The Oxonian Review Thu, 26 May 2016 08:31:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ‘The Heart’s Geography’ Tue, 24 May 2016 12:47:35 +0000

William Shaw

Giving Groundindex
Theophilus Kwek
Ethos Books, 2016
ISBN 978-981-09-8599-8







‘I want to take you on a journey’. It’s the rallying cry of so many books and articles these days, despite the obvious paradox involved in doing so through the sedentary act of reading. Enter Giving Ground, the third poetry collection from Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek. It’s a globe-trotting book, with locations as wide-ranging as Singapore, Scotland, America and Oxford, but the overriding theme is one of generosity. Effortlessly flitting between urban observations and national mythologies, Kwek is less interested in ‘taking you on a journey’ than he is in presenting you with a starting point for your own.

British cities crop up throughout the collection, and Kwek is adept at creating a sense of place through typography alone. His poem ‘Edinburgh’, for instance, conveys the absurdly hilly nature of that town through deft word choice and intelligent use of form.

Heart’s geography. Streets beneath streets,
a map let fall on an uneven hill. Right angles
where the same houses open to the bridge
and far below, again at street level.

The lines’ smooth iambic pentameter is shrewdly extended with evocative phrases, ideas appearing at “Right angles” which surprise while remaining thematically consistent. The idea of physical structures extending across different levels is embodied in the poem’s own structure, as thoughts and images recur and expand across the lines. The image of the map draped across a hill is a nice moment of linguistic playfulness, and one of several Kwek manages, like his assertion that the city’s stairs “lead where we are/ inclined”, the line break creating an effective pause before the punchline is delivered, and a frankly glorious pun on “High Street”. It’s a poem which naturally emerges from the geography of Edinburgh while still conveying a distinctive, personal vision.

The city of Oxford also makes multiple appearances. A student at Merton college, Kwek clearly understands the experience of studying here, never resorting to the crass stereotype of The Oxford Student Experience™. ‘Night’ perfectly captures the slightly stilted experience of chatting in the kitchen with a housemate you barely know – “It’s awkward, but it’s fine when we laugh;/ by the time we eat we’ve known each other/ for years.” The poem conveys a sense of understated camaraderie, which, as any frazzled undergraduate will tell you, is essential to surviving in this “eccentric city”. It’s immediately followed by ‘Michaelmas’, a witty and affectionate comparison of Christmas celebrations in Oxford and Singapore.

After the last dinner of term we are asked
what Christmas is like, back home: if there
are seasons, or how early the sun sets. If
it snows.

By turns warm, wistful and sardonic, the poem maps out the liminal space occupied by Singaporean students, “translating ourselves across the interminable/ sea”. Kwek returns to this theme in ‘Weight’, which spins a moving reflection out of a grandmother’s observation that her grandson has gotten thinner during term time, another experience familiar to many: “excess baggage. waving hands at the door/ have lifted us weightless from shore to shore.” The poem itself is vivid and elegant, although the lack of capitalisation starts to grate after a few stanzas.

Singapore comes into its own in the final section, with poems about the country’s founding myth and early history. These entries, while solid, end up feeling like warm-ups for ‘Foreign Relations’, which manages a near-perfect synthesis of personal and political. Figuring Singapore-Malaysian relations through the metaphor of two brothers, Kwek manages some of his finest imagery, describing the dynamic between two nations grown up separately. “I’ll hear your voice/ or you’ll hear mine, the water in the wall/ crackling through our landline like the sea”. The final stanza manages a perfect balance of poignancy and historical awareness, a triumphant climax to the collection overall.

you and I together
in this house, with all the furniture we bought
when good as new, and the plans we made,
to mark the casting-off we knew as birth.

The section’s final poem, ‘Archaeology’ offers a vision of the future “c. 3015”, reworking Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, as it surveys the remains of a once-mighty city. Kwek finds an analogy between the poet and the archaeologist:

but our pronouncements, lacking precedent
are at best facts we ourselves have spun.
This, after all, is our trade.

It’s a sombre poem, but with a sense of defiant optimism, as the poetic voice seeks to know “what’s done, or what it is we have begun.” As a final statement, it’s damn powerful; the poet offers up old grounds that we might make them new again. Giving Ground is a stylish, thoughtful, thoroughly accommodating book, and boasts a poetic voice as well-read as it is well-travelled. Recommended for anyone with an interest in human geography.

William Shaw is a student in English Language and Literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Theophilus Kwek has previously written for The Oxonian Review. It should be noted that although he knows the present reviewer personally, every effort has been made to remain objective.

A Sense of Place Thu, 19 May 2016 10:45:36 +0000 editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris editors—shoshana morris Rey Conquer

IRIS, Issue 1 (March 2016) Hurst Street Press, Oxford, 56pp
ed. Shoshana Kessler and Beth Sparks



In illustrating the concept of the category-mistake, Gilbert Ryle tells the story of a foreigner visiting Oxford and, having seen the colleges and the playing fields and the various departments, turns to his guide to ask, ‘But where is the University?’. The foreigner’s mistake lies in not knowing that the University is not, of course, yet another building alongside the colleges and offices; it is the organising principle behind them, invisible and intangible.

IRIS is a magazine of poetry, essays, comics, and artwork. Its USP is its tangibility and materiality: it was printed using an Adana letterpress, bound by hand, and the materials used—the specific types of paper and thread—are listed in the colophon. The paper is thick and textured, as is the thread. The inside sheets are laid, which means that you can make out the vertical lines from the manufacturing process (previously out of expediency; now for effect). You can still feel the ink on the pages and the indentations from the press. The editors—Shoshana Kessler and Beth Sparks—organised a small exhibition at their studio in Oxpens where you could see all the objects that they used in making the magazine, some sketches and mockups, and the artworks in the flesh (in the case of Josefin Meijer’s affecting, austere clay heads, this is almost literal). The theme of this issue (which is the first, of three) is ‘sense of place’.

Jan Morris opens her book about Oxford with the view from Boars Hill, where Oxford is glimpsed in sudden flashes when sunlight breaks through the cloud and picks out its details, the ‘etched intricacy’ of the university buildings as well as the glass and brick of the schools and factories and houses. Morris describes the office of another Morris, William Morris (of Morris Motors, although Kelmscott Manor, country retreat of the designer and printmaker William Morris, is only 25 miles away), which was left as it was in the 1920s up until his death in 1963. This forms an odd time-capsule, all the more surprising for having been done unintentionally, for all that what you could see there—pristine stationery, a diary full of neatly written but unremarkable appointments—is not in itself exciting. Morris Motors was, famously, the largest employer in Oxfordshire for a number of decades (it had previously been Oxford University Press, which, once again, out-employs them by a thousand workers or so). If there is a fussy immateriality to the university understood as such, then the city itself has always been one of stuff, whether wool or pressed steel car bodies or marmalade. But Oxford is a city with a swiftly decreasing ‘sense of place’: no longer divided merely between ‘town’ and ‘gown’, it has become another coordinate in the widening London commuter belt, and is now—I hope famously—the most unaffordable city in the UK, that is, a city in which its own residents cannot live.

There is no mention of Oxford in IRIS, and for all that the contributions address, to some extent, the theme, the only places named or implied are elsewhere: Liverpool, Turkey, the Pacific and Indian oceans. The focus is more that of the magazine itself: textures, documents, objects. There are small, arresting poems (Arabella Currie), abstracted photos of bare interiors where tone becomes feature (Lara Shahnavaz). There’s an essay on the queer theorist D A Miller which seems at first glance to have little to do with the theme, but which in fact addresses it head-on: If we read between the lines, we find William Ghosh reading between the lines to locate D A Miller in time and space, which is what Miller himself was doing for Roland Barthes. Some of the other pieces are actually critical, academic essays on the adjacent poetry and artwork—rather than the form (i.e. of the essay) being a discreet, neutralising screen, it is a way for the contributors to give their coordinates, abstractly speaking; to assert who and where they are. We see this in other glimpses, too: the newly set-up Hurst Street Press, run by the editors, is named after a street in East Oxford; they thank the Bodleian, the Ruskin School of Art (in whose East Oxford studio they held their launch) and a café on Cowley Road; their first commission has come from Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson College. A sense of place is conveyed by this constellation of particularities, but also from the uncanny combination of the form (‘the hand-printed pamphlet’) and the form (‘the theoretical introduction’). The latter reads unfortunately like a lack of confidence in the ability of the contributions, and the physical aspect of the thing, to speak for themselves—but fulfils, nonetheless, a thematic role, one which could be summed up by the magazine’s own final lines: as Tom Quayle says apropos of Arabella Currie’s poems, ‘we are rooted by our tongues as much as by our feet’.

Rey Conquer is reading for a DPhil in German at Somerville College, Oxford.

C’era una volta: Review of Fiabe Italiane Tue, 17 May 2016 10:16:02 +0000 Matthew Reza

Oxford Italian Play: Fiabe Italiane
8-12 March (Week 8), Burton Taylor Studio, 21:30-22:30


For the second Italian play in as many years, directors Aldo Grassi Pucci and Michael Subialka are joined by Alberica Bazzoni, who set out together on a quest to bring a rooted and cherished tradition from the peninsula to life. This year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Italo Calvino’s famous landmark anthology of Italian fairy-tales, Fiabe Italiane.

Several factors make the play worth attending, even for an audience without any Italian. Firstly, these tales draw from a vast web of shared themes and characters whose tasks, pitfalls and successes can be gleaned not only from what one might recognise from childhood, but also by the energetic and passionate performances on display. Secondly, English synopses are provided, thereby adding a delightful measure of complexity by giving written summaries of transcribed variants of tales that come from an oral tradition that are in turn being performed on the stage via a manuscript of tales written down. A late-1970s Calvino would no doubt have been delighted.

Moreover, the framing device of a discovered collection of stories not only allows for a connection between otherwise discrete tales that come from Genoa to Palermo to Verona, but also cleverly provides a stage on which to enact them. We are not the audience, we are instead witnesses to a group telling each other stories, and the meeting place of travellers who sup and tell each other tales has a passing echo of Calvino’s own famous Il Castello dei Destini Incrociati (The Castle of Crossed Destinies).

What works particularly well is the back and forth between the travellers and the stories they tell, as they jump in and out of their assigned characters in order to change roles, watch their companions, and pass around the book of tales from which they read. The attempt to render difficult moments on stage ¬– such as magic, a giant, or metamorphosis – is done with an endearing lightness of touch as the travellers use what they have at hand to convince each other of the scenes they are setting.

The Italian spoken by the cast, which comprises both native and non-native speakers, is clear and confident, and the occasional slip rather reinforces the oral, unscripted and constantly changing medium of storytelling. In turn, the variety of accents is a reminder of the international reach of the fairy-tale heritage.

There are stirring performances from all, and moments to look out for include: Valeria Taddei as the commanding narrator, Jonny Wiles’ both comical and terrifying Zio Lupo, Max Reynolds’ homage to Don Corleone, and Niccolò Pescetelli’s existential ennui as a world-weary prince.

The unavoidably codified gender roles that underpin the fairy-tale – a king who commands; a princess who apparently needs saving, and often, in turn, marrying; the competition between men over said princess or daughter who has no say in such matters – presented editorial difficulties in a contemporary setting. On the one hand, in order to remain faithful to the original anthology, characters have not been changed around, but on the other, all the performers play both male and female roles (to hilarious ends), and the choice of the small corpus of tales should be noted. Among them, Fantaghirò persona bella (Fantaghirò the Beautiful) is the story of three daughters who volunteer to go to war (despite warning of avoiding “womanly behaviour”), and in La sposa che viveva di vento (The Bride who Lived on Wind), through her cunning, the princess wins the riches of the prohibitively avaricious prince, who is mortally overcome on seeing his money spent. The melancholic and frightened male protagonists in La camicia dell’uomo contento (The Happy Man’s Shirt) and Il paese dove non si muore mai (The Land Where you Never Die) are limp and cowardly, and obstinate in I Biellesi, gente dura (The Biellesi, Stubborn Folk). All the performances throughout are wonderfully hyperbolic and appropriately so, given the larger-than-life and extreme characters that populate fairy-tales, and they are accompanied by occasional folk dancing and folk songs, a touch naturally absent in the original anthology.

As the storyteller Gioia Timpanelli recalls of the Sicilian folktale saying, ‘si cunta e si recunta’ —it is told and retold—: Fiabe Italiane provides an old tradition with new energy without taking itself too seriously, and promises an evening of cautionary tales, vengeful deities, and mirth. Above all, this evening is, as the time-honoured tradition of storytelling assures, entertaining and fun.

Matthew Reza is Casual Lecturer and Italian Language Tutor in the Sub-Faculty of Italian, Oxford.


Wrap Up The Week: Allegory, Unfinished Art, The Future of Novels, Apostrophes! and Literary Criticism Revisited Mon, 16 May 2016 14:59:20 +0000 allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save allegory wrap erode muses miller articles meanings save The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. ‘Save the Allegory!’: Laura Miller muses on how meanings erode

2. ‘Why we love unfinished art’: David Hensher weighs in on our fascination for uncompleted works

3. ‘Is literature a dying animal?’: Edna O’Brien on the future of the Novel

4. ‘Apostrophe-gate’: Sarah Sweet reflects on the peculiar sense of righteousness associated with a punctuation mark

5. ‘The Art of the Book Review’: Michael Lind goes back to a classic of literary criticism

Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Reviewed Fri, 13 May 2016 16:48:21 +0000 Cressida Peever

The Caretaker
Old Vic Theatre, London
Dir. Matthew Warchus

A simple interpretation of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker might give us three characters begging for the audience’s sympathy: Davies, an old man down on his luck; Aston, victim of electrotherapy and the compassionate soul who takes Davies in; and Mick, the ultimate custodian of the other two, with unrealised ambition. But Matthew Warchus’ interpretation (currently running at The Old Vic) distorts this reading, giving the characters new purpose and revealing hidden motivations.
My reading of the play had always left me with the question: why does Aston bring Davies home? My previous explanation was that Aston collects things: toasters, papers, jigsaws. Rob Howell’s set design is a wondrous amassing of old junk, which gives the impression of Aston’s careful curation. It had seemed natural that Aston should want to bring Davies home to add to his collection of strange and mostly useless paraphernalia.
Yet Warchus’ production portrays Aston (Daniel Mays) as socially awkward and disgusted by his guest from the beginning: he makes an effort not to stand too close to Davies, and ignores much of what he says. Meanwhile Davies, played by Timothy Spall in grubby clothes and with wild, straggling hair, makes no attempt to endear himself to his host: he is aggressive, lazy, objectionable, and often unintelligible, his speech descending into grunts and splutters, and thus seemingly perfunctory.
The representation of Mick (George MacKay) as a feisty, fast-paced – even unhinged – young man, provides an alternative answer to the question: Aston brings Davies home as a decoy for his brother. Mick’s speeches are delivered at an astonishingly rapid pace, with a pointed articulation giving the mundane tittle-tattle an ominous and violent flavor. This contrasts so starkly from Aston’s hesitant, economic utterances, bedecked with long silences, that the play is suddenly not about Davies, the would-be caretaker, but about the relationship between two discordant brothers.
With this changed perspective, Warchus’ Davis becomes a tool for exposing the brothers’ differences, taking on a function we might associate with Shakespeare’s Fool of provoking the protagonists into revealing their truths to the audience. Davis is represented as having stagnated, his haughty manner and miserable excuses unchanged from beginning to end. We feel that his final proposal of collecting his papers from Sidcup has no more intention than his previous suggestions.
But Davis’ obstinacy is the catalyst for change in Mick and Aston. Act two ends with a breathtaking speech from Daniel Mays, in which he explains the story behind Aston’s behaviour. The speech is beautifully understated, intimate and well-timed, during which the light fades gradually and unobtrusively to close the act with a spot on Aston, having finally managed to articulate the anger and bitterness of his situation. Likewise, Mick becomes able to tune into his own feelings of responsibility for his brother, appearing to unearth a deep-rooted love for Aston. These things together give the impression that Aston is able to expel Davis from the house thanks to a new unspoken bond between the two.
That being said, Warchus’ production did not go so far as to suggest permanent change. As the curtain falls the junk is still heaped up. The rain drives on outside the window. We are left uncertain as to whether this pattern will be repeated, and how long the brothers’ bond will last.

The Caretaker runs at The Old Vic until 14 May 2016.

Cressida Peever is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Brasenose College, Oxford. She writes non-fiction, fiction, poetry, drama, and everything in-between.

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same? Mon, 09 May 2016 08:00:50 +0000 Edward Hicks

Social Class

Social Class in the 21st Century
Mike Savage
Pelican, 2015
ISBN 9780241004227
£8.99 (paperback)


Whilst I was reading Social Class in the 21st Century a story broke in the Guardian about admissions to Brasenose College, Oxford, amongst whose alumni is David Cameron. The headline emphasised this connection, alongside the claim that Brasenose had the lowest acceptance rate for state school applicants in the whole of Oxford. The acceptance rate for these applicants was 11%. Upon subsequently reading the article, the reason for this low rate became clear. Brasenose had the lowest admission rate of any college in Oxford for any applicant, at 12%. Another important fact which subsequently came to light was that around 20% of state school Brasenose applicants gained a place at Oxford, either at Brasenose or at another college, suggesting a high standard among their applicants for relatively few places. Unsurprisingly the student press, Brasenose College and its undergraduate cohort erupted in indignation at the misleading story peddled by a paper whose website proclaims “Facts are sacred.”

It would be easy to view this as yet another Oxbridge-bashing story penned by Oxbridge alumni, soon turned into the apocryphal fish-and-chip wrapping paper. But this story is instructive for several reasons: it reminds us that class is a live and combustible political issue in 21st century Britain (why after all pick on Brasenose save for its Cameron connection?). It reminds us of the influence attached to an institution such as Oxford University and to universities as instruments of social mobility and social hierarchy. The use, misuse and contestation of the statistics used, their interpretation and context, were also highlighted by this controversy. These themes also run throughout Social Class in the 21st Century (in Britain): the importance of class as a useful descriptive tool in understanding contemporary Britain, its political significance, and the endeavour to use statistics to refashion our understanding of the class structure. The book is primarily authored by LSE Professor of Sociology Mike Savage, in conjunction with a team of sociological collaborators: Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa Mckenzie, Andrew Miles, Helene Snee and Paul Wakeling. The sweeping title disguises its exclusive focus on social class in Britain.

A work under such a title would seem to have three requirements. An effective methodology: a strong approach to coming up with results which are reliable and form the basis for useful and accurate analysis. Solid and comprehensive description, describing the results and the classifications that are at the heart of this new class system. Lastly prescriptions, the ‘political’ part of the work in terms of making comments, criticisms or policy recommendations, the more subjective and opinionated aspect. The book is flawed in the first, weakest in the second through its lack of true comprehensiveness, and fairly sparse in the last requirement.

The methodology is divisible into three sections. The first was the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), hosted by the BBC website in 2011. It received 161,000 responses, and when its results were publicised in 2013 another burst of responses brought the total to 325,000. The 2011 responses were the ones primarily used for analysis. Savage states that the 2013 responses are unlikely to lead to major revisions in the conclusions of the book. The second tranche of research sought to redress the disproportionate responses that grossly under-represented the poorest. Therefore a more representative survey was conducted with 1,026 respondents. Thereafter fifty in-depth interviews were used “across the social range, though with a particular focus on the two social classes we thought of particular interest…namely those at the top and bottom of the social structure.” The interviews are liberally quoted to reinforce the book’s argument. Unfashionable though it might be, more information about the methodology would have been helpful: for example, how was the share of the population for each of their new social class groups estimated? How much might a regional disparity between Londoners compared to Scots, or residents in the Home Counties hinterland of the metropolis, or rural-dwellers, have warped their analysis on the strength of London universities or the London-centric residences of the elite?

The researchers sensibly eschewed relying solely on economic criteria for class categorisation. Alongside income and wealth they asked questions about social and cultural capital. Hence chapters are included outlining the sociologists’ ideas of economic, social and cultural capital. Thus an important component of cultural capital are notions of ‘knowing’ that appear linked to whether cultural activities are viewed solely as entertainment or analysed more abstractly, with an unspoken but understood hierarchy. An interesting chapter is also included on how universities have arguably reinforced social differences based on a hierarchy of institutions, though regrettably no reference is made to the regional imbalance in the British schooling system given London schools’ increasing lead over most other places.

As an historian, I was unsurprised that the threefold class structure of the industrial age may no longer apply in the internet age. Gone therefore are the upper, middle and working classes. Banished is the unhelpful term ‘Establishment’, too resonant of the landed aristocracy whose star has waned so considerably in the last century. Ended also is the threefold structure manifested over the centuries. Ancient Greece had its slaves, the demos, and the aristocrats. Rome had the slave, the plebeian and the patrician. Medieval society was simplified into those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. More recent descriptions have used the word ‘class’, which dates from the 1770s (supplanting ‘degrees’ or ‘ranks’). Its greatest fame and most potent politicisation were found in the Marxist triad of feudal lords, the thrusting, acquisitive Bourgeoisie, and the oppressed masses of the Proletariat. But modern Britain, this new research posits, has seven class categories: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emerging service workers, and precariat.

Yet despite the need for a new description of class, the new labels sound suspiciously similar to the old. Furthermore, the Disraelian 19th century idea of Britain being divided between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is evidently one driving the analysis, with particular attention paid to the elite and the precariat, to the neglect of the heirs of medieval craftsmen, yeomen farmers and Victorian shopkeepers. This is the most disappointing aspect of this book. For while they acknowledge a large central group, Savage and his accompanying researchers suggest the interesting events are in the growth of an elite increasingly dominant and a precariat they see as increasingly isolated and demonised. The elite and precariat receive disproportionate attention, each having their own separate, interesting chapter. In terms of population the elite reputedly constitute 6% of the population, the precariat 15%. But neither the quarter of the population reckoned to be the ‘established middle class’, nor the nearly a fifth labelled ‘emerging service workers’ are apparently deserving of similar focus. This is where I think this book fails in its descriptive capacity. It ought to have described in greater detail and with equal comprehension all seven categories. The reluctance to do so makes you wonder whether ‘class’ really is a useful description for almost four-fifths of the UK population, or whether a ‘social spectrum’ would be a better label?

The book’s subject matter, and occasional comments, makes its anti-austerity, anti-capitalism views unsurprising. The final chapter throws off the velvet glove to reveal the clenched fist of hostility. Savage contends that class creates and entrenches inequalities in economic, social and cultural capital. To redress these inequalities, the final page prescription is that “we need to question the competitive, capitalist, neo-liberal market system itself.” A whiff of inverse snobbery does pervade the work. A few policy suggestions, borrowed from Thomas Piketty, are all too briefly mentioned. However, a new politics of class will be limited by three features. First, there is the claim that Britain today constitutes a meritocracy, albeit with limits, though the book’s argument would suggest this is in decline. The book’s dissatisfaction with meritocratic ideas such as equality of opportunity, and its stressing the psychological harm brought by social mobility may not be shared by the majority. Secondly, a large portion, even a majority, of Britons reject the idea of belonging to a social class. They have done so for half a century. Thirdly, and linked to the preceding point, if the majority of the electorate fall into these amorphous middle categories, will explicit appeals to class resonate with voters, especially given the decline in class-based voting over the last forty years?

This work is undoubtedly an interesting read. However, its title and the fanfare surrounding it raises expectations that this will be a more authoritative and comprehensive work than it proves to be. Authoritative in the effectiveness of its methodology. Comprehensive in its coverage of all parts of Britain. Bluntly put it would have been better entitled The elite and the precariat in 21st Century Britain. This reviewer doubts whether that really constitutes a sufficient survey and description of social class in modern Britain.

Edward Hicks is in his third year of a DPhil in history at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

On the Verge of What is Not Sayable Mon, 09 May 2016 08:00:41 +0000 Ed Dodson

Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday: A Romance
Graham Swift
Scribner, 2016
ISBN 9781471155239
£12.99 (paperback)


In an essay entitled ‘Julian Barnes and the Problem of Knowing Too Much’, the literary critic James Wood castigates Barnes, and “too much recent English fiction,” for “speak[ing] over” characters and “tell[ing] them in effect […] that they do not know enough”. This highly self-conscious and ironic “literature of fact, of knowingness,” as he puts it, is “undeniably clever” but overlooks the importance of character, feeling, and subtlety. Wood thus advocates a more understated “literature that discovers, that dares to know less, [that] is always on the verge of what is not sayable”. One recent English novelist who is often discussed as a knowing, postmodern author (alongside Barnes) is Graham Swift, whose latest publication Mothering Sunday: A Romance is already being tipped for the Booker. Swift’s association with postmodernism began with his 1983 novel Waterland, which, despite heralding his breakthrough onto the literary scene, has started to look as dated as the postmodern zeitgeist which informed it. If this was Swift’s “knowing” novel, much of the rest of his oeuvre comes closer to Wood’s ideal—his repressed, usually male, narrators are tantalisingly caught “on the verge of what is not sayable”. In particular, his debut The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) and his Booker-prize winning masterpiece Last Orders (1996) restrict themselves, like Virginia Woolf’s modernist forerunner Mrs Dalloway (1925), to the said and the unsaid of a single day.

Swift’s latest offering makes superb use, once again, of this self-imposed narrative constraint. Mothering Sunday is set on its eponymous day in 1924—March 30, to be precise—which, as John Sutherland informs us in his review of the novel for the Times, “was the only day in the year when female domestic servants were guaranteed a holiday.” Our narrator is Jane Fairchild, an orphan who was born in 1901 and now serves as a maid at Beechwood, the Berkshire country home of the Niven family (who lost two sons in the war). Being an orphan, Jane is initially unsure how she will spend her free day until Paul Sheringham, a soon-to-be-married local young gent, invites her to continue their affair at his vacant family estate of Upleigh.

If recent English literary fiction has been overly “knowing”, it has also been obsessed with returning to, or rewriting, that most English of genres: the country house novel. Swift has gestured towards this project before—by way of Hyfield House in Out of this World (1988)—but it has been pursued with more depth and to much more acclaim by Kazuo Ishiguo in The Remains of the Day (1989), Ian McEwan in Atonement (2001), and Alan Hollinghurst in The Stranger’s Child (2011)—one Booker-winner and two nominees. Mothering Sunday, which deserves to join this mini-canon, rewrites the country house novel almost without one realising it is doing so. This is because, as James Runcie writes in the Independent, “the principal tone of the novel” is not one of historical or social documentation but “one of post-coital languor”— “a hymn to defiled bed-linen”, as Private Eye jokes. After her illicit activities with Paul, Jane remains in the house alone, her eye drawn to the most intimate of details: “And it was then, as she lifted one knee to counter the commotion, that she felt the trickle from between her legs: his seed leaving her, along with liquid of her own.” This “trickle”, which becomes both a literal and metaphorical “stain” on the not-yet-conjugal bed, is not only discussed for a good ten pages or so here but continues to be appear towards the end of the novel. Why? Because this bodily excess hovers on “the verge of what is not sayable”. Paul, Jane imagines, “must have noticed the trickle. But it was part of his fine disdain not to notice it. […] These were things to be cleared up discreetly by people who cleared up such things.” Their extreme class differences—momentarily overcome as Jane “grasp[ed] one of the brass rods of the bedsteads”—are neatly encapsulated by their differing reactions to this “trickle”. Paul can afford to see but “not to notice” this potentially incriminating relic of their transgression because he has his very own maid to clear it up: “It was Ethel’s job, she realised, to deal with the stain”.

Swift’s intimate “post-coital” tone, then, not only allows for an exploration of interwar English class dynamics but also of how class and gender intersect. This is Jane immediately after sex: “With one hand, the other holding her cigarette, she just brushed, not looking, his moist cock, feeling it stir almost instantly, like some sleeping nestling. As if she might have done such a thing all her life, an idle duchess, stroking a puppy.” Swift has stated in interview that, during the writing of Last Orders, he “got interested in simpler words, simpler phrases, shorter and more economic sentences which might be more transparent and might get you more quickly to the things that matter.” We can see the payoff here. His economy of style—short clauses, light on adjectives, precisely chosen verbs—takes the reader, without forcing her, into the partially-transcended class and gender imbalances of the scene: Jane feels, for once, like “an idle duchess”, achieving this through nothing more than the nonchalance with which she “brushed” Paul’s “cock”.

Jane’s liberation from class and gender constraints is most fully realised by the naked journey she then takes around the house, a journey that serves as an at once lyrical and subversive reimagining of male aristocratic space. Here Swift makes full use of Jane’s stream of consciousness narration:

… even when empty they [libraries] could convey the frowning implication that you should not be there. But then a maid had to dust—and, my, how books could gather dust. Going into the library at Beechwood could be a little like going into the boys’ room upstairs, and the point of libraries, she sometimes thought, was not the books themselves but that they preserved this hallowed atmosphere of not-to-be-disturbed male sanctuary.
So few things could be more shocking than for a woman to enter a library naked. The very idea.

A “male sanctuary”, then, that is constantly disturbed by female maids wiping away the dust that has gathered on unread books. But there is something markedly different about the freedom, the “shock”, of a woman “enter[ing] a library naked”, entering it on her own terms: as a reader, as an erotic presence. The “the subtle liberation that had begun in Paul’s sun-filled bedroom”, as Nat Segnit puts it in the Times Literary Supplement, has spilt over into the rest of the house, and, by the end of the novel, the rest of society: “For a brief few hours, this corner of stuffy, interwar England becomes a gynocracy [a government or society ruled by women] in microcosm.”

It is in that notoriously difficult microcosmic leap from “house” to “society” that Swift, like many others before him, falters slightly—and lets knowingness in through the back door. Swift’s particular strategy is to turn Jane into a successful writer, thereby associating her liberation at Upleigh, implicitly, with the broader emancipation of servants and women across the century. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, we learn that the Joseph Conrad-enthusiast Jane, aged 85, has been recalling this tale for us all along. Thus, as several reviewers note, Mothering Sunday becomes “as much about our imperative for storytelling as it is about the life of its protagonist” (Hannah Beckerman, The Guardian), “the telling of the story will be as important as the tale itself” (Ellah Allfrey, The Spectator). The contemporary Jane reflects, for instance, on the “inconstancy of words”: “A word was a thing, no. A thing was not a word. But somehow the two—things—became inseparable. Was everything a great fabrication?”; “that was the great truth of life, that fact and fiction were always merging, interchanging.” This is exactly what Wood was complaining about in Barnes: simplified versions of philosophical or literary theory being imported into a narrative and recounted to the reader by way of a fictional mouthpiece.

Fortunately, after a brief foray into Jane’s career as a writer, we return to the Mothering Sunday of her youth. After the day’s tragedy has been revealed—on which I shall remain silent—Mr Niven and Jane are riding in his car:

Then, when they’d turned into the sweep in front of Beechwood and he’d switched off the engine he suddenly leant across to her and, like a child, wept—blubbed—even pressed his head, his face to her breasts, so that she thought of when she’d pressed them—had it been only this afternoon?—to the opened pages of a book. ‘I’m so sorry, Jane, I’m so sorry,’ he said, even as his face remained where it was. And she said, involuntarily cradling the back of his head, ‘That’s quite all right, Mr Niven, that’s quite all right.’

There is nothing particularly original or inventive about the simile “like a child” yet it has such force as a description of a master weeping—nay, blubbing—onto his maid. The verb “pressed” is hardly out of the ordinary either, yet it precisely conveys both the intensity of Mr Niven’s emotion and the awkwardness of the scene: a social superior stooping to the “breasts” of a woman he is meant to keep his distance from. Likewise, the phrase “involuntarily cradling” both reduces Mr Niven to a baby and continues to acknowledge the coerced nature of their interaction: Jane, even now, is acting against her will and according to that of her master. His words, like hers, are bound by their repressed, class-bound relationship.

Swift, then, is clearly a knowing author, alert to the multiple political subtleties of the country house tradition. Yet, as Wood hopes, he does not press this knowingness onto his characters. Rather, he allows them to say so much—about class, gender, and, ultimately, Englishness—by saying so little, much like that don’t-ask-don’t-tell “trickle” around which his entire narrative, astonishingly, has been built.

Ed Dodson is a DPhil student at University College working on Contemporary British Fiction and Postcolonial Studies.

Zelosus Mon, 09 May 2016 08:00:31 +0000 Eva Hibbs


Jed’s lying on his bed, reading ‘The Irony of Spartacus’. I’m sitting up on mine, watching him. A twin room, Crete, dusk. He’s still sunburnt, cream around his neck yet to soak in. He gestures to a napkin bundled on the bedside table – oil’s soaked through.

‘You’ve missed dinner,’ he says, then continues reading. I move to sit at his feet.

‘Have you had a good evening?’ I ask.

‘Where’ve you been?’

‘I took myself on a walk, like I said I was going to.’ His eyes keep travelling through the lines. I move closer, whisper in his ear. ‘Which part are you on now?’ He turns the book towards me, showing me the page. Chapter Four: To Be Known Only in War. I nod, pause, and take a deep breath. ‘How would you feel if we did it with the doors open tonight?’ He sets the book face down on the bed next to him, making sure to keep his place.

‘The way the OAPs watch us eating breakfast in the mornings? It already makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want sit across the dining room from the seventieth birthday party clan, deskinning their dates, and have to wonder which of them has seen my wang.’ He raises an eyebrow. I set out to prove myself right.

‘What about doing it in the pool?’ He shakes his head. ‘The beach? The gardens?’ He’s laughing now. Everything in here is too bright, too obvious.

‘Since when did you say “do it”?’ A chuckle.

I move outside to the balcony, choose the seat without the cushion, rest my legs on the short table. I think more about the couple I watched this afternoon. They were so loose they spilled over one another. I try to invent histories for them in my head, but nothing comes. Their present overwhelmed.

‘Are we really having an argument about this?’ He’s followed me outside, claims it was me. I was the one who wanted to go for the cheaper option. The room with a ‘Lowered Privacy’ rating.

‘Ever thought that was for you, Jed?’ I reply. ‘Just to please you?’ We compromise on our experiences to save money.’ He groans. ‘Me?’ I say, ‘I think life is too short.’ I pull my knees up into my chest. ‘You know, I used to be adventurous.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘I used to turn up without having booked. I wouldn’t plan every single weekend. I would go on holiday on a whim.’

‘Well, yes. There’s such thing as having a responsibility now, though.’

Before I’d even properly approached, I could see two naked bodies from the windows, writhing over one another. As I angled myself around the house, I noticed double doors swinging wide open. There was an ice bucket, two opulent glasses with white wine that was near translucent. A plate of seafood, also iced. The fan teasing the bottom of the curtains. The tail of the sheet. I watched him slither his head down between her legs. The woman moaned and writhed towards the doorway. I took a few paces back, hid myself behind a tree. I held it between my palms and peered around it, like a child. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself as her, breeze tickling my chest.

‘Christ, Mel. I would have sex with the doors open if an entire complex of people weren’t going to see me.’

‘Do you even think we’re compatible?’


‘Maybe we’re holding each other back.’

‘Why is all this coming now?’

’Nothing is coming.’ I drape the airy sarong over my shoulders. ‘I’m going out again for a while.’ I take myself past him, back into the apartment and gesture to the beds that we haven’t got around to pushing together yet. ‘I want you to think about what’s really here, Jed.’ He goes to stand up, but I open the front door too quickly for him to continue.

Outside, I skid down the bank to the kitchen, crushing little insects underfoot. Snooping around the back, where I’ve seen workers take huge vats of rubbish, I step over some angry wire. A couple of young, Greek men smoking go to scarper. I tell them to wait.

‘I was actually looking for you guys. Wondering if I could pay one of you for a cigarette.’ They open their packet towards me. I try to hand them a five, but they refuse. They light it for me, too, and spark the leafier vessel they were passing between themselves before I split their circle. They take a few steps back so they can’t be seen from the kitchen window. From behind the bin they pass the body of a plastic dinosaur, offer me some of what they’re smoking. I shrug and take a couple of steps towards them. I feel almost too dainty accepting it; I’ve never felt dainty before. My brittle fingers brush theirs. I have a single toke and blow the smoke up into the air. They are smirking, but not laughing. Us here tapping into the same abandoned toy? We aren’t together. I just happen to have caught on the end of their wave. Sun’s almost set. Tomorrow night I’ll slip this money to one of the waiters. Hopefully it’ll stay with them.

Back in the room, I lie awake listening to Jed breathe deeply. There’s an occasional snort, a splutter. I get up. My legs ripple with chill from the air conditioning. I shut the door to the bedroom and fill the kettle with water that trickles from a plastic faucet. I turn on the hob and wait for its whistle. Mediterranean getaway. My tea accompanies me out to the balcony. Together we overlook the pool area, mountain range in the distance. Wind disturbing palm leaves. Waves lapping. Then the hum of a siren. Sirens. Three police cars race up the mountain track. The sound fades back out. The cars speed from sight.

I try harder to put a story behind that couple’s mountainside existence. So… Rich and/or treating themselves. From what I could see, they didn’t look Greek. But equally, they could’ve been. They had a darker complexion than Jed and I, ribbons of chestnut hair. Maybe they’re from Orthodox families and having their sexual premiere. You would make it the best occasion of your life, wouldn’t you? Yes, they could have been celebrating – a one off. The only time they’ll ever do something like that. Either way, they must be early in their relationship. First night of their honeymoon. Or perhaps they’re not even in a relationship at all. An affair. They’re having a sordid affair that only can exist carved into a mountain. One of them is an escort. Or both of them; they’re escorting each other. Last night of their lives. Why else that kind of decadence, that level of privacy? But… They knew each other well – the way they were navigating each other’s bodies. You have to know someone to tessellate into them like that.

I regard the mountains once more, reshuffle the balcony furniture that I’ve conquered, and tell myself that I have to be satisfied without an answer. I drift back inside, climb into the empty twin bed and lie awake for hours, attempting to empty my head.

Morning, I walk over to Jed, in the shade, with a wet t-shirt wrapped around his head. He sees me from across the courtyard. I have to squint at the sun reflecting off tiles.

‘Finally risen then?’ He says, quietly enough for no one else poolside to hear. I hand him the newspaper I routinely picked up for him on my way down. The hotel sells British newspapers at the front desk. He appreciates that. I sit by his feet, dangle my legs in the pool, disconnected.

‘Telegraph says they’ve caught the biggest fraudsters to grace the United Kingdom since the economic crisis hit.’ I spin around, wetting the hot ceramic. ‘Italian couple had been living in Britain under false names. Close to billions worth of pounds,’ he says.

‘Really?’ I say, leaning up against him.

‘They were caught close by to here, in fact. In the next town.’

‘What are the chances,’ I say, and put my hand firmly on his leg. He says he wishes we had known about it before. Instead of me going off on an existential ramble, I could have looked for the criminals. Apparently, there was a hefty reward. I nod, feeling limp under the midday sun, and kiss his hand holding the newspaper. All the way down his arm. I almost knock a glass of wine with my foot, hiding in the shadow of his sun-bed.

‘Early, I know,’ he retorts. ‘But it was given to me. There was a couple lying down here before – such a glamorous pair,’ he says. He describes their flawless pale skin, and blonde hair that fell to the shoulders on both. ‘Scandinavian, I think… The man had on a white linen suit, which must have cost a fortune, and the woman was wearing a swimsuit which could have been straight from the back of a sixties supermodel, the sides cut out like a lantern,’ he gestures an algebraic x into the air. ‘Didn’t look like a couple that would choose this resort.’

‘Anyway,’ he continues, ‘they had a bit of wine left in their bottle so they offered it up to me.’ He lifts the glass. ‘I wonder if they could tell I’d been looking at them, if that was the reason they offered it to me. Sometimes, you just can’t help it, can you?’ He smiles, waiting for me to respond. ‘Funniest thing was,’ he says, ‘I asked them what they were celebrating and they said, “Nothing.” That blew my mind.’ He repeats, ‘Nothing at all!’

He offers up the wine to me, creasing his eyes at the sun. Asks me if I want some. I shake my head.
He sighs as if to confirm that he knew I wouldn’t want any. We don’t do this kind of thing even when we are celebrating. Jed finishes what’s left in the glass, and tells me I can have his sun-bed. He needs to go and change for his walk.

Eva Hibbs is a writer from Oxfordshire. Her poetry has been published in the international literary journal The Lamp and the Irish Literary Review. Two of her plays have featured in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as part of theatre company, Portmanteau.

Inventing The Future Mon, 09 May 2016 08:00:19 +0000 Jonny Elling

Inventing the Future

Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
Verso Books, 2015
ISBN 9781784780968
£12.99 (paperback)




Inventing the Future has been around long enough for the blogs to have passed their verdicts. This self-proclaimed manifesto from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams has been called “the most important book of 2015” , “techno-fetishist vanguardism”, and everything in between.

The authors’ crime – or service, depending on which side you fall – was to argue that the “Left” in its current form cannot bring about lasting change. It will take more than protests, localism or direct democracy to challenge the neoliberal hegemony. Behind these widespread forms of dissent is a misguided notion that the immediate, the transparent and the small-scale are good, and conventional political structures bad. So, urging the left to recognise the limits of these “folk politics”, Srnicek and Williams offer something solid to rally behind: state-sponsored automation to ease out wage labour, and the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI).

What the authors have done, in effect, is to present two very old solutions to a very contemporary problem. Machines that do our work for us are a staple of science fiction. The basic income appears as far back as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); it came close to being realised in 1960s and 1970s America, and has reappeared in various forms in India, the Netherlands, and Canada. The modern left is by contrast more sclerotic than it has ever been. There is no need to recount the familiar story here: the neutered trade unions, the hollowed social democratic parties, the traditional working class dissolved in a global “precariat.” Srnicek and Williams do run us through it, but in order to make the point that “folk politics” are a product of this simpler time, when the opponent was fairly easy to see; it was the factory owner, it was the totalitarian state. Folk politics do not work as well in the globalised world, where hegemony straddles continents and flits through fibre-optic cables, while a changing climate works intricate and unpredictable damage. Our dismay at modern complexity, and the apparently hollow gestures of party politics, lead to a craving for transparency, and folk politics seem like just what we’re after. But only by making a serious bid for power, and using power to do away with the drudgery of wage labour, can the left actually dismantle neoliberalism. The prize is an open (or “hyperstitional”) future, in which individuals are freed up to determine their own futures day to day, and no longer bearers of purely theoretical rights.

The comments sections of these blogs are littered with “Finally!” moments; politicos who have watched the rise of the Occupy movement, organic food fads and protests with “no demands”, and wondered when someone else was going to question how effective these things are. In the long run, at least. Srnicek and Williams should be given the credit for going against the common wisdom with their critique of folk politics. A great deal of keyboard power has been expended fighting – in pretty abstract ways – their ideas of automation and the UBI, but the authors have succeeded in pushing the left’s conversation on to policies. But two questions remain then: how viable are these ideas? If not, are there problems with the conceptual ground on which they have been built? Answering them is the purpose of this review.

So let’s give Srnicek and Williams the benefit of the doubt as to whether true self-determination for humanity is a worthwhile goal. Let’s also allow them, for the moment, that automation and the universal basic income are ways to achieve that goal.

When the authors use the term neoliberalism, they describe an entire economic system. “The unprecedented interventions by central banks into financial markets are symptomatic not of the neoliberal state’s collapse, but of its central function: to create and sustain markets at all costs.” (p. 53.) Neoliberalism for Srnicek and Williams is an ostensibly free market, backed up by a government willing to fight off any incursions by non-market forces. Despite the subtitle it is not “postcapitalism” but “post-work” that is used most often in this book to describe what could replace neoliberalism: the combination of automation and UBI. Perhaps this is more than a coincidence; the authors outline automation and UBI largely from the point of view of individuals only. Conflating postcapitalism with post-work suggests you conflate individuals’ experience with a complete social model. Machines here are a way to delegate labour, so people can spend their lives doing more fulfilling things like studying or socialising. Even when the broader implications for automation are explored, it is not through the economic lens, but something like the environmental: automation would lead to a fall in the consumer goods that today cushion busy workers, saving waste. The UBI brings “reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy.” And who would sniff at those? But it remains unclear how the UBI fits into a complete postcapitalist economy.

Perhaps the problem behind all this is that Srnicek and Williams do not actually know what a postcapitalist economy would look like. “The reduction of labour demand through automation, and the reduction of labour supply through the shortening of the working week…the combined outcome of these measures would be the liberation of a significant amount of free time without a reduction in economic output or a significant increase in unemployment.” (p. 118.) “Low-waged work is often crass and disempowering, and under a programme of UBI it is unlikely that many would want to undertake it. The result would be that hazardous, boring and unattractive work would have to be better paid, while more rewarding, invigorating and attractive work would be less well paid.” (p. 121.)

There are a number of issues with these claims. Today, technology – phone apps for instance – analyses its own performance in order to improve. “Deep learning” and AlphaGO are the latest examples. So the authors miss the fact that information is integral to modern machinery. Paul Mason has shown that the flow of information is so hard to control that you cannot really put a “price” on it. Only the labour theory of value then can grasp the effect of replacing workers with info-machinery: the cost of production collapses. It is impossible to say with any certainty then that automation would have no significant effect on economic output or unemployment. Srnicek and Williams miss this because they do not engage with theories of value, and they do not engage with theories of value because they do not offer an overarching picture of a postcapitalist economy.

If the cost of production hits rock bottom, so will the labour value of products, unless labour costs are pushed back up again with the creation of new markets. In other words, without enormous and unending growth automated economies come to centre on the only remaining scarce resources: materials and energy. A culture of paid work would likely be unsustainable in an automated economy. Where then would the money come to hike wages in menial jobs? And automation erodes the money base available for wages. Ultimately it becomes impossible to pay everyone a basic income.

Why do Srnicek and Williams only tell half the story? The prize in a post-work society is endless self-determination for everyone. But Srnicek and Williams conflate self-determination for each individual with the ability of society as a whole to accommodate that. Since endless self-determination implies an automated economy and UBI, they do not think it necessary to demonstrate that one would follow the other.

The second problem with this “postcapitalism” is more complicated. It relates to how Srnicek and Williams understand the power of machines. Let’s look again at folk politics. It is one thing to claim that folk politics are ineffective by themselves. If Srnicek and Williams are right, that history and party politics have given people an appetite for simplicity, then they have shown the roots of folk politics. But they have not shown why its practitioners would put their faith in something else. Even if folk politics have failed to bring lasting change, how do the authors intend to persuade people that this is true – or that it even matters? Otherwise why would people choose to heed Srnicek and Williams’s arguments? When the authors assume that picking apart folk politics is enough to weaken its seductive power and make room for new strategies, they betray an insensitivity to how our desires are socially and historically constructed. The experiences of history and party politics have given rise to a desire for simplicity. The authors seem to imagine that this desire hides a deeper, more timeless longing for freedom of self-determination. They therefore urge people to try new ways to realise their “deeper” desire. This implicit analogy of depth serves only to bracket off the social and cultural character of our dreams. The suggestion is, if only we recognised our more timeless dream of self-determination, we would see that folk politics cannot take us there. Yet the problem seems to be rather that proponents of folk politics see the straightforward or the immediate as indispensable to self-determination. Folk politics is what happens when the desire for simplicity conditions the desire for self-determination. One doesn’t disguise the other.

But what if the desire for simplicity did disguise the desire for self-determination? Even then Srnicek and Williams would be mistaken. They assume that technology is just a better way to realise the desire for self-determination. They view technology instrumentally, and as Simon Cooper puts it: “the instrumental understanding of technology is based on the idea that it operates as a mere tool according to the subjective wishes of its users…This theory ignores the transformative role technology plays in reshaping and reconstituting subjectivity, embodiment and the social realm.” In other words, there can be no timeless, unshakeable desire for self-determination, because technology will shape all our desires.

Imagine that automation has spread, and an individual wants to use their newfound free time to make new friends. Imagine too that social media – that is, machinery with internet connectivity – is free and widely available; it’s now far more efficient than going to bars when it comes to tracking down like-minded people. Machinery then could shape a desire for friendship into a desire for online friendship. Thus machinery would have encouraged this individual to live their relationships through social media. Would it have behaved purely instrumentally? Would it have helped the individual to realise their desire for better connections between people? Or will it have distorted that wish beyond recognition, repressing the embodied and immediate aspect of interaction, even though that was the appeal of friendship all along?

What all this suggests is that Inventing the Future suffers from some real conceptual problems. Too much is implied and not enough explained. A clearer picture is needed of the nature and impact of technology, and of the role of the UBI in any transition out of neoliberalism. The lesson of Paul Mason and Simon Cooper is that there’s nothing wrong with these ideas, but they need careful explanation. And however well you deconstruct folk politics, it will take more than that to get beyond them.

Jonny Elling is studying English and German at Worcester College, Oxford. He is also a contributor to Litro, Don’t Do It and The Oxymoron.

Through Tinted Plexiglass, Sharply Mon, 09 May 2016 08:00:04 +0000 Hugh Foley

Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade
Sarah Howe
Chatto & Windus, 2015
ISBN 978-0701188696
£9.99 (paperback)


Early in the second poem in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, there is a moment of “wheels within wheels” vision, typical of the sophistication with which Howe approaches the visible word in her poems:

no sign of life, save for street hawkers, solicitous,
arranging their slatted crates, stacks of bamboo
steamers, battered woks, to some familiar
inward plan. I watch the sun come up
through tinted plexiglass. I try to sleep
but my eyes snag on every flitting, tubular tree,
their sword-like leaves. Blue metal placards
at the roadside, their intricate brooch-like
signs in white, which no one disobeys.
I am looking for a familiar face.

Not just alongside but because of the lovely sonic intricacy of the lines—vowels and consonants shifting round each other almost like acrobats—the form of Howe’s attention makes her work stand out. That is to say that the painstaking sonic patterning is due to the same rigour with which Howe looks at the world in this poem, and throughout her debut collection.

This is not simply a matter of transcribing what one sees as closely as possible, but of thinking about what the transcription process is and means. The different kinds of signs here, the almost absent ones, the inward plan, and the signs “which no one disobeys,” reveal that nothing written down provides direct access to the world as it is, what some people call “the given,” and neither does the eye, for that matter. Nothing means without the system within which it takes shape, and these systems, as the obedience of the people in Howe’s scene suggests, are rarely separable from questions of power. The view from a bus in China’s Guangdong province is presented, “through tinted plexiglass,” reminding the reader, perhaps, of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, wherein we “see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.” Howe’s poem likewise seeks face to face contact, but, in structuring this desire through an allusion, complicates how we might see familiarity. Might that desire for familiarity itself be troubling?

Howe’s poem, like many others in Loop of Jade, expertly models the most exemplary conscientiousness of vision. In another shorter poem ‘Earthward’, for instance, Howe watches the “shadowplay/ of trees/against the blinds,” and finds a particular beauty in their estrangement from “the thing itself.” This might seem slight enough, a little light epistemological fluttering in the evening, but as these moments accumulate in Loop of Jade they illuminate something both deeply political and personal. In ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, the desire to see authentically, itself mediated through the King James Bible is revealed as a kind of distortion performed by Howe to avoid the pitfalls that might open up when one claims direct access to the unfamiliar world. Whether these are pitfalls of self-certainty, or of ignoring power relations that frame our views, Howe’s poems leap over each one, all the while looking down to let us see them as they yawn up at us.

‘Crossing from Guangdong’ describes a trip taken by Howe from that province to the city of Hong Kong, where she was born, a trip recapitulating that made by her mother as an infant “some time in nineteen-forty-/nine (or year one of the fledgling People’s/Republic).” The familiar face here, then, is that of Howe’s mother and her family, and, to a certain extent, the glass represents the mediation of her experience of China, the country where she was born (although Hong Kong, where Howe’s British father and Chinese mother met, and Howe lived as a young child, was still a British protectorate when she left), but not where she has spent most of her life. Loop of Jade is anchored by a serious-minded meditation on identity, best embodied in the mother-daughter relationship, and Howe’s approach to this dynamic, sceptical and tender at the same time, is the product of an eye that gives almost every object in the poems the crackle of unfamiliarity. This is not to say that the poems are merely concerned with the alienation of mediation, the mise-en-abyme of the search for authenticity. It is in going further than this that one of the principle beauties of the collection is achieved. It is not simply a matter of, say, Howe’s life in Britain becoming a lens that distorts the view of China; the poetry is also concerned with the authentic possibilities of such mediation, possibilities which Howe reveals as implicit in poetry itself.

As ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ draws to its end, then, Howe describes the Hong Kong skyline hoving into view, followed by the richly ambiguous line, “So much taller now than when I left/fifteen years ago,” before the wonderful close:

Suddenly, I know –
from the Mid-Levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove – from the kumquat-
lined windows on the twenty-fifth floor,
tinted to bear the condensation’s glare –
you can no longer see the insect cars
circling down those jungle-bordered boulevards,
the low-slung ferry, white above green,
piloting the harbour’s carpet of stars,
turned always home, you can no longer see.

The poem again returns us to the tint of the glass, and it seems impossible not to read this condensation as more than mere humidity. What becomes especially poignant though, and more powerful than a simple lament at the unknowability of the world, is that this negative knowledge, the negative space the poem makes as Howe’s mind and the skyline blur, is not a mirage as much as it is the possibility of a poem. In this it seems connected to Elizabeth Bishop’s great travel poem, ‘Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance’, and seems to me to survive the comparison. When the line breaks at the beginning of this excerpt on “suddenly, I know —”, this negative revelation is not just the acknowledgment of the gap between present and past, mother and daughter, but a statement that still has all the positive force of an epiphany, preserved in the particularly effective line breaks of this poem, which draw attention to the ways your “eyes snag” on the world. The collapsing bridge of the poem is where the connection is made after it has been revealed to be impossible.

Other poems in Loop of Jade make clearer the various forms of power against which Howe hopes to pit the multifarious, illusory space of poetry. Sometimes it is state censorship by the Chinese government, as in the excellent poem ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’, where a dissident blogger “ponders” the subversive possibility of homophonic puns in Chinese characters:

how strange it is (how useful …)
that I beg you for the truth is pronounced
the same as I beg you, Elephant of truth!

Or that sensitive words (as in filters,
Crackdowns) sounds exactly like breakable
Porcelain. Done typing he clicks Submit.

Aside from the admirable feat of explaining puns in another language, and puns based on logograms rather than a phonetic alphabet (in verse that doesn’t become laboured or prosaic), Howe here interweaves English puns of her own, such that that “Submit” becomes a beautiful act of defiance.

In other poems, Howe interrogates the discourses surrounding gender, both in a Chinese fairy tale in ‘Tame’, and in a Theodore Roethke poem (and in Western culture, more broadly) in the poem ‘Sirens’. This second poem is particularly effective in the way it elaborates a respect both towards Roethke’s image-making and towards the young female subject of his poem, its beauty saved by its in-betweeness. Ezra Pound’s Orientalism (and his anti-Semitism) are subverted in ‘Stray dogs’, and the evanescent ‘Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ dismantles similar Eurocentric assumptions Christian missionaries held about the Chinese written character. The point, however, is not that Howe’s collection is, or is only, a political project, but that the intimacy Loop of Jade creates, the intimacy that brings to life the central relationship between Howe and her mother, and accumulates its emotional power, in part, from the way that the poetry demonstrates people’s subordination, and their complicity in discourses of power. It is not for nothing that the collection’s epigraph, from Borges, is also found in Foucault’s The Order of Things.

This might make the collection sound “academic”, but the book skilfully escapes that fate. All of these poems are more than the brief theses expounded here. The modern-humanities-type learning present in Howe’s poems is not ballast, but becomes part of the felt texture of her experience. If you allow it, it might modify your sensibility too. In some senses, there have been few recent British poems more “personal” than the collection’s eponymous poem. ‘Loop of Jade’ is a major achievement, written in both prose and verse, where Howe retells her mother’s account of her youth in Hong Kong, interspersed with a Chinese tale, ‘The Butterfly Lovers’. At every point the poem is full of marvelous, unsettling images, images which reveal what underpins the intricacy of Howe’s work. Describing how her mother was forced to wash her hair with “a detergent meant for scouring floors”, Howe tells us:

Unconscious fingers reach towards her scalp. I do not look for the candied rose-petal patches – there as long as I remember –as of mange or burns, that tell why, before leaving her room, she will so carefully layer and arrange her lovely black hair.

Howe gives the reader a family dynamic that carries history in its marrow, a pain that is there as long as she remembers, in both senses of that phrase. This layering of “lovely black hair over blemishes,” and indeed, the transformation of blemishes themselves comes to seem like an ars poetica. The textural richness of Howe’s poetry, which often contrasts with other British poets who seem scared of putting on airs, is justified here as a specific way of transforming painful experience without making it, and the relationships that structure, a brute natural fact. Howe’s visual sense, the emphasis on mediation and tracking your own attention, here illuminates the liberating slippages of identity that poetry can provide, without hiding the injustices that ground, in different ways, all of our identities. The ornament of the poem becomes suggestive of the very practical necessity of ornamentation itself. It is here, Howe seems to suggest that we can share something and be aware of artifice without surrendering our need for what is underneath.

Even this aesthetic hope is not untroubled in the poem, however, as the transformations seem to shade into the question of taking another’s places. Howe speaks in place of her mother, and the loop of jade itself is a protective charm meant to break in place of an infant. Towards the end one senses that sometimes transformation can be usurpation, or illusion. The poem’s inability to renounce the sacrifices made by others— perhaps a more generous way of taking someone’s place than writing a poem – and its vision of these as ever present in the aesthetic object, the loop of jade, leads the poem towards a conclusion that feels starkly and powerfully ambivalent, like Prospero drowning his book. The question which ends ‘Loop of Jade’, and the obstinate questionings throughout Loop of Jade of sense and outward things, seem to me likely to resonate for some time. Howe is a poet who sees through things, both revealing what’s underneath, and using the barriers to sight to imagine a clearer picture. Her vision is one I think utterly necessary in British poetry now.

Not every poem in any collection will please everyone, and, for me, the opening poem, ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ felt almost too well constructed and thematically resonant, while the sonnet ‘Sucking pigs’ has a closing couplet whose joking invocation of academic footnotes doesn’t overcome its clunkiness. However, many of the other shorter lyrics are particularly fine, including Chinoiserie’, ‘Night in Arizona’, ‘Earthward’, ‘Pythagoras’ Curtain’, ‘To all Laments and Purposes’ and ‘Faults Escaped’. This last one ends in an especially luminous image;

Night is a veiled and silent mother;
a living cave, the stirrings in the sides,
water pushing blindly through a stone –

each cold diamond determined to be born.
Too soon they leave, their love a bloom
of salt; those encaustic tears, the stars.

Few poets have the gift Howe has to make things feel united in their separateness, as she does with the generations in the penultimate poem ‘Islands’. Howe here is speaking in the voice of her mother, speaking about her mother, and the pointed layerings produce, not staginess or artifice, but something healing, even as it seems desperately sad. If we are all islands, all strangers, then we might not feel so alone:

I never wondered
about these unknown siblings. Or my father’s
blackened hands, turning the warm hide
of a fraying shoe beneath his hammer.
Or my real mother. Unreachable across
The water, as planets circling in the night.

Hugh Foley is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford.