On Political Obstinacy

Not gonna!

There’s an arresting moment in Bob Woodward’s book about the first few years of the Trump White House, Fear: Gary Cohn, the President’s Director of the National Economic Council, is briefing Trump about the shape of the American economy. Cohn and his fellow senior advisors have each found themselves spending a lot of their time with Trump on what they consider to be “the basics”. This time, Cohn is trying to explain the way in which the American economy is now heavily based on services:

“Who’s your one retailer in the Trump Tower?” [he asked.]

“Starbucks,” Trump replied. “And a restaurant in the basement. Oh, and two more restaurants in the basement.

“Exactly,” Cohn said. “So your retail space today is services.” [p. 136]

This appeal to Trump’s own personal and financial experience does not bear fruit: the President continues to insist that the people who voted for him in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia want their manufacturing jobs back, and that it would be a virtue of his administration were it to oblige. From Cohn’s perspective, this is madness: “there were towns 100 years ago that made horse carriages and buggy whips. […] They had to reinvent themselves,” he pleads [p. 137]. Still Trump will not budge. Cohn digs out data that demonstrates the majority of job leavers are found in the manufacturing sector – and that they want to move into services jobs which are perceived to be less arduous. Again, Trump restates his insistence on the need for mining and assembly lines, coal and cars. Cohn breaks:

“Why do you have these views?”

“I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for thirty years.” [p. 138]

In this moment, it’s possibe to perceive the centrality in our contemporary politics of a sort of faith. Trump is speaking not just for himself but for many others when he simply shrugs that he has the opinions he has because he has them. The man who rails most vociferously against fake news is, perhaps without knowing, here diagnosing why it is so prevalent and potent: because people want to believe.

The breakdown of consensus is not unique to our era. The developed world’s agreed set of assumptions and rules last collapsed in the late 1970s, and, in the Anglo-American sphere at least, was reconstituted after a period of great conflict in the shape of Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberal trickle-down economics. There is a reason that Thatcher thought her greatest legacy to be Tony Blair: he was evidence that she had created a new political faith through which, just as Eden’s Conservatives accepted the welfare state of the Attlee government, the Labour Party of the 1990s accepted the gospel according to Milton Friedman.

The problem with faith of any kind is that, held too blindly, it can lead to a sort of obstinacy. Faced with the 2008 banking crisis, George Osborne committed whole-scale to neoliberal austerity, in the teeth of ample evidence that such a policy prescription contributed to, rather than helped resolve, the sluggishness of post-crash economies. China chose a huge programme of state investment, and its economy continued to grow; but in Europe the most obvious object lesson in austerity’s self-defeating obstinacy was found in Greece, a country which underwent punitive reforms at the hands of the Troika. All that pain indeed had little effect: according to a recent report from the Centre of Economic Policy Research, “It is [still] hard to avoid the conclusion that any solution to the Greek debt crisis that does not fall on the shoulders of taxpayers several generations removed will require conditional face-value debt relief.”

Greece, of course, exhibited its own form of obstinacy, voting “Oxi”in 2015 to its creditors’ latest set of swingeing conditions. That the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, ultimately ignored the result of the vote and accepted the Troika’s terms can be seen in at least two ways: as a pragmatic, even honourable, acceptance of a reality that would, if denied, have hurt his countrymen more even than it hurt his own political career; or as a craven capitulation to the anti-democratic cabal of the European Union, which Greece came so close to leaving.

The notion of Grexit, of course, birthed the reality of Brexit, amidst the maesltrom of which Theresa May is straining every sinew to avoid following Tsipras in her approach to plebiscites. In so doing, she can only state and restate, after every set-back and rebuff, her commitment to honouring the referendum, to ending free movement and to finding a deal. Events – such as suffering the worst government defeat ever recorded in the history of the mother of Parliaments – insist she give ground, but, as a matter of disposition more than calculation, she cannot. Most obviously, this cognitive dissonance can be observed in her offer, following her narrow victory in last week’s no confidence motion in the Commons, that she and her government would engage in dialogue with the leaders of the other political parties. Despite this apparently conciliatory form of words, she spent the next week pursuing the same strategy – tinkering with the so-called Irish backstop and winning the support of the European Research Group – that had led her to the point of losing the support of the Commons in the first place.

Jeremy Corbyn, too, demonstrated obstinacy in the same moment. Unlike the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, he refused to meet with the Prime Minister until such as time as she “took No Deal off the table”. He has, perhaps, been vindicated by events – there was no dialogue to be had with the PM, as even Corbyn’s foes within the Labour Party, such as Hilary Benn, now admit. Indeed, and as Nick Clegg will attest, a lack of obstinacy in politics – an over-readiness to engage with one’s political foes – is, however noble or apparently yearned for by the electorate, very far from a virtue. Corbyn owes his position at the apex of the Labour Party to an apparent authenticity borne of never having changed his mind about anything. (The unstoppable force of Brexit, of course, is forcing him to move more than he ever has – though he gives every inch grudgingly.) Stubbornness can be seen from some perspectives simply as consistency. If one believes in one’s principles, why would one compromise on them?

Run, Achilles, run!

That word again, belief. We have moved, in the collapse of the old consensus, from a period of anonymous technocracy to one of passionate intensity. The truth about Brexit, however, is that at some point its purity as a concept must collide with reality. Likewise, erstwhile Remainers – whether appealing for a “People’s Vote” or an extension of Article 50 – at times seem to be raging against the dying of the light. MPs like Caroline Flint, who campaigned with vigour for Remain but now push for a deal at any costs with equal energy, are making a virtue of their flexibility – and in terms of practical politics there is much to commend their position. Where, after all, will faith in our democracy be if Remainers, like Tsipras, get their way?

The problem with meeting your enemy halfway, however, is that they may not move at all … and the mid-point between you and them will consequently move closer and closer to their position. This is how the UK has found itself so close to No Deal: that strategy of May’s, to retain the unity of the world’s oldest political party by assuaging the ERG, works only if Jacob Rees-Mogg is willing also to concede ground. If he is not, then May becomes Achilles to Xeno’s turtle, endlessly seeking to overtake her quarry but only ever getting closer to their position.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s obstinacy delivers him political dividends. Stubbornness is not without its benefits. There is, however, an absence in the gaps between the political poles at which May, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg sit: a communal space in which the common good is held and can be reached. Obstinacy insists on immovability, and on the mountain moving towards Mohammed. But this assumes politics to be a zero-sum game, in which the purpose is to achieve one’s own ends at any cost; obstinacy is certainly one means of achieving this total victory, but it is in so doing fundamentally selfish. In the defence of our current actors, the two-party system, in both the UK and the US, encourages this kind of exclusivity, and casts the pursuit of compromise as a grubby exercise. The electorate in both countries routinely bemoans the lack of bipartisan action amongst their politicians; but they have also traditionally and simultaneously complained that there is little difference between the two.

They do so less now than formerly, of course – because, on both sides of the Atlantic, parties of whatever stripe are defaulting to obstinacy in order to stay close to, or mask the truth or the weaknesses of, their convictions. This is digging trenches rather than building bridges … and the no man’s land between the two sides is being shelled for all to see.

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On Political Impasse

“Friendship hath the skill and observation of the best physician, the diligence and vigilance of the best nurse, and the tenderness and patience of the best mother.” Edward Hyde, MP for Saltash in the Long Parliament (elected 1640).

Edward Hyde in 1626.

In the summer of 1640, no fewer than two Parliaments received their summons from the Crown. The first was dissolved after three weeks; the members of the second were only formally relieved of their duties twenty years later, on the eve of the Restoration. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the very different fates of these two parliaments proceeded from the same fundamental problem: across the preceding half-century new pressures had emerged within the polity that the existing constitutional settlement could not contain.

The UK’s current situation resembles nothing so much as the mid-seventeenth century. On today’s Politics Live, the excellent Peter Hennessey described the European issue as “particularly fissile” – because it refracts so variously through different people’s sense of patriotism. We are not good at understanding others’ definitions of the patriotic. This, too, was the issue in the 1640s: for Charles, patriotism was owed primarily to the Crown, as the unanswerably supreme source of power and authority in the kingdom; for Parliamentarians like John Pym, patriotism was linked indivisibly with defence of the ancient constitution and the rights of the Commons; for others, such as the MP for Saltash, Edward Hyde – who began as a critic of the King but later, at the Restoration, was appointed by the monarch Earl of Clarendon – patriotism was about achieving consensus and compromise, and therefore protecting the commonwealth from conflict. The tragedy of the time was that the latter was impossible.

Last night, the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, tweeted on the subject of the decision by Her Majesty’s Opposition to seek the government’s collapse: “A no confidence vote solves nothing – we need consensus not party politics.” The issue, of course, is that the current government has proven incapable of achieving that consensus – and the Conservative Party from which it is constituted refuses to take the drastic action necessary to rectify this situation, for fear of its own fate. Many Tories calculate, of course, that a Corbyn government would be a disaster for the country – and so they rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Most do so in pursuit of what they have assessed to be the interests of the polity – their opponents likewise. The problem with patriotism is that it is one of the few things more mutable than the British constitution itself – and that makes it a very poor yardstick by which to measure the wisdom of policy. The Edward Hydes of 2019, then, find themselves in similarly hopeless isolation.

The Long Parliament ultimately entered into war with the Crown. We are at this stage – surely – far from civil war. We are, however, deep into the kind of political chaos which the England of the 1640s would have recognised. Partisans of every stripe publish pamphlets and proclamations; groups split and splinter with alarming alacrity; both utopian and millenarian visions of potential futures proliferate daily in the cheap press. The great student of these factions, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, argued that, in the brief period of political freedom inaugurated by the vacuum that had suddenly appeared at the heart of the constitution, “the lower orders could [now] collect together and discuss whatever they liked, with no control from above at all.”

In 2016, David Cameron explained in a speech to Chatham House, that he would hold a referendum on EU membership in which “it will be your decision whether we remain in the EU […] Nobody else’s. Not politicians’, not parliament’s, not lobby group’s, not mine.” In doing so, he made a mistake even Charles I, famously ill-suited to power, did not: under his stewardship, the British Isles fell into political chaos as a matter of design rather than accident.

Not Charles I.

Charles at least tried to force the constitutional settlement with which he was saddled to cohere; Cameron happily promised a type of referendum that actively ate away at his own. An In/Out referendum was always an absurdly stark choice, and the last two years have demonstrated just how foolish it was to commit simply to leaving the EU upon command. Given the complexities of the legal and political frameworks involved, “Leave” was always a contingent instruction, a direction but not a route. John Pym could not unravel royal prerogative without recourse to war; Theresa May has been unable to exit the EU without plunging the country she nominally seeks to emancipate into its deepest constitutional crisis in centuries.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory: that our political class, like Charles’s ill-fated advisors, Strafford and Laud, wishes only to have its way – and will seek to ride roughshod over any who attempt to stymie its will. In this vision, the Government could leave the EU tomorrow if it wished, and the Commons should vote against its instincts in an effort to honour the result of Cameron’s half-baked referendum. This paranoia is nothing new, and represents the long-standing wedge between the governed and the governors which acts for us in a similar way to that in which the increasing insufficiency of Tudor methods of revenue generation to meet the demands of Stuart expenditure and statecraft acted for our early modern ancestors.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians (2018), Isabel Hardman attempts to identify the ways in which we might heal “this endless hostility to MPs” (p. 171). Her prescription is based on the analysis that we don’t so much get the wrong politicians as we have inherited and maintained the wrong political culture: “far more insidious [than conspiracy] is the way [that even] politicians try to seem different to their colleagues by disparaging politics itself” (p. 211). The former soldier and backbench Tory MP Johnny Mercer is a good example of this breed, and they do not help. What, ultimately, is the solution to apparently insoluble questions? How do we as a nation change a general direction into a specific route? Politics. There is no other mechanism of conversing as a community.

“We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided,” writes David Runciman in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. This gets pithily to the heart of things, and Runciman like Hardman sees political (note: not necessarily constitutional) reform as the only long-term means out of our current bind. There are currently no good outcomes open to us: a disorderly, or No Deal, Brexit would be disastrously chaotic; overturning the 2016 referendum and remaining in the EU seems, well, cavalier in its subordination of the popular will to Parliament; a second referendum would be improbably fractious; a general election would simply roll the dice on the current parliamentary maths, and if polls are anything to go by would deliver nothing like a commanding enough majority for any party to push through a deal with any more success than May’s minority government has enjoyed. We have reached this impasse for reasons much wider than Brexit – the inadequacy of our political parties as currently constituted, the weakness of our legislature in comparison to the executive, the absence of reliable and consistent subsidiarity. Brexit will solve none of them; it is merely their ultimate expression.

Reform, too, would have been the better route in 1640. It proved impossible to take. We must hope than in 2019 we are more successful in finding a way to become unstuck. That effort must start in Parliament, with honest leadership that lays out to both sides in the country the uncomfortable truths about our system, and about Brexit, that the last two years have cast into the highest possible relief. There is as yet little sign that we will get that – but good politics is ultimately the art of dialogue. Edward Hyde knew what happened when leaders ceased to speak.

Albums of 2018

2018 was an unusually good year for new music. Janelle Monae, Courtney Barnett, Christine & The Queens; Kacey Musgraves, Julia Holter and Father John Misty: all released albums that were at the very least among the best of their careers. I also enjoyed new records from First Aid Kit and The Decemberists, Jackie Oates and my pal Amit Dattani. I didn’t even get around to listening to the latest from Cat Power, Arctic Monkeys or Darlingside – and in other years I can’t imagine I’d have said that.

So we were spoiled. I’ve stuck here, then, to albums I got to know particularly well – repeat listens always being a good sign for an album, but also offering the best position from which to rate a particular record’s quality. As usual, I’ve also tried to reward freshness or – dread word, this – originality, at the same time as being, as usual, hung up on melody and lyric as much as sonic palette or structural daring. With these caveats, and a re-emphasis of just how much good stuff was released this year, let’s have at the list.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

Meghan Remy is herself a U.S. girl, though she has lived in Toronto now for years, making idiosyncratic indie music under this joshing moniker for more than a decade.¬†In a Poem Unlimited¬†seemed to explode in a way none of her previous records have, and I think with good reason: it is much more than a solo offering, and a good deal angrier and grittier than what has come before. Recorded with more than a dozen musicians, the album feels like a collective effort, a sort of emotional mosaic expertly, and surely for the most part inadvertently, timed for maximum impact and relevance. “Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?” asks one of the album’s songs; and the joy of¬†In a Poem Unlimited¬†is that, out of the darkness of its context and across eleven tracks surprisingly that are danceable for compositions also so thoughtful and vital, Remy and her collaborators find a voice so urgent and compelling.

Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past

Prass is the only artist on this list who has featured before on one of my end-of-year lists. In all honesty, I didn’t expect this latest record to better that self-titled 2015 debut. In some ways, it doesn’t – there was something crystalline and searing about that first record that doesn’t translate here. That said, the seductive simplicity of Natalie Prass¬†would have been entirely beside the point on¬†The Future and the Past, a record that is a great deal more expressive and expansive than its predecessor – and which deliberately and satisfyingly explodes the chanteuse¬†pose that had threatened to imprison an artist a great deal more interesting than her production has previously allowed. From its avante-garde¬†funk-n-soul stylings to its pro-choice politics, like¬†In a Poem Unlimited¬†Prass’s second album is a defiant call to arms – but it isn’t quite¬†angry¬†about the issues against which it rails; the album isn’t sanguine, exactly, but it¬†is¬†joyous and empowered … and, in a year in which many of us did not feel that way,¬†The Future and the Past¬†was the best kind of tonic.

Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare

Seeming at times like the second coming of Ryan Adams (I know – even I’m not sure we need that), Louisiana native Craft’s second record is improbably mature for an album composed almost entirely of break-up songs. The Dylan influences are apparent from the cover art onwards, but are worn lightly and never hugged too close; the Father John Misty-style kiss-offs, though, occasionally grate. But there is an energy, lyricism and melodic touch at work here that has kept me coming back all year. Full Circle Nightmare¬†is in many ways the least essential record on this list, but it also has songs like “The Rager” or “Exile Rag”, which feel to me already like classics of their kind. What elevates these tunes is their healthy self-awareness: the album’s first and second tracks, for example, segue into each other perfectly, knowingly emphasising their similarities whilst also making perfectly apparent their separation. This is fair-dinkum songcraft, and shouldn’t be too easily dismissed. Stick this on your turntable, or wait a few albums until Craft has written his masterpiece and you’re way behind the curve.

I’m With Her – See You Around

I’d wager that I’ve listened to this record more than any other this year – something about the mix of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Watkins conjures something properly special in the songs here collected. The trio has been working together for some time – they chose their name long before Hilary Clinton chose her 2016 campaign slogan – but this is their first album. Letting the collaboration marinate has done wonders for the music: it is supple and tender whilst being pin-point sharp and precisely structured. The songs are glorious – “Ain’t That Fine” or “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” might be my songs of the year – but the arrangements are something else, never less than what each tune requires and never a scintilla more. The record easily tops anything either member has done alone – and that’s saying something, given the quality of their output (even Watkins’ previous stint with Nickel Creek has a pretender to its crown here). Wise and gentle, silly and smart,¬†See You Around is that new-best-friend of a record you’ve been waiting for – and which doesn’t come around all that often.

Anna Calvi – Hunter

Calvi has always been extremely highly regarded among the indie cognoscenti, and her live performances in particular have long boasted the sort of power we last saw from PJ Harvey in her prime (or from Annie Clark last week). But for my money¬†Hunter¬†is her first album to really hit its stride from the first note – and never let up. Sonically, it is a really potent mix of styles – more than any other record on this list, or all year, its melange is total, no one element of its sound easily discernible from another, achieving a seamless hybridity where lesser albums boasted in their stretch for diversity “the funk track” or “the electronic track”. Lyrically, it’s as incisive as Calvi has yet managed. But the album’s masterstroke is its melodic sense: though the record is full of sleazy sneering and gasping eroticism, its confrontational musicality never gets in the way of Calvi’s voice delivering crystal-clear¬†tunes with perfect phrasing and canny cadence. This makes¬†Hunter¬†the total package, and Calvi now rivalled only by Janelle Monae and St. Vincent in the current art-pop firmament.

“I¬†had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes”

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, which I read every Christmas Eve, Sherlock Holmes is at his most avuncular. He ribs Watson, teases Peterson and, famously, forgives the criminal. He’s far from the drug-addled obsessive of A Study in Scarlet, and devoid of the arrogant hauteur of “The Naval Treaty”.

This comes into particular relief in the audio play of the story which I listened to this morning: an adaptation from 1961, featuring Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson. This series originally began as part of the BBC’s children’s programming, and you can tell: although the tone is a drily sardonic one that it is hard to imagine a children’s play adopting today, Hobbs’s Holmes is about as threatening as an old slipper (and not the kind in which one stores tobacco).

If Hobbs’s Holmes lacks even the sense of danger given the role by the patrician Basil Rathbone, in “The Blue Carbuncle” at least you can forgive him. The story features to my knowledge the only image in the canon of Holmes supping an ale in a back-street boozer; the story sees the Master at his homeliest.

The trappings of Victorian Yuletide are present in all this, obviously: peace on earth, good will to all men, and all that. As the gender exclusion of that phrase implies, however, Holmes’s festive spirit isn’t total in its embrace. There is the distinct whiff of snobbery in his approach to Henry Baker, the down-at-heel museum worker whose lost Christmas goose sets the story in motion, and, when the great detective requires advertisements to be placed in the newspaper, he demands, of course, that Peterson, a man who wears a uniform rather than a dressing gown to work, should be the one to wear out the necessary shoe leather.

There are the survivals of all this in Hobbs’s clipped tones and air of assumed authority. But, whether tucking into a woodcock or wishing a barkeep good health, there is primarily, in “The Blue Carbuncle” in general and in Hobbs’s version in particular, a domestic humility one otherwise rarely sees in Sherlock Holmes. You even get a sense of why Watson might have put up with him all those years – he could, when in a good mood, be fine company indeed.

May those with whom you spend the festivities be similarly well-disposed to you, and as suitably warm-hearted. Merry Christmas.

“All The Colours of the Spectrum”: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”

I spent much of the weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and managed to hear five of the six shortlisted Booker authors speak: four – Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Richard Powers and Robin Robertson – appeared together on stage on the Saturday; the fifth, Esi Edugyan, was on Sunday interviewed alone by the excellent¬†Afua Hirsch. This means I’ve only missed Anna Burns, which is a shame – because for my money her novel,¬†Milkman, is in the top flight of this year’s shortlist. But it’s Edugyan, I think, who is the author to beat this year.

Her novel,¬†Washington Black, begins on a Barbados plantation known as “Faith” in 1830. The titular narrator,¬†George Washington Black (or Wash for short), is a young slave of around ten years old (“I cannot say for certain” [p. 3]), and in the opening pages he gives us everything we might expect from this sort of story: cruel overseers, caring-but-cowed fellow slaves, brutal work, distant memories of earlier identities (“If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland,” insists Big Kit, one of the older slaves and one of the few with knowledge of Africa [p. 9]). Very early on, too, Edugyan makes clear that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a cultural and social one – a means of production as linked to white self-image as it was any particular business model:

Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? (p. 8)

None at all, obviously. But that was not the point. Rather, slavery was – and, alas, can continue to be – as important in how it shores up, confirms and reflects on white supremacy as it was in providing for the ever-increasing demands of the proto-industrial economy. Very late in the novel, Wash will tell a white man: “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 405). (It’s surely deliberate that even Wash isn’t free of another prejudice of the time: phallocentrism.)

The corrupting influence of slavery as an institution, then, is one of Edugyan’s key themes. But in her talk at Cheltenham, she emphasised that she considers¬†Washington Black¬†a post-slavery narrative, one which shifts the emphasis from bondage to what happens¬†after¬†the bonds are if not slipped free then loosened, little by little over time. This is a wise vision of a novel such as this, since I have some sympathy with the criticism that the recent preponderance of slave fictions can crowd out important stories of other sorts. For the first fifty or a hundred pages of¬†Washington Black, then, I was impressed but uncertain: here was another brilliantly written novel of slavery which was going to rightly argue that the institution was wrong – and then move on. I was left feeling like Wash when he is first allowed by Titch, the naturalist brother of Faith’s master, to climb a hill in preparation for assisting in an experiment: “I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth” (p. 60).

Washington Black¬†is indeed very finely written. It has by far the smoothest, most controlled prose style on the shortlist. There is never a dip or a jagged edge, except where one is intended to be; every character emerges from the pages fully-formed and of crystal clarity; the characters’ speech reads redolently of their period without falling into pastiche; description is eloquent and evocative without being over-wrought; there are where necessary flashes of absolute wit and insight – “Mister Wilde had told me I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle” (p. 231) – and elsewhere, where appropriate, of more dilatory and yet no less apposite virtues. In one astonishing passage, Wash oversees the ferrying of live cargo across the Atlantic:

The winter crossed was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cover grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boats glistening rail to peer down at the strand old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea. (pp. 317-8)

No one line in this passage stands out, and yet the whole thing taken together reads as improbably moving. In boasting such complete control, but also in being willing to push its characters into situations which demand she move past the politeness of polished prose into something rawer and yet still beautiful,¬†Washington Black¬†is orders of magnitude better than Edugyan’s previous novel,¬†Half-Blood Blues.¬†It is much broader and deeper, following Wash in four parts from plantation to initial freedom – and on to, ultimately, residence in England – via a series of perhaps unlikely but never less than credible events. At each stage of his journey away from slavery – first as fugitive and finally as a “free” man – Wash perceives more and more a piecemeal process which at first had at first been invisible to him. Here is where the novel becomes the post-slavery narrative it prefers to be: in establishing clearly, but then not dwelling on, the depredations of the slave trade,¬†Washington Black¬†is able more fully to understand its legacies – and those individuals who might once have been a part of it.

Most importantly, Wash comes to live in a world still defined by white supremacy. He can achieve nothing without a white sponsor or benefactor – and, even when he finds one, his talents are co-opted by them without permission or second thought. A prodigiously talented illustrator, via Titch Wash becomes fascinated by the natural world, and marine biology in particular. He comes to make a huge contribution to that discipline – and yet, in the sort of act of erasure that the recent movie¬†Hidden Figures¬†made so palpable, his name appears nowhere close to the record of that invention. It will be remembered instead as the work of a white man, Wash having merely drifted from an explicit slavery to another sort of indenture. “I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive […] and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me,” Wash sighs (p. 337).

Not everything is perfectly balanced in the novel, however. Edugyan also said at Cheltenham that she was keen not to allow her white characters to become cruel caricatures – but rather to show how slavery came to erode their senses of self and personal relationships, too. In treating the figure of Titch with such care and even sympathy, however, the novel comes perilously close to centring the experience of a white man in a narrative about black slavery and emancipation. Prior to the moment at which she wisely removes Titch from the narrative, Edugyan cannot help but lead us, fascinated, by the nose in Titch’s wake. Perhaps we are meant to feel some of the unearned hero-worship Titch encourages in Wash, the slave he “frees” from the oversight of his master; but later in the novel Wash still believes that Titch “had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name […] His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it” (p. 406). This is an extremely forgiving vision of the scion of a slaveholding family, whatever abolitionist identity they may adopt in reaction to that practice; and there’s even something of the tragic to it, a poignancy which renders Titch some kind of hero, a figure of unusually poetic proportions who inevitably takes some of the narrative’s momentum with him when he leaves.

Crucial to all this is Edugyan’s concept of freedom. She sees it not as an unalloyed good so much as a tool we must all be given so we may be the person we truly are – good or bad. Wash is spun a story on the plantation by Big Kit, who tells him that freedom is about doing what you wish at all times. The novel is a journey away from that simplicity. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” Titch at another point lectures him, “as though I did not know the truth of this better than he” (p. 154); when Wash learns that the Faith plantation has been sold and disbanded, he comes to wonder about his old friends – “did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly?” (p. 183) ¬†We never know. What we are sure of, however, is that they will have been able, to one extent or another, to pick their path, unlike when they were held in bondage. “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice,” Wash later upbraids another character. “As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not” (p. 268). This, of course, is a calumny – and Wash is a proof of that, but one which the white scientists around him never quite fully perceive. Only in the Arctic wilderness where Titch’s father toiled in cataloguing natural phenomena is racism seen to be on hold, the exception proving the rule:

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man? […] Your Esquima, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant. […] He comes and goes at his own choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue.” (p. 203)

(No servant, perhaps; but he is named nevertheless by white men.)

Again, you’ll notice, Titch is the vehicle through which the lesson is dramatised. He is the crease in Edugyan’s philosophy, the anchored line that keeps the big ideas of her novel rooted a little too squarely in place. This is the primary reason I can see for the other big book on this year’s shortlist, Richard Powers’s¬†The Overstory, pipping Edugyan at the post. As distinct from what I still consider to be Milkman‘s unique qualities, both¬†Washington Black¬†and¬†The Overstory¬†feel like weighty novels addressing universal concerns – works which escape the particular.¬†I won’t have time before tonight’s ceremony to write up my thoughts on The Overstory,¬†but it is almost monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose. It, too, is a philosophical novel: in Powers’s case, the governing principal is environmentalist unblinding, the book as a whole a sort of arboreal DeLillo, an American epic following nine disparate characters through a twentieth- and twenty-first-century reckoning with trees (“a tree is a passage between earth and sky” [p. 57]). As one has come to expect from Powers, an intellectual novelist whose books are influenced very much by his previous life as a computer programmer – all flawless logic and clarity of parameters –¬†The Overstory¬†is as complete as a megalith. It has no ideological flaws or accidents, no Titch to skip disruptively through the text. It is insistent, oddly monomaniacal for a novel so gloriously baggy, focusing squarely on its vision of the necessary reorienting of our understanding of what the world is, of “what life wants from people, and how it might use them” (p. 494).

Perhaps it is part of this project that¬†The Overstory¬†is never quite human, however.¬†Washington Black, on the other hand, is only ever over-generous in its extension of sympathy, too readily understanding of individuals’ perfidy and weakness. “I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity,” we read at one point in the novel (p. 200), and it seems a lodestar for the book’s vision of us. The seminal line is given, of course, to the patriarch of a slaveholding family. I think it may be this clear-sightedness, but also this compassion, which wins Edugyan the prize this evening.

“More Beginnings Than There Are Ends”: Daisy Johnson’s “Everything Under”

When is a selkie story not a selkie story? When it’s crossed with Sophocles.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel,¬†Everything Under,¬†is this year’s¬†Elmet: the precocious, lyrical, off-piste British debut which the Booker is recognising to signpost new, native talent. A little like the English Premier League, the Booker, in the international perspective it has taken since 2013, has been routinely the subject of criticisms that it is failing to protect its own. No less a luminary that Peter Carey recently argued that,¬†‚Äúthe Booker prize has always had a very distinctive quality, which comes from ‚Äď I might not describe it as excluding Americans ‚Äď but has to do with what is still the Commonwealth, and the leftovers of empire, which still have a lot of cultural connections.‚ÄĚ It’s hard not to think that including a novel like this on the shortlist is one way that each year’s clutch of Booker judges feels it can pay homage to the prize’s roots.

This is not to say, of course, that¬†Everything Under¬†is without merit – it is stylistically supple and impressively atmospheric, all dun and muddy river landscapes and quietly desperate suburbias. Rather, it is to suggest that the novel doesn’t exhibit the maturity, the sureness of touch, that other books on the shortlist, and the sorts of book that traditionally have found their way onto the shortlist,¬†do. This is a novel which begins with the words, “The places we are born come back” – but at the end of that paragraph admits that “cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you” (p. 1). That is, within a few lines Johnson manages to mix her governing metaphor, between place and person. This isn’t an unforgivable slippage, but nor does it seem quite fully baked, either.

Take, too, the novel’s structure: its events take place along a jagged timeline, parcelled out in short chapters separated by time, place and perspective; these are never dated, and often seek, especially at first, to obscure their place in the chronology; they have vague titles which recur as the only clue to their purpose or significance (“The River”, “The Cottage”, “The Hunt”). Obviously this is designed to add a breadth to the narrative, as in Marlon James’s perspective-hopping¬†A Brief History of Seven Killings, or to confound until the crucial moment a reader’s understanding of precisely how the story fits together and plays out, as in Eleanor Catton’s jigsawish¬†The Luminaries.¬†But¬†Everything Under¬†sometimes slightly lacks the confidence to shift the voice too much – each chapter, whether first-, second- or third-person, reads otherwise like the others – and also not to include sufficient clues for the reader that by half-way it is more or less clear what is going on.

That is, the novel is never quite as mysterious as it means to be – and this is a problem, because what it aims most to resemble in tone is myth, legend,¬†faerie. Jeff VanderMeer has given the book an approving notice; it wishes to be, and can most usefully be read as, weird. Little Gretel and her mother, Sarah, are river people; they live on a boat and forage in the forests, keeping a watchful eye out for the approach of a water-dwelling monster, the Bonak. They speak their own language and stay away from outsiders, “as if the place we were moored wasn’t on the maps” (p. 61); Sarah seems to not be fully human in ways ineffable and never fully confirmed (“even mothers need to have secrets” [p. 17]). When another young person, known as Marcus, arrives in their small world, the pair find themselves in the unusual position of taking someone in. But Marcus has their own past – born Margot, and strapping themselves down with clingfilm and repressed guilt, he has fled his parents in order to avoid fulfilling a prophecy made by their next-door neighbour, Fiona, that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. When he arrives at Gretel and Sarah’s boat, he has already killed one man – another boat-dweller named Charlie – and his world is consequently all fear that Fiona will turn out to be right.

So far, so¬†Oedipus Rex. Just as in Sophocles, forgetting is key: Marcus, adopted, has no idea who his biological parents might be; Sarah’s origins and precise powers are dim and mysterious; Gretel, when she leaves home, spends sixteen years apart from her mother, and loses track of her entirely, spending a whole strand of the novel searching again for her. Most obviously, in old age Sarah suffers with Alzheimers. “Everybody forgets,” she told Marcus years before (p. 214) – and for her, too, it becomes true. But Johnson doesn’t quite do much with this. Marcus is forgotten, his fate erased from Gretel and Sarah’s knowledge just as his past and origins have been from the record. At the close of a novel full of quite awful pain, Gretel decides, “I must move on. I return to the office, work at my desk. […] There are more good days than bad” (p. 263). What does it mean that, unlike in Sophocles, tragedy and circumstance can have such little consequence?¬†Everything Under¬†isn’t sure, its ideas greater than its wisdom; and so for the most part it reads like a shrug.

The fusing of the Oedipus myth with the Selkie legend, too, doesn’t seem to go anywhere especially interesting. It’s a potentially diverting juxtaposition, but the co-location of the novel’s Oedipus cognate, Marcus, with a woman whom the young Gretel claims is “a sealady [… with] fins for feet and gills” (p. 146) appears to have no particular significance. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” did more to renovate this hoary old myth in rather fewer words (and covers all the ground Johnson manages, to boot); Kamila Shamsie’s¬†Home Fire¬†(2017) refigured Sophocles (in that case¬†Antigone) with more fluidity and clarity, too.¬†Only in the Bonak – a terrifying, shadowy creature not unlike M John Harrison’s Shrander from¬†Light¬†(2002) – does Everything Under create a truly memorable imaginative locus. The Bonak is a sort of wandering agglomeration of fear, a monster with not just a made-up name but one almost conjured into being by the sense of siege which characterises Sarah, Gretel and later Marcus’s existence. “Do you think we [… t]alked it into being?” Gretel asks Marcus’s adoptive father, Roger, at one point in the novel. “I don’t know if it matters,” he replies (p. 168); even the novel’s most effective aspects are afforded little purchase.

I’m more open than I am in the case of The Long Take¬†to the idea that I’m missing something here.¬†Everything Under¬†is a well-realised novel with something to say. But I also experienced it as too often clumsy, as a book which shows a lot of promise but which isn’t always flattered by its inclusion on the Booker shortlist (though its sales will surely, and happily, be lifted). Its relative lack of sure-footedness is perhaps most notable in its treatment of its transgender elements: not just in the siting of Tiresias in the gender fluid Fiona or in the switching of the Oedipus role from male to female (everything else about the figure’s experience is, alas, identical), but also in the manner and outcome of Marcus’s journey from being Margot to becoming the boy found by Gretel in the forest. Even when it is a novel intensely concerned with a deterministic view of human agency, does¬†Everything Under¬†really intend to be quite so biologically fixed as it ends up being? Sarah and Gretel define their own special world by inventing their own language; Marcus’s fate is sealed not by the gods, as in Sophocles, but by the way in which human patterns of thought are conditioned by the words given to us to shape our selves. But none of this, despite some invariably lucid prose and genuinely seamless generic play, seems quite considered enough – and, in the end,¬†Everything Under¬†meanders like a stream rather than roaring like a river: the stretch is beautiful in its way, but it might have been better for us to arrive later, at the confluence.

“This Whole City Is A Trap”: Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take”

There’s an episode of the venerable¬†Buffy the Vampire Slayer¬†spin-off,¬†Angel, entitled “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” (“AYNoHYEB”). It takes place in 1952, when the immortal vampire of the series’ title is living an amoral existence in downtown Los Angeles, passing through but not mixing with a series of avatars from the period: the out-of-work scriptwriter, the meathead actor, the sassy broad. The milieu is paranoid, informed by the Red Scare and McCarthyism; Angel first engages compassionately with these lost souls … and then, despairingly, gives up on them. “Take ’em all,” he sneers in the direction of a demon seeking to feed on the humans’ souls. Such is LA at the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood.

It might be odd that a work of epic poetry brings to mind a seminal forty-three minutes of network television from the earliest 2000s; but, certainly unknowingly, in his Booker-shortlisted The Long Take,¬†Robin Robertson covers much the same ground as “AYNoHYEB” writer Tim Minear: his detached, damaged protagonist, known almost exclusively simply as “Walker”, stalks the cities of post-war America – specifically New York, San Francisco and primarily Los Angeles – and consistently fails to engage with the people around him, even as he pines after a sense of community he at first cannot access and then, ultimately, sees destroyed. Walker is a Canadian veteran of World War II, fleeing the violence of a past which recurs to him, interrupting the free verse in which the majority of this “novel” is written, in italicised prose:

Mackintosh took up a Sten gun, shouting, spraying it like a hose at the Germans. He ran out of ammo, turned back toward us, then we saw how his chest just spat – then petalled open – and with a great convulsion he flopped down dead. (p. 160)

If it feels bathetic to compare the literary tale of a traumatised veteran with a popular TV show about a supernatural detective, then I may be conveying something of my feelings about¬†The Long Take: that it never quite justifies itself, never really leaves behind the stuff people have already said about the subjects it seeks to address. “Manhattan’s the place for reinvention,” we’re told at one point as if this is news (p. 17); we are asked to marvel repeatedly at the “Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians / even Hindus and Sikhs” apparently – guess what? – to be found in American cities (p. 43); and as the years of Walker’s narrative pass by, his beloved post-war cities change, “buildings gone, / replaced by parking lots” (p. 184), as Joni Mitchell very nearly once sang. For an epic poem taking in these years of great change in the US immediately following 1945,¬†The Long Take¬†feels curiously familiar.

In part, this is deliberate. Robertson is seeking to encode in verse the grammar of film noir – the hard drinking journos who work alongside Walker at the¬†LA Press, the quick-bitten dialogue in the bars and on the trams, the sense of despair and of place. Indeed, in its evocation of this grimy atmosphere¬†The Long Take¬†earns some spurs. You have to forgive epic poetry some water-treading – a number of its lines will always exist only to pass from one section to the next. But Robertson scores some big hits nevertheless, and usually it’s when he’s describing cities (Walker, a wandering psychogeographer before the genre was coined, has a thing for the built environment, its “straight lines / and diagonals” [p. 4]). The writing in these sections is often properly lyrical:

The smell of orange blossom on a Sunday morning
in the dead streets of Los Angeles –
the Spanish-style courtyard apartment complexes,
Mediterranean villas with arrow-loops, Mexican ranch houses
with minarets, Swiss chalets with fire-pits and pools,
Medieval-style, Prairie-style, Beaux-Arts-style –
stretching in its long straight lines down to the gray Pacific Ocean. (p. 81)

This is lovely stuff, and to sustain an entire novel across more than two hundred pages of verse is a formal achievement of remarkable proportions – and one that Robertson fully realises. But what’s new about LA-as-architectural-pastiche, or the smell of orange blossom on a Californian breeze? Robertson ticks the boxes of his noir checklist even as the returns from doing so diminish. The hard-boiled pose of his noirish lead doesn’t help, either: not only is Walker a, to be fair understandably, distant figure; despite his radical politics, even his theoretical fraternal feeling for his fellow man is insufficiently expressed to make sense of his horror as the area of Bunker Hill he has called home begins to be demolished. Instead, he just comes across as the worst kind of architecture fan, initial enthusiasm shading into reactionary distaste for the new:

The open cupola of the Seymour Apartments no longer looks out
over the steel frame of the courthouse.
The new concrete of the courthouse
looms over what was once the Seymour, levelled that afternoon. (p. 199)

From early on, Walker is interested in cities and “how they fail” (p. 56), but do they really fail through concrete? Walker is a complex, ambivalent character … but in other ways he’s just a bit dull. His motivating principle comes down to needing to unburden himself: “He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France,” he resolves late on, thinking of his only constant friend throughout the novel. “It was eating him up. Eating him alive” (p. 216). Reader, if indeed “the only American history is on film” (p. 137), then I’ve seen this one.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that¬†The Long Take¬†has been recognised by the Booker for its undoubted stylistic achievements, and for its regular, but brief, flashes of poetic invention: a woman dances “tipping her toes like a cat / at the end of a rope” (p. 157); cities are “locked geometries of shadows” (p. 5); and everyday diner meals are elevated in metre:

He went down to Clifton’s for some split pea soup;
chili and beans,
corned beef hash if he could. (p. 62)

An epic needs more than some decent lines to keep itself in motion, however: it needs fire, a forward momentum, an almost delirious energy.¬†The Long Take¬†instead has too many longeurs, which perhaps mimic Walker’s sleepless urban perambulations, but which also rob these lines of their roll. Robertson winds up repetitive, circling the blocks of Bunker Hill in ever decreasing circles; and no amount of admiration for the formal discipline, the super-human acts of poetic will it takes to write a book like this, can quite make up for that vague air of the waiting room. For me at least, this novel – if that is what it is – ultimately felt just a little bit like a chore, worthy and even improving … but rarely entertaining. If¬†The Long Take¬†were the kind of movie it seeks to ape, some among its audience might clap and admiringly murmur “bravo”, but few – surely – would be enthusiastic enough to demand, “Encore!”