Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on George Packer, Melanie Phillips and Neil Gaiman.

The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America by George Packer

Just over a decade into the new millennium, seismic shifts that occurred in the space of a generation have created a country of winners and losers, leaving the social contract in pieces.  Packer narrates the story of America over the past three decades, bringing to the task his empathy with people facing difficult challenges.

Alan Ryan, a professor of politics at Princeton University, dissects Packer's account of the WalMart-ization of the United States for the New Statesman. For Ryan, Packer's discursivity grates; "like other books that originate in essays in the New Yorker, The Unwinding sometimes makes you wish that the author would just get on with it and stop providing ever more redundant detail." But the reviewer praises the three central ideas Packer illustates. "The first is that what has 'unwound' is the institutional structure that allowed ordinary individuals to have a moderately prosperous, predictable and stable existence for 30 years after the Second World War."  The second is that "individuals find themselves on their own, with nothing to rely on but their wits" in "Margaret Thatcher’s world," and the third is that "America has suffered a moral collapse." In conclusion Ryan dubs the book "an impressive piece of work — but not a happy one." 

Toby Harnden in the Sunday Times calls The Unwinding  "a gloomy, eloquent and at times intensely moving portrait," which "Mix[es] granular tales of a handful of ordinary Americans with snapshots of the lives of the powerful." While in the Guardian, Sukhev Sandu cautions that Packer "isn't too clear about when The Unwinding took place," and takes the author to task for failing to use his narrative to advocate for change: "Packer's book – so decent, meticulous, concerned – reads like both a shrine to and the embodiment of a form of civics that barely exists in America these days. Is lambent lamentation enough?"

 

Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain by Melanie Phillips

This memoir of Melanie Philip's own personal and professional life reflects the seismic changes in British culture and society over a quarter of a century, covering her decades as a news editor, columnist, broadcaster and bestselling author - a period which saw her transformed from darling of the left into icon of 'Middle Britain' and one of the most controversial journalist in the UK.

In her New Statesman review, Helen Lewis points out that Phillips fancies herself "a lone voice crying in the wilderness as hordes of lefties dominate the airwaves and newspapers," but in so doing  becomes "that most postmodern of literary devices – an unreliable narrator." To complain that the Left has made of her a punching bag while digging in her heels about a monolithic leftist media destroying Western Civilization, Lewis says, undermines  attempts at a rational argument, or issues-based debate. But don't read Phillips in frustration, she cautions; instead "read it and politely disagree. Phillips would hate that."

Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian reflects on Phillips' troubled childhood, saying that in the memoir "the writing is melodramatic, yet the dread feels real." Hinsliff  allows for the emotive content of Phillips' book: "It takes great bravery for a woman too often dismissed as emotional – the 'Mad Mel' of unfair myth – to write like this, and risk handing her critics ammunition. It would be monstrous not to feel both respect for that courage and sympathy." But she finds the conceptual crux of Phillips' complaint problematic: "Yet for all her vivid descriptions of Guardian staff who denounce anyone failing to toe the left-wing line as 'beyond the moral pale', somehow they keep promoting her."

The Independent takes a more gimlet-eyed view of Ms Phillips' literary output, as evidenced by the headline "Phillips launches ‘Brand Melanie’ as she tries to become the darling of the American right." The article's author, Charlie Cooper, asserts that the self-publication of the e-book, as part of her Melanie Phillips Electric Media LLC alongside '"baseball caps, umbrellas and tote bags", is meant to posit her as a brand of punditry for the US market alongside "Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin."

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane represents Gaiman’s return to adult fiction, however the theme of childhood remains a prominent part of this work. The nameless narrator finds himself in Sussex for a funeral and is drawn back into the scenes of his upbringing. On its journey of myth, magic and malevolence, the novel reintroduces the adult reader to the fantastical (and horrifying) experiences of childhood.

In the Express, Jake Kerridge doesn’t hesitate to award The Ocean at the End of the Lane full marks for Gaiman’s “uncanny ability to remind the reader what it felt like to be a child”. Gaiman is “perhaps the writer who comes closest to being the Dahl of his generation” and his latest novel “has a power that defies explanation” which at times wakens “a long-dormant need to find a sofa to hide behind”.

The Observer’s Edward Docx does not feel as effectively drawn into Gaiman’s magical world; he writes, “I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche”. Docx expresses his admiration for “Gaiman’s intelligence and his skill as a writer”, but he feels the demonstration of Gaiman’s talent is not something that “this somewhat laboured 'mythic' story permits”.

In this week's New Statesman (which will appear online Thursday), Alex Hern writes that “Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction”. However, criticism is drawn from the “episodic” narrative, which “feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams”.

A man walks near the abandoned car-manufacturing Packard plant in Detroit; George Packer describes this "new America" in his book 'The Unwinding' [Photo: Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum]
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Anti-Semitism is a right-wing problem

The spiritual home of Jewish persecution is not on the left.

We have been conned into believing that anti-Semitism is now a disease of the left. In reality, it is still found mostly in racism’s historic home: on the right. But right-wingers use coded language for it.

In the 1930s, campaigners for a deal with Hitler started by arguing that Britain should not fight the “Jews’ war”. Then they got cleverer. My father was one of them, and Richard Griffiths, an expert on the far right, writes that John Beckett and others used the terms “usury”, “money power”, “alien” and “cosmopolitan” as coded references to Jews.

Today, one code is “north London metropolitan elite”. Danny Cohen, until 2015 the BBC’s director of television, was furiously attacked by newspapers for firing Jeremy Clarkson, and the Times called Cohen a “fixture of the north London metropolitan elite”. The comedian David Baddiel tweeted: “Surprised Times subclause doesn’t add, ‘and y’know: a rootless cosmopolitan of east European stock’.” Dave Cohen, the author of Horrible Histories, tweeted: “Times calls Danny Cohen ‘part of north London metropolitan elite’. We hear what you’re saying, guys.”

The tradition is that of Dornford Yates and Bulldog Drummond, memorably satirised by Alan Bennett in Forty Years On: “. . . that bunch of rootless intellectuals, alien Jews and international pederasts who call themselves the Labour Party”. Clarkson is a perfect opponent for a member of the north London metropolitan elite – a privately educated, British Bulldog Drummond figure for our age.

Another fully paid-up member of the north London metropolitan elite is Ed Miliband, and the attacks on him before the 2015 general election had an unmistakably anti-Semitic edge. Colin Holmes, the author of Anti-Semitism in British Society, points to the Daily Mail’s
attack on Miliband’s academic father, Ralph.

“The word ‘Jew’ doesn’t have to be mentioned,” says Holmes. “All you have to do is make it clear that Ralph Miliband was a refugee from Nazism, and then suggest he has no loyalty to the hand that succoured him. His allegiance was to Moscow. He was one of those rootless cosmopolitans. That theme of Jews owing no allegiance can be found throughout the history of British anti-Semitism. The depiction of Miliband drew strength from the prehistory
of such sentiments linked to Jews, treason and Bolshevism.”

So the Mail article tells us, correctly, that Ralph Miliband was an immigrant Jew who fled Nazi persecution. A couple of paragraphs further on, in case we have forgotten that he wasn’t really English, we read about “the immigrant boy whose first act in Britain was to discard his name, Adolphe, because of its associations with Hitler, and become Ralph”.

It follows Miliband to Cambridge, where he was no doubt taught by several tutors, but only one of them is mentioned: the Jewish Harold Laski, “whom some Tories considered to be a dangerous Marxist revolutionary . . . One is entitled to wonder whether Ralph Miliband’s Marxism was actually fuelled by a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder as he lived in his adoptive country.” What exactly is the purpose of the last seven words of that sentence?

Calling Ed Miliband “weird” was another code, and the argument that we should have had David Miliband, not Ed, because he looked and sounded better was a coded way of saying that he looked and sounded less Jewish.

Yet when, come the 2015 general election, I worked for the Labour candidate in my north London constituency, Finchley and Golders Green (which has a higher proportion of Jewish voters than any other), I found not anger at anti-Semitic attacks on Labour’s leader but a belief that anti-Semitism was Labour’s virus. In vain, I pointed out that we were offering not just the first Jewish prime minister since Disraeli but a Jewish MP in Sarah Sackman.

The constituency was awash with rumours – none of which have ever been substantiated – of Labour canvassers saying anti-Semitic things on the doorstep.

On voting day, I did the early morning shift at my polling station. The first words that my Conservative counterpart said to me were: “I hope you’re ashamed of the way your party has campaigned.” It turned out that the tabloid press had run a story that morning to the effect that Labour canvassers had telephoned Orthodox Jews to tell them that they should not vote for the local Tory MP, Mike Freer, because he was gay.

He is gay, but no evidence has been offered to back up  the story. I have written to Freer (still, alas, my MP), asking for chapter and verse. He has not replied.

Labour isn’t guiltless. Shami Chakrabarti’s widely attacked report last summer made that clear, and the home affairs select committee found disturbing instances. Part of the reason why Labour gets more than its fair share of the odium is the eagerness with which its warring factions use the charge of anti-Semitism to smear their rivals.

But, as no less an authority than Deborah Lipstadt, the pre-eminent historian on Holocaust denial, has said, “It has been so convenient for people to beat up on the left, but you can’t ignore what’s coming from the right.”

My foolish father started out as a left-wing Labour MP in the 1920s. But once he embraced anti-Semitism, he quickly moved to the right in all of his other opinions as well. For then, as now, the spiritual home of anti-Semitism, as with any form of racism, is on the right, not on the left.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge