Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February/March 2018

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February/March 2018

Nick Hornby
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  • Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit—Craig Oliver
  • A Life of My Own—Claire Tomalin
  • The Lonely City—Olivia Laing
  • The Party—Elizabeth Day


  • The Last Poets—Christine Otten
  • Whatever Happened to Interracial Love—Kathleen Collins
  • To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface—Olivia Laing
  • The Book of Forgotten Authors—Christopher Fowler
  • Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements—Bob Mehr
  • Vernon Subutex 1—Virginie Despentes

A couple of weeks before the referendum in which the British people decided they no longer wanted to be part of the EU, I went to a literary festival in Stoke, a couple of hours north of London. Until that day, I had been working on the assumption that my countrymen would decide, without any great enthusiasm, not to rock the boat. Nobody loves the EU, but the chaos that threatened to engulf us if we chose to leave seemed real enough to deter risk. The time I spent in Stoke, however, taught me more than any amount of time spent reading The Guardian, listening to the BBC, and talking to my North London friends and colleagues, and what I learned was that there was real trouble brewing.

I was shown around Stoke by an enthusiastic local employer who loved the place, and had just moved there after years spent commuting to the city. Stoke, she pointed out, had once been a mining town, but the mines were now closed; it was also part of the region known as the Potteries (the local football team is nicknamed the Potters), but nearly all the potters had gone, too, mostly abroad. She was hopeful that better times were around the corner, and she told me about a scheme whereby anyone wanting to settle and work in the city could buy a house for a pound. American readers may be aware that there is a similar deal available in Detroit, and though it’s an imaginative response to a terrible problem, it’s not altogether good news, for obvious reasons. Later, I met the local Labour MP, who, unlike his leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was strongly committed to Europe. He told me glumly that he hadn’t yet met a single resident who was going to vote Remain, and I started to feel prickles of alarm down the back of my neck. “What are you doing about it?” I asked him. “Well,” he said, “at the moment I’m just not telling people there’s a referendum on. That’s about all I’ve got left.”

Later on, I watched the TV news. We were being warned that a vote to leave would take thirty thousand pounds off the price of our houses, and several thousand pounds a year off our salaries. How must that have sounded to those who live in homes that are worth a pound, and who are working for minimum wage, if they’re working at all? It almost certainly sounded as though none of it was anything to do with them. How can a house worth nothing lose thirty thousand pounds of its value? I turned the news off and placed a bet on Leave with an online bookmaker. The people of Stoke, it turned out, were more enthusiastic about leaving than people anywhere else in the country, but they weren’t anomalous, and as you probably know, I won my bet. Michael Bloomberg recently said that “it is really hard to understand why a country that was doing so well wanted to ruin it,” to which the only possible retort is that 51 percent of this country didn’t share his rosy view of our economic prospects. The kind of wealth that the UK has been creating seems to take an awfully long time to trickle down to people without work, in areas of the country that have no industry.

Britain voted out because just enough people were angry with the status quo to want to change it, however disastrous that decision might prove to be in the short or even the long term. Give an angry, voiceless person a microphone, and the last thing they’re going to say is “Actually, now that I come to think about it, let’s just carry on the way we have been doing.” There seems little doubt to me that they voted against their economic interests; there seems even less doubt that they didn’t care very much, because they felt they had no stake in the prosperity Bloomberg was talking about. (Americans may recognize this from some of their own recent electoral history.) Fears about immigration became more important than empty wallets—even though London, with its huge immigrant community, voted to stay in the EU by more or less exactly the same margin as Stoke voted to leave.

Unleashing Demons, written by David Cameron’s former director of communications, Craig Oliver, is a fly-on-the wall account of the referendum campaign, and another version of why Britons voted out: not because of economics or immigration, but because of the way these concerns were presented to the electorate by the opposing campaigns. Written in diary form, it’s a tragic book for those of us who were profoundly depressed by the result of the referendum: you know the unhappy ending in advance, and you can see the ways in which it might have been avoided. If only the Remain campaign hadn’t won the economic argument so comprehensively and so early, thus ensuring that the last, decisive period before the vote was about immigration, the Remain campaign’s weak spot. What Remain should have said is something like “Are you fucking kidding me? Every single hospital and care home in the country is staffed by European immigrants. Every single plumber is Polish. Every time you order takeaway, an immigrant delivers it. The whole reason the country hasn’t fallen off a cliff is because we have immigration.” But of course nobody on the Remain side said that. They said, more or less, that they’d try and do something about it one day, and nobody believed them. If only the Labour Party had campaigned with even half a heart; if only Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, with one eye on succeeding David Cameron, hadn’t told so many lies.

The diary format means that Unleashing Demons can’t offer much perspective on the decisions and tactics, but the in-the-moment panics and stumbles provide plenty of fuel for hindsight. How could the prime minister fight a war against some of his own colleagues while trying to run the country? (He couldn’t.) Why was Theresa May, Cameron’s then home secretary and in theory a Remainer, playing it so cagey? (She was trying to become prime minister, and she didn’t want to piss anyone off.) Why wouldn’t Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party and in theory a Remainer, campaign with any kind of zeal? (Because he was trying to become prime minister, and he didn’t want to piss anyone off.)

And Oliver raises all kinds of anguished and pertinent questions about fake news: how do neutral organizations like the BBC cover both sides of an argument fairly when one side is lying? The Leave campaign had a great time telling the people of Britain that they could save £350 million a week by getting out of the EU (they couldn’t) and that seventy million Turks were on their way to the UK once Turkey joined the EC (which was never going to happen). The plodding one-side-says-this-butthe-other-side-says-that even-handedness that the BBC (and The New York Times, and more or less every reputable media outlet) has relied on for so long seems out of step with the times. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove, former justice secretary and arch-Brexiteer, when he was asked during the campaign why no leading economists thought that leaving the EU was a good idea. It was a shocking moment: an Oxford-educated former leader and writer for The Times telling us that the facts don’t matter. He was right, though, as it turned out. Michael Gove is now a pariah, the country is riven in two, our economy is going down the toilet, and it will take us decades to recover. Well done, everyone. I know you probably won’t want to read this illuminating book, but I don’t care. I wanted to find out what had happened, and I wanted to sound off. Let’s move on.

“We grieved together over Brexit,” says the literary biographer Claire Tomalin at the end of her wonderful memoir, A Life of My Own. The other half of the “we” is her husband, Michael Frayn, the brilliant playwright and novelist. They are both eighty-four years old, and more or less every single page of Tomalin’s book makes you mourn the disappearance of an England that regarded an education as a source of liberation rather than mockery. In the one novel I read this month, Elizabeth Day’s waspish, moreish The Party, the one educated and cultured character is a pathetic, somewhat creepy outsider, looking on with envy and contempt as his boorish school friends trample their way into positions of power and influence; that seems about right for now, for this version of Britain. And of course Tomalin’s world of libraries, universities, publishers, and literary pages was available only to a very small number of people. But is it OK to love those people and wish they were still with us? I don’t care if it is or isn’t; I’m going to love them anyway. Tomalin was reading Dickens when she was little, French novels and the Brontës when she was ten, and she bought herself Eileen Power’s Medieval English Nunneries when she was thirteen: “Power, a young woman historian, became my heroine.” I’m sure she would have been mine, too, if TV hadn’t been invented. And some other things (cinema, friends, music, et cetera). It’s impossible to compare the intelligence of different generations, of course, but here at The Believer we tend to prize wide, deep reading as an indication of something, and there is absolutely no doubt that Tomalin’s generation is better read than my own. And each subsequent generation after mine, I suspect, has read even less than the one before, until you get to… Actually, I’m not going to be rude about my sons again. But they won’t be buying Medieval English Nunneries with their own money anytime soon.

None of this, I hasten to add, is about Tomalin showing off. In the early part of A Life of My Own, she’s talking about reading as an escape, and of course the more you read, the farther you can run. Tomalin’s childhood was not comfortable, financially or emotionally. Her father told her, inexplicably, that she was conceived on the day that he had seriously contemplated pushing her mother off a cliff during a walk. He left her, eventually, but he remained an occasionally unhelpful presence in his daughter’s life: later, when Claire’s first husband, Nick, left her, as he did on more than one occasion, for a younger woman, her father wrote to Nick to say, effectively, that living with women was hard, and that he couldn’t blame him for clearing off.

Many of us who knew a little of what was going on in the world in the 1970s can remember Nick Tomalin, and the shock of his death: he was killed by a Syrian missile while covering the Yom Kippur War for The Sunday Times. And this happened during a ten-year period that contained more tragedy and challenge than most lives can properly accommodate. Her youngest son, Tom, conceived partly to plaster over the cracks of what had become a painful married life, was born with spina bifida; her daughter, Susanna, committed suicide. And yet A Life of My Own is not only about these awful things. They are deeply felt, and they explode like bombs; but then Tomalin goes on, changed forever, but with the rest of her life to live. Regular readers will know that I am an enormous admirer of the author’s literary biographies. The Invisible Woman, about Dickens’s relationship with the actress Nelly Ternan, is one of my favorite books of any type, and Tomalin’s biographies of Hardy and Dickens are definitive. This book is as patient, as illuminating, and as acute as the rest of her work. No mean feat, when you’re writing about yourself.

Olivia Laing, my new favorite nonfiction writer, has won a place in my heart as a direct result of those twin catastrophes, Trump and Brexit. (Really, spell-check? Brexit? Even after eighteen months and 2 billion uses of the word? I think you’re going to have to sort yourself out, because it’s not going away anytime soon.) I decided that if I wasn’t going to spend all my time marching up and down and shouting at people (and I’m not, even though I accept that’s probably the best response to it all), then I’m going to read, watch great movies and mediocre football, explore jazz, and live in my mind whenever I am able to. Laing is an embodiment of this anti-societal mood: she’s surprising, nerdy, odd, passionate, a deep thinker, empathetic, raw, at home in just about every artistic discipline, a terrific critic, and an elegant writer. The Lonely City is about loneliness in art, a subject that she takes on because she herself is feeling lonely while she is exploring it, and a subject that throws up a wealth of extraordinarily rich material. There’s Edward Hopper, whose cinemas and diners are filled with people on their own, and there’s Warhol, an odd, lonely child whom Capote described as “the loneliest and most friendless person I’d ever met in my life.” Most terrifying of all, there is Henry Darger, the extraordinary outsider artist whose desperate solitude was addressed with enigmatic indirectness in his wildly detailed collages and his fifteen-thousand-page novel, The Realms of the Unreal. (He wrote two hundred and six pages of an autobiography before losing focus and turning it into a fivethousand-page story about a hurricane called Sweetie Pie). The chapter on Darger is one of the best pieces of writing about art I’ve ever read: Laing’s thoughts take her deep into the paintings but also into the works of Melanie Klein and the behavioral psychologist Harry Harlow, whose cruel experiments with monkeys revealed that a warm, soft touch is even more important to young animals than food. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m as happy as a clam reading about dysfunction and deep, unreachable sadness. I may dig a hole in the ground, pull a lid over it, and read the rest of The Lonely City in there. What’s the alternative?

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