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”.
 

The Battle of Tsushima (Credit: Getty)
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Long Road From Jarrow: a revolutionary tale of long-distance protest

Stuart Maconie tells the story of the men who marched from Tyneside to London.

There were several long-distance protest marches to London between the wars. Some involved many thousands of marchers and some were met with violence, but the only one that is widely remembered today is the “Jarrow Crusade” of October 1936. From 1851 to the early 1930s, the Tyneside town of Jarrow had launched a thousand ships, from tankers and colliers to cruisers and battleships – but as a result of postwar government cost-cutting and a global economic downturn, the area’s main employer, the Palmers shipyard, was forced to close in 1933, putting thousands out of work.

In 1936, as unemployment dragged on and government support failed to materialise, Jarrow’s local council arranged for 200 out-of-work local men to march to parliament – accompanied by their MP, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson – to “obtain the sympathy of the general public” and petition Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government to provide work for the town.

For the 80th anniversary of the march, Stuart Maconie, the current president of Ramblers – as the Ramblers’ Association is now known – retraced their steps to find out why their protest still resonates and how much England has changed over the past eight decades. Maconie’s eminence in pedestrian circles may be surprising to those who know him only as a cultural critic (Viz once ran a spoof Christmas television schedule listing a show called I Love Stuart Maconie’s Opinions) and as a coolly authoritative curator of BBC Radio 6 Music’s Freak Zone, but he has written several perceptive books based on his travels around an England that now feels to him “febrile and uncertain”.

This blend of travelogue and social commentary is self-consciously in the mould of Orwell and Priestley, but it also shares something of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s awareness and ability to bluff his way through awkward situations. While Leigh Fermor broke bread with Austrian aristos and Transylvanian lumberjacks, Maconie hitches lifts from Northamptonshire window-fitters, or blags a curry in a Leeds gurdwara.

Maconie’s passion for places and his pungent turn of phrase also call to mind Ian Nairn, who would dignify unfashionable towns with serious appraisal, or Robert Macfarlane, with his appreciation for even the “sub-countryside” that rings our towns. Newcastle’s thrilling buildings “crowd and elbow each other sideways to get into shot like excitable kids”. Civic Barnsley gives the impression of a Baltic seat of government, while commercial Leicester evokes the souks of Tangiers. In the “mountain stronghold” of Sheffield, he sees a “strapping, over-vigorous city” where forging steel gave the “Dee-Dars” (Sheffield folk) a unique Yorkshire virility. He has righteous scorn for architectural academics who enthuse over the “monumental dissonance” of brutalist Newton Aycliffe new town and riffs amusingly on cupcake fads, vaping shops and the ubiquity of salted caramel.

Maconie’s wandervogeling between record shops and twee museums is diverting, though there are some Wikipedia-heavy longueurs (and some clangers have crept in: Chester-le-Street is in Durham, not Northumberland, and the Tory benefactor John Jarvis was not the MP for South Shields, which is the only constituency created in the Reform Act 1832 never to have returned a Conservative). But this is a more explicitly political tract than Maconie’s previous works, and he clearly has something to get off his chest – namely his despair at the Labour Party. Maconie identifies as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain” and sees in Jeremy Corbyn “a spartist dinosaur reeking of hummus and hemp and definitely not the smoky fires of industry”.

This book was written before the election in June but its result would probably have confirmed Maconie’s pessimism. For all the rallies, marches and excitable hashtaggery, Labour has suffered its third consecutive defeat and hasn’t had a Blairless general election victory for 43 years.

What can we learn from the Jarrow marchers? Maconie writes, “The Jarrow men essentially came politely and with cap in hand, without the dangerous whiff of revolutionary sulphur of the older communist marches” – yet this is not to patronise them. It was a deliberate strategy. Even then, there was a view that marching and demonstrations were self-indulgent and unserious. Unless handled carefully, they could repel as much as they could galvanise. The organisers ensured that the march demonstrated discipline and dignity, and made the very reasonable demand for work, not handouts.

In Labour’s north-eastern heartland, for every firebrand such as Ellen Wilkinson, there were dozens more stolid Labour moderates: respectable Methodist lay preachers and pragmatic union men who knew that social progress was hard won and that electing Labour governments was extraordinarily demanding. There’s a martial and Stakhanovite strain in Geordie culture, and around 60 per cent of those unemployed riveters and platers were First World War veterans. Photographs usually show them marching smartly in step, their blankets tightly rolled, demonstrating their endurance and good order in a deliberate appeal to Middle England. Conditions in Jarrow were so desperate that “reaching out” had to be taken seriously, so churchmen were courted, communists were weeded out and there were no “Tory scum” banners.

The immediate impact of the march was limited (an old joke in the town is that it was Hitler who saved Jarrow – by generating war work for the yards). But as A J P Taylor once put it, middle-class people felt “the call of conscience”, and Jarrow was remembered when votes were cast in the 1945 general election. With yet another Conservative government refusing to budge, it is hard to avoid Maconie’s conclusions that persuading the uncommitted is as vital as ever and that Labour needs “fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists”. 

Dan Jackson writes on Northumbrian history. He tweets as @northumbriana

Long Road From Jarrow: a Journey Through Britain Then and Now
Stuart Maconie
Ebury Press, 368pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder