June 26, 2018

THE DEVIL'S TEETH


by Susan Casey
304 pages, Owl Books

Review by Pat Black

Susan Casey watched a documentary made by the BBC in the mid-1990s about great white sharks, and became obsessed with the giant predators. A few years later, she wrote a book about it.

I saw the same film. April 1995. Sir David Attenborough narrating. It was amazing. I’m gutted that you can’t get it on DVD or Blu-Ray – god knows I’ve looked.

Back in those merry analogue days, I taped it on VHS, and watched it again and again (re-record, not fade away…). Great white sharks had been filmed many times before from within cages, but this hour-long special went that bit further – following the phenomenal fish into the depths with state-of-the-art remote cameras.

Some of the shots captured are gold-standard natural history film-making. One, taken from a float in the shape of a seal, shows a 16-foot fish rushing to the surface like a torpedo, in full attack mode. I still see this footage popping up here and there – most recently in an online prank where people walk into a room facing a giant screen… and then oh my god, giant shark attacks!

Other images revealed the fish breaching, leaping clean out of the water with luckless seals clamped between their jaws. I’m not sure if this was the first time the “Air Jaws” phenomenon had been filmed, but it was certainly the first time I’d seen it. It made the idea of Bruce the shark stage-diving the deck of the Orca seem less fantastic.

The documentary featured the work of scientists Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, who had spent years studying these animals near a chain of jagged rocks around thirty miles off the coast of California called the Farallones. These serrated peaks are inhospitable to the point of murder. You can just about see the toothy outcrops from the Golden Gate Bridge, but the proximity is deceptive; although surfers take to the waves not too far away, these are dangerous waters.

It’s incredibly tough to land a ship on the Farallones, for a start – far easier to turn your vessel into matchsticks against the cliffs. From there, if you do decide to take a dip, you face the added danger of the sharks, who congregate in the area every autumn. We know that these creatures don’t want to hunt humans, and rarely do – but they have done in the past, and the rarity of such events would come as no comfort should you have your legs bitten off, accidentally or not.

I want them protected, and I love them, but they are very dangerous animals. This is their brute allure. Would you take your child swimming knowing one was nearby? If not, why not?

These are the big buggers – straight-up, no-messing Jaws-a-likes. Some of the Sisterhood, as the giant females are known, are thought to reach as much as 22ft in length. We only know this because the wounds found on the body of a surfer who had his entire chest cavity excised in one bite corresponded to a fish approximately that size – going by the old “bite radius crap” Hooper was talking about in Jaws. Although it’s fair to say the 16-18 footers would still give you a nasty wee nip.

Casey, a senior editor at Time Magazine, attaches herself to Pyle and Anderson’s research community on the Pacific rock, and is soon heading out in 8ft boats in heavy seas to record the activity of 16ft sharks. Go figure.

She starts off with a shark encounter straight out of Hollywood, as she watches one of the fish surge towards her boat. But this book isn’t so much about sharks as it is the Farallones themselves. There’s plenty of sharkage, but it’s not the main component.

The author looks at the curious history of these unlovely islands, from their discovery through to their unlikely status during the “Egg Wars” of the mid-19th century, when prospectors fought among themselves for control of the then-lucrative guillemot eggs trade. (To begin with, there were no chickens or egg industry in California. But which came first?)

The author also looks at the history of the research group’s dwelling-place, a musty, wind-blasted old house of dubious plumbing. Naturally, there are ghost stories attached to the property, and Casey is given an extreme case of the willies one night.

The Farallones don’t seem to like Casey very much – she’s dive-bombed by gulls and other birds, and clattered by the sea as she makes her way up ancient staircases carved into the rock. Later, she hires out a huge sailing boat so that she can remain at anchor during Shark Season in the autumn, supposedly helping Peter and Scot out.

Problem being, Casey isn’t much of a sailor, and the weather is awful. Hiring the vessel is a means to an end, allowing her to sidestep some strict environmental protection laws governing visitors to the islands.

“I’ve never been a big fan of rules,” she states.

Neither are weather systems. Several times, Peter and Scot come to the rescue, berthing up alongside the moored boat, as the heavy seas threaten to snap the anchor and carry Casey off to the middle of the ocean, or hurl her against the rocks like a toddler in a tantrum.

You get the impression that the two veteran researchers - solitary men who spent much of their lives cloistered on a wild scrub of land haunted by giant predators because they enjoy it - tolerate the author, but only just.

I was reminded of wee boys running around at a wedding, joined at their play by a little girl maybe a year or two younger. This becomes less of a wry observation when the final twist of The Devil’s Teeth is revealed.

Casey briefly sketches other researchers stationed on the island over the seasons, but the most interesting tertiary character was Ron Elliott, an abalone diver. This guy gets into a wetsuit and dives down into the Red Triangle every other day to bring up the seabed-dwelling delicacy – a sea snail that commands a hefty price on the Japanese market. Ron has the whole of the Red Triangle to himself. Reason being, giant killer sharks regularly come around to carry out spot-checks on his business, and literally no-one else is crazy enough to do it.

Imagine that, every working day: seagoing titans with butcher knives for teeth, broad as a minibus, grinning at you in the gloom. And that’s just the ones you can see. No-one can stop them; and no-one can help you.

At time of writing, Ron is still unchomped.

There is something of a death wish in people who wish to get so close to these animals. As soon as the scientists spot seals and sea lions being transformed into gushing red chunks, it’s action stations – they drop everything, and head out to sea to tag and identify the sharks, and record their behaviour. There’s inherent danger in simply going to sea off the Farallones – you have to be winched off a cliff in an 8ft boat before you interrupt a creature twice as big and twice as broad as your conveyance at its repast. You could spend all day worrying about causing indigestion in a ludicrously big fish, only to get tipped off the boat and head-first into some rocks, while an audience of gulls shriek with glee.

Peter Pyle expresses a desire to go surfing there, noting a sweet eight-foot wave. Bear in mind that a big part of this man’s job is to entice the sharks by dragging a surfboard across the surface of the water, in order to trigger an attack.

Death is all around in the Farallones – even in humans’ early interaction with the place, there was conflict and homicide, tragedies, disease outbreaks, famine. Even today, tensions can arise. There’s something in the very geology of the place, snarling at you among dark, rough waters, that warns humans to keep away. When they’re there, the researchers can feel as trapped as scientists stuck in the Antarctic for the sunless winter. Lots of complications can arise, even among people who feel they might be well-prepared for isolation. There are instances of people who have arrived on the island as a couple, only for one of them to leave the other for a fellow researcher across the hall. That’d be a fun old breakfast table.

The place would be a first-rate setting for a horror story (makes entry in Someday I’ll Write These notebook).  Casey captures the feel of the Farallones beautifully.

Fun facts provided by this book: when a whale exhales, the spectacular geyser it emits absolutely stinks, the foulest fishy breath imaginable.

Also, the sea just off the coast of San Francisco is stuffed with red hot nuclear waste. The US navy took a ship which was so close to the first mushroom clouds that its plating caught fire, crammed it with barrels of nasty material, and sunk it a few hundred feet under the ocean. No-one knows exactly what’s down there, how toxic it is, and how much it has already affected the food chain.

And thirdly, when they attack, great white sharks attempt to decapitate seals. They’ve expended so much energy in the initial surge from below that they need to be as sure of a kill as they can, and a precision strike is the best way to achieve that. In many of these “mistaken identity” attacks on humans – single bite; realise mistake; let go - that is one big reason for fatalities. As if the idea wasn’t horrific enough. I don’t think even Bruce the Shark was that cold. Just one extra thing for you to think about, if you go surfing.

This book has a shocking ending. But it has nothing to do with jump-scares or nasty bites, or indeed fish of any size, and no-one is killed or injured. It does have something to do with misfortune at sea and no small amount of human folly. The entire book seems like a fool’s errand given the consequences of human interference in Peter and Scot’s research nirvana.

The author comes across as contrite, but only just. Her book leaves certain big questions hanging. I hope justice and common sense prevailed. In any case, I want Peter and Scot to know that their research made a huge impression on people, and they were part of one of the best natural history documentaries ever made.   

June 16, 2018

DEAD MEN'S TROUSERS


by Irvine Welsh
432 pages, Melville House
audio version read by Tam Dean Burn

Review by Pat Black

FOUR WIDOS AND A FUNERAL

Choose getting middle aged.

Dead Men’s Trousers catches up with Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie as their train prepares to stops at a destination few expected them to reach: their fifties.

Director Danny Boyle managed expectations about as well as he could with T2, the movie sequel to Trainspotting which caught up with the boys two decades after Mark Renton’s betrayal. The film sidestepped much of its source novel, Porno, and did a smashing job. Now, with Dead Men’s Trousers, Irvine Welsh presents an alternate-reality T2.

The four principals are well into middle age now, and three of them have, improbably, found success. Renton manages DJs, and earns enough money to be able to get a monkey off his back by refunding Sick Boy and Begbie after he ripped them off in Trainspotting, and again in Porno.

Sick Boy is running an escort agency in London, and doing well with it, though he doesn’t always succeed in his efforts to instil a sense of class in his operation. I’ve always wondered what a Masters was for…

Most intriguing of all is the missing piece of the puzzle. I’ve never read The Blade Artist, but know that it concerns Begbie following his rehabilitation and reinvention as a sculptor. He has an international profile, a gorgeous wife and kids, lives in a big house in Santa Barbara with millions of pounds in the bank. Celebrities want to make friends. This is what is known as an outside bet.

Most people who know Franco would think this idea was ludicrous – unless you’re Scottish, in which case it’s almost a true story. Begbie’s turnaround was surely inspired by Jimmy Boyle, a Glasgow gangland enforcer jailed for murder who found redemption through a controversial artwork programme in prison. Boyle published the best-selling book, A Sense of Freedom, and upon release from Glasgow’s Bar-L in 1982, he married a psychiatrist and became an internationally renowned sculptor. Last I heard, he was living in a humongous house in the south of France, and is presumably still laughing.

Next to this once-notorious character’s astonishing reinvention, Begbie’s story doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The only one who hasn’t done anything with his life is of course Spud, who is begging on the streets of Leith when we meet him.

Following a chance encounter on a transatlantic jet, the four are drawn together as Begbie decides to make a cast of each of the boys’ heads, to mark the passing years.

JUST DESERTS

Although the four have very distinct stories, Dead Men’s Trousers does have a few plot lines interlinking them. As in Porno, the fragmented structure of Trainspotting is gone in favour of something more linear.

Renton wants to pay his mates back. Sick Boy is tasked with finding his brother-in-law, who has gone missing, because of… Sick Boy. Meanwhile, Begbie has to contend with a rogue cop in LA, an ex of his wife’s, who knows about some unpleasant things dear Franco has done in the previous novel. Spud gets mixed up in a black market organ donation racket, with predictably disastrous results. After he leaves some meat unattended in the presence of his dog (didn’t something similar happen in Skagboys?), Spud is brought into conflict with the sinister Edinburgh gangster, Victor Syme.

The weakest storyline of the four is Renton’s. In between managing the petulant demands of his motley crew of clients, he picks up a venereal disease, seemingly after one night of weakness back in Edinburgh. He fears he has passed it on to a promising partner back home in LA. “First world problems” indeed, as Sick Boy sneers at him.

It shouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you that one of the four dies.

The marketing placed this bombshell front and centre, and it is a great big hook for casual readers as well as fans. From page one, Welsh plays with the idea that we’re well aware one of the four is heading for the crow road. It’s not so much a whodunit as a whosgettinit.

All four characters face mortal peril in their own individual stories. You sense Renton’s knob, and his irresponsible use of it, is going to land him in trouble. Plus he has a strange zeal when it comes to paying back Begbie, who insists he isn’t bothered about the rip-off from all those years ago. Plus interest.

Meanwhile, Sick Boy also draws the attention of Edinburgh brothel keeper Syme, a violent man who hatches a wicked plot of his own after he is inconvenienced by the hapless Spud. And Begbie has the rogue cop to contend with in the States, a man with a gun and a grudge.

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. I will say that I had a bet with myself on who I thought was going to bite the big one. Was I right? I’ll tell you at the end.

DEAR FRANCO

The big joke in Begbie’s case is that while the older iteration may be calm and considered, he is still psychotic, and only too happy to use violence wherever he sees fit. “You don’t mess with what’s mine,” he growls at one character.

Perhaps his art is the work of a Leith chancer, too – we’ve all entertained a suspicion that some of the most famous people in contemporary arts are quite simply at it. Dots? Squiggles? Abstract? What? When Renton sees some of the end product – clay moulds of famous faces, disfigured with a knife - he reckons Begbie (or Jim Francis, as he’s known in the art world) is still at heart a con man. “That isnae art!”

There’s a sense that the three successful ones are all frauds, in fact. Sick Boy is still a manipulative, devious man – the sh*t mate who would feel no compunction over dipping your pockets when you’re drunk, or trying to cop off with your girlfriend. He is still just about good-looking enough to get away with it, even as he heads into his fifties, but he’s still the last man in the room to realise that he’s just a Leith radge, and that’s all he’ll ever be. No amount of Sean Connery impressions, embossed business cards, verbose drug-fuelled rants about the modern world or, indeed, money, can change that.

Similarly, Renton’s chosen line of work, while lucrative, hints that he isn’t a hugely talented person. He gets by through flannelling his clients, skivvying after their every whim and massaging promoters’ egos. As one of his DJs notes, he seems to have forgotten that he first got into the business because he loved music.

Poor, guileless Spud is, again, the most honest, open-hearted of the four. As usual, he suffers for it.

Leaving aside their formative years, the one piece of connecting tissue left between the four of them is that they all f*ck up. Not just little mistakes, but huge, pavement-cracking ones. It is this propensity - more than debauchery, more than drug addiction, more than cynicism - that defines these four men.

FREAK OUT THE SQUARES

Classic Welsh preoccupations aren’t slow in coming out. His continual excoriation of family life and straight-shooters is apparent in his treatment of Sick Boy’s brother-in-law, the douce, Calvinist foot surgeon Ewan. Sick Boy spikes him with MDMA while they’re out for drinks on Christmas Eve back in Edinburgh, and the repercussions from this affect the rest of the novel.

Sick Boy indulges his selfishness and sadism with barely an afterthought. The subsequent unravelling of his sister Carlotta’s marriage is viewed with a sense of exasperation at the inconvenience of Ewan going missing. There is no question of guilt.

That said, Ewan’s subsequent behaviour, whether out of his mind on eccies or not, was the least plausible part of the book. Again, it shows Welsh’s contempt for squares. People who abide by the rules always get f*cked in his books. People with jobs, degrees, vocations, relationships, children, responsibilities. People who choose life.

Irvine Welsh’s readership, in other words.

Welsh’s female characters are sometimes viewed as a weak part of his game, and it’s true. But something in this criticism bothers me. There are a lot of prostitutes in this book, granted.

There are a few victims as well. And one or two angels. Many of the women encountered here are simply used and dumped. You won’t get anything like the same character beats that you get from the four principals. At best, women (such as Spud’s ex Ally) are seen through the prism of a drunken uncle at a wedding, passing on his approval to the rest of the tribe when wee Jenny decides to do something radical, like completing her education. “Aye! (slams down pint glass) That lassie hus done well!”

But Welsh doesn’t have to break out of his four main men’s heads if he doesn’t want to. He isn’t writing books by committee in order to satisfy the social constructs of the day. It’s his ba’, and he decides who plays. No-one has a go at Lesley Pearce or Sheila O’Flanagan for sticking with mainly female characters.

It’s a man’s world in these books, though. That’s becoming something of an acquired taste these days. I see the difficulty. But for what it’s worth, this central belt schemie found the quartet’s first-person thoughts and reactions to be absolutely authentic, completely genuine. Likeable? That’s something else entirely.

4/4

Similar to the Musketeers, Irvine Welsh’s not-so-fantastic four could be seen as discrete sections of one psyche. There’s Renton, the lad o’ pairts, a clever boy from the wrong side of the tracks whom you could easily see becoming famous for writing, say, gritty novels. Maybe this is why “Svengali to international superstar DJs” doesn’t seem like a good fit for him.

It might have suited Renton better if he’d been a philosophy lecturer in a former polytechnic. Lucky Mark? That would help Welsh explore one of his fundamental tensions as a writer, and, I suspect, as a person – the predicament of the well-read, articulate schemie. He never quite fits in with the intelligentsia who would dismiss him in a heartbeat over his background, but he never quite fits in with the underclass he came from, either; people whose first impulse when faced with a book would be to deface it. The perpetual outsider. Ironically, there’s even more scope for chaos in that scenario, and he would inevitably get himself into trouble with young women.

In Sick Boy we have the manipulator, the schemer, the weasel – no less clever than Renton, easily more charismatic and coercive, but his lack of conscience edges into sociopathy.

The dreadful tough guy chat your dad gave you probably went something like this: if you can’t fight, you better be able to run. There are two other directions you can take, though – you can be the “funny guy”, or you can be the flyman. Sick Boy is the latter.

Dead Men’s Trousers is easily Sick Boy’s book, though, as much as Trainspotting was Renton’s. Tam Dean Burn has the most fun with this character in his audiobook narration. Sick Boy is so wide he could be Glaswegian. He is not a nice man, but there is an awful lot to cackle at.

Begbie’s type is all too familiar – the hard man, living up to a hard heritage, an illustration of how toughness can be a lifelong ambition for some. Welsh has spoken of some spine-chilling moments when he’s been back in Leith, and people have accosted him in the pub with words to the effect of: “Haw. That Begbie yin… that’s me, isn’t it? Ye based him on me.”

That character’s turnaround is the most intriguing element of this book, but as we discover, although Begbie’s calm, he’s still mental. At one point, he carries out a breathing exercise in order to hold his temper, even as he is strangling someone.

Does he still hold a grudge against Renton? For most of the book, we are inclined to wonder – even as the rest of the boys unquestioningly accept the “reformed character” narrative.

Once he’s back in Edinburgh, though, Franco falls back on bad habits. There’s something toxic in the very air that changes his accent, his outlook, returning his default settings to factory mode, prompting recidivist tendencies. Part of us has been waiting for this. There are strange, violent interludes, before the man goes full psycho. When he kicks off, you’re reading a horror novel – or a bovver boy NEL nasty from the 1970s. Possibly Guy N Smith wrote it, under a pseudonym.

Violence is Begbie’s true art, and he revels in it. You might not…

And then there’s Spud, the peaceable, fun-loving dope, the unlucky one everyone likes.

Speculating how much any character is like their creator is a mug’s game, but most people tend to see Renton as the Irvine Welsh proxy. Interestingly, the author mentioned in a recent interview that when he was at primary school, he was more like Sick Boy – manipulating, putting other kids up to things without actually doing them himself. Maybe you have to be a little bit like that to be a writer? It’s what we do to people on the page.

I wonder how Welsh felt when Danny Boyle took things in a different direction – showing Spud as the creative one, having turned out a manuscript called “Trainspotting”, and by implication, identifying the author most closely with his goofiest character.

Mixed feelings, I suspect. Though there is a nod to this in Dead Men’s Trousers.

HAMPDEN ROAR

When T2 came out early in 2017, I remember thinking that Danny Boyle must have been kicking himself. Round about the time principal photography wrapped, in spring 2016, an epochal event took place in the life of Hibernian FC supporters like Trainspotting’s main characters, and Irvine Welsh. The Edinburgh football club won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years, beating the artists formerly known as Rangers thanks to a last-minute goal in one of the best finals for years.

The coincidence was so strong that I felt sure Boyle would try to make some capital out of it in a reshoot, inserting Renton and Sick Boy into the events that day at Hampden Park. Either he resisted, or it all came just too late.

Welsh, though, has carte blanche, and much like David Gray rising to meet that corner kick in stoppage time, he plants his big baldy napper right on the opportunity.

I’m not a Hibs fan, but I have fond memories of that day. First of all, there’s the pure romance of it. Even Hearts supporters grudgingly admitted on under-the-line chat in internet articles that they had a wee smile to themselves when Sunshine on Leith rang out at Hampden. Secondly, it was another well-deserved slap in the face for Scottish football’s robber barons, “Rangers”. And, last but not least, my turf accountant offered me quite ludicrous odds against a Hibernian victory during normal time. 15/2? For a cup final? After Hibs had already skelped them a couple of times in recent months? So, as you can imagine I was a wee bit emotional when Hibs won it in the last minute.

“Bad boooooyyyy!!!!”

This section sees Welsh going sentimental on us, but it would take the hardest heart, or hardest Hearts fan, to begrudge him this. It’s a celebration of friendship, with all four of the main men present at the match and basking in the glory of the day. They also take a tremendous amount of drugs. Improbably, Renton and Sick Boy drop eccies at just the right time, peaking just as David Gray gets his head on Liam Henderson’s corner kick. Arguably, only Juice Terry Lawson’s own “David Gray” moment could possibly rank above this.

DOORS AE PERCEPTION

Drugs are a permanent fixture in this book, but don’t dominate it. They’re so casually taken that you forget that people used to find the idea quite shocking. It’s like a set of curtains which have somehow clung to your wall for about a decade, so long in the tooth that they’re almost fashionable again; or your neighbour’s lairy tree, which you’re working up the gumption to complain about. It’s mostly ching on the menu these days for Renton and Sick Boy, reflecting their incomes, I guess. Someone else has a wee accident with ketamine.

Heroin is conspicuous by its absence. But a new player has entered the game.

All four of the main men take a DMT trip. Their consciousness is expanded accordingly. It is theorised (I should stress, I don’t think there’s clear evidence for it, and doctors have rubbished the idea) that DMT naturally floods our perception as our bodies prepare for death. This is thought by some to be the catalyst for visions of long-dead loved ones beckoning us away, or tunnels of light. 

Whatever the truth of this, the boys are very impressed, and draw their own conclusions from what they hallucinate. Whether the DMT link is intentional or not, it signposts which direction the story’s going.

(Sees title… sees letters D, M and T… penny drops)

It’s not long after this that they all start stitching each other up again. Renton’s fervent wish to pay back his friends ends up backfiring in a grimly ironic way. It stirs dormant animosities and grievances. Along the way, as the plot lines resolve, there is a death.

TERMINUS

Dead Men’s Trousers attracted some bad reviews, but for me it’s the second-best book in the Trainspotting series (bearing in mind I’ve yet to read The Blade Artist). Many of the episodes are simply bawdy jokes, complete with punchlines, but then that’s always been Welsh’s way.

The audio version is an absolute slam dunk – surely no author’s work was better suited to the form? I’d argue these stories work best when they are performed, rather than read to oneself. I would go as far as to say, I’ll never hold a physical copy of an Irvine Welsh book again.

It was fun, despite some black cynicism. Renton’s self-loathing in particular is so bleak it’s almost poetry. Apart from one grand-standing speech at a funeral, the book flirts with its political themes instead of delivering the kind of heavy-handed lecture we endured in Skagboys, and it takes its head out of the filth long enough for a quick breath of clean air here and there, unlike Porno.

It isn’t Trainspotting. It can’t be. Welsh didn’t try to write in the same style as that book, nor should he have. People feel an affinity with Trainspotting because, for some, it represents their youth. Even though it was filthy, we cherish it, and we want to tend the memory.

And that’s nostalgia – a very Scottish disease. Irvine Welsh is wise to steer clear of it. He is astute in allowing his voice to age as much as his characters.

However, there is a glimpse of light. While Welsh mocks the straights, he does, in the end, tip his hat to the idea of family. But not as we know it. Some ties aren’t defined by blood, but by the sh*t you’ve gone through together. Blood is thicker than water; sh*t is thicker than blood.

I surprised myself by responding so well to the boys’ mid-life depravities. I suspected I might hate them – that the constipated schoolteacher who lives somewhere in my genes would be piqued, as he was in a university tutorial many years ago. But I was entertained, and laughed a lot. Like Sick Boy, I cheerfully tossed aside all moral considerations.

It was like a long-dreaded reunion with school friends which actually turned out alright. As Renton says of Begbie, once he understands that dear Franco doesn’t want to kill him: “I realised that life had got boring without him, without that chaos. On some level, I’d actually missed the c*nt.” 

In among the hilarity, there’s an acceptance that we’re all getting older, much like Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie.  

This is no longer true for one of them.

As for my wager…

My reasoning was that the character we were most likely to lose would be the one with no interesting stories left to tell, rather than the dead cert.

I lost my money. I was wrong. But that’s not to say the dead cert crossed the line first.
You’ll have to read the book to find out who goes to the big banana flats in the sky. Or, you could cheat on the internet.

June 4, 2018

POSTCAPITALISM:


A Guide To Our Future
by Paul Mason
293 pages, Allen Lane

Review by Pat Black

Out of my comfort zone with this one, but that’s a good thing. I might have to do some studying and make coherent notes. Maybe even learn new things. Never my strong point, as anyone who ever taught me will tell you.

Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future looks at our changing economic world with its rapid advances in technology, and the places it could lead us.

The book’s central theory: capitalism as we know it - scarcity of resources controlling prices, the financial markets dominating all, “competition” in business, private ownership of means of production and chasing profits for shareholders… ah god, and all the rest of it - is kaput. We have to look at different ways of living, different ways of producing, and different ways of working. If at all.

Paul Mason is the former economics editor of Channel 4 News. The son of a Lancashire miner, he is one of the very few working class people to attain such a senior, high-profile position on a national network – indeed I’m struggling to think of another. Possibly Andrew Neil.

Mason has the added rarity of being unashamedly left-wing, and again, I can’t think of many others of that political stripe in such a position in the broadcasting world. I’m happy to be corrected.

Mason’s premise is based on Nikolai Kondratieff’s wave theory of economics. This tells us that since the late 18th century, industrial economies have experienced cycles of growth and decline, roughly every 50 years – 25 up, 25 down.

In order to prevent the system collapsing completely during the troughs, capitalist economies have invested in rapid technological advances which have kick-started another upsurge in growth. New technology spearheads progress and prosperity, but also leads to labour crises as jobs are outmoded and replaced by machinery. On top of this, you get inevitable external shocks such as war or natural disaster, some of which may be directly or indirectly attributable to the effects of capitalism. One great example in the modern era is 9/11.

All of these factors contribute to the downward curve on the wave, necessitating new technologies and new ways of working, and thusly another 25 years of good times; and so it goes on.

It’s worth bearing in mind that poor old Kondratieff was executed by firing squad by Uncle Joe in 1938, right around another downer period for the world economy which brought us war. So he didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing himself proven correct on that one.

Following this long wave pattern, right now, we’re heading for the bottom of the curve. The latest Kondratieffian down-turn began in the early 1990s – tying in with the absolute zenith of neoliberalism, you could argue. So, according to the theory, we’re not too far away from a surge. Great! Happy days, Rodders. This time next year…

Except this time, Mason argues, certain key elements of the current economic climate have produced anomalies in the wave which have never been seen before. As predicted, we have a new, rapidly expanding technology in the form of information and data networks, passed at high speed along wires and across space, straight onto our phones, tablets and laptops. But there is a mutative effect in place.

Information technology is changing our ideas of supply and demand, one of capitalism’s fundamentals. For the first time in history, goods and services in the form of knowledge, data and intellectual product can be reproduced at zero cost. The crudest manifestation and best example of this phenomenon is copy and paste.

If I send you a copy of my off-beat kaiju novel for a review on a free-to-read book reviews site (cough), then there’s nothing stopping you copying and pasting the entire text, sending it to everyone in your address book, and then those people sending it to everyone they know, in turn. Leaving aside your utility bill and the price of your device, no money whatsoever has changed hands. Nobody got rich, and yet under this model, something has been created which explodes the capitalist system: abundance without cost.

Knowledge, Mason states, wants to be free. If your economy is based on knowledge, in the form of data travelling along wires or through the airwaves or being bounced off a satellite, there’s a problem.

This has led to stagnation in the classic Kondratieff wave. We’ve got our technological innovation. But the concomitant growth isn’t happening. It should have done by now. Mason says we should be worried about this.

As more and more elements of our lives are subsumed into the digital world - even sex and dating, for crying out loud - with the employment-issue Godzilla of automation lumbering over the brow of the hill, then capitalism is going to have to look lively in order to live in the manner in which it has become accustomed. A tipping point will be reached in terms of the haves and have-nots of the world. I’d argue we’re on the brink as it stands.

To take one example: the inevitability of safe, reliable driverless vehicles and delivery services will completely destroy the livelihoods of millions of people on low-to-middle incomes. In the past week, how many things have you had delivered by parcel services? How many car, taxi, bus, plane and train journeys have you taken?

With the rise of the robots, Mason thinks that work, and the world of work, is going to have to shift aside to allow humanity to live its life for the living, rather than being enslaved to profiteers. But there are other pressing crises which have weighed in on the stagnation of the Kondratieff wave. Climate change is a big ‘un, of course. We might be chronically overdrawn on that score. I hope Mother Nature is amenable to an individual voluntary arrangement.

On top of that, there’s a rising, ageing population, and an impending financial crisis related to pension provision big enough to completely crash most major economies. Mason argues that there’s no avoiding this. The cynic in me says there’ll be some avoiding it, alright, if our masters decide to cull us.

Then there’s Mason’s contention that neoliberal policies have strangulated progress among 99% of the working population. By constraining the working population through austerity policies, our governments and captains of industry have ensured this current crisis.

However bad things could get, Paul Mason is an optimist. He lays out the groundworks for how a world without the capitalist system could work. Sort out the environment; have robots do most of the work, reducing the need for work; pay everyone a basic income; with an abundance of supply of food and water, people should basically be free to work at whatever they like, whether that’s writing blogs, building houses, taking your clothes off for the boys, volunteering for environmental research projects, or whatever you like. The global financial system, of course, should be tightly regulated and socially responsible, with a view towards humanity rather than the need for profits.

All of this, he says, should be underpinned by the use of the single most disruptive element in the world, which cuts through finance, art, politics, military engagements, consumption and production – information networks.

With all this freely available, easily collectible data in the world, Mason says it should be used to model and predict human behaviour and socio-economic trends as never before, the better to target human need with abundant resources. Effectively, this is the kind of network Marx fantasised about, but which is now a reality.

This is an extension of the modelling miracle Mason speaks about earlier in the book. To take his example, if you have a new component for a jet aircraft, in days gone by a lot of labour would have gone into testing that part and perfecting it, and that’s before the business of practical tests in the real world. But now, Mason says, everything can be modelled and even rigorously tested in a virtual environment, with every potential outcome mapped and mathematically watertight in a virtual landscape. Everything can be ship-shape by the time the component actually appears in the physical world. You don’t even have to use up basic resources like pen and pencil. This idea can be extended to any concept, any product, any population, any trend, or any economic system.

I think… ah bollocks to what I think. I’ve just deleted 2,000 words of polemic, and it felt good to do so. Trump, Brexit, big data, blah blah, off it goes, you don’t need to hear it. I’ve nothing to add. Paul Mason wants to find workable solutions to the world’s problems, based on the idea of the public good. I guess that’s as much as we can hope for. He seems like a decent man.

God knows what’s coming down the line. This was an interesting book. I’ve learned something. Best recommendation I can give.

April 25, 2018

LOVEJOY:


The Judas Pair
by Jonathan Gash
256 pages, C&R Crime

Review by Pat Black

Lovejoy. That name puts me right back in the zone.

Sunday night, early 1990s, Ian McShane, mullet, boil-washed white T, leather jacket and jeans, catchy harpsichord theme tune. I can hardly remember anything about the plots, but I do remember the furniture.

It’s a relic of a time when we had far less choice on television in the UK, but had more of a sense of shared cultural experiences through programmes that everyone watched.

For me, Lovejoy’s in the same slot as One Foot In The Grave – a well-liked pre-internet era show which still resonates with the public, nearly 30 years on, separate from fanaticism or genre geekery.

Lovejoy was set in the world of antiques, but really it was all about the main man, the arch wheeler-dealer. There’s probably a picture of McShane’s face, with a smile like a prison searchlight, next to the entry for “loveable rogue” on Wikipedia. The role made him a star, and he’s a familiar face on TV and the movies to this day, from Deadwood and beyond.

Grinning, breaking the fourth wall, knocking around the flat East Anglian countryside in his battered vintage car… It seems as comical, even naff, as bell-bottomed trousers and kipper ties now. Did people fancy Ian McShane? Of course they did. It was acceptable in the eighties. And nineties.

Lovejoy is an antiques dealer, a rascally figure with a keen antenna for things of great value – known as a “divvie” in the trade. He’s the guy who’ll pick out the Van Gogh in the transit van, or the Canaletto in the car boot sale. Although the TV incarnation first appeared in 1986 – only coming to prominence after its second series ran, five years later – Lovejoy was already well established in a series of novels by Jonathan Gash (John Grant).

The first of these, The Judas Pair, was published in 1977.

Now, while you’ve still got McShane in mind – you might even be humming that theme tune to yourself – here’s how we were introduced to Lovejoy back then:

“What the hell do you mean” she was starting to say when I belted her. Down she went on the loo amid the steam.

That’s chapter one. This is his girlfriend, being belted. He goes on to call her “the stupid bird”.

That flinch reaction you’ve just experienced could be called The Lovejoy Problem.

Gash’s debut novel is very entertaining. The plot concerns the flintlock duelling pistols in the title, a legendary “missing” 13th pair made by a famous craftsman. Hot on the trail of these items, Lovejoy discovers that someone was killed for them. When someone close to him dies later on in suspicious circumstances, Lovejoy is less loveable rogue than just plain rogue, and seeks vengeance.

Along the way there’s some sleuthing as Lovejoy tracks down both the guns and the killer.  But what I liked best about The Judas Pair was the insight into the world of antiques, and the shadowy industry connected with sourcing, buying and selling them, with its strange terms and practices. Lovejoy’s pithy “come hither, there’s more” delivery really draws you in – a fine example of how a unique voice can put oil in your storytelling engine.

Still, for people used to mild Sunday night comic capers with British eccentrics in leafy villages, this Lovejoy is a bit of a shock. Lovejoy’s still got a cosy relationship with his audience, addressing his readers in the first person as if they were friends and confidants, and you’re pulled in by his grubby charm. But the man himself is a far harder character than you might remember from the telly. He’s not averse to cheating people, and goes on to outline some scandalous behaviour in his trade, such as intruding upon the recently bereaved in order to pick up bargains while people are in a confused, distressed state.

And he is violent. Lovejoy absolutely batters two people in this book, which should by rights have seen him haggling over antique pebbles in the prison exercise yard. That’s separate to his casual approach to domestic violence, the only consequence of which seems to be a mild feeling of guilt because he’s left a bruise on his girlfriend’s face.

What makes this even more nauseating for the reader is that she goes back to him, and dismisses his behaviour. Just Lovejoy being Lovejoy, eh? Shrug. What a loveable rascal!

Unacceptable in any era, you’d hope, but perhaps slightly less so in the seventies compared with today. You can expect a night in the cells if there’s even a hint that you’ve lifted a hand to a partner nowadays, but back then, short of serious assault, police would hope to clear up “domestics” with a talking-to, and leaving the house in as peaceable a state as possible.

I don’t think Lovejoy’s behaviour would have been any less shocking to decent people in the seventies, but it was obviously, that word again, more acceptable. Hence the reason Lovejoy’s so blasé about it. What you don’t expect to see is the hero of your page-turner novel admitting to it so casually.

The shift between Lovejoy from the book to the TV is mainly a class distinction. The character as portrayed by McShane might have had a leather jacket and a mullet, but his manners and diction were impeccable. He would pronounce everything on the menu without eliciting even a hint of condescension from the maitre d’, and has enough charm to make any galloping major or country house squire a bit insecure when their old lady gets to giggling.

The printed Lovejoy is more of a Del Boy Trotter character – no fool, but no aristocrat, either, and he cuts corners in the same way. Sausage butties with lashings of margarine finished off with custard rounds are his idea of a slap-up meal for his girlfriends. He’s aware of the absurdity of this, but again, that jack-the-lad pound shop pirate type would cut little ice in a big commercial novel these days. He’d be more polished, like his TV depiction. It is unlikely he would be working class.

Lovejoy does have a soft centre – he looks after some people, and seems fond of the downtrodden, whether that’s the perky robin he feeds in his garden, or people on the verge of making a mistake in the antiques trade. Tough guy, shrewd operator, but with a heart of gold, etc. We get the picture.

But we still have that pesky Lovejoy Problem to solve.

There’s a danger of sliding into a kind of puritanism when it comes to interpreting art from other times. Art, no matter what the era, should make us suspicious if it solely exists to cater directly to narrow beliefs and prejudices, or what is perceived to be good at the current rate of exchange. If it does, there is a good chance you’re consuming propaganda, or spreading it.

Lovejoy is no Mary Sue, and was never intended to be. We might dislike his behaviour, even hate him if we must, but we should credit Jonathan Gash for trying to portray a complex character. We were no doubt meant to be shocked by Lovejoy bashing his girlfriend; perhaps this granted the character a sense of edge and danger in a hyper-macho era only just learning to wash its armpits every day.

The true fault lies in assuming that we would still be on his side after this behaviour, whereas today, no-one would dare to portray their hero as a wife-beater.

Lovejoy does suffer, mentally as well as physically. He’s almost burned to death, and has to use his wits to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation, but this was less interesting than his emotional journey. After one big twist, Lovejoy undergoes a breakdown which puts him in bed for days; not eating, not washing, and not engaging with the world.  It seemed realistic to me. It’s quite rare to see this in a commercial novel, even today, when we’re far less ignorant about mental illness and the horrors trauma can inflict on seemingly strong mentalities. I’d like to see this happen to Jack Reacher.

With regards to The Lovejoy Problem, there’s a TV show which got on my wick lately: It Was Acceptable In The (insert decade). It’s a talking-heads schedule filler, where comedians, TV presenters, journalists, actors and DJs of varying degrees of smugness review clips from previous decades. The show makes heavy use of crash-zooms on the guests’ gurning faces, as sexism, racism and class prejudice are highlighted, provoking well-intentioned, if tedious, responses.

And they’re right to respond that way, because, like Lovejoy punching his missus, some of the stuff which passed without much comment in past times is awful, and we should be upset by it, and things have hopefully improved. But we shouldn’t think this generation will be any different – that its entertainment won’t be mocked or ridiculed or even completely denounced in the future, by people living in a different political climate, with different norms, or realigned social strata.

In the future, reality TV shows will look particularly awful – as bad as racist sitcoms or sexist cop series from the 1970s. Perhaps they’ll seem even worse, because they deal with real people.

I recall one show from the mid-noughties where a bunch of young models who thought they were answering an open casting call were invited to strip to their underwear on camera and take their places in a drained swimming pool. They did so without hesitation. Even at a very late stage, it didn’t dawn on any of them what was about to happen.

They were then blasted with water from a hose. Once the jet was shut off and the screaming stopped, we were treated to close-ups of ruined make-up, turning them all into shivering, sobbing grotesques.

The point of this stunt was – we were told – that the girls shouldn’t feel they had to put on their best clothes to be beautiful, or their best make-up. I don’t know who came up with this programme, but cruelty and humiliation lay at the heart of it. You wouldn’t tolerate this being done in a prison, but there it was on TV, served up for entertainment.

But reality TV’s an obvious villain. One fascinating recent phenomenon is how time can catch up with seemingly unimpeachable content. Look at the recent row over The Breakfast Club. Good old John Hughes, eh? The stalwart of “almost realistic” teen dramas. Except it seems like they were a wee bit sexist, too. And nobody noticed, or cared, until now.

I’ve also heard of people having a go at Friends for its mockery of overweight people, among a host of other perceived sins which flew over everyone’s heads 20-odd years ago. Friends! The definition of sliced white bread television. Who’d have thought it? Nothing is sacred, true enough.

Quick questions for you to consider: Did you like Trainspotting when you were younger? Did you have Sick Boy and Begbie up on your bedroom wall?

So, yes, Lovejoy’s got his problems. The character’s behaviour is repellent, but I don’t think we were meant to like it. Let’s not burn the book for one admittedly awful part. As time goes on, you’d hope he learns how bad his behaviour was.

Besides, it’s fiction. In telling lies, writers have to be as truthful as they can. Characters don’t ring true if they’re flawless. Nothing is.

Lovejoy’s just a character, warts and all. He’s a product of his time – just like real people are, for good or ill.