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.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder