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Polymath at large: revisiting the travels of Andrew Solomon

Solomon’s gifts are so wide-ranging it can be hard not to believe he comes from an earlier century.

“I was a frightened little boy,” Andrew Solomon writes in this wonderful collection of essays. You would not guess it from reading the tales collected in this satisfyingly fat volume. If there is one quality that binds the book’s contents it is the author’s fearlessness. Solomon goes to places – Libya, Myanmar, Moscow during the coup attempt of August 1991 – where many might hesitate to venture at all. When he gets there he plunges right into the thick of things, whether that is hanging out with Russia’s avant-garde
artists as tanks move towards Red Square or meeting, in 2006, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, ­Muammar Gaddafi’s smoothly besuited son. (When Solomon asks why Libya is not proceeding more swiftly towards democratic reform, Saif says admonishingly that he must “be patient”.)

Solomon’s gifts are so wide-ranging it can be hard not to believe he comes from an earlier century, when the division between the arts and the sciences was less rigidly drawn. He is the president of PEN American Centre and a professor of psychology at Columbia University. He has the broad vision of the men and women of the Enlightenment – which is certainly not to say that there is anything old-fashioned about him, or his work. Rather, he has for many years been a groundbreaking writer. His 2001 book, The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression, has been published in 24 languages: generous and insightful, it approaches the subject from the perspective of one who is both a student and a sufferer. In Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2014, Solomon used his own experience, as a man who spent years coming to terms with being gay, as a base from which to examine how differences between parents and
children affect the lives of both.

A few pieces from both books make appearances here in somewhat altered form. It’s fair to give warning that all of the essays have appeared somewhere or another, but Far and Away never has the feeling of something recycled. Solomon visited Greenland to see how depression affected the Inuit people there, work that was published in The Noonday Demon; an update to the piece shows that things have not improved in the 15 years that have passed, not least because of the effects of global warming. “The loss of that landscape of ice,” he writes, “is not merely an environmental catastrophe, but a cultural one.” His urgent reportage from Libya is followed by a clear-eyed discussion of the catastrophe that has overtaken the country since Gaddafi’s fall – and why it was impossible to escape such a catastrophe.

A tale of this kind from Libya, or Solomon’s accounts of gay life in Moscow before the ferocious crackdown on LGBT rights, can induce a feeling of Schadenfreude in the reader; but Solomon himself never evinces such an emotion. What is striking about him as an author is his willingness, always, to learn. He knows that however much research he may have done about a place, he may never quite understand it: we stand at his shoulder, always hoping, as he does, to learn more. He is as inquisitive about the legacy of the Rwandan Genocide as he is about the extraordinary variety of Chinese food he encounters on a gastronomic tour of Beijing and Shanghai with the fashion designer Han Feng.

If that sounds like going from the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of a single sentence, then yes, this collection occasionally makes some strange juxtapositions. The pieces are organised chronologically, and because Solomon writes for such a variety of outlets – from the New Yorker to Travel + Leisure – horrors and delights sometimes appear side by side. That said, there is no need to read Far and Away straight through: keep it by your side, dip in and out, and you will be richly rewarded over and again.

Solomon begins by recounting how his father told him about the Holocaust. He was about seven, he recalls. The Solomons are Jewish, though they fled eastern Europe long before the Second World War. He was struck, as a little boy, by the way in which some non-Jews had helped their Jewish friends. “I came to understand that you could save yourself by broad affections,” he writes. “People had died because their paradigms were too local. I was not going to have that problem.”

And so this frightened child determined to make himself into a bold man. It is a boldness that reveals itself not in physical bravery (though he has learned to dive, he tells us, and has even gone skydiving), but in moral and emotional courage.

Such courage seems especially welcome, now. He travelled to Afghanistan in 2002 and met a group of artists. Hafiz Meherzad was one of them, a miniaturist working in a traditional form, a man who said he did not believe in innovation in his field. “You in America can innovate because your past is safe. Here in Afghanistan, we need to secure our past before we begin to create a future.” Solomon’s voice, in this book, is wise and humane, not least because he allows voices such as Meherzad’s to be heard.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and the editor of “First Light: a Celebration of Alan Garner” (Unbound)

Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change – Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years by Andrew Solomon is published by Chatto & Windus )578pp, £14.99).

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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