Archive for the ‘journos’ Category

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Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

19 January 2010

I can’t entirely remember what prompted me to pick up this book. I actually haven’t read much of Forster’s fiction, and only vaguely recall reading some of his essays on art and culture during research for something else. But the title interested me, and though it took a little while to track down a copy it was worth the initial hunt.

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

To many readers, English writer E.M. Forster’s literary output might as well be synonymous with the Merchant-Ivory film studios. In a little less than a decade, Merchant-Ivory brought no fewer than three of Forster’s novels (Howards End, Room with a View, and Maurice) to the screen, and their Edwardian drawing-room settings and mostly upper-middle-class characters tend to reinforce the stereotype of Forster as a writer of quaint period pieces set in the early 20th century. Yet Forster’s writings also included a wide range of other works, including travel writing, biography, and literary criticism, and many of his essays and journalistic output have been collected into two volumes. The first, Abinger Harvest, consists of Forster’s shorter pieces from the turn of the century to the early 1930s. Two Cheers for Democracy — the subject of this Tuesday Book Review — picks up where the first left off and collects Forster’s writings from the mid-1930s through the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s.

Two Cheers for Democracy was published in 1951, and many of the pieces in this collection contain Forster’s reflections on the experiences of wartime and the profound psychological shock that two world wars in a generation had on people of his age and social class. Unsurprisingly, the opening section is titled ‘The Second Darkness’, and his writings are a strong reaction to pre-war anti-Semitism, wartime censorship, and the increasing brutality and mechanisation of warfare. Even his essay ‘What I Believe’, which contains the phrase that gives the volume its name, is ambivalent at best about current political thought: ‘So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give it three.‘ Forster dislikes democracy mainly because it tends to promote mediocrity, but because it is ‘less hateful’ than other contemporary forms of government, it deserves some amount of endorsement. Above all, the tone of the writings collected in Two Cheers for Democracy reflects Forster’s beliefs in humanism and the power of the individual spirit, best summarised by his statement that ‘…the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

Although the first half of Two Cheers for Democracy reflects on current events and political musings, Forster’s literary and cultural criticism dominates the second half of the book. It includes a reprint of his 1941 Rede Lecture on Virginia Woolf; biographical sketches of individuals as diverse as fifteenth-century poet John Skelton, Indian poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and short notes on visits to the United States and other exotic locations. His melancholy lecture on English prose between the wars blends his political and literary thought as he attempts to assess the mindset of literature published between 1918 and 1939. Yet whether he is writing about the works of a once-popular but now mostly-forgotten author like French Nobel Prize laureate Romain Rolland, or musing on his experiences travelling in an India on the verge of independence from Britain, Forster’s light-hearted but thoughtful prose reveals more than it initially lets on. He had lived long enough to remember life before the Great War shattered aristocratic British complacency, and was a keen observer of the myriad ways in which two wars and an uncertain peace affected social, political, and literary culture. Two Cheers for Democracy records these observations, and gives contemporary readers a clear-eyed perspective on the changes wrought by the passing years both at home and abroad.

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Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.

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Commentary: Hansard, the Abridged Edition?

12 October 2009

Lord Solely’s recent Lords of the Blog post on potential reforms included a suggestion of creating a specially edited version of Hansard that might have a broader public appeal: ‘With good editing and with pictures it might sell in the shops and provide people with an alternative to the gossipy and trivial news coverage of Parliament in some of the newspapers.

Without reproducing my own comment verbatim, I can safely say that even though I’m about as close to a target demographic as any publisher might wish for this sort of edited version of Hansard, I doubt that I would buy it. Much as I love Hansard as an institution (and would gladly work as a Hansard reporter or editor, if given the chance), I can’t see much of a market for this kind of publication.

What I would love to see, however, is a series of professionally edited Hansard debates on key pieces of historic legislation. The editions would contain the texts of the debates in both the Commons and the Lords, with an editor’s introduction and conclusion, appropriate scholarly footnotes and references for further reading, a dramatis personae of the key figures in the debate, and perhaps the odd photograph or illustration (such as topical political cartoons). Pick six fairly well-known or noteworthy acts to start with — say, the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts (a two-part set), the 1944 Education Act, the 1958 Life Peerages Act, the 1967 Abortion Act, and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act — and have that be the first series. All of these acts fall well within the 30-Year Rule, so most of the relevant papers would be available at Kew and in various other archives for consultation. Ideally, the volumes would be edited and written to be well suited for A Level and undergraduate study, or just for the general reading public interested in contemporary history.

I haven’t seen anything of this nature available for sale, but I would absolutely be interested in buying it (or contributing to it, for that matter!) if some enterprising publisher wanted to take a chance on it.

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Commentary: London Review of Books articles

6 October 2008

Not really a true commentary from me, but rather links to two particularly interesting articles in recent issues of the London Review of Books.

1) From the 11 September 2008 issue, Ross McKibbin on the currently skewed ideological alignments in British politics. It ends with a fascinating thought-experiment on what a reformed three-party House of Commons might look like, even if you don’t agree with how he chooses to parcel out certain MPs.

2) From the 25 September 2008 issue, Donald MacKenzie on the importance of Libor, one of the more crucial but least understood aspects of the world’s current economic woes. Even if you’re suffering from information overload on matters financial, it’s worth reading as a well-written introduction to an often confusing subject.

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Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

20 July 2008

Another book that I found a bit tricky to review in full. I think I’ve managed to summarise most of what I wanted to say, but I’d be happy to elaborate in comments if there’s something it seems I’ve left out.

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

The coming year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 General Election, called after Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost a vote of no-confidence — by one vote — on 28 March 1979. That election brought the Conservative Party back into power for the first time since 1974, and brought Margaret Thatcher into office as Britain’s first female prime minister. So much has changed since 1979 that it’s often difficult to pinpoint where and when those changes took place, which makes it equally difficult to fully study how those changes have shaped how we look at recent history. Political journalist Simon Jenkins (formerly of the Economist and the Times, now a Guardian columnist) has taken it upon himself to delve into this recent history and thoroughly examine Thatcherism, its theory and practice, and the permutations it has gone through in the years since the Lady was unceremoniously ousted from power in 1990.

In Thatcher and Sons, Jenkins identifies not just one, but two Thatcher ‘revolutions’: the first involving an ideological shift from the ‘commanding heights’ of a mostly socialist economy to wholesale privatisation, and the second involving a massive push to centralise the government’s control over more and more aspects of British life. As he looks into these revolutions, Jenkins traces the line from Thatcher through John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, showing how Thatcher’s ‘sons’ have embraced (in varying ways, and with varying degrees of eagerness) the murky ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism. He also shows how Thatcherism has permeated the structure of Whitehall, especially in terms of the power that has built up in the Treasury in the past three decades. But most of all, he attempts to describe how the seemingly contradictory aims of privatisation and centralisation came together to drive the revolutions forward, in a manner that eventually made it difficult for their proponents to control.

At its strongest, Jenkins’ prose is clear and sharp and almost damning in its thoroughness, particularly in his overview of Tony Blair’s rise to power in the various Labour Party upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s. (For those who were too young to remember the specifics as it happened, or paid very little attention to Labour’s persistent navel-gazing in Foot-Kinnock-Smith years, the book is worth reading for this section alone.) He does his best to examine and weigh the merits of many commonly held beliefs about Thatcher and her successors, but there are times when his analysis misses the mark. To take one example, he criticises Thatcher’s insistence that she owed very little loyalty to the Tory establishment because, in her words, ‘They had fought me unscrupulously all the way‘. Jenkins hints, quite openly, that this attitude smacks of ingratitude. After all, didn’t she owe many of her rapid advances in the party to her position as that rare and wonderous bird, the female Tory MP? There’s more than a touch of chauvinism in that approach, as Thatcher herself might be first to claim. She was all too aware of the fact that her sex was both her greatest weapon and her greatest weakness, and it is hardly surprising that she should have felt insulted that her advance in the party often had less to do with her political or intellectual merits and more to do with the need to have some sort of token woman on the front bench. And with so much attention paid to the similarities between Thatcher and her ‘sons’, especially Thatcher and Blair, it seems odd that Jenkins should have trouble explaining some of their differences in opinion over points like European integration.

Jenkins concludes his book by declaring that the only possible means of countering the worst excesses of the Thatcher revolutions is to encourage a third revolution to strike back at Thatcherite overcentralisation: ‘localism’, by which he means a devolution of power and responsibility from Whitehall to strengthen the local government institutions that were either weakened or abolished by the Thatcher revolutions. Jenkins heaps praise on the strength of local government as it appears in the United States, particularly the town-hall meetings held in the New England states, as well as on the strength of local civic life in France and the Scandinavian countries. Yet there is something about this third revolution that fails to sound convincing, perhaps because it veers too close to an outright political manifesto at times. As the lessons of Thatcher and Sons indicate all too well, one more all-encompassing solution that is guaranteed to fix Britain’s economic and social ills might not be what the public wants or the country needs. As this kind of manifesto, the book falls rather short — but as a work of very recent political history, it is a useful point of reference.

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Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.

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Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.