Problems with Pronouns

Never has the landscape, on which you and I inhabit, looked so rocky and unsettled in this beleaguering land. Never has it’s national identity been so  confused and split since the Thatcher era. As if rising over yonder on a sturdy steed finally come UKIP, the saviors for all Brits, promising to make Britain Great again.

Slightly unfair may be, because that is what all the parties ultimately aim to do. Offsetting and reflecting this though,  is a series of issues regarding the identity of Britain and the British, and consequently will boil down to your own subjectivity. Lets for a start, Scotland; this issue has all sides of the political strata pledging their allegiances to the stay or go camp. No wonder patriots are so worried to see Scotland go, with this once great empire, now nothing but an annoying younger brother to the big old neoliberal land of America. This is slightly ironic given the New York Times has published an article saying that the irony in Britain wanting to leave Europe is that it has become more European. What is Britain without Scotland? England and Wales which looks pathetically small compared to it’s all old Empire status. There is still the commonwealth though, which in all reality is just an excuse for the Queen to get out of the house.

On a larger scale, is Europe. In trying to persuade Scotland to stay, parties are considering whether they want to stay in Europe. There is a lovely irony to all this that no matter how much Britain stays or goes in whatever union or constitution, it will remain locked in it’s geographical location, with it’s bordered lands. Indeed  it is this sovereignty and dividing lines are where the problems manifest . This of course is where UKIP come in, who have seen their popularity rising, and for a party that is so vehemently opposed to Europe, it seems to enjoy spending it’s time in it’s parliament. I don’t understand Europe, and how it’s laws work, and what it’s effect on Britain is, so I struggle to understand how the majority of the nation think they know how Europe works and would be able to judge so at a referendum. UKIP and other Europe nay-sayers direct their rhetoric towards the fact that our laws are mostly constituted  in Europe or that the European Union is just a bunch of bureaucrats. Is that not what our Government is? Are we honestly going to try and depict and glorify our own politicians as a bunch of down-to-earth humanists who understand our concerns, or are at least trying to and that’s why they want to pull out of Europe?

The main thrust of their argument though is not issues of paperwork, it’s a historical one, centuries old. It’s a desperate clinging onto the fact that once Britain was a great imperialistic world power, and still could be one, albeit imperilisation s likely to work on a lot more implicit terms, but what is the point of the army? The British Empire might be dead but it’s values aren’t. Look over to  Putin and his invasion of Ukraine; he is only being condemned by leaders because he threatens to become what the rest of the leaders condemning him are – world figures who want to police the world and dominate it. The main thrust though of these issues comes down to what UKIP is so unafraid of exposing: that any other nationality apart from Britain that threatens to challenge  it’s archaic view of Britishness.

It’s exemplified on a much more domestic level with the furor over the emergence that several well known food chains either use Halal or are switching to Halal meat (Pizza Express the former, Subway the latter). Fostered by the right wing press like the Express and the Mail (who else), it has generated fevered nationalist rhetoric that this is an example of Islamist ideology creeping into the shores of Britain, surely playing into the widening arms of UKIP who are ready to embrace you in their cosy nationalism.

Is it really Islamist ideology, or is it more likely down to the fact that these food chains need to widen their market share to cater for all types, to  be able sell more to more people, as it now emerges that more companies are remaining subversive about using Halal meat. And no wonder. But whilst the debate is largely depressing because of it’s racial connotations, what is also, perhaps more depressing, is that how people feel so betrayed by these companies because of their use of halal meat. People write on social media sites how they are ‘boycotting’ Subway, not out of a rejection of their unethical capitalist ideology that obliterates local, green alternatives for the global demand and supply, but an ill-conceived conviction that Subway is succumbing to Islamist ideology. It is just, as usual,  what has been channelled into them via outlets like The Mail, that their/your cherished Britain  is undergoing an Islamist, foreign invasion..

When it comes down to it though, it’s not Subway succumbing to Islam: are we suggesting that a huge corporate, global giant like Subway could be seen giving into Islamic demands ? No, it’s the agenda to make more, and sell more to more people. Did rafts of Muslims take to social networking sites to protest they were not buying at Subway unless they sold halal meat? The depressing reality is that rather than see this as evidence that Subway wants to open up an outlet, two even, on every high street in Britain, diminishing and destroying the chance of any kind of local investment and competition that we apparently all so desperately want to see again, it’s rather seen as the fact that there is going to be, not a Subway on every high street, but a mosque. They’re not that different when you look at it; both have you believing in their holiness, and like a mosque, Subway would happily have you coming to their services five times a day, but at least the mosque is honest about this and does not reap you of every penny in a false, non-nutritional product.

Everybody wants homegrown. The mass companies where we buy our products distort and create the lie that we’re buying British, you’re buying more than a product; we can be safe in the knowledge that buying this beef, or this carrot with it’s small Union Jack on it’s packaging that it has come from some cherished field in Blighty. Do you feel better for that, buying this from your local supermarket, that relative monolith compared to the extortionate butcher’s or greengrocers? And why would you go to the local butchers or greengrocer, that is if you still have one on your high street, if you live in a comfortable middle class area, when they’re so expensive compared to the supermarket.

Another issue that bubbles away, that initially seems unrelated but can  exemplify a few absurdities, is be found from that other, crazy, ‘working-man’s’ game – football. With the World Cup impending, England’s chances of success look so remote that even the press, where they’re usually generating a frenzy of England’s chances (this year! this year!) are going a long with the common consensus that they are not even assured of exiting the group stage. And the reason for this? There are not enough – that word again – home-grown English players playing in it’s top league, the Premier League. It’s almost universally agreed that the Premier League is the most exciting league in the world, but this does not translate into success, and never has done. That is the truth; there are not enough high quality English players playing in the highest quality league in the world for England to win a World Cup; there are too many foreign players that impede the chances of English exposure. These clubs are of course mostly owned by rich, foreign owners who view football teams and players as commodities and assets. But the fans and the spectators in all this have no choice but  to desire and ultimately expect immediate success, like they want success for their national team, and are toys to their teams prevailing need for more capital to make this happen. Success at the domestic level usually translates into investing in the best players world wide, and it’s finally coming into realisation that the two cannot go hand in hand.

Thankfully this is not being blamed on Islamist ideology, although xenophobia  threatens to permeate the debate. The term home-grown, when applied to a human, is so inferring of the fact that they belong to a certain land and location, that their bones and blood came from the land they were born in. And there is the greatest lesson; it’s not the people at the bottom, like the fans who want their team to be the best in the land, like there are those who want their meat killed in a certain way, but it’s those at the top who generate the money and the services who need to keep generating the money and the services by whatever means, so they need as many people spending as much money as possible to keep generating their lies and pretensions, to stop the bubble from bursting. Something comes a long though,that threatens these poor consumers to stop them buying into the dream and the illusion, and this hurts the consumer, this piercing insight to what’s really happening and they can’t handle it, and as has been shown, it turns to hate to another unwitting toy of the market, whilst those at the top, have to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure their tactics.

So, if all this is  question of honesty, UKIP probably are the most ‘honest party’; for example when Nigel Farage says they do not oppose immigration, in the strict sense they don’t,  because they promote privatisation (of the NHS for example) , and capitalism is reliant on migration and a mobile labor pool. But they want what is best for British people whoever they are, which could mean you, yes you. We’re led to believe  dividing lines and borders are set in stone, but as is clear, they’re easily moved when they need to be.


The afterparty: Black Vodka, a review

‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’ is one of Iris Murdoch’s pseudo-philosophising quotes, and at the moment we are emerging from the commercial wreckage of HMS Man Booker. Older works and future works will be updated so that bookshop shelves will be interspersed with by the Man Booker shortlisted author…, to which Deborah Levy’s next work is no exception. Her new work Black Vodka, follows up the middle class holiday gone wrong Swimming Home, with a collection of short stories that carries the themes of her earlier works. And to return to that Murdoch quip, the wreck of future works as well.

Who was the joke on at the Booker prize. A prize that reeks of middle class values, shortlisting a very middle class novel in Swimming Home, which was in itself swiping at the flooding in the market of the middle class novel. I propose that we use the word Mantellian to refer to any novel that is so middle of the road and middle class.

No need to be so cynical thought because Black Vodka is superlatively good. It is a collection of 10 stories packed into 126 pages, that have all featured In various publications over the years. This doesn’t allow for much narrative, instead they are like postmodern remnants of ideas, ‘sketches’, with a narrative overture. Levy’s earlier works were reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, and Ali Smith, not as activist as the first and not as steady as the latter. With her short stories though, there is some Angela Carter style mixing of the fable and contemporary and a sly reference to a cavalier of the short story, John Cheever, for those who can spot it.

In Black Vodka, Levy’s primary concern is with the male and female. Black Vodka is a mediation of what these terms mean, because psychology particularly, has essentially reduced itself to a modern day Cartesian philosophy. Levy is a progressive, as it is best to understand this by rightly splitting the terms gender and sex. Sex is the biology. Gender is a much more complicated construction through the discourse of the society’s inhabitants, a melting pot of cultures and ideals. For this reason, we are constantly observing the man and woman playing opposite each other as they must battle the physical restrictions of their sex and also the physical restrictions of their location. It is “Vienna” the third, and the most triumphant that does this, which she tried to explain in her novel Billy & Girl. Levy thrives on the ambiguity and unease it creates for her readers constantly challenging our stereotypes. As it opens Marget is testing her new microwave in front of her husband (the all too simple, generic husband wife situation) as her husband “nods as if he is a secretary taking notes from an inscrutable Executive Director who wears purple lipstick to frighten the more timid of staff”. roles reversed, because stereotyping like our physical location is something we can become stuck in as the next passage shows as her husband considers his wife “She is middle europe he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria”, showing the machinations of the mind from the definitive security of this to the what his could mean “She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps”. This defines the collection. The gender dichotomy is most powerfully challenged in the ironically titled Cave Girl, the 6th story,when Cass tells her brother she wants a sex change, not into a man, but into a new woman. It is the woman that all the men want including her brother, the one that the advertisers create and make us desire, psychological plastic surgery.

In “Pillow Talk” Ella and Pavel embrace each other in a hazy, dreamy Barcelona. Here, the characters must also battle, not just with the physical and metaphysical aspects of gender, but also their cultures. Pavel has to leave Ella to go to Dublin for a job interview, where he succumbs to the desires of another woman (a recurring male trait). Dublin becomes taboo, and Pavel with his two passports and Ella, born in Jamaica with a British passport are restricted by the physical boundaries of love ‘Surname. Given names. Nationality. Date of Birth. Sex. Place of birth. Date of issue. Date of Expiry’ The soulless questions andlegal requirements, read like questions of compatability on a dating website . Like in “Roma” the penultimate tale, they, like most of the other characters, they are tourists, but at what costs? The husband and wife in this story rarely interact instead they are cultural tourists and tourists of their own marriage,
“She stares into the salt lagoon. A stork stands in the mud. And another. Her husband takes a photograph of the two stalks”.
It is emphatic in saying that we have the desire to travel but we can easily become tourists of our own lives watching our downfalls enacting roles that we think we have to play. In the second story “Shining a Light” the protagonist is thrown in to familiar Levy disorientation when she loses her baggage in Prague airport where the baggage carousel is a ‘grey river’. Alice in a Carter-esque self discovery loses her western burdens.

The question of the physical and the metaphysical is most ironically employed in Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, which is told in twelve numbered aphorisitic like sections. Its emphasis is on the cliché of the heart and its association with love, as Simon gives into his ‘hearts’ desires all too easily In a mocking of the arbitrary organ that we associate love with “Simon’s heart has two chambers: the upper and the lower chambers. Blood flows between these chambers. Simon Tegala’s heart is the size of a fist” as Levy reduces the heart of all its benign metaphysical associations.

“Placing a call” is her most experimental in style, which doesn’t add much apart from some poetic muscle flexing. And then Stardust Nation, pretentiously titled, and it stands out on its own too much, too political. Its an indictment on the advertising industry again and a slight criticism on mental health treatment and psychoanalysis. Nikos gets an unsettling phone call from his colleague Tom,sSlowly, it emerges that they are very similar, both beaten as children by their fathers, and the inevitable becomes obvious quickly as the Nikos ‘guard dog sister’ makes it a Freudian triumvirate. There is still some rewards to be taken from it though but to pack something as strong into 15 pages diminishes its impact.

The title piece Black Vodka is another one of those that can stand alone in its own right, but this time with more success. It is slightly unusual to open with the ‘main piece’, but it works. It culminates everything in the collection in a fairly linear narrative, as Ali working in an advertising agency trying to promote Vodka Noir. It is very European, in scope and style. Ali is introduced as having a hump on his back, alluding to Victor Hugo’s most famous creation. When Ali is doing a sales pitch he notices a woman in the crowd studying him intently drawing “A picture of a naked hunchbacked man, with every single organ of his body labelled. Underneath her rather too accurate portrait should I be flattered she imagined me naked) she’d scribbled two words: Homo Sapiens”. It encapsulates Levy’s main gripe about the western, consumerist world, so obsessed with perfection This is what makes us human, the trying and failing to be perfect.

In a revolving way, the first story could easily be the last, if it wasn’t for its title, “A better way to live”. Joe is contemplating life, life In the broadest of terms the life of the 20th century. When he lost his mother the loving role was taken over by Elisa, both of them united by orphanage. Joe is allowed to see history through his mother’s stories “Benito Mussolini smiling in a hat with an eagle on it, the wall street crash…Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus in the USA the day the buses were no longer separated”. When you think you have lost that love, you find it in the most unlikely of places. The orphanage is a refuge of lost love. Two are orphans of the 20th century, two humans, too human dealing with the hangover of a binge by others by before them.

This is the Booker after party, the hangover after the award and Christmas sales, and now is not the easiest time to be selling books. It is all about hardcore sales now. Good reads out of the window to some extent. They want your money, which is why the Booker prize is such bountiful enterprise as the publishers with Booker writers in their roster look to capitalise on the popularity. Which is nice that Black Vodka isn’t diluted Levy, it is a strong cocktail conjured by Levy, and an addictive one.This is the wreckage

The poison is strong.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy is out now published by And Other Stories in paperback.  This review copy was provided by Necessary Fiction.