Celeste Ng (2017) Little Fires Everywhere


Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was published in 2017 to critical acclaim and is still a number one bestseller in Amazon in 2020. It terms of book sales, the author has produced the literary equivalent of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell. Being a writer that never writes much now, I thought I’d take a look. It’s a page turner — the end begins at the beginning. I liked it. The review should end here with recognition of that neat trick.

 One I’ve used myself, but as George Bernard Shaw famously said, (adlibbed) writers that can’t write, teach, and teachers that can’t teach, write review.

People that can’t write often ask people that read, what was the book about? The answers pretty simple. Rich man/Poor man, or, in this case, women. I might as well talk about themes.  Class and race. These are biggies in American politics. These are biggies in any politics. Here we have the affluent, white,  Elena Richardson, she’s a local reporter and her husband is a lawyer that works in nearby New York. He comes home to Shaker Heights, where his wife and four beautiful children reside.

Talking Heads, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHatn3_UxEU

Shaker Heights is somewhere we all know, a place where a former Vice President in the late nineteen century moved to get away from the stench of the urban poor. Houses are solid and well maintained and everything runs on rails. Elena Richardson is a third generation Shaker Heighter. They have not one house, but also two units. She admits she doesn’t really need the money, but likes to rent them out the right kind of people. Not charity, exactly. But Mr Yang, whom she rents to in Winslow Road (Down) is suitably grateful.

Here’s the hook to draw readers in:

‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer, how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and emotional to discuss.’

Interrogate the text is a standard cry of creative-writing teachers. Interrogate The American Dream with the subtext Sidonie-Gabrielle Collete’s Gigi, ‘The bustling lives of people with nothing to do’. And remember how the rich are always telling us how incredibly busy they are. The reader is here left with a question, whodunnit, but the answer is in the text: Isabelle. In a book over 300 pages long in which Isabelle or Izzy doesn’t appear until about page 50, the reader suspects something more is going on.

In successful novels, one book becomes many books. George Bernard Shaw’s famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ has an Inspector visiting a family after a tragic accident, or suicide that might have been murder.   Here we have Mia Warren, an artist and photographer with her daughter Pearl, arriving in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle and renting half a house in Shaker Falls from Elena Richardson. Shaw’s dictum ‘That those that can’t change their mind, can’t change anything,’ is the kind of mantra, Mrs. Richardson lives by.

If you play by the rules, you’ll get your just reward is her firm belief, but she is a bit miffed that Mia isn’t properly grateful for the chance she’s been given for a better life. And she’s offended, although she doesn’t show it, that Mia won’t sell her one of her photographs because Mrs Richardson wants to help and she’s a struggling artist. She does shitty jobs to get by, her art is her life. Mrs Richardson can’t imagine what a shitty job feels like, but she wants to do the right thing and gives her a job as housekeeper in her home.

Mia is the ying to Mrs Richarson’s yang. Mia doesn’t play safe. She and her daughter’s possessions can fit snugly in the Beetle and when the time is right to move on, they do, pulled by the necessity of creating something new and rich. Mia’s life is her art, a living embodiment of Shaw’s fellow Irishman’s dictum: Art for Art sake.

There’s lots of doubling in Little Fires Everywhere. When you start making connections they burn through you. Mia and Elena. But also Pearl and Izzy. Moody (look at the name, remember what that means to be fifteen and in love) falls for Pearl (listen to her name, she’s lustrous). He’s lustrous too, but a virgin. They both are, he falls for her hard. Up close teenage life is always Romeo and Juliet. They’re best buddies and that gives Pearl entry into a kind of life she could only imagine, the kind of life she could get used to as she becomes a part of the Richardson household, part of the Richardson family. Pearl is doubled by Izzy, the black sheep of the family that moves in the other direction, helping Mia with her photography, idolising her and imagining what it would be like to have Mia and not Elena as her mother. She’d be the cuckoo in Mia’s nest. Pearl the cuckoo in the Richardson nest. But being like a daughter is not the same as being a daughter.

‘Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,’ as Mia said.

‘You look nice,’ said Trip to Pearl when they’re hanging out in the living room.

Trip is brainless but beautiful, girls in Shaker Heights—and pretty much everywhere they go—fall all over him, admitted Mrs Richardson to herself. She could imagine Pearl falling for Trip, but not the other way about.

‘She always looks nice,’ snapped Moody.

Lexie, the eldest of the Richardson children is eighteen and about to graduate and go to Yale. She’s queen bee at school. A bit like her brother. But she has a steady black boyfriend. You know what’s going to happen and it does, in the high-school, coming-of-age drama. Then we have the doubling of Lexie with Pearl, wearing her clothes and feel more Lexie and Lexie wearing Pearl’s grungy T-shirt and feeling more loved by Pia.

Most novice writers are asked a simple question to determine point of view. Whose story is this? An omniscient point of view is used here in the stories of many lives. For example, even Mr Yang, who lives below Mia and Pearl as a bystander also gets to tell his backstory. This shouldn’t work, but an artist putting a collage together can make one vison of many pictures. Some of the writing is great, which pushes Little Fires into the literary genre.   

For example, Moody’s first vision of Pearl, taken from his point of view, when he parks his bike and looks across at the new tenants moving in.

‘He saw a slender girl in a long crinkly skirt and a long loose T-shirt, with a message he couldn’t quite read. Her hair was long and curly and hung in a thick braid down her neck and gave the impression of straining to burst free. She had laid the headboard down flat near the flowerbeds that bordered the house, with the side rails below it and the slats to either side in neat rows, like ribs. It was as if the bed had drawn in a deep breath and then gracefully flattened itself into the grass.’

The last line, in particular, raises Ng’s writing to poetic realms of resonance. On the rare occasions she falls into cliché it can be overlooked. Backstories add to plot. Pia, for example, doubles with a fellow worker May Ling Chow in having a baby that has no real father. Pia’s backstory of acting as a surrogate mother for a rich couple is more akin to Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, with Pia a doppelganger double for a New York matron unable to conceive. This in turn doubles with Mrs Richardson’s best friend, Linda McCullough (class of ’71) also having miscarriage after miscarriage and remaining childless until finally she’s given a baby to adopt, one that’s been found on the doorstep of a fire station. It’s a Chinese baby, it’s May Ling Chow’s baby, and she wants it back. But as an immigrant worker with no money and no connections she has little rights.

Race rather than class rears its head. But they’re not mutually exclusive. Race and class double up against each other and reveals hidden motives as characters confront their hidden prejudices. Little Fires interrogates what it means to be poor white, poor Chinese and what happens when choices need to be made. The Wisdom of Solomon is invoked. Often that’s not enough for a good story in our crazy world. You end up is T.S Eliot territory:

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Read on.   

Jawbone (2017) BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Thomas Napper.


https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000gx8n/jawbone

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000gx8n/jawbone

Writer Johnny Harris takes the central role of Jimmy McCabe in this smashing film with a boxing background. We’re all familiar with the Rocky theme tune playing in the background and the stereotypical rags to riches story. We know there’ll be a fight and our hero will win.

Johnny Harris gives it a bit of twist, his fight is with the booze. He can still shift, but his better days are gone. He lives in a council property that’s been torn down and he’s been torn down with it. He refuses to budge. He goes to the housing and when they give him a hard time, he turns on the security guards. Jimmy McCabe needs somewhere to park his anger.

Social realism isn’t just about rundown locations. I recognise Jimmy McCabe, he’s like my brother Sev, Stevie Mitchell, even young Robert, all dead. All boozers. They’d that edge. Prisons are full of Jimmy McCabes—all they’ve got is their pride. All unable to switch off.

Jimmy has more immediate needs than salvation. With nowhere to stay, nowhere to go,  he drifts back to the old gym he used to train. Bill’s gym is the kind of rundown place that hasn’t room for fancy stuff, or fancy people. Working class kids come to learn from Bill Carney (Ray Winstone). Winstone boxed for England as a schoolboy, but here he’s the old timer bringing new kids on, keeping them off the street, teaching them about values. He doesn’t miss a trick. When Jimmy wanders in he spots him right away. He exchanges a look with a faithful sidekick Eddie (Michael Smiley) that helps him out.

‘You alright Jimmy?’ Bill asks him.

Jimmy tells him he’s just in to train. Nothing much is said. That’s the brilliance of the script. But when something needs to be said, it’s Bill that does the talking and Jimmy listens. This is not the Jimmy we’ve seen up until now. In the school of hard knocks you only get one chance, but Bill is holding out a helping hand.

Jimmy takes the piss. He’s nowhere to stay and breaks into Bill’s gym to have somewhere to kip down. He leaves before anybody comes in the morning. Bill catches him out, of course. And it’s a thing of beauty. The script really is pitch perfect.

Jimmy needs a fight, but he’s no longer fit. He has to beg a pound to make a phone call. Use old contacts in the fight game. Joe Padgett (Ian McShane) meets him in a restaurant and buys him a steak dinner. More importantly, he gets him a bout, unlicensed, but cash, £2500, or £3000 if it’s a knockout. He also gives him a sub to get by. The guy that Jimmy’s got to fight is unbeaten, much younger and a killer. We’re in Rocky territory here.

We’re rooting for Jimmy, but we know what happens next when he buys a bottle of booze.

Later, Jimmy, in an AA meeting says what we all know, what we’ve experienced. ‘I’m a fighter, but I can fight it. I know I’ll lose. That’s why I’m here.’

He knows that’s one fight he’s going to lose. In the gym he was something. On the streets he’s less than nothing. He needs to prepare for the unlicensed fight, but he tries to keep it a secret from Bill. But Bill already knows. Bill knows a lot of things. His fatherly relationship with Jimmy and Eddie’s misgivings are realistic. Can a boozer really change? (Answers on a postcard and send it to God.)

Here the sweat of honest men, who tell it like it is, makes us hearken back to simpler times. Boxing is the most brutal sport. That’s where we get the term punch-drunk from.  Here another aspect is on show, kindness and comradeship. Whether Jimmy wins his boxing bout, or not, we know, doesn’t really matter. It’s the bout with himself and the booze he needs to win. Stepping into the ring, might be a catalyst for destruction, but when every day is a battle…Get real. Watch this.  

Boris Pahor (2020) Necroplis. Translated by Michael Biggins, introduction by Alan Yentob.

With most of the world in lockdown now is perhaps a good time to spend reading about Boris Pahor in the land of the crematoria. Spare a thought for those in refugee camps and prisons. Necropolis is a story not about them, but about us, common humanity. Pahor writes about his life not in the past, but in the present and also the future, when he’ll be like so many of his comrades.  About the stripping away of citizenship until a person becomes a thing—a number. One object among many. Pahor doesn’t just implicate the Nazis. Or the Italian Fascist Party that sought to eradicate any signs of the Slovak culture in Trieste by burning down The Slovenian National Home and taking away their language and schools, forcing them to integrate, but only as second-class citizens that weren’t to be trusted. Pahor asks questions of us.

He was born an Austrio-Hungarian citizen, a victim of arson and pogroms, without moving his home became an Italian subject. Later he became subject to internment in the Nazi military industrial complex and death camps. The familiar names of Bergen-Belsen, Harzungen, Dachau, and the smaller and relatively unknown Natzweiler-Struthof. But it is here as a post-war-day visitor, a tourist, to the concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller in France, near Stasbourgh, but neither French, Italian or German, a former ski resort, transformed into a place of death, like other camps, gallows and crematoria combined that Pahor has his epiphanies.  

Natzweiler-Struthof is a jumping off point for Pahor.  Primo Levi asks the rhetorical question, What is a Man? Pahor lived the answer.

‘Europeans, despite their high-flown phrases, are basically thoughtless and cowardly. They become accustomed to a comfortable existence. And now if they feel shame, they drown it out in an orgy of moralising.’  

Pahor accepts his survival was a fluke, he cannot properly explain. ‘An exception was made for me throughout my life. I am never weighed on the usual scales.’

 An injured finger and gift for languages got him a job inside as a medic. But his education was in humanity.

‘In the necropolises it did not matter what depth you worked in. Barbers shaved death, quartermasters dressed it, medics undressed it, registrars entered the dates of death after serial numbers, and in the end, they all, each of them, were sucked up the huge chimney.’

Pahor’s meditation on his past life and present circumstances is a reaffirmation and warning.

‘At best I could, I give testimony to the living about those who turned into bones before my eyes’.

The hungry days of Nazi night and fog are not in the past, but bleed into the present if we let it. You embrace an evil, when you allow it—like now?  

The Piety of Hand-clapping

Piety, as we all know, is a quality of being reverent. We usually associate it with religion. Etymologically, it comes from Latin and is related to dutifulness.  It’s not often I’ve seen ideology in action. People coming to their front doors and clapping their hands and supporting the NHS. Our NHS and the support workers. Care workers and what we used to call auxiliaries. Only to find we’re all auxiliaries. A writer’s job (even a would-be writer) is when we look along the line of common humanity and listen to the cheering and the clapping to take a step back and shut our ears and look for the cross beams and the creaking of the gallows.

I’m not alone in remembering the vacant eyes and the Oxbridge braying of the Conservative elite when their backbenchers cheer when it’s announced that nurses that will not receive a pay rise. Or an invocation of the Thatcherite spirit, when the Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt branded junior doctors greedy because new contracts were even worse than the non-contracts they had — in which they agreed to work a squillion hours unpaid. Why now the halo of heroism for largest sector of the economy, largely female carers, where the minimum wage is the maximum wage and there’s no time for caring?

Humiliation after humiliation should be branded on our forehead like the tattooed numbers of the women in Auschwitz—work makes you free—those of us that dare to be poor and keep having the wrong kind of children – poor children.

We’ve retreated from politics, squabbled among ourselves and let our so called betters like Boris Johnson get on with it. After all Boris is one of us. He battered his girlfriend, the police were called, but he denied it. Got her pregnant and went on holiday when he should have been at work. Now he’s got the Covid-19 virus and is still working away in his bunker that will allow him to come away with more Winston Churchill quotes about us ‘all being in it together’.

When we’re clapping, we’re not clapping him, or his ilk. We’re clapping ourselves on the back. We’ve came through 30 years of Tory dogma and 10 years of bleeding austerity.  It’s not just Covid-19 that makes us sick, but Tory promises fill us with a rich sense of foreboding.  Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. Boris recognised the business-as-usual model would lead to tens of thousands of—mainly old folk (with a higher proportion of men, for some unknown reason, unless god really is a woman)—and he rejected that model. The moron’s moron is quite willing to take that risk, but had to be pulled back from the brink of stupidity, which for him is as high as a three-year-old boy’s knees.  

The business as usual model is based on taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. A increasingly widening gap between those that start their day in debt and those that finish the day in more debt and those that hold all the debts and all the cards and tell you to clap. That’s successful ideology for you, the sullen recognition you’ve been used. You’ve been dehumanised, treated as something that needs reined in. And you’ve embraced that choke collar as a necessary evil.

Keep clapping, but when the clapping stops, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll know who the enemy within will be. It’ll be you that’s being unreasonable. You that isn’t listening. You that need to be locked up. Keep clapping. But watch yourself. Look for the cross beam and listen for the creak of the gallows.  

#Covid-19- a five-point guide for stupid people like me.

moo.
  1. A guy told me that a guy he knew said the coronavirus has been engineered.

It has, of course, left-wing, radical badgers in their labs far below the earth when they were mixing a batch of bovine TB in the 1970s also created the coronavirus and passed the secret onto their friends the right-wing bats. Because bats knew they’d be ate by some human in the Huanan seafood market in December 2019. Revenge of the bats –

 COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus rather than the actual virus itself – the virus has been named SARs-CoV-2. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARs). The number 19 relates to the date of discovery.

Coronavirus are a large family of viruses. They don’t necessarily live with badgers or bats. John Lennon sung about them. That was why he was gunned down, after he found out the real truth from JFK. If you’re going to make up a conspiracy theory, contact me, my rates are very reasonable.

Coronavirus, is a generic name. They get their title from the crown-like spikes that can be seen on their surface with electron microscopy. They were first identified in the middle of the 1960s and they can cause very mild symptoms like a common cold, or in some cases, they can cause severe disease. Morbidity can become mortality.

2 )No spitting and no sex.

You can have sex as long as you keep two meters apart. The no spitting rule is much harder to swallow. President Trump’s call for a much bigger wall can be seen as protectionism (see endorsement of this method from badgers’ and bats’ underground alliance).

Covid-19 is very small. Thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. 50 000 droplets in a single spit. For baldy people like President Trump and myself, we’d use a different—non-hair—analogy because we’ve got our public image to think about.  Because COVID-19 is new, we didn’t initially know the incubation period. That’s why it’s called novel. Nobody has immunity, not even badgers.

What we do know— A for averages. Around fifty percent of those initially tested for the Covid-19 virus might test negative, but still go on to develop it after the incubation period. That’s like taking home twelve eggs and when you put them in the cupboard you find six are cracked.

14 days in isolation plays on the safe side and allows whether you’ve got the virus or not to be played out in the safety of your home. It’s also very cost effective. You and a box set of (…fill your own choice here and remember God is watching you to see if its porn).  

What the government is doing is trying to slow the rate of transmission, which follows the doubling rule favoured by your favourite debt collector. One person can theoretically infect 30 000 others. That’s a lot of future debt you’ll be racking up.

3) Covid-19 needs you to spread it, but can lie dormant like an old pair of knickers under your bed for between two days in surfaces such as paper to three to four days on plastics and metals, think door handles here. 28 days for some surfaces?

4) Children do not have immunity from Covid-19, but symptoms can be non-existent or very mild. Here’s the rub, as well as driving you absolutely crazy being stuck indoors, they may be carriers, and kill granny. The science in this is unclear as there has not been enough data generated. Here’s hoping, one of the moron’s morons many and varied progeny does the trick. And the Covid-19 might mutate later in a way that does harm children. It’s too early at this stage to be sure.  You cannot rely on screening symptomatic cases to detect all those who may transmit.

Adults can also be symptomless (asymptomatic) and still spread the Covid-19 virus. It’s also not yet clear how long people remain infectious after recovery. You too might be a killer. Imagine you were in your car and you drove over somebody, but you didn’t really bother because it didn’t hurt you.

5) Singapore is full of supergrasses.   They used traditional methods of locking folk up and flinging away the key much loved by Tory scum. When this didn’t work with those that developed symptoms of Covid-19 they used a multi-agency approach. They roped in police to work with health workers to track down people that had been in contact with those that had the virus, using for example, CCTV footage. And they used technicians and public health officials to model pathways of the disease. They also gave every resident four face-masks and gloves. The government began to behave like a gang of social workers. Here is where the Singaporean government’s genius comes in. This allowed them to re-emphasise and educate the public that they should only wear a mask when they are NOT feeling well. Not when they do. They gained the moral high ground with their actions. They acted as if they could be trusted.  ~A*.   

Natural Justice.

Natural justice isn’t something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Years ago when I was working on the roofs with Kenny Smith, he got paid more money than me. Let’s say he got £65 and I got £50 per week.  He was a roofer and time-served, could measure the roof out and bang down tiles quicker than a labourer. I accepted he should get more than me, which isn’t the same as liking it. We travelled together on the train and came home together, but one week I asked him how much expenses he got.

I can’t remember how much more Kenny got, but let’s say he said he got six quid more than me. I thought it was a mistake and when I asked the boss, he’d sort it.

The boss didn’t sort it, but he sorted me. Kenny was a tradesman. I was nothing. I could like it or lump it.

We’re going through the phony war with coronavirus. It’s something that happens in faraway places like China, then European countries and places a bit closer to home. We hear about people we know ‘self-isolating’ and laugh about it. Perhaps we’re more worried about whether Celtic or Liverpool should be awarded the league title. The idea of natural justice comes into these arguments. Partisanship and different biases dictating what position you take.   

Those most skilled in the use of rhetoric know the best position to take is to claim the moral high ground. In the biography of Lyndon Johnson, for example, United States Senators such as Richard Russell urged other Southern Senators to moderate their language (for public consumption) and talk about civil rights and  reframe arguments about hating niggers and willing to start another race war before they’d give equal voting rights, equal rights in employment, housing and education. Russell promoted the idea of separate but equal. Claiming the moral high ground makes you look senatorial, while name calling—niggers this and niggers that—makes you sound moronic.

A timeline of the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse gaffes and ad-libs about the corona virus goes unseen or is largely ignored by his supporters who continue to believe he is doing a good job as President, while his detractors highlight not who he is, but what he is.

Ally Mc Coist can claim the moral high ground with his claim that, of course, Celtic should be elected champions, but only after they have played the remaining eight league games. Otherwise they would be given something they have not earned.

We don’t like giving people something they have not earned, unless of course, they’re billionaires like Richard Branson.

The Johnson government has until now had a pretty good run in their handling of the coronavirus. No gaffes, no outright lies, like Trump. The Tory government advices British citizens largely to self-isolate and wash your hands, which is good advice based on the current data. The next stage is shutdown. We’ve already begun that slow progress with schools shutting next week. Police and army clearing the roads and streets and a pass needed to travel.

 Chemist shops in Dalmuir, for example, are also busy as people stock up on prescription medicines creating a backlog and longer waiting times. Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty with supermarket shelves clearing. My advice based on a dystopian novel I began to write years ago (but abandoned, like so many others) was don’t begin to panic buy until others begin to panic buy. I noticed the shelves in Asda are clear of most tins as people stock up. My thoughts weren’t how many more tins of beans I could squeeze into my rucksack, but what would happen to the foodbanks?

All of that stuff we don’t really care about because it’s not us, hits us. You can’t eat money. The vast majority of folk that start their day in debt and finish their day in even more debt (the working class) are separate but equal. People that rely on foodbanks have nowhere to go. An economic model based on the assumption that charity for the poor is a good thing, has quickly pulled the ladder up as wages go unpaid and business such a local pubs in Dalmuir go out of business, schools shut and nobody can offer childcare (while nurseries try to claim money for a service they haven’t provided—good luck with that). The sham of sickness pay coming under the Universal Credit government umbrella and  taking four to six weeks to process suddenly hits a lot of people hard, especially when they queue lengthens and they can’t get somebody to talk to on the phone. You find out the hard way that some people are expected to live on less than £100 per week and pay for everything else at the same time. Those people you looked down on have now become you. Usually that sort of thing doesn’t happen until you’ve got cancer or some other major illness and divisions of class and gender, for example, largely disappear.

Them has become us. Let’s claim the moral high ground. I deserve much more than they do—(fill in your reasoning here and apply for the next space on the defunct Jeremy Kyle show). It’s survival of the fittest.  As supermarket shelves clear and we fight over toilet rolls and steal hand wash from hospitals, we’re in the like it or lump it school and the harsh lesson I was taught as a teenager. Imagine, for a minute, you’re an immigrant, waiting to gain entry to another country. That’s not difficult for me as a writer. Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch of your imagination. Well imagine your mum or dad, being turned away from the hospital, as doctors and nurses practice triage on life support as they are doing in parts of Italy. Imagine your child dying? Or your child motherless? These are no longer storylines for would-be writers. These are the harsh realities of who lives and who dies. Who claims the moral high ground on the best of the terrible choices available?

Ask yourself is that fair?

Natural justice isn’t about legality, but morality. It’s about exposing lies and making the best of bad choices. The coronavirus has exposed the fault lines in our society. The lie of trickle-down economics that takes money from the poor and gives it to rich billionaires like Branson or Trump.  Let’s hope it changes it for the better in the same way the Beveridge Report changed post-war Britain. I’m pessimistic, but I’m still alive, so there’s hope. But if I needed intensive care and there was somebody younger than me that needed urgent healthcare and they had children, I’d like to think it is only right and proper they get first dibs, no matter how much, or how little money they had. That’s my version of natural justice. That was the kind of idea we had when we set up the National Health Service. But it also extends beyond healthcare, to life in general and how we organise our society. Natural justice demands much more of our society. Ironically, the coronavirus is a practice run for when global warming begins to bite.  

Robert A.Caro (2003) The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 3, Master of the Senate.

At over a thousand pages Robert A.Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is a hefty wedge of American history. We know power corrupts, but Caro also argues ‘power reveals’.  We’re aware of that iconic picture of Jackie Kennedy standing with the former Vice President of the United States and now President, Lyndon Johnson. Power reveals.

(But that was later, volume 4, the new Senator John F. Kennedy only makes a brief appearance, in volume 3, his father Joe Kennedy makes the offer to finance a campaign to elect his son, with Johnson, running as Vice President, much like Richard Nixon had run as Vice President for Dwight D. Eisenhower. The thirty-third and thirty-fourth Presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower that followed the Second World War and the Korean War and post-war boom. These were giants of men, especially in relation to the moron’s moron, the 45th and current President of the United States.)

Lady Bird Johnson described her husband’s twelve years in Senate office as the happiest days of their life and that includes his stint as President.  A Senator hired by oil and gas interests in the South who bought a ticket with his name on it. The Brown brothers, whose company name was Brown & Root, for example, were willing to spend as much as it took to make Johnson a Congressman, a Senator and a President. Quid pro quo. They expected government contracts in return.

And Johnson got them for the Brown brothers. Their story follows the familiar pattern of the American dream, work hard and prosper. George Brown, for example, road building with a mule and a gang of men. Go soft on the mule and hard on the men was his motif. Then they sunk all their capital, all their savings, into a construction of a dam in Johnson’s county, the Hill Country. But would have went bust, the purchase of the land illegal, the machinery they bought for the job, a giant crane, useless junk, until Johnson sorted it with government officials (volume 2). Quid pro quo.  

The Brown brothers kept financing Johnson’s political ambitions and in return became a multinational company. They were given, for example, government contracts to build ships, even although they hadn’t worked in the field of shipbuilding before. They became big not only in the Southern States but in the United States and as American influence grew, also abroad. The Brown brothers never forgot their roots. They hated organised labour and they hated niggas, who they thought were lazy. George Brown (of the spare the mule era) labelled any state help as ‘Gimmes’. The hundreds of millions (billions by today’s standards) weren’t, of course, classified as ‘Gimmes’.

Brown & Root were one of several oil and gas monopolies that set out to destroy Leland Olds. Their attack dog was Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, quid pro quo.  Olds was chairman of the Federal Power Commission (FPC). If I were to describe Olds as a saintly man it would sound clichéd.   Caro doesn’t do that, his history of Johnson goes sideways to explain the future President’s world in more detail. Olds was part of that world, so there is a chapter devoted to his rise and destruction. And the way in which  Johnson cobbles together a Senate witch hunt, taking instruction from his business partners in Texas about strategy, because Old was a good man, Old was a mathematical genius, Old was a willing worker and servant of the public good. His Federal Power Commission stood in the way of even larger gas and monopoly profits—the oil depletion allowance, for example, government tax write-offs of tens of millions of dollars—because Olds worked out in advance what they were doing, how they were doing it and how much it cost. How much cheaper projects that harnessed the power of water and damns could be if it was done publicly, with federal aid and government stipulations. Electrical power generated sold to consumers at the lowest possible cost.  Old created transparency were oil and gas monopolies needed lies and deception in reaping monopoly profits from America’s natural resources. They wanted increased government ‘gimmes’, but they wrapped their request in the language of lassez-faire politics and private enterprise being held back by federal meddling.  The trillions of tax dollars given the richest cohort in American history by the moron’s moron is the equivalent strategy.

Johnson claimed that Old was a chameleon-like character who had inveigled himself into a position of power for his own ends. Johnson was describing himself. The oil and gas interests and the Southern Caucasus of Senators they had helped elect and keep in power had two obsessions: keeping ‘uppity’ ‘Negras’ down’ and hating Communists that subverted the American way of life. Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts had no greater supporters than those from the South, including Johnson.

It isn’t much an exaggeration to suggest Senator ‘Jim Eastland could be standing right in the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he’d say the niggers caused it, helped by the Communists’.  

Old saw first-hand how lassez-faire policies, big money and monopoly capital in the 1920s and 1930s sucked in and spat out men, women and children. A deeply religious man he despaired at those that called themselves Christian yet supported stock-market profits over Christian values and common humanity.

Johnson labelled him a red, his career was over. Johnson was lauded for his courageous attack on Old. Oil men cheered at the windfall profits put in their pocket. Old was against them, Johnson was for them. Big money has won. The FPC did as it was told by oil companies. It was no longer fit for purpose.

Another small group of men held the United States to ransom and these were the senators from the South. When Johnson entered the senate in 1948, he found out who was the most powerful Senator in the Senate—Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Russell knew the intricate dance of Senate law and procedure and had a say-so in which committees Senators were allocated. He was a patriot. He believed although the South had been defeated by the North’s force of overwhelming numbers in the Civil War, the new Confederacy of Southern interests would never been defeated in the Senate. He would keep fighting. Civil Rights were his speciality. Calling together Southern Senators into a Caucasus they would filibuster any attempt to give the black man rights in, for example, employment, housing, or most damming of all schools. The mixing of the races, miscegenation, would Russell believed lead to the dilution of the white race and the fall of the American nation. Arguments of a kind still used in relation to immigrants today (great dilution of European values by…fill in your own fall guy here).   

Russell went along with the doctrine of his more dim-witted colleagues, for example,  ‘I like mules but I don’t bring one into my living room.’ ‘Negras’ skulls were, one of his senatorial colleagues asserted,  a quarter of an inch thicker which made their thinking slower.  Russell despite being the conduit through which the President and armed services had to come for finance to be released—for wars and aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons— did not believe a black man could be courageous. He also firmly believed with their loose moral way, they could be conduits of venereal disease. His policy of separate but equal a convenient lie, the flag the new Confederacy aligned themselves and Texas under. The flag which Johnson pledged his allegiance to those other eleven states. On his ranch he made sure a white man oversaw the work of Mexican ranch hands, who Johnson also regarded as naturally lazy.

Karen Campbell’s novel The Sound of the Hours highlights in fictional form the paradox of a regiment of black men, Buffalo soldiers, fighting against fascism in Tuscany (The Gothic Line) in Italy. Frank Chapel, a young black American soldier is turned away from a field tent serving food, and made to eat outside. Inside the tent are captured white, Nazi soldiers, they had been fighting against, being served their food, their rations.

Black soldiers coming home from the war, in reality, faced the same problems they’d left behind. Jim Crow laws. Twelve million African-Americans, around five million Negroes of voting age, only a handful could register to vote. No law and no lawyer could help them. In many Southern states they were classified as ‘a lower order of being’. Black self-determination brought white reprisals.  For example, a veteran of the war, Issac Woodward’s eyes were gouged out by a Sheriff when he was taken into custody. Two young black couples in Senator Russell’s state of Georgia were blocked in their cars by other cars and riddled with so many bullets their bodies were unrecognisable. Lynchings followed by public picnics.  

The death of Emmet Till, August 1955, in Mississippi Delta might just have been another murder of black man by white man, but for his age, he was fourteen-year-old, and the resultant national and international publicity. His mother took his body back to Chicago, where they lived, he’d been visiting relatives when he dared to go into a white grocery store and buy bubble gum and sass the white shop assistant, allegedly saying, ‘Bye Baby’.

Roy Bryant and his half-brother ‘Big’ J.W.Miliam, took him away.

Emmet Till’s mum didn’t allow a closed coffin. One eye was grouched out. They’d smashed the bones in his face with the pistols of their Colt.45 pistols, until one side of his forehead caved in. They ordered him to strip naked, and took him to the Tallahatchie River, weighed him down, beat him again and, before they rolled him into the water, shot him in the temple. An all-white jury found them not guilty of the crime, even though they’d signed a statement saying they did it. Later, since they’d been found not guilty of the crime, they were paid $5000 for telling their side of the story. They freely admitted it was a lesson in keeping uppity negras down.   

Lyndon Johnson, if he wanted to realise his dream of becoming Democratic candidate for the Presidential nomination had to find a way of placating senators rallying around the old Confederacy of Russell, who made the tail wag the dog of the United States government, but also position himself as a liberal that supported equal rights for all. He had to square the circle, while claiming not to be a nigger lover.  He was able to do so, because it was he, not Old, that was a political chameleon. He was a consummate politician who knew himself and what other man wanted. A shooting in Dallas, Texas, handed him the position he most wanted in life. But unlike the dumbest President in history, Lyndon Johnson was ready. He’d been planning for that day his whole life. He was whip smart. A poor boy, but now a millionaire, he’d realised the American dream and was sworn in as President.