Tag Archives: politics

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Did anyone else see that viral video of Rutger Bregman at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum meeting? I expect that I’m not the only person who wanted to high-five him after he told a few billionaires that they needed to pay their taxes and quite their bullshit philanthropy schemes. It didn’t go down well apparently…

The Davos elite may not have liked it, but the viral video has made Bregman this week’s folk hero and has raised the public profile of Bregman, who was already a rising star in academia. On the back of the Davos video, and articles I later read, I bought Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There to see what else he had to say about the state of the world.

If, like me, you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about the state of the world, Utopia for Realists is in some ways very reassuring. It highlights that (as long as you don’t think about rapidly impending climate catastrophe) the world is better for humans than it’s ever been before. In the West at least, we are effectively living in what your average Medieval peasant would have considered to be a utopia. But, Bregman argues, our progress has stagnated and we need to return to utopian thinking to consider the betterment of all of mankind, with the best minds applying their minds to the problem of how to make life better for all in an increasingly unequal society. He quotes Bertrand Russell saying,

“It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”

For Bregman, we’re lacking a mighty dose of imagination, funneling our best minds into sectors like finance where they move money around, contributing very little to the betterment of society in pursuit of growing the GDP- a useful measurement of a nation’s power at wartime, but a poor barometer of social welfare. Social dysfunction improves under GDP, but for Bregman it’s no great coincidence that the US which has the highest GDP has the highest number of social problems. The things that we would see as social progress, such as cheaper life improving technology, causes the GDP to shrink. Nurses, teachers and social workers who actively contribute to the improvement of society don’t rate highly in terms of GDP. The yardstick our politicians use to measure a country’s wellbeing and progress is not fit for purpose.

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets out his vision for how we might come closer to a more equal society which would be more like a utopia for everyone: a universal basic income, shorter working week and, radically, open borders. His academic argument for this is strong, but I’d argue that he makes a strong moral argument as well. When the mortality rate for Somalian toddlers is higher than that of frontline US soldiers in the American Civil War, Second World War or the Vietnam War then there’s something seriously wrong with the world and it’s time that lots was done to fix this on a global scale.

This is one of those books that I’m going to insist that everyone should read, and I don’t do that often with non-fiction, so add it to your TBR pile now.



Michael Gove- The Little Grey Man of Literature

Michael Gove- the little grey man of literature Image by new3dom3000 under creative commons

I tweeted a few days ago that Michael Gove’s reforms to the English GCSE curriculum reminded me of Putin’s Literary Canon pronouncements a few years back– nationalistic, narrow-minded and reductive. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the head of OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform claims that Michael Gove has personally intervened to ensure that where novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird would have originally been studied, students will now be examined on a work of fiction or drama originating from the British Isles since 1914.

I am deeply concerned that the education secretary has been allowed to interfere in the English Literature curriculum without consultation with teachers and universities about this. There is no university department which teaches an English Literature degree without reference to writers from outside the UK, for the simple reason that literature is not something which is restricted by geographical borders- it is designed to challenge and breakdown barriers, not to reinforce them in such an arbitrary and mindless way.

And, to steal David Cameron’s favourite phrase, let us be perfectly clear, while there are plenty of students who could and would engage with the works of Jane Austen and Dickens, there are plenty of students who would find the language and volume of reading a struggle. Lower ability students will be penalised as they will require extra support to access the lexis, syntax and context of these novels in the limited contact time that they have with their teachers. So this latest reform will do to the novel what his plans to have primary school children learning and reciting poetry by rote will do- turn more and more students off Literature.

Students used to ask me why I chose to study English Lit at university- and I would tell them it was because I couldn’t decide what subject to study. When studied properly, literature allows you to study history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religion… it broadens the mind. That’s what worries me about this latest announcement, it’s so incredibly reductive it makes me wonder if Gove isn’t one of those little grey men from Michael Ende’s Momo, ripping the colour and fun out of education for every child in the country because they are at odds with his personal values.

Whatever he is, he’s a very dangerous man.

The Twyning by Terence Blacker

the_twyning_terence_blackerBeneath the city of man is a kingdom of rats. The rats are a sophisticated society, with each rat working for the good of the collective depending on its individual abilities. It might be a warrior, a taster, a historian, a spy or a translator but it will put the needs of the kingdom ahead of its own desires because they understand that tradition and love is where the strength of their kingdom lies, and nothing demonstrates the strength of the Kingdom more effectively than The Twyning:

“They were The Twyning. They tugged against one another, forever in motion, forever going nowhere. For almost all their lives, they had been united by an accident of nature that had occurred while they were still in the nest.

Their tails had become inextricably entangled. As they had grown, the knot of living tissue that was at their centre melded and fused together so that, with adulthood, each of these was less an individual rat than a limb on a greater shared body, a spoke on a wheel of flesh.

We know that to have a twyning within the kingdom is a rare blessing. As it grows, it is fed and kept alive by citizens, and it is respected by all, even by the Court of Governance and by the ultimate source of power among rats, they king.

The Twyning expresses life’s mystery. Unable to move in any one direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength, for nothing terrifies a human more than the sight of rats, helpless, bound together, yet powerful.

Above all, it shows the power of the kingdom.

For it is love which keeps The Twyning alive.”

                                                The Twyning by Terence Blacker

The most important tradition in the rat kingdom is the abdication of a dying king, who swims downriver to the world above allowing his successor to be named, but when the time comes for the great King Tzuriel to step down, something terrible happens. It will push rats and humans to the brink of war, and at the heart of it all is a young rat called Efren…

I am on a rat run at the moment. By which I mean that I have been reading a lot of books about rats, which my boyfriend is a bit worried about. He suggests that I may have a few issues, but really, there a few things finer than a fictional rat and The Twyning by Terence Blacker is one of the best rat books I’ve ever read.

Set in Dickensian London, The Twyning portrays a world in which talentless politicians conspire with fearful and biased scientists to achieve their personal ambitions, bending the law of the land and spending public money to support their pet causes while impoverished children live on the street ignored or abused by those in authority. In many ways it’s a novel for our times. Swap the word rat for badger, unemployed or disabled person and Dr Ross-Gibbs’ plans might read like a Tory manifesto, but don’t for a second think that I mean to suggest that this is a soap box rant. It’s more a politically aware, urban Redwall for the noughties- vividly imagined and sharply executed.

I particularly like the well-timed moral ambivalence of this book; there are good humans, ordinary humans and bad humans at times just as there are good rats, ordinary rats and bad rats at times. Both sides have members who act well, both sides have members who act badly so there are shades of grey for readers, young and old, to interpret.

It’s difficult to express how good this book is without giving too much away, but if you like stories with friendship, battle, love, gore, misadventure and redemption then this book is for you.

And if anyone thinks that the idea of a tangled group of rats called a Twyning is silly, check out these Rat Kings to see that these things do, in a sense, exist.

Ten Weeks in Africa by J.M. Shaw

Ten Weeks in Africa- What would you sacrifice to do the right thing?

Ten Weeks in Africa- What would you sacrifice to do the right thing?

When Ed Caine, an NGO  worker employed by the Global Justice Alliance moves his wife and young child to Africa to improve living conditions in the Makera slum, he genuinely believes he can make a difference, but in ten short weeks his ideals are shattered. Despite the assistance of Beatrice Kamunda and her father Joseph Kamunda, a senior government official known for his principled stance against corruption, he finds himself stonewalled as funds are siphoned off by the government. As Ed and his friends try struggle to save their project, they begin to realise that they a powerful enemy is behind the land grab. As political tensions seethe pushing the country to the brink of civil war, Ed and Beatrice begin to understand that much more than the survival of the project is at stake.

For anyone who remembers the outcry that arose when it was revealed that millions of pounds of Western Aid (including funds from Live Aid) was used by rebel leaders to buy arms, Ten Weeks in Africa by JM Shaw is an interesting read. It is well written with a fast paced and engaging story, but more than this it poses some interesting questions about Western interference in Africa. Through careful characterisation and plotting, Shaw creates a brilliant tension which gives birth to a pointed question: does financial aid from rich countries exacerbate the problems it is intended to solve?

Though I am interested in politics and global justice, I can’t make any claims to be an expert, so I did some research about what the experts actually thought about it and the consensus seems to be that it is a well-researched, accurate representation of the concerns of people working in this area. For more information I recommend this article by Peter Gill for The Guardian and this article by Charles Moore for The Telegraph.


The Yellow Birds- Kevin Powers

“The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onwards through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”

The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers

While serving in the army in Iraq, Bartle and Murph told each other that the important thing is to avoid being the thousandth American military death of the conflict. If they died before or after, fine, they’d accept it, but neither of them wanted to claim the milestone for themselves. But war is about more than numbers, and when Bartle returns home without Murph, he is haunted by the promise he made Murph’s mother, and the actions he took in the wake of her son’s death.

Written by an Iraq veteran, The Yellow Birds is a different kind of war novel. Though the language used is often figurative to the point of flowery, the plot is pared back so that small moments expand beyond the moment they occupied in time, much like memories to create a realistic representation of lingering post-traumatic stress. The narrative is erratic, slightly disjointed so that through words of the introspective Bartle with his meandering descriptions of the bloodless, ghostlike Murph and seemingly sociopathic Sergeant Sterling, Kevin Powers creates a convincing portrait of three men bound and broken by a war beyond their control.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, because enjoyed is too light a word. It was both too realistic and too consciously stylised for that. Reading felt like an act of voyeurism, as though the book was an effort by the author to define and accept his experiences of war and I was spying on someone’s private nightmare. But it is a novel that lingers in its honesty, and, being about as far removed as it’s possible to be from the offerings of Chris Ryan and the like, is a powerful contrast to the vast swathes of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour narratives of modern warfare.

The Casual Vacancy- J.K.Rowling

I’ve just finished reading The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t in any hurry to read it because the marketing hype has really irritated me, but when my boyfriend bought me it I thought, might as well give it a go, and if it isn’t any good, well, at least everyone likes a sneery review and I can add mine to the masses who’ve churned them out.

But, BOOM! She’s done it again, and there will be no sneering here.

Following the death of local Councillor Barry Fairbrother, the parish of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Opposing factions scurry to have their candidate brought forward to fill the gap the saintly Barry left behind and put an end to the secret war that has been waged behind the lace curtains of Pagford for nearly sixty years. And as tensions reach a boiling point in the crucible of Pagford, pitting wife against husband, son against father, and almost everyone against poor Krystal Weedon; the residents are haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghost of Barry Fairbrother.

In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, this is not Harry Potter. Or, as JK Rowling might now put it, this is not Harry f—ing Potter. And yet, people will wonder how they compare, so it seems silly to ignore the subject.

Obviously, the Harry Potter books are very plot driven, usually involving some manner of quest, trials, good and evil. The Casual Vacancy is far more character driven, the impetus of the story coming from the raggle-taggle cast of at-best-flawed-at-worst-despicable characters that Rowling has so acerbically set down.

Rowling’s characterisation is brutal and brilliant. Instead of the stock characters that we came to know and love, or hate, in Harry Potter, we have a far more complex array of characters, many of which we’d recognise from our own lives; the yummy mummy yearning to be a teenager again, the weak man looking for a weaker woman to make him feel strong, the teenage cynic railing at the wold. I’m sure there are those who would argue that these are still, to an extent, stock characters. Perhaps, but the execution and Rowling’s mastery makes them feel real.

The pace of the novel may, in parts, be a little slower than some readers will appreciate. I did feel that it took a little while for me to get sucked into the quagmire of village life, but once I did I forgot that I was trying to critically read Rowling’s latest offering and got lost in the genuinely absorbing book that I was reading.

There is the odd wobble, some weird imagery and description, especially for me on p 133 when Rowling describes the sight of a tampon wrapper as being “like a rare comet”, and a teenage boy being overwhelmed by the idea that a teenage girl menstruating “this actual, physical evidence that a girl in his vicinity was having a period there and then”. This reminded me really strongly of a passage in The Virgin Suicides:

 “In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. Sissen said that he wanted to bring it to us, that it wasn’t gross but a beautiful thing, you had to see it, like a modern painting or something, and then he told us he had counted twelve boxes of Tampax in the cupboard… Peter Sissen sped down the stairs, blushing, and after thanking Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, hurried off to tell us that Lux Lisbon was bleeding between the legs that very instant, while the fish flies made the sky filthy and the streetlamps came on.” The Virgin Suicides Jeffrey Eugenides

I don’t know whether this is now a common symbol of burgeoning male sexuality and I’ve missed the memo, or whether they were intended to show that, bless, teenage boys can be a bit gruesome, but the similarity struck me.

Unlike Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy is overtly political. Jan Moir writing for The Daily Mail complained that it is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.”  You can see why The Daily Mail might be antsy, lots of people in the UK use the expression “they read the Daily Mail” as short hand for “they are right-wing and bigoted” and Rowling uses the same oblique reference by placing The Daily Mail in the vicinity of some of her more unpleasant characters while attacking everything the Mail stands for. Personally, I didn’t find the political aspect distressing, but that might be because it was fairly sympathetic of my general politics. Besides, since when was it a bad thing for literature to double as a social commentary?

In short, I liked it. It’s certainly a blunt instrument in a political sense, but it is a strong effort which I think has attracted undue criticism as a result of Rowling’s prior success. Adult reviewers seem to be genuinely rattled by a book which reflects a real world in which there is no Dumbledore with a wand to make things better for the deserving, by a book which dares raise the question of who can be considered deserving.

Maybe the book could have been improved. Who am I to judge? But for me, the only thing that would have made it better would have been for Rowling to dedicate the novel to David Cameron and his Big Society instead of to her husband.

Putin’s Literary Canon

Let us take a survey of our most influential cultural figures and compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read.” Vladimir Putin

You may not have heard about Putin’s plan to develop a Russian literary canon of 100 books which ever student leaving school would be required to read. For those unfamiliar with the problems surrounding state mandated reading, Alexander Nazaryan outlines them pretty effectively here so I won’t go into the political/national/historical side of the issue.

What gets me, apart from the above, is the psychological impact of such a mandate. I’m not a huge fan of reading by numbers, I don’t find that it motivates me and as a big fan of book topic blogs on wordpress, I’ve noticed that many people who set themselves a yearly target of books to read are already becoming stressed at “falling behind” or are worrying about “what counts”.

As a former English teacher, I hate the idea of a dictate stating that students must read x amount books from a list of y and z which is a pity, since the study of English literature generally necessitates some required reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favour of encouraging anyone to become a reader. But when something becomes a rule, the pleasure is taken out of it. Though some people find a numerical target motivating, there are an equal number who will find it causes them to dig in their heels or shy away from a task. By forcing students to read from a list of prescribed books I believe that you are at risk of creating a huge number of reluctant readers.

A hundred books? That eliminates anyone who has any kind of literacy issue or comprehension difficulty (and who would benefit most from reading regularly) from wanting to read.

A set literary cannon? During The Big Read, the BBC published a list of 100 books that everyone should read. Say that this was a compulsory literary cannon and I had to read every book on there, I’d rather eat your eyeballs (not mine, I need them) than read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And I’m something of a compulsive reader. I’ve read several (too many) Jane Austen novels and found myself irritated beyond belief in some way by each one of them. Being forced to read another (my grandmother has tried) would spoil my enjoyment of reading.

So politics aside, I think that for any government to set a list of 100 books that all students must read would do more harm than good. When their intentions are to create a forced sense of “unity” or preserve the “dominance” of a culture then you’re in trouble. (Though interestingly as a side note, that’s how the study of English literature came into being- the British government decided that it would have a “civilising” influence on the Indian population they were oppressing ruling at the time and they wanted to indoctrinate the populace with British values.)

In the immortal words of David Nicholls,

 “And Jackson, of course you should study whatever subject you want, the appreciation of literature, or any kind of artistic endeavor, is absolutely essential to a decent society, why do you think books are the first thing that the Fascists burn? You should learn to stick up for yourself more.” David Nicholls, Starter for Ten

You can control a person’s ideals and beliefs by controlling what they read.