Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Owen Jones, Lila Azam Zanganeh and Ali Smith.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Writing in the Independent, Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, applauds Jones's exploration of prejudice towards the working class, saying: "The book is very easy to read; it moves in and out of postwar British history with great agility, weaving together complex questions of class, culture and identity with a lightness of touch. Jones torches the political class to great effect. Conservative class conflict masquerading as liberalism; New Labour's desiccated notion of aspiration; what we stylise as "Middle England"; the class composition of the commentariat and government: all are pretty easy targets, but the points are well made. Especially strong is his critique of liberal multiculturalism, whereby without the currency of class grievance we balkanise politics through identity and, sure enough, the BNP or English Defence League flourish."

In a similarly sympathetic review in the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley recognises Jones's ability "to reiterate the facts of increasing inequality, which has led British society to become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood. In such circumstances, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives' demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class."

"[An] uneven book", writes John Lloyd in the Financial Times. "Campaigns against sexism and racism have made denigration of ethnic minorities, gays and women impossible in polite society; the working class, in the guise of "chavs", remain a target. It is interesting and depressing to see all this - and though Jones bangs the nail in too hard, it's worth banging."

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh

"If the intention is to send the reader back to the works of Vladimir Nabokov with newly polished eyes and an eager appetite, it succeeds without question," writes Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman. "But it is more than a literary springboard from which to launch oneself back to the classics: it is a thing of beauty in its own right."

Nicholas Shakespeare in The Sunday Telegraph, however, is far less flattering: "One cannot help but feel that she is accidentally-on-purpose playing at being Lolita, a literary nymphet with a crush on Nabokov ... But where Lolita is a cliché who seduces ("at 6.15 in the morning, to be precise, at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel"), here the author's excess of self-consciousness is cloying."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana is also unenthusiastic, writing in the Financial Times that this is a "whimsical, intriguing and at times bewildering work," and that the author "omits explicit references to her own back-story, perhaps out of a reasonable desire to avoid comparisons with that other Nabokov-themed memoir by an Iranian expatriate, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Yet her reluctance to explore the connections makes her appear coy, even cagey."

There but for the by Ali Smith

"Before the pudding at a dinner party in Greenwich, a guest slips away upstairs, locks himself into a room and refuses to come out. For months. A clever set-up for a novel," writes Lionel Shriver in the Financial Times, "though it's difficult to imagine where the premise leads, since this slight, offbeat idea seems more intrinsically suited to a short story. In There But For The, Ali Smith spins out this narrow, potentially confining concept into a winsome, compelling read - that is, until the book's last third, at which point you wonder if maybe it should have been a short story after all."

Most other reviewers have been unequivocal in their praise. "Smith's prose is not just supple, it's acrobatic," asserts Lucy Beresford in the Daily Telegraph, " one minute providing crisp realism -- cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy -- the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today."

Agreeing with these positive sentiments, The Observer's Sarah Churchwell writes that this is "a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure, with some premeditated frustrations thrown in for good measure." She concedes though, that "some of the set-pieces are less successful than others -- the novel's central dinner party descends from burlesque into caricature, as the guests became increasingly loathsome," but concludes that "there are some wonderful disquisitions on our cultural idiosyncrasies."


Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Enchanter:Nabokov and Happiness will be reviewed in next week's New Statesman

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood