James Meek's new book concerns the wholesale privatisation of huge chunks of the British state. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Reviews Round-up | 9 September

The critics’ verdicts on Owen Jones’s The Establishment, James Meek’s Private Island and Emily Mackie’s In Search of Solace.

The Establishment: And how they get away with it by Owen Jones

Owen Jones takes on the establishment in this impassioned polemic against the powers that be. The Gu​ardian columnist explores the political injustice of British democracy, leading us from the boardrooms of Bishopsgate to the corridors of Whitehall and the newsrooms of Fleet Street. All the while, arguing that the establishment poses the greatest threat to democracy today. Jones defines the establishment as “the politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy and police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful.” In doing so, Jones argues that the modern-day establishment is even more powerful than its predecessors because of it’s acceptance of a neoliberal cross-party consensus.

Archie Bland of the Independent is impressed with Jones’s powerful polemic. He maintains that “the book’s great strength lies in the simple power of accumulation. Again and again, Jones connects the dots in parallel lines, so that the single examples that might in themselves be dismissed as circumstantial or overblown become more or less unanswerable”. Bland also praises Jones for “his position as the standard-bearer of a youthful alternative to Westminster’s suffocating consensus”. Since being dubbed “our generation’s Orwell” by Russell Brand, Jones’s political leverage has continued to grow. In turn, Bland argues that “this book will strengthen that group’s hope to build what you might see as an alternative establishment of their own”.

While the Financial Times's Philip Augar applauds Jones’s strength of conviction, he also argues that his “sweeping, controversial assertions require substantiation if they are to land”. In doing so, Augur criticises Jones for failing to analyse the history which preceded the post-Thatcher settlement. In addition to this, Augur argues that Jones falls into the trap of using simplistic stereotypes to describe members of the establishment. Augur says that “such bias is disappointing from an author who in a previous book, Chavs (2011), criticised the stereotyping of the working class and who regards prejudice as one of the Establishment’s deadly sins”.

In a similar vein the Times Higher Education criticises Jones’s somewhat tactless descriptions of his interviewees, which are revealed in “asides”. Apart from this, THE praise Jones for his commanding arguments and potent examples. In their words: “this is a book of revelations, and revelation was a necessary part of the process last time we became more equal”. Nevertheless, THE argues that while Jones manages to explain how the establishment “get away with it”, he fails to provide any viable or novel solutions. They conclude by arguing that while “revelations alone are unlikely to be enough, they are still essential”.

Private Island by James Meek

From the railways to postal services, energy companies, health services and social housing, Private Island maps the trajectory of privatisation in the UK. James Meek laments the marketisation that has occurred over the last three decades, as state-owned businesses have been moved into private hands and public services have been sold off. Not only does Meek explore the economic dynamics at work, he also gives voice to the human stories behind the privatisation of the state.

Writing in the Guardian John Gray praises Private Island, encouraging everyone to read it in order to “find out what has really happened in Britain over the past 20 years”. As “one of our finest writers”, Gray argues that Meek “couldn’t produce a dull sentence however hard he tried. The result is an unputdownable book that will leave you with a lasting sense of unease”. Nevertheless, he believes that Meek’s assertions about the similarities between British privatisations and the aggressive expropriations of the former Soviet Union are overstated. Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian is equally impressed, arguing that Private Island “stands as one of the most powerful critiques of the mess that is Britain’s economy”. Like Meek, Chakrabortty deplores the privatisation of British “public assets at rock bottom prices to the private sector”, arguing that while this has enriched private investors, it has led to public sector neglect, “poorer services for the public - and a downgrading of our entitlements as citizens”.

Emily Cadman from the Financial Times also applauds Private Island as “an energetic and colourfully told polemic against privatisation”. Nevertheless, Cadman is more critical because she believes that Meek fails to propose a solution to the problems he raises. In Cadman’s words, while “it is a book to read if you want vivid details of what went wrong; it is not a manifesto proclaiming how to put things right”. What’s more, Cadman argues that Private Island is rather “disjointed” in its feel and reads like a set of essays rather than a connected whole.

In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie

In Search of Solace explores Jacob Little’s journey to an isolated Highland town. After the relationship with his girlfriend Solace comes to an end, Jacob is overcome with existential angst and begins a journey to rediscover his identity. In doing so, he assumes a number of different identities, from Keith the archaeologist to Otto, the purple-bearded pagan to Isaac, the gardener and more. Jacob’s quest eventually leads him to his ex-girlfriend’s Scottish hometown.

Viv Watts from the Daily Express praises Mackie’s second novel for its “beautiful, clever, often funny prose that challenges conventions”. Watts also commends the complex layers of the narrative. Although Mackie “hops about, forwards and backwards, diverting from third-person to first-person, from years ahead to years before”, Mackie simultaneously manages to “subtly, layer by layer, peel away the preconceptions that she herself has introduced”.

The Independent’s Doug Johnstone, is less impressed with Mackie, concluding that although “In Search of Solace isn’t that bad, it could have been a lot better”. Johnstone argues that the themes of identity are “underdeveloped” and thus underwhelming. What’s more, Johnstone believes that the novel “seemed to lack confidence in its own voice throughout”. Despite the fact that Mackie exhibits “some skilful characterisation”, Johnstone argues that this is weakened by the book’s “heavy-handed faux-playfulness”.

Kate Clanchy from the Guardian is considerably more complimentary about “a writer as prodigious as Mackie”, praising her “toothsomb” character portraits. Clanchy praises both the description of the highland town and it’s inhabitants as “Mackie’s nouns are choice, her verbs are springy”. In mapping Jacob Little’s multiple identities, Mackie is able to exhibit the pasts and futures of one character. In turn, the fluid narratives of In Search of Solace allow “the reader to find enjoyment in the telling of the tale rather than its resolution”.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.