Bright Particular Stars: a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics

Some years ago, when he was still owner of the Telegraph newspapers, Conrad Black damned journalists as a species. Not only were they obnoxious and tiresome, he said, which was fair enough; worse still, they were "nauseatingly eccentric". This stuck in my mind as an interesting term of abuse. In England, "eccentric" and "eccentricity" have never been derogatory terms, or not merely so. The English used to value individuality, privacy, quiddity, even oddity.

Such, at least, were my thoughts before I picked up Bright Particular Stars, David McKie's latest, entertaining book. Its cast list lives up
to the last word of the subtitle - A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics - in the literal sense of "irregular" or "anomalous": but the use of the word "glorious" is more debatable. Some of the unlikely people whom McKie has come across are cranky or outrageous way beyond Black's strictures.

Having already written a book with the defiantly unchic title Great British Bus Journeys, as well as McKie's Gazetteer, the author sets off again on his travels, from Carmarthenshire to Derbyshire, Cromarty to Staffordshire, and he finds some right ones 'ere or, rather, there. One or two of these men and women might kindle his sympathy, but by no means all.

Anyone who has been even slightly touched by the collecting instinct will feel for Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), who lived at Broadway
in Worcestershire. He devoted his life to the obsessive and finally deranged buying of books and manuscripts. His house fell into ruin, while every room was piled high with possessions that couldn't be catalogued or paid for as creditors forlornly lined the potholed drive. Phillipps admitted that two men had attempted to distrain on him, but said that one was a rogue and the other a Quaker, "each of them a race of beings which ought to be banished to some uninhabited island".

Nowadays, Cheltenham is best known for its racecourse and its music festival, but in the 1840s its most notable denizen was Reverend Francis Close, an improbable Cotswolds Savonarola. He thunderously denounced "the wide-spreading evils that are poured upon the lower orders of society through the vain pleasures of their superiors", and when the town's theatre was destroyed by fire he campaigned against its reopening.

And yet Close's reactionary zeal was even stronger than his puritanism. "The Bible is Conservative, the Prayer Book Conservative, the Liturgy Conservative and the Church Conservative," he pronounced, "and it is impossible for a minister to open his mouth without being a Conservative." But he found a formidable antagonist in George Jacob Holyoake, a radical Chartist and atheist who addressed a group of Cheltonian radicals - they did exist - and was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1842.

All the same, Close was almost a wet liberal compared to Dame Lucy Houston. Born poor, she became very rich by enticing men. In 1924, in her late sixties, she married an obnoxious, half-mad Tory MP, a shipping tycoon who conveniently died soon afterwards, and with her inheritance she bought the Saturday Review, a respectable journal in Victorian times which had enjoyed a brief period of brilliance when edited by Frank Harris, of all people.

Now, under the imperious direction of Dame Lucy from her house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, the Review became a voice of crazy jingoism veering towards fascism. She ranted against Bolshevism, doted on Mussolini, and pinned her faith on the one man who might rescue her own degraded country, whom she begged, in caps and italics, to "Lead us, Oh! My King, and we are ready to follow you to the death". But Edward VIII - for it was him she apostrophised - was in no mood to lead anyone, and soon departed.

As his discerning fan club knows, McKie himself is, if not eccentric, salty, sesquipedal and offbeat, but also a little poignant, as befits one of the last of an endangered species or tendency. It might be called the fogeyism of the left - "Radicals for cricket, railways and real ale" - which once had a billet at the Guardian, whose deputy editor McKie was, and where he later wrote the Elsewhere and Smallweed columns.

There was a time when that paper, too, or rather the Manchester Guardian as was, embodied certain virtues - dissenting, unfashionable, provincial - which are today not so much discounted or despised, as quite vanished. Much more significant than the politics of our media now is their tone: modish, sneering, intensely metropolitan. It is a world that would have disconcerted not only McKie's far-flung villains, but also his heroes.
For none of these does he have more affection than the men of Blackburn Olympic who won the FA Cup in 1883. In its early years, association football was very much a gentleman's game, as could be seen from the Cup matches, which pitted Royal Engineers against Old Carthusians, Oxford University against Old Etonians. It was this last team that Blackburn met in the final at the Oval (when both football and cricket were played there). The Etonians lost, one of them complained, because "the Blackburn men were in strict training", and the result was jeered and whistled at by Etonian spectators. It was a victory for "McKieism", for north over south, plebeians over patricians and, perhaps, past over present. After reading that characteristically delightful chapter in Bright Particular Stars, one reflects that not many of the virtues McKie admires are on display in the national press today, or the Premier League. l

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin, £8.99) and "Yo, Blair!" (Politico's, £9.99)

Bright Particular Stars: a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics
David McKie
Atlantic Books, 368pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis