Wild thing: Aslan and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) in the 2005 film of The Chronicles of Narnia
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Rowan Williams on Narnia - an archbishop interrogates utopia

The archbishop goes beyond the wardrobe door.

The epigraph that prefaces this short volume is a quotation from Francis Spufford’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, The Child That Books Built: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must write children’s books.” Here Spufford is making a reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s celebrated dictum “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. It is a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism and some mockery – if you can’t speak about something, how can you be other than silent about it? – and it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.

In contrast, Spufford’s variation on Wittgenstein is straightforward and illuminating: children’s books enable their authors – and their adult readers – to gain access to parts of human experience that books written for grown-ups don’t touch. The boundaries may be increasingly porous – childhood and adulthood are rapidly hanging social institutions, not purely biological states – but it is true that children’s books disregard distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary in ways that most books meant for adults do not even attempt. It cannot be accidental that fantastic fiction is a branch of literature with a strong appeal for children and adults alike.

Spufford is on to something important but I’m not sure how much it helps Rowan Williams’s argument in regard to C S Lewis. The seven volumes of Narnia stories have never struck me as offering a glimpse into the world of childhood. Set in a magical realm reached through a wardrobe in an upstairs room in the house of a professor, they are all too obviously a literary rendition of a middle-aged male’s nostalgic memories of growing up in Edwardian England. At that time, writers such as George MacDonald – a Scottish Congregationalist minister and author of many novels of fantasy, including the influential Phantastes (1858) – were still being widely read, and the Narnia books are based as much on Lewis’s adult reading as on his memories of being a child. Partly for that reason, the series has always had, for me, a distinctly stuffy, derivative quality.

It is this kitschy, neo-Edwardian atmosphere – as much as the traces of racism and misogyny that Philip Pullman, a ferocious critic of the Narnia books, has identified in them –that mars any enjoyment there might be in entering the world imagined in the series. These books lack the freshness of vision of Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first and best of his three “science-fiction” novels – an exquisite blend of interplanetary travel and metaphysical quest whose only obvious predecessor is David Lindsay’s extraordinary A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), which is soaked through with a dark Gnosticism that Lewis, though greatly impressed by the book, rejected as “so Manichaean as to be almost satanic”.

Soon to be former archbishop, Williams first set out his view of Lewis in three lectures given at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011. This new concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the place of humankind in the scheme of things. As Williams observes, “There is no ‘church’ in Narnia, no religion even” in Narnia. Even so, it is the Christian world-view that Narnia embodies that Williams wants to understand and convey to his readers. Though he mounts a partial defence of Lewis against some of the more lurid critiques, Williams is not chiefly concerned with apologetics. His overriding aim is to uncover what is unfamiliar and challenging in Lewis’s view of things, particularly for contemporary readers who cannot think of the world as anything other than a human construction. Williams has used other writers to define what is disturbing and challenging in Christianity –most notably in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008).

Packed with arresting insight, The Lion’s World is his most successful exercise to date in this Christian version of hermeneutics. It has often been argued – by myself, among others – that monotheism is excessively humancentred. Against this view, Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in Narnia, he notes that Aslan, the “great lion” that figures in all seven books as a symbol of divinity, is non-human – an astonishingly bold move on Lewis’s part, given how Christianity is usually understood.

As Williams writes, “Some varieties of nervous and impoverished Christian mind have been anxious about this, as about Lewis’s blithe co-options of pagan mythology.” I am still not persuaded that Christianity can escape anthropocentrism, but the idea that “human beings are always already embedded in their relations to the non-human world” is true and important – and just as challenging to nervous and impoverished secular thinkers as it is to believers in religion. It is not only conventional understandings of Christianity that Lewis is contesting, in Williams’s interpretation, but an entire modern world-view.

“To be human is to be with the non-human world,” Williams writes, “even to be for the non-human world.” Narnia’s talking beasts free the mind from the world-view – underpinning what Williams describes as “the passionate campaign against nature itself that is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity” – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world. It is a fantasy of human omnipotence that Lewis probed in many of his fictions – particularly The Great Divorce (1944-45) and That Hideous Strength (1945), but also in The Abolition of Man (1943), his most persuasive book of advocacy, in which he argues that refashioning nature and human nature to fit ideas of perfection or progress not only empties the nonhuman world of value but also dehumanises humankind. As Lewis pointed out and Williams recognises, Christians aren’t the only people who find such a prospect repugnant. So do adherents of every religion and philosophy that recognises a world beyond the human to which humankind must, in the end, submit.

Written during the Second World War, The Abolition of Man is strikingly prescient regarding those currents of 21st-century humanist and transhumanist thinking in which the future for the human species lies in leaving behind its animal inheritance. By exiting the earth and becoming minds in cyberspace, humans might manage to escape ageing and death. At the same time, they would cease to exist as human beings. As Williams writes, summarising what he takes to be Lewis’s meaning in the Narnia books, “Humanity can be manipulated into a nightmare caricature of eternal life, but only by losing what makes it human.” It may be that the necessary technologies will eventually be developed but the cost for those who use them will be, in effect, to vanish from the human scene. No doubt there will be some who are happy to pay this price and for my part I’m more than happy to let them do so. As Williams shows in this mind-opening little book, Lewis’s achievement was to point out just how high the price will be.

The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams is published by SPCK Publishing and priced at £8.99


John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis