Kunzru's complaints

Hari Kunzru finds alarming parallels between recent student protests in Britain and 1960s America.

In this week's New Statesman the British novelist and critic Hari Kunzru has reviewed Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman by Cathy Wilkinson. The book is a highly personal account of the left wing Weatherman movement in America, as the author was heavily involved in it herself and it was in her father's house in Manhattan that the now infamous town-house explosion occurred in 1970. Kunzru finds there are disturbing parallels between the febrile atmosphere of 1960s radical America and the student protests in present day Britain:

The present debate about kettling, the use of Forward Intelligence Teams, violent tactics and just plain thoughtless violence all had their equivalents in the militant scene of the 1960s. Contemporary organisers would do well to consult Wilkerson (and other veterans) if they wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Her account of the criminal COINTELPRO operations mounted against the American new left, which went as far as political assassination of Black Panthers and prison activists, should give pause to those who believe that the policing of protest (in contemporary America) is always scrupulously apolitical. The use of agents provocateurs and the provision of "bait" for angry crowds are not new.

Kunrzu was a vocal supporter of the December student protests against the rise in tuition fees in the UK. On the day of the parliamentary vote on the increase in university fees last month, the author of My Revolutions (a novel partially set in the highly factional, politically radical atmosphere of British universities in the 1960s) demonstrated his support for the protesters on twitter: "Sending solidarity to everyone charging around London trying to defend UK education."

The novelist has also been campaigning against proposed cuts to library services across England. Kunzru commented on the proposed closure of libraries in a short, highly personal article: "I know that a public library is not the same as a book shop. It's also not the same as the internet. The child choosing a book that, for a short time, will belong to him, is learning that knowledge is his, if he wants it. He's learning that it's a right. Libraries set people free. They're not a luxury. They're not a relic. We must fight to save them."

In November 2010 Kunzru caused controversy when giving the opening speech at the European Writers' Parliament in Istanbul, by referring to Turkey's highly questionable record on human rights and free speech.

Read Hari Kunzru's full review in this week's New Statesman.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit