Gaining My Politics

Books that have shaped my world view

The date today is 1st October, 2020. It is the first day of Black History Month in the UK. Two days ago, Trump and Biden had their first televised debate of the US election. The Coronavirus pandemic has now been ravaging the planet for almost a year. About 4 months ago, George Floyd’s death saw people all over the world standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. My personal life has also been a series of challenges this year, with events that deeply shook my sense of self and my place in this world.

In short, it has been quite a year. My cultural and political allegiances have been pulled apart and pushed into a new shape I can’t see clearly just yet. And lately, it has got me thinking about the books that have shaped my politics from a young age up the present. Some of these books are the result of deliberate searching; others simply fell into my lap at the perfect moment. Books are like that – they only come along when you really need them. They only show their true worth when you are ready to receive it.

What follows is an account of some of the books that have made me the political being I am today.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Noughts & Crosses, Penguin Random House Children’s UK

I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series at the age of 16. It was a year of bookish consumption and gluttony. I read hurriedly and greedily, skipping from book to book. From classics of the literary canon (Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Persuasion) to modern classics, revolutionary titles, fantasy and teen fiction. None of them imposed on me by a curriculum.

I read Blackman’s entire series within a couple of weeks. (I should point out that I am not a fast reader, so that’s pretty monumental by my standards – you will find this to be a recurring theme in this blog.) I think it would be fair to say that the speed with which I read may have undermined the messages I should have learned from it. But as a teenager, I was far more interested in the action itself, rather than the politics that was undeniably the driver to it all. What I remember most about the story isn’t the incredible overturning of racial stereotypes. What I remember most is the tension and the sexual awakening of the character’s lovers – a tragic Romeo and Juliet narrative.

But whether I realised it or not, this book was teaching me so much more about politics – race and terrorism.

Crossfire is the fifth part of the series, only published last year (2019). I have not read this latest addition.

Seventy-Two Virgins by Boris Johnson

Seventy-Two Virgins, HarperCollins Publishers

This book was part of that same year of voracious reading, when I spent most lunch times with my nose in my book rather than talking to my peers. I come from a Conservative family and at the age of 16, as is the case for many young people, my politics mainly consisted of parroting what I heard my parents say. At that time, if someone asked who I would vote for, I would probably have said Tory, although I couldn’t have told you why. At that time, all I really knew about Boris Johnson was that he seemed like an affable clown that got stuck dangling over London once, while abseiling to advertise the London Olympic bid. But my dad would say he was very smart, in spite of that, and that he liked Boris. So that’s why I picked up this book from my school library when I came across it.

My mature political (and staunchly liberal) leanings colour my remembrance of this book. But at the time, I did not see what I would now, that it was undoubtedly affirming damaging racist stereotypes. At the age of 16, I read it with the eyes of a child and the shallow political identity one gains from parents through osmosis.  I did not read with depth or with agenda. I learnt a few things about the process of parliament and was presented with some opinions on terrorism.

But really, Johnson’s novel did not leave much of a mark on me. I hope I am being true to my recollection when I say that this is simply because the writing did not inspire me. My reason for recounting it now is because I sat here thinking about which books have brought a new perspective into my personal political landscape. And as awkward as I feel in sharing this, I read a book written by our current Prime Minister during my formative years, so it would be obtuse of me to omit from this account.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Books Ltd

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer I turned 17. At that age, my A-level English Literature studies had introduced me to what the syllabus termed “Critical Reading” – i.e literary criticism. We were quite deliberately encouraged to start reading with greater context and to consider alternative viewpoints. It was during these lessons I first heard the word Marxism. I was still without the understanding that would allow me to generate real life responses to what I read, but it was a beginning.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was perhaps the first novel I read with real, if immature, political awareness. The ideas this book related were truly mind-boggling, incredible and terrifying. Language as a weapon and a tool of oppression. As an adult, I have seen some of these tactics in practise and I am fearful for the path that lies ahead for our global political landscape.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage Publishing

Once again, this book came at around the same time as those previously recounted – I read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety on one November night at the age of 17. I vividly remember staying up to read this book through the night. I could not put it down until I was done, and I mean that quite literally. To this day, I cannot recall another novel that has so captured me.

The Handmaid’s Tale is characterised by taboo. Both the topics under discussion and the actions of the characters are driven by the things we “should not talk about”. The role of women in society is painfully distorted, with particular attention on the function of sexual intercourse and menstruation.

The TV adaptation came along a few years ago and the book’s sequel, The Testaments, was last year’s joint Man Booker Prize winner. The ardour I hold for the original text meant I was very nervous about whether these more recent incarnations would hold up. Thankfully, they do.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlyn Moran

How To Be A Woman, Ebury Publishing

Skipping forward several years now, to the age of 25. At this time, I undertook a rather deliberate search for feminism. It took me some time to be confidently and vocally feminist and I can cite Caitlyn Moran as part of that journey. In this biographical work, Moran discusses her own journey to womanhood. She references Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch) several times, but not with the blind adoration of a sycophant: with perspective that felt refreshing and personal. One of such references is how Moran came to stand on a chair and shout, “I am a feminist!” I did this when I went for a walk in the woods not long ago. I said it loudly and proudly and it felt freeing and wonderful.

There was a time when I was not so loud and proud. I used to fear being labelled as “one of those girls” (deciding to call myself a woman rather than a girl is another recent development). By which I mean being labelled as “difficult”. Accusations get thrown at people who call themselves feminist: man-haters that don’t truly believe in equality and can’t take a joke. With any political movement, the individuals that make up the whole can hold vastly different ideas. Political movements evolve, splinter groups form with ideals and goals of their own that might be at complete odds with the rest, but they are all under the banner of Feminism. There are people in this world who call themselves feminists that are doing more harm than good, people I would strongly disagree with.

But what I mean when I say “Feminism” is equality. They are, to my mind, synonyms. But Equality, with a capital “E”, is very busy these days, with so many kinds of injustice to overcome. So we separate the issues under subtitles that allow us to focus our attention on one at a time. Intersectionality, which I learnt about it in the next book, is a more recent term that asks us to consider all the factors that result in inequality concurrently, because only in this way, so advocates believe, can we make real positive change.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started on this title earlier this year (aged 26). But I know that I was prepared to find it difficult. The title sets up the reader for confrontation and, as a general rule, I don’t do well with confrontation. Furthermore, although I, like many a modern person, believe myself to be an advocate for equality and anti-racism, it is rare that I, or people like myself, truly partake in a subject that makes one’s own history culpable in a present that continues to favour white people over black and brown people. Being born into this modern era of what we might casually call racial equality is a convenient lie. We have made strides forward, absolutely, but to imply that there isn’t a lot more work to be done is to massively undermine the continued difficulties experienced by those with darker skin tones in Western society.

This book astutely points out what is already obvious in our society, if only one takes the trouble to think – really think. Eddo-Lodge’s observations were difficult for me to listen to. As a modern young woman, I flatter myself with the traits of liberal and open-minded, but as Eddo-Lodge identifies the ways in which I am privileged – which I am, undoubtedly – it forced me to confront some things I had always managed to hide from my conscious mind. At times, this book made me feel defensive, but subsequent analysis of that feeling left me with guilt and troubled clarity.

Discussing race is something I have always found difficult. I am, after all, white, and there is a reason that Eddo-Lodge says she is “no longer talking to white people about race”. I do not want to be one of those white people who shies away or undermines the race conversation. But neither do I know how to approach such a difficult topic with the sensitivity and historical knowledge it deserves.

As I have grown older, experienced more, met different people to myself, I have repeatedly found myself wanting. Wanting, primarily, in education. British history is not a pretty one, but we are not told about it at school. We are not told about the times we were the aggressors, rather than the victims or heroes. We are not told about the cultures, the peoples we invaded, destroyed and plundered. I am still reluctant to look for the evidence myself, fearful of the guilt and horror I will find. But reading this book was a step in the right direction.


It is highly tempting to carry on naming books and delving further into my own psyche and the texts that have surely influenced me in all kinds of political topics. But, when we boil down the essence of what literature, what writing is for, it is to offer a new perspective on the world that we might not otherwise have come across. To write is to be political. To read is to be political.


Other books of political note from my reading back catalogue (click on highlighted titles to see my review):

  • The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Chinese Communist Revolution
  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford – Colonialism
  • Smoke by Dan Vyleta – Industrial Revolution, Classism
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – Feminism
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – Feminism
  • The Seasonal Quartet by Ali Smith (Autumn (2017), Winter (2018), Spring (2019), Summer (2020)) – British Politics, Brexit, WW2
  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder – Democracy
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Reunion by Fred Uhlman – World War 2
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Racism
  • The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler – World War 2
  • Regeneration by Pat Barker – World War 1, Mental Health
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – World War 2
  • What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe – Classism
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – Feminism, Writing
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Environmentalism
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers – Environmentalism
  • The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – Gender Identity
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Mental Health, Sexuality
  • Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – WW1
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Feminism
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen – Mental Health
  • Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig – Mental Health

Quicky Book Review: “Alice in Brexitland” by Lucien Young

Alice in Brexitland

by Leavis Carroll (aka Lucien Young)

 

alice in brexitland

(I received an ARC from NetGalley, in return for an honest review.)

A clever little satire that sums up Brexit in witty and not too pessimistic terms.

As a young voter, still developing a political opinion, there is a lot to be confused and frustrated by in this political climate. Reading a satirical take on Brexit just before bed could have been a really bad idea. It could’ve thrown me into a funk of existential, millennial depression. But thankfully, Young’s clever little satire is the perfect amount of cynicism and optimism. Often satire errs very hard on the side of pessimism, but I am grateful to Mr Young for avoiding that pitfall… or rabbit-hole. It succeeds in being entertaining and not just another series of clever traps and ruses designed to confuse or to lull you into a fall sense of security – as others are wont to do…

The illustrations are apt and really add to the entertainment value, giving a feel for the original Lewis Carroll. The playful use of verse was also very Carrollian, and by bookending the story with his poems, the piece feels rounded and satisfying. Thanks to the eponymous Alice, trademark bluntness and plain-faced frustration is a refreshing change in Brexitland. In the absence of sanity and honesty, it isn’t harsh attack that is needed but plain speaking and legitimate indignation. (I know how Alice feels!) Carroll’s Alice is just the ticket, and Young has done well to remind us that it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. You can read it in the hour before bedtime, and happily doze into your own wonderland.

Sharp-tongued but also sympathetic, I found Alice in Brexitland to be a highly enjoyable read. I hope Young is planning to write another for the approach of this snap election in June, so that he might continue to be the balm for this particular citizen of the world.

Nonetheless we can resist:
Though the liars tweet and twist
Light still penetrates the mist

(P101)

alice in brexitland cards

Title: Alice in Brexitland

Author: Lucien Young

ISBN: 9781785036965

Buy it here

Don’t Forget to Vote!

 

Voting Time.

People who have registered to vote but are planning not to.

Russell Brand is lobbying against voting. Ed Miliband met with him to discuss this issue, amongst others. One thing all politicians should be united on is encouraging everyone over 18 to vote. There is not enough of this.  Politicians are too busy saying “Vote for me,” when they should be saying “Vote.”

Vote. Full Stop.

There are thousands of people who are making the deliberate decision not to vote in this year’s election. Thousands of people saying “What’s the point? It doesn’t make a difference anyway.” Thousands of people feel powerless in the face of politics – disillusioned by bureaucracy, false promises, the same old faces.

I disagree with them.

I do not feel powerless.

I am instead daunted by the power my vote will have. When I began this project to educate myself in politics, I had no idea who I was going to vote for.  I knew very little about the party leaders I could vote for. Making an informed decision is something I decided to take seriously.

People who are still undecided this morning, you are taking this vote seriously. Why haven’t you decided yet unless you consider it to be an important decision? Take you time, consider your options, yes. But just make sure you vote today.

This year’s election may well make history. No one can really predict the outcome and that means that EVERY VOTE COUNTS.

Don’t forget to vote today.

 

Impolitic 4: News Vs Twitter

 

A discovery: politics is everywhere. Not ground-breaking as discoveries go, I grant you. But I suppose what I’ve really discovered, is that I must have been squandering huge amounts of energy avoiding politics before now. Across every radio and TV channel, the bonging of Big Ben was the signal to channel hop. So as soon as I decided to take an interest in politics, the veil was lifted and news appeared to spout from every screen and speaker within earshot.

The chiming of Big Ben is in many ways a sound comparable to the sounds and rhythms of every news bulletin. The perfect middle-class monotone of the newscaster. The well-rehearsed words of a speech. It’s emphasis practised and predictable.

One could hardly describe the average news segment as charismatic. But of course the general flatness in delivery, archetypal of the newscaster, is intentional. Their job is to remain impartial. Objectivity over subjectivity. The complete removal of emotive responsibility. It is the unwritten contract held between public and newscaster. Let the stories speak for themselves so that the audience may draw their own conclusions. Yet, despite this intentional removal of personality, we are still obliged to sit through the casual adlibbing of co-anchors, usually with little success at achieving nonchalance.

Twitter Vs. News

This impersonal approach hardly makes one enthused about watching the news either. No wonder the viewings are going down. You know what young people are like. Give us bright colours, made up words and sound effects. That’ll get the young’uns involved! Patronisation of my own age bracket aside, Twitter is the news channel for the younger generations.

TV is attempting to assimilate with the new media, displaying Twitter feeds alongside live coverage. The effect is somewhat confusing, and many viewers agree.

“Dave from Tumbleridge says, ‘Why is the Chancellor sharing half the screen with the thoughts of @iLivThruTwitter and #tags about his unkempt nose hair? It is distracting and inane.’ Thank you for your thoughts Dave…”

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Impolitic 2: 7 Podiums

I am, as yet, an Undecided Voter.

In my last blog post, I made a promise to get involved in politics, and since then, I have been doing just that. I have just partaken in what is for me a marathon in terms of mental exercise and self-education. I watched the entirety of the two hour debate this evening on ITV. Seven party leaders failed to colour coordinated with their podiums and I attempted to keep pace with it all. The political canvas is a-flood with colour, but here is the point: never before has anyone needed more than 3 colours.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Green Party’s Natalie Bennett celebrated this innovative move away from the “Old Boys Club” that has ruled Westminster for so long. Things are being shaken up.

Lots of people are going to make a big fuss about there being three women on the podiums, but this is an issue that is far from relevant tonight. This “Well done for holding your own in there, Love,” mentality is patronising as well as immaterial. Tonight, Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood were not women, and indeed, Cameron, Miliband, Farage and Clegg were not men: they were political leaders with arguments to present. Gender should not come into it

Of course, each leader projected a different kind of presence. As I’ve already confessed, I have only recently begun to engage in politics and watching this debate is the first time I have been able to take a comprehensive look at each leader and form an opinion. The opening statements were my first opportunity to take stock of each leader. As the ITV producers strove to introduce drama, slowly zooming in on each excessively earnest face, I was forming my first impressions:

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