David Squires on … England v France

Today’s Guardian has a great cartoon by David Squire, focusing on tonight’s football match between England and France.

A cartoon showing the ethnic history of the French football team
England v France

Squires’ piece is in stark contrast to that of the Daily Mail cartoonist, Mac. The comparison he draws (literally) between refugees and rats is akin to Third Reich propaganda.

A cartoon by Mac of the Daily Mail, comparing refugees to rats
Europe’s open borders


I started my previous Man Booker Prize review by stating that V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State was, at that point, my least favourite. I’ve now read the first 5 winners, and this recent entry is fighting it out for 4th place.

John Berger’s G. is a difficult read. I’m glad I struggled through it, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll revisit, and I can’t say that I’d recommend it to anyone.

G. (or, Giovanni) is an unlikeable character, making his way around Europe in the early part of the 20th Century, bedding women, breaking-up relationships and generally upsetting most of those with whom he comes into contact. He is a serial, touring shagger.

The Don Juan-style escapade is bookended by outbreaks of civil disobedience, and there are threats of violence and injury throughout. But that threat never engages, because the writing is so cold, so emotionless; the language itself being used as a metaphor for G.’s sexual conquests.

Occasionally, Berger’s style is so opaque it feels like it’s masking plot; there are several long paragraphs that describe minute aspects of the story in such detail, that I wanted to close my eyes and fend off an impending headache.

At other times, though, his writing is witty and very quotable.

Chavez has the impression that he is about to enter the jaws of an animal whose passages and gullet and stomach and arse are made of solid rock, an animal whose digestion is geological.

But I draw the line at the way he wrote pretty much all of the sex scenes. If Literary Review magazine held its annual Bad Sex in Fiction award in the early 70s, John Berger would surely have been a contender.

It occurs to him that the very form of the vagina, which he had always assumed was as it was in virtue of his function, has in fact evolved to meet the exigencies of the outward journey of a third person. He is reluctant to withdraw his finger.

And then there is this surreal image:

Her cunt begins at her toes; her breasts are inside it, and her eyes too; it has enfolded her.

It enfolds him.

The ease.

Next up is JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. If it’s as good as his previous novel, Troubles, then I’m in for a treat.

Speaking of which, here are my top 5 Man Booker Prize winning novels, so far.

  1. Troubles
  2. The Elected Member
  3. Something to Answer For (no review)
  4. G.
  5. In a Free State


In a Free State

V.S. Naipaul’s 1971 novel, In a Free State is my least favourite Booker Prize winner, so far. I didn’t hate it, but I was almost two-thirds of the way through the tale before it began to engage at all, and that’s not a good sign.

It’s a depressing read, full of unlikeable characters, and is based in a country viewed by, and narrated through, the eyes of people who have very little love for Africa or its people.

They say there’s good and bad everywhere. There’s no good and bad here. They’re just Africans. They do what they have to do. That’s what you have to tell yourself. You can’t hate them. You can’t even get angry with them.

Bobby and Linda are our protaganists; two people who dislike each other and with whom it is subsequently very hard to spend time. Their road-trip is the basis for the novel, and it takes place in an Africa set to rebel against its Empirical Imperial overlords. From the start of their journey, homeward bound after their visit to a corporate conference, In a Free State describes their torrid relationship, and the countryside through which they travel.

He needed to be calmer. Acknowledging the need, he became calmer.

It does both successfully, and it’s not without its positive aspects. At times, Naipaul’s prose is a pleasure to read, but, much like Bobby and Linda, it wasn’t enough to get me to the Collectorate with a smile on my face.


JG Farrell’s Troubles is the third Man Booker Prize winner, although technically, it was only awarded in 2010, as the Lost Man Booker Prize.

It may be four decades overdue, but at least JG Farrell’s Lost Booker triumph will bring his work of genius to the wider audience it deserves. Guardian, May 2010

“Work of genius” can be overused, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone claiming that Farrell’s debut novel falls into this category. It has the feeling of a classic; a darkly comic classic that I’m sure I’ll revisit.

Set in and around the hotel Majestic in the town of Kilnalough, Ireland, Troubles doesn’t focus solely on the political upheaval of the time, but the repercussions of World War I, and the Easter Rising of 1916 are key.

The book opens with Major Brendan Foster making his way to Ireland, planning to marry his fiancée. On his arrival, he has to deal with death, marriage, sectarianism, madness, murder, and a seemingly endless number of old ladies, all while the hotel he might have expected to inherit (and much more besides) crumbles around him. In short, his World starts falling apart, acutely mirroring the sanity of those around him, as well as the political state of the country in which this book is set.

Troubles is fantastic, and certainly the best of the three Booker Prize winners I’ve read so far. It’s the first of Farrell’s Empire trilogy, and I’ll be revisiting his work shortly, as number 2 in the series won 1973’s award.

The Elected Member

‘Norman, forgive me,’ he said. ‘Forgive. Is all my fault.’ He opened his eyes again and he saw what he was leaving. Two sad unmarried daughters, one with her earnest scheitel, and in another room, his broken son. ‘I failed,’ he muttered. ‘Forgive.’

I’m on book two of my challenge to read each of the 49 (so far) Man Booker Prize winners. I’m attempting them in order, starting with PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, and recently completing Bernice Ruben’s The Elected Member.

If the first book was a disappointment (and it was), then this second one was a much more enjoyable read.

Reminding me in parts of a John Irving book (broken families, incestuous relationships) and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (madness, mental institution), The Elected Member is the story of the once brilliant lawyer Norman Kweck, and his drug-addled downfall. Of course, his fall from glory doesn’t just affect him, and throughout we learn of the damage he has inflicted upon his mother, father and sisters.

I would definitely recommend this one, even if it gets a wee bit too religious for my tastes towards the end.

Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal

Eddy Merckx
Eddy Merckx

Two main thoughts linger at the closing of is book.

The first is that Daniel Friebe’s writing is easy, low impact and conversational – for the first half of the book, at least. Around halfway, he seems no longer convinced by the usefulness of Dino Zandegú as an occasional, comedy narrator and, around the same time, loses that intimate tone – although it does make a reappearance for the final chapter.

He speaks quickly, Eddy Merckx. His eyebrows are almost permanently raised, not in surprise but arched almost like brackets around everything he says, or around everything he is; almost as if to say, ‘I’m telling you this, but you have to remember that I’m Eddy Merckx, and not even I know what that means…’ That, at least, is my impression. It could be just a mannerism.

The second is that, even after reading and enjoying this book, I don’t feel that I know the man any more than I did at the start.

The last chapter does show a side of Merckx that rarely appears up to that point in the book, with the result that he remains, to me at least, an enigma. Friebe fails to uncover the man behind the man, so to speak. In this way, Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal works as an allegory (am I using that word correctly?) to Merckx’s life, in that that he only really seems to soften in his later years.

Merckx’s most attractive and long- hidden qualities, particularly his warmth and humour, have risen slowly to the surface, above his natural shyness and suspicion.

If it’s a truism that sporting heroes are either flawed and psychologically impaired; or tirelessly professional and so good as to be robotic, then – although he has his moments – Merckx is definitely in the latter camp. In fact, a lot of Friebe’s book made me want to read more about his 60s and 70s Belgian compatriots, De Vlaeminck and Van Looy, both of whom seem much more interesting, if far less successful (but isn’t everyone?).

This might read like I’m picking up on what Friebe didn’t get, and how he didn’t write, but I don’t mean that to be the case. In fact, I’d be keen to pick up more of his writing in the future, but I’m less convinced by Merckx as the subject of a book, great cyclist that he was.

We Have the Numbers

I have a tattoo.

Actually, I’ve got a few but there’s one in particular that I’d like to write about today. First, though, a note on the aforementioned Radical Independence Conference.

In a previous post, I bumped my gums about those post-referendum blues, and sang the praises of the RIC, I wrote that I had changed irrevocably. But a funny thing happened while I was listening to Myshele Haywood talk, and perhaps that’s not completely true.

Myshele Haywood is an expat American, living and working in Aberdeen, and campaigning for Radical Independence in her (I’m sure very limited) spare time. Haywood was part of the opening plenary session and she talked about her own political history, and her path to independence.

Did you ever suddenly realise something obvious about yourself? People who cared about what happened to their neighbours suddenly realised they were political. People who wanted to help others suddenly realised they were activists. People who thought we should maybe be nice to each other suddenly realised they were radicals.

Ultimately, Haywood believes that none of this is radical in the slightest.

I don’t think it’s particularly radical, what we’re talking about here. Let’s not kill each other. Let’s not dump poisons into our air and water. Let’s share our resources and try to make sure everyone has a decent, dignified life. How fucked up is our current system that it requires radical change just to meet the standards of basic human values?

Which brings me to my tattoo.

As part of the closing plenary, Alan Bissett delivered his People’s Vow, halfway through which was the following passage.

We Vow to end the austerity which has become the creed of the London elite. To solve a crisis created by the rich, they say, the public must suffer. We reject their crusade against the poor, both its inefficiency and its immorality. They have the money, but we have the numbers. [emphasis mine]

In 2003 I got married in Las Vegas, and visited San Francisco as part of the same trip. Near our San Francisco hotel, I took a photograph of some graffiti, with the explicit intent of getting it tattooed at a later date.

A photograph of some graffiti, taken in San Francisco.
A photograph I took of some graffiti, San Francisco.

While Bissett talked in tones of overthrowing the Government, I thought of my tattoo and both its relevance then and its relevance now. Why do I have an overtly political statement on my back? I’ve never quite been sure; it just always seemed right.

So, when I tell myself I’ve changed, I’m not totally convinced that I have.

Referendums, conferences and commissions

After convincing myself that I would post more frequently, I immediately stopped doing so.

Okay. This time.

I really wanted to document what and how I felt after the Independence Referendum, but the longer I left it, and the more I read from those far more eloquent than I, the less relevant it seemed.

For posterity: gutted.

Taking a step back from it all, if that’s possible, I would also add that this has been a hugely satisfying and exciting time to be Scottish; and to live in Scotland. I have spoken-with, listened-to, admired-from-afar, and read-words-written-by a great number of inspirational people throughout 2014. I’ve changed irrevocably. I believe for the better; I’m not sure everyone would agree.

This past weekend, I attended – along with 2999 others – a conference held by the Radical Independence Campaign. 100 yards away, 12000 SNP supporters gathered to hear a political party deliver their plans.

15000 (FIFTEEN THOUSAND!) actively-engaged politicos on the banks of the River Clyde. A bottle of Champagne’s throw away from where the Jimmy Reid‘s of this World used to build ships, and trade union relationships.

Some highlights: Saffron Dickson, Liam McLaughlan, Tariq Ali, and the Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark of the independence movement, Cat Boyd and Alan Bissett.

“I’ve always known a Scottish Parliament but I’ve never not known war, poverty, immigrant-bashing and killing for profit”
17-year old Saffron Dickson

It was a long and emotional day and, at the post-conference bar, it was all a bit blurry. There was poetry and dancing. Lots of dancing. My memories are hazy…

And so to the publication of the Smith Commission report.

Depending on whom you speak to, the recommendations put forward by Lord Smith amount to either “extra devolution for Scotland” that “will make our United Kingdom stronger“; or it’s “the worst possible [solution] for everyone“.

I’m sure it’s somewhere in between. My own thoughts are that it’s closer to the latter.

What it isn’t, despite what the Commission itself suggests, is a document that provides a more “responsive, durable and stable” devolution settlement. If anything, it recommends only the undermining of what is already in place.

The report contains a number of recommendations – some good, some bad – all of which are simply that: recommendations. Before any of them get anywhere near implementation, there’s the small matter of a May 2015 General Election and English Votes on English Laws to work through.

Dig in, folks. It’s going to be a long one.