Looking back over the past couple of years’ worth of December blogs, I don’t seem to have done a year in books review for quite a while. Last year’s reflection observed that 2015 marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another and despite what has happened in 2016 globally, that sense proved quite accurate. ‘I hope’, I wrote a year ago, ‘it’ll be a year when everything finally starts to fall into place. I’m not convinced than ever, though, that it marks the year when I have to make a decision about where my research and publications go’. I think in the end, and it took a long time, that’s what happened. I finished the typescript of Labour Country, I was handed an impetus to take on my next major book project, and found a means of reconciling myself to studying the history and present not of Wales but of South Wales. And, above all, this is research that emphasises a cosmopolitan, internationalist heritage. The men and women who built Labour Country dreamed not of narrow anti-Westminster nationalist-populism, but of a world in which their place in it was regarded as the equal – not the superior or inferior – of everyone else’s.
2016 marked my final break with old politics. In 2015, to the surprise of everyone, and to my own eventual regret, I joined Plaid Cymru. I’ve written about this before but in essence I was fed up with Labour as it was and I thought perhaps there would be an internationalist, social democratic spot within the Welsh nationalists that I could hide out in. This proved impossible because it does not exist. It cannot exist. Instead, I had entered a party that would willingly attack young Labour activists for “not having real jobs” – the truth of the matter was they were working in supermarkets like many people in my part of the world. I had entered a party that sheltered those who regarded English speakers as inferior (and disregarded their views), that regarded English-born citizens as immigrants and who should “go home”, that allowed misogyny and homophobia to stand unchallenged alongside that xenophobia and Anglophobia. Narrow nationalism has been uttered so often by Labour activists since the Second World War that it has become a cliché, but like many clichés it has a kernel of truth. This is the impression I got of Plaid Cymru in six months. Imagine if they ever took power.
None of the above lets Labour off the hook either. Having left Plaid, I re-joined Labour and lasted just about a year. I engaged in the bitter leadership contest, coming out for Owen Smith. Some old friends of mine on the Corbynite Left didn’t understand, but I think they have been blinded by the left-populism that Corbyn represents, it isn’t a sensible alternative. Smith’s brave stance on Europe has convinced me even further that he would have at least positioned Labour somewhere. Had he won, I’d probably have remained in the Party. But even then it would not have been easy. Welsh Labour under the incompetent Carwyn Jones has become a withered shell of a party, that willingly flies in the face of history and reason in an effort to stave off a UKIP surge that it has had a major hand in driving. For the entire time that Jones has been in office, indeed for almost the entire life of the Welsh Assembly, Labour has promoted an ‘us and them’ approach to Westminster that is both obstructive and the very basis on which populist politics are founded.
If you want to know why UKIP get 5000 votes without lifting a finger in Cynon Valley, for instance, one of the questions that needs to be asked is why Labour under Carwyn Jones so readily provides free propaganda for UKIP. It was there again this week when the First Minister claimed immigration was something that mattered only to “London elites”. It’s funny, y’know, I was in school in that great centre of elitism, Pontypridd, with Armenians, Irish, Scots, English, and Pakistanis. Perhaps if our politicians spent a little less time revelling in dangerous identity politics, they might be able to see the wood for the trees. Mind you, when they’re supported by an academic sector that is itself obsessed with identity politics, is it any wonder?
So long as Welsh Labour, under Carwyn Jones, persists in its anti-Westminster, populist nationalism-lite, we will have a UKIP problem. So long as Carwyn Jones remains leader of Welsh Labour, I will not rejoin. And if Welsh Labour follows the same dangerous, narrow-minded path of appointing someone in his vein as his successor, I will not rejoin.
The politics of now have occupied my thoughts for most of the year, as you can tell, but I’ve also been focusing on how things might be different. My list of books of the year can really be summed up in that way too, not so much ‘counter-factual’ as ‘counter-actual’ – a concept entirely nicked from one of the books below. What links the books, indeed what links my reading this year, is a belief in the necessity of toleration and of accepting diversity without it distracting from what I think is the central issue – material inequality. Much has been written in recent months disregarding material inequality as a foundational explanation for human action, and yes there have indeed been some terrible op-eds on this issue which are tantamount to excuses for racism and xenophobia, but we should not ignore the centrality of deprivation.
But let us begin.
Paul Auster, Hand to Mouth (London, 1997)
In the last year or so I’ve gone through something of an Auster binge. He’s not the most straightforward author to read and it takes a while to really clue into what he’s saying, because of the way he says it. But this memoir, subtitled A Chronicle of Early Failure, spoke to me because it’s about a young writer’s attempt to stay afloat in a hostile and often anti-intellectual world. A world inclined to say ‘so what’ when you tell them you’re a writer, or aiming to be one. Auster explores here what one must do to make a little bit of money to be able to write the next bit – a feeling I know all too well. It recalls some of the other great European studies (no surprise given Auster’s Europhilia) of author-penury, such as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Min Kamp (about that in a moment). And like those other works, and some elsewhere in this list, it picks up on the half-arsed political bluster that many writers engage in: Auster mentions 1968 in passing – ‘I was mostly a bystander, a sympathetic fellow traveller’.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark (London, 2015); Some Rain Must Fall (London 2016)
Knausgaard’s multi-part novel, Min Kamp, is a literary phenomenon both in Norway and in translation around the world. It’s not difficult to see why when you read these two, the fourth and fifth parts of the six-part series. In these instalments we find the young Karl Ove coming of age in the northern reaches of Norway and living the early part of his twenties in Bergen. They did not quite dislodge the third instalment, Boyhood Island, as my favourite in the series, but Dancing in the Dark certainly came close. This is pure Scandinavian existentialism and I can hardly get enough of it. Rare it is that I sign up fully to ‘literary phenomena’ but with this one…Knausgaard said blir med and I went with him happily.
Haruki Murakami, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (London, 2015edn)
I read this in the Spring, around the time I turned thirty, and was so engrossed that I read it in one sitting. Before moving onto this novel, I’d read Norwegian Wood, which is a fascinating work regardless of its enduring popularity. Kafkaesque is the usual adjective used to describe Murakami’s writing and that certainly applies here, the main character doesn’t so much turn into a grotesque beetle, but he certainly finds himself pushed to the margins all of a sudden – feelings of isolation and the sense that he is being actively disregarded are very strong – as is the case in The Trial. Much of what I took away from this novel, particularly at the time I was reading it, was the sense that without a certain outward appeal it doesn’t matter how “good” people tell you you are at something, you will end up doomed to fail. Kafkaesque indeed.
Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Team (Princeton, 2015)
Central to Murakami’s plot in Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki is the quintet of friends whose names all contain a colour except the eponymous protagonist, and it is a similarly tight-knit group that is brought into view in this book by the ever brilliant Sheila Fitzpatrick. If you read the classics of Soviet history, Stalin emerges as not only a ruthless dictator but very much a singular figure. The personal dynamics of the circles around Stalin lose their coherence. Although this has been challenged in recent times by popular authors like Simon Sebag Montefiore (notably his The Court of the Red Tsar) and in specialist academic works by Oleg Khlevniuk, it is with Fitzpatrick’s study that the implications of a ‘team’ at the top of the Soviet nomenklatura really comes into its own. I found this book utterly remarkable and yet entirely logical, and it reshaped some of my ideas around the upper echelons of the Bolshevik Party. As a student I’d discussed with Robert Service in tutorials the possibilities of greater collective responsibility (and thinking back now to the dynamics of collective insecurity) in the decision-making process but never got the chance to follow it up.
John Irving, In One Person (London, 2012)
The film of Irving’s 1985 classic The Cider House Rules came out at just the right time for me. I didn’t see it in the cinema in 1999, but caught it later on DVD in a winter of sorrow, and it is now firmly established as one of my favourite films. For a long time, The Cider House Rules was the only John Irving novel I ever finished reading, despite several attempts at a few of his other famous books like A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp. There was something frustrating about the way they were written that prevented my teenage mind from clicking fully into the narrative – when I talked to my Sixth Form English teacher about it she said simply ‘that doesn’t surprise me’. Now, however, I find Irving much more interesting and In One Person was a bit of a revelation. Many reviews felt this to be something of a plodder, but I disagree, I think here Irving captures the necessity of tolerance and understanding – traits apparent in The Cider House Rules too. One can only wonder what Miss Frost would make of Trumpian America, although some of the tensions of modern America are notably on show so perhaps we already know.
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man (London, 2010edn)
I saw the film adaptation a while ago but never got round to reading the novel, so recently I put that right, and as I expected it’s something of a revelation. Tom Ford does an excellent job of conveying the internal thoughts of George, the heartbroken English professor at the heart of the story, but Isherwood presents them in the most original way that film can’t quite capture it. One of the themes running through this list of works read is, I suppose, the tension between one’s own seemingly black-and-white existence of isolation and the necessity of adding colour so as to not scare off the outside world. The description of George’s morning routine, during which he puts on his ‘face’ – the ‘face’ that’s expected by others – is so utterly spot on that I now find myself actively thinking about that process. And yes, it really does become he! Without downplaying either who George is, or the possibilities of his relationship with Kenny, the sympathetic student who really does exemplify the healing powers of acceptance, the thing that I took away from the novel was the fragility of social masks and how difficult it really is to maintain them when they’re cracked.
Thomas Morris, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (London, 2015)
And so back to Wales we go. I’m a little sceptical of contemporary Welsh writing and tend to the view that it’s trying too hard to be something bigger than it should be. And then I read this, which stuck a few red pegs into that particular battleship. Morris sets his tales in fair Caerphilly (well, accepting that it’s only fair in Caerphilly on one Saturday in October), a place I know only too well. Life there meanders on much like it does in most of the former South Wales Coalfield – ‘The Valleys’ for any Guardian journalists who run across this. Morris could just as easily have set them in Pontypridd. Both towns – one with a bridge, the other with a castle – are completely dislocated from the post-modern present, both are condescended to as ‘ordinary’ places. But what does that really mean? In Morris’s hands it means having sex with your last customer as you become unemployed; it means a widower going on a charming date with his new partner and being mocked by his similarly geriatric mates down the Con; it means trying to be one of the lads when deep down you have a secret you can’t reveal and so have to wear a mask.
It’s not hard to see why Morris won all the accolades for this collection. But what I love about the collection is how linked it is to the canon: there’s the alienation evident in Gwyn Thomas and Christopher Meredith; there’s the honest (and honestly fucked up) sexuality evident in Ron Berry and Rachel Trezise; and there’s the habit of getting on with it and not doing anything to alter the material circumstances of the age. This isn’t writing for idealists, but it is writing idealists need to read.
Dai Smith, What I know I Cannot Say/What Lies Beneath (Cardigan, 2016)
This is the last book I finished before writing this year-in-review and in many ways it’s the most important one for me. In a handful of stories and a novella, which make up a relatively slim volume, I felt a range of emotions the likes of which I hadn’t quite expected. This is a step forward from Smith’s earlier collection Dream On, which I raved about so much they put me on the cover of the paperback (!), but a further indication of Smith’s insistence on the veracity of a (South) Wales that so few people believe in now that the only way to explain it is through fiction. These stories are a clear continuation of the style of Gwyn Thomas, about which I’ll say more in the review that will appear here shortly, but they also show a range of other (typically American) influences from Ernest Hemingway to William Faulkner. What Smith does here is challenge, with a determination that you only really get from him, but with the increasingly subtly of a master writer of stories, both the current assertiveness of the Welsh identity studies school and lackadaisical inaction of the current generation of Welsh historians. Yes, these are stories, and they should be taken on face value as such, but they are far more than that. If you’re prepared to dream.
2016 marks the end of my career as an academic (in the sense that my primary means of income, meagre as it often was, will no longer be derived from academic work). At least for the time being. But two things have also happened: I’ve gained the means to be a writer, and it’s something of a fulfilled dream to be able to publish with Parthian, and I’ve embarked on community development (initially as a volunteer on a committee, and now subsequently in employment). For a while I wasn’t sure if I had anything more to say, or to contribute, but that has proven to be a little premature. In many ways this humble little blog has fulfilled its purpose: it kept me in the game, it honed my writing, and it allowed me the space to think through my ideas using a range of different evidence.
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