Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists Going Dark is the result of Julia Ebner's "personal research" into how extremists use social media, online forums, trolling and hacking in order to radicalise individuals.

Six parts deal with different stages in the radicalisation process: recruitment, socialisation, communication, networking, mobilisation, and attack. A final section looks at potential developments over the next five years and then suggests action we might take in 2020.

There's too much of interest in the book to review everything, so here are just a couple of things that stuck in my mind.

First, the danger of engaging with some of the extremists even as a researcher. The author found herself being drawn into the Trad Wives forum "having just come out of a painful break-up". She says that "neither class, gender or race, nor political or religious views, determine if someone will be groomed by extremists. Everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness, and vulnerability can be a highly temporary concept". Only education, "knowing the steps and signs of radicalisation" saved her.

Second, how the concept of 'free speech' has been hijacked for the purposes of justifying extremist views. Mainstream audiences on popular platforms "are targeted with messages around issues of identity, heritage and free speech". The ideas are taken up in chat groups that claim they are "safe spaces for freedom of speech". In the offline world, we have arrived at a situation where some of the Charlottesville rally participants "try to convince the organisers to reframe the rally around freedom of speech instead of white identity".

There are plenty of other light-bulb moments: how the algorithms of YouTube always draw you to more extremist content, how far-right organizations will dissuade supporters who are obese, disfigured or not trendy enough, and how the Christchurch attack "blurred the lines between trolling and terrorism".

Ebner says her "aim in this book is to make the social dimension of digital extremist movements visible". She achieves this with a well written variety of examples. If your only interaction with online communities is via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, by the end of the book, you'll be aware of just what a tiny corner these cover.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Is this the future of child birth?

Dreams Before the Start of Time Anne Charnock's Dreams Before the Start of Time is a story that speculates on the future of child birth. It uses as its basis the current state of research and development in human reproduction, including egg production, impregnation, genetic modification and artificial wombs.

The story begins in 2034 with friends Millie and Toni. Millie wants a baby and chooses donor insemination because it's not the right time for her partner Aiden. Toni becomes pregnant unintentionally and naturally by her partner Atticus. For the next 75 years the book follows the lives of their children, families, and people who are influenced by their choices.

The most memorable episode is when Millie's son Rudy meets his sperm-donating biological father, a smug, arrogant man. It was a tense and explosive situation. There's also one character who is more interesting than the others, Freya Liddicoat. She has a tenuous link to Millie through an orphan boy that Rudy and his wife didn't adopt. Her working class background makes her stand out from the rest of the middle-class characters.

Apart from these two things, a tense episode and a working class character, the book was forgettable. It's not that their lives weren't happy, it's that, like most families, exciting things rarely happen, they just go about their lives doing normal, everyday things. It's not that the characters were unlikeable, it's that they were too normal. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the book, it's just that the story was not engaging.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

To avenge her father's blood

True Grit Many will know the story of True Grit having seen one of the two screen versions. Charles Portis's book is nonetheless well worth the read, even if you know the ending.

It's narrated by Mattie Ross, a Presbyterian, middle-aged, successful business woman. She tells the story of how, when she was 14, her father was killed by Tom Chaney. Determined to avenge his death she employs a US marshal to track the murderer down. Rooster Cogburn is her choice, the meanest one, "a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork." They're joined by LaBoeuf, a boastful Texas ranger who's after Chaney for a different crime, and whose "grin and his confident manner cowed everybody", but also made Mattie "worry a little about my straggly hair and red nose."

John Wayne turned Rooster Cogburn into the hero of the story in the 1969 film, but it is the 14-year-old Mattie who has "true grit", and whose character shines through every page. Intellectually she can look after herself, and she refuses to let her youth and gender hold her back. Mattie places a different type of woman into the history and mythology of the American wild west, who is neither a home-maker nor a prostitute.

Finally, there is one important character who we never meet, but who hovers in the background and is used as both a carrot and a stick to help the girl get what she wants. He is lawyer J. Noble Daggett and must be even more formidable than Mattie.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

For fans of John le Carré

The Night Manager At the end of The Night Manager, John le Carré discusses plot and character differences that were used in the 2015 TV adaptation of his book. Let me say, up front, that I preferred the screen version.

The story is set in the early 1990s and opens with the eponymous night manager, Jonathan Pine, waiting for hotel guests to arrive. He's thinking about the death a few years earlier, of Sophie, a woman he slept with and who was killed, probably on the orders of "the worst man in the world", Richard Onslow Roper. Pine blames himself, as well as Roper, for Sophie's death, and it is Roper and his party who are expected at the hotel.

Roper and Pine are perhaps two faces of the same coin. The baddie is a man in whose past "there was neither striving nor disadvantage. Class, privilege .... had been handed to Roper on a salver". In contrast, Pine was orphaned from an early age, and "When God finished putting together Dicky Roper .... He took a deep breath and shuddered a bit, then He ran up our Jonathan to restore the ecological balance". However, I found Pine to be rather wooden and couldn't believe that so many women fell in love with him on sight. Perhaps this is just a feature of the early '90s setting, but none of the female characters exist other than to provide sex, and they are of course long-legged, slim, beautiful and of questionable intelligence. I never really cared about our hero and his mission, and preferred the uneasy, unpredictable company of Roper and his gang.

