By Kyle | March 30, 2011
David Cameron’s Conservative (but not, alas, particularly conservative) government is enthralled with the Cass Sunstein vision of “nudging” people into being more rational by the state’s lights. Says Brendan O’Neill:
Some of the team’s propaganda is gobsmackingly Orwellian. BIT is built on the idea that people lack both the intellect and the free will to improve themselves and therefore must be secretly signposted toward approved behavior. A March 2010 Cabinet Office paper explaining the importance of nudge policies argues that “people are sometimes seemingly irrational” and therefore the state should “influence behaviour through public policy.” And because many of our behavior-related choices are made “outside of conscious awareness,” there is no point trying to convince us through public information to change our behavior; experts can simply toy with our gray matter instead. “Providing information per se often has surprisingly modest and sometimes unintended impacts,” says the Cabinet Office paper. Therefore, government should “shift the focus of attention away from facts and information and towards altering the context in which people act.”
I’ve tried to be optimistic about Cameron in the past, but my support for him is waning virtually by the hour. Since returning from London in February, I’ve read Peter Hitchens’ “The Cameron Delusion” and am somewhat persuaded by Hitchens’ fierce anti-Cameron arguments. For any conservative who’d like to acquaint himself with what some of the major issues are in the UK these days, I recommend the book, which you can get from Amazon.co.uk.
By Kyle | May 15, 2010
Doubleday was kind enough to send me the novel, “A Week in December” by Sebastian Faulks, a British novelist I have not previously read (although he seems not to be well-known in the US, in London you can’t help noticing his books are invariably stacked high in the shops). The book is set on the eve of the financial crisis in late 2007, and though I eagerly await a great American book on the end-of-decade upheaval, I’m enjoying Faulks’s attempt to present a broad, Trollope-style vista of the London socioeconomic scene.
One nicely done passage is this acid portrait of a pretentious book reviewer, Ralph Tranter, who grandly calls himself RT but barely survives in a Kurdish neighborhood in London he couldn’t even afford were it not for the money he makes selling reviewer’s copies of his books. Permit me to quote at length:
His years in the business had trained him to go straight to the fiction pages, which he read with the eye of a fund manager scanning market prices. The difference was that Tranter had no investment and no favorite; he didn’t want to see a modest growth, still less a boom. He was interested only in bad reviews. Crash was what he wanted: crash and burn–failure, slump, embarrassment. He liked it when acerbic youngsters teased established writers and he relished it when old pipe-suckers slapped down a lively newcomer. His own speciality was the facetious, come-off-it review which invited the reader to share his opinion that the writer’s career had been a sustained con trick at the expense of the gullible book buyer. He dismissed equally the offerings of famous old men, heavy with honors, and those of photogenic young women. While he averted his eyes from other people’s praise, he was generous in his enjoyment of like-minded reviews. Sometimes, he sent postcards in his precise ballpoint handwriting–“I thought you got the new ——- exactly right. RT.”
Literary setbacks came in many shapes, and Tranter relished all of them: he was a connoisseur of disappointment, a voluptuary of disgrace. Alone among European reviewers, a young RT had found the agreed masterpiece of a Latin American novelist to be a “disappointment….tricked out with all the sad old tropes of magic realism….meretricious.” Of all the ways of failing as a novelist the one that Tranter relished most was the midcareer slide, because it freed him, retrospectively, from years of anguish. Foreign grandees were simple coconuts in Tranter’s shy; firing off a bucketfull of balls was second nature, routine stuff, and he doubted that it did much good in the face of universal fawning. But reading praise for the work of a British contemporary gave him a stomach pain as fierce as the cramps of gastronenteritis. Over the years he’d had to develop strategies for dealing with it, and the simplest was to write an anonymous review of his own at the back end of The Toad, a monthly magazine that was edited by an old Oxford contemporary. Here Tranger could place a powerful antidote to compliments that had appeared elsewhere. The savvy readers of The Toad were told that such praise had been offered in bad faith — by old Etonians, by former lovers of the author or by “poor saps” who were the victims of fashion. The truth was that the novel was full of “reach-me-down platitudes” and wasn’t worth the time of unillusioned Toad readers. Sometimes Tranter had already reviewed the book under his own name in a newspaper, where, for plausibility’s sake, he’d been obliged to mute his criticisms or leaven them with guarded praise; and then his anonymous Toad piece acted as a bracing corrective, even to himself.
By Kyle | May 14, 2010
As I expected, “Robin Hood” is getting a Rotten rating from RottenTomatoes.com — 46 percent approval so far, with 50 percent from top critics. As in ninth grade, you need a 60 percent to pass. This movie is going to tank in the US, though I have no idea what Europeans will think of it. I doubt the French are going to be fond of it, since one of the only scenes that stands any chance of generating applause anywhere is a shot of the Fleur-de-Lis sinking into the English Channel. (No need to write in Hunter: We know you’ll say, “Awww, it’s great fun!”)
By Kyle | May 14, 2010
Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” about a lonely postman who begins to get his life in order thanks to imaginary conversations with soccer star Eric Cantona, is a real find. My review is up.
By Kyle | May 14, 2010
A little hate mail for the Amanda Seyfried romantic drama, “Letters to Juliet,” in which her New Yorker fact checker helps an old lady (Vanessa Redgrave) find her true love while being exasperated by his hottie grandson (Christopher Egan). My review is up.
By Kyle | May 9, 2010
Martin Amis’s novel about the sexual revolution and its unintended consequences “The Pregnant Widow” has far too many ideas to be dealt with in 450 words but here is my review in today’s Post.
By Kyle | May 5, 2010
From the invaluable crew at Big Hollywood, we learn that Simon Cowell has endorsed David Cameron for PM in tomorrow’s UK election. Yes, that’s all very well but don’t we all want to know whom Paula Abdul is supporting?
By Kyle | May 4, 2010
Formerly indefatigable ksonline commenter Hunter Tremayne has seemed singularly…defatigable of late, barely noticing vigorous attempts to draw his outrage. But I’m not offended. That’s only because he’s busy rehearsing the role of “Saunders” in the Jocular Theatre Co.’s long-awaited production of “Lend Me a Tenor,” which launches May 15. Get your tickets now! Drawback: the show is in HT’s adopted hometown of Barcelona, which is even farther away than Staten Island. (New York’s economy fell apart while Hunter lurked in the vicinity of Wall Street. Now Spain is in the toilet. Coincidence?) Also, for some reason plane tickets to Europe are suddenly about 40 million dollars. I’ll be there anyway!*
By Kyle | May 3, 2010
I just came across this April 19 posting by Boris Johnson ripping third-party curio Nick Clegg and co as a bunch of “polycephalous,” “euro-loving road-hump fetishists” — and I wished American politicians would/could unload on one another with such bright calumny. And yes, though I have advised all of my UK shock troops, my Scepter’d Isle myrmidons, to vote for Gordon Brown out of spite for the dismal Davey Cameron and his lingual bathing of the NHS and much of the rest of the State, I have to admit I am just slightly chuffed (somewhere in the irrational marrow) at the prospects of a Tory return.
There’s always the chance that once Cameron starts receiving mail at no. 10, he will locate his inner Thatcher. Isn’t there?
By Kyle | April 25, 2010
I don’t think Philip Hensher’s considered and surprising examination of English life from the 1970s to the 1990s has gotten its fair share of attention. Hensher’s “The Northern Clemency” is a worthy companion to Jonathan Coe’s brilliant two-book series, “The Rotters’ Club” and “The Closed Circle.”
The two writers cover some of the same territory and use some of the same tactics. One thing that can be unnerving about “The Northern Clemency” (a nominee for the Booker Prize) is how it builds to perfectly observed tiny cliffhangers of the soul — episodes that may have considerable, though not quite predictable, effects on character — only to skip over many years and to dispense with the character in question, sometimes for hundreds of pages, before the upshot starts to come into focus.
The book is simply and precisely the story of two families (local natives the Glovers and the London transplants the Sellerses) living across the street from each other in the coal town of Sheffield beginning in the 1970s and into the 1990s. The two families are somewhat mirror images: each has a hard-working upper-middle-class patriarch, each contains a housewife, a weird younger boy and a more confident teen girl. The Glover family’s oldest child, a teen boy in the full voltage of his later teens, is the handsome Daniel, who has no opposite number across the street and will later stumble his way to a surprise success as a restaurateur.
Hensher’s book isn’t assertively political, but in its Victorian expansiveness (it goes on for 700 pages that are fully engaging, in an oddly mild way) it completely understands its dramatis personae — especially Tim Glover, Daniel’s oddball little brother, and Francis, the tall, shy kid who is the same age. Tim is of mid-grammar-school age as the book begins, and his obsession with snakes culminates in the book’s most shattering (early) set piece, when his mother Katherine (who is devastated by her husband’s Malcolm’s wordless two-day disappearance after Malcolm comes to suspect she is having an affair) discovers that Tim has sneaked a snake into his bedroom and is keeping the unauthorized creature under his bed. Katherine, in full view of the neighbors, takes the snake into the street and stomps on its head, leaving Tim with an equally mangled soul. Later he will emerge as a full-throated Marxist, in the “Billy Elliott” era when the Sheffield miners went on a suicidal strike from the state-owned industry, sealing their fate when the Iron Lady dismissed their demands. Another equally fraught incident from Tim’s youth is his first sexual encounter, when the slutty teen girl across the street, Sandra, opens her shirt for him and invites him to bury his face in her cleavage. Twenty years later, Sandra will have restyled herself Alex and will be living a life of sex and sunshine in Australia, seemingly because it’s as far from dour, judgmental Sheffield as it is possible to go. Tim will never quite be cured of her breasts.
You might read the book principally for Hensher’s mordant observations and the snippets of unassuming dialogue that reveal so much about the English way: “Let’s just shut up about it,” says Alice Sellers, the unambitious but kindly hausfrau, about a subpar hotel. “I don’t know why we’ve always got to discuss everything.” A shady flower-shop-owner who is laundering money for a drugs gang experiences a coup de foudre when he first spots his gangster partner’s daughter at the dealer’s nouveau-riche nightmare country house: “It had never happened before to him in such a way, such an infliction of a moment as it not happened, dazed in a hot Devon garden of ugly elaboration.”
In addition to conjuring up characters of startling vividness, Hensher is a satirist of an amusingly reserved kind. In a group of hardcore leftists protesting in solidarity with the striking miners, there is “one girl, shabbily but decisively dressed” who “tried to embrace the chief mining wife. They sort of submitted to it, but you could see what they thought about Trudy, who, with her views on the systems that made deodorant, both vaginal and armpit, and shampoo seem necessary, wasn’t all that nice to be embraced by or even come very near to.” Fellow protester Tim (who will become Trudy’s life-comrade — we will learn in a sad and alarming passage that she is the only person he has ever had sex with) is spotted studying his way toward an advanced degree — “and, to be honest, he footled with Marx for an hour or two, his head bent over the rumpled book with its stains and deliberate coffee-mug rings, not taking much in, just enjoying the thought of himself reading Marx and how he must look to everyone else.” Funny — but unfair? I think not. Nor is Hensher ever bitter, which I suppose is a condition the satiric-minded must be ever vigilant of. No, Hensher is a wise one but not a wise-ass. There is deep humanity in this gently rolling, quietly penetrating, highly pleasurable book.