Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Tribes by David Lammy


Tribes by David Lammy promises much, delivers something, but ultimately fails to convince. Its problem lies in the very nature of its vision, not that this is wrong, misguided or anything less than laudable. This ultimate failure to convince, in fact, derives from the overall vision‘s inability to confront the very issues that the author identifies at the start.

David Lammy is a British politician, currently a member of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. In Tribes he attempts to evaluate the political landscape, beginning with a theoretical analysis of why class and other grander identities have become fragmented into what might seem to be smaller, interest-led groupings that he calls ‘tribes’. Many readers might expect this analysis to be developed, but instead the author pursues a personal reflection on some of the ideas raised. And, as the book progresses, the context becomes more personal still, before a final section attempts its rational, credible and, given what preceded, impossible finale. The approach renders the book very readable, but less than satisfying after its promise of theoretical discussion.

The author is a remarkable man. He was born to a Guyanese immigrant family in north London’s Tottenham, brought up by a single mother and then attended the cathedral choir school in Peterborough. London University preceded Harvard Law School, where he became the first black British graduate. In Silicon Valley he became a lawyer and then was elected as a Member of Parliament on behalf of the Labour Party. And then he was a government minister. These are just a few of the facts of this brilliant man’s life – thus far! His wife is white and his children are mixed race, whatever that means, since we are all mixed race, if we are human.

But in a quest for identity of the type that seems to obsess modern people, David Lammy sought out a DNA analysis. The results suggested a mix of origins, one of which linked to the Tuareg of the west African Sahel. The author spends much time and resources researching this link and then, as far as possible, experiencing it at first hand. Though ultimately this association is revealed as tenuous at best, perhaps even illusory, the author’s willingness and enthusiasm to pursue it illustrates a point he makes early on in the book, that identity nowadays seems more strongly felt on a personal rather than group basis. Except, of course, where the group has the ability to bolster and confirm the personal.

David Lammy introduces Maffesoli’s concept of neo-tribes, communities of feeling, to identify a contemporary trend of seeing one’s own personal identity purely in terms of a group identity. Thus, rational approaches to certain issues which, by their nature, are universal, become devalued as neo-tribes develop their own internal values and explanations. It is the fact that these are identity-conferring minority positions that provides the focus for the neo-tribe identity. Fragmentation in our social, economic and religious life fosters the replacement of universalism. This is a crucial point.

A few pages on and David Lammy identifies practically how this behaviour, even propensity, has been exploited by the political Right. He cites two successful electoral slogans - “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control”, to which might be added “Get Brexit Done” - as examples of labels that brought success to campaigns by exploiting group fears above rational arguments, thus defeating rational analyses that recognized, or at least attempted to recognize, the true complexity of the issues discussed. The slogans denied this complexity and offered an illusion of simple solutions. David Lammy persuasively illustrates how these simple emotive but inaccurate messages prevailed over the complex, unclear, yet accurate counter argument.

Still in the introduction, he quotes a survey that claims almost two thirds of UK voters still believe the oft-falsified claim that the country sends 350 million pounds a week to the European Union. David Lammy follows this by stating that there still exists a group of deluded individuals who think that Arsenal are the best football team in north London. By way of balance, I will remind him that about thirty-five years ago the philosopher AJ Ayer wrote that it ought to be impossible for a logical positivist to support Tottenham Hotspur. Joking aside, the author thus illustrates that once accepted by a neo-tribe, a falsehood can retain its own internal illusion of truth.

But people do support Arsenal and others Tottenham. They can’t both be right if they assert they follow the ‘best’ team. From the internally accepted values from within the group, however, they can both be right. Even a moment after chanting “what a load of rubbish” at their own team, such a tribe would unite if the same sentiment were to be expressed by the opposition. Welcome to the Conservative Party, which is forever internally divided, but externally as united as Stalin’s allies, until purged, then largely silent. And who cares if the message is irrational, impossible, implausible or even irrelevant? The tribe will back it to exclude others. And it works.

There is much in Tribes that it is rational, clearly expressed, credible and heartfelt. It is a superb snapshot of where British politics and society now reside, precariously in opposing camps, ideologically armed, but often not agreeing on a language where debate might happen, where a sensible question is usually answered by an irrelevant, unrelated positive soundbite.

The book’s overarching message, however, is flawed, since by the end we have returned to the necessity of acknowledging and recognizing the complexities of real issues. We must trust our rationality and engage in the politics of discussion and debate. Global problems need global solutions. Working in isolation will foster failure. Messy international cooperation and thus, effectively, globalization is the only way out of local problems. The difficulty with such a laudable, deliverable and sensible analysis, however, is that it fails, repeatedly, in the face of soundbite slogans that seek and achieve short-term, but identity-giving non-solutions. Remember Vote for Victory?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is a deeply disturbing book. This scenario that unfolds around the life of its principal character and narrator, Harrison Opoku, always feels uncomfortably real. For the most part, these are scenes that inner-city dwellers pass every day, whilst the denouement, thankfully, is still rare, despite such events often appearing to be daily occurrences.

Harrison Opoku is eleven years old, secondary school year seven to British readers. He is into many things that interest inner-city kids. He is athletic and regularly tells us he is fast he is faster than most, especially when wearing his new branded trainers, if brand logos can be drawn on in felt tip, that is. We doubt, however, whether his assessment is based on more than a competitive dash to the next lamppost along a pavement containing just a few old ladies and gentlemen.

He is prone to the exaggeration of youth, with most experiences being the best, biggest, coolest in at least a million years. He is also prone to the novelty of youth, where the mundane is revealed as special. This is one of Stephen Kelman’s great achievements, in that one feels authentically inside the psyche of this near-pubescent boy without ever being forced into the experience.

Harri is competitive, regularly awarding points to himself in make-believe games that often involve such spectacular activities as spotting particular governments going around inside a Launderette machine. He lives in a tower block in a place that feels like London but could be anywhere in Britain. One does sense an oppressiveness, a claustrophobia pervading the thoughts of all concerned. Everything is local, to the extent that the end of the street is really quite distant.

Harrison Opoku, however, was not British born. He came from Ghana and still has vivid memories of his African family and their culture. To say he is a child of two worlds, or two cultures, however, would be a mistake. Harry lives his own life, the only life he has, and it comes with whatever amalgam of beliefs and cultures he has thus far assimilated. He is a black, African kid, it is true, but labelling him as such ignores the fact that the greatest influence on his life is the here and now. And the here and now is inner-city Britain.

He goes to school, where he meets some teachers who cope and some who do not. School is a priority, but it is well down the list, it seems. His friends and acquaintances largely attend the same institution and some of them can be trusted, whilst some of them can be trusted to shaft you. Some of them steal your dinner money. Some of them sell you drugs. Some of them prick you with compass points in the thigh to make you cry out in class and get into trouble. Some of them carry knives. And use them.

In this big anonymous city, Harry inhabits quite a small world. He has a crush on Poppy, whom he thinks might also have a crush on him. He never strays far from home, because that may be someone else’s territory, a different gang, who are likely to treat you like an immigrant. And there has been a problem. A boy is dead, stabbed, and the police have taped off the crime scene. But for Harri, what has happened is close to home, perhaps too close, and he resolves to solve the crime that currently baffles the police. He devises a strategy and plays at its enactment. This involves becoming an expert in fingerprinting, in making casts of footwear imprints, of noticing and collecting evidence. Someone, surely, must be noting his activity.

Throughout Pigeon English, Harri talks to the pigeon who picks up the feed he leaves outside his window. The pigeon seems to know what Harry, himself, suspects. And thus we move between the serious and playful, fact and make-believe, with the boundaries marked by postcodes, street names and imagining lives that only those involved may see. We learn to inhabit this eleven year-old’s world, to share its novelty and understand its reality.

Investigating a murder, dodging the dealers, not stepping on the cracks in the pavement, it’s all a game. Until it isn’t.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Music to broaden the mind, three concerts in Alfas del Pi, nothing standard in sight.


Alfas del Pi Music Society offered three May concerts to complete the first part of its annual season. But these were three remarkably different concerts, each challenging in its own way, each presenting a surprising mix of the partially familiar and the less well-known. It was a repertoire to broaden a listener’s experience and it achieved that and much more.

The three concerts featured solo guitar, solo harp and a duo of cello and piano. The four musicians presented some fifteen works between them and all from different composers. There was not a single German or Austrian Classicist or Romantic within hearing distance. There was no Chopin or Liszt, no Debussy or even Shostakovich or Tchaikovsky. There was French and Hungarian music but also Argentinian, Uruguayan, American, Spanish, Swiss and Italian, alongside just a little German baroque.

Javier Llanes began the cycle with an evening of solo guitar music. He started with Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje a la Tumba de Debussy and then continued with the Baroque suite L’Infidele by the German composer Samuel Weiss, a composer whose identity might be in the Rococo, but his mind was clearly in the future. This was the closest our weekend approached to Classicism. The Hungarian Johan Kasper Mertz provided the next piece in the form of his Elegie, a piece of deep Romantic emotion. Mauro Giulianis Rossiniana Number One reminded is all how much improved Rossini’s music can become when its not in his own hands! And the concert ended with Una Lemnosita por el Amor de Dios of Agustin Barrios, which offered a moment of reflection to end rather than a grand rousing celebration. The effect was magical.

And speaking of magic, this is what Italian harpist Floraleda Sacchi generates from her instrument with such ease that perhaps her fingers don’t need to contact the strings. Now the harp repertoire might not be known to the average concert goer, which means that any solo recital featuring the instrument must also introduce the audience to new experience. But his did not matter in the least to this audience, such was the poetry of the playing. And by the evening’s end we all felt as if we have as if wed like to continue hearing this music forever.

Floraleda Sacchi began with the Gitana of Alfonse Hasselmans and followed that with two pieces but Argentinian composers. Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion was the closest the weekend came to popularity and it is a work that has become not only a familiar, but close to cliché, though not on the harp. Claudia Monteros Evocaciones followed and it proved to be a real revelation, given that it was both substantial and challenging, being harmonically and rhythmically varied, besides stunningly and refreshingly elegant.

Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis formed the substantial filling in this meal-sized sandwich of the program. Floraleda’s choice of repeats within an already deliberately repetitive experience metamorphosed this piece into a real meditation in which the audience willingly and profitably entered. The overall stillness of the piece was suggested by the near constant left hand arpeggio, whilst the soft commentaries in the treble contrasted, leaving the bass notes to provide what sounded like a commentary. Overall Philip Glass in Floraleda Sacchi’s hands created a landscape that was forever of interest.

Floraleda Sacchi’s program finished with two pieces by Ludovico Enaudi, Dietro l’incanto and Oltremare, whose episodic detail contrasted well with what had preceded it, and the audience’s response to the evening proved nothing less than rapturous. Two encores followed, Merengue Rojo by Alfredo Rolando Ortiz and Images by the harpist, herself. Not many in the audience had ever heard a concert of solo harp. Not many of them will ever forget the experience.

A third concert in three days would have to contrast strongly with the others to prove memorable. To say that David and Carlos Apellaniz did provide adequate contrast would be an understatement. Both the guitar and harp are soft voices in a concert hall. A cello and piano, however, can generate quite a lot of sound!

David Apellaniz was to play two cello concertos with piano accompaniment. This would be a feat in itself, but to play the Honegger concerto followed by Milhaud’s first was a task and a half.  Arthur Honegger’s music can be severely neoclassical. It can also be tender and reflective, and this performance made the most of this vivid and exciting contrast. Some of the textures in this sound are enduringly memorable. Darius Milhaud’s music always seems to have popular song nearby, though the proximity is often only hinted at through an almost transparent screen of modernism. The overall result is one of melodic and rhythmic excitement and energy.

After working very hard indeed, David left the stage for Carlos Apellaniz to bring everything to a close with a solo piano performance of Gershwins Rhapsody In Blue. If we needed more energy in this concert, we truly got it by the bagfull. This was a vivid reading of a familiar work, an interpretation that had to merge the orchestral part with the original solo piano, a feat that was both challenging for the performer and rewarding for the audience, an audience perhaps familiar with the work but not in this format.

And at the end of the weekend of three concerts, one is reminded that there is a lot of music out there, that it is all worth discovering, that it is all nothing less than utterly rewarding, if only one is willing to step outside of the predictability of what we already know. There must always be space for individual voices and they should never be crowded out by our pre-directed expectations.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

From The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s From The House of the Dead is not a novel. Though its principal character, its narrator, the upper-class Goryanchikov, is probably a fictitious identity, it is also probably the author, himself, masquerading, so the overall impression is that of a recollection of real experience. We do not know if the other inmates of the prison camp where the book is set are faithful descriptions of real people, but they certainly come across as such. If there is anything that lingers after reading this book, then it is the immediacy of its realism.

Dostoevsky spent years in such a camp, in Siberia, of course, after surviving his own execution via a last minute reprieve which arrived, apparently, as his executioners as were ready to take aim. It was a bit of a wheeze and quite often used by the Russian royals and their system. Perhaps they were always late in the signing of such orders, since they were probably preoccupied with the counting of their serfs’ earnings, or should I say the earnings from the serfs. One has to be careful to look after the welfare of one’s subjects, after all, because if these people were actually to starve to death, one would take a cut in income and one might have to run the fountains at Peterhof half an hour or less each month. I exaggerate, perhaps but one senses that Dostoyevsky did not.

And it is the detail of the descriptions offered by its author that bring this living death to life. When he describes how even a misplaced word or glance could result in a prisoner receiving literally hundreds of lashes, one begins to understand the nature of absolute power derived from God.

