Monday, 11 February 2008

Conversations: Cricket and Politics

‘It's a scandal!’

‘Isn’t it just?’

‘Whom do they think they are?’

‘Absolutely . . .but . . .’

‘What?’

‘Shouldn’t it be who?’

‘Who?’

‘Who.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘The question you just asked.’

‘“Whom do they think they are?”’

‘Who do they think they are.’

‘You have a genius for missing the point.’

‘Sorry . . . Carry on.’

‘The arrogance of it!’

‘The effrontery!’

‘It’s a disgrace!’

'Where is the guillotine when one needs it?'

‘A national disgrace!’

‘Steady on now. I am as cheesed off as you about this. But don't you think calling it a national disgrace is a bit of a hyperbole, if that itself is not an oxymoron?'

‘Don’t you?’

'Don't I what?'

'Think it's a national disgrace?'

‘No! What have we got to be ashamed of?’

‘You may have a point there. It’s them who should be hanging their heads in shame.’

‘Them?’

‘Yes, them! Who else?’

‘Oh! You mean they!’

‘Bastards!’

‘Rascals!’

‘This is racism. That’s my frank and honest view.’

‘You think so? But . . .’

‘They are accusing him of lying, would you believe it?’

‘Are they? One should think twice about casting aspersions on one’s integrity. But I suppose it is their job’

‘What do you mean by “It’s their job”?’

‘Well . . . they are after all in the opposition, so they will dis the other guy.’

‘It’s not cricket!’

‘It most certainly isn’t.’

‘No wonder Bhajji is angry!’

Bhajji?’

‘Harbhajan.’

‘Harbhajan?’

‘Singh.’

‘Sing?’

‘Why are you repeating everything I am saying? I know what I am talking about.’

‘Sorry . . . Who is angry?’

‘Harbhajan. Wouldn’t you if you were him?’

‘Him?’

‘Yes! Him! Harbhajan.’

‘Oh! You mean he! I suppose he has as much right as anyone else to feel angry. I am feeling angry. Well, not exactly angry. A bit peeved. A bit miffed. A bit vexed.’

‘Stop waffling.’

‘I was saying this Sing . . .’

‘Singh’

‘That’s what I said. Sing. If he feels passionately about it, and which tax-paying, law-abiding citizen wouldn’t?, he is bound to feel angry. At least vexed.’

‘It’s an insult! Do they think we are brainless?’

‘They are obviously under the impression that we the people have about as much intelligence as a dead rabbit.’

‘We must know the truth!’

‘Couldn’t agree more with you. Truth needs to come out.’

‘There should be an independent inquiry.’

‘Haven’t they announced there will be a judicial inquiry?’

‘Only after there was an outrage.’

‘Well . . .Better late than never, I say.’

‘I am sure the whole country is behind Bhajji.’

‘The whole country?’

‘To the last man!’

‘But why Bhajji?’

‘It’s a slur on his integrity! That’s why!’

‘So, are they trying to implicate him, too?’

‘Hello! Are we reading the same newspapers? Are we following the same game?’

‘I perhaps am not following the whole thing as I ought to. I know the honeymoon period between him and the media is over . . .’

‘You can say that again. Although, the racist Western press and media have already pronounced him guilty!’

‘Racist Western press? Don’t you think that is a bit harsh?’

‘I stick to every word I say. They are after him. It’s all jealousy.’

‘Well, he was the darling of the media for a long time and, as they say, what goes up has to come down. He has many good qualities. He is a fine and able man. But people get tired of too much spin. They stop believing you.’

‘What do you mean too much spin? Of course, he will spin. He is a spinner; that’s his job. That’s why he is in the team. But this whole fracas is not about spin.’

‘You don’t think it is?’

‘No, I don’t. Spin has got nothing to do with it.’

‘I can’t say I agree with you totally. There are credibility issues here.’

‘Of course there are. Their credibility! Not his!’

‘Well, I suppose, everyone does a little bit of spin. That’s what a politician does. But the last few years have seen it being taken to an unprecedented level. That’s why people are doubting his credibility.’

‘He is one of the best spinners. Better than Shane Warne.’

‘Shane Warne?’

‘Shane Warne. The Australian.’

‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! Ha! Are you saying Warne will be proud to spin as much as he does. That’s funny.’

‘I can’t see what is so funny about it. A country’s honour is at stake. It is not something I can bring myself to feel merry about.’

‘Well, ultimately people will be the judge.’

‘People have already judged. Their verdict is loud and clear.’

‘Oh! You mean the opinion polls. I suppose they are good markers of what hoi polli think. But one can not be sure till the actual election results are out.’

‘Election results? What are you blathering about?’

‘Well, that is the ultimate test, isn’t it?’

Bhajji is innocent.’

Bhajji?’

‘Why, do you doubt him?’

‘What has Bhajji got to do with this?’

‘He has everything to do about it. Are we living on the same planet?’

‘I did not know he was directly involved.’

‘It’s all about him. Are we breathing the same air?’

‘So Bhajji is the new spin-doctor! Didn’t know that. Well, I suppose it is the occupational hazard. He should have thought twice before accepting the job. Campbell never got into trouble.’

‘I told you, it’s nothing to do with spin. Who is Campbell?’

‘So you keep telling me. But I am not convinced. What do you think it’s about, if not spin? And Campbell is Alistair, the spin-doctor par excellence. He could have taught Gobbels a thing or two about spin.’

‘Anyway, I think he is being victimised because he is a Sikh.’

‘Campbell is not a Sikh.’

Bhajji is, you idiot. Campbell has nothing to do with this. Can he play cricket?’

‘I don’t know. I hadn’t even heard his name till you mentioned it.’

‘You mentioned Campbell.’

‘And you mentioned Bhajji. Or Sing. Brown’s new spin-doctor.’

‘Brown? Have you gone nuts?’

‘I think it is you who is struggling to get to grips with reality.’

‘Look, I am talking about Bhaji.’

‘I understand that. But surely you are not na├»ve enough to think that it’s Bhajji who is their target. They are gunning for Brown.’

‘Why would they gun for Brown. He is not even remotely involved in this.’

‘Come, come, now. Do you honestly believe whoever this Bhajji is, and whatever he has done, or not done, he has done it, or not done it, without Brown’s knowledge? Do you? They want the power. This other guy—I forget his name –wants Brown’s job.’

‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘OK. Let’s see if we can find a via media. We both agree that the accusations are unjustified.’

‘Outright lies they are!’

‘We both agree that he deserves another chance.’

‘He should be completely exonerated. The country’s honour is at stake.’

‘Look, hardly a day goes by nowadays when there isn’t a scandal involving some or the other politician in some or the other corner of the world. I don’t think there is any need to drag in the country’s honour just because a few in the opposition have expressed doubts about his integrity.’

Bhajji isn’t a politician. He just wants to play cricket.’

‘He should join a sodding cricket team then.’

‘That’s what he does, you cretin.’

‘May be he should stick to it. And leave politicking to others. If you can’t bear the heat, get out of the kitchen.’

‘You talk a lot. But you talk in circles around a point rather than getting directly into it.’

‘Look, all I am saying is all politicians go through tough periods. I know the media are giving him hard time at the minute, but I’d have thought that that is par for the course if you are in the public domain.’

‘Media have their own agenda most of the time.’

‘Agreed.’

‘Tell me one thing. Do you believe him? Or do you believe all those bastards?

‘I believe he really did not know about the gaffe of one of the junior employees in the home office. You may even argue that no one in his position could have been realistically expected to know about these minor matters. But when things go wrong big time, someone has to take the can. If you’re the prime-minister of your country you’ve got to take the vicarious responsibility.’

‘I always thought you were half-baked. But I was wrong. They did not even put you in the oven.’

‘If you do not agree with my point of view, that’s OK. No need to be nasty.’

‘I’ll make a final attempt to make myself clear. I believe Bhajji is innocent. I believe he was framed. I believe he was provoked. I believe he should be given a break. I think it’s a disgrace they have pronounced him guilty and imposed a ban on him. It is probable that dirty politics is at play here, but it’s stretching the limits of credulity to believe that Gordon Brown is involved in this. I doubt the man even knows the basic rules of cricket.’

‘All I’ll say is that your failure to look deeper, beyond the superficialities, and your quaint habit of limiting yourself to the most obvious, non-figurative, somewhat simple meaning of words, is disappointing. We must agree to disagree; and that’s that.’

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Book of the Month: Injury Time (Beryl Bainbridge)


Injury Time is one of the early books of the supremely gifted Beryl Bainbridge. Auberon Waugh found himself ‘laughing till the tears ran down’ his cheeks while reading this novel, which won the ‘Whitbread Award’ in 1977 upon its publication (Bainbridge went on to win this award again, decades later, for ‘Every Man for Himself’). The Lancashire-born Bainbridge—she is not sure whether she was born in 1932 or 1934— had written her first novel, Harriet Said, in the 1950s when she was a struggling actress in the Liverpool Repertory Theatre—she attempted suicide by putting her head in the gas oven (‘I was probably trying to draw attention to myself as I was feeling a bit miserable,’ she admitted, later), although, as she revealed decades later, it wasn’t in reference to her dashed hopes related to auctorial ambitions or an acting career which appeared, at the time, to be going nowhere, but over a heartbreak—although it was not published till the 1970s.

Bainbridge, in her distinguished writing career that has entered into its fourth decade—although her grandson, Charile Russell, in a touching documentary he made on his grandmother, complains, ‘She smokes too much, she drinks too much, and she hasn’t written a book in years’—has experimented adroitly with many genres. In ‘Injury Time’ she draws, to an extent, on a background of terror and crime in London—in which city the novel is set—in the 1970s. Edward is having an affair with Binny, an acerbic woman who tends to take offences when none is intended. The bumbling Edward has no intentions of leaving his wife and has convinced himself that that is what Binny wants, too. He nevertheless has adulterer’s conscience: he is aware that Binny’s tetchy and prickly demeanour covers a deep seated unhappiness and insecurities about her status as a mistress, and she yearns for those little things—choosing a birthday present for his family members, for example—which the spouses take for granted. Partly to expiate his guilt over this, Edward agrees to throw a dinner party with his paramour. However, with his middleclass inhibitions, Edward can go only so far. His wife—she never makes a direct entry and is always referred to in third person—who is a minor, P-grade, socialite, is not to know about this. Old Simpson and his wife, Muriel, who are famously discreet (although Simpson, who is himself having an affair, after a fashion—he has not managed, yet, to sleep with the object of his lust, a Latin American woman, though that is not due to lack of trying— unbeknown to his wife) warns Edward not to test Muriel’s lenience towards such matters, which she tolerates but doesn’t really approve of, too much. Everything is arranged perfectly, and it should be a night to remember so long as no one drops in unexpectedly. What unfolds is a funny, grisly, and ultimately horrifying tale, full of eccentric characters, with macabre twists. The ending, which, I think, is purposefully ambiguous but hints at the gruesome comeuppance awaiting Edward, leaves the reader with an ambrosially unquiet feeling. Graham Greene, the master of moral ambiguity, would have been proud to write this novel.

Injury Time, while it deals with the quotidian, almost pathetic, intrigues of a middle-class man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, is overshadowed, nevertheless, like many of Bainbridge’s novels, by death, destruction and violence. The gradual build up of an atmosphere—this, I think, Bainbridge particularly excels at—whereby the reader becomes aware, as the plot progresses, that notwithstanding the current affability and amiabilities, something awful is going to happen, is absolutely splendid. The violence, when it inflicts itself upon some or more characters, is often unexpected and senseless, as when Ginger, one of the gunmen who have forced entry into Binny’s house, rapes, first Binny and then Muriel. Bainbridge once said that she used the device of accidental deaths in some of her novels because of her conviction that a book had to have a strong narrative line: ‘One’s own life, whilst being lived, seems to have no obvious plot and is therefore without tension.’

Bainbridge is a perceptive and wry observer of the human nature. The description, for example, of Edward’s stream of inner thoughts in the midst of what is turning out to be a hostage situation is splendid not just because of Bainbridge’s sparse, almost clinical writing style, but also because it is true of human nature. This brings me to Bainbridge’s writing style. I love the sparse, no-words-wasted style; she has the gift of catching tones of speech which, while delightful on its own, also contributes towards building up the atmosphere of the story. Bainbridge herself is self-deprecating about her prodigious talent. ‘I am of the firm belief that everybody could write books and I never understand why they don't. After all, everyone speaks. Once the grammar has been learnt it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say,’ she once wrote. If only it were as simple as that.

Bainbridge, who embarked on a literary career in the 1960s, was, for years, criminally overlooked by the critics, and was singularly unlucky in respect of awards—she shares the dubious distinction with Anita Desai of having been nominated for the Booker prize as many as five times, only to be piped at the post by another novel on each of the occasions—but has, in her autumn years, won the critical acclaim she had always deserved, much to the delight of her committed following.