his (non-German) companion "That used to be an intelligent woman". So what is it that makes a consequence of the acquisition of ideological conviction a loss of the ability to think or argue rationally?

I was told by someone who when very young was tempted by the far-left political groupings of the 1980s in the UK that he was told by an activist, when there was a steep rise in the price of gold, that this would result in " armed workers' militias on factory gates". Er, no it wouldn't, my interlocutor knew. But the activist who told him so genuinely believed it. So this is not new. Doris Lessing was writing in the 1950s about communist activists and ideologues in the eastern bloc that she actually knew. The 1980s political activist really said that about the workers' militias (in Thatcher's Britain!), and really believed it. The "pro-Palestinian" ideologue condemning Israel for the Dead Sea meant what she said. None of these people are trying to fool anyone. They believe they know the truth, and they want others to know it too.

Is it possible to combat this? Has it ever been? I only ask.