In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on Paul Auster, Ryan Gilbey on Woody Allen and Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Michael Chabon.

In the Critics section of the New Statesman this week, Simon Heffer reviews Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, a new book written by five Tory MPs including Elizabeth Truss, who was promoted to the front bench as an education minister in the recent reshuffle. He argues that what the five politicians have to say is both sensible and illuminating. “Their words, because of the empiricism that underpins them, have an authority not seen in a policy submission by a group of Tories since the original One Nation group in 1950,” writes Heffer. He goes on to declare that although many on the left will dismiss the arguments as, to use Theresa May’s phrase, “nasty”, these ideas “represent a long-overdue confrontation with a reality that the present government seems not even to have half the measure of.” The main thrust of the book is that we continue to live beyond our means: “the authors … say that without serious cuts in taxation, funded by even deeper cuts in public spending, there will be insufficient impetus and incentive in the private sector to economic recovery … They warn the present opposition that nothing has changed… There has to be a better way: and [they] seek to find it.” Ultimately, Heffer finds that the book adds something worth hearing to the current political conversation: “[T]his book deserves to be taken seriously by all with an interest in politics, whatever their beliefs.”

Elsewhere in the Critics, Sarah Churchwell is underwhelmed by Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. “Readers hoping to find an inventive and intelligent exploration of grief will be disappointed by Winter Journal … in fact, readers expecting too much of anything will be disappointed. Auster is too fluent a writer to produce a book that is irredeemably bad but Winter Journal is eye-wateringly pointless, drifting inertly from one unremarkable thought to the next.” Churchwell finds Auster’s decision to address himself in the second person tedious and alienating: “there is a reason why writers avoid the second person: the paradoxical effect is not to create intimacy but to estrange the reader. There is something coercive in his use of “you” that provokes a reflexive resistance, a constant mental chorus asserting the reader’s difference from him.” As for the subject matter? “It offers little more than a series of lists,” says Churchwell, concluding that “the real lesson of Winter Journal is that the more lists a book compiles, the more helplessly listless the book becomes.”

“To wish for world peace might seem naïve but it’s an act of the staunchest realism next to the hope that Woody Allen will one day return to making films worthy of his name,” begins Ryan Gilbey’s review of Allen’s 42nd and most recent film, To Rome With Love. So, he says, “it’s a perfect time to receive with gratitude Allen’s comic roundelay, easily his least-bad movie in a decade or so.” Faint praise perhaps, but Gilbey stands by it: “while this movie feels like what it is – a late-period bagatelle from an artist too remote to render human encounters without mannerism – its silliness is rejuvenating … not one of the stories adds up to a hill of borlotti beans, but the echoes and resonances between them generate a cumulative spell. Each plot concludes with the renouncing of the superficial, and a return to humility: Americans and Italians alike are disabused of their illusions, and the only enduring magic is shown to be the chance and chaos of love.”

Also in the Critics: Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Michael Chabon, poetry by Judi Sutherland and Rachel Cooke on ITV’s The Scapegoat.

Sarah Churchwell finds Paul Auster's book underwhelming in the latest issue of the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

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