Strong language

<strong>A Clockwork Apple</strong>

Belinda Webb <em>Burning House, 320pp, £7.99</em>

Belinda Webb's debut novel is a remarkably confident piece of writing. A gender-swapped take on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, it is bold in its aims.

The novel is set in a future Manchester where violent gangs of teenage girls roam the streets. Alex and her Grrlz are the menace of Moss Side, and anyone who exists outside their world, anyone who has a little money or education, is likely to receive a kicking care of their ballet pumps.

After a break-in at the Mrs Gaskell Academy for Girls goes sour, Alex is arrested and jailed. In prison, she is entered into a rehabilitation programme in order to fast-track her back into society.

There is something both audacious and yet oddly hollow about such a blatant homage. Webb delights in playing linguistic games and riffs continually on Burgess's teenspeak, creating her own urban vocabulary. Every word is made to matter; she dissects some and merges others, revelling in the potential of language. Her female-centric future is vividly rendered, peppered as it is with cultural references, Manchester slang and Morrissey lyrics.

But though the language does dazzle and excite, Alex remains too impenetrable a character and the novel feels increasingly like a stylistic exercise – although, admittedly, an accomplished one.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.