“It was the day my Grandmother made a cup of tea..” In praise of the slow start.

Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham (left), caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.”

This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul of those same submission guidelines and can’t get published. What’s the next best thing to do? Why, advise other wannabe authors of course. Look through the individual agent pages of literary agencies, where each agent is desperately trying to pitch themselves and their own USP. “I’m looking for submissions that grab me immediately, that make me desperate for the rest of the manuscript. I immediately know that the novel is going to be amazing from the way it gripped me relentlessly from the start.”

Oh dear. Really? This is as hackneyed and depressing as the relentless mantra, “Show Not Tell” or the terribly modern obsession with writing in the first person or (but usually “and”) writing in the present tense because it makes the novel so much more immediate and engaging. Whenever I see that I have to suppress a yawn, knowing that I’m going to be reading an identikit novel that is indistinguishable from all the others. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skilful practitioner, the first person does all that the gurus promise. It’s just that it’s not often in those hands, and the voice of this first person, unless the character is meant to be a wannabe novelist with a penchant for purple prose, is all too often crashingly inauthentic.

But I digress. Iain Banks (below), the brilliant Scottish writer, has a lot to answer for. Ever since his wonderful novel, “The Crow Road” began with the immortal first line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”, critics, publishers and agents have demanded fireworks right from the off. In that book, it was bold, refreshing, innovative and exhilarating. In the hands of lesser exponents it is simply cliched and desperate. Everyone has been told they have to do it. The first 3 chapter submission requirement underlines that. And so, all books have to follow the same pattern.

How sad! How reductive! How depressing! Like virtually all rules of writing, it’s unhelpful and misleading. If that’s what your book needs, then go for it. But don’t do it because some guide to writing told you to. And if your book needs an opening that is a leisurely unfolding, with space to breathe and think, then be brave enough to do that. The real fireworks are those that aggregate from your deliberate, mindful laying out of a setting, a situation, characters and a dilemma and then, come with a joyful rush at the end.

The real dilemma here is that this approach takes us perilously close to a knee jerk dismissal of all advice, all criticism, all agents. And in the relentless pursuit of publication, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that agents are just cynical manipulators, who care nothing for fiction or creativity, and are simply obsessed with the question, “Can I see this book selling shedloads of copies?” One of the key lessons to learn when dipping your toe into the shark-infested waters of publishing, is that to stand any chance of being recognised, you have to develop the capacity to take criticism with good grace. Ninety percent of it is accurate and helpful, no matter how sharp the sting.

But sometimes, you have to say no. It may not get you past an agent’s rejection pile, but if you don’t believe in the text, then it won’t go much further than the second hurdle. If you think your book needs a leisurely unfolding, it probably does. Sometimes, the budding writer knows more than the established agent. But only sometimes.

If you liked this blog try my novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below:

Or, if you prefer Children’s Fantasy adventure, try The Watcher and The Friend, available from the link below:

This blog first appeared in Barron On Books at http://www.rjbarron.co.uk

Guilty Pleasures.

Culture, Politics and Pleasure

In one of the weekend magazines -The Guardian or The Times – they always feature an interview with some celeb who generally has a new book or film to promote. The interview follows a set pattern so the same questions are printed in the piece, with the answers below, like a script. One of them always concerns guilty pleasures. You know the sort of thing: Which book are you ashamed you’ve never finished? What’s your cultural guilty secret? The premise is that there are a set of cultural products that are high status, that everyone with aspirations to intellect and cultural heft should have watched or read, but definitely enjoyed. The flip side of this is that, in this post-modern world, the real mark of a cultural heavyweight hipster, is someone who can slum it with the oiks and can enjoy (though no doubt in an ironic, knowing way) the cultural sludge of popular entertainment. You know it’s trash, but it’s clever trash, it’s funny trash, it’s significant trash. Hence the epithet “guilty”. You know you’re not supposed to, but you like it anyway. You little rebel.

I hope I don’t disappoint, but this blog will walk a different path. I’m afraid I don’t buy the High brow/Low brow distinction that bedevils cultural commentary and cultural transmission in this country. Stormzy or Beethoven? Well, as I’ve made clear before on this blog, the obvious answer, the only admissible answer, is, of course, both. Unfortunately, at this point in our history, the Traditionalists hold sway, and culture wars are engaged in enthusiastically, not only for their tactical worth, but also (and more frightening this, in some ways) because some of the key players of the present time actually believe in all of that stuff.

Well, I don’t. And so, the guilty pleasures in the title are not those things that you shouldn’t really like but do, because they are so ITV. No, there are genuine reasons to feel guilty about them, but you can’t help yourself. Music is most vulnerable to the guilt reflex because of the frequent dislocation between lyrics and music. Something that sounds wonderful can become problematic as soon as repeated listening reveals the meaning of the lyrics. And so it is with the two examples I’m going to confess to today. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  1. “Stay with Me”  Rod Stewart and The Faces

Quite simply, this is the greatest record ever made. Or rather, it is this week, because as we all know, those kind of judgements change all the time. But unlike all most of the other contenders for the title, it’s quite likely to feature repeatedly as the GOAT. For youngsters who know nothing of Rod apart from his later manifestation as a cheesy embarrassment, this may seem like a deeply unfashionable choice. But they, poor innocents have yet to discover the magnificence that was Rod and The Faces in the early Seventies.

Rod, despite the horror of “Sailing” and “Do Ya think I’m Sexy?”, has one of the finest white soul blues voices ever. Period. And The Faces are the consummate bluesy Rock band. Listen to  “A Nod’s as Good as a Wink” if you don’t believe me. “Stay with Me” is them at their peak.  The opening guitar riff is a joyful harbinger of the greatness to come, reprised at the end by a delicious honky tonk shuffle, as if they can’t bear the song to be over so soon. Magnificent fuzz guitar by Ronnie Wood, honkytonk electric piano by Ian McClagen and a wonderful vocal by his Rodness. The record is greater than the sum of its parts however, because the band motor through it, charting a perfect path between being as tight as a drum and achieving the loose elasticity of boogie woogie. It’s the aural equivalent of the bouncy suspension of a classic Citroen DS. The other great strength is just how evident it is that they are all having a great time, not just playing the song, but living the life. The video of the song depicts the rock and roll fantasy of being in a gang with your mates, having a laugh, going on the lash and the certain promise of sexual activity. A heady cocktail for any seventeen year old.

The trouble is, of course, that once you’ve recovered from the sublime experience of the music, you’re left with the lyrics. Back in the early Seventies they caused me some disquiet as an embryonic progressive. Now, they are positively antediluvian, in their, ahem, strangely sexist portrait of teenage kicks. Back then, no-one really batted an eyelid. But, keep the faith for a moment, the lyrics provide the merest smidgeon of hope. Rod was a clever guy, and understood the essential ridiculousness of rock stardom. The instinct for witty and knowing self-deprecation that was often seen in his interviews, surfaces in this song too. (“I don’t mean to sound degrading……”) It’s a hymn to the joys of young, casual, meaningless sex between consenting adults rather than a misogynistic leer between blokes. And in these days of gender fluidity, that spirit can be retained and improved, simply by substituting “Peter” for “Rita”. Genius. As if by magic, a great work is repurposed for a different age.

Have a little look and listen here:

Unfortunately, with my second choice, it’s not quite so simple. Step forward the sublime Dr Feelgood.

2 “Because you’re Mine”. Dr Feelgood

 It’s hard to accurately convey just what an important place Dr Feelgood occupy in the history of British Rock music in the Seventies, to anyone that wasn’t there. They were the bridge that led directly from Prog to Punk, via Pub-Rock. The John the Baptist to Punk’s Jesus Christ. The key element of their greatness is the texture their records possess. “Because you’re Mine” crackles with menace. It’s as tense as a tightly stretched skin over a drum, the sound created by the simple combination of rhythm guitar, drums and bass and growling, prowling vocals from Lee Brilleaux. Live, the sound was just as ferocious, but the experienced was enhanced by the key characters. Brilleaux in white mohair suit soaked in sweat punching the air in time to his rasping staccato vocals. The Big Figure on drums – large, still, unmoving and unmoved. John Sparks on bass an honourable example of the unremarkable, functional bass layer and last and foremost, the magnificent Wilko Johnson on guitar.

When I first saw them, both on TV and then live, I had never witnessed a guitarist with such a relentless attack. He was the Ian Curtis of guitar, manic staring eyes, mechanical chopping, plectrum-less hacking, and a non-stop, all action, straight lined, psychotic and repetitive marching across the stage. The word “strumming” could never be applied to his playing style. In the age of twenty minute squealing guitar solos, he rescued pop and rock with a thrilling reminder of the glory of three minutes of rhythm guitar.

They were tremendously exciting to watch. But apparently, only for young men. A Feelgoods gig was an extended exercise in male bonding, as I recall. Perhaps there are some female fans out there who went and worshipped as I did. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

But……. Glorious though they were, they had one major flaw, a crack as wide as the San Andreas fault. I’m afraid that, to the naked eye and ear at any rate, Seventies feminism completely passed them by. “Because you’re mine” is actually a nasty little song, a paean to stalking, male domination and possession. And no amount of fiddling with names or pronouns is ever going to fix that. In a case like this, the only permissible response is to cut them loose and consign them to history, like a statue to a long dead slaver.

Two versions here. One is the studio version and the second a mashup to give you a flavour of what they were like live. For some reason, there’s no footage of them actually playing Because You’re Mine live. Enjoy.

So, as a progressive socialist atheist republican concerned about my radical reputation, I plead guilty. There’s really no defending this song. It’s just that it sounds so delicious. My perfect Christmas present this year would be for some gifted song writer to write an entirely new set of lyrics that would enable me to enjoy this masterpiece of tightly wound aural tension with a clear conscience. Politics, Culture and Pleasure, eh? Who knew it it could be so hard?

Teaching Of Mice and Men

One old white dude’s voyage of discovery over 38 years in the classroom.

I was fascinated to read earlier this month a call for Of Mice and Men to be filtered when read aloud in the classroom so that one specific offensive word was not used.  This was a campaign promoted by “anti-racist educator” Marsha Garratt up in Teesside, and the BBC story can be found here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-58842159

It set me thinking about my own steadily evolving relationship to teaching the book, since I first started as a Secondary English teacher way back in 1982. When I arrived in London in 1981 my life experience was almost exclusively a white one. I was born and brought up in Teesside, and then went to University in York. After a year or so of crummy jobs I found myself living in Valencia in Spain for a year. So up until the age of twenty four, everywhere I had lived was overwhelmingly white. I was a socialist and a passionate believer in equality and the struggle for social justice, so my ideology was progressive, but my lived experience was narrow.

Moving to London in this context was exhilarating. I lived in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Stamford Hill before moving to Brixton. Before that I had first lived in Kings Cross, where the most notable minority community appeared to be sex workers, judging by the number of used syringes and condoms I had to kick out of the doorway of the short life housing flat/Squat where I lived, every time I left in the morning. It was a whirlwind of new experiences and especially invigorating being part of a rich, diverse community.

This was the major chord of starting to work as an English teacher in the ILEA – the extraordinary range and variety of people who went to Inner London schools. It’s multi racial character was a real source of strength and was something that the ILEA rightly celebrated. This was when I first encountered Of Mice and Men. It was a fixed part of the English Curriculum even then, and I set about preparing to teach it, aided and abetted by the English Centre’s seminal study guide on the book. ( the inclusion of Steinbeck’s letter to Annie Luce, the actress cast to play Curley’s wife in the first stage production was hugely significant and an invaluable resource in the classroom ) When I first read the novel, I was struck by how powerful it was. Of all the novels we taught in those days, it was probably the most perfect.

Why was that?

  1. It was short, so you could read it aloud as a complete text and still generate enough written and discussion work to fulfil assessment requirements.
  2. It’s perfectly structured, coming full circle to finish where it started, as foreshadowed in the opening chapter, in the brush by the river. And because of that it made it easier to teach what, for many pupils, is a complex and abstract concept: whole text structure.
  3. Steinbeck’s prose, like Arthur Miller’s in many of his plays, was a wonderful celebration of the poetry of the vernacular. Spare and simple, both dialogue and description are masterful examples of economy of expression. At a time when many students suffer from a devotion to the Thesaurus and equate baroque purple prose with quality, this was an invaluable antidote.
  4. It never failed, in over thirty-five years, to provoke an emotional reaction from readers. It was a rare day when the reading of the final chapter did not have students in floods of tears. Even stony-faced macho boys would permit themselves a quiver of the lip at the end. At a time when reading is under threat as never before from a panoply of more seductive, modern pursuits, this was invaluable. It opened a door to a world where books could make connections, generate meaning and have a real impact on the way someone viewed themselves in society. Suddenly, books had a point. They made sense. They were endorsed as a thing of value, rather than something dull and worthy that posh people did at home and everyone else was forced to do at school.
  5. It generated mind-bending shifts in attitudes about women, black people, workers, sexism, racism and capitalism and deepened understanding of our history and how and why things are as they are now in relation to the past. I can recall numerous light bulb moment lessons when students suddenly made a connection between Steinbeck’s intentions for his depiction of Curley’s Wife and the way she was described by the men on the ranch. In that way, it also was the first time that many students had considered the idea of an unreliable witness in fiction. The first appearance of Curley’s wife in the novel routinely confirms for most students the opinion expressed by Candy. They think of her as a flirt, a “floozy”. The description of her dead body causes them to think again, powerfully but not in a hectoring, lecturing way. The first reaction places them in the position of the men on the ranch, the last places them outside of the novel, in the position of Steinbeck. For many students, for the first time, they are aware of the idea of a writer manipulating and deceiving the reader for a deeper purpose.

There is a problem here, though,  and with the depiction of Crooks. It needs very careful, skilful teaching for it to work. Some students don’t get beyond agreeing with Candy when it comes to Curley’s Wife. You really have to commit as a teacher, to go the extra mile here. This is why the Steinbeck letter is so unusual and so important, providing a rare example in the classroom of evidence of the author’s intentions outside of the main text. Unfortunately, no such equivalent text exists to help with the teaching of Steinbeck’s presentation of Crooks.

The scene in Crooks’ room late on Saturday night is nuanced and layered. Again, some students find it difficult to interpret Crooks’ gleeful bullying of Lennie in any more subtle way than lying on one side of the Good/Bad dichotomy. The notion that this behaviour might give the reader some greater insight into his situation is a difficult idea to grasp for some and needs the same persistent, careful teaching. In recent years, given the time constraints of exam-based questions with limited time to prepare, the persistent, careful teaching of subtle interpretations has been hard to preserve. Easily packaged answers are the order of the day.

But back to the subject of this blog – the way my attitude to teaching the novel changed over the years. From the beginning, Steinbeck’s liberal use of the N word was uncomfortable. As the educated teacher, I rationalised this as being acceptable because of his clear intentions to expose injustices in his society. For him to do this as a white writer in the 1930’s in America seemed to me to be admirable and progressive. Nonetheless, I could not reasonably expect my classes to be aware of this and therefore spent a lot of time preparing the ground for the use of the word and the entirely positive reasons behind it. I was in effect trying to say, “Don’t worry guys! He’s on your side, and what’s more on your side from a time when that was a dangerous thing to be. Let’s celebrate him.” It only worked because I had developed the trust of my classes and had made a big thing about injustice and racism in every other area of the stuff I taught. I had nailed my colours to the mast so that everyone knew the values that applied in my lessons.

I cringe when I look back on it now, and the tinge of white saviour complex it connotes. And cringe even more when I think how long that situation was maintained in my teaching as the status quo.

The next phase, probably at least ten years later, was to discuss the issue with each class as I always had, but then let them take a vote on it. If that seems now like passing the buck, it was done from a desire to give the students some respect and level of control. And that situation lasted for at least another ten years, (probably more). Each successive class had their own reaction to it. Every class came round to loving the book, with some taking longer than others to get the nuances under the surface. It was still doing all the things I wanted it to and it still had all the qualities I loved and valued, but steadily, growing in the back of my mind was an unease that wouldn’t go away.

Every time I said the word out loud, it felt like I was slapping my black students in the face. I was expecting them to silently endure disrespect and humiliation in the service of Literature. I justified it to myself on the same grounds that were used when the great statue debate emerged in the last few years. You know the stuff:

You can’t rewrite history. This happened, we can’t pretend it didn’t and we must simply explain it. To pull them down would be to airbrush history in the tradition of the Great Dictators down the ages. It’s just meaningless gesture politics, designed only to let people show off as “woker than thou”. More important to be actively ant-racist than to obsess about symbolism. Etc etc.

But of course, all of this dispassionate rationalising ignores the power of emotional reactions. How could I, a privileged old white guy, airily dismiss the concerns of the activists as gesture politics. I didn’t have historic crimes against my community paraded in front of me every day when I went to study or work, walking past a statue of some historic figure whose entire historic status is founded on the slave trade. Talk about rubbing your nose in it.

And I finally reached the same conclusion about Of Mice and Men. I continued to read the book to classes, explained the context and Steinbeck’s intentions, but this time talked about why I wasn’t going to use the word in question. Ironically, this took me right back to my days as an A level Literature student back in 1973 in Stockton -on-Tees. One of my teachers was an older woman, who was tremendously old fashioned and dull, dull, dull. (Don’t worry, her identity will not be revealed and I would have never dreamed of telling her). We found it hilarious that when teaching us The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (and some of The Tales themselves) she would just miss entire words and phrases out when she read the text aloud. And the weird thing was she would never refer to it, or explain it or even acknowledge it. It was as if she had a different, more prudish, edition. And here I was, doing more or less the same thing. Although, to be fair, she was rather more concerned about depictions of farting and medieval rumpy pumpy, than racism.

So, I got there in the end. And it kind of worked. All of the good qualities of the novel were retained. And it was such an easy, obvious way of dealing with a problem that needed to be addressed, I can’t think why it took me so long to reach it. And I think back, to everyone I taught the book to, from 1982 onwards and I think about their feelings in my classroom when I so confidently said that word in front of them, over and over again.

I was quite a good English teacher. I took it seriously and wanted to open the eyes of my students. I wanted to introduce them to the power and beauty of Language and the power and beauty of Literature, regardless of who they were and what their background was. I have no doubt I made many mistakes on the way and I apologise for them, unreservedly. I tried my best but I got as many things wrong as I got right, I’m sure. The Of Mice and Men mistake was the biggest of them all and for that I am sincerely sorry. The campaign deserves all of our support and I wish it well.

Inspiration, Stealing and Intertextuality

How what we read always bubbles up into what we write, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening

A guest appearance in the blog today from children’s author, R J Barron, writing about the links between his new novel, The Watcher and The Friend and the work of Joan Aiken, in particular, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The connections between what we read and what we write, even years later, are mysterious and powerful. Read on for more

In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”.

It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a punt? I said Narnia (The Grandfather Clock) His Dark Materials (parallel world, moral dilemmas, emerging feelings between young protagonists), Thomas Kempe (ghostly messages written across time and space). And it’s true, there is a connection between all of those books and my own. Originality is a very overrated quality in my opinion. Everything is connected, and ideas breed other ideas. The Jim Jarmusch quote is a useful guide here: Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” In other words, whatever you steal, make it your own. If you’re alive in the world, it’s impossible to produce something original. You’d have to lock yourself away for a lifetime to achieve that, like a jury in a murder trial. And for what? Instead, we should celebrate the connections between our own work and that of others, even connections that have emerged from the sub-conscious.

And the sub-conscious was exactly where my ideas lurked, in the shadows, skulking. But now they are out, wide-eyed and blinking in the sunlight, the connections are perfectly clear to me. Here they are:

Alternative History

In Aiken’s novels, the strength of the parallel world she creates is the fact that England’s real history has been tweaked only very slightly, as if an acetate copy has slipped on top of the original. The effect is disconcerting. The reader feels as if they are standing on shifting sand and everything, including the things we take for granted, has to be re-assessed, re-evaluated in some way. The power comes not from the precision of the words themselves, but the suggestions held by the white spaces in between the words. Everything seems to be at once familiar and strange at the same time.

The time shift in “The Watcher and The Friend” is different. At first it appears that Tom has simply gone back in time, to the Runswick bay and North York Moors of 1795. The clue first appears in Tom’s reaction to historical England, as we are told that there was something not quite right about it, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but which jarred, or irritated like a tiny pebble in one’s shoe. The reason he couldn’t work out what it was the fact that it was something so familiar to someone who lives in South London in the early twenty first century – the absolute diversity of the population. All kinds of people from all over the world, living relatively harmoniously together. This state of diversity and equality is extended in The Watcher to all groups – women hold positions of power, same sex relationships are commonplace and so not worthy of comment. As we subsequently learn from an amused Silas Cummerbund, Tom has journeyed not to England in 1795, but to Yngerlande, a parallel world, also in 1795, where there is perfect equality. There has been no history of Empire, colonisation or slavery, and therefore power relations have not developed in the same toxic way as in our own world.

Settings – Country side and weather

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be set in a mini ice age, with permanent ice and snow serving as a perfect backdrop to the wolf packs that are terrorising the country. This is very deliberately echoed in The Watcher and The Friend. One early chapter, The Frozen North sets an atmosphere that can be so powerful in children’s fiction, and descriptions of snow, in both countryside and “Georgian” towns and villages, are used to provide an atmosphere that is both beautiful and harshly challenging. For many children in the UK, apart from those who live in remote areas in the hills, snow is an unfamiliar occurrence and one which is mainly evocative of classic children’s books read or films (such as the Harry Potter series) seen. It’s a powerful motif of adventure, something that is both thrillingly beautiful and to be escaped from at the same time. The escape from a snow bound forest, and its attendant dangers, into a domestic setting with food and warmth and closed doors, fulfils a most basic human desire for security.

