Sleeve notes

Records are more fun when you can see them.

I am in the process of moving house, again. Ever since university, this has involved lugging around huge piles of records to which I rarely listen; I haven't even any idea what the vast majority of them are. I'm thinking of getting rid of most of them. Curb your gasps - I won't be disposing of my 180-gram version of Nina Nastasia's On Leaving, but there has to be a cull: my arms hurt.

The main downside to this is that I'll miss the sleeves. I wander around record shops looking at all the bright colours, moody photos, funny shapes, sultry portraits and bad haircuts, wondering what these albums sound like. On many occasions, I have spent my earnings on these treasures only to return home to discover that I already owned them as faceless computer files.

So I thought I'd look up a few of my favourite new faceless albums. I'll now describe some of them to you, so you'll know what to look for when you're out shopping. On the first, there's a black-and-white drawing of a girl sleeping on a lion. This image doesn't relate well at all with the music inside. The band is called the Finches and their album On Golden Hill (Ulrike Records) is a very pretty and dreamy record that does, indeed, promote the joys of sleep, yet nowhere in the music is there a sense of the kind of anxiety one would feel should one try to take a nap on one of nature's most dangerous creatures. The album is simple and short but very sweet. I think a lion would enjoy it. And, come to think of it, I could imagine trotting around on a lion's back listening to this, perhaps gently stroking its mane.

The Babies have a great new album out. It is also called The Babies (Shrimper) and the sleeve is a rather chaotic thing: lots of junk displayed on a wall, postcards of the American wilderness, religious iconography, fairy lights and home-made models of pyramids. The Babies is a desperate, lost and tired-sounding record, but in the coolest possible fashion: it's full of great, lazy-sounding pop songs. It is also the perfect record to run away to, if anyone is considering that.

Next, a photograph of five serious-looking men sitting outside with a menacing-looking dog, all staring straight at the camera and, consequently, at you, almost daring you to listen to the album. It's called Mortika - Recordings from a Greek Underworld (Mississippi), a compilation of 21 underground Greek folk songs about drugs, sex, crime, poverty and heartbreak. I don't speak Greek, which makes it impossible for me to be shocked by the stories told in these songs.

What I am left with is a series of very innocent, lovable and scratchy-sounding archive recordings that could quite easily be about hugging your mum, eating sweets or doing charity work. Song titles such as "Hash Smoking Chicks" are the only indication that this might not be the case. Many of them are very suitable for dancing along to, but my favourites are those that are so worn that, at times, you can barely hear anything. They fade in and out as though the music is being played from another building and snippets of it keep managing to drift in through your open window. Bliss. l

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This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era