Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer

Tom Baldwin, Keir Starmer: the biography, (William Collins 2024)

Tom Baldwin’s biography of the current leader of the British Labour opposition party, Sir Keir Starmer, follows a fairly conventional chronological pattern. It starts with his upbringing in a small Surrey town.

His father was a skilled toolmaker. This would have positioned him, in our British class-conscious social system, as working class, not meriting the esteem accorded to the privileged beneficiaries of inherited wealth and a private school education. A stern, undemonstrative man, his father’s patriarchal approach to family life led to Starmer becoming ostensibly an emotionally reticent person – except with the rest of his family and his close friends (including fellow footballers – a sport he is genuinely passionate about), who are all still very important to him.

His mother suffered from a serious illness which rendered her more or less an invalid for most of her adult life. Starmer was deeply influenced by her fortitude and her resilient response to her disability, and her refusal to wallow in self-pity or curtail those physical activities of which she was capable, such as hill walking in the family’s beloved Lake District, where they spent most of their holidays. He grew up with a deeply ingrained set of moral values, as well as a sense of decency, probity and integrity.

After reading law at the universities of Leeds and then Oxford, he became a top human rights lawyer who worked on some famous high-profile cases. When he became Director of Public Prosecutions, he was often accused of betraying those principles by which he had previously lived and worked: he was seen by some to have changed sides by turning prosecutor. Having vigorously upheld the right of all, even those accused of serious crimes, to a proper legal defence, he was portrayed by some as demonstrating double standards and shifting his moral position – an accusation also levelled at him frequently in his more recent political career.

Baldwin carefully shows that the truth is more complex than this black-and-white view. Starmer is obsessed with the nature of justice: it involves treating everyone caught up in the legal process with fairness and even-handed decency. That means that just as all accused of crime have the right to a proper defence, all victims have the right to a legal system that operates without prejudice or bias in its prosecution of perpetrators of crime.

This deeply principled foundation has continued to serve him in his subsequent career as a politician and member of parliament. When he became leader of the Labour party, he worked immediately to eradicate the antisemitism that had become endemic in parts of the membership. His determination to do the right thing, having carefully weighed – as a good lawyer should – all evidence, resulted in his removing many Labour members from the party. This included dealing with his outspoken and controversial predecessor, the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn; Starmer had him barred from active involvement in parliamentary politics. These were moves that provoked outrage in some quarters, and the left of his party turned on him aggressively.

So far he has ridden the storm and managed to demonstrate to all but his most blinkered critics that his political positions are determined by the deeply-felt convictions and principles mentioned earlier – not by the factionalism, posturing and grandstanding that tend to characterise the performance of most of our recent politicians.

This is largely a ‘warts and all’ portrait: it is not a hagiography. Baldwin acknowledges that Starmer can seem when in the media spotlight to be lacking in charisma, and overly lawyerly in his style of politics. Many doubt, as a consequence, that he is prime minister material. But Baldwin, in my view, successfully dispels such doubts.

Starmer is not the stereotypical showman politician, the charlatan, the boosterish prankster who takes nothing seriously, least of all the laws and standards they profess to uphold (certain recent populist Tory PMs come to mind). It’s maybe a strength in his demeanour that he doesn’t indulge in showy rhetoric or soundbites that conceal a lack of substance or political or moral rigour. If he is at times over-cautious, and is capable of changing his mind in the light of new developments or information, that’s maybe no bad thing – not a sign of weakness or infirmity of purpose.

Some biographies, especially those featuring politicians, can be stodgy, plodding reads. Baldwin’s portrait of Starmer is well-evidenced, balanced and highly readable. No matter what your politics, I’d recommend this biography for its depiction of a serious, thoughtful politician.

A novel of the troubles: Louise Kennedy, Trespasses

Louise Kennedy, Trespasses (Bloomsbury paperback, 2003; 20221)

Mrs TD urged me to read this novel when she’d finished it – especially as its protagonist shares my family name. Louise Kennedy writes about the region she grew up in: the Belfast area of N. Ireland. Trespasses is a powerful novel set there early (late 1960s-early 70s) in what became known as ‘the troubles’.

Her central character is Cushla Lavery. Her first name is Irish Gaelic for ‘beat of my heart’ or ‘darling’. One of the features of this divided community is that people are usually identifiable as either Protestant or Catholic by their names (‘Cushla’, being a Gaelic name, would immediately indicate that she was Catholic), the schools they attended, or the towns or areas they live in.

Cushla’s family pub is in a relatively quiet and peaceful area, in that theirs is a Catholic-run business, but the clientele are largely local Protestants (some of them associated with the paramilitaries), or British soldiers who don’t interact with the locals, including Cushla, very sensitively. They were supposed to be peacekeepers and restorers of order, but their behaviour (in Kennedy’s fictional scenario) is hardly likely to make the volatile atmosphere any calmer.

Cushla is a young primary school teacher, and takes under her wing a seven-year-old Catholic boy whose family are in a dangerously exposed position, as they live in a predominantly Protestant part of town. There’s a touching love story. Not surprisingly, given this tinder-box environment, not everything turns out well.

This might all sound a bit grim, and it is. Some of Kennedy’s characters are intended to show how intolerance and prejudice fuelled the flames of the troubles (a fiery priest, a rather creepy headteacher, those boorish soldiers). But there are others portrayed with such warmth and sympathy that the humanity and potential for love and kindness are shown as not entirely destroyed in the midst of all the terrorist atrocities, bombs and killings.

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to that very sketchy outline. As a person whose family has its roots in this region, I found Trespasses particularly moving: despite all the pain and suffering, the hatred and bigotry that form the background to the novel, Kennedy succeeds, while avoiding sentimentality or over-simplification, in making us care for her central characters, and believe that the forces of decency, humanity and kindness can still just about survive in such dreadful circumstances.

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within. Jonathan Cape, 2023

Mrs TD and I have been keenly following the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, fronted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, since it started 18 months ago. Campbell is the man who was Tony Blair’s media and comms guru, depicted in a grossly exaggerated way as the foul-mouthed bullying Malcolm Tucker (the name rhymes with a swear word he’s overfond of using) in the BBC political satire ‘The Thick of It’. Stewart is an alumnus of Eton and Balliol, Oxford. He is a former soldier, diplomat, author, academic and Tory MP.

This is Stewart’s account of his colourful career up to the point when he quit the Conservative Party in 2019, having been effectively sacked for opposing the hard-line no-deal Brexit bill that was being passed acrimoniously through Parliament. This was the final development in what he describes as the party’s transformation into a ‘populist party of the right’. This was a scarily predictable shift; his book traces this growing movement across the world, which led in the UK to the disastrous premierships of Johnson, Truss and, a less extremely inept example, Sunak:

On four continents provocative, anarchic, charismatic leaders were gaining, spitting out half-invented facts, presenting themselves as the people in revolt against an unrepresentative elite. The age of populism had begun.

This memoir begins with a brief account of the early part of Stewart’s career. He took leave from his diplomatic post in 2000 to walk across a large part of Asia – walking plays an important part in his life and working practice. It’s his way of meeting the people he serves, and reflects his principled approach (rarely shared by his colleagues) to representing them in his professional posts. For a man with a patrician heritage, he’s always determined to find out what people are really thinking and wanting from him, and then trying to bring about change for the better for them.

He served as a provincial governor in Iraq after the ill-fated 2003 war. His experience as a diplomat during these early years exposed him to what was to become familiar to him in political life: an over-fondness among his colleagues for ‘abstract jargon and optimistic platitudes…Most striking was not the failure, but the failure to acknowledge our failure.’

After a spell running an NGO in Afghanistan and as an academic at Harvard, and disillusioned by his chances of improving people’s lives as a diplomat, he decided to try entering what seemed the source of political power, and applied under David Cameron’s 2009 initiative to encourage a more diverse group of people in parliament to become a Conservative MP.

It’s always seemed to me (and Alastair C often teases him about this on the podcast) that he’s far too liberal in his political views to be a Tory. But his riposte there, and in this memoir, is that he dislikes what he sees as the Labour party’s ‘technocratic fantasies’ and predilection for ‘big government’. He’s an advocate, in general terms, of the military, the monarchy, tradition (whatever that means) and love of one’s country. More specifically, he favours limited government, individual rights, ‘prudence at home and strength abroad’. But he’s the old-fashioned, one nation kind of Tory that’s now pretty much been supplanted by the opportunist, xenophobic ultras of the hard right.

Elected in 2010 as the MP for Penrith and the Border, a rural constituency in the far NW of England, he went on to become first a junior minister, held various other posts of increasing responsibility, and peaked as minister at the department for international development from 2017.

His account of his career as a politician is vivid, highly readable and entertaining, but also deeply depressing. His colleagues were often rude to the point of viciousness; most of them, and all of his bosses, were hardly representative of selfless integrity, decency and honesty.

As a new MP he was dismayed to be told by the chief whip – the parliamentary enforcer for his party – that

We should not regard debates [in parliament] as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement. To vote too often on your conscience was to be a fool, and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister. In short, politics was a ‘team sport’.

When first summoned by his new boss Liz Truss at the department for rural affairs, he was horrified by her loftily dismissive attitude to their area of concern. She was to become typical of politicians being appointed to positions for which they showed little enthusiasm or in which they had no experience. Anyone like Stewart, who had vast knowledge of areas like Afghanistan, would be overlooked for posts that cried out for such expertise, and instead injected into positions for which they were unsuited. This reflects the atrophied and ineffective nature of our parliamentary political system with which he gradually fell out of love.Her cavalier attitude to their roles caused him to question whether

these ministerial roles were anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty.

At times his account makes him sound priggish and pious, but he’s disarmingly honest about his shortcomings and self-doubt, his tendency to be ‘over-earnest’ and obsessed with details. He admits committing several gaffes, like the one when he was minister in charge of dealing with floods: after one particularly serious flood had happened, and many houses and streets were inundated, he told the BBC that his department had spent millions on flood defences, but this fifteen-foot rise in river levels was unprecedented: “The flood defences are working”, he asserted, “the problem is that the water came over the top”. This admission of one of his ‘screw-ups’ he concedes was a fine example of ‘political idiocy’.

But he also had some successes, like introducing charges for the plastic carrier bags that used to be given out free in supermarkets and shops; this reduced plastic waste by 85%. When prisons minister he managed to improve the previously appalling conditions. There were other small gains. It was the madness of the divisive Brexit campaign and its aftermath that finally did for him, and he realised that the selfishness of his party’s leaders, their disregard for the public good and habit of prioritising their own careers and grip on power, had become too egregious for him to stomach any longer.

We need more people in parliament and politics in general with his kind of integrity, decency and probity – all qualities that our current PM has bragged about restoring, but shown zero capacity for deploying.

Whatever your politics, I’d recommend this book for its insight into the dysfunctional nature of Britain’s political (and electoral) system.

Snakes, T. Hardy, flâneuses and disobedience – recent reading

Work and other commitments have kept me from posting much lately. Time to start catching up on recent reading – and some other things that have interested me lately.

First, before the books, a word that popped up in my OED word of the day email a while back:

OPHIOLATRY: the worship or reverence of snakes. From the Greek ophios – serpent, plus the usual suffix meaning, well, worship. I consulted the OED online (as always, thanks to them for allowing free access via library card number): the first citation is from Cotton Mather in 1723.

Other dictionary sites provide related words, including ophiolite – serpentine, but sadly that’s obsolete. I don’t suppose we use ‘serpentine’ too often, either – apart from the name of the lake in a London park. Also ophidian – having the nature or character of snakes. Ophidiophobia dates from 1914, and seems a much more sensible word: why would anyone want to worship snakes? Much more likely, surely, to fear them.

There are so many examples in the English language of two different words denoting the same thing, often deriving from Latin (considered the elegant variant) and Old English (less prestigious). Isn’t it great that we can refer to snakes or serpents? Both have that wonderful hissing sibilant, appropriately. Serpent was originally used for any ‘creeping thing’; OED says it’s from the Latin, and had that meaning (examples include ‘louse’). Snake comes from earthier Old English, and therefore has a longer history. OED’s first citations are from the 11C. But the two seem to have been used interchangeably. Then there’s this 15C quotation from Lydgate: Whos vertu is al venym to distroye,..Of dragoun, serpent, adder & of snake. He seems to consider these as different kinds of dangerous crawling reptiles (or ‘limbless vertebrates’ as the OED calls them) – or it’s just the typical ‘elegant variation’ that was popular with contemporary authors.

Now for the books.

Elizabeth Lowry: The Chosen. Riverrun, 296 pp. Published 2022. A competent fictional account of Thomas Hardy’s explosion of grief when his wife of over thirty years, Emma (Gifford), died in 1912. They were both in their seventies. They’d been estranged for twenty years, living mostly in different parts of the ugly house that Hardy designed himself (Max Gate, Dorchester – that was Emma’s view, anyway; I’ve seen it, and it’s not handsome), and hardly talking to each other.

Lowry evokes well the chilly atmosphere of this forbidding house, and the marriage that atrophied inside it. When TH discovers Emma’s diaries and reads what she’d been going through, married to a man totally preoccupied with his writing, he’s horrified and stricken with guilt at how cruel and cold he’d been. Remorse overwhelms him. This prepares the scene for the outpouring of the great elegiac poems he then wrote about her. In them he restored her to life, reimagined as the young girl she was when they met at St Juliot in north Cornwall.

I can’t say I was deeply moved by this novel, despite the interesting story. It was overwritten, the style too mannered. Colm Toibin does a much better job with his novels about the writers Henry James (I read The Master pre-blog) and Thomas Mann (link to my recent post on this HERE). Paula McLain’s boisterous novel about Hemingway’s life with his first wife Hadley in Paris in the 1920s is undemanding but good fun. I wrote one of my earliest posts about it (link HERE). This reminds me: that was in 2013, so my tenth blogging anniversary will be in April this year!

Lauren Elkin: Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Vintage, 2017; 20161). The title says it all: this is a scholarly, lucidly written study and history of the literature of women who haunted the streets of those cities and wrote about their experience of them. Of course, it’s a deliberate challenge to the well-known 19C literary figure, the flâneur (usual examples include Baudelaire, Poe and Dickens) – almost always male and middle-class. The sections on Paris and London are the best: Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys figure largely here.

But this book is partly an irritatingly self-regarding autobiography. There’s too much intrusive gush about the author’s love life. This is a shame, because there’s some really interesting, well-researched stuff in here, good literary analysis and author profiles. I could have done without all the navel-gazing, though.

There’s a link HERE to some of my previous posts on the subject (Walter Benjamin, Iain Sinclair, etc.)

Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (Penguin, 2018; 20161). This was an early example of what has become something of a literary (and filmed) genre: the woman who flees an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and struggles to find herself in the outside, secular world. It raises interesting and tricky questions about female rebellion against a male-dominated culture, and what it really takes to be…disobedient.

Still got a few more titles. More on them next time.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A history of walking. Granta, 2014. First published 2001

This is a scholarly, well-researched and readable account of walking – its history, and how and why humans go for walks, often with no particular goal in mind.

Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust cover She explores the archaeology and anthropology of bipedalism, and the consequences of our ancient ancestors’ rising from all fours to an upright position that enabled perambulation, and the evolutionary and cultural developments that followed.

Then she has a section on that particularly focused kind of walking: pilgrimages, from those in the Americas, to Compostela and the medieval and later European pilgrim destinations (but I don’t recall a mention of Chaucer and Canterbury, and there’s no such entry in the index; maybe I missed it). She’s astute in summing up the essence of why people feel the impulse to set off on such gruelling trips: often, unlike sturdy hikers, these are walkers who are infirm or frail. Many go on pilgrimage in quest of healing or solace.

Labyrinths are the subject of the next section. She sees these as a means of undertaking pilgrimage in a confined space, a sort of symbolic pilgrimage. I don’t recall any mention of Borges here.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the one that deals with the rise of landscape gardening. In medieval and early modern times, nature was seen by civilised people (ie wealthy urbanites) as chaotic, savage and hostile. Solnit doesn’t mention that our word ‘savage’ derives from the Latin ‘silva’, meaning wood, forest, or by extension any wild, uncultivated (and therefore potentially dangerous) place. It’s the opposite of civilised (a word derived from the Latin for ‘relating to a citizen’, ie a dweller in a city).

Gardens, and then country estates of the gentry, were developed as oases of ordered tranquillity; ‘nature needs to be dressed and adorned, at least in the garden.’ By the 18C this had become a pre-Romantic fashion for more natural-looking (less geometrically sculpted) gardens, and the era of the famous landscape gardeners like Capability Brown arrived.

I’d have liked a bit more on Jane Austen’s contribution to the literature of this period. When her heroines ‘take a turn’ round the park of their own estate, or more often that of the wealthier young man on whom they’d set their sights, they set out on what was to be an opportunity to flirt and escape the watchful eyes of chaperones. The gentlemen could show off the ostentation of their wealth; the ladies could legitimately display how well they looked when flushed by exertion and the country air. Solnit astutely quotes Mr Darcy saying (playfully but also meanly) to the young ladies vying for his attention and suggesting a walk: ‘Your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’.

Although she writes interestingly about the importance and frequency of walks in Austen’s fiction, especially in Pride and Prejudice, she could have made far more of the symbolic, literary and cultural significance of her characters’ ventures out into the natural (and cultivated to look natural) world of gardens, country estates and beauty spots like Lyme Regis.

Behind all this was a concept of nature as being in need of human intervention to remove its imperfections, to enhance and improve it. The garden should look like a landscape painting, something to be aesthetically appreciated by the tourist or visitor.

Then we come to Wordsworth and the rest of the serious walkers of the Romantic era. They went beyond the cosy confines of the country estate: all of nature was their garden, and they thought nothing of walking hundreds of miles on a tour. WW clocked up thousands of miles of pedestrianism in his lifetime.

He broadened the educated person’s appreciation of walking to include pleasure as well as suffering, ‘politics and scenery’:

He had taken the walk out of the garden, with its refined and restricted possibilities, but most of his successors wanted the world in which they walked to nothing but a larger garden.

The concept of urban walking forms another of the most interesting sections of this book. I’d read studies by Solnit and others of the rise of the Parisian (and other cities’) flâneur (and flâneuses – women walking alone in the city were sadly usually associated with street walkers, aka prostitutes, lorettes, and so on). I’ve posted on this topic before, on Walter Benjamin, psychogeography, Breton, and so on; links HERE). I must read Lauren Elkin’s full-length study of this subject.

Unlike Rousseau, who avoided crowds, Baudelaire and other gentlemanly urban strollers were ‘men of the crowd’; they sought out crowded places, even while indulging in their dérives, or drifting, aimless wanderings through the thronged city. Dickens is another famous literary figure who was a prodigious walker, and Solnit perceptively assesses his motives for and accounts of walking.

There is a brief section on the literature of walking, but Solnit sees this as mostly in essay and other non-fiction forms. The likes of Hazlitt and RL Stevenson see walking as a sort of circumscribed activity: ‘the walking essay and the kind of walking described in it have much in common: however much they meander, they must come home at the end essentially unchanged.’ Walking offers an uplifting opportunity to reflect, collect one’s thoughts. ‘And then moralizing sneaks in…Few of the canonical essayists can resist telling us that we should walk because it is good for us, nor from providing directions on how to walk.’

(She’s less stringent and dismissive of Rousseau, in an earlier part of the book. His take on (usually solitary) walking represents what she calls the philosophical kind. Her assessment sums it up as a cross between meditation and escape from the rigours and stresses of urban life, a flight into simplicity, away from crowds.)

Then this intriguing history started, for me, to fizzle out, apart from the section on mountaineering. I found most of the final sections a drag. There was too much digression into Solnit’s experience of demos and street events. Here she veered dangerously close to a kind of right-on Californian pretentiousness. She touches on other modes of transport in the modern age – but not, strangely, sailing; I read most of this book while on a sailing holiday with family on the Croatian-Dalmatian coast. Sailing seems to go beyond the confines of her area of study. There’s also far too much for my taste on the lurid phenomenon of Las Vegas.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Solnit’s writing is mostly elegantly and intelligently done (apart from an annoying habit of starting sentences with ‘Too’). I may have been a bit unfair for wanting to see more of the aspects of this subject that interest me than she was prepared to provide.

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2015. First published 2014

This is the third novel by Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie that I’ve read (links to posts on the other two at the end): as always she tells a powerful story, creating complex, conflicted characters faced with terrible dilemmas.

Shamsie is interested in the tensions and connections between British colonisers in the Indian subcontinent and those they lorded it over. In this case there’s Viv, an English archaeologist, who travels from Turkey back to England. When WWI breaks out she works as a VAD nurse, then, emotionally shattered, she sails for Peshawar (modern-day Pakistan) to take part in a dig that her Turkish mentor had told her might be the site of a lost ancient treasure.

Quayyum’s family come from that city, but he’d served the British in a Pathan regiment, believing that he was doing the right thing to serve the empire. Badly injured and disillusioned he returns to his home city. Not surprisingly, his path crosses with Viv’s. Further complications ensue when his younger brother Najeeb becomes her willing pupil. She enthuses him with a love of history and archaeology. Quayyum disapproves. Anti-British feeling is growing, and he’s aware that his friends are joining the jihadist freedom fighters.

I’ve found with Shamsie’s other novels that the pace of the first half of the novel is quite ponderous, as characters and plots are carefully established. The final section slowly builds to an almost unbearable state of tension as all the clashes of culture, personality and politics come to a climax.

The style is perhaps a little too florid at times, but there are the usual Shamsie flashes of brilliance. She skilfully evokes the heat, colours and beauty of what the British used to call the northwest frontier, and the volcano of indignation and outrage that erupts in the ‘native’ population (as the British patronisingly calls the indigenous people). Even Viv shows a lack of sensitivity and awareness of her privilege and unconscious arrogance as a white woman, despite her genuine love for the place, and the twelve-year-old Najeeb. She fails to realise how she compromises him and herself in the eyes of his family and the community by taking him under her tutelage.

What’s so effective in Shamsie’s fictional explorations of these cultural tensions is that she avoids crude black-and-white oppositions, good v. bad. Viv, for example, has experienced arrogance and disdain from patriarchal British society, and sees herself as something of a feminist. So it would have been easy to set her up as some sort of emissary, a bridge between the Peshwari community and the politically myopic British imperialists and brutal military.

As I mentioned earlier, Quayyum is far from being a firebrand anti-Brit; he’s genuinely conflicted about his loyalty to empire as a veteran of the Western Front, where he fought alongside British soldiers and others from across the empire. But when he’s wounded and being treated in a hospital back in England, he’s appalled to discover that the military and ruling class won’t allow young women nurses to tend non-white male patients – such is the fear of some kind of contamination. He also discovers that the hospitals for Indian wounded men are effectively prisons, and the patients are lied to about the whereabouts of their wounded comrades. Without preaching, Shamsie succeeds in showing both the casual cruelty but also the capacity for kindness of the imperialist British, and the not always pure-minded mentality of the oppressed people who are finally provoked into rebelling against them.

I used to think that Britain’s colonial past – the world Shamsie describes in this novel – was as low as we could sink in terms of unethical, amoral political arrogance. I was wrong. Our prime minister and his team continue to reveal themselves as lacking in any kind of integrity or decency. Maybe Kamila Shamsie should turn her attention to present day Britain.

Other posts:

Home Fire (brief note) HERE

Burnt Shadows HERE

 

 

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Phoenix paperback, 2014; first published 2013

I first came across this bizarre twist on the Frankenstein story when I was teaching a Romantics module on a degree course a few years ago (link to my series of posts on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel HERE).

Moore, Perfect Wife cover Wealthy, eccentric and uncouth Thomas Day had been upset several times when his fiancées had a change of heart about marriage and rejected him. The latest of these was Margaret, sister of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish inventor and father of the novelist Maria). Day was hardly a compelling romantic prospect: his face was badly scarred from childhood smallpox; he was dirty, unkempt, morose, moody, misogynistic and opinionated, given to holding forth at tedious length on his pet subjects.

A devotee of Rousseau’s radical theories about education and social equality, he nevertheless (like his hero) held paradoxically misogynistic and repressive views on women: their role, he believed, was to submit to and obey men. Libertarians at that time firmly held that women were an inferior species and were therefore exempt from androcentric strictures about equality, liberty and human rights. (Today’s so-called libertarians here in the UK at the moment think, equally irrationally, that it’s an infringement on their civil liberties to have to wear a mask to stop them infecting and potentially killing people around them.)

The marital rejections he’d been humiliated by, he believed, were the consequence of young women’s being exposed to and deformed by the corrupting influence of foppish Georgian society. They were susceptible to what he saw as the vacuous distractions of fashion, dancing, gossip, and so on, and lacked rational capacity (that is, they failed to discern his genius). His plan was for his wife to live with him in simple, idyllic rural seclusion, dressed peasant style and following a frugal regime. She would defer to him and his every whim, and yet entertain him intellectually – she’d therefore need a modicum of rational education.

His monstrous plan, formed at the age of just 21 in 1769, in imitation of Rousseau’s scheme in Emile, or on Education (1761-2), was to find a pre-pubescent girl, as yet unspoilt by social influences, her mind a blank slate on which he could inscribe his own program, and to train her to become his ideal wife. He hedged his bets by selecting two orphans from foundling hospitals in Shrewsbury and London, whose names he changed to Sabrina (Latin for Severn, the river in Shrewsbury where her hospital was located), and Lucretia. If one fell short of his exacting standards, the other would, he hoped, meet them.

His scheme, fortunately, failed. Both girls failed to fulfil his selfish, impossible ambitions. His despotic methods included interminable sessions of tedious instruction – the pedagogy of the oppressor. He would cruelly expose them to physical, emotional and psychological traumas, privations and constraints, and try to condition their behaviour through punishment, coercion and bullying. One example of this, which Moore doesn’t mention explicitly, was his practice of firing a gun behind them unexpectedly to startle them; if they screamed or made a fuss they’d be admonished. It was their task to show stoical indifference to all hardships or knocks, and to obey blindly any male orders, however ridiculous or demeaning to them.

Day’s arrogance is depicted with graphic clarity in this lively, depressing account, and the monstrous presumptuousness of his experiment is expounded in all its cruelty. Moore also points out that it was Day’s social rank, wealth and gender that enabled him to get away with his devious schemes; nowadays one would hope he’d be exposed and prosecuted as a paedophile and predator.

He was a strangely paradoxical character: he gave away much of his wealth to the poor, and was an abolitionist, and yet he made a virtual slave of Sabrina, and abandoned her to a life of penury when she failed to satisfy his requirements.

Moore goes on to show what happened in Sabrina’s life after she was callously cast aside by Day (just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his Creature, who had also come to appal him). After many hardships she found a kind of peace and perhaps love. Day, for his part, continued to be as boorish and overbearing for the rest of his life. Astonishingly, he managed to find a young woman who went along with his tyrannical regime for a wife, and even seemed to dote on him. There really is no accounting for taste.

I’d have liked to see more of the author’s discussion of influences on Day’s thinking other than Rousseau’s; the scientists/’natural philosophers’ whose thinking radically influenced the nascent Romantic movement, such as those in what became, from 1775, the Lunar Society (which met on the nights of a full moon, hence the name). These late Enlightenment intellectuals – ‘men of observation’ – promulgated the ‘experimental optimism’ mentioned by Jenny Uglow in her book about them, The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future, 1730-1810 (2002; reviewed in the Guardian HERE).

I’d also have liked more on the influence of Day’s callous experiment with Sabrina on later writers, touched on only briefly in Moore’s account, from Henry James’s Watch and Ward to Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion story. Trollope has a tale about a young man who moulds an orphan to become his wife as a central thread in his 1862 novel Orley Farm (I haven’t read it, so can’t confirm this claim). Maria Edgeworth’s fictional treatments of Day’s story are covered by Moore rather more thoroughly, from an early short story to the ‘society’ novel Belinda (1801).

Moore’s style is gratingly journalistic at times, and there’s a dusty air to the whole thing, perhaps a consequence of the obviously very thorough research she conducted – there are 35 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography. Sometimes I felt that the copious narrative detail obscured or diminished the shocking impact of the central theme.

 

 

 

 

 

November reading catch-up

Because of my week in London on a social visit, and a work project this week, there’s been no time for book posts here lately. Here’s a (very) brief round-up of recent reading.

John Banville, The Blue Guitar (first published 2015). This was for me what Mrs TD used to call a damp squid. Although JB – as always – writes extremely well, the content of this novel failed to stir much interest in me. It’s a rather squalid (double) love triangle plot. The protagonist is a verbose kleptomaniac artist, a painter who calls himself a ‘painster’ (he likes this kind of rather annoying wordplay) because he portrays himself as an epicure of suffering. He’s short, fat and ugly, and frankly a bit of a pain himself. He’s self-regarding, duplicitous and judgemental. It’s a curiously lifeless, cerebral novel. Disappointing, because I’d enjoyed other JB novels in the past.

Dave Eggers, The Monk of Mokha (first published 2018). I didn’t know that coffee was first grown in Yemen, discovered and developed into the caffeine-rich drink by the titular medieval monk. He was based in the city of Mokha, anglicised as mocha. Coffee subsequently spread in popularity across the world, as the Yemeni market almost disappeared, supplanted by its imitators. This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American man who tries to restore his country’s pre-eminence as a producer of high-quality coffee. Unfortunately his project takes place as a vicious war breaks out in Yemen. Young Mokhtar learns the coffee trade and travels the country, sourcing the best beans and finding places to process and roast them. His quest to get his prestige product to international markets is a page-turning thriller as he blags his way through hostile militia checkpoints and dodges air-raids. This narrative eventually palled for me as it became a little repetitive. But it’s an entertaining and unusual story.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (first published 2020). RT is at her best when writing historical fiction like this. It’s set in Bath and London in 1865. A young woman called Jane is known as the Angel of the Baths because of her remarkably restorative powers of ministration to those taking the spa waters under the supervision of her doctor father. She’s forced to choose between bland marriage with the earnest young assistant doctor who isn’t perhaps as decent as he seems, and a passionate affair with a beautiful married woman. The most interesting character is Jane’s bohemian aunt, a London artist who sees Jane’s true spirit and advises her accordingly. There’s a strange, Gothic-inflected Heart of Darkness section in the middle in which this doctor’s botanist brother endures a torrid time in a tropical jungle. The narrative wobbles into melodrama at times, but it’s a spirited and highly enjoyable novel.

William Boyd Trio coverWilliam Boyd, Trio (first published 2020). Another disappointment from an author whose work I’ve found either very good or mediocre. This falls into the latter category. It’s a frenetic, farcical account of three lives (hence the title) involved in making a film that would surely never have been made, let alone in Brighton in 1968. The plot is too contrived to summarise, and the characters are mostly caricatures or types. Only Elfrida, the blocked, once-successful novelist, fuddled by booze, raised much interest. She decides, unwisely, to write a novel about the final day in the life of Virginia Woolf. I read today that Richmond council has been castigated for planning to place a statue of VW by the Thames at Richmond: it’s been suggested that it’s in poor taste to position the statue of her gazing over the river, given the manner of her suicide. But she drowned in a different river in a different county – doesn’t seem too problematic to me.

That’s enough for now.

Failures of State

Jonathan Calvert & George Arbuthnot, Failures of State: The inside story of Britain’s battle with Coronavirus, Mudlark hardback, 2021. 426 pp.

 Jonathan Calvert is the editor of The Sunday Times’s Insight investigative journalism team; George Arbuthnot is its deputy editor. Failures of State is their account of the disastrously inept handling by the British government – and PM Johnson in particular – of the Covid pandemic.

Failures of State front coverTheir tone is set in the prologue, where they juxtapose Johnson’s portentous ‘You must stay at home’ lockdown speech on 23 March last year with his characteristically preposterous, boastful image of ‘Clark Kent, champion of free market libertarianism’ in a speech he made a month earlier. They go on in the rest of the book to trace the chronology of the British government’s and PM’s failure to act swiftly or decisively enough to stop Britain becoming one of the world’s worst responders to the crisis, with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the developed world as a consequence.

The first chapter explores the obscure origins of the virus in China. Was it, as some believe, the result of an accidental leak from a research lab in Wuhan? This seems more feasible than the ‘bat cave’ source more usually identified – this is hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. Whatever the case, the Chinese seem guilty of attempting a cover-up that resulted in catastrophic delays in the rest of the world’s response to the spread of the virus.

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’ is the title of the second chapter (Jan. – March 2020): despite ominous warning signs from Dec. 2019 and earlier, government failed to take the danger seriously. Johnson missed the first five meetings of Cobra (the national crisis committee), more interested in his own turbulent private life and his obsession with Brexit. He made light (like his chum the then-president of the USA) of this minor ‘flu’ virus. He allowed events like football matches and the Cheltenham horse race festival to take place – these became super-spreader events. Warnings from Sage (the expert scientific advisory group for emergencies) went largely unheeded. They still are today.

Subsequent chapters describe with chilling detail why the first lockdown in March was fatally too late, and this reluctance to take prompt, decisive action was to be repeated several times over the following months. Johnson and his chancellor, Sunak, prioritised the economy over public health. ‘Herd immunity’ was their heartless tactic (despite denials that this was the case). They dithered and delayed, allowing tens of thousands to suffer and die needlessly. Their mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ proved just more empty rhetoric – our health service was rapidly overwhelmed.

The then health secretary Hancock was as fond as his leader of making empty, sweeping boastful staments, from creating a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system (that turned out to be useless) to claiming he’d put a protective ‘ring of steel’ round older people in care homes; the reverse turned out to be the case. Some 25,000 patients were controversially discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic’s height, many of them ‘without first being tested.’ This had the effect of ‘dispersing the virus into the very place where Britain’s most vulnerable were supposed to have been shielded.’

It is one of the most scandalous facts of the lockdown weeks that hundreds of patients who had tested positive for the virus were also deliberately sent into care homes.

