Review – Election Notebook by Nick Robinson, and Live From Downing Street by Nick Robinson

I became borderline obsessed with this year’s UK General Election. Politics interests me at the worst of times and, in terms of interest at least, this certainly wasn’t the worst of times. We were just coming out of the first full-term coalition in living memory; the Prime Minister was either (depending on your view) competent but uninspiring, or bordering on the devil incarnate; the leader of the opposition was rapidly moving from punchline to heartthrob (I still don’t get it, but Google ‘Milifandom’ if you’re not familiar with the concept – it’s truly disturbing). On top of all that, a new political force was rewriting the electoral map north of the border; support for the Lib Dems, the long-time third party of British politics, was collapsing; and the UK Independence Party seemed, somehow, to be blundering into the limelight, dragging along voters from Left and Right alike.

Small wonder, then, that almost nobody predicted the result. I was in Zurich the night of the election. I remember the shock of the first exit poll, announced at 10pm UK time, predicting the Conservatives would be the largest party; I remember that shock being echoed on every news outlet. I made some of my American colleagues stay in the bar with me till 6am, until the result was beyond doubt. I went to sleep for two hours; when I woke up, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, had lost his seat. It was easily the most interesting election of my lifetime.

Nick Robinson was the BBC’s Political Editor for ten years, up to and including the election. I picked up his Election Notebook, a diary of the year leading up to polling day, expecting it to be gossipy and full of insider knowledge. I wasn’t disappointed. I thought I remembered a lot of the events he describes – most notably perhaps the Scottish referendum – but reading descriptions from someone who had a front-row seat was a real eye-opener. An awful lot of stuff gets cut from the news, and this – around 350 pages on one of the most seminal years in recent political history – was just the ticket to remind me of all the things I didn’t know. (As an aside, I consider myself reasonably politically aware – I watch the Sunday morning political shows, read the websites of the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian, as well as some of the American papers when I have the chance – and the gaps in my knowledge reading this made me despair a little. Honestly, where does anyone find the time?)

Anyway. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite parts were the light-hearted anecdotes about the politicians who try to come across as anything but, including this gem – for me, the highlight of the whole book – ‘The other revelation of the night is that Ed and Yvette and the kids went inter-railing this summer, taking in a Sound of Music bike tour in costumes made by the Balls-Coopers themselves from curtain material on the train to Salzburg – lederhosen for the boys, headscarves and neckerchiefs for the girls.’ Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper are the Labour Party’s power couple; both MPs, he is the former Shadow Chancellor, she the former Shadow Home Secretary and recent (unsuccessful) Labour leadership candidate. That is just one of the things which makes that story so delightful. So there’s really something for everybody – if you have only a tangential interest in modern British politics, then you’ll learn a lot; if you are a political nut already, then you’ll learn at least a little, and have some fun, too. (‘Everybody’ might be overstating it. If you have no interest in British politics at all, then, well, it’s probably not for you. But you’d probably figured that much out and stopped reading already.)

I started Live from Downing Street, Robinson’s earlier book, expecting more of the same. It’s not, really. The first half is a history of the BBC and its reporting of British politics, and, well, if that sounds a little dry, then I agree with you. I learned some interesting things, about the independence of the BBC and the opinions about the free press that were held by some of our most famous statesmen (and, latterly, stateswomen), but it felt a bit like a university lecture – improving, but – apart from in isolated places – not a lot of fun. Literary fibre, if you will. There are those who would say that I’d brought this upon myself, picking up a book called ‘Live from Downing Street’, but even with my slightly unusual ways of getting my kicks, I found it hard going.

The second half started to move into territory that was more familiar to me from the Election Notebook – it became more personal, covering the time of Robinson’s tenure at the BBC, and including anecdotes such as this rather charming comment from (then) President Sarkozy of France to (then) Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

‘Even President Sarkozy of France, who’d threatened to boycott the summit, was impressed. Some weeks later, at a dinner at the Elysee Palace, he stunned the British prime minister and his closest aides with the candour of his assessment: ‘You know, Gordon, I should not like you. You are Scottish, we have nothing in common and you are an economist…’ Diplomats and civil servants were, I’m told, fidgeting nervously at this point, wondering where the president’s remarks might be leading. They need not have worried. ‘…but somehow, Gordon, I love you.’ This expression of Gallic ardour so unsettled the Scot known for never showing his emotions that Sarkozy added hastily, if perhaps unnecessarily, ‘But not in a sexual way’.’

Frankly, having that story in my life was worth persevering through the first half of the book. But if you only want to read one book by a former BBC Political Editor about modern British politics this year (and frankly, if you want to read even that many, then I applaud you), then the Election Notebook is the one.

Nick Robinson’s Election Notebook *****
Live from Downing Street ***

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Review – Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

This was released on Tuesday. I actually downloaded it on Monday, because I’m currently in the US and so eight hours behind London time, and because my Kindle is still hooked up to Amazon UK, and because I’m really just that much of a fan of anything written by JK Rowling or her alter ego, Robert Galbraith.

This was great. I think it was the best yet of the Robert Galbraith novels, which I put off reading for ages because – well, hype – but which I finally succumbed to at the beginning of this year. For those of you not yet converted, these are written by JK Rowling under a pen name, but they are Not. For. Kids. Seriously. Although they are easy to race through, because of the quality of the writing, subject-matter-wise they are reasonably heavy crime fiction (this one starts with the delivery of a severed leg).

The novels follow the – adventures, except that’s really too benign a word – of Cormoran Strike, private investigator, one-legged Afghanistan veteran, and love child of a rock star and a ‘super-groupie’, and his assistant-cum-work-partner-definitely-just-a-work-partner-nothing-more, green but sharp-as-a-razor Robin Ellacott. Reading about the developing relationship between these two is enormous fun – the characterisation is well-rounded and generally superb, which won’t be a surprise to anybody who’s read Harry Potter.

‘Fun’ is actually an important word here. In the acknowledgements, JK Rowling says she’s never enjoyed writing a novel more than she did this one. She notes that that’s strange, given the subject matter, which is pretty grim. But I sort of get it. It was certainly great fun to read. (I finished it on Wednesday night – reading it in two days of pretty heavy travel, getting out my Kindle whenever my travelling companions did anything like get their phones out, or go to the bathroom.)

This isn’t going to be one of those reviews full of words of the author; it’s not a novel that’s full of quotable quotes. But it’s got a cracking plot that keeps you guessing almost right to the end, a fantastic sense of place (I’ve been in California for two weeks, and it almost made me miss London), and you can’t help but care about the characters. If you need a good old-fashioned crime novel, to read on holiday or on the Tube or really anywhere, then this series is a damn good bet.

****

Review – Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

‘This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war.’

Two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights equals, as I think has been pointed out by every single reviewer of this novel, 1001 nights; this is, then, Rushdie’s nod to the Arabian Nights, to ‘stories told against death, to civilise a barbarian’. Instead of Scheherazade, we have Dunia; instead of 1001 stories, we have 2+ years of chaos, narrated from a thousand years hence but set in the very near future, when the jinnia come to wage war on the earth. Well, they come to wage war on each other, but the earth is the battleground, and so to all intents and purposes it ends up being the same thing.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether I’d recommend this novel as a starting point, to someone who hadn’t read any Rushdie before. I don’t think I would, but – apart from my lifelong devotion to Midnight’s Children – I don’t know why not. It certainly possesses all of the hallmarks of his writing; if you’d asked me to read it blind, I’m pretty sure I would have been able to name him as the author. It is magic realism, of course; it fuses East and West (there’s even a little bit of India, hurrah); the language fizzes with energy as though the words themselves are creating something new – which of course they are. There is the slightly uncomfortable wish-fulfilment sex, older men with younger women, which has been present in most – if not all – of the later novels: ‘He was so tired in her bed that there was little in the way of lovemaking, one night in four or five was about his speed these days anyway, but she was full of understanding. He was her warrior to be loved and waited for and she would take what little of him she could get and wait for the rest.’ (It mirrors Rushdie’s own love life, but that’s hardly an original story.) There is lengthy meditation on the nature and power of stories, a topic on which he is – following the furore over The Satanic Verses – almost uniquely qualified to speak. There’s a worrying away at religion, not quite believing or unbelieving but unable to leave it alone, like a tongue probing an aching tooth; there’s irreverence, as ever, but it’s less defiant than in previous novels, and it feels more like it might be a mask for doubt. There is, above all, an inexhaustible sense of energy and fun.

All of this is both a strength and a weakness. I love Rushdie’s writing. I have done ever since I was eighteen, and read Midnight’s Children for university, and suddenly realised what language could do. He has a permanent spot in my list of top three favourite 20th century writers. (One of the others is John Steinbeck; the other rotates according to my mood at the time.) I took a day’s holiday to finish Joseph Anton. I am, at the most fundamental level, A Fan. How can you not be, when in the space of one page opened at random, you get: an explanation of the English/American difference between knocking on wood and touching it; a comment that, ‘if you walk away from God you should probably try to stay in the good books of Luck’, and a by-the-by comment that an epic, three-day storm threw up in northern Manhattan ‘the original casket containing the actual trinkets worth sixty guilders with which a certain Peter Minuit bought an island of hills from the Lenape Indians, [which] had been deposited at Linwood Hill Park, at the northern tip of Mannahatta, as if the storm was telling our ancestors, Fuck you, I’m buying the island back.’ Linguistic difference, supersition, a little religion, and history, all on one page, with a large dollop of tongue-in-cheek insouciance; this is the kind of wide-ranging conversation that I like to think I have, with my favourite friends, on my best days; it makes me think that, when he’s in a good mood, Rushdie would be a blast, whether in a bar or a lecture theatre or on an open-top tour bus.

That said, this is Rushdie’s…twelfth? novel, I think. (I’m counting up the ones I’ve read; I think I’ve read them all, except for The Ground Beneath Her Feet.) Should I really be able to tell that it’s him writing? I wouldn’t mind so much if I felt his heart was really in it, but in places I don’t think it was; the plotting could have been tighter and there were short passages where I was a little bored.

This is a minor quibble; in the same way that I hold people to a higher standard the more I love them (this, predictably, drives them crazy), this book would have had to have blown my mind in order not to disappoint me a little. I am still in love with the language he uses; I read this on my Kindle, and I highlighted more passages than in any other fiction book I’ve ever read electronically. I love how one of the characters has a father who ‘flies the coop with a secretary bird’. I love how one of the jinnia speaks a certain kind of Bombay-English: ‘Portaal is busted open. Border between what imagineers are imagining and what imagineers are desiring is leaky now like Mexico-USA, and we-all, who before were caged in Phantom Zone, can go fast now through wormholes and land up here like General Zod with superpowers. So many wanting to come. Soon we will be taking over. Hundred and one per cent. Forget about it.’ Again, sometimes it goes a little too far; like Shakespeare, he doesn’t seem to be able to resist a pun – a one-woman show named ‘Lebanonymous’ is a particular low point, and feels too groanworthy to include even ironically – but those moments are rare, very rare.

The story is bonkers; they often are. Starting with Midnight’s Children in 1981, he was a great pioneer of magic realism, with an emphasis on the magic, and he has remained so. If weirdness isn’t your bag, then he’s not for you. But the realism is there, too; at his best, he uses magic and madness and metaphor to expose the deepest cracks in humanity, and everything – good and bad – he finds there. I think he does that more successfully in other novels; in this, he raises Big Questions but pulls back from them pretty quickly in favour of comedy. A three-day superstorm at the beginning of the 1001 nights has echoes of climate change; referenced later, this becomes ‘This was a species with an exceptional ability to ignore its approaching doom.’ The full stop provides a momentary pause for reflection, before the punchline: ‘If one sought to be the embodiment of the doom that was approaching, this was a little frustrating.’ There is what feels like real anger at the actions of a not-at-all-veiled Taliban-esque force in the ‘land of A’ (just as subtle as he means it to be), but presented as a small part of a larger problem which is fixed by a sci-fi-esque deus ex machina.

I’ve just reread this review in draft, and I appear to have taken some 1300+ words to say ‘it’s not as good as Midnight’s Children’. And it isn’t. The fact that I still give it a high four stars, though – not to mention the longest review I think I’ve ever written – should give you some indication as to what an incredibly high bar that is.

****

Random Bookish Thoughts – 19 October

In the complete absence of any new reviews for the past few weeks, a selection of random, tangentially-book-related musings.

What I’ve been reading

Although I haven’t been writing reviews, I’m on holiday in northern California this week and last week, so I have been reading. After finishing Vanity Fair at the beginning of October, I rewarded myself with the new Salman Rushdie (raced through whilst on trains; I don’t know why, but Rushdie’s stories seem to lend themselves to movement). Then I read a couple of Meg Wolitzer’s earlier novels, having read The Interestings last year and liked it. I think she is getting better with age; The Interestings was better than either The Wife or The Uncoupling.

I also raced through Villa America by Liza Klaussmann; I’ll read pretty much anything based in the Jazz Age. The standout read of the month for me so far, though, is The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. It charts the story of a woman’s life, from the dawn of the 20th century until she turns 85, and I found it utterly addictive – especially after being a little bit disappointed by Sweet Caress by William Boyd, which was (nominally) along the same lines. I know I’m horribly behind with book reviews, but I’ll post a proper review of this one soon (or soonish, anyway).

Books about authors

I like reading about authors almost as much as people seem to like writing about them. I didn’t notice at first, but there’s been a definite authorly trend in this month’s reading matter. ‘The Wife’ featured a celebrated novelist, and Villa America was studded with the literary stars of the 1920s. I’ve now embarked upon Sophie and the Sibyl, by Patricia Duncker, which features George Eliot as one of the main characters and the ‘Sibyl’ of the title.

Nick Hornby doesn’t like the fact that there are so many novels about writers and writing. In one of his Believer articles (which have been published in two books, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and Stuff I’ve Been Reading, both of which are very worthwhile for any book nut), he wonders aloud (well, on paper) whether it’s this that is turning reading into such a minority activity – i.e., to read a new novel, you have to have a passing knowledge of every novel that’s gone before. (I haven’t read it for a while, so I may be misquoting, but I think that’s the thrust of his argument.) I’m not sure I agree; I think if a novel is written well, then it should stand on its own, whatever the subject matter. Entirely subjectively, I love reading about authors for any number of reasons: because I grew up wanting to be one, because it helps me to get to know the text, and in some cases simply because they had the most fascinating, glitzy, disastrous lives (yes, Fitzgeralds, I’m looking at you) and I’m a terrible gossip.

The Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event

I recently reposted the starter post for this, and I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’ll be scanning down my Classics Club list for the books to bump up to next year, and perhaps adding a couple of new titles as well, including The Yellow Wallpaper as suggested by the fabulous thepocobookreader . Look out for a proper starter post, again let’s say ‘soonish’.

Right, I’m going to go and read for an hour in the California sunshine before starting the day’s adventures. Hope everyone has a great week!

Announcing the Women’s Classic Literature Event.

Love this idea. Now to get started on my list…

The Classics Club

Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurson, George Eliot, Rose Wilder Lane, Louisa May Alcott, & Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Rose Wilder Lane, Louisa May Alcott, & Virginia Woolf.

Have you ever read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf?

There’s this scene in the essay where Woolf’s narrative persona is in the British Museum and can’t find a proper history on women. She can find a whole bunch of books by men about what women think, what they should think, what they shouldn’t think, who they are: but she can’t get at the actual woman. In fiction by men, she finds that women are either portrayed as angels or promiscuous monsters. Always they are portrayed in relation to men. In history, she finds that they are invisible, and that she cannot rely on the portrayal of women she finds in the British Museum:

“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends…

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