It is perhaps the descriptions of these beatings that linger the longest in a reader’s memory by the end of this book. Dostoyevsky, via Goryanchikov, of course, describes the state of the flesh on the backs of the persons who had just returned from their ordeals. He even allows those tasked with the delivery of these disciplinary measures to describe the minutiae of their technique. We learn, for instance, that the ultimate weapon for the corporal punishment artist is the birch. It was the particular flexibility of this wood that enabled the true expression of the beater’s persona, in that its ability to store energy meant that a few tens of lashes from the birch could be as destructive as a hundred from a cane. The reader should take note of the advice. It may come in useful.

One of the more book’s arresting memories is how often such punishments appear to happen. After all, it’s the deterrent effect which is their most important function, so to be effective in this they should be used as frequently as possible. It will make them think twice, then thrice and so on…

But in the end, as the composer Laos Janacek concluded, it is the humanity of the people involved that shines through. Some of these people committed the most horrible crimes and most of them enjoyed relating their stories. And there was always, it seemed, an internal logic in their stories that arises to justify action, no matter how disastrous the effects may have proved, no matter how dire the consequences may have been. It is not that they were proud of what they had done, but its reality had become part of them, part of their present and future, as well as their past. One wonders if the royals and their loyals used to indulge similarly by recounting the histories of those they condemned.

Overall, one marvels at how these prison camp inmates simply get on with their lives. They eat their food, whatever it is, involve themselves in illicit trade, run their own drinking establishments, of sorts, and probably engage in conjugal acts of whatever character can be imagined. And they cooperate when they are not getting beaten. The next century had Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and frankly, little would appear to have changed, apart from the eventual ownership of the facility.

The Master of Petersburg by J M Coetzee

J M Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg had a particular effect on this reader in that it prompted me to read From The House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky. It’s a book I have wanted to read literally for decades and have never been before properly begun. And the motivation comes directly from J M Coetzee’s analysis of the Fyodor Dostoyevky’s conscience, or perhaps his lack of it in The Master of Petersburg. Coetzee’s book is a novel. It does not claim to be history, nor does it base itself on historically recognizable individuals, except for the principal protagonist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But the scenario it examines becomes compellingly convincing, the dilemmas posed both credible and realistic.

The novel starts in 1869, a year when Fyodor Dostoyevsky was resident in Germany. The setting is more than a decade after his experience as a political prisoner in Siberia, a decade on from anything that is described in From The House of the Dead. The past may have been water under the bridge, but the flow was apparently continuous.

Dostoevsky has received a note saying that his stepson has died in St. Petersburg. There are administrative issues to settle, debts, possessions, people to inform, so the author returns to his own city and embarks upon the reconstruction of his stepson‘s life and death. There is an element here of who-done-what because the circumstances surrounding the end of the stepson’s life remain unclear.

The author has to live somewhere. There is a landlady and she has a family. There are the stepson’s contacts to trace, contacts which he made for a variety of reasons, not all of them completely legal. There are political movements to understand, perhaps penetrate, because that is the only reliable way to encounter untainted memories of a life passed away, a life that lived its own version of action. And, inevitably in Czarist Russia, there are police who are interested in the nature of every contact Dostoyevsky makes. They shed light not only with his stepson’s possible associations with the officially undesirable, but also on the author’s own past and the origins of his own incarceration as a political prisoner.

In pursuing this quest, Dostoyevsky encounters people and memories from his own past, and it has to be acknowledged that he has form. In reality, he can do nothing in this town in his own name without it being noticed by someone, registered by some authority. It is inevitable that something will be dragged up from the past, even if merely to facilitate interests in the present

And inevitably, the writer forms new relationships and these further complicate already complex relationships. There are debts to honour from the past and there will be new ones as a result of unfolding events, of that we are sure. There are previous associations. There is, eventually, perhaps the very reason that he himself came under the official scrutiny all those years ago, events that led to his conviction and incarceration as a political prisoner, and thus provided the experience that led to From The House of the Dead. And, most important of all, there is a contemporary political movement known to his stepson, involvement in which could potentially repeat the allegations and charges the previously led to his own conviction. People within those movements are aware of the author’s quest and his need for information. The problem with some of this information is that it comes with its own health warning.

But what J M Coetzee accomplishes in the midst of all this is a historical context, in The Master of Petersburg, is the creation of a scenario and as associated narrative that never enters polemic. We feel that we are in the same voyage of discovery as its principal character and we experience events alongside his own perception. We are never told what to think.

J M Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is a superb book that surprisingly even displays relevance to contemporary events. It reminds us that societies often can often be constructed by those with an interest in finding in the world precisely what they seek.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Anarchy by William Dalrymple


Occasionally, quite rarely, in fact, one reads a book so powerful that it is impossible to review, at least until the dust its disturbance has scattered starts to settle. It can happen when something causes anger, revulsion, jaw-dropping admiration or raw emotion. And it is not often that such a book is from the non-fiction section, even rarer that it might be pulled from the shelves labeled Economic History.

But William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy is such a book. The Anarchy should be more literally entitled The Company, since it presents the history of a single commercial entity, couched in the form of a biography of a being that had a life of its own. The title does convey the author’s ultimate judgment on this entity but, given the detail of his history, it is probably an understatement, even generous in its recognition.

The book tells the story of the East India Company, the British one, not the Dutch one, not the French one. Surely there are similar corporate biographies elsewhere. They may even exist, but we can be sure that the impact, though possibly qualitatively similar, would be quantitatively less significant.

The bare and unadorned facts of this company’s history begin with its founding in the City of London in the late 16th century as a joint stock venture by a group of investors. It grew courtesy of its participation in the spice trade and slavery in the 17th century, before achieving almost imperial status in the 18th century, when it effectively ruled India. It continued to expand in the 19th century until its implosion in the middle of the century, when its sheer size took it down, after it had failed to cope with the consequences of the Indian Mutiny, which its own practices and policies had arguably caused. The book’s title, The Anarchy, indicates clearly the author’s position that this group was morally and economically a different kind of entity from a company, but the work is far from polemical. The term ‘company’ suggests at least some level of organization, cooperation or community. But, as Adam Smith noted in his Wealth of Nations, this company’s defining characteristics were personal profit, corruption, war, violence and political intrigue, always directed towards furthering its own, already monopolistic position. I understate.

In fact, William Dalrymple makes a little use of Smith’s judgment of the company’s activity, despite the fact that it fits perfectly with the characterization he offers. It is nothing less than a strength of his analysis that secondary sources of criticism, such as Smith’s, are largely ignored. Throughout, William Dalrymple relies on primary sources that relates directly to the company’s dealings in British politics, Indian politics and international trade. Listing such areas of activity might suggest that an air of legitimacy surrounds this corporate presence, but rest assured, this company was involved in mass murder, assassination, exploitation, profiteering, deception, and the list could go on to become a rogues’ gallery of transgression. People who doubt this analysis are free to remind themselves of Smith’s published opinion in 1770 that this, the only extant multinational corporation at the time, represented the anathema of free trade, competition or economic health, and the epitome of corruption, deception and graft, and this from the person who extolled the concept of free trade.

Two particular points lodge in the memory after reading this book. The first is a simple number, one half. There was a time in the early nineteenth century when half of Britain’s wealth - there were no GDP figures then of course - was derived from this company’s activity. They were selling drugs into China at the time and it was lucrative, despite their having to fight wars against the Chinese state to retain the right to do so. The second is the role the company played in the creation, for that can be the only word, of the Bengal famine, which was the greatest famine recorded in India’s history. Let’s ignore the firing of people out of cannon, double dealing and deception, alongside the expected naked exploitation and personal profiteering, all of which had their impact on the politics and economy of the United Kingdom, as well.

Anyone thinking that this might be a dry, over detailed, desiccated analysis of history should ignore their fears and be enlightened by this book. The Anarchy is a complete eye-opener to colonial history, the origins of wealth in our colonial societies and the consequences for the colonies. It should be read by everyone, especially those people who might admit even a residual pride in Britain’s Imperial past.

Two books I am not going to review - Frankenstein and Middlemarch


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Really surprised by the simplicity and transparency of the writing. I expected something much thicker than this, especially since it was written largely as early as 1818, though I consumed the 1831 edition. Yes, disbelief has not only to be suspended, but hung by the neck from the highest branch, and left there. Not only do we have the assembly of human bits, but we also have the being’s own story, which is couched in the same manner as Victor Frankenstein’s memoir, despite the fact that the “thing” claims he has yet to learn language. He does this, and then proceeds to read Paradise Lost, which is just hanging around the rural areas of Switzerland. But overall it is a very rewarding read, with lots of surprises, such as, for instance, that Frankenstein never refers to his creation as a “monster”. And it’s only as a result of the being’s mistreatment and the breaking of his word by Frankenstein that he embarks on his retributions against the family.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Having never read it before, I decided that this must be the time. It is impressive, but it comes across like a middle-class Brookside. The writing style is convoluted, verbose and forever playing God. It did have its moments, but as Rossini said of Wagner, it’s the hours in between that are the problem. I’d read it again, however.