On Harshness Signalling…

The French “burkini” ban is completely pointless – completely pointless, that is, if taken at face value. It will do nothing to combat Islamic jihadism or Islamic totalism – targeting, I suspect, women from more liberal families than many others in France (because they were, after all, allowed to go down to the beach a swim). What it might, and what I suspect that it is meant to do, is convince a few National Front voters that the ruling class is conservative and deserving of support. In what the anonymous commentator FakePlasticTrees calls “harshness signalling” politicians present themselves as being tough, unsentimental and courageous statesmen while doing little to oppose the criminal and ideological trends that would be better dealt with at the border, in “Sensitive Urban Zones” and at Salafi mosques. There have been some efforts in this direction but they have to far more challenging and wide-ranging than this stupid symbolic measure, which will do nothing except discomfit a few women who wanted a swim and open an unneeded front in the culture war.

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Moral Philosopher

Like Cook or Columbus
You discovered virtue.
Your civilisation.
Your own America.
You have built a palace.
You have taken slave girls.
You have built an empire
Across beautiful sands.

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Getting Rid of Books…

I am on holiday in England, at my parent’s house, and am throwing out some of the old books that I had left with them. I have hundreds here: the result of a childhood and adolescence spent rummaging through charity shops in search of the amusing, provocative and enigmatic. I was something of a book bore, attracted not just to the contents of the things but to the act of buying them: the sense of mystery and history; the smell of cellulose and lignin.

Different books inspire memories of times I spent with them: the dog-eared copy of Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk that I bought for a holiday in Yorkshire, aged 14, and read with a sort of admiring bemusement; Camus’ The Outsider in paperback, which I read in the rehearsal rooms of my local theatre as a troupe of teenage girls devoured Harry Potter; Fred Trueman’s autobiography, passed down to me after the death of a cricket-mad great uncle whose shelves I had long admired.

Other books remind me of old obsessions. There are the huge, grim World War 2 books that I seized as a young boy. There are the cricket books with which I could have paved the field at Lords. There are books by the Chomsky, Pilger, Curtis, Said and Karl Marx, which bring back awkward memories of my teenage leftism. Other books are even more peculiar. I have flirted sympathetically with paranormal research but what did I hope to get out of The Case for Astrology? I have a somewhat pessimistic outlook on life but what attracted me to a book called Why Suicide? And how did I ever get hold of a giant medical encyclopedia from the 1930s? (It says the main harm of smoking is its impact on one’s eyes.)

Some books had a more significant effect on me. I recall a left-wing columnist, at a London book-swap, handing me a copy of John Gray’s anti-humanist Straw Dogs with words of dark but intriguing disapproval. I read it on the train home and felt like I was peering through a window onto a new, fascinating level of perception. I grew almost misty-eyed on seeing my first Calvin and Hobbes anthology: an introduction to a series that did much, and does much, to brighten my existence.

At some point, when I was young, I made a valiant attempt to bring some order to my bookshelves, making sections for “crime”, “humor”, “plays”, “poetry”, “American fiction”, “English fiction”, “world fiction” and “politics” (with “cricket” spilling out across its boundaries). Nonetheless, I wonder if the sheer eclecticism of my reading doomed me to be somewhat dilettantish. Hopping across genres, and between high and low culture, it was easy to form knowledge that was broad yet shallow. I had a great time, though. In my bedroom I could trek about the world, and through its history, meeting all kinds of people, with all kinds of experiences, and all kinds of ideas, from Winston Churchill to Winston Smith, Henry VIII to Humbert Humbert and Jesus to Jim Laker. I would be bored and dull without such a childhood behind me.

Still, what can I part with? Val McDermid can go but Ian Rankin must stay. Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman can be dispatched to the Red Cross but I will keep The Female Eunuch in case I need it for reference. Will I ever read Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic and The Religious? Doubtful, yes. But possible. Possible. Will I ever need my Biggles books again? Probably not. But it’s still hard to let them go.

Posted in Books, Literature, Personal, Uncategorized | 3 Comments


A book is marked:
(Slightly damaged).
I imagine:
(Total bollocks).

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Superficialities of Style…

In “A Criticism of Life”, the first essay of his spirited, pugnacious and sometimes disagreeable collection In Defence of T.S. Eliot, Craig Raine presents a rousing and convincing case for literature as an act of “measured consideration” that provides “focus, sharpness, magnification [and] intensification” to reality. Like other critics, such as Martin Amis in The War Against Cliché, this leads him to put great emphasis on style: the precision and the power of words.

I think that such critics are often too admiring of too little. One of my bugbears is their enthusiasm for a certain kind of metaphor: that which tells us that one object looks like another object. In the preface to his aforementioned book of criticism, for example, Amis refers to “the twin tepees of his flared trousers”. “Nice,” said one reviewer, and it is a cute comparison. Enough to make one smile. But does it focus, sharpen, magnify or intensify our perceptions of life? Well, no. It tells us nothing new about flared trousers, and we didn’t need to know much about flared trousers to begin with.

This isn’t Amis’s fault. It wasn’t meant to be profound insight and certainly enhances an average sentence. But in his book Raine is enamoured of this stuff. He says, in the worst example, that “few writers note things better than Nicholson Baker” and offers as proof his reference to his baby’s vulva as her “captivating little coffee bean”. Again, the comparison is counterintuitive, and there is pleasing alliteration, but does it look like a coffee bean, is “little” not redundant and, more significantly, what does such a comparison add to our pleasure, our knowledge or our imagination? Only that two dissimilar things look a little alike. If am going to tune in to a man’s most intimate observations of his baby daughter I want a bit more than that. Literature should enrich our perceptions. It should not merely add to them.

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A Diversity Paradox…

I was morbidly amused to see, towards the end of a BBC article on the murder of an Ahmadi Muslim by a Sunni Muslim, in Glasgow, for alleged blasphemy, a reference to a spokesman of the Council of Mosques in Bradford who has implied that the whole business could have been avoided if Britain had done the sensible thing and imposed a blasphemy law. This sinister, self-serving claim illuminates the fact that multicultural societies can become more rigid and intolerant, on some matters at least, than more homogenous societies, in order to keep its different elements from conflicting. In this case I hope that our spines will stiffen.

Posted in Britain, Multiculturalism | 2 Comments

Two Poems About Brave People…

Poem for Szmulek Goldberg and His Girlfriend Rose

In the ruined sports hall you danced
Amid the rubble. Darkness falls.
Still that spirit lights our struggle.

Poem for Rita Atria

The truth was not enough.
Courage was not enough.
Belief was not enough.
Kindness was not enough.
Not there. Not then.
But it was still something.

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