Another problem was the writing style. There were several instances where, for no reason I could discern, the tense shifted from past to present and back again several times.

The best bits of the book were the manoeuvres of the "espiocrats" in London and America following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Le Carré provides insight into the changes that were taking place within the British intelligence industry, the potential obsolescence of the old style Cold War spy. The story also touches on the hypocrisy of Governments as when Roper talks about cocaine: "Not only does Uncle Sam choose to poison himself with it, but he enriches the oppressed Latinos while he's about it!" And as for the illegal arms trade, the real enemies are the big power governments, "flogging anything to anybody, breaking their own rules". However this is not really a theme of the book.

Aficionados of John Le Carré will probably enjoy The Night Manager much more than I did.

Monday, 24 February 2020

How do you define working class?

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class "How can you call yourself working class when you live on the French Riviera?" Good question, and one I've been asked several times. Perhaps I'm no longer working class? I thought the Dead Ink publication Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class might provide an answer.

The book is a collection of 23 essays, written "in response to a tweet that, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, requested someone produce a 'State of the Nation' book of working class voices". But how to define the working class? The editor tells us that the authors "self-identify as working class or [as] from a working class background".

As with any collection of essays or short stories, some connect with the reader and others don't. Dominic Grace's experience (The Death of a Pub) was nothing like my teetotal, Methodist upbringing, where the pub was considered to be a wicked place that destroyed lives. However, the two essays about accents (Kate Fox's The Wrong Frequency, and Rym Kechacha's What Colour is a Chameleon) struck a chord with someone who moved away from the North West aged 18, whose accent regularly changes depending on the listener, and whose pronunciation of "bus" and "bath" occasionally prompts tedious banter about it being grim "oop North".

Some essays were entertaining and uplifting, such as that of Wally Jiagoo (Glass Windows and Glass Ceilings) and his struggle to get into media script-writing whilst working at a benefits office. Or Alexandros Plasatis's story of sweet revenge on his dodgy landlord (The Immigrant of Narborough Road).

Others provided an insight into something which had never occurred to me, such as Sian Norris's experiences growing up in a lesbian family in the 90s, dealing with Section 28 (Growing Up Outside of Class).

And then there are those whose beliefs are in line with my own. Cath Bore's experience as and study of cleaners (The Housework Issue (the Other One)) discredits the axiom that if you work hard you'll get on. And Peter Sutton laments the privatisation of education and the desire to reintroduce grammar schools (Education, Education, Education).

In the final essay (You're Not Working Class) the book's editor Nathan Connolly has provided a neat answer for those who accuse me of not being working class because more than half a century after I was born, my life appears to have moved so far from where it began. So I'll leave the last word to him:
"Delegitimising the working class is a step towards removing working class voices. If we want working class writers, actors, politicians, and judges - and if we want those institutions to understand working class life - then we need to expect the working class to be educated and intelligent, perhaps even cultured, perhaps even partial to a high-street coffee chain latte. Otherwise, we're just telling them to know their place".


Thursday, 20 February 2020

Those who leave home, and those who don't

An American Marriage An American Marriage is an odd title for this book by Tayari Jones. True, it's set in America and it follows what happens to a married couple when the husband is wrongly imprisoned. But the story is about much more.

Three characters narrate the tale: Roy, his wife Celestial, and her friend since childhood, Andre, who was also Roy's friend at college. They slowly reveal how Roy and Celestial met, what their parents are like, and how Roy came to be in prison for five years. We also find out how Celestial coped during those five years, and what happened to their relationship when Roy was released.

An American Marriage is a character study of Roy and Celestial, not a fast-paced, exciting plot-driven story. The couple were always ill-matched. When they fell in love Celestial admits that "Roy came into my life at the time when I needed a man like him". Roy's heroics were mostly about his own ego; "I had to keep running as long as she did. How would it look if I hung back?" Once married Roy speaks over his wife, collects other women's phone numbers and doesn't always wear his wedding ring. Describing Celestial's storyboard pictures showing what she wanted out of life, Roy says they included, "a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon. No wedding dress or engagement ring".

If not about marriage, then what? The story explores how one's upbringing can clash with one's hopes for the future. And if anything, Roy spells out the problem in the first sentence: "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don't".

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A mysterious distribution of chapatis

The Siege of Krishnapur I had high expectations for The Siege of Krishnapur, perhaps too high.

JG Farrell's book is a fictionalised account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and Siege of Lucknow. It's nearly all set in the British residency in Krishnapur, North India, and features a cast of characters of whom the Collector is perhaps the most important. He's obsessed with the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations that was staged in London. Other memorable characters include Lucy Hughes the "fallen woman", Harry and Fleury who both fall under her spell, and the two doctors, McNab and Dunstaple, who hold opposing views on the causes and treatment of cholera.

But it took an age for me to get into the story. It started well enough, explaining that the "first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis", which held a promise of the humour I'd heard is a great feature of the novel. Unfortunately the style of writing didn't appeal to me and I found my mind wandering. I'd read around three-quarters of the book before I really felt engaged.

As for the humour, it's more absurd than funny-ha-ha, although I did actually laugh out loud at two points, both during the siege itself: one relating to the misfiring of a gun, the other to the relative merits of Shakespeare and Keats.

I think it'll improve on a second reading.