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10 September 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 10:05am

Reviews Round-up | 9 September

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By Maya Oppenheim

The Establishment: And how they get away with it by Owen Jones

Owen Jones takes on the establishment in his passionate polemic against the powers that be. The Guardian columnist explores the political injustice of British democracy, leading us from the board-rooms of Bishopsgate to corridors of Whitehall and the newsrooms of Fleet Street. All the while, arguing that the establishment poses the greatest threat to democracy today. Jones defines the establishment as ‘the politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy and police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful’. In doing so, Jones argues that the modern-day establishment is even more powerful than its predecessors because of it’s acceptance of a neoliberal cross-party consensus.

Archie Bland of The Independent is impressed with Jones’ powerful polemic. He maintains that ‘the book’s great strength lies in the simple power of accumulation. Again and again, Jones connects the dots in parallel lines, so that the single examples that might in themselves be dismissed as circumstantial or overblown become more or less unanswerable’. Bland also praises Jones for ‘his position as the standard-bearer of a youthful alternative to Westminster’s suffocating consensus’. Since being dubbed ‘our generation’s Orwell’ by Russell Brand, Jones’ political leverage continues to grow. In turn, Bland argues that ‘this book will strengthen that group’s hope to build what you might see as an alternative establishment of their own’.

While, The Financial Times’ Philip Augar applauds Jones’ strength of conviction, he also argues that his ‘sweeping, controversial assertions require substantiation if they are too land’. In doing so, Augur criticises Jones for failing to analyse the history which preceded the post-Thatcher settlement. In addition to this, Augur argues that Jones falls into the trap of using simplistic stereotypes to describe members of the establishment. Augur says that ‘such bias is disappointing from an author who in a previous book, Chavs (2011), criticised the stereotyping of the working class and who regards prejudice as one of the Establishment’s deadly sins’.

Private Island by James Meek

From the railways to postal services, energy companies, health services and social housing, Private Island maps the trajectory of privatisation. James Meek laments the marketisation that has occurred over the last three decades, as state-owned businesses have been moved into private hands and public services have been sold-off. Not only does Meek explore the economic dynamics at work, he also gives voice to the human stories behind the privatisation of the state.

The Guardian’s John Gray, praises Private Island, encouraging everyone to read it in order to ‘find out what has really happened in Britain over the past 20 years’. As ‘one of our finest writers’, Gray argues that Meek ‘couldn’t produce a dull sentence however hard he tried. The result is an unputdownable book that will leave you with a lasting sense of unease’. Nevertheless, he believes that Meek’s assertions about the similarities between British privatisations and the aggressive expropriations of the former Soviet Union are overstated.

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Emily Cadman from The Financial Times also applauds Private Island as ‘an energetic and colourfully told polemic against privatisation’. Nevertheless, Cadman is more critical because she believes that Meek fails to propose a solution to the problems which he raises. In Cadman’s words, while ‘it is a book to read if you want vivid details of what went wrong; it is not a manifesto proclaiming how to put things right’. What’s more, Cadman argues that Private Island is rather ‘disjointed’ in its feel and reads like a set of essays rather than a whole.

In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie

In Search of Solace explores Jacob Little’s journey to an isolated Highland town. After the relationship with his girlfriend Solace comes to an end, Jacob is overcome with existential angst and begins a journey to rediscover his identity. In doing so, he assumes a number of different identities, from Keith the archaeologist to Otto, the purple-bearded pagan to Isaac, the gardener and more. Jacob’s quest eventually leads him to his ex-girlfriend’s Scottish hometown.

Viv Watts from The Daily Express praises Mackie’s second novel for its ‘beautiful, clever, often funny prose that challenges conventions’. Watts also commends the complex layers of the narrative. Although Mackie ‘hops about, forwards and backwards, diverting from third-person to first-person, from years ahead to years before’, Mackie simultaneously manages to ‘subtly, layer by layer, peel away the preconceptions that she herself has introduced’.

The Independent’s Doug Johnstone, is less impressed with Mackie, concluding that although ‘In Search of Solace isn’t that bad, it could have been a lot better’. Johnstone argues that the themes of identity are ‘underdeveloped’ and thus underwhelming. What’s more, Johnstone believes that the novel ‘seemed to lack confidence in its own voice throughout’. Despite the fact that Mackie exhibits ‘some skilful characterisation’, Johnstone argues that this is weakened by the book’s ‘heavy-handed faux-playfulness’.

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