Mark Steel: Manages to be both left wing and funny.
Mark Steel is a stand up comedian and was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK. His book, “Reasons to be Cheerful” is a very funny insight into what it means to be on the hard left without losing your sense of humour. To be honest, I agreed with very little of his political analysis, primarily because it assumes, quite nobly, that the vast majority of people are honourable and selfless, something which has not been my experience of my fellow man. But then, maybe I’m just a magnet for pricks. Or one myself, maybe. After all, does one know if one is a prick?
For anyone who has had any experience of dealing with the hard left, he’s hit the nail on the head, especially in dealing with the massive proclivity towards self delusion and expectations of betrayal. Let’s be honest, socialists tend to spend far more time fighting each other than they ever do fighting the right. And no, before people get upset, I know the right has its own idiosyncracies. I was in the Progressive Democrats, for f**k’s sake. There is one very funny story in particular about a furious battle within a tiny Trotskyite group to prevent a hand cranked printer being used for counter-revolutionary purposes, and the group’s surreal response. Or another about his opposition to fascist lucky dip stalls.
One of those books you’ll find yourself rereading for the sheer pleasure of it.
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is most disturbing in it’s subtlety. Partly autobiographical, in that much of it is based on Roth’s experience of casual anti semitism growing up in New Jersey in the 1940s, it is essentially an alternate history novel.
What if All American Hero, Isolationist and effective anti semite Charles Lindbergh had defeated President Roosevelt in 1940?
It’s not a Nazi Germany by the Potomac story, but more about how an extremist idea can creep incrementally into the mainstream, gaining acceptance amongst people who would normally have opposed such a thing, even co-opting Jews into the project under the guise of anything for a quiet life.
The ending has been criticised, and it does read as if Roth suddenly frightened himself with how far he had progressed in making evil ideas seem banal.
Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel “The Day of the Jackal” has already secured its place in novel history. The concept, about right-wing French fanatics hiring a professional assassin to murder President de Gaulle in 1963 is daring for two reasons. The first is that it reads pretty much as a cold heavily detailed step by step almost journalistic expose of the plot rather than a thriller. The second is that we all know the outcome: President de Gaulle survived a number of assassination attempts, but died peacefully in an armchair in his home. In short, not as much a Who-Did-It as How-They-Did-It.
It shouldn’t work, yet it does, and brilliantly. So brilliantly in fact, that one finds oneself reading it again despite knowing the outcome and pretty much every twist in the story. Forsyth’s great success is his ability (honed as a foreign correspondent) to communicate great detail in a absolutely readable and enjoyable manner. For years later many believed it was a true story.
The book (and even more Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 masterpiece movie) also conveys nicely the Europe and France of its day. The shadow of the war still there, yet a continent on the verge of huge integration.
The movie is a stylish joy to watch. Cold and methodical, with minimal use of music, Edward Fox as the Jackal and Michel Lonsdale as the French police chief pursuing him steal the movie. A wealth of British TV stars of the 1970s fill the background.
Both the book and the movie are an absolute treat.
Mike Royko’s Boss is the definitive book on understanding Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and how a man modern times sees as a thug and a racist won the genuine affections of thousands.
If you only read the opening chapter, Royko (Who was as much a character himself as Mayor Daley, and straight out of central casting as the hardbitten big city newsman.) paints a picture of a day in the life of Daley, and it is fascinating. Royko blamed Daley, by the way, for the 1968 debacle at the Democratic convention and Nixon’s narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election later that year.
Daley was the classic Democratic Big City Boss in a one party city where, in some elections, the Democratic machine handpicked the Republican opponent. Yet there is also the machine where political careers and places on the party slate are won or lost because someone happens to go for a piss at the wrong time.
You also get to see the city leader who knows that he has to deliver to the little guy (As long as he’s the right colour and ethnic background, of course.) and has guys on the city payroll manning automatic elevators. Why? Because as Mayor Daley said, elevators don’t vote.
A slim volume and an absolute classic, and not just a history of a time but a lesson in how raw politics works.
Imagine a gang of uppity, beer-swilling, womanizing early thirtysomething yahoos decided to get a political unknown elected President of the United States. They did.
Joe Klein is more famous for the Clintonist Roman a clef “Primary Colours”, (He was Anonymous.) but he is primarily a US political reporter, and Politics Lost (2006) is a book covering his experiences, and more importantly, his disenchantment with the moronisation of modern US politics.
We slate the Americans on this side of the Atlantic, but Politics Lost is a fine example of what the Americans do best. Go into a bookstore in New York, and you’ll be swamped by short, entertaining books of both the right and left discussing politics and the way things should be. When was the last time an Irish politician dared actually tied himself to any but vacuous guff?
