It’s scary out there — the rising tide of illiberalism and intolerance has not yet reached its high watermark. In other times, the collapse of confidence in conventional politics in so many of the world’s major democracies might be seen as a window for progressive reform or even revolution. A chance to remake the world. Not now. Across the globe, there’s little appetite for institutional innovation — and whatever the populist rhetoric, there’s little sign of concerted action against the scourges of social inequality, marginalisation, climate change and environmental degradation.
More than a million anti-Brexit campaigners took to the streets in London recently in one of the biggest protests in the country’s history. Britain’s political class are so obsessed by a crisis largely of their own making, they barely noticed. Young Americans pole-axed by the spate of mass shootings have campaigned with passion and energy for stricter gun laws. Nothing has changed. In India, the urgency with which so many demand action against sexual violence has not been matched by political concern or public resources.
To lift the spirit
As the storm clouds darken, it’s tempting to keep an angry world at bay, pull the sheets over your head and find a few books to keep you company. Books to read not out of duty — there is too much of that — or as a means of instruction, but to lift the spirit... while also revisiting earlier moments of crisis and contestation.
Of all the novels I have suggested that my daughter should read, there’s only one that she actually read and relished. Sadly, it wasn’t Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — a novel so central to my own sense of self, it took me decades to summon up the courage to revisit it. She passed it back so battered I can’t say she has been entirely forgiven. But the title she liked is, I guess, my favourite novel — a high octane account of the rupturing of personal and political innocence, written with an energy which makes me feel young again. Keep reading, and I’ll give you its name before we’re out. But let’s take a route past some other deserving titles.
Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife is often described as a cult novel — which means simply that its devotees have not been able to win over a wider audience. Someday, surely, they will. It’s an engaging, often amusing, account of a drifter, a Jewish philosopher-gambler, rooted in London’s East End just as the area is losing its old identity. Harryboy Boas wants to go into property — the only time he manages to get a house, he loses it within minutes in a dice game in a Pakistani-run café in Cable Street. His sister has married up and moved out to one of the smarter suburbs. Her husband, who runs a betting business, deeply disapproves of his brother-in-law but, out of loyalty to his wife, keeps bunging him a few quid, so subverting the normal cash flow from punter to bookmaker.
As with so many commanding novels, The Lowlife has a keen sense of place. The boarding house where Harryboy has a room is based on Alexander Baron’s own childhood home in Hackney. But underlying the keen social observation and wry humour is a growing, brooding awareness of the Holocaust. The novel was published in 1963, a year after the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, one of Nazi Germany’s key facilitators of the intended extermination of European Jewry, which prompted much wider awareness of the scale of the most evil political design in a particularly troubled century.
Harryboy is haunted by thoughts of the child he fathered with a Jewish woman in France just before the war. Did that youngster die in the Nazi concentration camps? Could he have done more to forestall that or at least to find out the fate of the child and his former lover? This insidious sense of guilt permeates and corrupts the book’s central character — a good guy with decent instincts who wilfully fails to make anything of his life.
Many novelists have sought to address the rise of Islamic radicalism and the call to jihad. The most successful, to my mind, is Karachi-born, London-residing Kamila Shamsie. She counts the great Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali as an influence and Attia Hosain, whose Sunlight on a Broken Column is such a powerful evocation of Lucknow at the moment of Independence and Partition, as a great aunt.
Shamsie’s Home Fire , published a couple of years ago, is a reworking of the Greek classical drama, Antigone, which ranges across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Pakistan — though at its core it is about the loyalties and conflicting identities of British Muslims. The author even envisages Britain with an illiberal home minister of Pakistani origin. In 2017 that seemed fanciful, but the following year Sajid Javid became the incarnation of Shamsie’s politician-as-anti-hero, and as I write he still occupies that role.
For the election season
A still more recent title which I found both evocative and inspiring in spite of its bleak storyline is Perumal Murugan’s
or The Story of a Black Goat . This is in part a political allegory about an oppressive state and the impermeable barriers of caste and class, but it is written with much more tenderness than what George Orwell summoned up in Animal Farm . You care about this scrawny runt of a goat in a way that you don’t for Orwell’s menagerie.
Poonachi is a novel more than a parable, but the interlinking of human and animal sentiments, experiences and destinies gives it added force. And in an election season, where so much of the rhetoric is about tackling rural distress, it is particularly worth revisiting.
But the book my daughter so took to was Absolute Beginners, worth revisiting at any time. It’s an effervescent homage to that then coming force — it appeared in 1959 — the teenager. The central character is called just that, ‘the teenager’, 18, with a Vespa scooter to get him around and a camera to get him noticed. He hangs around Harrow Road and Notting Hill, inner London localities which were then edgy and are now utterly gentrified.
The author, Colin MacInnes, was a transgressive figure — a young-at-heart (he was in his mid-40s when the book appeared), gay Australian anarchist who wrote luminously about popular music and style icons. All of his trilogy of London novels are worth reading, but Absolute Beginners is absolutely the best. Through his fiction, a new phenomenon appears, the ‘Spades’, a term — meant respectfully, though you couldn’t get away with it today — for the young men from the Caribbean and Africa who moved to London to find work and liberation from the conservative social attitudes back home.
Towards the close of the novel, the hedonists of Notting Hill have a decision to make. Teddy Boys, thugs encouraged by organised racists, start picking on young black men in what became known as the Notting Hill race riots of the summer of 1958. These were a sombre landmark in post-war Britain; the most serious street disturbances of that era arising from racially-motivated attacks on Afro-Caribbean migrants.
The teenager has to pick sides — though for him it’s hardly a choice, as his life is so bound up in the culture and lifestyle, the energy and music of the migrants. His entirely apolitical, socially ambitious, would-be girlfriend Suze — he calls her Crepe Suzette — instinctively takes the same side. But some of his friends simply decamp when battle is joined, deserting their former friends. And a few take the other side, abandoning the optimism and energy of the time in favour of a false notion of racial solidarity.
Absolute Beginners will turn 60 this summer. It speaks to us still. This novel won’t make the ogres go away, but it will remind you that their day too will be over. And it depicts the power, creativity, compassion and imagination of the young: you have nothing to lose but your dreams, and you have a world to win.
The writer is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and a former BBC India correspondent.