Camus, Pilger and Bush

The Outsider may be the only adult work that both Pilger and Bush have read but The Plague is Camus'

John Pilger uses our Red Reads feature as a chance to name some of his favourite radical works this week and concludes with Albert Camus's The Outsider.

The Outsider has the distinction of possibly being the only adult work that both Pilger and his bête noire George W Bush have devoured.

No doubt Bush was attracted to the novel by its slimness (128 pages) or perhaps he empathised with the lead character, Meursault, who shoots an Arab on the beach after being irritated by the sun.

The then White House spokesman Tony Snow said: "He found it an interesting book and a quick read."

"I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism."

Yet I must take issue with Pilger and Bush's selection from Camus's oeuvre. I have always found The Outsider to be a rather tepid and underwhelming work.

A far better choice would be Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus in which he introduces his philosophy of the absurd. (Camus, an absurdist, was consistently frustrated by those who erroneously described him as an existentialist.)

An equally fine suggestion would be Reflections on the Guillotine, his masterful polemic against the death penalty.

But at a time when swine flu has officially become the fastest growing pandemic ever, the definitive Camus work surely remains The Plague.

A novel which tells the tale of the devastating plague visited on the Algerian town of Oran, it is also an allegory of France's suffering under the Nazi occupation.

The haunting final passage, in which Dr Rieux reflects on the town's apparent recovery, is worth quoting at length:

He (Dr Rieux) knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Camus is referring to the plague but he could equally be referring to fascism.

At a time when the Conservative Party has aligned itself with some of the most reactionary forces in Europe and Britain has sent two openly fascist MEPs to Europe it is worth recalling that we have by no means escaped the reach of atavistic and totalitarian ideas.

I now find that I'm rather ashamed by the absence of Camus from our list of 50 Red Reads. Let us know of any other omissions here.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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