2015 General Election, Charlie Hebdo, China Miéville, Daesh, EU Referendum, Germaine Greer, Harper Lee, Illustration, Islamic State, Jeremy Corbyn, Lucy Wood, Mark Rylance, Nationalism, Nicola Sturgeon, Quote, Review of the Year, Scotland, Scottish Borders Railway, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Weathering, William McNeilly, Wolf Hall
Week 1: Magazine’s editors and staff get No Platformed by the National Union of Students on the grounds that their publication has been ‘identified by the NUS’s Democratic Procedures Committee as holding racist or fascist views’. They are forbidden from all campuses.
Week 2: Individual student unions ban the sale or display of Charlie Hebdo anywhere on their premises in order to protect students from feeling the need to ‘succumb to media pressure to fear and loathe Muslims’ and encourage students instead to ‘celebrate Muslim students for their academic achievements and countless other talents’. Unions across the country justify the ban as ‘an important symbolic step towards creating a culture of ethnic and religious parity on campus’.
Spiked Online, “What if Charlie Hebdo had been published in Britain?” (January).
You’ll have to not just bear with this prose, but love it, unconditionally and for itself. The steady, calming influence of the prose further subdues a narrative which is already actively anti-dramatic. Why, therefore, do I find Weathering such an exhilarating novel? It’s in part because a book which is so coolly undramatic, almost in a spirit of disobedience, cannot be anything other than massively stylish. It’s also because Weathering, in its own whimsical way, is minded to reconcile two impossible things: the golden dreamland of fairytales and a scrupulous, cogently wrought realism. The normally sluggish tides of folklore and realism thus meet and the result is a quickening whirlpool.
“Book Review: Lucy Wood’s Weathering” (January).
I was happiest when lingering before the appearance of Wolf Hall, and uncomfortable once pressing on into its depths. There is here a sing-song uncertainty and the series is distinguished by its constant ability to impress and underwhelm you at the same time. The stolidity of the drama is almost a rebuke to Game of Thrones fans – it makes you feel guilty about taking pleasure in the flashy excitement of Game of Thrones – and yet Wolf Hall seems to be somehow less substantial or even less authentically Shakespearean than Game of Thrones. When Anne Boleyn is standing up to Cromwell, it’s all rather hopeless and the drama flops. She pales in comparison to a Dothraki invasion.
“Series Review: Wolf Hall” (February).
The former assistant director of the library Qusai All Faraj said that the Mosul Public Library was established in 1921, the same year that saw the birth of the modern Iraq. Among its lost collections were manuscripts from the eighteenth century, Syriac books printed in Iraq’s first printing house in the nineteenth century, books from the Ottoman era, Iraqi newspapers from the early twentieth century and some old antiques like an astrolabe and sand glass used by ancient Arabs. The library had hosted the personal libraries of more than 100 notable families from Mosul over the last century.
During the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the library was looted and destroyed by mobs. However, the people living nearby managed to save most of its collections and rich families bought back the stolen books and they were returned to the library, All Faraj added.
The Fiscal Times, “ISIS Burns 8000 Rare Books and Manuscripts in Mosul” (February).
More to the point, what does the SNP have to do to get its poll lead dented? Poison rivers and harry the north? Close down the two nuclear power stations which provide half of Scotland’s electricity? Replace “Flower of Scotland” with the Anaconda song?
Despite appearances, this is a serious question. For it seems that Scotland is now so contaminated with identity politics or a populist disaffection with politics, that when some previously unremarkable political questions come along – such as “how do we run the country and pay for it?” – they are viewed as intruders in the proper realm of debate. Perhaps I should spell it out: if Scotland had voted Yes last September, there would be currently absolute panic in Edinburgh. The headmasters of schools and the chief executives of hospitals would be enjoying living in the present, valuing all of the good things that they have now. Independence would be poised to fall over Scotland like a horrible black shadow.
“Oil and the SNP: The Plunge and the Surge” (March).
PYD Co-president Salih Muslim said that he bowed respectfully before the Hoffmann family, adding, “The fight we have been giving against the ISIS gangs in Rojava is a resistance for humanity against barbarians—the servants of imperialists—that know no values and attack all human values, killing women and children. This humanitarian struggle of the Rojava people has become an international one today. German citizen Ivana Hoffmann, Australian YPG fighter Ashley Johnston, British fighter Erik Konstandeno Scorfield are all an example proving this truth. We will pursue the struggle of these martyrs. Humanity is reborn in Mesopotamia and resounding across the world. Rojava is going to win as long as there are fighters like Ivana Hoffmann.”
Harvest, “Ivana Hoffmann and Konstandinos Erik Scurfield – two martyrs who will remain forever with us” (March).
“Wanderers They Knew Not Where (43)” (April).
2. Don’t bother with genuine rallies and meetings – town-hall politics belongs in the last century. In the digital age, people just like to follow party leaders on Twitter not actually see them speak. Or attend rallies. Sturgeon only encountered my aunt because of her ignorance of the first rule of today’s politics: never meet the actual voters, or you could end up with a Gillian Duffy moment. All you need to do is bus a few activists into cowsheds – get enough placard-holders for a backdrop for the cameras, job done. That’s how politics is carried out: not on soapboxes, not by showing passion, or selling out the SECC or town-hall meetings. Sturgeon has so much to learn.
Fraser Nelson, “Five rules of politics that Nicola Sturgeon has broken” (April).
People may wonder why I write so much about Scottish politics. One reason is that I am one of the few Scots with first-hand experience of seeing a country fall apart. The other is that I have seen what nationalism has done to Ukraine. Nationalism was latent in Ukraine, but it was ignited by foolish politicians and this spark led to a bonfire. People who had previously thought of themselves as the same now hated each other, now fought each other, now killed each other for a difference that two decades earlier they had barely been aware existed.
Effie Deans, “We must attack the SNP at its roots” (April).
Anybody who currently works on a zero hours contract will not get any more money from a formal contract. In fact, the most likely thing to happen is that a ceiling will be placed on what they can already earn. And here is where the conspiracy theory comes in. Outlawing zero hours contracts is not a means of creating more work (if anything, in potentially reducing the surpluses, it might do the opposite). It is a way of rationing the existing amount of employment. The biggest beneficiary from this policy will be the Labour government, because the employers will be forced to hire more people on contracts with fewer hours, artificially boosting the jobs figures without actually boosting the work done.
“Less Than Zero: A Labour Party Conspiracy?” (April)
Experts said the country has now added ‘one party state’ to its already quite long list of extremely odd things.
Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, said: “It’s always been eccentric and quirky while only occasionally veering towards the deeply unsettling or downright terrifying. There’s the food, the musical instruments, the inexplicable intensity when it comes football matches against England and the unusual cows… But there’s a kind of North Korean weirdness about it now.”
The Daily Mash, “Scotland becomes even more weird” (May).
This distinction between the SNP and nationalism is itself part of the problem: the enthusiasm for the SNP, which has lately bloated into a mass enthusiasm, is nothing other than sheer tribalism. It has no intelligible basis in politics or economics. People in Scotland had previously voted Labour because the party was meant to do things which might change their lives. The SNP just reflects who they are. In the SNP, nationalism – that most miserable, most banal and most backward of ideologies – meets identity-politics, the very worst of all politics. The result for the people of Scotland is to slip on a completely pointless layer of needlessly politicised identity: the fantasy that people in Glasgow are somehow strangely different from those in Manchester, with their own unique identity-issues which a politician standing in Manchester is existentially prohibited from representing.
“Illustration to “Up at the House”” (June).
Other reviewers of the finale have grown solemn over the series’ declining ratings. The series had started out with 5.5 million viewers and by the penultimate episode it had frittered them down to 1.6 million (more people had voted for the Liberal Democrats during the last election). The Telegraph calls this a “ratings disaster” and “a near unimaginable low for a major BBC One drama.” Yet this paper also questions whether the series will win “further fans via the more cult-friendly media of boxed sets and online streaming,” and I think that such justice delayed is likely. Whenever you encounter people who have watched the series, they are noisy and enthusiastic ambassadors for it. Strange & Norrell may have not yet rocked the masses, but this is more than made up for by the benefits to the minority who had tuned in.
“Series Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” (June).
The Navy have thrown out William McNeilly, the submariner who blew the whistle on nuclear submarines, describing Trident as “a disaster waiting to happen”. He has been given a dishonourable discharge. In response a spokesperson for Scottish CND said:
“When the Navy interviewed McNeilly they were only interested in discrediting what he had published. They don’t appear to have tried to get to the root of the problems he raised. The allegations are so serious that they must be investigated thoroughly, not just brushed aside. It is the Navy who have acted dishonourably, not William McNeilly.”
Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “Navy act dishonourably throwing out whistleblower” (June).
In fact, you can search in vain for any quote from a UK opposition leader about regenerative medicine, and the closest you will get is some words in 2009 from Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, urging mothers to donate their used umbilical cord blood to stem cell banks. That a political leader’s wife had more to say about stem cells than her elected husband comically indicates the depoliticisation of the subject.
The £25 million for the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform may reassure you that something is being done about stem cell therapy, but when weighed against the more than a hundred billion which the NHS in England and Scotland receives every year, then it is clear which is the ocean and which the drop. The NHS claims that it spends £27 million per day treating diabetes, more than the Platform has been given over four years to supposedly move the story on.
“Stem Cells and the Left” (July).
Would it have been better for this earlier novel to have remained unpublished? Though it does not represent Harper Lee’s best work, it does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character. “Go Set a Watchman” demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Randall Kennedy, “Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’” (July).
“Tychy@ the Fringe 2015 Artwork” (July).
To move on from Bindel to Marx, in “This Much” the old tragic Victorian marriage is repeated for a second time as farce. It is all still here: the cohabiting; the wedding; the wedding dress and the cake; the prickly mother-in-law; the inevitable third person; the dishonesty and the domestic violence; and the anguish which had eventually found expression, for the tragic Victorians, in the writings of Ibsen and Chekhov. Yet this play ends with farcical aplomb and a man in a wedding dress announcing to his father’s funeral that he is a new kind of man. The question which “This Much” poses is whether gay men should really want to take ownership of the discredited tropes of a previous culture, or whether they should author new identities for themselves.
I cannot stress it enough that the play looks stunning.
“Tychy@ the Fringe: This Much” (August).
It is very difficult to sum up Sandy Nelson’s The Gospel Inquiry adequately, beyond stating that it is something exceptional. Taking a “Leveson” approach to the Gospels, the four scribes are each invited to give their testimony, and defend the verses they wrote, discrepancies and all. Kosher Matthew, flamboyant Mark, cynical Luke, and class warrior John are rotated among the cast members Jimmy Chisholm, Tom Freeman, and Nelson. What follows just bursts at the seams with wit, inventiveness, intelligence, and an incredible, rich stream of allusion to other sources.
Kevin Wight, “The Gospel Inquiry” (August).
It is ironic that Ministers have justified their decision by stating that they are not prepared to “gamble with the future” of Scotland’s food and drink industry, because that is exactly what they are doing. In the short term, this is a zero risk, eye-catching announcement that will have no impact whatsoever, because there are currently no approved GM crops available that are suitable for cultivation in Scotland. In the long term, however, when products such as blight resistant potatoes eventually reach the market, Scottish farmers will find themselves at a serious disadvantage. But maybe this is not such a gamble- a week is famously a long time in politics, so when the time comes, no doubt an elegant U turn can be effected.
Prof. Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge (August).
The masses are, believe me, not talking about Jeremy Corbyn. The politicised middle class is charmed by his humility and curious about his newness. But Corbyn has yet to construct a political product which can be sold around the UK to millions of people. He was endorsed by less than 10% of the parliamentary Labour party; many of his closest supporters are not household names, or competent media performers. He has to whip up a seven-course-dinner when there is barely a pan of boiling water on the stove. And on the crucial question of democracy, this is where everything is most discouraging. Corbyn’s voters were not voting for a cabinet, or a policy programme, or any identifiable system of decision making. They were instead voting, probably half-maliciously, for a fun Presidential figure who is meant to subsequently cook up some entertaining disruption. It is fantasy politics – sheer political irresponsibility! It does not even demonstrate the virtues of adventurism, since for most of Corbyn’s supporters nothing is being ventured aside from £3.
“The Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn: “Away the Crow Road”” (September).
Yesterday, on Saturday 5th September, I took a train from Waverley to Tweedbank: today you can too, for £11.20: the whole trip from the centre of Edinburgh to Tweedbank in the Borders will take you 57 minutes. A few months ago I was sitting on a bus and an advert popped up on my tablet: 35 Golden Ticket winners and their guests could win a Golden Ticket and be the first passengers to travel from Edinburgh to the Borders by the new Scottish Borders railway: just say why you want to go, in 50 words or less…
Edinburgh Eye, “Borders Railway” (September).
In the history of democracy, the rise of the European Union is probably the biggest step backwards. Previous movements such as fascism and Stalinism have been straightforwardly against democracy and they have been straightforwardly defeated. The EU, however, is robed in all of the garments of democracy, arriving complete with a parliament, elections, and a free press, but it is all a maddeningly empty appearance. The European Commission is never rocked by any pressure from the masses. The European Parliament is literally a PR exercise: for a start, it is not a parliament (it is a revising chamber); and the downward trajectory of the consecutive turnouts in its elections, to far below the standards in comparable national elections, confirms that most voters are voting with their feet.
Just because you lop off your d*** and then wear a dress, doesn’t make you a f*****g woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a f*****g cocker spaniel. I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his d*** chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.
Germaine Greer, “Statement to the BBC” (October).
“Study for “Up at the House”” (November).
The dream instinct in Three Moments of an Explosion, the recurrence of what are essentially the plots of superbly counterfeited dreams, is what makes Miéville sincere, rather than his apocalyptic drift. Any very talented writer can pastiche the shop talk of poker players (“The Dowager of Bees”) or psychotherapists (“Dreaded Outcome”) or natives from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain (“The Buzzard’s Egg”) or young men from an earnest Edwardian medical mystery (“The Design,” which considerably outdoes Susan Hill’s own pastiche-Stevenson-weird, Printer’s Devil Court). Miéville, though, is imitating the dream-work, that eternal archetype of the author who resides within every sleeping human brain.
“Short Story Review: Three Moments of an Explosion” (November).
Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”. What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.
The New Statesman, “Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis” (November).
Also, our enemies have murdered or enslaved tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and they threaten this nation with terrorist attacks on an unimaginable scale. It is barbarity and cruelty beyond description, a medieval savagery that can only belong in the Dark Ages, a few hundred miles south, with our close friends and business partners in Saudi Arabia.
Our allies have called for our aid. Are we to abandon them in their hour of need, simply because they are not actually in need, or because they have enormous military capabilities that far outstrip our own? Are we to stand aside simply because they are quite capable of fucking up this entire operation all of their own accord, without any assistance at all from Great Britain?
The Flying Rodent, “That Catch-All War Vote Speech” (December).
al-Afri and al-Kadir were going to Raqqa’s safest internet café, to be connected with the Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on Skype.
They crashed down in front of the first spare desktop. “You are about to confer with the successor to the Prophet, the only legitimate leader of a billion Muslims,” al-Afri boasted gloriously.
The image of a beaming little girl with pigtails appeared on the screen.
“Now, the Caliph cannot speak to us in person – this is too risky with the Americans monitoring everything. Hello my rose petal! – this is the Caliph’s niece, Hala. You will write down everything she says and then I think there is a code book in the back of the café.”
“How Christmas Came to Raqqa” (December).
Tychy wishes all readers a Happy New Year.