Absolution by Olaf Olafson

Absolution by Olaf Olafson

A book by Olaf Olafson about Pétur Péturson might be thought likely to be Nordic or Scandi Noir, but while this story is partially set in Iceland and Denmark its theme is international. This is the story of a life lived badly, the story of man who was materially successful but whose soul was lost.

I can say only a little in a book review, as to reveal too much would mar the experience for a future reader. Suffice to say it starts at the end of Pétur Péturson’s life. He has died wealthy and alone and left a manuscript detailing how a “little crime” in his youth has followed and burdened him throughout his life.

This aspect of the book is gripping. It reads like a thriller as we try to work out the crime, the victim and the motive. As he gradually reveals the history of his life we start to know what crimes he has committed and these are not only those that he confesses; in his braggadocio he reveals crimes that he does not recognize as his responsibility. As a non-believer he reports that he seeks no absolution and sees no need for atonement but his desire and need for both become apparent to the reader as the story progresses.

As we try to understand the nature of Pétur and his crime we become aware of a very black-hearted individual riven with jealousy, lust and anger and this is where the power of the novel lies. Although it concerns a lying, cheating, greedy man who is almost the epitome of a bastard, it is written in such a way that we can understand these feelings and even see part of ourselves in them. We may dislike Pétur, but we don’t hate him and by the end understand him a little and hopefully also may have gained a little insight to where some of our own less gallant emotions arise. It is all very well to read about heroes and heroines, but we also need to know where our faults lie and what may be making us poorer people than we could be.

Those of you who are without sin, and have no baser aspects of character that need addressing, can still enjoy this novel as a gripping mystery. There is much that will hold your attention through to the end, where even the last pages may surprise you.

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

If you enjoy Rod Liddle’s pieces in the Spectator and the Times it is likely that you will enjoy this book. It is a short book and reads very much like an extended rant about the failure of our political system to successfully organize Brexit. It has all of the author’s hallmarks; biting acerbic wit and vicious but accurate satire. If you are looking for a balanced review of the difficulties following the referendum then this book is not for you, but if you want to understand the groundswell of anger that underpins the populist revolt we are witnessing in Britain then this book may well help you.

Although I enjoyed this book primarily because of the quality of the writing and the humour (It is laugh-out-loud funny at times) I would not want to give the impression that it is a comic piece. There is a serious thread running though the book which is treated appropriately and his arguments are well researched and supported with evidence. He describes a country riven in two with the metropolitan middle class operating the levers of power and the rest of the population feeling ignored and increasingly angry. This is a concern that many authors have recently witnessed, commenting on a growing gulf between the rulers and those being ruled.

This can be difficult in a democracy, because it can lead to the situation we are in now, where those in power do not wish to enact the clear result of a democratic process. Three years after the referendum we are no further forward and can only look back on a period of obfuscation, vacillation, and deception. Our rulers, the ones with the power (kratos), can not bring themselves to acceed to the voice of the masses (demos), and as a consequence democracy has been stalled.

This risk has been known for a long time. The reason requests for a referendum on capital punishment have come to naught is that our ruling class has always known that is was likely that the people would vote for its reintroduction. It was known that this would cause a democratic crisis, which could undermine the stability of our state, and thus it has always been held better not to allow a public vote on the issue. I am sure there are many in our ruling classes who now wish the public were never given a vote on the issue (even if they do call for a further Peoples Vote where they hope the mass gets back into its place and votes as they are told).

However, every crisis is also, in a way, an opportunity. The crisis we are in does give us the chance to look at our failing parliamentary system and its parties. The failures of democratic representation should prompt us to consider ditching our unfair “first past the post” system and jettisoning our archaic ‘House of Lords’. Hopefully, we will also see new parties (Perhaps the SDP)created to replace our moribund Labour and Conservative parties which no longer function, having abandoned their traditional support. Ironically, if we do manage to extricate ourselves from the EU we can also look at re-balancing our economy, reconsidering whats is the role of the state or of the private sector, and aim for an economy which benefits our citizens rather than being perpetually governed with the aims of big corporations in mind. We could look at issues such as immigration, not from the viewpoint of capital but from the viewpoint of the immigrant and the communities they live within. There are many, many opportunities.

These are the opportunities of ‘Lexit‘, a left-leaning case for leaving the EU. Those unfamiliar with this argument might find this book useful as it is a major theme in the book and the Lexit case is well expounded. You could discover the arguments, find a lot of information about the EU of which you may have been unaware, and have a good laugh at the same time. As with all good satirists, sometimes the most serious of ideas are conveyed best by the most humorous of lines.

4 out of 5 stars

McMindfulness by Ronald E. Purser

I was introduced to the raisin in the last few years of my work. Eating a raisin is often used as an exercise to explain the mechanics and theory of mindfulness. I, along with a group of mental health service providers, were invited to look at the raisin, smell it, examine its contour and texture, hold it in our mouth and examine it with our tongue and taste buds and through this, and some other strategies, learn how to be “in the moment“. We were being introduced to Mindfulness which we were assured was a new revolutionary change in psychotherapeutics; one that was scientifically based, efficacious, and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. It seemed that it would not have been wrong to say we had in our hands a not a raisin but a veritable panacea; a remedy for all ills.

This was not the first time I’d been introduced to the next great revolutionary step forward in psychotherapy. When I started working the physical therapies had just started to lose their lustre and the Freudian classical analysts had fallen rather out of favour. The Kleinians introduced Object Relations Theory which was going to revolutionize analysis and we all studiously learnt this. Around the same time behaviour therapy jostled it as the ‘true way’ before, via a detour through Transactional Analysis, it was relaunched as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT was then touted as scientifically based, efficacious and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. Transcendental Meditation (TM) came and went, somewhere in between, but throughout my working life it seemed that twice a decade a new bright and shiny panacea would surface to replace the older shabby panacea which had become boring.

Mindfulness is this decade’s new, shiny panacea. It is widely promoted and now is applied in many diverse situations, not simply as therapy for mental disorder but also in schools, workplaces, prisons, boardrooms and even for the existential angsts of growing old or facing death. It has spawned a $1.1 billion wellness industry. There are many books promoting mindfulness and inviting readers to follow them on a route to personal salvation through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This book, however, is not one of them.

McMindfulness
McMindfulness Book Cover

This book looks at the promotion of mindfulness in our capitalist society. It shows how ‘mindfulness’ has been severed and removed of its religious Buddhist origins to make it both saleable and useful in a market economy. The author clearly shows that there was a deliberate intention to “secularize” mindfulness to remove it of any taint of association with Buddhist practice and ethics to create something “spiritual but not religious” which would be much more acceptable to a western audience. This acceptability was further promoted by giving the endeavour a scientific sheen with a liberal application of neurobabble. There is a good review of the neuroscience behind mindfulness in the book which reveals how little actual empirical evidence there is – there is little more than there was for TM which was quietly dropped after large amounts of public money financed research into the mental health benefits which confirmed relatively minor and questionable benefits.

The book does not question whether the practices of mindfulness or meditation are effective. It agrees that these can have major effects but questions whether in their current form this is a wise way to approach them. Indeed, as an example it recounts how Anders Breivik, the right wing terrorist, used such strategies to assist his focus during his bomb and gun attack when he murdered 77 men, women and children.

Much of the success of mindfulness is touted as its ability to make us cope with our difficult lives. To help us deal with stress, to avoid the distress of disappointment, to feel calm in the stormy waters of uncertainty and threat. This is its major selling point to large organizations like Google, Facebook or the American Military. It can help create a calm unruffled workforce which will perform better. The military hope that mindfulness will improve efficiency with an M16 – ‘on the trigger pull – breathe out!’ This is a major aspect of the problem. It promotes the idea that the stress is all of our making, in our minds, a failure of our ability to cope. But there are many times when the stress is due to uncertainty, injustice or inequity and the emotions that these problems cause is the motive power for people to demand and create change. It is wrong, through mindfulness, to encourage people to tolerate or cope with these situations. Just as Marx warned that religion was an opiate for the masses to soothe their pain and subdue their needs for change, the author issues the warning that mindfulness is the new religion for capitalism with exactly the same problems.

As our society becomes increasingly secular there are still those who yearn for the benefits of religion. Mindfulness seems to promise this. However, shorn from all its Buddhist teachings it will never be able to fill this promise. Religions gave us ethical codes, personal responsibilities, moral duties and a call to action to create a better society. This strategy is to steal the clothes of Buddhism but to ignore its body and soul. You can put the clothes on but you will not suddenly become a Buddhist. Similarly, if one copied the communal singing, weekly meetings, and candle burning of the Christians you won’t suddenly develop a sense of personal duty and awareness of right and wrong. The rituals are the least thing of a religion it is the teachings and ideas which are at its core. These require to be learnt and understood there is no shortcut to them; certainly not through sucking a raisin.


Excerpt

When the book has been considering Congressman Tim Ryan’s conversion to mindfulness after his “mindful moment with a raisin” it continues

“Never mind how the raisin looks, feels, smells and tastes to a privileged congressman, what if Ryan had contemplated the farm where the raisin was grown by Hispanic migrants doing back-breaking work in the San Joaquin valley earning a cent for every two hundred grapes harvested, Reflection on the raisin could call to mind units from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounding up workers like cattle and deporting them. Might Ryan be cognizant of the smog where the raisin was grown? What about the water shortages, or the fossil fuels burnt to transport raisins from Central California to his Catskills retreat ? What about the grocery staff that unloaded, unpacked and stocked raisins on the shelf ? Would Ryan be mindful of the fact that the CEOs who run large agribusiness and grocery chains earn hundreds of times as much as grocery clerks ?

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

“How much is enough?”  is a deceptively simple question and one which appears easy to answer. It is also a perennial and vital question as many of our actions, as individuals or as societies, have as their intention either the reduction of want (when there is not enough) or the control of waste and excess (when there is more than enough). However, as this book reveals, it is quite clear that currently we really have little idea of “How much is enough?”

The book is written by father and son academics how-much-is-enough-skidelsky(in Economics and Philosophy respectively) and, in part takes as its starting point the 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In this essay Keynes believed that by 2030 capitalism would be hugely successful at generating wealth (which has been the case) and much more productive, requiring less labour, so we would all have much more leisure (which has not been the case). Indeed, as our wealth has increased so has our workload; it appears now that as we have more we also want more. We seem to have become an insatiable society and our wants no longer have limits.

“The question is: why do people who ‘have everything’ always seem to want more?”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 34). Penguin Books Ltd.

Some of this is due to the modern functioning of capitalism which valorises growth over all things. Growth and increasing consumption are the motors which drive our development. We assess our needs and wants ‘relatively’, that is, we determine our needs and desires on the basis of comparison with others. Our happiness and status arise from our position in relation to others, meaning that we will never feel we have enough and also meaning we will never feel truly happy.

 

“It is not just that we want more but that we want more than others, who at the same time want more than us; this fuels an endless race.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. viii). Penguin Books Ltd.

“The American combination of social equality and income inequality has since become the capitalist norm, leading to a situation in which every member of society is in a sense competing against every other.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd.

In an interesting chapter they discuss the types of good which will often keep this spiral of increasing consumption moving. They discuss “bandwagon goods“, these are goods that people want as everybody has them (e.g. Mobile phones, microwaves). Envy and social conformity drive the desire for them. Then there are “snob goods“, these are goods that most people do not have (e.g. exotic holidays, cult films). Here the desire is to stand out from the crowd. Often successful snob goods will change to become bandwagon goods. Then there are “Velben goods“, these are goods which are expensive and known to be expensive (e.g. Rolex watches, Apple watches). These goods act as advertisements of the owner’s wealth.

These trends to the constant amassing of wealth might not be a concern if we knew what to do with our wealth. If our wealth allowed us to live a “good life“, then it would clearly be a boon. If we knew what was a “good life”, then we would know when we had what we required to live it. In essence, we would know “how much is enough ?” We seem unable to agree on what constitutes “the good life” therefore we continue to want and seek more wealth without thinking ‘what is this for?” It leads into the danger of loving money and wealth rather than what they provide.

All the ancient civilizations and all the main religions warned against the “love of money”. It was felt to corrupt the individual and also all of their actions; from Aristotle to Adam Smith greed and the love of money were major problems which endangered society. In prior times, until our present increasingly secular society, religion could act as a counterbalance to capitalism’s drives – the fears of being thought a sinner through avarice or gluttony, coupled with the need to display charity, may have tempered some of the excess.

 

“Money is the one thing of which there is never enough, for the simple reason that the concept ‘enough’ has no logical application to it. There is perfect health and happiness, but there is no perfect wealth.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 75). Penguin Books Ltd.

The old civilizations of Europe, India and China all shared a basically Aristotelian outlook, even if it was not drawn from Aristotle. All viewed commerce as properly subordinate to politics and contemplation, while at the same time recognizing and fearing its capacity to subdue these other activities to its own end. All regarded the love of money for its own sake as an aberration. Such agreement between three great and largely independent cultures ought to give us pause.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 86). Penguin Books Ltd.

Unfortunately the brakes, that these older views may have given, are now off. Our consumption and growth continue ever upward. There is no doubt that this has pulled millions out of poverty and destitution and that there are areas of the world that still need development. However, developed countries are witnessing increased personal harm from this continued greed – alcohol deaths, drug death, obesity deaths all have increased as have prescriptions for antidepressants and anxiolytics – our affluence is not continuing to buy happiness. Further, our continued consumption and production of waste now threatens the very existence of our habitat and our species. If this book prompts more people to consider “How much is enough?” it will have served a very valuable purpose.

4-out-of-5-stars


“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”
Proverbs 15:17

 

Nuremberg. The Facts, the Law and the Consequences.

Nuremberg. The Facts, the Law and the Consequences.

As I am a keen reader, this is probably my primary hobby, I have been keen to consider the ecological impact of my pastime. I had thought that e-books might be the greenest option as they saved the trees and the water that went into making the paper counterpart. But after further reading it was clear that the situation is not as simple as this. E-books require a considerable infrastructure, as well as the manufacture of the device to read them, and also have a fairly large carbon footprint. It is sobering to think that about 10% of all the electricity used at present is used maintaining the internet’s functioning.

Fortunately, I was able to abandon my attempt to work out which book type was greener (this was proving almost impossible to ascertain) as I suddenly realised the simplest answer. The greenest book for me to read was and old paper book that was either about the house, or in the second-hand shop, as its ecological impact has already been spent when I, or someone else, first purchased it. These were now ‘waste’ and I can recycle that by reading them.

This also had a second valuable impact. I often find, when trying to decide what to read, that I get into ruts. I read similar books to ones I have just enjoyed, or I purchase something that is creating waves in the news, so I join the rut that everyone else if furrowing. If I read books I found in my own house, or in second-hand shops, my choice would be limited to what is available. It might throw me some surprises as someone else’s original choice may have been better than mine.

This is how I found this title. Nuremberg. The Facts, the Law and the Consequences.
This was published in 1947 just after the war trials and was written by Peter Calvocoressi. He had been a lawyer, and intelligence agent, who during the war had worked in Bletchley Park on the Enigma Project. After the war he had worked as a member of the British prosecution team in the war trials. The author and the timing mean the book is written with a great deal of first-hand experience and knowledge, when this knowledge was fresh and not tainted by the patina of retrospection.

It is a small unprepossessing book. Its plain maroon cover and small type face give little away but inside is a fascinating story of the development of the war trials. It is clear that the victors in the war were worried that these trials, though necessary, may be open to scrutiny as they could be seen as Victor’s Justice rather than following accepted moral principles. For example there is a chapter on the “Indicted Organisations“, as a lawyer, Calvocoressi clearly had problems with the “obvious difficulties in any allegation of guilt against a group as opposed to an individual” and this chapter is at pains to clarify why this would not occur in the Nuremberg trials. Further problems arose with the limitation of accusation to Germans. It was worried that the exclusion of the Allies was a risk, war crimes may have been committed by them too (E.g. Dresden, Hiroshima), but these were not considered. The Italians were excluded as the translation implications would have been considerable. There was concern that these exclusions may have made the War Trials open to criticism in the public arena. However, the morals and legality were openly discussed and debated. It appears that while there was an appetite for justice there was not, thankfully, and appetite for revenge and retribution at any cost. There seems to have been the recognition that, after the horror of years of war and Nazi atrocities, it was more important than ever to find universal principles of Law and Justice that we can all follow. I am glad I found this book as it would be a shame, if three generations later, we start to loose sight of these Universals, because as the author states “Principles become rusty if ignored

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books are often the victim of some snobbery. They are seen as the cupcakes in the literary patisserie; light, airy, and fun, but hardly serious. However, there are times when what you fancy is a cupcake and you don’t want anything too serious or fancy. These are perfect for a ‘by the pool on holiday‘ or ‘last thing at night to get to sleep’ read.

This one follows the usual formula –take a moral dilemma, populate it with some stereotypes, and join it together with a narrative thread. In Lone Wolf the dilemma is turning off life support in the setting of brain injury. To be fair it does air the conflicts that exist and does show the impossibility of being dogmatic. If it had stopped at this it would have been a respectable, workmanlike, novel but it unfortunately had to include a side story of a man who went to live in the wolf pack.

This part of the book was wildly inaccurate and exaggerated and did not serve to amplify any of the points of the main story. Indeed, if anything, it made the reader think ‘if she can be as gullible on this, how accurate are her other views? ‘. Rather like finding something hard, crunchy, and out of place in your cupcake.

If you are packing a bathing suit and heading abroad this book might be a good choice, but if you are packing an overnight bag for a hospital visit perhaps not.

For Esmè – with Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger

I didn’t choose this book because of its cover. ForEsmeWithLoveAndSqualorOh no ! I am not as shallow as that. I chose this book because of its title, or rather one word in its title – Esme. I recently became a grandparent again and my granddaughter was given the name Esme. This name was chosen, in part, because it was the name of the midwife who helped in the delivery and also as it was a charming and pleasant name in itself.

I had never met an Esme before and didn’t know anything of the origins or history of the name. Because of this, and as my son and daughter-in-law were debating whether this would be the first person in our family to have an accent in their name (either Esmè or Esmé), I was seeking information on the name. During this I discovered this collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger.

J.D. Salinger has rather fallen out of favour of late and, were it not for “Catcher in the Rye” he is rarely on reading lists now. This is a great shame as this collection of short stories  will be overlooked by many people.

This book is a collection of short pieces. They are almost too short to be called stories and are little more than conversations between people. They are interlinked by their characters and the theme of the manner  in which adults and children interact. The writing is simply superb.  The dialogues are real and almost audible – you can hear these characters in your head, their accents and intonations – and the descriptions allowed me (who has no relationship to either the time or the place they are set) to be there and to understand.

This is a writer at the peak of their form. Though small these are not slight works and I must thank Esme (or Esmé or, perhaps Esmè) for having a name that led me to discover them. I’d advise you to do the same.

5star

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Over the last week I had a project to complete. In the lull period in the middle of lambing I wanted to extend our goat yard to create an adjacent sheep and goat pen, with hard standing and some cover, where we could undertake activities like drenching, shearing or foot clipping. We had a good area just next to the barn for this and all we needed to do was make planks and create a post and rail enclosure. While doing this kind of work I like to have a good book with me. It can be a handy companion when the work is laborious, or the weather turns foul. I found “Sapiens” by Dr Juval Noah Harari, who lectures in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and saw that the majority of reviews had been favourable. I thought it might be a good choice.

I was glad I did. This is a book written on a huge scale, as the title proclaims it aims to be a “brief history of humankind” and it does not shirk from trying to cover a broad story and starts millions of years ago with the evolution of groups of humans (Neanderthals, erectus, sapiens, etc) and the commences in the stone age. The bulk of the book concerns the last 200,000 years and sapiens’ history and covers the periods through the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the development of religion and money, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution. Obviously with such a large filed to cover he needs to use a broad brush. However, this keep the book readable and lively and there are many things covered which will challenge the notions that you had held of our past. Harari has a deft writing style and make difficult concepts easy to comprehend without, I believe, oversimplifying them. He also has a good sense of humour so even sections on potentially leaden subjects become enjoyable.

There are two main strands to the book. Firstly he proposes that “inter subjective realities”, shared beliefs that humans hold (money, God, femininity, Nationhood, etc) act as the foundations of our cultures and these and the cultural impact they have are what have allowed our species to develop to extensively. The second strand of the book is to remind us of just how recent the majority of this development has been: the cognitive revolution and the emergence of language started about 70,000 years ago, but the scientific revolution only 500 years ago, and the industrial revolution only 200 years ago. The last 20 years has witnessed, with the development of the internet, a further revolution with major changes in our species’ community structures.

There is a warning running throughout the book. There is always a tendency to view the world from the viewpoint of humans and to marvel at our progress, our expansion in numbers to every corner of the globe, the domestication of our animals and the taming of our environment. However, if one looked at the history from the viewpoint of other animals now extinct, or enslaved, by our activities; or from the viewpoint of other humans in our genus (Neanderthals or Homo floriensis for example) who we probably drove to extinction; or from the viewpoint of the planet as a whole; then the picture is not as rosy and perhaps history will not be kind to our species. As our powers increase, and our desires also, we have become a very rapacious and dangerous animal. Capitalism, our current stage of development, demands constant growth and expansion to generate increasing wealth and this growth is based on ever increasing consumption. Though there are many benefits from this growth, there are also many dangers, and it is far from clear that this system makes us happier as people. Our religions served us well in times of scarcity and upheld our morals, but they do not seem to have weathered the passage of time. We are increasingly rootless individuals, atomised and alienated, and requiring the state to replace the families and communities we evolved, as a species, to rely upon. In planning for our future, we need to know of our past as blindly ploughing on carries huge risks. As Harari ends his book :-

We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want ?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 415). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I finished the yard and the book in about the same time and, having thought about our species handling of animals, was glad I’d done something that hopefully will improve their lot.

National Populism. The revolt against liberal democracy.

National Populism. The revolt against liberal democracy.

This book, by Roger Eatwell and51PPqhzUq0L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_ Mathew Goodwin, deserves to be widely read. It is a sober and informed look at the growth of national populist movements  which have occurred all over the globe. It does primary focus on Europe and America and particularly on the surprises, to many, of Donald Trump’s election and the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum. However, its reach is much broader than this and it tracks the growth of this movement much further back, over two centuries, and considers its growth in very many countries.

Roger Eatwell is professor of Politics at Bath University and an acknowledged expert on fascism and the development of right wing politics. Mathew Goodwin (His PhD student) is similarly a Professor of Politics, at the University of Kent, and also a specialist on right-wing politics and Euroscepticism. The book they have produced is well researched and obviously the product of men with academic rigour. The ideas discussed and considered with good historical detail and opinions are not ventured without significant and adequate hard evidence.

This may sound as if the book is going to be data heavy, full of facts and figures, and in many respects this is true. However, in part this is why it is readable. Much of the data given is there to challenge the reader’s presumptions and to make them rethink what they think they know about national populist movements; whether it is Americans stunned by Trump, British people shocked by Brexit or the French worried about the Gilets Jaunes. The authors show that there are very many, largely well-meaning, myths held about these movement and present the data to show why these are wrong.

The myth that these movements are simply angry responses to the economic upheaval that followed the crash in 2008 is belied by their existence and growth well before that event. The myth, or possibly fond hope, that this is a movement of angry old white mean is not supported by the data on the demographics. The hope, likewise, that simply waiting for the more liberal young to grow and displace the more conservative elderly is not supported by the evidence. (There is data in the book to suggest that the degree of difference between the young and elderly in viewpoint is largely accounted for by a rightward shift in people’s outlook as they age. Rather than there being two different cohorts of people). Myths that these movements are simply fascist or racist trends are likely shown not to be in accordance with the known facts.

If we are to understand this movement it is important to know when we are wrong. We will not be able to preserve liberal democracy if we misdiagnose the threats that face it and, as a consequence, apply the wrong remedies. These are the types of failures we have seen happen in recent referenda. For example, in the Brexit referendum a belief that all this resentment stemmed simply from economic damage lead to a campaign primarily warning people they would be worse off (By £4000 a family) if they voted to leave. This was an error, cultural and political factors were far more important in the anger that was being felt, and had people listened they would have known this. There was even polling showing that people who supported Brexit would do so even if they were certain that there would be a negative economic impact to them personally. This lesson hasn’t been learnt and, still today, many of those petitioning for change of direction think that if they just point out economic hazards minds will change – there is little evidence that this strategy has proven any more successful second-time around.

The biggest myth that the book challenges  is that this movement is a temporary disruption and, as things get better (or through things worsening people see the light), shortly the status quo ante will be returned. The myth that this is an aberration and soon we will be back to ‘business as usual‘ is the most dangerous myth the book lays bare. Our political parties are no longer aligned with our populations political beliefs,  and thus the apparatus we have for running our democracies is out of step with the wishes of large swathes of public opinion. There is an increasing loss of connection between the electorate and the politicians, and it is likely populists from either the right or the left that will try and bridge this gap, and we should be surprised when we find that this continues to happen. The negative consequences of globalisation, and there ae many, have given a new fire to the ideas of nationhood and the importance of the nation state.

This book helps the reader understand this important strand of political thought and helps them correct some of the errors they may hold. It is a very valuable read in our continuing volatile political climate.

5star

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

I may have chosen to read this book even if it hadn’t been chosen by my Book Club. It is a story from the ‘Troubles’ in Belfast told 51Oyp+6sFzL._SL500_by a young woman from the republican side of the divide. As I grew up in Lanarkshire, in Central Scotland, where sectarian bigotry was rife; where we had red, white and blue painted unionist kerbstones on the pavements; where “F.T.P.” and “1690 ya bas” were sprayed on many gable ends; and where most childhood encounters started with the far-from-innocent question “What school do you go to?”; this is a period that captures my attention. So even had it not been chosen by the Book Club I would probably have started to read it. However, it is only because of the book club that I persevered.

Milkman, by Anna Burns,  was the book which won the Man Booker prize this year. It tells the tale of “middle sister” and her “maybe boyfriend” and their experiences in Belfast in the 1970’s. The places are never named though it is very obvious where they are. The protagonists are never clearly stated as the I.R.A., U.V.F. or British Army but are always easily identifiable. Indeed no character is named in the story, all are ‘named’ by descriptive terms such as, “maybe boyfriend”, “tablets girl”, “the international couple”, “third brother in law” and so on. This latter idiosyncrasy does wear thin after while but surprisingly it does help the story flow. I used to find when reading Russian sagas I’d be thinking “Which Anatolya is this one ? Is this Sergei’s wife or Anastasia’s sister ? ” This does not happen in this book there is never any mistaking who is “the real milkman” as opposed to “the milkman”. Indeed this was an interesting quirk which did give the character of overhearing gossip or hearsay to the novel.

The problem I had with the book was twofold. Firstly the writing is densely packed. A stream of consciousness oozes out with sentences extending over ten lines before meeting a full stop and paragraphs running over pages. Even just looking at the book it looks dark grey, there is little white space breaking up the text. I found reading this style hard work and fatiguing. Especially as some paragraphs were simply strings of synonyms or repetitions of the same fact slightly differently. It was taxing, tiring, very fatiguing, draining, arduous, exhausting, sapping and sometimes burdensome. There was never any doubt that Anna Burns owned a thesaurus.

After a few days, despite my best intentions, I hade made little progress and was ready, with some misgivings, to abandon the book. But it was the Book Club book and I’d have to discuss it the following week so I had a dilemma. I decided that the best course of action, one that I’d used successfully before,  would be to cheat – I’d listen to the book on Audible.

This was a revelation. After a few minutes I was drawn into the story. The narrator Brid Brennan was simply superb. Her voice, with a clear Northern Irish accent, brought a vitality to the text that I could not see when looking at the printed page. It was akin to sitting on a bus and overhearing a couple, seated behind you, relating a story. It was fascinating to hear despite being rambling, discursive and overinclusive. It really did bring out the paranoia and illogicality of living in sectarian areas in the middle of periods of strife.

It is strange that this book is so different in the two differing media. I could hardly recommend it as a book to be read. But as the script for a radio drama, or other production, I could hardly recommend it strongly enough. At first when I had noted that  it had won the Man-Booker Prize I thought of emperors and their new clothes. I thought perhaps it is a book aimed at writers rather then readers. But having listed to it I realise I was wrong and this clearly is work of a very talented author. I may go back and try and actually “read” the book but I am content to know that I “listened” to it and enjoyed it.