Friday, February 02, 2007

I Agree With Nick ...

... about one thing. I bought Rancid Aluminium a few years ago because the author lives in Cardiff (like me) and because it had a pretty girl on the cover. Neither of which are particularly good reasons for cracking open the thing. Then Nick praised James Hawes here and here. That still wasn't a reason to dig RA from the pile. But I eventually felt the need for something lighter I could read at work - and my view changed: he's very good. (NB Reviewers on Amazon disagree.)

Now, of those posts of Nick's the second is pretty incidental, as Hawes is only mentioned for his views on Big Brother (in Speak for England - published in 2005):

Writers as diverse as James Hawes and Ben Elton wrote state-of-the-nation novels about contestants who will do anything to please the peeping Tom producers and their creepy audiences.

I don't think BE and JH are 'diverse': they were born a year apart (BE- 1959; JH - 1960), both are satirical, both are chippy lower-middle-class, both went to lefty universities and show left-wing consciousness and post-punk attitudes. Both, in fact, rather resemble Nick. There are lots of authors quite unlike either. (Amis, McEwan, Pratchett, Rowling - all could be described as writing "state-of-the-nation novels" however obliquely - whose personal backgrounds are nothing like Ben Elton's.) But the real gem of that piece is two paragraphs down (Nick is writing about Celebrity Big Brother last year).

George Galloway and his backers in the Socialist Workers Party are finished now. The alliance they organised between the Trotskyist far left and the Islamic far right, which produced the most disgraceful protest movement since the Thirties, can no longer count on the indulgence of polite society.

Well, that entry which was "posted on Sunday, January 15th, 2006" marked the end of Nick's, Harry's Place's, etc, etc interest in Gorgeous George and the SWP didn't it? They just withered away, and their critics moved on to substantial targets.

You should be told, reader, that James Hawes went to Oxford. Like Nick. Nick's year of birth seems to be secret (the bio on his own site does not give it; and Wikipedia does not know either), but I'm pretty sure it was somewhere between 1960 and 1962. So he's roughly the same age as James Hawes - and so (that's two sos so the logic may be getting stretched here) they may have known each other: both thought they were writers, were clearly on the left, and both felt a little out of place. Then again, they may not. (There's a good interview with Hawes in which he explains some of his attitudes.) Anyway, here's Nick:

Middle-class hatred of the upper class used to erupt regularly in Britain. From 1815 to 1914, it inspired the campaigns against rotten boroughs, the corn laws and the House of Lords. It is everywhere in novels from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, sometimes as a dominant theme, in Nicholas Nickleby for example, more often in the background, as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Today, the old anger seems to be dead. People talk with passion about the gap that exists between the top and the bottom - between rich and poor people and rich and poor countries - but not the gap between the top and the middle. The only modern writer I can think of who uses middle-class fury at the privileges of the rich in most of his plots is James Hawes. Fortunately, isolation has not harmed him and he is very good at it.
The typical Hawes hero realises that working hard and playing by the rules will never get him the family home in a nice part of London he took for granted when he was young. To join the respectable middle class he has to stop being respectable. He must rob a bank, cut a deal with the Russian mafia or humiliate himself on a reality TV show. The system is stacked against the middle class, as the hero in A White Merc with Fins explains, after learning that the children of the rich he thought of as friends at university are from a world whose admission price he cannot afford ...

Of the five novels by Hawes so far Nick chooses three: "He must rob a bank [White Merc With Fins], cut a deal with the Russian mafia [Rancid Aluminium] or humiliate himself on a reality TV show [Speak for England]." I haven't read the last of these, so I don't intend to comment. Rancid Aluminium is about an entrepreneur (not a regular wage slave) who runs a business with two arty types which makes videos for business people: even when he thinks he's honest, he knows the business is a scam; he's ripped any worthwhile ideas from a much cleverer don who writes self-help books. The plot is pleasingly complex after that involving MI5, income tax fraud (the 'hero' is a cheat in lots of ways), the CIA, the Russian Mafia (who want to use his business as a money laundering front). The man is hardly a victim - he has a beautiful wife (his best friend may have a better looking, but less likeable wife) with whom he has had great sex in the past; he has a home, and friends to an extent, employees. There are a lot of people worse off. His biggest problems are - he's not as rich as he'd like to be, and perhaps his boys can't swim (to paraphrase George in Seinfeld). But at least he is legitimately 'middle class' and he joined in on his own initiative. He's also a shit. In White Merc With Fins the 'hero' is in his late twenties, still an agency temp, who discovers a secret private bank (which he contrives to rob), after being sent there as a dogsbody. Not so middle class really. I've been 'excluded' in much the same way, but a lot of that is down to attitude and laziness on my part.

But there are two interesting points in A White Merc With Fins. One is the robbery plot, which involves the IRA which the hero contacts through a mentor when he was in the 'Revolutionary Communist Association' (no really) when he at university. Hawes knows quite a bit about the more doolally student political parties. Maybe he was a member of one, maybe not. (His anger, which both Nick and I often share, strikes me as genuine, so he could have passed as a comrade - had he wished to.) The other is a joke I thought was great. The narrator recounts bringing a bottle of wine over to a more committed friend the day Nelson Mandela was confirmed as President of South Africa. The wine was, of course, South African, and the earnest friend was at first offended, and then realised that he was obliged to drink this in future. When the bottle is half gone, the narrator tells him it's three years old. This is (to me) a much much better version of Nick's" my mother used to boycott Outspan" story.

