Party people: clubbers in Birmingham in 2012. Photo: Getty
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The nine-year bender: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised. But when it comes to partying, in art as in life, a little goes a long way.

Emma Jane Unsworth
Canongate, 256pp, £12.99

One should never judge a book by the celebrity quotes on its cover but it was hard to resist Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel once I saw that Caitlin Moran had called it “Withnail with girls”. I love Caitlin Moran! I love Withnail! I love girls! Sold, sold, sold.

Sure enough, I rattled through the first three chapters, chortling merrily at the wisecracks of Laura, our heroine (or anti-heroine, if you consider a heavy-duty drink-and-drug habit unsuitable for a positive role model), and her best friend, Tyler. We meet them in the aftermath of a big night on the town: “fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools . . .” Tyler, the Withnail of the piece, is still awake and smoking, dressed in a ratty old kimono emblazoned with her motto, “Death before defeat”.

These girls – despite being in their late twenties (Tyler) or thirties (Laura), they are definitely still girls – have spent the past nine years living together, tearing up the town, working dead-end jobs and, in Laura’s case, trying to see through the fug of stimulants in order to write a novel. Now change is looming in the form of Jim, Laura’s new fiancé, a concert pianist who has recently, to her great consternation, given up booze. Will Laura, like Withnail’s “I”, opt for a drier, more conventional life? Will she – shock, horror – go over to the “dark side” (child-rearing)? Or will Tyler convince her to carry on the party, even if it drives her into an early grave?

All the essential ingredients of a fine bohemian romp are in place: the cheerful squalor of the flat, with its grimy array of bathroom products and soiled banknotes hanging out to dry; the smart and sassy protagonists, who make you want to be in their gang (I loved Tyler baiting the local vegan hipsters who tell her off for having honey on her toast: “Bees LIKE MAKING IT. No one forces them to. Where will the madness end?”); the sexy and talented Jim, who doesn’t mind Laura’s drunkenness, incontinence or thread veins. For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised.

For the next 50, I gnashed my teeth as it all fell apart. Unsworth’s problem is that, rather like Tyler, she doesn’t know when to stop. The drunken exploits keep coming, relentlessly, and with ever-diminishing returns. There’s the night Laura wakes up with a roast chicken in her bed and the night Tyler draws on her eyebrows in permanent marker and the night they are held hostage by a drug dealer . . . All the nights blur into one long, repetitive, eventually nauseating boozeathon. By page 100, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with a soothing Horlicks and for Laura and Tyler to do the same.

When it comes to recreational drugs, in art as in life, a little goes a long way. It’s fun to go on a weekend bender with Withnail – and we might even try to match him drink for drink – but we don’t want to be stuck with him or, sadly, with Tyler for nine years. That is more than long enough for a reader to see past the “fun” and through to a harder truth: drugs make people self-centred and, ultimately, pretty boring.

The thing I couldn’t quite fathom about this book is why Unsworth, who I think recognises this, just doesn’t let it stop her. She includes various strands of plot that could have given the novel more depth and range – Laura’s dad is dying of cancer, Tyler’s sister has a baby, there are hints at Laura’s burgeoning spirituality – but she skates quickly over them and on to the next night out. Cynically, perhaps, I felt that she, or her publisher, had decided that the “Girls do drugs, too!” concept would be enough to get people reading.

I don’t want to be cynical, though, because Unsworth is a bright talent. Perhaps all she needs is to find an editor who knows when to call time.

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 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage