Friday, 14 July 2017

Book of the Month: The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel (Deborah Moggach)




Deborah Moggach is a prolific British novelist who has published seventeen novels. Her 2004 novel, The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was made into a film a few years ago.

I haven’t seen the film and the only reason I picked up the novel from the local library was because I was looking for some light entertainment after finishing Howard Jacobson’s collection of articles in The Independent, published under the title Whatever It Is , I Don’t Like It. I liked Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It a lot, and found it very funny, too; but, at the same time it was “heavy” entertainment (I don’t know a better way of putting it).

I was looking to read something which wouldn’t tax my brain cells, something I could read without really having to take in the nuances (because there are no nuances), without the need to pay much attention to the plot (because there is either no plot or it is not incidental), and the sentences flowed easily enough without being too clever.

The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel seemed to fulfil the requirements. The blurb described it as an “addictive comedy”, “a glorious romp”, and “warm, wise and funny”. I was a bit concerned that one review, according to the novel’s blurb, found it “deeply poignant”; however, since that review was from Daily Mail, I thought I could safely ignore it. On an impulse I borrowed another Moggach novel, The Heartbreak Hotel, which, according to the blurb was all the things The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was, and some more.

Did The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel live up to my expectations? Well, yes, although, as mentioned above, the bar was not exactly set high in this instance.

The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel tells the story of a bunch of old biddies from different parts of the UK who are shipped off to an Old People’s Home in Bangalore, India, except that the chancers who have cooked up this scheme are calling it the eponymous hotel so that the old codgers can deceive themselves that they are on some sort of extended, indefinite even, vacation, and not a retirement home. The brains behind this scheme are an Indian doctor named Ravi Kapoor, a consultant in the increasingly overstretched NHS (no stereotype here) and his cousin, Sonny, a wheeler-dealer businessman from Bangalore who has his fingers in more pies than Dawn French can eat in a whole year. Kapoor has migrated to England because he hates India. Why does he hate India? Because India suffocates him. He is now a doctor in the NHS. During the day he takes abuse from the patients who don’t want to be treated by a darkie, and in the evenings he listens to Mozart. He is married to Pauline who works at a travel agent, and hates his father-in-law, who is more randy than a Billy goat and has been kicked out of every possible retirement home in the South of England because of lecherous behaviour which shows no signs of diminishing despite the advancing years. The father-in-law, Norman, is camping in Kapoor’s house and is making his life a misery. So Kapoor in the company of his enterprising cousin (which is one way of describing him), Sonny, opens a retirement home in Bangalore in a ramshackle bungalow owned by a Zoroastrian and his chiropodist wife who is impossible to please. In due course the “exotic hotel” is full of British geriatrics, who, for a variety of reasons, have decided that Bangalore, India, is where they want to spend their last days.  It is a diverse collection. There is Norman the lecher; the obligatory bigot (who, I am pleased to inform, is slowly won over by India’s charms); an over-the-top couple that gets on your nerves five minutes before you have met them; a woman who—would you believe it?—was born in Bangalore in the days of the Raj and had visited the Merigold Hotel—because it was a school—every day till the age of eight when her parents cruelly uprooted and sent her to a boarding school in England (which must have done something right because the woman became a successful BBC producer); and a genteel, middle class lady called Evelyn, whose children would rather send her to India than find her a decent retirement home in England (with its enchanting smells of boiled cabbage and stale urine).  As the story progresses (narrated mainly through the eyes of Evelyn) there are the expected twists, coincidences, reunions, people falling in and out of love, and—am I forgetting anything?— unexpected deaths (responsible, I guess, for the poignancy detected by a critic).

Moggach leaves nothing to chance, and packs the novel with clichés about India. The beggars, the crowds, the call centres and the oh-so-well-behaved young men and women who work there and make futile attempts to pass themselves off as Bobs and Marys from Enfield to their British customers, the unfathomable serenity and passivity of Hinduism that enables people to lead their terrible lives without complaining, the mysticism, the exoticism of India—you name it and Moggach has supplied it in the novel. The portrayal of India, or, of one of its sprawling metropolises to be exact, is, despite all the clichés, compassionate. One does not expect icy objectivity in novels such as this, but neither does, to her credit, Moggach allow the novel to swoon in saccharine emotions. Well, just a bit, not too much.

On her official website Moggach says that The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel came out of her reflections on getting older, about what is going to happen to us all. She wanted to explore questions of race and mortality but also wanted it to be a comedy of manners between East and West. The novel doesn’t offer any insight into how Indians view mortality, unless the sayings from various Hindu and Buddhist sacred books quoted at the beginning of each chapter (and which have no connection with the contents of the chapters) are supposed to provide the reader with insight into the Hindu way of understanding mortality. What the reader gets is the British approach to mortality (denial, self-pity, bitterness), only that these people are gathered in a crumbling old bungalow in Bangalore instead os a miserable retirement home in Dulwich.

I give The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel A minus for vocabulary, B + for efforts, and C minus for entertainment.  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Britain in Despair


It gives me no pleasure to say this, but things are not looking good for the UK. The UK is staring down the abyss.

The emotional wellbeing of the country is in peril. Everyone is angry and frightened.

The poor are angry because they are poor. They think it is utterly unfair and diabolical that others are rich when they are poor. They are infuriated that the government and councils have capped their benefits; they are expected to demonstrate that they are trying to find work if they want the benefits to continue, which is clearly an outrage. It is diabolical that they can’t go on producing children and raise them at tax-payers’ expense. The government will not give them child benefits from third child onwards, on the questionable premise that they have already brought into this world two children whom they can’t afford to raise.

The disabled people are distraught because the government has unreasonably decided that it will not take their word that they are disabled and will not continue dishing out allowances. They are forced to—shock! Horror!—undergo assessments by doctors to determine how disabling the low back pain or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is. It is humiliating and unnecessary. The prime minister Theresa May was confronted during the election campaign by a woman with learning difficulties, who shouted at May that she wanted (in no particular order of importance) Disability Living Allowance (DLA), carer, cosmetic surgery, face-lift, a paid-trip to Bali, and a flat in Kensington (why not?). This is a clear-cut case of discrimination. You may be so intellectually challenged that a hedgehog could beat you in chess in three moves (if a hedgehog could move pieces), but that does not mean that you don’t have feelings. Or desires. Or needs. Or demands. And who is going to meet them, if not the government?  It is distressing to know that intellectually challenged woman is not alone in her suffering. Apparently hundreds of people are having their Motability cars removed every week, and are forced to hop to their local pubs.

The middle classes are losing the will to live because it has not rained enough this summer (what is going to happen to their gardens?) The GP surgeries are full to the brim with middle aged-women demanding Xanax because they are having nightmares that Waitrose has run out of Jerusalem artichokes. The middle classes are also upset that the government has completely removed their child benefits on the spurious grounds that they are affluent and, if they have enough money to send their children to private schools, they could probably do without child benefits.

And Boris Johnson can’t make up his mind whether he should be concerned that the price of a bottle of Chateau Lafite has shot up by several hundred pounds, and, when he takes his (legitimate) children on skiing holidays to Swiss Alps, he can’t help but notice that the price of Magnum ice-cream bar is creeping up.

The public sector workers—the nurses, the fire-fighters, the teachers—are demanding that the 1% cap on their pay-increments should be lifted. Experts and Think Tanks are producing statistics, complex enough to give Stephen Hawking a headache, to prove that despite the pay rise year-in-year-out given to the Public Sector workers (barring a two year period of freeze) in the last eight years, ‘if you take into account the inflation’, their actual monthly pay ‘in real terms’ is slightly less than the yearly salary of the barber of Henry VIII. Nurses can’t manage on their salaries and are leaving NHS by the droves to open toddlers centres; and those who are bravely continuing in their quest to help the ill, are having to supplement their meagre income by moonlighting as strippers in Devil’s Advocate, so that they can take a well-deserved break to Ibiza. If this is not cruelty, I ask you what is.

The hospitals can’t cope with the demands of the population, and are discharging people as soon as they regain consciousness after a road traffic accident, and move the fingers of their hands by a couple of inches. Everything is rationed, and the doctors are unhappy that they are not allowed to prescribe drugs (with prices that make them unaffordable unless you sell your children and pimp your wife) even though a trial carried in the Australian outback concluded that the drug might be effective for a condition (that is rarer than a democracy in the Middle East) but the researchers are not sure and it could all be a Placebo effect.

The discrimination in the NHS is rampant. Hospitals are turning away people who like to eat a lot and have clogged up their arteries, worn off their hip joints and vertebrae and in general ruined their health, and therefore are desperately in need of stomach-banding, telling them (heartlessly), instead, that they ought to take some responsibility of their life-style and turn away from years of gluttony. Does the NHS not realise the efforts that go into cultivating bad habits? The hospitals are insisting that smokers must stop smoking without which they will not receive free heart bypass. It is clearly unfair, and, for that reason, unacceptable. As John Prescott, that intellectual giant in the Blair government, once remarked with great compassion, smoking and eating greasy burgers (because the poor people can’t be expected to cook healthy meals at home with  boiled cabbages and spinach) are the only recreational activities left for the poor, and how dare the government deprive them of it? Some bigots and misogynists are suggesting that breast enhancement surgery should not be offered free on the NHS. It is only a matter of time before the NHS says that you should scoop out your own appendix at home with garden shears instead of coming to the hospital.

The mental health services are overwhelmed. They can’t cope with the demand, and have absolutely no clue what they can do to help people who will not go out of their houses because they have no friends, no skills, no talent, no purpose in life, and who believe that they are ugly and stupid and unattractive and not fit for human company, and who clearly need someone to do their shopping, pay their bills, come to their flat every day to check whether they have taken shower, and run their lives for them. Their families won’t do this. It is clearly the government and social services’ responsibility. These inadequates, I am sorry to say, are horribly let down by the cuts to mental health services.

And let’s not forget the suffering of drug addicts. These poor, vulnerable individuals, who, through no faults of their own (I don’t know whose fault it is, but I am inclined to blame either Tony Blair or the Tories; it’s a safe bet, when in doubt blame them), are reduced to burgling old grannies and selling crack to school children, are being deprived of their daily methadone fix. Very unreasonable demands are being made of them, such as they should stop taking drugs if they want the prescribed drugs to continue. It is patronising to be told that sitting on your backside and watching the Jeremy Kyle show is not ‘recovery’. The government simply does not realise (because the Tories don’t care) that the unbearable ennui of existence and lack of any skills can only be relieved by class A drugs. And day-time television shows where stupid people talk about the unbelievably stupid things they have done serve the very useful purpose of improving the self-esteem of stupid people watching the programmes, who are buoyed up by the hope that they too can become television stars because they too don’t have any talent.

The students are upset because the government will not make their university education free, so that, by the time they complete a three-year degree course in flower-arrangement or Ceramics at the University of Garboldisham (which used to be a village school before New Labour decided it was University), they have debts bigger than the combined national debts of Greece, Portugal and Spain. The students are upset that they would be paying student-loans until they die, and refuse to be assured by the assurance that they will in effect not pay a penny of the student-loan, because no one is required to start repaying the loan until they start earning a decent income, which they are never going to be able to earn, because, once they get their degree in dog-grooming, no one in his right mind is going to employ them. Is it any wonder that young people in Britain have the poorest mental wellbeing in the world, according to a report in the Independent? (Yes, you read it correctly, the emotional wellbeing of the young people in Britain is worse than the emotional wellbeing of young people in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, where it is a cause for celebration if you have all your limbs intact when the day ends.)

Britain is becoming a nation of Philistines. In Norfolk, incensed middle-aged ladies with salt-and-pepper hair and crew cuts reminiscent of inmates of mental asylums, jug-eared men with suspicious stains on their trousers, and other ne’er-do-wells with faces that look like they have been stepped on, are jumping up and down, waving placards, and making a racket louder than a lobster boiled alive, about the closure of local libraries, and not prepared to listen when you tell them that they can get all their Jilly Coopers in the Oxfam shops for 50 p, and closing the libraries with carpets that look like they have been left rotting for hundred years is probably a good thing.

And, if all of the above was not enough to make you feel wanting to drink rat poison or relocate to Luton, Bradly Lowery has died. I have no idea who Bradly Lowery is (or was) other than that he was one of the many thousands of young children who die of cancer every day. Young Bradley was a fan of Sunderland football club. Don’t ask me anything about Sunderland football club, or Sunderland, for that matter. Sunderland, I have heard, is a piss-poor town in the North where the natives speak in a patois which has superficial resemblance to English, but, still, is not easy to understand. As for Sunderland Football club, it may or may not have managed to stay in the Premiership Football (I don’t know and I don’t care). Nevertheless, the death Bradly Lowery has made the front page news on the BBC website, and we are all devastated. I read in the BBC news that Bradly, the Sunderland fan, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was 18 months old. (Was Bradly a Sunderland fan before the brain tumour was diagnosed, or did he become a Sunderland fan after the diagnosis? In which case could his choice be explained as a symptom of the tumour?)

Oh! Lest I forget, we are all going to become very poor because of Brexit. That is a given. It is not going to end well, no matter what positive spin the Brexiteers try to put on it. To give a sophisticated literary analogy, if you set out to write an essay about two donkeys fucking, and if you write an essay about two donkeys fucking, then you have written an essay about two donkeys fucking; and you will have trouble convincing people that the essay is in fact about daffodils. The trade secretary Dr Liam Fox, who has the charm of a camel with gingivitis (and temperament to match), is trying his best—bless him!—and going round the globe grovelling to the dictator in Philippines one day, schmoozing up to oily businessmen shiny suits in New Delhi the next (much preferable to dealing with our European neighbours), to attract trade, but it is not working. The Chancellor Philip Hammond keeps on hammering the point that Labour’s sums in the election manifesto don’t add up and people should not trust Labour with the economy, which suggests that the Chancellor is experiencing worrying lapses of memory: the election is over; the British public has not trusted Labour with the economy; and, he in fact, has the responsibility to come up with plans for the economy. Which he doesn’t have. Finally, we have David Davies, the man we have put our trust in to negotiate Brexit with the EU. Given his performance so far, we might as well have put that chap Boycie from Only Fools and Horses in charge of the Brexit negotiations. David Davies keeps on repeating that Britain will come out of the single market and customs union, and everything will carry on as before; we will somehow wing it (looking very smug and happy with himself, like a man, who, after a life-time of search, has found the location of clitoris; but just because you know where it is does not mean you know what to do with it). And in the BBC Question time old folks with hardly any teeth in their mouths are shouting let’s get the hell out of the EU and bring back the Empire.

The country is divided. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. The poor are no longer prepared to stay poor. They want a slice of the goodies the rich are enjoying and become rich themselves. This is the kind of environment that is ripe for revolution. And that is exactly what Jeremy Corbyn is plotting with his mates McDonnell and Diane Abbott (so success is assured, then). There will be a revolution, Jezza is confident, that will sweep him into number ten, so that he can spread the good work, started in Cuba by the dictator Fidel Castro, throughout the UK. Never mind that we as a nation are incapable of storming a train without first forming a queue; and never mind that Corbyn is incapable of deciding whether the toilet seat should be up or down without a five-hour meeting with a committee, there will be a revolution. Jezz we can.






Friday, 30 June 2017

Book of the Month: The Windsor Faction (DJ Taylor)


D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction imagines a scenario in the 1930s, as the war in Europe approaches, which is different from the history. Edward VIII has not abdicated. His American lover, Wallis Simpson, has died of cancer in 1937, and Edward has assumed throne. The stammering younger brother with his wife and ‘girls’ has been dispatched to Sandringham. Hitler, in the meanwhile, has assumed control of Germany and has started occupying sovereign nations on the dubious grounds that he is protecting the interests of the German minorities in these nations. He has also not left anyone in doubt about what he intends to do to the Jews. Kristallnacht has happened. The British government, still led by Neville Chamberlain, is deeply uneasy about the intention of the Germans, and has been making disapproving noises about the aggressive German tendencies. The German army has gathered behind the Maginot Line, and many in Britain feel that the Germans are going to invade France, which would make war inevitable. In fact the war has already begun, officially, but both sides are waiting for the other to make the first move. The British are waiting to see whether the Germans would cross the Maginot Line.

Not everyone in Britain, though, is in favour of the war, or thinks that war with Germany would be in the British national and international interests. They are concerned that a protracted European war, as this one is bound to turn out to be, would be the death-knell of the Empire. “It’d be impossible to hold on to India,” Captain Ramsay, one of the few real-life- characters (Ramsay was a Tory MP from 1933 to 1945, the novel informs the reader at the end; and, fiercely anti-War and anti-Semite, was interned during the war) that play a pivotal role in the novel, says. The political faction that is against the war, the so-called pacifists, comprises Back-bench Tories, some of whom fought in the Great War; right wing intellectuals; isolationists in the American Embassy who believe that America should not get herself embroiled in the European conflict; and nut-cases who believe that the war is a world-wide conspiracy of Jews, and the only community that stands to benefit from this is of the profiteering Jews. The anti-war lobby suspects, and the suspicion lifts its spirits, that the King, Edward VIII, is against the war, and is sympathetic to their position: a negotiated peace with the Germans, in a neutral territory, such as Ireland, should be attempted. Germans, on their part, are giving coded signals that they would be willing to negotiate, but would not give back the territory that they have appropriated.

The Windsor Faction is the story of the frenetic months that lead to Second World War, in its alternative reality. Taylor has chosen to tell the story from the point of view of a fictional character, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who, unwittingly, gets involved in the cloak-and-dagger game. As the novel opens, Cynthia is in Ceylon, where her parents made a tidy fortune. Cynthia returns to England as the drums of the war in Europe begin to sound. In London she finds herself a job in a literary rag called Duration. In the office she meets Anthea Carey, who, it seems, is not what she appears to be. Cynthia also begins an affair with Tyler Kent (another real life character, who apparently worked in the American Embassy and was also interned during the war because of his anti-war activities), a clerk in the American Embassy. Captain Ramsay, Tyler Kent, and Bannister (a fictional character), another Tory backbencher MP who is anti-war (as sinister, though not as unhinged, as Captain Ramsay) are all in cahoots, and, it would seem, stop at nothing to stop the war unleashed on Britain by the Jews. The Bannisters are family friends of the Kirkpatricks, having made their ill-deserved fortune in the colonies, and to whose son both sets of parents once hoped Cynthia would marry (although it did not happen as said son perished in a freak car accident when he took Cynthia out for a drive in Kandy, though not before, in the good old English fashion, he had had clumsy sex with her). Tyler Kent, who works as a clerk in the American Embassy, is smuggling out telegrams of the president, into the hands of Ramsay. MI5, needless to say, are aware of these shenanigans and are keeping these characters who, they have a strong reason to believe, are up to no good, under surveillance. MI5 are also keeping a close eye on the king, who, they rightly suspect, is against the war and might act in a manner that might compromise the official position of the British government, not to mention the country’s security. It’s all jolly good fun, and, although the novel does not trigger a lava-flow of adrenaline through your arteries, it keeps you riveted as it rattles along at a comfortable pace. If the end seems a bit anti-climactic it is also plausible.

Reading The Windsor Faction is a strange experience, in the main, I think, because the reader is not sure whether Taylor wants to write a political noir thriller or a slapstick social comedy. (Perhaps Taylor himself isn’t, either). There is no settled tone to the narrative voice (this is not a criticism). Indeed the opening pages of the novel, set in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) are very reminiscent of the comedy of Evelyn Waugh, who is mentioned more than once in the ‘diaries’ of the gay bon vivant, Beverly Nichols—another real life character, according to the ‘author’s note’; the real Beverly Nichols, Taylor informs, was a prolific author, journalist and librettist—although the tone becomes much more sombre and dark once the action shifts to London, only to slide, every now and then, into slapstick.

Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the main protagonist of the novel, is a pleasant enough character, not unduly encumbered by anything by way of personality. To the extent that Cynthia is able to make up her mind, she is pro-war. She does play a vital role in unravelling the plans of the anti-war faction (you expect no less from the main protagonist of the novel), but the reader gets the feeling that Cynthia does this not so much out of string political convictions as because of her weak character that makes her susceptible to the manipulations and machinations of other, strong-willed, characters. While this is not at odds with how Cynthia is portrayed, it has the effect of the character not making a lasting impression on your mind. Cynthia, not to put too fine a point on it, is dull. The supporting characters, Beverly Nichols and Captain Ramsay, for example, are far more interesting—and for that reason entertaining—that Cynthia. Tayler’s depiction of Edward is humane enough. Taylor desists from portraying Edward as a caricature and does not ‘give’ him anti-Semite tendencies, though ‘the king’ comes across as an empty suit.

Taylor excels in depicting for the reader the London in the 1930s, as Europe stands on the cusp of war (dark, gloomy, grubby, uncertain, fearful), which, in the end, is the most persuasive portion of this novel about the ‘phoney war’.


Saturday, 10 June 2017

Humiliating Victory


The results of the British General Elections are out. These are being interpreted in the media as a disaster for the ruling Conservative party, and victory (of sorts) for the opposition Labour Party. Everyone is taking a great pleasure in the humiliation of Theresa May, the leader of the Conservative party and prime-minister, who ran (an ineffective) presidential style campaign.

As the exit polls predicted a hung parliament, pundits lined up to explain why this had happened: the Conservative party, which started the election campaign twenty points ahead of Labour, failed to win a clear victory, which its leader, Theresa May, wanted. Theresa May has now jumped into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, a party, if truth be told, no one outside of Northern Ireland had heard of until now, with more eagerness and speed than my neighbour displays when getting up from the chair to collect her burger in the local McDonald. DUP is a party, it can be revealed, that wants to bring back death penalty, and wants all the rights and privileges of LGBT community removed; it is a party that is rabidly anti-abortion, and consists of senior members who insist that the world was created by God in seven days and climate change is a cruel hoax perpetrated by the devil-worshippers. In other words a party of crackpots.

The consensus seemed to be that the blame of this disaster for the Conservatives should be laid at the door of the Prime Minister, in particular the way in which she ran the campaign, focusing on the personal styles of the two leaders. You have got to say that the strategy, in principle, was sound. The reputation of the Labour leader, Jeremey Corbyn, for the best part of the two years, since he surprised everyone (and shocked himself) by becoming Labour’s leader, was lower than crocodile’s piss. Everyone, including many Labour MPs, feared that the Labour faced a wipe-out in the general election. In many newspapers Corbyn had become a figure of either ridicule or pity or both. By contrast the personal rating of Theresa May was 5-6 times that of Corbyn’s at the start of the campaign. It was also logical that, with the difficult Brexit negotiations looming, whoever is the prime-minister of the country, could have done with a solid mandate.

It is therefore remarkable that May managed to squander her near-unassailable lead in just seven weeks, and has ended up short of outright majority, albeit by a whisker.

The problem for the Tories was that Theresa May was simply not very good at projecting herself as the strong and stable leader she clearly believes she is. She seemed to lack the warmth and the necessary interpersonal and communication skills. Whenever the interviewer asked May a question she did not like, her eyes would narrow and the corners of her mouth would be set, as if what the interviewer had said deserved nothing other than a sound thrashing. In the few interviews and question-answer sessions which she did, May mostly came across as wooden and not spontaneous. Her answers to most of the questions were couched in generalities and did not really address the questions. For example, when Andrew Neil asked her in the BBC interview, to explain how her party was going to find the eight billion pounds the Conservatives promised for the NHS, May’s answer (delivered in a regal and majestic tone) was that the Tories had a long and proven record of managing the economy well and providing strong and stable leadership. Under these very favourable circumstances it was inevitable that the economy was going to prosper and everything was going to be hunky-dory. That is as maybe, the answer failed to provide any clue to the listener how the NHS was going to receive extra funding. May did this repeatedly: she was reluctant (or unable) to go into specifics. When pressed she would appear peeved and snap back that it was all spelled out in the spring budget of 2017, which, in case the interviewer had failed to register, was presented by the Conservative party (of which she was a strong and stable leader). It gave the impression that the woman was evasive at best and mendacious at worst. Grandpa Corbyn, in contrast, went round with his manifesto and a calculator, and strived to give account (to the last penny) of how the Labour was going to keep the tall promises they had given to everyone except the rich (who are obviously enemies of the proletariat and ought to disappear in the sugarcane fields, as they did in Cuba, ran by the Communist dictator Castro for decades, of whom grandpa is a long-standing admirer). Corbyn as well as his close colleague, Diane Abott, the shadow home secretary, stumbled more than once while answering questions related to financing the myriad manifesto promises of Labour (which anyone with two brain-cells could see they would not have been able to keep). The unconvincing performances made them, Abott in particular, objects of ridicule; however, since May’s performance was not great either, the Conservatives could not capitalise on the Labour weakness. During the only question-answer session May condescended to appear in, she made jokey, if slightly snide, references to Abott’s inability to count (three times, if I remember correctly, in case the audience had missed the joke the first two times), refusing at the same time to give any details of her plans. Poor Abott appeared to be severely arithmetically challenged. She withdrew (or was ordered to withdraw by the Labour party high-command) from front-line interviews after she struggled to answer questions, which, she, in her role as the shadow home secretary, ought to have anticipated. Apparently she has a long term medical condition. What could it be? Developmental Disorder is my guess—inability to calculate, and marshal such cognitive resources as she has to answering questions put by the interviewers. This ought to have been picked up in her childhood and she should have received appropriate help—another glaring failure of the NHS, if you ask me, no doubt the result of the underfunding of the NHS in the 1980s by the Tories.

Halfway through the campaign it became clear that May was struggling to project herself as the strong and stable leader, and—shock! Horror!—Grandpa, unbelievably, was coming across as more relaxed, confident, comfortable, and having some sense of humour. However, there was no observable change of course: he campaign continued to be all about herself, even though it was becoming clear that there was not much of it. The hasty retreats on some of manifesto promises did not help Brand Theresa as the stable and resolute leader.

It is also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the election, which was supposed to be all about Brexit, we didn’t really hear much about Brexit from either of the party leaders. May refused to say anything beyond her strong and stable mantra and repeating the meaningless slogan ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. Corbyn focused more on issues such as giving money the country didn’t have to increase the wages of the nurses and abolishing tuition fees (even though evidence suggests that the number of university placements have increased in the last few years), nationalising industries, and pouring money into public services by taxing corporations and the rich. On the rare occasions when Grandpa could be bothered to talk about Brexit, his answers suggested that he had failed to grasp the enormity and complexity of Brexit (he confirmed that we would be out of the single market and free movement of people across the EU nations would end; but also blithely promised that under Labour there would be a tariff-free access to the EU markets, not bothering to give any idea—probably because he did not have any— as to how this was going to happen). This is a major worry. The leaders of Britain’s two major political parties seemed incapable of coming to grips with the complexities and scale of Brexit. In particular, neither seemed interested in answering how the likely economic impact of Brexit (about which the previous chancellor, George Osborne, whom May sacked unceremoniously within an hour of entering Downing Street last year, was repeatedly warning about) would be tackled. The lying Brexiter brigade during last year’s referendum had dismissed Osborne’s warning as Project Fear. Project Fear is about to become Project reality. Britain’s growth in the first quarter of 2017 was the slowest amongst the seven richest countries. Inflation is on the rise (at its three-year highest) and real-term wages of people are falling. During the election campaign Labour made much of the austerity programme of the Tories, and benefitted from the public’s anger about it. Guess what, austerity is not going to go away: the government revenues will fall in the coming years because of the slowing of the economic growth, and harder times are to follow. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was calamitous, and things are going to get much worse in the coming years, unless some common sense emerges in the Brexit negotiations. We cannot afford to go down the route of the kind of Brexit May wants to press ahead without inflicting serious damage on the economy. For that reason alone it is a good thing that May did not get the mandate she was demanding. One hopes that the Thatcherite MPs in the Conservative party will feel embolden by the result to steer the country away from the cliff-edge towards which May seemed determined to drag us.

The election results are without doubt personal humiliation, slap-in-the-face, whatever you want to say, for Theresa May. However, in the cold light of the day, despite May’s disastrous campaign, the Conservatives are still the preferred party of the British people. What has happened is that the British public has once again (almost for the third time in a row, if you discount Cameron’s slim majority in the 2015 election) has not given any one party a clear mandate. The position of the Tories is roughly the same as it was in 2015 and slightly better than it was in 2010. True, May has lost the majority that Cameron managed to get in 2015; but Cameron’s majority was wafer-thin—just 5 seats. The Tories have lost that majority, but not by a massive margin: they fell eight short of majority. May will probably go in the next few months. I can’t see her lasting given the regicidal tendencies of the Tories. They will do it with stealth, though. There won’t be any of the ungracious squabbling that we witnessed in the parliamentary Labour Party when the launched an ineffective coup against Corbyn who, they were convinced, was toxic.

In this general election there was a clear choice between the Labour manifesto and the Tory manifesto. And the Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Corbyn and his hard-left policies.

The clear verdict of the British public has not stopped Grandpa from strutting about as if he has conquered the world. Anyone watching the jubilation and celebration of the Labour leader would have believed that Labour had won the election with a thumping majority. Like a plumped up raisin Grandpa is exuding vanity and smugness in equal measures, and is asking Theresa May to resign (even though her party won loads more seats than his), which is a bit rich coming from him given his track record. This is no doubt because the Labour has done better than expected. Everybody thought Corbyn was useless and Labour was staring into abyss. That has not happened, although the results also do not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Corbyn and his second rate cronies like John McDonnell—who have zero experience of running anything except their own mouths—are not useless.

This is now the third general election the Labour have lost in a row. And comprehensively. In spite of the allegedly popular policies of Labour under Corbyn (a socialist utopia where everyone has rights and no one has responsibilities, except when you are a productive member of the society and earning money), Labour fell 64 seats short of majority and are comfortably behind the Tories at this stage, in terms of parliamentary strength.

The tetchy Shami Chakraborty, the shadow Attorney General of Grandpa, made the risible claim in the BBC question time that Grandpa had actually won (maybe she also has a chronic condition, which makes her stare at truth and ask, “Do I know you?”) and was thoroughly booed by the studio audience. It was amusing to see Alistair Campbell, the much reviled press secretary of the allegedly discredited Blair, coming to her rescue. How Chakraborty must have hated it.

There is now the inevitable optimistic nonsense spouted by the tiresome lefties, in the Guardian, of how this is going to be the beginning of sort of quiet revolution, and how, in the next general election, especially if it is held in the next few months, Grandpa will stomp to power. It was left to Chris Leslie, the former shadow chancellor, an arch Blairite and a trenchant critic of Corbyn, to point out (it had to be done) that, for all the euphoria of the Corbyn cheerleaders, it was the Tories who were going to form the next government.

So the big achievement of Corbyn is that he lost as heavily as Gordon Brown did in 2010; and Brown, remember, after that defeat, resigned. Labour are in such a sorry state and the expectations were so low at the start of the campaign that falling short of majority by 64 seats is being touted as a victory. Corbyn might have silenced his (I suspect still plentiful) critics in the parliamentary Labour party (for now), but Labour are still not anywhere within sniffing distance of forming a government on its own. Corbyn is now talking nonsense about bringing down the Queen’s speech and forming agovernment, apparently because he believes he has got the mandate to deal with the issues of poverty and inequality in Britain, and he is determined to endausterity. I can’t understand How Corbyn can claim that he has a mandate when his party was comprehensively defeated in the election. In the unlikely event of Corbyn forming a minority government (he and McDonnell have already declared that Labour would do no deals), he would face serious obstacles in pushing through his agenda (which would not be a bad thing, seeing as his policies will bankrupt the country), and, whatever might be the qualities of this aging crypto-Communist, they do not regrettably include being inclusive and tolerant of views that are different from his, which is just one of the many reasons why he is completely unsuitable to be the prime-minister.

I doubt very much that the general election marks of something new and exciting in the British politics, as the Corbynistas (a term coined by British newspapers to describe the noisy and often obnoxious supporters of Corbyn, such as the Trotskyist Momentum) seem to have deluded themselves into believing. Grandpa Corbyn is mediocre at best and is simply not a prime-ministerial material. He will not be prime-minister. Ever. The Blair era might have ended in the Labour in this election, and the grip of hard-left on Labour might have become stronger; however that may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Labour will not win another general election unless they reclaim the centre ground in the British politics.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

British General Election 2017


The British general elections will be held in eight days, and we shall know who would be Britain’s next prime-minister.

Theresa May called the snap general election in April 2017, after insisting repeatedly for several months that she would not call a general election until 2020 because, it would, you see, not good for the country’s stability, until she had the epiphany—while on a walk in Snowdonia—that in fact a snap general election was exactly what the doctor advised to bolster country’s stability. It also happened to be the case that April 2017 was also the month in which May's Conservative Party was declared to be twenty-five points (or some such ridiculous margin) ahead of the main opposition Labour Party by the pollsters (the same pollsters who were predicting a ten point lead for the remain campaign over the leave campaign in the last year’s British referendum about Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU)).

When Auntie Theresa called the election, everyone was predicting a landslide victory for the Tories over the Labour; and with good reason. Labour, increasingly resembling a lame-duck party, with its hopeless (and hapless) leader Jeremy Corbyn, surrounded by left-wing zealots who have been plotting a left-wing revolution for the last three decades, cocooned in a world rarely penetrated by reality, had seemed incapable of providing effective opposition. In the two years since the its last general election defeat in 2015, Labour had not so much been a political party but a battle ground between the rival factions within the party. Corbyn spent so much time fighting against his own MPs, who (probably not without reason) formed the view that the chances Labour winning a general election under the leadership of Corbyn—who, until his surprise elevation to the leadership of the Labour party, had spent his entire political life on the back-benches, carping against Blair and Brown and Miliband, when he was not going on protest marches or embracing the leaders of Hamas and IRA—were less than Donald Trump sending a sensible (or even comprehensible) tweet, that he was unable to—incapable of, in the eyes of some—providing a semi-effective parliamentary opposition.

However, as they say, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

Grandpa Corbyn, the aging revolutionary, has proved to be a bit of a surprise. No doubt having been tutored (albeit inadvertently) by the hostile opposition within his own party in the two years leading to this election, as well as his inherently pachydermic skin, Corbyn, during the election campaign, has come across as relaxed and sure of himself in the face of hostile questions and interviews. Theresa May, by contrast, has shown herself to be thin-skinned, petulant, panicky, evasive, and—dare I say it?—unsure of herself. Not exactly the strong and stable leader she has been ordering the British public to believe she is.

I know crazier things have happened (look who is in the White House), but, as the election day looms, there is now a possibility that it might not after all be a smooth sailing for the Tories, and Auntie, much to her irritation, might not get the brutal majority, which she obviously thinks is her God-given right.

If May does not get the landslide win she thought was within her grasp just a couple of months back, she has only herself to blame.

Theresa May’s strategy seems to be as follows: repeat the same thing over and over again and hope that people would be bored into believing it: I am strong and stable leader; only the Conservatives will ensure a growing economy; only the strong and stable leader will negotiate robustly with the EU bureaucrats who are hell-bent on punishing Britain, yada, yada, yada (or yawn, yawn, yawn). May seems to think that she is immune to the requirement of providing any evidence to support her claims. To paraphrase Orwell, it is a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The same thing over and over again (and it is not as if she has anything nice to say; it is just hate, hate, hate—be it Corbyn or immigrants; let’s get-together and have a good hate). It also seems to have escaped her mind that (as Aristotle pointed out millennia earlier) it is your actions and not your talk (even when delivered in a stern schoolmarmish style) that will tell people about your qualities and abilities. On the evidence so far, Auntie may talk the talk, but can she walk the walk?  If the completely un-costed Tory manifesto was shambles, May’s U-turn, within forty-eight hours of its publication, on one of the key-policies in the manifesto (when it dawned on her that it might alienate the geriatrics who would vote a donkey if it was a Tory candidate) and her attempts to convince that it was not a U-turn (she had, exactly what she was saying now, in her mind all along, even though she had neglected to mention it in the manifesto, and by the way, it was all Corbyn’s fault; darned nuisance the man was turning out to be, with his scare-mongering) were about as convincing as a Nazi concentration camp Commandant claiming in the Nuremberg trials that the gas chambers were for burning wood so that the inmates could stay in comfort in the winter months. Her fall-back position is: when you are running out of argument(s) (or, as has been so frequently witnessed in this election campaign, you have no argument) launch a nasty and personal attack on Corbyn. It is off-putting.

The list of Jeremy Corbyn’s problems is longer than the treaty of Versailles. To name a few: his image (incompetent fuddy-duddy with the charisma of dish-washer and personality of a lawn-mower); the outré statements he and his pal John McDonnell made over the years when they did not envisage being within the sniffing distance of the leadership of the Labour party coming to haunt them; and the non-entities that make up his shadow-cabinet (with the possible exception of John McDonnell, who is probably clinically insane) as no one in the parliamentary Labour party with a smidgen of common sense would want to associate themselves with these crazy people.

There, really, is no reason to believe that Theresa May would be a more capable leader than Corbyn. You don't become a strong and stable leader just because you shout till you are blue in the face that you are one. Theresa May's record, first as the home secretary in the Cameron government, and, for the last eleven months as the prime-minister, is unimpressive to say the least. She insists that she, and only she, is the person to lead the country through Brexit negotiations, and accuses Corbyn of not having a plan; yet she refuses to give any details of what plan she might have other than "trust me". She is once again promising to reduce the net migration to tens of thousands (urging the electorate to not trust Jeremy Corbyn, who, she warns, will open the floodgates). Without going into the advisability of this plan (George Osborne described it as economically illiterate) May has repeatedly and spectacularly failed to deliver on this promise. The net migration in the UK, throughout May's tenure as the home secretary (when she was in charge of migration) and now, as the prime-minister, was in hundreds of thousands. Why should people (in particular those for whom immigration is a concern) believe that she would be better than Corbyn, especially as, yet again, she does not come up with any plan as to how she proposes to reduce the net migration? Such flimsy details as she deigns to give are no different from what Corbyn is saying: the UK will leave the EU and free movement of people within Europe will end. There is disingenuousness in blaming the EU for the increased migration. In the last seven years, when May has been in power, the migration from the non-EU countries (on which the UK, presumably, has complete control, as it has nothing to do with the EU) has been consistently higher than the EU migration. So, on the issue of migration, which may well be uppermost in the minds of some sections of the British society, the only difference between May and Corbyn, insofar as I can see, is that May is blithely giving promises which she can't possibly keep, whereas Corbyn is more cautious and is refusing to give promises which he knows he won't be able to keep. That would make him, in the eyes of most sensible people, not less trustworthy, but more honest.

Let's think about the economy a bit. Corbyn has been Father Christmas in his manifesto, showering huge largesse on the public sector services (which have suffered terribly under the Tories). He is going to do this by borrowing more and taxing the rich. He is also going to increase the corporate taxes (he is priceless, Corbyn: a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool, stamped-and-seeled-in-the-production-factory, head-in-the-clouds Socialist). If he is allowed to do this, May is inviting us to believe that Armageddon will arrive and swarm of locusts will attack the Royal family. All the businesses will leave the UK (even though even with the proposed hike in the corporation tax in the Labour manifesto, the UK would still have one of the lowest corporation tax regimes amongst the rich countries). Fair enough. What then are the economic plans of the Conservatives? Search me: their manifesto is completely uncosted. May was outraged when Andrew Neil, in his interview, had the temerity to ask her how she was going to finance the eight billion pounds she was promising to the NHS (which, incidentally, has been systematically decimated by the Tories). "Trust me. I am Theresa May. Isn't that enough?"

Ultimately, though, it comes to the public perception.Nasty as Theresa May maybe (The Economist described her, in fact, as Theresa Maybe—so much for strong and stable leadership), and, let it be said that she has run a thoroughly despicable campaign, which no one save Donald Trump would approve of, the British public may (reluctantly) choose Cruella de Vil to be in the Number Ten because it may (reluctantly) conclude that Comrade Corbyn and his merry bunch can’t be trusted to look after their washing let alone the country’s economy and the Brexit negotiations.

I predict a Tory victory. Let’s hope it is not a landslide.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Book of the Month: Boys and Girls (Joseph Connolly)




Joseph Connolly’s twelfth novel, Boys and Girls, is described as a “superb satire of modern mortality” on its front page, the quote supplied by one Kate Saunders. It is the third Joseph Connolly novel I have read, the previous two being Summer Things (superb) and England’s Lane (just about okay).

Boys and Girls has all the makings of a satire, as Kate Saunders helpfully informs; however, when you finally reach the end of this 440-page novel—exhausted, weary and not entirely sure that the days you spent reading this novel couldn’t have been better spent by reading, say, Helen Fielding (and you could have read two novels of Fielding in the time it took you to plough through the treacly prose of Boys and Girls)—you could be excused for wondering whether the novel was more of a melodrama than satire.

The novel is set in modern day alright. It tells the story of a middle class couple—an intelligent woman named Susan, who is heavy on sarcasm and low on humour, and, who for reasons that were not clear to me, describes herself as a sensualist, her rather inept husband, Alan,—who, after having proven his uselessness in a variety of media-related jobs, is now a sit-at-home-husband—, and their adolescent daughter, Amanda. Following Alan’s un-employability, Susan has become the reluctant bread-winner. She works for a small but profit-making publishing company (there’s a surprise) and earns reasonably good salary, enough at any rate to keep up with middle class pretensions, including (but not limited to) a house in Chelsea, London, which, the reader is informed, is a gift from Susan’s father, who has earned a packet in some business I have forgotten which—but it is not important—and who in his old age has gone doolally and making life hell for the staff in some care-home, by repeatedly climbing on top of the care-home’s roof. But Susan is unhappy. She is unhappy with her situation. She has figured out the cause of her unhappiness. It’s Alan. She is unhappy with Alan because—fair enough—Alan is pretty useless. He does not earn a single penny and therefore Susan the sensualist has to work (like the rest of us) to maintain the lifestyle (or the pretence of it). She does not want to carry on like that. She wants another husband. She has even decided who that is going to be: her boss at the publishing house. But Susan does not want to trade in the old husband for the new. She wants both the husbands: ‘as well as’ and not ‘instead of’ as she repeats ad nauseum to her first husband. The name of the second husband is Black. That’s his nickname, apparently, the real name being Martin Leather (Leather? Black? Can you see the connection?). She is confident that she has had old Black—yes! Old. Black is older than the hills—wrapped round her little finger the day she interviewed for the job, showing attitude and using language, which would get most people sacked. Susan guesses correctly that Alan is a doormat and will not put up any resistance. That’s what Happens. Susan and Black get married (it is not strictly a bigamy because the drink sodden Irish priest—is there another type?—who marries the two has been defrocked for reasons I shall leave you to guess. Black sells off his publishing house for a profit I don’t think is possible—the man publishes literary fiction, and who wants to read that?—and buys a house in Richmond that is large enough to house a village-full of displaced Syrians. Does the teenage daughter fit into any of this? Does she have any views on the unusual marital arrangements of her parents? She does and she does. Amanda, unsurprisingly, is not happy about her mother’s new beau. However, since there’s sod-all she can do about it, the girl takes the only course available to her, and goes off rails. As her mother dives into the riches of Black, Amanda dives into a spotty teenager who works in a garage but aspires to be a poet. (Have you ever met an assistant of a garage mechanic who dreams of being a poet?) If you have lasted this review thus far but is beginning to find it tiresome, believe me, it’s nothing as compared to the tedium that is Boys and Girls. There are a few more (fairly predictable) twists in the story-line before the novel finally limps to its coda.

Boys and Girls attempts to be a comedy of manners that centres round a modern dysfunctional family and relationships. Connolly focuses on the pretences of people, their infinite ability for self-delusions, and games they play and the intellectual contortions they attempt to not acknowledge or deny the truth that is staring at them. At times it works. Thus Susan, who is not exactly proving to be a paragon of morality to her daughter, is outraged when she comes to know that Amanda has slept with a boy who is no more than 16 or 17; and splutters on about how the adolescent boy has broken law by sleeping with a minor. Alan, the metaphorically impotent husband, knowing that there is little he can do to stop his wife from doing what she wants, does not even try to summon outrage and, instead, assumes the pliant, reasonable attitude that would have had Nick Clegg nodding with approval.  The ease with which the two men become friends and get on with each other—Alan even agrees to be the best man for Black—is—to employ the word Amanda is over-fond of using—creepy. None of the protagonists in the novel is particularly likeable—I suspect it is deliberate. All the characters—caricaturesque they might be—dwell for ever in the twilight zone of moral ambiguity. Connolly drives the point home with brutal descriptions of what can be best described as barely legal sex.

The trouble with Boys and Girls is that it is, at 400-plus pages, just too bloody long. Connolly has a kernel of an idea, an interesting idea, no doubt, but it can be stretched only so long. The novel severely tests the reader’s patience. In interviews given around the time the novel was published, Connolly admitted that the novel was a modern comedy and humour was absolutely essential, dark times or not, and the English instinctively understood humour, but he had always disliked the tag of being a comic writer. He also revealed that he was not the type of writer who planned his novel at the outset, and confessed to having no idea what unknown B-road his novels would take after the first 20,000 words. That probably explains the slightly rambling, haphazard course Boys and Girls takes.  

Majority of the novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, with interior monologues of the protagonists. This gives the novel a digressive—at times tortuous—feel. Also, it does not matter whether it’s Alan’s or Susan’s or Black’s or Amanda’s interior monologue (OK, hers is a bit different, because every sentence of her monologue is liberally strewn with the word ‘like’, to the extent that it begins to jar; Connolly, in his research, must have discovered that teenagers, teenage girls to be specific, like to use this word a lot)—it is Joseph Connolly speaking. All of the characters sound exactly the same. You either like this style or you don’t (I don’t mind it—long sentences with longer parentheses and sudden shifting of view in the middle of a sentence that started five pages back— but it also means that I need to take a gap of several months in-between reading Connolly’s novels.) The linguistic pyrotechniques (Connolly was once famously described as Wodehouse on acid) in Boys and Girls for the most part are not invigorating; they simply tire you out. The sudden shifts to third person narrative are disorienting.

Black, the aging publishing giant in Boys and Girls, at one stage tells Alan what he, Black, thinks of the Amis father and son. Amis senior is a ‘fine writer’; the son is ‘shit’, is Black’s verdict. I wonder what Martin Amis would have made of Boys and Girls. I don’t think he would describe the novel as shit (that would be ungracious), but it is certainly not one of Connolly’s best. It misses the mark, somehow.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Book of the Month: Bringing Nothing to the Party (Paul Carr)




Paul Carr was a bright boy. His parents hoped that he would one day become a lawyer. After A levels he enrolled into Nottingham University and studied law. While at University Paul, whose love affair with technology had begun at the age of seven when his parents bought him a second hand ZX spectrum, discovered that he had a flair for writing. From his first year digs he created a web-site called Zingin.com which was a sarcastic version of the then powerful Yahoo directory of useful and entertaining websites. Carr kept these activities a secret. Difficult as it is to believe these days, Internet was not cool in 1997, and Carr had ambitions of making a transition to the respectable mainstream publishing. Which happened sooner than he expected when he was commissioned by the publishers ‘Prentice Hall’ to convert his ‘web material’ into a book format. This necessitated frequent trips to London, and, since the young Carr still could not bring himself to reveal what he got up to in his room late at nights (writing for and on his website), he became a source of much speculation amongst his peers, who began to suspect that he was a closet homosexual and his lover was dying of AIDS in London.

After getting his law degree despite attending a total of three lectures in three years, Carr headed straight to London. He had a clear goal: he wanted to be famous; and successful; and rich. And he wanted to be all these very quickly. He was a published author—Prentice had brought out his books—and he was publishing a regular column in the Guardian, writing mainly on the dot com industry. He was also sleeping his way through as many women as possible between the ages of twenty to forty. He was invited for the innumerable dos and networking events, arranged by the uber-networkers to break down ‘social inefficiencies’, where he enjoyed the free booze and meals, and partied late into the night, waking up the next day wherever he did, remembering neither how he ended up there nor how his trousers came to be back to front. So successful were these events, in which tycoons, who had not yet begun to shave, gave one minute tips to the throngs of wannabes, on how to reach the promised land of unreasonable wealth, that soon a whole industry was created around them by men who called themselves web-entrepreneurs, worth millions of dollars. Carr also rubbed shoulders with men— most of these dot com entrepreneurs were men, outnumbering women by a ratio of twenty to one (Carr charmingly describes these networking events as sausage fests), who were all young—some of them were probably not eligible to vote in an election or take a driving test when they made their first million. These boys/men had struck gold by launching websites, which were essentially different versions based on the theme of social networking, targeted at different groups defined by age, sex, interests, and geography; or by starting websites bringing together all the porn websites (and dividing them in various categories  that defied ordinary imaginations); or by starting Net-based businesses—say, starting a company which allowed you to prepare your own business cards on the Net; or one that helped you to draw your very own signature cartoons; or selling chess boards where the chess pieces were replaced by vodka glasses (every time you took a piece, you also took a vodka shot)—; or by coming up with breathtakingly original ideas such as setting up a website of 10,000 tiny squares, each square consisting of ten pixels. All the ‘businesses’—yes even the one which had nothing but empty squares—were then sold for sums (to companies which had made their fortunes with similar strategies) most of us would have difficulty in deciding how many zeros they contained after the first number, which could be anything from 1 to 9. In just a few years impecunious nerds in crummy digs, wearing baggy jeans and dirty T-shirts (who wouldn’t have had girl-friends unless they invented them), were transformed into incredibly wealthy nerds wearing designer baggy jeans and horrendously expensive trainers, on whose every word hung implausibly hot women in clothes worn either by supermodels or high class hookers, who learnt not to mind either the flush of acne or the slime on the buck teeth of these teenage millionaires.

It did not take Carr Long to realise that he was not going to realise his dream of becoming rich beyond imagination by hacking out columns for the Guardian. He might be rubbing shoulders with the internet tycoons, but he was not on their radars—he was one of the hangers-on who was a sometime-amusing-most-of-the-time-irritating company, and who needed to be tolerated, humoured even, for a few minutes so that he would not bitch about them, may even put in a flattering word, in his column. He might freeload on their drinks and stuff his face with the canapés as much as he liked, but he would be as much away from their league as Comrade Corbyn is from Auntie May. Carr smelt the sweet smell of success, but it was not coming from his kitchen. He craved the glamour, the success, the wealth. And he wanted it quickly. There was only one thing to do. He had to become an entrepreneur himself.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is Paul Carr’s highly entertaining account of his disastrous attempt to become a web entrepreneur (and a millionaire). When Carr decided to take the plunge into the whirlpool of Web businesses, he had managed to bring a degree of stability to his life. In addition to contributing columns to broadsheets, he had, in partnership with a woman who had approached him all those years ago to write satirical books on Web, started a publishing company called ‘Fridaynight Project’, and had successfully published books which were essentially compendiums of articles uploaded on some or more of the websites. Carr decided to risk all this—nothing ventured nothing gained—and took on the ‘online’ aspect of the ‘Fridaynight Project’, giving up his share in the parent company. He was confident (probably not without reason) that he had inside knowledge of the industry. He had also convinced himself that he had developed useful contacts in the previous 3-4 years, having impressed some or more of the entrepreneurs by his charm, witticism, and the force of his personality. All he needed was a ‘brilliant idea’ that would capture the attention of those who had so much money it was burning holes in their trouser pockets and were looking for ways to spend it on fledgling ventures (and obtain large shares) which, if they became successful, would rake in more money, which they could invest in some more ventures (and so it would go on; it’s a vicious cycle).

Carr was joined by two others—an American woman from his University, called Savannah, and an aspiring novelist called Karl Webster—and he launched ‘Fridaycities.Com’, which was a networking site where, if I have understood it correctly (which I may not have), people exchanged titbits and information about the cities they lived in. The subscribers were also awarded points, or kudos, depending on the quality of their inputs. Cunningly, so Carr thought, he also wanted the website to be a quasi-dating website. So, the users were encouraged to use tic boxes in front of the pre-prepared statements (‘I find him sexy’ etc.) which were attached to the profiles of each subscriber. The use of the website was free; however, if you wanted to get to know other subscribers, for example, if you had a burning desire to know who found your profile sexy and your contribution witty, you could do it only by subscribing to a premium service which charged you annually £10. (If, like me, you are wondering why anyone would become a regular subscriber to such websites, you are obviously an anachronism and ought to be sent to live with the Pennsylvania Amish.) As for Carr’s confidence that he would be able to get funding from entrepreneurs and VCs (Venture Capitalists) for his ‘business’, you can’t really fault the poor lad. Remember, this is an industry where a website full of empty squares was hailed as a breakthrough and sold for a million dollars. Carr managed to get Angus Bankes, who had raked in millions developing and selling Web business, as the non-executive chairman of their company; he managed to convince his parents and uncle to part with 50 grands of their hard-earned cash; and, with the zeal of a Born Again Christian, he began to woo ‘the angels’—these are the aforementioned multimillionaires who are prepared to part with their easily-won cash—so that they would invest in his business venture. And failed every time. Every e-tycoon he met was interested in the idea, saw the potential in the idea, agreed that it was a damn good concept, and predicted that it would be the next big thing in the dot com business; but did not actually invest money in it. Carr tried every trick in the book—he even learnt the Powerpoint presentation and changed the name of his web-business from ‘Fridaycities.com’ (‘crap’) to ‘Kudocities.com’ (so much better)—and sucked up to these men like a vacuum cleaner; however, at the end of one year he was forced to admit that he had reached the end of the road. No one was willing to invest in his company. The idea may have the potential, but the business had no future. Carr accepted defeat; accepted that he was not cut out to be a web-entrepreneur; made the (inevitable) discovery that he was much happier when he was a two-penny hack (the free booze and dinners might also have gone some way towards maintaining his felicitous state); and decided that there was something in the notion that on the whole it was a sound plan to stick with what you were good at rather than attempt something (you were not good at) only because you saw others doing it and some succeeding. ‘Fridaycities (or ‘Kudocities). com joined thousands of other similar web-business ventures that do not make it, and disappeared into ether forever.

Bringing Nothing to the Party is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the over-hyped world of dot com industry at the turn of the century, where one swallow often made a summer. Carr successfully enlivens the Sybaritic world which appears to be unending successions of decadent gatherings. It is also an honest (and often hilarious) account of Carr’s own alcohol-fuelled capers, which, more than once, end up in him pissing off the very people he needs to schmoose with. Running in parallel with Carr’s attempt to secure a funding for his business venture is the story of the love triangle involving him and two American women, one (called Savannah) who is his business partner, and the other (called Kate), one of the subscribers to the test-site of his business. With self-deprecating humour and candidness Carr tells how he achieves the difficult feat—he invites both of them at the same pub when he is rip-roaringly drunk and afterwards has the mother of all blackouts—of upsetting and losing both the women.

Carr has the gift of a raconteur. The book which, at times, has the feel of a shaggy-dog story, and is full of comical anecdotes—the one involving Carr hiring a singing and swearing gynaecologist, who specialises in parody songs that border on misogyny, for the launch of his business, is toe-curlingly funny— crackles throughout with his humour and wit.

Towards the end of this very engaging and entertaining memoir (if that is what it is), Carr recounts how Kate, his jilted ex, started a blog dedicated to dissing him. On the blog the ex told the story, warts and all, of her one year on and off relationship with Carr, which portrayed him as a commitment-phobic sociopath who had an unusual relationship with truth. Kate, Carr informs us, went to great lengths to get in touch with everyone, of either sex, whom Carr had crossed swords with—and there were many—in the previous few years, and invited them to add their stories to the blog. Worse, she encouraged them to dish the dirt on the failed internet entrepreneur on their websites, which were then linked to her own blog. The result? If you typed ‘Paul Carr’ in the Google search box, the Jezebel’s blog site was the first one to pop up on the search engine for reasons that are too technical and beyond my comprehension. What the woman did, was apparently worse than a ‘Google Bomb’. And please don’t ask me what a ‘Google Bomb’ is. It is what, Carr informs us, Zoe-the Girl-with-a-One-Track-Mind- Margolis  did to Nicholas Hellen, the Sunday Times Acting News Editor, who ‘outed’ her as the woman writing salacious stories on her blog, describing in detail her bedroom adventures, and is not very nice, although, obviously, not as malicious as Kate did to Paul Carr. Carr’s name was mud. I wouldn’t have known any of this had I not read Carr’s book. Perhaps there is a lesson in this.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Abortion and Masturbation: are they Comparable?


A Democratic representative in Texas, called Jessica Farrar, has filed a bill to regulate masturbatory emissions in men. The bill proposes that men be fined $ 100 if they ejaculate outside of an appropriate receptacle. The appropriate receptacle, you might have guessed, is a vagina (you’d hope, with a real woman attached to it) or, if it can’t be a vagina, then any receptacle approved by a medical facility. Any emission that does not end in either (or any) of the certified receptacles will be considered an act against an unborn child and the man will be charged with the failure to preserve the sanctity of life.

Jessica Farrar introduced this satirical bill to highlight her opposition to the anti-abortion measures advocated by the Republican politicians.

I must confess that I don’t get the anti-abortion stance of some sections of the societies all over the world. I mean, I get it that Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion, because the Church holds the sanctity of life so dear. So, in vulgate, the Church is saying that if you f**k and the woman gets pregnant, then that’s it. Whether the woman can afford it or not, whether she likes children or not, whether the f**ker (in the strict technical sense of the word) wants to stick around or not, she has to give birth to the child. (There are other ways of getting pregnant without actual f**king, such as artificial insemination; but I should guess that if you have gone all the way to the IVF to have a baby, and it works, you would not want to abort the foetus.) That is OK. It’s OK in the sense that it is, like, the opinion of the Church. Those who are Catholics and think that it is OK for the Church to be so prescriptive about their personal lives, are welcome to follow it. But what about those who are not Catholics, or, who are Catholics but want to have the right to abort? If you are in Texas, you are f**ked (figuratively, this time, although, if you have become pregnant, you have also been literally f**ked), as, it looks like, the only way to get an abortion if you live in Texas (and are a woman, a pregnant woman, it goes without saying) is a twisted hanger in a dodgy back-street.

I therefore am in fully empathy (you should try it, empathy; I have been giving it a go for a while, and I am slowly getting better at it; I allow myself only a smirk these days—and do not guffaw—when a confused geriatric runs over a toddler in ASDA with his trolley and the toddler’s mother eloquently brings to the geriatric’s notice his many character-flaws (and to everyone else’s, within the hearing distance, that she learnt her eloquence in the gutter) with the women in Texas, not because they live in Texas which, I am sure, is a fine state in America, and certainly not because they are women, but because they can’t get an abortion which I think should be their right, irrespective of their motivations for abortion.

Abortion, let me make it clear hear and now, is a boon to the society, like Salvation Army, Amnesty International, and PoundLand. It is a bringer of inestimable, indescribable good and happiness.

I wonder, though, whether introducing the anti-masturbatory bill, however satirical, is the right way of going about it. It can’t be that everyone who supports the anti-abortion bill dangles a penis between his thighs. It seems statistical improbability to me that not a single woman supports the anti-abortion bill. The bill does an injustice to all those lonely men who sit in front of their computer (a sock in one hand) staring intensely (and empathically) at the YouTube videos (uploaded strictly  for educational purpose), who might be wholeheartedly in support of women’s right to abort. These men might be creepy (you might die of fright) but their hearts are in the right place.

What can, then, be done? Stopping men from tossing off will, I am sorry to say, not work. The women could leave Texas. That is no doubt a cop-out option, but, in its support, it could be argued that sometimes retreat is the wisest, if not the bravest, decision. My suggestion is that all these Republican politicians bringing anti-abortion measures (or, even better, the Pope) should be made to read David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go. If Lodge’s wise and humane musings on the Catholic Church, the pill, and the rhythm method fail to change the hearts of Republican Politicians (and the Pope), I don’t know what will.