Books: The NS Recommends

Geoff Dyer, Philip Oltermann and George Soros.

Zona: a Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
Geoff Dyer
Canongate, 228pp, £16.99

The "film about a journey to a room" referred to in the subtitle of Geoff Dyer's new book is the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Released in 1979, Stalker takes us into the "Zone" (hence Dyer's title), a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial premonition of Chernobyl. Dyer writes that he initially planned to break the book up into 142 sections, corresponding to the 142 shots in the film ("a very low number of shots for a long film," he notes). But he "kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began".

The result is something altogether more digressive than he originally envisaged but that is more faithful to the experience of watching a film, integral to which is "forgetting and not noticing [things]".

Dyer is particularly sensitive to the discomforts that films can sometimes visit on the viewer. In one lengthy digression, he describes watching Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura as the "nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony".

Keeping Up With the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters
Philip Oltermann
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £12.99

Philip Oltermann was born in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany and moved to England with his parents at the age of 15. He pitched up at a school in suburban Middlesex, where he soon learned an important truth about his classmates and, by extension, about the English: "Being 'pretentious' [is] the worst of crimes." He recounts this story in a chapter devoted to the two years the German philosopher Theodor Adorno spent at Merton College, Oxford. Adorno found that he had to conduct discussions of his work at a "child's level" and seems to have spent most of his time in Oxford asking the master of his college to print more of "those cards with the Merton blazon crest". This is one of eight "Anglo-German encounters" Oltermann discusses. Others include Kevin Keegan's tussle with Berti Vogts in the 1977 European Cup Final, Christopher Isherwood listening to Marlene Dietrich and the former Baader-Meinhof cadre Astrid Proll's anxiety at glimpsing Joe Strummer's Red Army Faction T-shirt.

Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays
George Soros
PublicAffairs, 208pp, £13.99

When George Soros began his career as a financier in the late 1940s, "banking and currencies," he writes, "were strictly regulated". Things began to change in the 1970s, with the gradual abandonment of the Bretton Woods system. The origins of the great crash of 2008 lie here, Soros argues. When the UK government intervened in 1975 to prevent unregulated "fringe banks" from endangering the existence of the major clearing banks, a pattern was set. That pattern was repeated in the autumn of 2008, when governments saved the global financial system from collapsing by putting it on "artificial life support". The problem, Soros thinks, is that the "imbalances" that grew during the long boom haven't been corrected and so "financial markets remain very far from equilibrium". Most economists are incapable of seeing this because they persist in believing that there are immutable laws governing the behaviour of markets, when this is, as Soros puts it, a "context-bound historical process".

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.