There are some serious points here: it's possible that Nick knew James Hawes at Oxford (nothing wrong with that if he did). And it's possible that James Hawes and perhaps Nick was or were mixed up with the very far left (as in terrorist supporting) parties Hawes mentions. Certainly these are an obsession of Nick's. And Nick is obsessed by 'Are you with us or against us?' He is a latterday O'Brien at finding counter-revolutionary elements, 'reds under the bed' or what have you.

Matthew Turner has a good post on Nick's current idea of the middle classes.

Is there a point to this? I'll give you a point. I think Nick should make his personal political evolution (and the reasons for same) much clearer. If he was a member of the hard left when young, fine. He's certainly not alone, and passion even when (mis)guided by others is nothing to be ashamed of. Apostates are often the strongest critics. And sometimes they are right ...

Update I managed to post this twice. I've deleted the spare copy and copied the one comment it attracted into the comments here.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Baldwin said...

"George Galloway and his backers in the Socialist Workers Party are finished now. The alliance they organised between the Trotskyist far left and the Islamic far right, which produced the most disgraceful protest movement since the Thirties, can no longer count on the indulgence of polite society."

Galloway, SWP allying with reactionary Islamic elements, disgraceful, Nazi-Soviet pact yadda yadda yadda, but who really gives a SHIT? No one but sparty trainspotters cares about these people. Are they really worse than the Red Army Fraction, the Red Brigades or the people who supported Mao and Pol Pot? Hasn't the Left always produced idiots? But really, do these people matter ? Not according to me and Nick Cohen.

Viva il socialismo e la liberta.

2/02/2007 11:07:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Nick is obsessed by 'Are you with us or against us?' He is a latterday O'Brien at finding counter-revolutionary elements, 'reds under the bed' or what have you.

I think this is a good comparison and it helps explain why there's so much mileage in what Cohen does now and o'Brien used to do. Because you can always find links between one person and another on the left: some cause they both support, some meeting they've both attended, some organisation they were both members of, some website they both visit. Harry's Place exists pretty much on this manouevre alone, and of course it's ideal for the newspaper column, where you pick somebody, show that they're "linked" to somebody sinister, add a couple of quotes and a rhetorical question and that's you (and them) done for the week.

Another way of playing this game is "do you condemn?", in which people, for instance on a news programme, are invited to distance themselves from some abhorrent individual or another, which question of course serves the purpose of linking them to it. It's another way of hounding people (and the targets are nearly always on the left) ratehr than giving them any chance to say, indepndently, what they actually think and believe.

2/03/2007 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous gdr said...

Middle-class hatred of the upper class [is] in the background [...] in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

I know it's just a throwaway reference, but I think this is a particularly obtuse comment on the Orwell novel, whose main theme is the misery of aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle on a working-class income: "You can possess money, or you can despise money; the one fatal thing is to worship money and fail to get it." Keep the Aspidistra Flying is saturated with envy of the rich, but that's not at all the same as hatred.

2/03/2007 09:59:00 AM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

Re. the O'Brien idea: it also applies if you appear on the same conference panel - so if Robin Cook appeared on the same panel as Galloway and Iqbal Sacranie re. the Iraq war, Cook must therefore be...you know the rest. Oddly it doesn't apply to those people pro-war types like Nick support (e.g. if it was a panel of C. Hitchens, Ahmed Chalabi and Richard Perle)

PS: I read Rancid Aluminium - hated it: naff M. Amis-wannabe lad-lit. (And I've heard the movie sucked too)

2/03/2007 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhere in one of the pieces by Geras or Cohen, there was the demand that the anti-war movement throw out the SWP from the leadership of the movement. It's a daft idea because the anti-war movement doesn't seem to be led by anyone. I'm not being led by anyone when I collect,exchange and analyse information, or write letters to the newspapers or to my MP, or tip off journalists. Geras and Cohen seem to be implying that it is all a vast conspiracy led by someone, while it's really a large number of people doing stuff to counteract all the spin. But perhaps in their experience all politics is conspiracy.

2/03/2007 07:21:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Williams said...

I read _White Merc_ and loved it. Started _Rancid Aluminium_ and stalled on page thirtysomething. It looked like a clear case of difficult second album syndrome to me.

Interest: I was at the same college as Hawes, but he was before my time.

2/04/2007 10:35:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

This is one of the most infuriating things about the whole decent/pro-war/pro-liberation/pro-child torture/whatever cult - their assumption that half a dozen knobbers in London represent "the Left". Seriously, how many people were influenced by Gerry Healy as against Denis Healey?

(Yes, I know I used that joke on Dsquared, but I'm determined to get a rise out of it.)

2/05/2007 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

Chris W - I read them in the opposite order, and I preferred RA to WMwF. Plot better; start was slow, I give you. Also I preferred the redemption (or accept what you've got) ending.
Hawes lives in Cardiff, but his characters meet in the 'Spice of Life' (Variety, geddit?) pub in Cambridge Circus - next to the 'Les Mis' theatre when I used to drink there. In Cardiff, the 'Spice of Life' is a health food deli in the student district run by a hippy who did time for growing his own. No wonder I live here.

2/05/2007 11:15:00 PM  

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