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Who’d have thought it

Penguin’s Great Ideas series is too Eurocentric, too male – but at least it’s made it cool to pull a

Just over a year ago, the Bookseller announced the third and final series of Penguin Great Ideas. According to Adam Freudenheim of Penguin Classics, "Sixty [three batches of 20] feels like a lot of great ideas, and if you went beyond that, you would begin to be scraping the barrel." But here we are, a year on, with yet more Great Ideas coming out and plans in hand for a fifth series; and, it has to be said, there is little sense of any barrels having been scraped.

The series, which began in 2004, has been one of the conspicuous publishing triumphs of the new millennium. Penguin took a mixed bag of out-of-copyright texts - a bit of philosophy, a bit of political polemic, some belles-lettres - some of them obscure, none of them an obvious crowd-pleaser, and, with clever repackaging, turned them into a highly commercial proposition. Almost two and a half million books have been shifted so far. Simon Winder, publisher of Penguin Press, offers John Ruskin as an example of the series' success. The standard Penguin Classics selection of his writings, with an introduction and explanatory notes, sells a steady hundred or so copies every year; Ruskin's On Art and Life, the first of two selections published in Great Ideas, stripped of apparatus and given an attractive floral design, has sold 35,000 in five years.

The original great idea was Winder's, though he is careful not to hog the credit, much of which he insists on passing on to the Italian series the Piccola Biblioteca Adelphi. Winder first encountered these slim, elegant editions through a volume of Schopenhauer at a railway bookstall in Italy. What struck him was where the books were being sold, their weight, and their cheapness. At the time he was, he says, uneasy about the extent to which Penguin Classics, conceived by Allen Lane and E V Rieu as a way of getting great literature into the hands of the general public, had been "encased in ownership material".

It is not hard to identify the sort of thing he means: M A Screech's much-praised complete edition of Montaigne's essays springs to mind - some of the most transparent writing in western literature, so armoured with explanation and context that it becomes practically unreadable. The Great Ideas were a way of giving the reader "a direct line to the author". Publishers have regularly made efforts to pre-digest great thinkers of the past on behalf of the reader - Oxford's Past Masters, say - but there has been a surprising reticence about inflicting the actual writers, in their own words, on an unprepared public. Plunging unaided into The Social Contract, you may not grasp everything Rousseau is saying, but what you are getting is Rousseau, undiluted, unmitigated.

The Great Ideas are cheaper and less forbiddingly bulky than Penguin Classics, but what really sets them apart is their beauty. Design has always been one of Penguin's strengths, but David Pearson's treatment for Great Ideas takes paperbacks into a new league: strong single colours (red, then blue, then green) on debossed card. Pearson's background is in typography, and the first series relied on words alone, re-creating the look of a title page from the appropriate period - 18th century for Swift's Tale of a Tub, modernist severity for Freud's Civilisation and Its Discontents; the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius looked like an inscription on a Roman tomb. For the first time it was cool to pull a volume of Edmund Burke from your pocket. Winder recalls standing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, watching people snapping the books up "like candy".

Not everybody loves Great Ideas without qualification. The series has been criticised for being too Eurocentric, too male. It's true that of the first 60 books only four were by women - Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, Christine de Pizan and Hannah Arendt; the latest batch of 20 adds only another selection of Woolf's essays. It's also true that an overwhelming number of the writers are white. But I think Winder is right to meet these complaints with a shrug. Great Ideas represent the view from here, not from some imaginary, neutral mid-Atlantic or mid-Pacific territory. The series has, on the whole, resisted tokenism in favour of continuities of debate: what was satisfying about Frantz Fanon's appearance in last year's third series, in the shape of an extract from The Wretched of the Earth, was that he stood alongside Burke, Trotsky and Ruskin - that he was treated not just as a post-colonial thinker, but as a philosopher arguing on equal terms about the nature of politics, violence and freedom. And the problem with female writers is that they have been marginalised, and too many of the significant ones are still in copyright: Simone de Beauvoir's publishers refused Winder permission to republish her work.

Harder to counter is the criticism that too many of the works are extracts from longer books. Winder himself agrees that this can be a problem - last year's batch included a chunk of Foucault, "which, even as I was reading it, struck me as a waste of time". But, he says, "If you really want to read Schopenhauer, you're better off getting a proper edition. But if you want to know why you should read Schopenhauer . . ." This is reasonable but ignores the real problem: not that the books contain extracts only, but that they are not clearly marked as such. It would be easy to buy a copy of the John Locke in the latest batch and not realise that you were getting sample chapters from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke is one of several gaping holes plugged by this new batch, along with William James, on behalf of American pragmatism, and Immanuel Kant, whose brief essay on the meaning of Enlightenment (in summary, it is freedom through the use of reason) could be taken as an apologia for this entire series. The English tradition of essay-writing is beefed up by the presence of Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey and Robert Louis Stevenson (somewhat out of fashion as an essayist). Some writers get a second outing: Woolf, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Marx (even though mystifyingly we get a selection of his newspaper journalism, when such great polemics as The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon are begging for a popular reprint); Orwell makes a third appearance.

For the first time, the series tries fiction - the Grand Inquisitor episode from The Brothers Karamazov, which stands comfortably on its own; and a selection of soliloquies and short scenes from Shakespeare on the themes of "Power in government", "Power in the family", "Power in war and violence" and "Power in love". In justification, Winder cites someone who told him that although Shakespeare is one of the great Renaissancethinkers on power, we have to sit through those tedious plays to get to the good bits. Yet Shakespeare is a dramatist, displaying thought through plot, action and character; stripped of context, his ideas look dull and unsubtle.

The biggest revelation is Joseph de Maistre, the arch-critic of the Enlightenment, usually encountered through the filter of Isaiah Berlin. He is a strikingly old-fashioned, conservative thinker, but his anticipation of strands of American conservatism is patent, and it is a smart riposte to Kant (although Kant wins, naturally). The outstanding volume in this batch, though, is Why Look at Animals? by John Berger - thanks to the intervention of Geoff Dyer, the first living writer to be featured in Great Ideas. Berger's writings on man's place in nature can be annoyingly gnomic, but the theme could hardly be more timely; and he has delivered a batch of drawings of mice and a new short story on a mouse theme. This book is also notable for its cover, a homage to Fifties Pelicans by Pearson and Joe McLaren.

Elsewhere, it must be said, Pearson et al seem to be running out of steam. For the first time, with W E B Du Bois and Abraham Lincoln (The Gettysburg Address), he resorts to drawings of the author, and neither is successful (Du Bois ends up looking like Lenin). Some of the covers feel like rehashes: the Johnson, Consolation in the Face of Death, is printed on a black background, as was Burke's The Evils of Revolution last time round. William James has a picture of an abattoir - marvellous, but little to do with the book's theme.

Still, the overall standard is very high. Stevenson's An Apology for Idlers gets an amusing half-drawn cover. The title of Orwell's Decline of the English Murder becomes a headline in a postwar newspaper. An anthology of Zen fables - paradoxes and enigmas irritating beyond words, to my mind - gets a simple "O" painted with a brush, but underneath is the zinger, a tiny violet pictogram of a penguin.

There are still gaps to be filled, and the fifth series will include Heidegger, Descartes, Mill and Dickens's journalism. Winder now says a hundred volumes feels "about right". But as long as there are writers yet unpublished (Aristotle? Coleridge? Bentham? A Huxley or two?), or with more to say (Hume? Hobbes? Adam Smith? Darwin?), that barrel looks awfully deep.

The Great Ideas series titles are published by Penguin (priced £4.99 each)

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?