The book starts with a heartrending description of Bobby Kennedy telling a crowd of black voters in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jnr. had been shot and killed. Kennedy, whom the police chief refused to provide protection for, insisted on speaking in a black area, and gives an shocking unpolitically saavy but heartfelt speech to the crowd, and Klein points out that such a politician could not get elected today, as the media would crucify him for his unsanitized real feelings being voiced.
Klein then gives a fascinating picture of Patrick Cadell (Who later became a consultant on The West Wing.) who, along with Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, all in their late twenties/early thirties, got Jimmy Carter, an unknown one-term Georgia governor, elected President. Klein focusses on Cadell, very much the High Priest of modern in-depth political polling, and how his skills were able to help Carter et al completely sidestep the Democratic establishment and get an outsider elected.
Klein takes us right through to Clinton era to the 2004 election, deftly demonstrating how the perfecting of the election winning process is strangling the ability to actually run the country afterwards.
One of those books that’ll have political junkies reaching for the highlighter.
I’m often accused by friends of forcing books onto them because I liked them, and therefore buy copies of them as unwanted gifts for said friends in other to encourage the writer in my own tiny way to write more stuff that I like. It’s true.
I can’t understand why Max Barry is not huge. In fact it seems that whilst he is published in his native Australia and indeed in the US, he’s only relatively recently been published in Britain or Ireland, which I regard as bizarre given his style of humour. Company tells a story of Zephyr Holdings, an enormous company that no one quite seems to know what it actually does. A new employee starts poking around and discovers the truth, along the way giving a funny take on how large companies function. Or don’t.
I won’t ruin the book by revealing the plot or the funnier incidents in it, just to point you towards it as an entertaining and thoughtful take on corporate culture.
It’s very simple. If you enjoyed “The Martian” you’ll enjoy this.
It starts out very much in the same way, as a lone astronaut in a crisis far from home, but it’s not a Martian reboot, for reasons which I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to blow the various twists which Weir has quite skillfully put into it.
An astronaut wakes up on a ship to find his two crewmates dead and that he can’t remember even his own name, never mind where he is, or why. I won’t go any further than that, other than it delivers.
I listened to it on Audible (as I do with most fiction) and I find it helps in particular with Andy Weir as he’s quite science heavy (Potato planting, anyone? Martian inside joke there) and I struggle to grasp some of the concepts, but it’s a very well thought through book, even to the point of dealing with issues that “Star Trek” takes for granted.
The one weakness in it is the political aspects to it, which I assume were written pre-Trump and make assumptions that simply don’t apply anymore.
I’m not surprised it has already been optioned as a movie, and I’ll be first in the queue to see it.
Books like Geoff Norcott’s “Where did I go right?” are much more common in the US, where every aspiring conservative pundit attempts to carve out their niche on the politico-celeb circuit. Owen Jones has probably been the single most successful follower of that career path in the UK, and as a general rule, it is easier to do so coming from the liberal left that from the pro-Tory pro-Brexit right Norcott does. A former teacher turned stand-up comedian, he never set out to be political, but has managed to create for himself a rather niche position, being the centre-right comic that people on the centre and centre-left can actually enjoy. He winks at his left-wing fans rather than tries to disparage them, and if you are offended by Norcott, then let’s assume your threshold is pretty low.
I listened to the book on Audible read by Norcott himself and his stand-up experience has helped him write and deliver a very conversational and entertaining book. What really works is that Norcott doesn’t claim to start from a position of being morally right from the outset: the book is a journey through his childhood and career and those points in his life that shaped his world view, and why he came to be suspicious of the welfare system his own family used, or the casual approach to discipline in the schools he taught in, or his own family’s quite awful experiences of the NHS. All the recounted stories are funny but here’s the thing: there’s not one Jacob Rees-Mogg nanny moment that makes a left-winger go “Aha! That’s why he’s a tory weirdo!”. Every turning point, from traditional Labour family with union rep dad to New Labour to Lib Dem to Cameronite Tory is the result of a logical step. Where he challenged a piece of left-wing boilerplate and decided that it didn’t make sense to him or his aspirations for himself of his family.
One common theme of the book is his constantly meeting upper middle class people who not only believed they knew better than him as to what his class needed, but became quite uncomfortable when confronted by actual working class people like him.
I didn’t agree with everything he said, not surprisingly. But as an insight into how traditional working-class families end up voting Tory, it’s worth a read.
One other thing: it’s quite concise, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. The ability to get across a story in a relatively short volume is a skill.