By 17 April 2020 there had been almost 10,000 excess deaths in care homes since the beginning of March. This was, the authors say, ‘another big but unsustainable claim.’ Johnson even told a parliamentary committee in May that ‘every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims.’ He was either badly informed, say the authors – or using language to obscure the truth: many of those discharged would have been asymptomatic, so even clinicians wouldn’t have suspected them of being infected without testing them. The reality was that there simply wasn’t the capacity to test so many.

There I’d better stop: it becomes to upsetting and infuriating to consider the evidence provided so meticulously in this book of this country’s leaders’ hopeless, dangerous and reckless response. What’s worse, Johnson and co. constantly claimed to be ‘following the science’, when all the data indicates they were not. Their dismal list of bad decisions precipitated the successive waves of infection and economic depression that afflicted this country more disastrously than in any other western country.

It’s dispiriting to read this relentless catalogue of mistakes made by the very leaders who should have been protecting their people. Their blunders and subsequent blustering denials that they’d done anything amiss resulted in millions more Covid cases in Britain than would have been experienced if they really had followed the advice of their scientific and medical advisers. Their decision to protect the economy and jobs instead produced the opposite outcome: Britain’s GDP suffered proportionately far more than most. As the bereaved families for justice group wearily stated, ‘they ignored us and repeated the same mistakes.’

They still are: we are seeing a million new cases a month in this country this autumn, and yet we’re being told to abandon all the protective measures we’d previously been adopting, as we’ve ‘come out the other side’ of the pandemic, as former health secretary Hancock was heard telling constituents the other day. Let’s hope that the public enquiry into these matters, which Johnson will have to face – he can’t keep delaying it indefinitely – will expose those responsible for ‘one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.’

 

How to become a good doctor

It’s been a busy month, and I have a backlog of books to post about. I’ll start with the first of a couple of non-fiction titles from recent reading: one about the process of becoming a doctor, the other about failing to protect the British people during the pandemic.

 Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions: A doctor’s story, Fleet hardback, 2021. 248 pp.

Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions front coverThe author graduated in 1995 with a degree in English, then, after a few jobs, became an editor at Grantamagazine. On an exotic beach she had an epiphany and decided at the age of 28 to become a doctor. A junior doctor she met gave her a tip for her medical school interview: when asked why she wanted to become a doctor, not to say ‘Because I want to help people’ – everyone says that. But that was the answer she gave.

Her training began in 2003. This book is her entertaining and illuminating account of that process, from F1 through to qualification, rotating through different specialties. When she decided to become a GP, her colleagues were incredulous: that was for those not good enough to become specialist surgeons or whatever.

I was alerted to this book by hearing Harrison interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 language programme ‘Word of Mouth’, in which she told Michael Rosen about those sections of the book dealing with the language used by clinicians. These were the most interesting parts of the book for me – though there are many fascinating sections about her other experiences.

Medical students were advised to talk to patients

in what we believed to be everyday speech, although it was in fact another language again: infantile, nursery-inflected. We called abdomens ‘tummies’ and warned ‘this might feel a little chilly’. We used soothing, neutered verbs. I learnt to ask patients to ‘pop’ off their clothes before ‘hopping’ up onto the bed, where I would just ‘slip’ this nameless thing I was holding up their noses or down their throats or up their ‘tail end’.

There was also the slangy practitioners’ jargon that often veered into dark humour (a kind of coping mechanism). And the specialised, obscure technical language of medical science, as Harrison shows from her anatomy classes:

 Once I had known that the thigh bone connected to the hip bone. Now I discovered that the iliofemoral ligament arises from the anterior inferior iliac spine and then bifurcates before inserting into the intertrochanteric line of the femur.

 Other chapters deal with Harrison’s learning about our bodies’ internal organs, end of life, observations, the heart, surgery and medicines (especially opiate addiction), women and babies (and her own experience of an emergency caesarean), and pain and how to describe and assess it meaningfully (you can’t).

The final chapter deals briefly with the Covid pandemic. Doctors, like the rest of us, had to learn quickly a whole new way of speaking and acting, with attendant acronyms: PPE, WFH. When a new consignment of boxes of protective aprons arrived at her GP surgery, a nurse exclaimed: ‘These are bin liners!’ Another practice had scrubs donated by patients, who had sewn together old sheets and duvet covers. In my next post I’ll discuss a highly critical account of the British government’s hopelessly inept response to this crisis, and its continuous stream of boastful misinformation about the horrific reality on what they liked to call ‘the front line’.

Ultimately in The Cure for Good Intentions it’s the author’s stories about people and the ailing, imperfect bodies we’re all born with that provide the energy and hope in this engaging account. We’re all going to get sick and decline at some stage – as we all know only too well during this pandemic – and we all fear this inevitable process. Thank goodness we have caring, humane doctors like Sophie Harrison to look after us when we do.

The final paragraph sums up what she learnt going through medical training and acquiring the new idiolects of the doctor’s world:

I had learnt, at least, that medicine was not about finding new ways to express yourself, or how nicely you could put together a sentence. It was about trying to understand what others meant, not just the words they said.