In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the early escape back to the big house after being pursued by wolves that descend from the hills into the estate is a key example of this. Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is another. In The Watcher, such snowy scenes of pursuit and escape play a significant role in the novel: in the wolf attack on the lonely snowy roads across the Moors to the coast; the scene where Della, Tom, Dan and Clara emerge from the smugglers’ tunnels high up on the top of the Moors, to encounter a group of Redcoats who have tracked them down in a thick, snowy forest; and the snowy streets of York on Christmas Eve, thronged with Redcoats nervously on guard outside the Queen’s Christmas Ball in The Assembly Rooms. All of these echo Aiken’s deployment of memorable settings to create a strong and vivid sense of place.

Creatures – Wolves, Steedhorns and Steedwings

The combination of a parallel world and a historic setting allows the writer to give full vent to their imagination as far as reality is concerned. Creatures that come from old folk and fairy tales naturally inhabit this land. The archaic setting gives permission for imagination to flourish. These creatures are surely the kind of things that would have existed in this strange alternative universe. Aren’t they?

And so, very real and very frightening wolves, are joined in my book by Unicorns (or Steedhorns, as Yngerlande terms them) and flying horses (Steedwings). Not the sickly pink, disneyfied versions. No, these creatures are large and rough and shaggy, with brown coats and matted hair. The Steedhorns are commonplace and considered a pest by the local farmers, because of the damage they do to crops and the environment whereas the Steedwings are rarely seen and thought by most people to be the stuff of old tales.

In Aiken’s  version of England the same cast of wild and fierce animals are present as a source of danger: primal, terrifying, ancient in the shape of the packs of wolves that roam the countryside with a careless lack of fear as far as human beings are concerned. Casual references to bears abound, along with flocks of sheep, (rescued from the slaughterhouse) a pink whale and many individual creatures that tag along after Simon, a prototype eco warrior, years ahead of his time, is the future King of England with an uncanny affinity with animals of all kinds. For children, animals in fiction are both a blameless repository of affection, and an echo of an ancient wilder world than their own. Aiken taps into this unerringly – perhaps she was an animal lover herself?

Strong female characters

Dido Twite is possibly Aiken’s greatest creation. Missing presumed drowned in the North Sea at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, she reappears mysteriously at the beginning of the next book in the series, Nightbirds to Nantucket, on board a whaler headed towards the Newfoundland coast. The story of her rescue does not detain the reader for more than a paragraph or so and no-one who has read Black Hearts needs to know more than that, so delighted are they that Dido has returned. The legend has it that readers were distraught at the end of Black Hearts at the thought that Dido might have died and wrote to Aiken begging for her resurrection. I love the fact that this was not part of a grand plan on behalf of the author but instead it emerged at the behest of her readers. Proof again that reading is a social act of reconstruction for each individual, and that once a writer has let their work go, it no longer belongs to them, but has an independent life of its own, being constantly regenerated every time it is read afresh. And once Aiken had been diverted down that path by her readers, a whole warren of paths and turnings sprang up that had not been envisaged when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was being planned. This is the very nature of the writer’s imagination. The act of writing begets deeper, richer, better writing; better than could ever have been planned, no matter how meticulous the creator.

The Dido that returns does not disappoint. Feisty, independent, brave, loyal, she brings a young, and as yet unjaundiced, eye on the idiocies of the adult world. The book sings whenever she is on the page, not least because of Aiken’s fabulous inventiveness in terms of Dido’s language. Even without speech tags or description, the character is immediately identifiable through her dialogue alone. Croopus! What a creation!

Like Aiken’s books, the most important characters in The Watcher are female, despite the fact the protagonist, Thomas Trelawney, is a thirteen year-old boy. As well as a group of younger female characters (Tom’s sister Grace, the mysterious girl Clara, who trails stars in her wake, Della Honeyfield, the dashing coachdriver and her partner Dr Amelia Church) the book paints a positive portrait of an older woman, Mary Carruthers. As Silas Cummerbund tells Tom early in the book, “With age comes wisdom, Thomas. Most of the old women I know are fearsomely clever, and the world would be a better place if people listened to them a bit more often. Your world and mine.”

A world under threat – plots and rescues

First and foremost, The Watcher, like the Wolves Chronicles, is an adventure, an entertainment. The story carries important messages about the world we live in, but the book stands or falls on the story alone. If the reader is not engaged, no message of any kind, no matter how pressing and relevant it is, will have any purchase. In the alternative history that underpins the stories of the Wolves chronicles, the ongoing struggle for power of the Hanoverians versus the Jacobeans provides much of the drama of the plots. Revolution, counter revolution, plots hatched and foiled ( usually at the last minute), hiding places, treachery, chases, discoveries – all of these regularly punctuate the pages of the novels in a breathless chase towards a final resolution. They are exciting adventures and readers turn the pages eager to experience the next twist or turn.

And so it is with The Watcher, I hope. I make no claims by this comparison – it’s up to readers to respond. I’m just struck, after the event, of a similar technique, a similar structure that underpins my book. In The Watcher, Yngerland in 1795 is a diverse, tolerant society. The only hierarchy is that generated by money. Apart from that, all “minority” groups are treated with equal respect and have an equal place in society with equal status. It serves as a model for our own world, particularly when it comes under attack. The “old Guard” – white rich landowners, with the figurehead of the grandson of a King who had been deposed many years earlier – secretly try to mount a coup against the Queen, Matilda, a black woman who represents everything they despise. The old guard want to preserve their interests, establish their privilege and consign all other groups to servitude. The Watcher, The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, has an ancient role of guarding the portal between Yngerlande and England, and working together with the new “Friend”, Thomas, they work to foil the plot. Their struggle to save Yngerlande involves wolf attacks, invisible ghosts, chases through smugglers tunnels, capture in dank cellars and flight across a snowbound North York Moors, all against a background of a snowy five days in the run up to Christmas. They succeed, of course, winning this first battle, but the war is clearly not over.

This blog has been a musing on connectedness and intertextuality. If you’re a teacher, a reader or a writer, I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this reaffirmation of how important children’s fiction is and how what you read as a child resonates down the years. I loved writing The Watcher (and I’m looking forward to the next four volumes in the series) and it’s clear to me now that the enjoyment I derived was in part down to the pleasure I had had years before in reading Joan Aiken’s books. If you haven’t read them, let me enthusiastically encourage you to begin. You have a treat in store. And as a writer taking the first faltering steps towards a readership, it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to do the same with my Aiken-inspired first children’s novel, The Watcher and The Friend. See if you can spot the connections as clearly as I now do myself.

If you’re interested in The Watcher and The Friend, try a lttle more. Click the links below either to read the first few chapters, or, even better, to buy a copy.

Click the buttons below to buy The Watcher and The Friend at your preferred bookshop

This piece first appeared in the barrononbooks blog at www.rjbarron.co.uk

A review of “Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.

It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?

Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.

Meg Mason

Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.

And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.

If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.

But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.

He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.

The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”

What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.

So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.

This review was first published at www.rjbarron.co.uk

Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.

Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.

The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves.  Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?

The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.

Hic, Haec, Hoc!

Gavin isn’t wearing any trousers……….

Hapless Gavin Williamson’s latest demonstration of his incompetence and the Government’s wholly inadequate grasp of the important issues in education is the brilliant plan to make everyone do Latin because that’s what they do in Private schools, which as any fule kno, are much better than bog standard Bash Street Comprehensive schools. Even those Academies that are meant to be like Private schools, but for the deserving poor. If only they did Latin, even the thick proles would be civilized and could hold a Kulturally Kapitalist rich conversation at the dinner table. Hic, Haec, Hoc!

Gavin has clearly misunderstood “Zero Tolerance” and rather than reading it as a biting satire on the evils of Tory Government policy and the New Brutalism in Education, thinks of it as a guide book to levelling up. A Duffer’s guide to Government. Oven ready, all of their policies were predicted here first, as this extract will show.

In this extract from “ZeroTolerance”, Marcus Grovelle, the Education Secretary is delivering the key note speech at another bloody awful education conference which in reality is simply an excuse to funnel millions of pounds of tax payers’ money into the deep pockets of his ex-Oxbridge pals. This is disguised as him outlining his visionary plans for the future of schools in England. His cunning wheeze to solve the “problems of social care, the NHS, the Armed Forces in the face of the conventional threat posed by Russia and by terrorism and the academic standards of the bottom 40% of our young people”, is an example of “thinking outside the box”, something that only the Free Market can do.

Meanwhile, Headteacher Jane Garner and Deputies Avril and Rick, are preparing for their OFSTED inspection at Fairfield High School the next day…….

Grovelle’s speech was reaching its zenith and the crowd, seduced by the charisma of power, were lapping it up, with its strange mixture of flattery, eccentricity and outright madness.

“And there are so many points of agreement between this government’s challenging of the status quo and the Partnership’s challenging of sloppy teaching and low standards in exams. We have broken the dead hand of local authorities and their monopoly control of education, we’ve provided real choice with the creation of academies that have transformed educational standards in this country, and took that step further with a whole new category of free schools, giving parents the right to set up schools that will give greater priority to standards and old-fashioned values. We’ve finally dealt with the runaway grade inflation and cheating that flourished under the last socialist government, introducing exams that are rigorous and which don’t patronise working-class children and instead expect the same high standards for students whether they come from a council estate or a country estate.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, we are clearly cut from the same cloth. We want the same things, we have the same passion, we refuse to accept the same old excuses. Now, I ask you to join me in our new venture, the next step in transforming Britain’s education system and moving from being the laughing stock of the free world to being the best in the world. I can announce today, that after consultation, from next September we will be introducing the following major reforms.

“All students will have an entitlement to follow a five-year course, leading to GCSE, of Latin and Greek. These courses will be double weighted in the performance tables, to incentivise more timid institutions to embrace the reform. Let’s bring back the standards from historically our finest institutions and spread them to Bash Street Kids Comprehensive.

“We are going to tackle the problem of teacher recruitment with a series of bold and innovative initiatives. Every university, college and higher education institute will be affiliated to a network of local schools, and undergraduates will be able to supplement their maintenance loans by taking up the places that will be on offer as affiliated teachers. This will, at a stroke, get the brightest and the best of our young people working in the secondary school system without the need for costly and time-consuming training, most of which frankly, could have come out of Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist handbook.”

Here he paused and beamed at his audience, evidently delighted with his clever joke, one he had personally inserted in the text of the speech, against the wishes of his Central Office writers. The audience nervously blinked back, not sure of what their response should be to these extraordinary proposals. Grovelle steamed forward.

“We will tackle once and for all the divide between vocational education and academic. For too long we have been in thrall to the crazy notion that everyone should go to university. We have denigrated practical subjects and sneered at those who have chosen to follow their aptitude for hands-on work. Our new apprenticeships were a start in tackling the ludicrous, over-complicated schemes of the last Labour Government, but now we are going to go one step further. I am delighted to be able to announce today that, from September, from the age of fourteen all students will be able to choose to sign up to do National Service, either in any of the armed forces, or, and this idea is truly inspired and revolutionary, in our National Health Service, with particular emphasis on social care. The sneering naysayers in the Remoaners camp, who constantly talk this great country of ours down, have carped and moaned continually about how our great institutions would collapse without foreign workers to staff them. Why on earth should we condemn the bottom forty percent of our young people to failure in the academic exam system, just for the sake of political correctness? We anticipate that, in the first instance, there will be a traditional gender split, with boys opting for the armed forces and girls for the caring professions, but the choice will be available for anyone to express a preference for either. The only obstacle they would have to face would be the comments of their friends.” Again, Grovelle paused to allow the audience to show their appreciation of his daring joke. He was rewarded with a few nervous titters.

“Imagine, the problems of social care, the NHS, the Armed Forces in the face of the conventional threat posed by Russia and by terrorism and the academic standards of the bottom 40% of our young people, all solved at a stroke.”

The expressions on the sea of faces in front of him told their own story of people picturing the reality of what had just been described to them. There were expressions of bafflement, incomprehension, with a few furrowed brows of those who were turning to anger. Grovelle, oblivious to his audience, ploughed on. The unthinkable had to be thought, and he was the man to think it.

*

“You know this is going to be touch and go, don’t you?”

Avril and Rick looked at each other quizzically.

“What do you mean, Jane?” asked Avril.

“They’ll focus on our data, which is not really good enough. I absolutely need you, Rick, to nail that, otherwise we’re dead in the water. I need that paper putting a positive spin on the results by tomorrow so we can brief the whole staff. You know, value added, no underperforming groups, the usual malarkey.”

“Yeah, that’s no problem, I’ve just about got that finished already. I don’t think it’s briefing staff you need to worry about, though,” replied Rick.

“Go on then, tell me.”

“It’s the rest of the Senior Team and the Governors. Honestly, Jane, they are bloody embarrassing. Did you hear Gordon tonight?”

Avril agreed. “It’s going to take more than a briefing to bring Gordon up to speed. And Julia and Deepak are just as bad. We need to make sure that they are not interviewed by any of the Ofsted team on their own, otherwise we’re snookered.”

Jane sighed. “See what I mean? We’re doomed, doomed I tell you. No, I’ve already doubled up on the likely interviews. A lot is resting on our shoulders, you do realise that, don’t you? I’m depending on you to do the business.”

Rick smiled. “Don’t worry, Jane, we know what we’re doing. We’ll be fine if the lessons and behaviour are good and because it’s early, we’ve got a fighting chance with the kids.”

“Are you on top of Safeguarding, Avril? I don’t want to fail seconds after they’ve walked in the door and they discover our procedures and registers are not up to scratch.”

“They’re all good, Jane, trust me.” She paused and then tentatively began again. “You seem a little negative though, Jane. It’s not like you. Is everything all right?”

She hesitated, got up out of her seat and walked over to her window, watching the students stream down the main path to the gate. There was chatting and screaming and laughing and balls being kicked and arguments being settled. “Look at them. Off they go. They have no idea how much all the staff put in to their wellbeing. All the hours, all the worry, all the discussion, all the care. Some of them will never be cared for as much as this again in the whole of their lives.”

Avril and Rick exchanged a quick glance, eyebrows raised.

“Jane, now you’re worrying me.” Rick said this half as a joke, but he had his fingers crossed that her reply would put his mind at rest.

She turned back to them.

“Why do you think we’re having this inspection now?”

“What do you mean? I know it’s earlier than we anticipated, but that often happens, doesn’t it?”

“Not as often as you might think. And not a whole year early.”

Avril interjected, “What have you heard, Jane? Come on, this must have come from somewhere.”

“You know the authority are expecting us to fail, don’t you?”

“What? What do you mean, ‘expecting us to fail’? How do you make that out?” Rick was indignant at the suggestion.

“They think we’re shit. They think we don’t know what we’re doing because Avril and I are women of a certain age and we don’t talk the talk and we don’t do some of the dafter, trendier things that BetMore777 academies do. They think we’re old school, more like social workers than senior leaders.”

“What?” exploded Rick. “That’s outrageous.”

“Oh, they like you, Rick. They like the fact that you’re young and you know the latest trends. You’ve made a great impression at the Managed Admissions Forum you go to. And they love the fact that you’re so involved with the Partnership. They think you’re the only reason we haven’t sunk already.”

Rick was amazed. He had no idea that this was what was being said within the local authority. He was flustered and tried to splutter a demurral. Jane waved away his attempted objections.

“You’re very good, Rick, you’ll go far. But so are we. And we’ve already gone far.”

“And we’re not ready to bloody stop going far just yet,” rumbled Avril, outraged at being written off as a dinosaur.

“No,” agreed Jane. “Not quite yet anyway. So, the point of all this is that the odds are well and truly stacked against us. We will have to be even better than usual to survive this because they are gunning for us. And there’s no better weapon when you’re trying to get rid of a leadership team than a shit Ofsted outcome, no matter how rigged it is. Especially with our results.”

“Hold on a minute,” said Rick, comprehension dawning on his face. “Do you mean that you think there’s been some kind of collusion between the authority and Ofsted?”

“Well,” said Jane enigmatically, “you might say that but I—”

“Couldn’t possibly comment,” chorused the other two. “Yes, we know.”

“But surely, Ofsted are supposed to be independent. There can’t be that kind of set-up, can there?”

He looked from one to the other of them.

The two women of a certain age looked at each other.

“Bless,” said Avril, “they’re so sweet when they’re young, aren’t they?”

Rick’s face hardened. “Well, sod that for a game of old soldiers. I’m buggered if I’m going to be stitched up like that. We’ve worked too hard to be written off before they even start the bloody inspection. If it’s a fight they want, well let’s give it to ’em.”

Jane collected together her papers from the desk. “Good. I was hoping you’d say something like that. And now, let’s go and rouse the troops. Oh, and I hope I don’t need to say that this last conversation was strictly between ourselves. From the second we walk out of this door, it’s our job to project supreme confidence.” She swung open the door of her office and marched down the corridor towards the Hall, head held high, a spring in her step. Avril and Rick trailed in her wake, scurrying to keep up.

*

Grovelle seemed frozen in the spotlight, still gripping the sides of his lectern. The stunned silence that had flooded the arena after his speech, settled on the venue like a softly billowing sheet. Delegates looked nervously at each other, uncertain. The silence grew and spread and Grovelle’s easy smile had begun to ossify into a rictus grin. He saw his whole project, including a smooth flight path to Number 10, teetering on the edge of the abyss. And then, just as the silence was beginning to be painful, Alastair sprang to his feet and clapped. His applause grew in strength and he smiled appreciatively at Grovelle and took it in turns to half face the audience and whip them up into joining in. Barry Pugh cast down his clipboard, which clattered to the ground as he, desperate to be the third person to join in a standing ovation, jumped up and belaboured his palms in a frenzied show of approval. Those that were instinctively against the proposals in the speech, hunkered down in their seats, uncomfortable and unsure. In the great tradition of brutal dictatorships down the ages, the fever spread like wildfire as everyone scrambled to be on their feet applauding, to avoid being that person who was taken out and shot for lacking revolutionary fervour. The doubters, their objections diluted by the great tide of enthusiasm that had surged up from the floor, began to question their instincts. Maybe they should be bold enough to think the unthinkable.

Sometimes, the unthinkable was unthinkable for a very good reason.

For more of the same, click on the links below, and a copy of the future education section of the Tory manifesto can be yours.

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/zero-tolerance/

Zero Tolerance at Amazon

The Long, Slow, Sad, Lingering Death of The Labour Party

In my last blog I outlined my response to the disastrous elections in May, and bemoaned the collapse of ethical standards in public life. It was a gloomy piece, not least because the normal source of solace when faced by the corrupt incompetence of the Tories and the prospect of ten more years of their asset stripping, the Parliamentary Labour Party, is no longer available as a credible alternative. In this blog, I’m going to examine how this has come about, and what a plausible challenge to Tory populism might look like in the future. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Don’t worry – there will be a few jokes. I can’t promise Marina Hyde or John Crace type wit, just an overarching weary cynicism.

The inevitable defeat at the Brexit general election ushered in a plethora of analyses of what went wrong and what to do about it, nearly all of them completely wrong. They tend to fall in to one of two camps: Either Jeremy Corbyn is the Godhead who reintroduced socialism to the Labour Party and was only prevented from winning the election by a toxic combination of the distortions and prejudices of the mainstream media, the traitors of the Right wing of the PLP, who spent all of their time undermining Jeremy, and the disastrous and undemocratic attempts to go for a second referendum.

Or Corbyn’s Labour Party was a throwback to the Seventies and the electorate were never going to vote for such a hard left collection of policies and the only answer (helpfully supplied by Peter Mandelson) is to go back to the Blair playbook and present the party and the manifesto as a slightly nicer, more humane version of capitalism.

It’s very frustrating that both of these analyses are so completely wide of the mark, and that either of them, if adopted would set back the goal of a labour government for years. I suspect that, even worse, they would simply hasten the eventual demise of the Labour Party as a political grouping in this country. It remains to be seen whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Let’s deal with the analysis first.

  1. Jeremy Corbyn, bless his roughly-darned cotton socks, was a terrible leader. I’m acutely aware that some people reading this will have already made their mind up about me and where I stand, but that just makes me another victim of the tribalism I allude to above. Just put down your outrage for a minute and hear me out. Yes, he’s a socialist. Yes, he has fought for humane, people-centred policies all of his adult life. Yes, he inspired a new generation of young activists (more of this particular achievement later). But none of that is enough. Nowhere near enough actually. He had never led anything before the election for Labour leader. He was persuaded to stand to ensure the left had a standard bearer and that there was some sense of democratic legitimacy, but no-one ever, in a million years, expected him to win.

The leader of a modern political party these days, must start with some kind of emotional connection to the general public, as expressed through a horrible kind of amalgam of Daily Mail and Daily Mirror readers. We can forget about readers of The Guardian and The Telegraph. They are largely unquestioning cannon fodder for the two main parties (more for The Telegraph, admittedly). But the absolute sine qua non for a leader in the modern age, no matter how much we might dislike it, is to be likeable and, more importantly in some ways, to be recognisable as authentic. This is the thing that the Corbynistas just can’t get their head around because Jeremy is all of these things to them. But they are so unlike the average floating voter, who doesn’t give a toss about “Politics”, that their response is an unreliable guide. They are not the people that Labour has to convince.

2. The manifesto was, and remains a huge strength of the party. That is why so many of the policies, after being derided as loony left by the Tories and their henchmen in the popular press, were nakedly stolen after the election. (They always do this, by the way. See my earlier blog here: https://wordpress.com/post/growl.blog/209

The time is right for greater public spending, nationalisation, a focus on housing, employment rights, the National Health Service and a coherent approach to Social Care. These things are popular. Even the much-scorned free broadband policy is a winner. Rather than being attacked for costing too much money it should have been lauded, with the question asked, “How much money will this generate for the economy?”

People do not vote on manifesto policies. The process is nowhere near as rational as that. The days of “It’s the economy stupid” are long gone. They vote, in part at least, on their gut feeling about who they can trust to take seriously the things they care about. And so, the response of the right, which is to say that the voters were frightened away by a programme that was too left wing for them, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The problem with the policy offer in the last election was not that it was too left wing but that it was so poorly managed, with ideas emerging as if Labour were desperately trying to buy votes form anyone and everyone, making it up as they went along. Oh, the irony of this being a criticism from the Johnson Government, who are the ultimate in policy by focus group and targeted spending (or bribery as it’s sometimes known).

So the first part of the solution was to change leader. Keir Starmer was the obvious choice. A serious heavyweight in terms of intellect, he was in direct contrast to the blustering liar that is  Johnson. How disappointing he has been. He has been unlucky in terms of the pandemic and Brexit, but the choices he has made have made the job much harder than it need have been, when normal service is resumed when the vaccine roll out is complete. The real problem is that Starmer accepts the Mandelson analysis. He thinks Socialism is the problem, not the solution. And here we come to the real heart of the problem for Labour, the problem that has beset them ever since Margaret Thatcher. The centre right don’t really believe that there is much wrong with capitalism that cant be solved by a bit of tinkering. They are embarrassed by the policies of redistribution. They apologise for their core principles. They seem to completely lack the intellectual confidence in their own ideology, and so they, slice by slice, repudiate it. And as the Tory Party has drifted rightwards, turning itself cynically into a particularly nasty version of an English National Party, Labour has opposed in the most lukewarm of ways, so the centre is dragged ever rightward and things that would have been beyond the pale forty years ago now become mainstream common sense. Cameron and Osborne, and now Johnson and Patel, make Margaret Thatcher seem like a member of the Fabian Society. They really are a brutish bunch, who can act with impunity.

This can be seen clearly in the response of the party to the defeat at Hartlepool. It seems barely possible that professional politicians, presumably with armies of media advisors, don’t get the fact that if you are continually apologising for who you are and what you stand for, then the public will be left with the impression that you are really quite weedy and that you stand for stuff that’s not very nice. How many more times must we witness Sir Keir abjectly hand wringing, with the face of a person who has just run over a treasured and much-loved family pet, probably in a foreign car? I’m sick of hearing that the Labour party failed to listen to the people’s legitimate concerns and we are very bad people and we are going to be much better in the future. The results were actually not the complete car crash that the media proclaimed them to be. There were great signs of life in the twitching corpse in the big metropolitan cities, where Labour Mayors are rewriting the narrative with imaginative responses to austerity, and in the South of England, where the trad mainstream Tories are beginning to feel a little squeamish about the nasty amorality of their party in Westminster.

This sense of revival was confirmed in Batley and Spen, where some kind of unspoken electoral pact could be discerned. The Lib Dems clearly fought a campaign in name only. Lib Dem votes going to Labour just about offset the effect the appalling George Galloway, the living definition of narcissistic chancer.

And it is this, finally, that is the only chink of light for The Labour Party. And it is simply a matter of mathematics. Even a Blair-like surge of enthusiasm for the collective vision of Labour would not be able to overcome the collapse of Labour votes in Scotland. It is impossible for Labour, even performing at historic highs, to achieve a parliamentary majority. So, the only route to such a majority is some kind of pact with the Lib Dems, The Greens and the Independence parties.

What would such a pact look like? What would be the policies, the values the vision. What would be the Big Idea. Because we’re assured that to be sucessful , you gotta have a Big Idea.

You’ve got to spend. There is no point shilly shallying around this. In the last election , when there was such a furore about Corbyn’s spending plans in the Right Wing media, a little reported fact was that those plans would have still left us below the European average in terms of spending as a proportion of GDP. All the data screams out, comparing European countries with our own, if you dont spend enough on maintaining a strong state, you inevitaby turn into a Third World Country in terms of housing, transport, health service, social care, employment. Everything, in short.

This is what you spend it on:

Massive increase in Council Housing

Nationalising key Industries

Green New Deal

Sure Start type early years provision

Increase in Living Wage so that people who worked did not need to be in Benefits

Investigate Universal Basic Income

Revival of Corbyn’s free comprehensive Broadband coverage

Renentry into the EU Single Market

Renegotiation of Free movement of Labour to address catastrophic labour shortages in key sectors

Massive investament in Education and Training

Commitment to Devolution and local solutions

The cost? Read some proper economics and try and get your head around the case for Modern Monetarism. Then make the case and hire Cummings to come up with a three word slogan. I’ll do it for Fiver.

If that is going to happen, the ground needs to be prepared, with behind the scenes discussions now. It would be disastrous if it was left to the eve of a general election campaign, when it would inevitably be greeted by the predictable cries of betrayal from the left (who love nothing more than proclaiming their own, pure socialist values, while demonising the Centre right as closet Tories. All while the real Tories are mercilessly stabbing ordinary people in the back. And the side and the front and anywhere else they can get away with. And then getting elected again, in the face of a centre left majority of voters in this country).

The real issue is whether Starmer and his allies are going to be brave enough to go for this, even to the extent of taking a back seat to some of the other parties if they have to. In this argument the Party is very definitely less important than the outcome. I’ve been a Labour voter since 1975, but I would swap the Party and all of its history, for the likelihood of Fifty years of weedy Social Democracy. Just imagine what this country could be if we had had that instead of the horrors of Thatcherism followed by Cameron/Osborne/May/Johnson. And so, just like The Liberals at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, The Labour Party has become irrelevant, or worse. Without the language, the analysis, the unity, the vision, the belief, its every appearance is an apology for its own existence. Rather than fetishize the union movement, and conference and previous campaigns, all of which were once important, just take a clear-eyed look at what is at stake. And move aside.

Stop Press: In another move of audacious brilliance, the party moves to expel Ken Loach. Talk about whistling in the dark. I’m just off to watch Kes again, made at a time when there was some kind of consensus around the state and social justice. Now Kes would be portrayed as a a rallying call to working class tories to storm the Red Wall. After I’ve watched it, it’ll be time for a lie down in a darkened room.

When Darkness Falls

A Journal of The Plague Year

May 2021

In the years when I was making the transition from being a little boy to a teenager and then a young man, some of the realities of history gradually unfolded before me. The second world war as a child appeared as a glorious adventure, fuelled by my weekly comics and endless black and white films on the telly, and part of ancient history. In reality, from the middle of the Sixties, it was only twenty years earlier, roughly the same distance as 9/11 is from today. Then, as the details of the Nazis and concentration camps emerged for me, I was genuinely shaken to realise, probably for the first time, man’s capacity for savage, industrial-scale, cruelty to others. The reality of the Holocaust more than anything else never loses its power to shock and baffle me. The final stage of this gradual loss of innocence, was the story of the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the thirties. I could never quite grasp how it was possible that the Nazis rose to power through the democratic processes of the state. Yes, I know there was manipulation and propaganda, violence and coercion, but even so it was a process that took several years. Did nobody notice? Was no-one motivated to resist? How could they possibly have allowed it?

