Nadine Dorries' debut novel, The Four Streets.
Show Hide image

Begorrah! Nadine Dorries’ The Four Streets is a bad novel, riddled with Shamrockese

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up.

"Whoi am Oi to be reiding the Nadoine Doirries noivel?" I asked me mammy when the commission came through. "Is is because Oi have disploised the Hoily Foither in some woi?" "No darling, don't be silly, it's because you're a journalist," said my mother. "And stop talking like that, you're no more a Plain Person of Ireland than the MP for Mid Bedfordshire is." Fortunately, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire has at least a dim and remote grasp of her limitations, because she doesn't try to write the whole of The Four Streets – her debut novel, and may it long remain blessed in its singularity – in the tongue of her poor-but-honest, devout-yet-practical, low-but-proud cast of net-curtain bleaching Irish Catholic housewives and their Guinness drinking docker husbands in 1950s Liverpool.

There are lines of luminous green dialogue, of course. Lines like: "Jaysus, would yer so believe it not?" and, "That'll be grand for the boxty bread." But happily, Dorries generally restricts herself to telling rather than showing what her characters are thinking and doing, so we are spared too much of the shamrockese. For example, when the villainess of the piece, "haughty stuck up Protestant bitch" Alice, first appears, she is smiling secretly to herself over a funeral. This is because she is evil.

Other ways in which we know that Alice is evil include being told that she is evilly plotting to beguile unfortunate widower Jerry, the fact that she doesn't want or like children, and the fact that she procures her own abortifacient from the chemists. Poor Jerry, not only tricked into having sex with a woman he doesn't like, but also forced to listen to "the sound of his would-be babies flushed down a tube". Well, not exactly sex: when he takes Alice roughly over the kitchen table, it is with such fury that "if Alice hadn't deliberately engineered this, his lovemaking would have bordered on rape". Fans of Hansard may here recall Dorries' claims that compulsory abstinence education for girls would prevent sexual violence.

Dorries made her name in parliament trying to make it more difficult for women to decide what to do with their own uteruses, but it's not that she would judge her characters for controlling their fertility. It's just that there's a right way and a wrong way in The Four Streets, and the wrong way is anything involving a chemist and the right way is highly mysterious. The deceased woman whom Alice is trying to replace knew the right way: the lovely Bernadette, Queen of Hearts of the Four Streets, "amazed them all with her ability to control her reproductive organs".

Dorries does not begrudge her heroine that remarkable power of will over womb, and although it is necessary for Bernadette to die in a tragic childbearing accident as she delivers her sole infant in hospital, that doesn't stop the inhabitants of the Four Streets reminiscing unrelentingly about Bernadette's angelic qualities. Nevertheless, the good Catholics do all appear to quietly absorb the reminder that perpetual pregnancy punctuated by squirting a kid onto the kitchen floor every nine months is the healthiest state for the Irish immigrant housewife, as no one in the novel tries their luck with such modern notions afterwards.

There are second chances for Dorries' characters, though. Bernadette gets to become the best dead mum the world has ever seen when she returns as poltermammy, fortuitously materialising whenever it is too late for her interventions to prevent something bad from happening, but just when a sweep of her "untameable" red hair will have maximum pathetic effect. (It really is extraordinary hair. When we first meet her, we watch her "do battle with her hair, which the wind had mischievously taken hold of and, lock by lock, teased out from under her black knitted beret". Less a hairstyle, more a Lovecraftian horror with its own self-directed will, it is perhaps only Bernadette's tragic passing that prevents this auburn terror from gaining full sentience and stalking vengefully through the Four Streets.)

Even Proddie bitch Alice finds absolution of a sort, Valiumed up to the eyeballs thanks to the tender conspiracies of her mother-in-law and GP. "The cuckoo in the nest had been put firmly in her place," says the satisfied narrator, and so we must believe there is hope in sedatives not only for Alice but also for all Protestants, given that she is their only representative in the book. But Dorries is not afraid to discuss the abuses of Catholicism. In fact, any expectations her publisher had of bulk orders from the Vatican must die in the person of Father James.

Like Alice, Father James is a very bad person and we know he is bad because we are told he is bad. Somehow, the families of the Four Streets fail to notice the manifest signs of evil that are narrated to us – but then, when your narrator speaks in a mix of inexplicable imagery (a child watches a strand of hair move around like "an overlarge windscreen wiper", even though we are later told that no one on the Four Streets has a car) and lines that read like clippings from Wikipedia ("maternal death from childbirth was the biggest single killer of young women, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds like their own") perhaps it is understandable that the simple folk of the Four Streets would miss the subtle signs of raging pederasty. On the other hand, since Father James has no character traits beyond raging pederasty, it's hard to explain why it takes his flock so long to get round to offing him in a heartwarming bit of community vigilante castration.

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up. Things in the novel appear to happen purely because they seem like a good idea at the time to the author. Characters potter in and then out again as soon as their service to the plot is done. The kitchen table that was the site of savage congress is revealed later to be made of Formica, which seems a material so unequal to the pounding described that one can only suspect transubstantiation. And when Dorries tries to sound a hopeful note of life at its end, she has apparently forgotten that the life in question is a foetus resulting from rape and growing inside a fourteen-year-old girl. In the face of such awfulness, I put on my best Oirish burr and say: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496