Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a reviewer for the Morning Star.

Times Change
Tuesday, 03 January 2017 22:18

Times Change

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews John Ellison's debut novel.

Times Change really shouldn’t be such a satisfying read. John Ellison’s debut novel contains so many of those elements that singularly, leave alone collectively, ought to kill off any work of fiction before the end of the first chapter. Not so. Set over the period of a few months in 1979-80 in a local council, it centres on the office rivalries and child protection issues dealt with by a small team of lawyers and social workers. The author’s steady, patient and determined style and acute but humane observations — much like those of Robert Fordham, his protagonist — surprisingly enfold the reader in a slow and gentle embrace.

Fordham, a newly qualified solicitor for the London Borough of Haringey, seems equally a novice when it comes to meaningful relationships and, though he speedily develops as a professional, his advances on the sexual front are less rapid. But, through Fordham’s eyes, Ellison shows a council and a society already beginning to buckle under the Thatcher administration’s attacks.

The class divide is tellingly explored at the different benches of Holborn and Tottenham magistrates’ courts and in the schism between a sterile and mean-spirited management and a workforce, still idealistic but overwhelmed by the demands placed on them. Ellison’s fly-on-the-wall style captures the always awkward and frequently combative encounters in various stuffy rooms as Fordham seeks child protection orders for runaway teenagers, possibly poisoned youngsters and at-risk babies. His observation of the process and procedures needed to secure such outcomes at a time when the interests of children were not always treated as paramount by the legal system is an eye-opener. The author also highlights the often unlauded but essential work of shop stewards seeking to hold managers to account as they slyly bully and undermine their staff.

Times Change is a reminder that even as the Establishment renews its assault, the slow and steady resistance of working-class people can make a difference and through joint action positive results can be achieved — even if they might take decades to secure. A young Jeremy Corbyn appears leading a protest on Duckett’s Common against the first wave of savage Tory cuts and we know what he has since achieved and inspired.

This is not a classic “leftist” book — there’s no heroic revolutionary narrative — and it’s unlikely that it will be read in the trenches of the class struggle. But for those curious to more fully analyse the underlying mechanisms of societal development that lie behind Lenin’s dictum that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen,” Times Change is a must.

 

John Ellison adds: I wished in this book to convey a picture of the inadequacies of child protection law as it was at the end of the seventies, inadequacies which were mitigated only by high-level commitment from those working in that field. I wished also to convey a flavour of how it was to work in local government at a moment when the still largely solid pack-ice of the post-war class compromise was beginning to crack under the first onslaughts of the Thatcher government, and when resistance was already more than an idea. Times were, indeed, changing.

Times Change is published by Matador at £8.99.

Saturday, 29 October 2016 15:24

The Handsworth Times

Published in Fiction

Paul Simon reviews a novel set in 1980s Handsworth, at the time of the riots.

This novel by Sharon Duggal of life in early-1980s working-class Birmingham during the time of inner-city rioting is defined by the greater and lesser griefs of the Agarwal family.Through their voices, the wonderful cussedness of a people and a community that will not be destroyed either by itself or by others speaks loud and clear.

The tone of loss is set early on, with father Mukesh Agarwal supping in a pub as the storms of a riot gather around him. In the mayhem of the confrontation, he helps to smother the flames engulfing a young man just before the ambulance arrives. A little later, Mukesh’s son Billy is knocked down and killed by a hurrying ambulance and, while Duggal is too good an author to suggest it’s the same vehicle, Mukesh’s devastation is complete.

As he slips into even greater alcoholic incoherence and joblessness, the other family members gravitate to different points on the compass of grief. The mother Usha, trying to wash away the stain of her loss, is obsessed with cleaning while son Kavi becomes totally nihilistic. Eldest daughter Nina escapes to university and commits the most heinous crime — she falls in love with a Pakistani man, while Kamela’s first experience of same-sex affection is shattered by violence and she retreats into the home. Anila, the youngest and most outspoken daughter, joins the dots between the family’s struggles and those of the wider community and becomes an activist in the Handsworth Youth Movement.

She, at least, confronts the wider griefs that threaten their community — the street thuggery of the still potent National Front and the vicious class struggle unleashed by the Thatcher administration’s deliberate destruction of manufacturing and the trade unions. But along with real solidarity lies betrayal and further violence and Anila must struggle to come to terms with a confusing and fallen world.

The novel accords all of these characters, with the exception of the declining Mukesh, the power of agency. Usha, no longer just a weeping mother figure, suddenly emerges as a catalyst for change. All, with the support of others, summon the energy to give voice to the community’s concerns and in doing so reunite the fraying bonds of working-class solidarity in new ways.

The Handsworth Times, utterly of a specific place and time but also universal in its themes, is a prose act of praise to the humanist spirit that will never succumb to fear and hatred. It is quite simply the most accomplished, complete and startlingly authentic novel I have read this year.

The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose at £8.99. This review first appeared in the Morning Star.

Symphony No.7
Monday, 01 February 2016 15:17

Book Review: The Noise of Time

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Paul Simon reviews The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes.

A Pravda editorial early in 1936, possibly written by Stalin himself and more probably merely with his knowledge, is the hinge upon which Julian Barnes’s imaginings of Dmitri Shostakovich’s interior life turns. In this ruthless appropriation of the great Soviet composer for his own anachronistic liberal fantasies Barnes, in the book’s opening section, has the composer at his Leningrad apartment, suitcase packed, as he awaits a visit to take him to the “Big House” after Pravda’s criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District.

The second section starts in a plane returning from New York, where the rejuvenated composer muses upon his experiences as part of a Soviet cultural delegation to the US in the 1940s and the third is prompted by a car journey some 25 years later as the elderly Shostakovich reflects upon the tumultuous musical and political times through which he has lived. 

Any reader familiar with David Pownall’s anti-Soviet theatrical travesty Masterclass, or the numerous biographical texts based on Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, should give The Noise of Time a wide berth. Like those works, this is a novel without subtlety, nuance or context. Every Shostakovich work in a major key is sarcasm, while those in a minor one are a criticism of the Soviet system. 

Its enervating Manichaeism presents on the one hand a composer in all his glorious, pure individualism and doubting integrity and on the other the bureaucratic, relentless and unyielding presence of “Power” — the Communist Party. In this cartoonish universe, detached entirely from the achievements and challenges of Soviet life, Shostakovich is not the protagonist. It is Barnes himself, projecting his identity into a Soviet simulacrum in which the Barnes-Shostakovich incubus as a liberal hero struggles with the unreasonable demands of a society in the process of change, as well as his own interior demons.

Thus Barnes-Shostakovich laments his late father: “Had he lived any longer, he would have watched the Revolution turn sour, paranoid and carnivorous.”

Even so, that persona acknowledges the need for composers, as engineers of the human spirit, to represent something more than their own immediate needs and vanities.  Yet even at this point of collectivist realisation, Barnes-Shostakovich rages against the democratic hope of the Soviet system that miners could one day also become composers.

Barnes has it in particularly for Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the Union of Soviet Composers from 1948, yet the greater reputational mugging is reserved for Shostakovich himself.  That the composer both prospered and suffered under the Soviet system is undeniable, as is the fact that he confounded and exasperated in equal measure. But Barnes in his alter ego guise seeks to appropriate this quintessentially Soviet citizen as one of his own — out of time, out of culture and out of reality.

The great composer is merely a useful vehicle for Barnes to revisit the tiresome concept of the mighty artist standing alone and omnipotent against collective imperatives, of which he is actually a part.  Barnes is too worldly and experienced an author to have framed his novel in such a laborious and lamentable way by accident and it’s thus difficult to view it as anything other than the bilious outpourings of a useful idiot for the anti-Soviet brigade. 

 

The Noise of Time is published by Jonathan Cape, £14.99. This review was first published in the Morning Star.

Content, Form and Universality
Monday, 14 December 2015 21:06

Content, Form and Universality

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Paul Simon introduces some book reviews.

Lenin was clear as to the purpose of literature. He saw it as the cogs and wheels of the revolutionary cause. Dismissing bourgeois concepts of the ‘’absolute freedom’’ of the writer, literature only has value to the socialist when it is directly connected to the liberation struggles of the working class. As he said in Party Organisation and Party Literature 'one cannot live in society and be free from society. The freedom of the bourgeois writer, artist or actress is simply masked (or hypocritically masked) dependence on the money-bag, on corruption, on prostitution'.

Building on this clear sense of purpose, Anatoli Lunacharsky, the Soviet Union’s first Commissar of Education, outlined the role of the socialist critic in evaluating literature. In his Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism, he states 'everything that aids the development and victory of the proletariat is good; everything that harms it is evil'.

Lunacharsky identifies three key criteria that upon which the socialist reviewer should focus his or her efforts: content, form and universality. Obviously the material facts of our present world are quite different to those of 1928 when the Theses were written. Although the prospects for a wider working class revolution were uncertain by then, socialist means of production, distribution exchange and thought were being consolidated in the Soviet Union itself.


In the twenty first century, the over-arching dominance of capitalism and its myriad tools of control – the rise of e-publishing notwithstanding - mean that the role of the socialist reviewer is arguably more of a defensive rather than an offensive one in reminding readers of the prospect of a better society and possible steps towards it in his or her writings. Therefore, in my approach to literary criticism for the Morning Star, I have somewhat concentrated on a select number of basic questions within each of Lunacharsky’s criteria:

· Content: does the book expose the real nature of society or does it deal with marginal and trivial matters? Does it empower and inspire or immiserate and confuse the working class reader as regards collectivist action?
· Form: does the form naturally and effectively support the content or does it detract from it? If the form is innovative, to what extent do its innovations reflect a working class perspective?
· Universality: regardless of differential cultural references, does the work demonstrate the existence of similar realities for readers irrespective of their backgrounds or does it merely exaggerate differences? Does the work appeal equally to different types of workers or does it differentiate between them and so fragment its appeal?

Lunacharsky also – rightly – warns against the socialist reviewer getting above him or herself. Reviewers should not be cast as the sole arbiters of the correct response to a novel or short story. That is why I am thrilled at the existence of this section of this website, which allows a more collectivist evaluation of contemporary literature. I hope you enjoy my reviews, and I look forward to reading yours.
Lizzie Burns, 1865
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:46

Book review: Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea

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Gavin McCrea was inspired to write this fictionalised account of Lizzie Burns by the fleeting references to her in Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. Obviously, had he read the superior description of the latter’s life by John Green, he would have learnt a little more about her. Nonetheless, the relative lack of information about both Lizzie and her sister Mary, an earlier lover of Engels, provides the spaces within which McCrea has been able to imagine her voice, her body and her character in this exceptionally absorbing and satisfying novel. And in so doing, McCrea gives flesh and feeling back to not only Engels, but also Karl Marx, his family and a host of others associated with the birth of scientific socialism. These are the poster boys of our movement taken down from the banners we carry and placed firmly in the midst of their own challenges and triumphs.

The action alternates between London in 1870/1 and Manchester in the 1860s. In the former, Lizzie and Engels are establishing themselves, with varying degrees of success, in Primrose Hill so as to be nearer to the Marx family and the centre of the nascent International during the tumultuous times around the rise and destruction of the Paris Commune.

The mood progressively darkens, not only because the Engels’ household becomes the target of state agents and brick-wielding thugs, but also due to Lizzie’s declining health. In the earlier period, there is an equal sense of tension, but in this case largely confined within the domestic sphere as Lizzie’s ambiguous and at times downright suspicious attitude to Engels and his treatment of Mary is played out. Engels comes across as being genuinely concerned with both of them, but all too frequently distracted by his wider work and relationship with Marx.
The Lizzie created, or maybe more accurately re-created, by McCrea is an expression of her class and nationality’s growing sense of their own subservient situation.

‘Mrs’ Engels emerges as a no-nonsense Sancho Panza to her partner’s Quixote. She is better by far in dealing with the nuances and stresses of straddling two quite distinct social worlds, although this didn’t extend to building a mutually respectful relationship with her domestic workers – wonderful Moliere characters both better with the back chat than with the breakfast. Whilst only tangentially interested in the fate of continental revolutionaries, Lizzie maintains her old Irish contacts and involves herself in providing a safe house for those involved in the daring but ultimately failed attempt to rescue two Fenian freedom fighters, Kelly and Deasy, from their fate at the hands of British justice.

Purists might dislike and recoil from descriptions of Engels’ penis or Marx’s carbuncles, but McCrea re-creates such a detailed sense of turbulent times and turbulent people that the reader is engaged and enthralled by both the personal and revolutionary worlds colonised by his characters no matter what. Lizzie Burns emerges from it all as a working class woman to be admired and loved, not only because of her loves and friendships, but because of her unsentimental courage and determination to build a better world.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.

The enervating intrusiveness of Facebook
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:42

Book Review: Fluence, by Stephen Oram

Published in Fiction

The premise of Stephen Oram’s extraordinarily gifted, detailed and believable novel only requires the reader to project current economic and social trends forward a decade or less. Imagine an immediate-future world where the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has utterly triumphed. Think forward a little to a country which is run for and by five big multinationals who have replaced all state functions and where its inhabitants are constantly monitored, their status and income (the ‘Fluence’ of the title) measured through their compliant popularity on social media.

This is a society that combines the enervating intrusiveness of Facebook and Linkedin with the rapaciousness and cruelty of Atos. Into this dehumanising world, Oram offers us two flawed protagonists who each in their way challenge the control and assumptions of a corporatised society. Amber and Martin work for the Bureaucracy, the organisation used by the corporations to manage the rainbow-coloured social stratification system (with red at the top and violet at the bottom) that underpins their control of the populace.

Amber’s motivation is purely personal. She has been stealing data in order to better manipulate the system’s algorithm to ensure her promotion to a higher level. Martin, a more politically motivated family man is in danger of slipping down to a lower tier and is worried about his son, Max. When we first encounter her, Amber is a desensitised apparatchik, coolly fulfilling the Bureaucracy’s requirements not to re-classify citizens clearly unfit to work. Martin is more compassionate, but constrained by his own fears for his status and that of his family. They are linked not only by what they do, but by the fact that Max is Amber’s blackmailer.

Oram takes his characters on a Dante-esque journey into a world devastated by fear and greed, from the patrician ‘reds’ down to the ‘outliers’ those who have opted out or been pushed to opt out of corporate society. Both Amber and Martin suffer from the physical and mental sadism that allows those at the top to exercise their warped fantasies upon those at the bottom without redress.

The author has created a vivid and frightening vision and the resulting verisimilitude of a believable world just around the corner is an outstanding feature of this novel. Sometimes the dialogue is a little wooden and I struggled to easily identify the different voices given to his characters – many sound rather the same. But maybe that was a deliberate ploy to underline the homogenisation demanded of people by big business? The world of Fluence may soon be upon us. We must act to stop a pulsating piece of fiction becoming our terrible reality.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.

The lost dreams of Republican Spain
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:37

Book review: Drought, by Ronald Fraser

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This is probably the most obviously autobiographical novel by the late Ronald Fraser.

The founder of New Left Books, which includes the Verso imprint, was a renowned and sympathetic writer on Spain and in particular the Spanish Civil War. Drought is set in a remote hillside village a couple of decades after the defeat of the Republican government and its replacement by Franco’s smothering tyranny. Through the eyes of John Black, a very Fraser-esque character, it tells of the unforeseen impact of efforts to build a new dam, the pet project of a thrusting, monomaniac ex-pat Englishman.

In its closely and minutely observed accounts of the sufferings and indignities of the largely impoverished community of sharecroppers, especially the seemingly impenetrable Miguel, which is mirrored in the worsening lack of water, there are echoes of both Hemingway and Laurence Durrell. Yet the closest literary equivalent is probably that of Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw. Whilst Drought is certainly the very particular story of Miguel who commits suicide in despair at the thwarting of his hopes for respectability through both the acquisition of land and a wife, it is also an extended metaphor for a Spain in the midst of an uneasy and unstable transition.

The drought of the arid, cruel and repressive clericalism and landlordism of Francoist social structures are beginning to crack and fissure in the face of an increasingly globalised capitalism that is threatening many whilst also offering opportunities of enrichment for the few. John himself, by dint of his mere presence in the village, is a confusing and confused harbinger of change and indeed destruction impacting upon the lives of Miguel, his sister Ana, and Juana his novia or betrothed.

The latter third of the book is John’s literary re-imagining of Miguel’s life from his youth in the Civil War where he sees the family split between the idealistic brother and the conservative, calculating father. His later experiences of being a shepherd in the hills and encountering bandits – many of whom are ex-Republican soldiers – confirms in Miguel’s mind the need for personal economic independence. But having to give half of his yearly crop to the ghastly ultra-montane Maria Burgos, who refuses to allow a watercourse from the dam to cross her land and irrigate his dying crops, showing that his aspirations are unachievable, either under Francoism or capitalism.
As a minor character observes drily “Casa Colorada would never be his”.

The cataclysmic ending suggests that it is not only Miguel but many others who will continue to mourn the lost dreams of the 1936-39 Republic and suffering the depredations of the ruling classes.

This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.

Book review: A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines
Thursday, 10 December 2015 21:33

Book review: A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines

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This reprint of Ernest J Gaines’ extraordinary account of an African-American man’s wait before his execution is timely. Not only because the release of Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel Go Set a Watchman reminds us that African American novelists are better than even the best white liberals in articulating the pain and corruption of institutionalised racial hatred. It is also appropriate given the enduring and vicious state attacks currently being launched against the African-American population in towns and cities across the USA.

A Lesson Before Dying is set in 1940s Louisiana. It is a stifling and sweltering combat between opposing forces interlocked in the months leading up to the execution of Jefferson, a young man convicted of an armed robbery and murder he did not commit. Spurred on by the patronising and ineffectual arguments of Jefferson’s defence counsel, almost an anti-Atticus Finch, and especially the reference to his being as sentient as a ‘hog’, his family strive to give him some dignity before death.


They engage the local teacher, Grant Wiggins, to pay a series of prison visits to convince him that he is not a ‘hog’, rather a man. In Wiggins, Gaines has created an incredibly complex and truly believable first-person protagonist. A qualified teacher disillusioned by coming back home and instructing his African American pupils to a level just suitable enough for them to work in the local cotton and sugar cane fields, Wiggins kicks against the expectations of Jefferson’s family. This is a task he does not want to do. It forces him to come face-to-face again with the forces of white supremacist hegemony that he know so well and so suffer all of the little and not-so-little humiliations heaped upon an African American with ideas and the education to articulate them.


He also sets his face against the Reverend Ambrose who looks to Wiggins to help Jefferson find forgiveness in religion alone. Wiggins does not believe that is all that Jefferson wants.Rather, slowly, painfully slowly, Wiggins builds a relationship with the condemned man, giving him a radio to listen to music and notepaper and a pencil to write his story as a man. The last chapter, which uses different voices to document the arrival of the electric chair, is almost Dostoevskian in its unblinking but horrified telling.

This is not a feel-good novel, which is probably why unlike To Kill A Mockingbird it hasn’t been made into a film. Yet it is not without some hope. In the person of Paul, the white deputy sheriff at the jail, there is a singular sense that not all of the majority population have been so deformed by the evil of this system of economic and racial exploitation that they cannot reach across in solidarity.

This is an edited version of a review first published in the Morning Star

Book review: A Very British Ending, by Edward Wilson
Thursday, 10 December 2015 19:32

Book review: A Very British Ending, by Edward Wilson

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I confess: I was always going to be personally, professionally and critically supportive of this engaging and intriguing novel. For between all the various British, American and Soviet spies who populate this book, the real hero is……Harold Wilson. I’ve had a soft spot for the maligned (maligned that is by right-wingers and ultra leftists) Labour Prime minister. After all, it was the Wilson government whose education reforms gave me, a working class boy, the chance to go to university. I ended up at Wilson’s old college and recall as a truculent undergraduate almost literally bumping into him in the mid-1980s as he was led around the college grounds by the then Principal. He looked both ill and ill-at-ease.

Edward Wilson’s novel interweaves fictional characters within the fabric of reported history to show how Wilson the politician, at that point the President of the Board of Trade, was a marked man the moment he delivered Rolls Royce engines – in return for food and timber – to Stalin’s embattled country in the 1940s at the behest of Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps. The CIA – and the bourgeois elements in the British secret services - needed a fall guy as a lever to tighten their growing grip on the right-wing of the Labour Party. From then on, Wilson was the subject of a continuous surveillance and destabilisation campaign. No wonder he was paranoid. The Cold Warriors in the West were indeed always out to get him.

Through the eyes of William Catesby, a fictional and utterly sympathetic left-wing British agent, the plots to stymie Wilson and the socialist wing of the Labour Party are exposed in all their duplicitous and serpentine detail.
The relentless campaign to undermine Wilson (codenamed ‘Oatsheaf’ in CIA records) reaches a peak as he refuses US requests to send troops to Vietnam and the book suggests that his subsequent resignation in 1976 was the result of a ‘soft’ coup d’etat, with tanks and troops discreetly positioned near to airports and key areas in Westminster should muscle be needed to back up the media and political campaign of hatred.

Author Wilson does for his namesake what DM Thomas does for JFK. For just as the latter’s Flying into Love humanises and quite possibly sentimentalises the 35th US president, so this novel shows Harold Wilson as a good and decent man, beset by rogues, traitors and the combined might of the military-industrial complex.
Catesby is a spy who can never shake-off his moral mantle and so once Wilson has been removed he finds himself alone and vulnerable on the Suffolk shore to await his fate.

Edward Wilson himself is a most assured writer; adept more than most in this factual/fiction genre combining first rate characterisation and depth that entwines itself around real and supposed events. This is a fantastic read and a prophecy, should one be needed, of how the Reaction will intervene if the Labour Party ever elects a socialist as its leader this coming autumn. Best start preparing the militias now.

This is an edited version of a review first published in the Morning Star