For years, this formed part of my fundamental narrative: that the world was inexorably getting better, and that as universal education spread, a vaguely socialist perspective, rooted in a concern for the common good and a belief in collectivism, meant that steadily, with some slips on the way, fairness, prosperity and equity were growing. The rise of the Nazis belonged to a more primitive version of human society. It couldnt happen here again, not now. I’ve held on to that narrative, sometimes like a drowning man clinging to bit of driftwood, for years. Even during the beginning of the Tories austerity regime from 2010 I comforted myself that it was a passing phase, and that demographics alone meant that The Tories were inevitably a busted flush.

I was also bolstered by a belief that democracy works. That the population can be trusted not to make stupid decisions, so that, in the end, liberal values are not at risk. That belief has gone now, I’m afraid. It could only ever work as long as there was untrammelled access to reliable, accurate information. A combination of social media and the internet has put paid to that. To think that 20-25 years ago, one of the apparent attractions of the internet and its lack of regulation was the idea of democratising power and information flow, so that neither corporations nor governments, could propagandise their way to power, like the Nazis did in Germany all those years ago.

The Trump experience in the States shows how easy it is to convince people of lies. Even today, it’s clear that The Republican party, far from repudiating the Trump lies, has completely embraced them and Liz Cheney is to be expelled for not backing Trump in the aftermath of the election. What has the world come when Liz Cheney has turned into the poster girl for liberal democracy and the rule of law? Her father will be turning in his grave. This has chilling consequences for the next election. Now, one of the only two available choices to the American people, is as near as dammit fascist.

And the same applies here. The results from our own sweep of elections last week were not unexpected. But they were tremendously depressing nonetheless, not least for the fact that they presage probably another ten years of this, the worst Government and Prime Minister in my life time. And another ten years of this amoral crew really does not bear thinking about. What is the charge sheet as it stands and what can we look forward to?

  • Serial, repeated and proven lying
  • Corruption, misuse of money, cronyism with favours for friends
  • Contempt for the rule of law and the constitution.
  • Obstacles to Judicial review increased so the government cannot be held accountable by citizens
  • Stripping away of planning regulations for a plague of unregulated house building on green belt land
  • Gerrymandering election law via constituency boundaries and photo id for voters.
  • Removal of democratic rights to protest

There is probably more. There is so much shit cascading from Westminster that it’s impossible to compile a definitive list that can be relied upon for more than five minutes.

And when all of this is going on, the BBC acts like an organ of Government, craven and cowardly, frightened that the license fee will be abolished. As the playwright David Hare said a few weeks ago, “The BBC is like Pravda”. At 1 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock, regular as clockwork, the BBC news bulletin turns into a party political broadcast for the Government, aided and abetted by the COVID briefings that give Johnson star billing. Laura Kuenssberg, in an extraordinary article on the BBC website, supposedly investigating Johnson’s lying, cannot bring herself to find a single lie, and dances on the head of a pin to excuse or redefine lying. She is like some kind of mediaeval cleric writing a treatise about equivocation. It was only written in the first place because she was shamed into doing something on it by the 11 million internet views of Peter Stefanovic’s video compilation of Johnson’s 6 main lies to Parliament. She does not even have to do any work on it – he’s done it all. And still she exonerates him and waits patiently for her eventual place in the honours list in the future. Click the link below to see the article and make your own mind up.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56624437

And the people, those guardians against our slide into the pit of corruption and fascism, vote for it all, cheerily, proclaiming that good old Boris is a bit of a character. And Hitler and Pol Pot would be a laugh to go for a beer with. The most depressing part of the post-election spectacle was Chris Mason’s interview of a father and son on the dockside at Hartlepool, falling into line and providing the standard Vox Pop proving that the Tories are on the side of working people and Labour are just interested in trendy London Metropolitan types. One day soon, somebody on Universal benefit in some godforsaken Red Wall town, will actually use those words in a vox pop BBC interview: “No, I used to be Labour, like me father and grandfather before him, but now Labour are just for the metropolitan liberal elite, like.”

When pressed by Mason to explain why they had changed allegiance, they both referenced the Courts being closed, the local hospital being cut etc etc . They did not seem to realise that these issues, absolutely crucial for local communities everywhere, were the responsibility of the Conservative national Government and had nothing to do with the Labour local council, which presumably was on its knees because of swinging austerity cuts imposed by the Tories. Dear me. Johnson is living proof that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time, and that the current Conservative Party is a coalition of the Selfish, the Stupid and the Sentimental. That’s the MPs, before you start getting sniffy about blaming the voters. The only reason I don’t blame the voters, by the way, is because they’re given false information.

And so now, I can completely understand why and how the Nazis rose to power in thirties Berlin. And the rise and end of Trump transformed my understanding of The Handmaid’s Tale from it being a dystopian tale into it as a roadmap for the rise of the far right. The response of the hardcore Trump supporters and the Q anon crazy conspiracy theorists was chilling, but less so than the realisation that previously mainstream liberal Republican types would go along with it for personal power and advancement. Just as here, normal liberal Tories have been expelled (Grieve, Hammond, Greening, Gauke Stewart et al) and any moderates that are still in place, support the slide into moral turpitude to protect their own skins. I shudder to think for too long about where it will all end, and have no faith in The Great British Public to see through the Fake News.

Which is where I started. Regulate the Internet.

Next time: Why Labour has got it so wrong and why Peter Mandelson is most definitely not the answer.

New YA Children’s Author – first novel available to pre-order.

Find out more about this exciting new YA writer by clicking the link below.

http://rjbarron.co.uk

The Culture wars that are so current today (think Black Lives Matter, the furore over statues, Gender and Sexuality issues) remind us that the liberalisation of social attutudes to discrimination and privilege can not be taken for granted. Battles that seem to have been won have to be constantly refought as the Right and Hard Right appear to be ever more emboldened to turn back the clock and erode hard won gains.

Just at the right time comes a YA novel that addresses these issues through depicting the same battles being fought in a parallel world to ours.

Anyone with a passion (or even a mild interest) for children’s literature, especially YA novels, should have a look at this exciting new writer, R J Barron.

His first YA novel, “The Watcher and The Friend” is due to be published on June 11th and is currently available now for pre-order.

The book tells the story of Thomas Trelawney, a thirteen-year old boy on a Christmas holiday in an old rectory on the North Yorkshire coast. It is the family’s first holiday since the death of Thomas’ older sister, Grace. On his first night there, Tom finds himself mysteriously lured through the Grandfather clock in his room, to the parallel land of Yngerlande, an eighteenth century version of a land nearly, but not quite, like England. He meets the Reverend Silas Cummerbund, the Watcher, whose responsibility it is to guard the passage between the two lands, and discovers that he is the new Friend, the person in England with the power to travel between the two worlds.

Yngerlande is a land of diversity and tolerance. There is a black queen on the throne, Queen Matilda, and women and races of all kinds are in positions of power and influence. Silas has discovered a plot by the grandson of the old mad King, Oliver, to violently depose Matilda and restore the old ways: racist, elitist, sexist. He needs Thomas to help him thwart the plot, because of the strange powers he possesses, including his ability to use the mysterious and powerful Sounding Stones.

Runswick Bay, North Yorkshire

At the end of every night he returns to his bedroom in the rectory in England, before going back through the clock. He visits on five nights, ending on Christmas Eve. Tom discovers as much about himself as he does about this strange new world, particularly when he meets the mysterious girl with stars in her hair. Who is she and what explains the powerful connection they have from the moment they meet?