whose party is it in 2018 anyway, Willow?

baby kerr.jpg

To my niece Willow, I was born on the 10th December 1962. Fifty-five years ago not only was my mum Jean alive, but she had given birth and was nursing me back to health somewhere in darkest Braeholm. I wasn’t expected to live. I don’t remember the reasons why.  Yeh, we showed them mum. What we showed them I’m not really sure. I’m nearer death than birth now. Life is the miracle. And I’m not likely to forget you birthday, Willow. It’s also the 10th December.  And as the Bible, book of Timothy, suggests ‘We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it’.

So baby Willow, I’m 55 years older than you, let’s play a game in which you sit wherever you are in 55 years’ time and look back and tell me what the world looks like. I don’t remember any of this but we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and later the assassination of the President John F Kennedy. I’m hoping you don’t remember President Donald J Trump. Shakespeare knew his villains intimately. He portrayed Richard of Gloucester  as ‘the bottled spider’, vainglorious, treacherous, ruthless murderer and usurper, but nobody’s fool. President Donald J Trump is everybody’s fool. His claim to fame is dropping ‘the mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan and taking money from poor people and giving it to the rich. I’m not sure why bombs are called mothers. But I hope Willow you see your fifth birthday. Like me, I hope you sleep securely through threats of Armageddon and nuclear winter and the world keeps turning.

Prospero and Brave New World and the closer we get to utopia the closer we get to dystopia is something you’re going to have to live with Willow.  George Orwell, I guess got it nearly right with his three shifting blocs. The axis of the world is shifting and I’d guess China is where America was before the start of the First World War. Perhaps there will be a transition, such as Fritz Laing’s Metropolis, but the future is one in which we are equal but some are more equal than others. Deep machine learning and the use of pattern recognition software will serve your needs before you know what they are. Your body will no longer be your own. Behaviour will be monitored.  Healthy and wealthy will be conflated into flawless new bodies and flawless new babies in smart cities.

‘Hoist with his own petard.’ I’m of average intelligence and can guess what that means. I google it and see it’s from Hamlet.  But intelligence will no longer have any meaning. Machine learning how to play the game ‘Go’ shows it is possible to beat intuition as it is possible to surpass the logic of the best human chess players. Machines will be connected to other machines and humans will be part of that loop. Just as the Wright brothers took off in their flimsy craft, flew and crashed it was possible to predict air flight, quantum machines no longer need to play humans to master the precepts of ‘Go’. Machines play themselves and work out first principles. When, and if, deep learning machines master the problem of consciousness then humans need no longer be in the loop. That’s a different kind of Armageddon.

Willow, what we do know for sure is machines will do most, if not all, of the work we take for granted. How many angels fit on a pinhead? How many doctorates can fit on a subatomic particle? Masters of pattern recognition predict the future and make it happen. Energy usage will be the only transferable currency. All that green crap, waves, wind, water and sun will be the stopgap until the machines figure out something better. Nature will be a treasure trove of a different kind. Picked apart for its lessons and reconstructed. The sea will be harvested as the earth has been.

‘Gentleman, it’s your duty to make yourself rich!’ says one of Anthony Trollope’s characters in The Way We Live Now. It’s your duty to make everyone else poor. Make the world warmer and vast tracts of land uninhabitable. That’s not what Trollope said, but we’ve had our Silent Spring moment with Trump’s refusal to sign the Paris Accord and Global Warming Agreement on fossil fuels. No one can make the super rich do what they want to do. Monopoly holders of data work by their own rules.

But the problem of making everyone else poor, with no work and no surplus value, as they’d say in Marxist ideology is when everyone’s poor and wealth accumulates with the super rich as Thomas Picketty showed in his constant rate of return in his model of Capitalism is stagnation. Not enough money to buy all these surplus goods. But, of course, there’ll be no money. Not as a store of value, but as a shifting energy equation, this will be related to land use and global warming. The problem will be how to find new ways of punishing the poor for being poor.

What is materially damaging to the rich will in an Orwellian way be regarded as an attack on equality of accord.  But I lack the scrivener’s art, the means to look into the future Willow. When I was growing up in the 1970s I never imagined the internet, but neither did I imagine Britain regressing to a state where the poor need to go to a church hall to get food to last them a few days, nor that so many children would be living in sub-standard housing and poverty. Four in ten children. I expected things to get better and I hope you’re not one of them. Outside this shiny vision of the end of scarcity is a dystopian vision. When poverty because a digital country and not an economic and social relationship then that’s where we’ll all live and only the rich will float above it.  We come into the world with nothing. We go out of the world with nothing, Willow it is compassion which makes us fully human. Live in the here and now and not in a simulation of now. That’s a different kind of Armageddon. The church my mum brought me up in called it limbo. It was a sin to be truely selfish.  Put yourself out on a limb, Willow. Dare to be you and not a slice of identifiable code.


Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?


John Lanchester (2012) Capital.


The Prologue starts with a mystery, who is this man and what’s he doing?

At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary looking street in South London…Pepys Road.’ He posts cards through people’s door: I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE.

Here’s the message Lanchester is trying to get across (without being didactic) houses by late 2007 were no longer just a place where people lived, but an investment opportunity, a barometer of wealth and indeed of Britain’s collective well-being.

This happened at first slowly, gradually, as average house prices crept up through the lower hundred thousands and then… in high hundred thousands, and now they were in seven figures. It began to be all right for people to talk about house prices all the time.

I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. This is an old-fashioned morality tale told by an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, not only does the reader get inside setting, the different houses that make up Pepys Road,  the Yount family’s luxurious three-million- pound family home to the linoleum of the oldest resident in the street, Petunia, but we get inside their thoughts too. Petunia’s daughter, Mary is well-off enough to live in a house worth three- quarters of a million, but it’s her mum the clichéd ‘no spring chicken’, who did nothing more than stay put whose wealth outstripped her daughter and most other people in Britain. One of the kind of in-jokes of the book was that making such houses bigger by adding a basement effectively cost nothing because by the time the builders had finished burrowing and emerged into the light house prices had risen so high that it had cost nothing and effectively paid for itself. Everybody likes to get something for nothing.

Roger Yount works in the City for Pinker Lloyd in the currency exchange market. Bears and Bulls and all that. Lanchester the author of How To Speak Money a dictionary that decodes City obfuscation and financial weapons of mass destruction is in familiar territory here, and we know from the biography of his mother and father who was also a banker, that who you know can be more important than what you know. Roger Yount doesn’t really need to know all that much about computers and spreadsheets because those serving under him have Phds and the skill-sets of Mississippi steam-boat gamblers that never lose. Roger has the right public school accent and has lucked in with his ability wear a dinner suit and know where the silver spoon goes and to look the part, leader of a team that is on their way to achieving a £100 million profit for the company. Timing is everything and the book is set just before the financial crash of 2008.

Big City Bonuses separate the boys from the men and Roger is thinking ahead of the million pound extra that will bring to his annual salary because he needs it. Mr Micawaber’s dictum –   “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” – in this world can seem utterly Dickensian, especially when other traders such as Eric the Barbarian are making hundreds of millions of pounds for themselves. I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE.

Arabella Yount, Roger’s, wife’s religion is the conspicuous consumption marked by the passage of nannies to help with childcare, makeovers and treats because that is who she is. ‘No Plan B’ as Roger realises at the end of almost 600 page journey. In a morality tale the reader knows that she is no good and she’ll come to no good. In a way she seems so ridiculous, unable to change her three-year-old child’s nappy, for example, she seems one-dimensional.  Roger, in comparison, seems two-dimensional on the page, a collection of stereotypes rather than a character.

But perhaps the reason for this lies with the reader, rather than the writer. This is what people like Arabella Yount are like in real life.

There’s a Shallow Grave moment when the builder, Zbigniew, whom Arabella calls Bogadon the builder (think of a Polish Bob the builder) because it’s easier to remember, finds £500 000 cash, a suitcase full of ten-pound notes, behind a false wall in Petunia’s house which he is renovating, for her daughter Mary to sell for windfall profit after her mother’s death. Nobody knows about the suitcase or is looking for the money. The dilemma whether to keep it (a yep vote from me) or give it back is decided by the Yount’s Hungarian nanny, Matya, whom Zbigniew has fallen in love with, (as has Roger). It’s the most amount of money Matya has ever seen or is likely to see, but walking up any street in London and most people will be able to see similar amounts in the bricks and mortar of a one-bedroom flat, perhaps even in a parking space. Doing the right thing is the right thing because he finds out the notes were old and worthless. But such is Lanchester’s knowledge of finance that Mary and her husband have another dilemma because old notes have to be honoured by the Bank of England, but they will ask some hard questions of where the money came from and why they should pay out.

There’s lessons of other sorts for the other main characters. No good deed goes unpunished. The Kamal family that live above their shop on Pepy’s road are Muslims. When one of the brothers Shahid, who lives somewhere cheaper in London, is tricked into giving an acquaintance Qbal a couch to sleep on and an internet connection to play with it seems inevitable that he’ll turn out to be a terrorist. Similarly, Petunia’s grandson Smitty, a kind of Banksy figure, in the media-related London art scene is outed and with it his stock plummets, but it allows him to tell who is behind the I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE campaign. The most hated figure in Pepys Road, the traffic warden Quentina Mfkesi from Rhodesia is working under false pretenses and under an assumed name. She is an asylum seeker, holed up, waiting for her life to begin , but now liable to be deported back to a country where the authorities have promised to rape her to death. Nobody seems to care. Freddy Kanu, one of the other residents of the street who signed a professional contract with a prominent London club (Spurs or Arsenal) faces a different journey, and a payoff for ‘not being able to do the thing he loves’ which is to play football. But it’s a happy ending of sorts. In morality tales there’s always hope that the good will prosper and the bad will be punished. Capital is fiction. In your dreams.





John Lanchester (2007) Family Romance: A Memoir.

family romance.jpg

This is a triptych of father, mother, son and ghosts of life. And his parents die in that order. Father, Bill, first, unexpectedly of a heart attack not long after retiring from banking. Then mother, Julie, unravelled by strokes until there was nothing left. This is where the story begins and ends, because it allows John, their only son to bind himself closer, and find out more about their earlier life. His life too comes under scrutiny, but it is also a meditation on truth and lies, and how we construct the characters we become and how they inhabit our own lives.

Lanchester suggests that ‘very few things in life are a revelation’, but his mother’s secret life, the longest and most compelling part of the book, must have come as a shock. He comes to the conclusion that if his mother ‘had not lied, I would never have been born’. In other words if it hadn’t happened, he couldn’t have made it up.

‘Julie Lanchester, who died on 6th August 1998, aged 77 years’ had shaved ten years off her age. Her father Bill when he got engaged and married her (she was already pregnant with son John) believed most of his life until his death at 57 that his wife Julie was ten years younger than she was. That when he married her, she was thirty-years old and not forty. Bill, as an only child, with knowledge of all that entailed, wanted to go on to have lots more little Lanchesters; something she also wanted. John, their only child, later found out his mother had suffered four miscarriages. But suffering was something Julie was practiced in.

Bill had no reason to disbelieve that his wife’s name Julie was also a lie. She was born Julia Gunnigan was born on 5th December 1920 in Lurgan, Ireland. Her father Pat was a subsistence farmer and her mother Molly (Mary) was the wife of a subsistence farmer with the family wed to the land. This was most graphically shown at the age of sixteen when Julia, a postulant nun, returned home from Sister of The Good Shepherd (made infamous by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters) to convalesce and decided not to go back or take her final vows. Her father and mother punished her by ignoring her and sending her to Coventry, but until an Uncle found her an escape route, she remained in the religious garb of the novitiate. Part of the reason for this was economical. She had by that time five other younger sisters. Four of whom also became nuns. And there was literally no money, but they could scrape enough to eat. But there seemed also to be something of the branding of the one that disgraced the family, the equivalent of Hester Pyrnne in The Scarlett Letter.  And this experience John believed helped mark his mother for life. But perhaps more surprising is after a man she was engaged to in a sanatorium died of tuberculosis, which she also contracted whilst working there as a nurse, at the age of twenty-six, she joined another order of nuns, the Presentation Sisters in nearby Lurgan. She took the name Sister Eucharia and after taking holy orders was able to get herself sent to Madras in India, which she ran as head teacher of a Catholic school attended by the up-and-coming classes in that region.

John knew nothing of this part of his mother’s life, and was surprised to discover he had Catholic relations. But he comes to the conclusion: ‘some of the most important things that can happen to people can happen before they are born.’ This sounds decidedly to me like the importance of money and wealth and good connections – something Lanchester went to write extensively about for example How to Speak Money, and his recent television drama series on BBC 1 based on his book Capital. His father was a living example, a man who found his work boring and repetitive, but like many other ‘found it impossible to give up money’ and the need for financial security, ‘where money is concerned, [there’s] no such thing as enough’, something he’d learned from his own father.  The boarding school John was sent to as a ten-year old, before taking a First at Oxford in English, was decidedly Anglo-Protestant. But Julia/Julie his mother had an almost preternatural way of hiding things she didn’t want to talk about or confront. ‘Julie wanted to be her own crypt’. And his father Bill, although an international banker, travelling the world, also didn’t like confrontation. In many ways they were made for each other.

Julia Immaculata Gunnigan became Bridget Teresa Julia Gunnigan, or on her passport B.T.J Gunnigan before her marriage by applying for her younger sister Dilly’s birth certificate and getting an Irish passport issued in her new name. This is very John Le Carre, where I think I first read about this trick. But then after marriage B.T.J Gunnigan become B.T.J. Lanchester. Julia/Julie felt she had to cut all ties with her family in case this lie became revealed. But B.T.J. Lanchester’s ability to compartmentalise her life had other costs. As Count Pierre Bezukhov comes to conclude in War and Peace, in order to be happy we must have the ability to imagine happiness, John’s mother had the ability to imagine she was not there and her son noted this absence whilst she was present. ‘Ways in which as a child my mother wasn’t fully present’.

The psychic cost was something he became familiar with. After his mother and father’s death he suffered from panic attacks. But that’s too bland a description. ‘I couldn’t breathe, let alone see straight or think straight. I felt as if my mind broke. I wasn’t just going to die, I had disintegrated.’

The remaining death in the family was his mother Julie/Julia’s career as a writer. She had published a short story ‘Minding Mother Margaret’, about a young nun taking care of an older nun that is nearing death, which was broadcast by BBC radio, and the story is reproduced in her son’s book. But Julie/Julia had published it under the pseudonym Shivaun Cunnigham. But after marriage Julie covered her tracks so effectively that she never alluded to that time and never wrote again. Her son mourns that great loss. In the words of Virginia Woolf, she had the time and the space, a room of her own, but as keeper of a secret identity left no wiggle room. John Lanchaster, of course, was their reason for being and he has successfully picked up that baton. ‘Language is an intimate betrayal.’

John Lanchester (2014) How to Speak Money.


john lanchesterNot many people read dictionaries, especially, a dictionary of money-talk that will be out of date by the time it gets to print, but I was always a bit weird. One of the few and therefore scarce O’grades I got was in the ‘dismal science’ of economics. I got a B grade. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I know you’re secretly impressed. I was surprised. I’ll tell you my secret: if it wasn’t supply; it was demand. I could even pontificate about elasticity: elasticity is when something is not inelastic. I was good on the laws of diminishing return. It was always a farmer’s field and planting crops and well, you’ve watched The Waltons, you know what happens next. John Boy comes out with a piece of folksy wisdom and in a good year he gets a new hat.  Economics is about telling stories. Recently I personally experienced the law of diminishing returns. At one level I attempted to sell the same story –Lily Poole – to the same people again and again.  Chances of that happen diminish with each frantic effort. The people that buy have already bought. One of the problems of classical economics is it assumes – among other things – that the seller will have perfect knowledge of the market. I look across and in the next field Lavadis and Ewan are also selling the same product, but they are having three and four times the success rate I’m having. I don’t know how that happened. I have imperfect knowledge. But I want to move into their field and bring down their margins of success while boosting mine. Most folk do. In the pub I conducted a quick survey of who had perfect knowledge. I got two ‘Yes’ votes. Three ‘No’ votes and two ‘Fuck off’ votes. ‘Fuck off’ ties with ‘Yes’ and that’s how economics works.

Lets look at ‘paradis fiscaux’ before looking at the mucky letter ‘r’.   You’re probably thinking ‘Jo le taxi’ and Vanessa Paradis. That’s how I didn’t get an A-grade in that O’ level all those years ago. Paradix fiscaux is just a fancy way of saying to poor people, fuck off, we’re not paying taxes. We live in Paradis-fiscaux land and if Vanessa lives there all the better for us.

Our beloved Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it quite plainly. ‘Nations depend for their health, economically, culturally and psychologically upon the achievements of a comparatively small number of talented and determined people.’

The Wealth of Nations will trickle down to those who don’t really deserve it, but there are a number of economic tools to help them adjust. ‘Reducing payroll – sacking people’. ‘Redundancy –sacking people’. ‘Reform –sacking people’ and making those that stay more productive, which generally means working longer hours for less money and foregoing luxuries such as being sick, wanting a holiday or worrying about pension plans. ‘Rent’ is an interesting word. It’s unproductive, yet it drives the money and housing market. ‘It is an attempt to take a bigger piece of the existing pie rather than make the pie bigger’. The Shards and glass-fronted tower blocks of Central London are the flagships of rent-seeking behaviour, and banks like RBS are the privateers that sail on a sea of finance. The UK taxpayer, of course, owns ‘82% of RBS, and at the time of writing is sitting on a loss of £15 billion’. The Government couldn’t let such banks sink and I dare  not speak its name, has nationalised the big four banks.

A comparatively small number of talented and determined people have smashed the global economy, which since 2008 has resulted in world-wide depression, and this governments answer has been more or the same, more of the four ‘r’s. Let’s look at risk. Perhaps we better not. Sometimes it’s better not knowing.  The rich get rich. The poor get poorer. That’s one constant. Perhaps it’s best to end with an old joke ‘Well, that works in practice, but let’s go and see if it works in theory.’