Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Pankaj Mishra and Kirsty Gunn.

Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson

How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Will Hutton writes in the New Statesman’s special London issue this week. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. In many ways Britain’s reliance on foreign direct investment and an obsession with vacuous, charismatic leaders are characteristic of a developing economy. Elliott and Atkinson find a Britain wedded to a “no-strategy strategy”. And yet Elliott and Atkinson also find themselves in a predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton laments. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. Until Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.

Andrew Adonis, writing in the Financial Times, also finds the argument of Going South a “brutal and eloquent” expression of declinism in the current crisis. Adonis cautions the reader: “This is a movie in black and white – mostly black”, he warns, “when shades of grey would in my view be more realistic”. Furthermore Elliott and Atkinson “have few concrete suggestions” for how Britain’s leaders can keep their country in the developed world.
The Economist is wary of how far Elliott and Atkinson are really forecasting the loss of developed-economy status. “The authors do not really suggest that Britain’s GDP per head will plummet to the levels of sub- Saharan Africa, or that the country will lose the title of “advanced” economy bestowed on it by the International Monetary Fund”, the Economist review observes. “Instead, Britain’s third-world status is signified by a bunch of qualitative factors”. The underlying analysis is sound, but the broad definitions used by Going South tend towards overstatement and allow Elliott and Atkinson “to be grumpy old men and indulge in some fierce complaining about various aspects of modern British society”.

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

The zero-sum game of the east-west clash of civilisations remains the darling of Anglophone historical polemic. Julia Lovell, writing in the Guardian, considers From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra. Mishra looks to the non-western voices telling the other side of the story – the attempts by Asian thinkers to rebuild identity after colliding with the imperialist west. From the Ruins of Empire “gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the western challenge”. Nor does Mishra look to indulge in broad accounts of success. “Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale”. For Mishra, there is “no triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against the 19th century’s “white disaster”, but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong”. Mishra blends accounts of Asia’s thinkers – Persia’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao, India’s Rabindranath Tagore – along with luminous details that “glimmer through these swaths of political and military history”, from Indian villagers naming their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan’s decisive victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, through to the history of the fez. Mishra’s conclusion meanwhile is a bleak response “to those who read China’s and India’s embrace of capitalism as a comforting sign of their reconciliation with western ways”. Mishra’s warning is one of environmental apocalypse – “the final consequence of these centuries-old collisions between Europe and America”.

Noel Malcolm, writing in the Telegraph also finds From the Ruins of Empire a fascinating exploration of the origins and consequences of Asian anti-Westernism, and the ideological legacies that we have been left with today. But he does find some aspects of Mishra’s narrative open to criticism: “The account of Asian anti-imperialism here tends to gloss over the imperialism of the Asians themselves”. Mishra’s description of Western behaviour in Asia “too often relies on the heated complaints of Asians, whose rhetoric is presented as quasi-historical statement”. But John Gray, writing in the Independent, notes how well placed Mishra is to explore the paradoxes of the east-west interplay: “Based in London but living part of the time in India where he was born and grew up, he views the rise of Asia from a standpoint that pierces through the illusions that have shaped perceptions and policies on both sides”. At the heart of Mishra’s ironic story is “the need for Asian countries to adopt western models of statehood in order to avoid being crushed by western power”. From the Ruins of Empire has no comforting message. The retreat of the west today “is unlikely to bring peace, for the Asian powers have their needs, rivalries and scores to settle”.

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn

The elusive task of writing about music lies at the centre of Kirsty Gunn’s novel, The Big Music. Michael Bywater, writing in the Independent, observes that Gunn further magnifies the task by exploring in prose a kind of music many find inaccessible – the formal music of the Highland bagpipes. “To take that, and to show us at its heart a love-song and a lullaby: she is a brave woman even to try”. The Big Music is presented as a series of “papers” complete with footnotes which Gunn encountered while researching a piece set in the Highlands. Beyond this academic conceit, it is Gunn’s ability to live inside the music itself that makes The Big Music a masterpiece: “Gunn solves the problem she has set herself, not by writing about the music but, by some strange meticulous magic, writing within it”. Opening with John Sutherland, sixth in a line of pipers, set on finishing his own “Lament for Himself”, Gunn’s narrative, “blurred, luminous, a tightly-disciplined poem as well as a set of variations upon a theme”, is perpetually interwoven with the forms, rhythms and melody of the music.

Susan Elderkin, writing in the Financial Times, also praises the ambitious task of “attempting to recreate, no less, the inimical sound of bagpipe music” in words. “It’s an amibition that harks back to the great modernists of the 20th century”, Elderkin observes, and in that tradition, “there is also a story here, a moving one, involving emotionally distant fathers and self-exiled sons, of bagpipe music being handed down through generations, along with loves that cannot, or will not, be expressed”. Adam Thorpe, writing in the Guardian, finds that The Big Music, “its charms as subtle as a piper’s grace notes, brilliantly fulfils its own definition”. In Gunn’s story, “time devolves its tyranny to space rather than chronology, mainly through the temporal dissolutions of memory”. It is a remarkable feat: The Big Music “is not just influenced by Scottish bagpipe music, it seeks to inhabit it”.
 

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When do you step in when a stranger is in distress?

Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, spirit miniatures and a glass of wine, and got to work on them. In a very British way, I pretended to ignore it.

A little while ago I was on a commuter train during rush hour – on my way to a show somewhere in the Home Counties – when a man got on and sat next to me. In appearance he was just like the sort of businessman you’d expect on these trains: a middlingly expensive suit; short, neat hair; an iPad on which he was surely planning to open a spreadsheet, close it again, and catch up on Game of Thrones instead.

But when the drinks trolley came round it became obvious that all was not well. My new companion – whom I’d barely glanced at – ordered enough booze to kill an elephant. Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, a couple of spirit miniatures and one of those depressing glasses of wine with a foil lid that you have to peel back. He began drinking them, one at a time, with absolute joylessness. He was clearly trying to usher himself into something as close to oblivion as possible. Plenty of people have felt like this on the outskirts of Stevenage before. Yet I couldn’t help worrying – and all the more so when I noticed he was red-eyed and seemingly on the point of tears.

Everybody else was studiously, Britishly ignoring his behaviour, but I’m a citizen of the world and so I took the more moral approach: pretending to ignore it while sneakily checking out the texts he was sending. They painted a bleak picture. He’d split up with his girlfriend. I don’t like to come across as some sort of voyeur, but her name was Becky, she lived in Guildford, and she had broken his heart. The tone of his texts was somewhat apocalyptic.

I was faced with a classic human dilemma: how much should we poke our nose into each other’s lives? I responded with a classic human decision: to do nothing until he stumbled off the train at Knebworth, and then exchange wry glances with everyone around.

A few months later I glanced at a newspaper and saw that recently a man had jumped on to train tracks, killing himself, very close to where we’d been. My heart froze for what felt like a few seconds. I made myself look at the picture.

It wasn’t the same man. It was a mere coincidence. It felt like a happy ending, in fact, until I reminded myself that it was still a very sad one.

How would I have felt, though, if it had been the same man? Appallingly guilty, I think. Even though I probably had no chance of changing the way things were for him, it would have felt as if I’d shirked my duty to another human being. Yet if I see another distressed commuter on today’s train (to Sheffield) will I make the effort to overcome personal diffidence and social taboos, and utter the question: “Are you all right?” I want to believe that I will. But a part of me suspects I’ll do the same as last time: observe from afar, let the situation take care of itself and hope that one day there might be a column in it.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster