CATEGORY: Literary POLEMICS

NW by Zadie Smith

I’ve always felt a tad sorry for those artists, musicians, writers and film directors who produce a genuine classic very early in their careers and then have to spend the rest of their lives living in its shadow. Bob Dylan comes to mind with his Blonde on Blonde and his Blood on the Tracks, as does Stanley Kubrick with his 2001 and his Clockwork Orange. Zadie Smith is in danger of falling into this category, living as she does with her monumental White Teeth written, by my calculations, when she was just twenty five. These things are subjective of course, but there is a sufficient consensus to suggest that White Teeth was a towering achievement and that it would be a damn hard act to follow.

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The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward Wilson

I have long dreamed of a set of popular history books that could be used by every school child and for that matter, every parent, which would give a readable overview of the human story quite obviously, the greatest story there could ever be. Each book in the set would be aimed at an increasingly more detailed and complex level, but the narrative would be consistent and essentially the same. Starting at a level suitable for very young children (Key stage 1) and progressing in complexity until suitable for A Level, this set of books would equip every citizen with the basic human time-line, starting with the big bang some 14.7 billion years ago, progressing through to the formation of our own solar system 5 billion years ago, onto the emergence of single cell life 3.5 billion years ago, and then proceeding through the major steps of organic evolution, including of course, our own transition from ape to man. Read More…

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Here is a novel that is both wondrously prophetic while at the same hopelessly outdated. How can that be? The answer is simple; whilst Wolfe has created a towering novel exposing the social tensions and personal absurdities emanating from the extremes of wealth and power to be found in a city like New York, he has totally underestimated just how far those tensions and absurdities would develop over the succeeding twenty five years. Whereas Wolfe was content to reveal how a single bond trader on Wall Street could, by a single misfortunate circumstance, see his beautiful and insulated life totally unravel before his very eyes, now we are witnessing entire global corporations and indeed whole nations implode into economic ruination and social despair.

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Julian Assange- Journalist extraordinaire

What is the purpose of journalism? Not, as the Murdoch press might suggest, to manufacture a taste for celebrity tittle-tattle. Not, as the BBC might suggest, to act as cheerleader for Team GB in all its various incarnations. Not, as capitalist governments across the world might suggest, to trumpet the national interest which just so happens to coincide with the corporate global interest. And certainly not as the Chinese government too often insists, to promote the party line, right or wrong. No, the purpose of journalism, in the past, in the here and now, and for all time, is to hold power to account, to make bureaucracy transparent, and to expose injustice and uphold the rights of the marginalised and alienated.

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The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

Poor old Professor Pinker. He’s got himself in a right proper pickle. With one foot barely in the camp of historical materialism ie, the real world, and the other firmly in the camp of metaphysical pycho-babble, he has taken himself and his readers through seven hundred pages of meandering pseudo-science, meaningless anecdote and bar-room chat, all in an apparent effort to prove that we humans are becoming less violent and more civilised. And he furnishes us with mountains of graphs and statistics to prove it too. Well you know what they say about statistics. They and he prove nothing.

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Be Careful What You Wish For by Simon Jordan

I found myself despising and admiring Simon Jordan in equal measure and, paradoxically, often for the very same reasons. Like so many of Britain’s self-made men, Jordan is full of himself and his sense of self-importance. Alan Sugar comes to mind in this respect as does Barry Hearn. But in each of their cases there is no doubting their achievements. Anyone can set out in business to get to the top but only a handful actually make it. Does that make them special or just lucky? Were they simply in the right place at the right time or did they bring to the table some magical alchemy of skill, determination and foresight?

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The Real Chariots of Fire, ITV

Predictably it’s back. Who could forget it, with that memorable, stirring soundtrack that, once in your head, stays there for days, weeks, months, years. I wouldn’t bet against it being the number one soundtrack of the London 2012 Olympics, inspiring Team GB to run faster, jump higher, hit harder and swim stronger. So stirring is that one little piece of music that a whole new generation of British Olympians will be born simply by turning up for the re-release of the film. Who needs a well-coordinated, well-funded sporting legacy programme when you have Chariots of Fire burning away in your brain.

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Wild Swans by Jung Chang

It is twenty years old now but it’s back in the news, this time as a theatre production. I’m rather keen to see the thing but I thought I ought to read the book first, especially since it’s been collecting dust, unread, at the bottom of the book case for far too many years. But, in fact it was not Wild Swans the play that prompted me to get reading, but rather the purchase of Martin Jacques, When China Rules The World. In order to get into Jacques book I needed to get into the whole China mood. Set the scene so to speak. Relive those old monumental battles. Rethink the meaning of the Cultural Revolution. Place the modern, dynamic, absurdly contradictory China in its historical setting.

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When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques

Martin Jacques has a simple and sobering thesis. The West is in terminal decline and the 21st century will belong to China. More significantly, it will not be simply a rerun of western democracy, with all its obvious positives and glaring limitations. No, this will be a competing modernity complete with eight distinct Chinese characteristics. It’s all change at the head of the table so we damn well better get used to it. Jacques is clearly a more than competent scholar of Asian and in particular, Chinese affairs, but it is this academic competency that may well be his undoing, for in concentrating as he does on the historical dimensions of China’s staggering rate of industrialisation and modernisation, he may well be in danger of blinding himself and his readers to what is really taking place on planet Earth.

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Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters by Ed Smith

So it’s game on – Ed Smith versus Matt Syed. It’s a well rehearsed game that has been played out for decades. Nature versus nurture, with Syed batting for the primacy of nurture and Ed Smith, in his latest literary offering, waving the flag for the luck involved in our genetic and environmental inheritance. Of course, I do both gentleman a disservice because I’m certain that both appreciate the dialectics of the two positions or do they. The fault, in a sense, lies with Syed who, in his well acclaimed book, Bounce, probably pushed the pendulum too far in the direction of the importance of a favourable environment and virtually dismissed any biological significance.

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Capital by John Lanchester

A point of clarification to begin with. Lanchester’s book has nothing directly to do with Das Capital, though indirectly it could be argued it has everything in common with that mighty nineteenth century tome. The Capital being referred to here by Lanchester is our very own capital city, dear old London Town, and despite reading some rather luke-warm reviews, I actually consider this a minor classic in its own right. Lanchester has conjured up a fictitious street in South London and then proceeds to follow the lives of its inhabitants through their various trials and tribulations, and by some clever plot devices links all the key characters together creating a compelling tension throughout.

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Adbusters: The Big Ideas of 2012

I used to be given back-copies of Adbusters, the counter-culture magazine, which I think is Canadian based. Many of the articles drifted off into a new-age feel but there was, nevertheless, a distinct undercurrent of anti-capitalist sentiment. Even some of the more way-out articles had a link, however tenuous, to the real world. The general themes were about the alienating affect of capitalist advertising and commercial culture. Some of the graphics were truly challenging. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the read. Sometimes it’s useful to read stuff out of the box, or at least out of your own comfort zone. Read More…

The Spirit Of The Game by Mihir Bose

Don’t rush out to buy a copy of Mihir Bose’s new book inappropriately entitled, The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World. It is dull. Deathly dull. Dull as dirty dish water. It is also highly unoriginal. It covers, over its 570 odd pages, all that has been covered countless times before, only with considerably less insight and considerably less literary verve. It rehashes the old story of the original Corinthian sporting spirit, one supposedly full of honour and fair play. It retells yet again the tired old story of how the modern Olympics were reborn by the Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin.

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Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason

Paul Mason’s blog turned book is definitely the read of the moment. It’s compelling reading and its explosive content is being updated and underlined by the minute. At the time of writing there is a forty eight hour general strike rolling out in Greece. Once again Athens is the scene of angry rioting and police attack. Syria is collapsing into civil war and Egypt shows no signs of quietly settling into a new military dictatorship. The Eurozone still hovers on the edge of implosion and the world economy shows little sign of dragging itself out of recession. The debt mountains grow ever higher and the government imposed austerity measures are imposing misery on those who can least afford it.

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The King of the World: Muhammad Ali by David Remnick

It’s been somewhat remiss of Sporting Polemics not to have touched on the mighty Muhammad Ali, and his recent 70th birthday gave me the necessary prod. And I struck lucky. For all the mountains of literature on the great man, I stumbled across what is often considered the best of the best; David Remnick’s, King of the World. It’s not only cleverly constructed but it sets American boxing in the fuller social context of slavery and the subsequent rise of the civil rights movement of which Ali, despite his affiliations to the separatist Nation Of Islam, became an iconic figure then and still to this day.

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Christmas 2010 and Wolf Hall turns up as a stocking-filler. But the moment the word Tudor loomed up from the back cover, the hefty tome was promptly consigned to the bottom shelf. The BBC had well and truly destroyed any residual curiosity I may have had in that infamous Welsh clan. But this Christmas, with time on my hands and nothing looking to match or better Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, I opted for Wolf Hall, Mantel’s 2009 Booker prize winner. What a Christmas it turned out to be. From the opening sentence through to the very last some six hundred and fifty pages later I was mesmerised. Caught as they say, hook, line and sinker.

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Fourteen years after the publication of Roy’s first and only novel, I found the time and space to give it a read. And, with job completed, I must say without the slightest hesitation, that all the accumulated superlatives that this book has attracted are fully merited. Very few novelists are cable of intertwining the particular, the historical and the universal with such ease and with such profound effect. How dare Ms Roy not devote her life to churning out more of the same. How dare she fritter her life away battling this injustice and that. But she dares, and now Arundhati Roy is as recognised as a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed as she is for her contribution to literature.

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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times (In memory of Christopher Hitchens)

That damn dialectic just keeps grinding on. Relentless would be a fitting adjective. From the humble atom with its feuding sub-atomic particles right through to the whole crazy mixed-up universe itself, forever expanding and contracting as it will, till the end of time and beyond. There’s just no way of escaping the ubiquitousness of the thing. Contradictory forces bound together in mutual rivalry, interpenetrating each others domain, pushing and shoving in a never-ending battle for supremacy; harmony and equilibrium only momentary, fleeting states. It seems it is only change that is permanent.

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Senna (Film Review)

This film, compelling as it is, raises more questions than it answers. It charts the rise and eventual untimely death of Ayrton Senna with great passion and intensity and even one such as I, who has an inbuilt distaste for Formula One, couldn’t help but be drawn into the internal politics of it all. And at the very beginning it was Senna himself who is quoted as saying that Formula 1 is all about politics and money. And there is the rub. Having made this declaration, very little is specifically laid out about the politics and the money. Yes, it’s implied in just about every scene but by the end of the film we are no wiser about who is really pulling the strings and what the politics are really about other than money of course. Read More…

School Wars by Melissa Benn

Here is a story long overdue for the telling. It is the story of the half hearted attempt to set up a comprehensive education system in Britain and the subsequent, never-ending endeavours to undermine and destabilise that which was achieved. The work by Melissa Benn is a meticulous but at the same time a very readable one, and she should be highly commended for her efforts. While we have all had our eyes and efforts focused on defending the National Health Service, our partially constructed national education service has been allowed to fall into disrepair. So bad have things become that one wonders whether it is already too late to save the half built crumbling ruin.

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Occupy Wall Street

Once again, Simon Jenkins has made a complete wally of himself. Not content to become an apologist for Imperial Britain, he now turns his bourgeois attention to belittling the anti-capitalist protesters springing up in over 900 cities across the globe. Jenkins may play a useful role in protecting endangered castles and aristocratic homes via his exalted position in the National Trust, but he really ought not to dabble in more contemporary matters. And by contemporary matters I refer to any of the political tussles between the two great competing socio-economic classes that have at once simmered and raged over the past five hundred years that historic struggle between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the natural antithesis to that great class the global proletariat. Leave it alone Mr Jenkins because clearly you just don’t get it. Read More…