Sunday, 26 April 2020

Can she really be so naive?

Good Behaviour Poor Aroon St Charles. In the opening chapter of Molly Keane's Good Behaviour she insists, "I do know how to behave .... All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives." She reminisces on why so many people she knew have been unhappy, even her bed-ridden Mummie, to whom she's taking a dish of rabbit quenelles for luncheon. What follows is a memoir of Aroon's life at Temple Alice in Ireland, the grand house owned by Mummie when the family had money. She documents relationships between family and friends, as well as those that work for them, shining a light on expectations of behaviour and propriety within the fast collapsing Anglo-Irish society of the early 20th century.

Throughout the book Aroon constantly seeks reassurance and praise. In one bitter-sweet memory of swimming with her brother she says she "stayed up four strokes longer than Hubert and nobody said, 'Nothing to crow about, is there, Aroon? He's three years younger than you, after all.'" We're never told who would have said this, but we can guess. Papa "was the one who patted me and kissed me", whereas Mummie "didn't really like children," but sometimes "would touch Hubert".

Aroon also suffers from insecurity about her looks. Aged 57, she says "how nice that bosoms are all right to have now; in the twenties when I grew up I used to tie them down with a sort of binder. Bosoms didn't do then."

Boys at that time were raised to be boisterous and enjoy the outdoor life. When her brother introduces Aroon to his friend Richard, she relates some of his childhood experiences, which include a flogging by his father. This was not because he told "quite a big fib", which was considered to be natural, but rather for being caught reading a book of verse, since "it's this poetry that bothers me."

Of the other characters, Mrs Brock the governess was the most admirable, the one who seemed to show genuine affection for her charges and "accepted without comment my grotesque, unsentimental fixation on Mummie." Mr Kiely the solicitor was indeed solicitous, but perhaps had a hidden agenda, and one longs to know a bit more about Mister Hamish and Miss Enid, Aroon's cousin with the "hedgehog kiss".

You can't help feeling sorry for Aroon. She seems to be oblivious to the shenanigans that those around her get up to. Can she really be so naive, or is she wilfully ignorant and extending her good behaviour even to her own memories? In her world of emotional repression and Victorian values, "There was to be no sentimentality", even in the depths of despair, "It was the worst kind of bad manners to mourn and grovel in grief."

Friday, 17 April 2020

Deprivation of liberty is punishment all by itself

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner Incompetent, inadequate, spiteful, indifferent - these are just a few of the words that come to mind when considering the management of UK prisons as described in Chris Atkins's journal, A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner.

As the title explains, the book is an account of the author's experience in prison after being convicted of tax fraud. It's limited to the first 9 months of his sentence, which he spends in HMP Wandsworth. Urged on by some of his friends, he recorded his experience with the hope that his "unvarnished account will provide a strong argument for urgent prison reform".

The book is full of absurdities and on starting to read you're buoyed by the dark humour that Prisoner A8892DT finds in his ordeal. Who knew, for instance, that "the 75p tuna in brine has long been the basic unit of prison currency"? As time progresses tho' the number of catch-22 situations increases and there's a feeling that Atkins and his fellow prisoners are walking on quicksand and with each step the deeper they sink.

Most shocking is the issue of prisoner mental health, unsurprising since a lack of staff leads to inmates often being locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day. Some prisoners, like Atkins, are trained by the Samaritans to be Listeners, talking down others from self-harm and suicide.

At the end of the book there's more than "enough evidence that Wandsworth, and the prison system as a whole, is failing on an epic scale". Atkins uses his experience to suggest changes need to be made in a number of areas: mental health, officer numbers, offending behaviour courses, employment, education, Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences, Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, telephones, bureaucracy, healthcare, and visits. It's such a long list of problems which unnecessarily penalise convicted criminals, when "what's frequently ignored is that deprivation of liberty is a punishment all by itself".

Thursday, 9 April 2020

How should people die?

Have The Men Had Enough? Margaret Forster's Have the Men Had Enough? starts on a Sunday, at a McKay family lunch. Grandma, in the early stages of dementia, is at the table with her son Charlie, his wife Jenny, and their children Hannah and Adrian. Grandma doesn't live with them tho'. She has her own flat, paid for by Charlie, and is looked after by her daughter Bridget and a team of helpers.

The story is narrated by Jenny and Hannah in alternate chapters. They share their thoughts about how their relatives behave, and their frustrations about caring for Grandma, whom they both love. But love is not enough to help them decide what is in Grandma's best interests as her health deteriorates. Is it better for Bridget to give up her job to look after Grandma full time, or to leave her in a mental hospital. As Hannah says, "is it better to be mad or is it better to be sane and cruel?"

The book's subject matter won't appeal to everyone, although whilst it's quite bleak, there are plenty of moments of black humour. Forster's observations are spot on. Anyone who has had experience, no matter how brief, of caring for someone with even very mild dementia will know that laughing about the absurdities is a great release for the stress. But for some readers it will provide a sounding board, just like Hannah, who at 17 years old determines to consider her own death, thinking, "It can't be meant, intended, that people should die like that, can it?"

It's not just about death and how we care for the elderly tho', it's also about family relationships. Grandma "didn't like men, she saw them as enemies, as nuisances, as tyrants. She saw them as spoiling her life. She only liked women". This attitude had a significant influence on the way in which each of her children showed their love for her at the end of her life.

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.