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Off the Record: how old books help us deal with new - and frightening - times

The best course of action in these times? Read old books for all the answers.

I made two resolutions back in January. 1) To keep a reading journal, recording the books I read, with a few notes on them, maybe a quote or two. 2) To spend at least the first half of the year reading old books. No specific era or genre in mind, just anything that wasn’t published in the past fifty years or so.

I love reading new fiction, and non-fiction, for that matter. Being part of the conversation about the latest books, sharing ideas with others reading a book at the same time, is one of the best bits of Twitter, when it operates like a huge and friendly book group. But sometimes I can feel caught in a race to keep up. The pile on the bedside table stares at me accusingly. Enough.

I started with the audiobook of Madame Bovary, listening to it on foggy Heath walks over the New Year period, lines leaping out at me in the gloom: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris”; “He felt dreary as an empty house”; “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers”. It reminds me that many writers say you should always read aloud anything you’ve written, in order to feel its rhythms and cadence. By the end of the 14 hours of listening, the book is inside my head and my head has gone somewhere else entirely, which I like.

Meanwhile, I’ve also read Bonjour tristesse and the first two books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m planning to work my way through John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, something by Raymond Carver, more by James Baldwin, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and War and Peace. Oh no, look at me: I’ve gone and made a list again.

It’s a list without pressure, though, as no one cares when or if I read these books and my opinions don’t need to keep pace with anyone else’s. And it feels like a relief not to have to be current. Is it wrong to want to distract myself? Am I in denial? It feels good, like changing channels, or turning the dial on a radio – other lives going on in other times. It makes me feel we’re not alone, stranded here in the present.

And relevance springs up everywhere. People have always felt like us; things we think we invented turn out to have been there all the time, and you’ll be reading away, merrily cocooned in the past, when you stumble across some observation that sounds like it was made yesterday.

For instance, this from my latest read, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns: “The sun seemed to shine perpetually . . . The summers used to be like that when I was a child, and in the winters there was always deep snow or hard frost. The weather has grown all half-hearted now.” We all claim that nowadays, whatever our age, but she wrote it back in 1950.

In A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell (1952), I find this quotation that perfectly describes the supposedly modern teen phenomenon of FOMO (fear of missing out): “There is a strong disposition in youth, from which some individuals never escape, to suppose that everyone else is having a more enjoyable time than we are ourselves . . .”

And finally – this passage from Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, where Nick Jenkins is talking about his disreputable uncle, made me sit up straight, in astonished recognition of the kind of chancer who now seems everywhere to be in power:


. . . Uncle Giles had been relegated by most of the people who knew him at all well to that limbo where nothing is expected of a person, and where more than usually outrageous actions are approached, at least conversationally, as if they constituted a series of practical jokes . . . The curious thing about persons regarding whom society has taken this largely self-defensive measure is that the existence of the individual himself reaches a pitch when nothing he does can ever be accepted as serious.


Oh Lord, I thought, there really is nothing new under the sun. You go reading old books looking for an escape into the past, and where do you find yourself? Slap bang in the middle of the present, as usual. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.