Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The Ministry of Intractable Problems

Amber Rudd MP, now the former Home Secretary

The BBC News Channel kindly had me on yesterday afternoon to talk about the job of Home Secretary and my fictional rendering of it in The Knives. Amber Rudd’s regrettable exit from the front line was the pretext; and the sixth of my novel’s seven parts does indeed describe a ministerial crisis wrought by cascading malfunctions arising from immigration policy, during which my made-up Home Sec David Blaylock must fight for his political survival or else by propelled out of the door – by events, unintended consequences, angry bystanders, assorted ill-wishers etc. 

(Spoiler alert: Blaylock wins the aforementioned battle, partly by outmanoeuvring a broadsheet newspaper determined to oust him, and by physically confronting a leaker within his department. Both of these dramatic turns are, I admit, a novelist’s fancy rather than the products of research.)

Anyhow, this (approximately) is what I told the BBC. 

David Blunkett rightly described it as a job consumed by 'intractable problems'. The job of Home Secretary - whoever’s doing it, of whatever political stripe - seems to me beset by three challenges that tower above all.

1) Because of the huge and burning responsibilities of borders, police and counter-terror, a great swathe of the public have an opinion on how the Home Secretary’s doing, even if they don't know his/her name or indeed anything else about them; and a goodly few are so insistent about what should be done to ‘sort out’ any given mess that you could almost believe they imagine they could do the job better - freelance, as it were, without training or experience.

2) Unlike in the other great offices, at the Home Office your ‘customers’ include a substantive number of individuals who don’t see you as acting for their interests – they don’t want you to succeed in your job (for instance, people who are very well aware that they are in the UK illegally; or people plotting terrorist acts of wickedness against the civilian populace.)

3) The cliché of ‘Events, dear boy’ is truer at the Home Office than anywhere else in politics. As Jack Straw’s ‘Sir Humphrey’, Richard Wilson, told him on the day he took up the post, he needed to enjoy the blue sky outside his window while he could, because an Exocet missile would be headed his way soon enough.

Straw – in his fine 2012 memoir – also stresses that the Home Secretary wrestles with four very distinct factions in order to force through policy, or even just get through the working week: there is the Public, there is the Press, there is the Party – and then there is the Department itself, which has a long history of taking a different view to the Minister, subtly or otherwise, as well as some strange collective sense of its own amour propre. (David Blaylock, while clashing with his own Permanent Secretary, feels a dispiriting perception afloat of ‘successive ministers as mere fly-by-nights passing through a far more solidly entrenched world.’)

I take from Straw that no-one can hope to survive long as Home Secretary unless they have more or less squared away all four of those forces: Public, Press, Party, Department. It’s a truly nerve-straining proposition, and small wonder the job has undone so many gifted, smart and seemingly durable performers. But, the knives are always out for you: you need eyes in the back of your head.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Aickman at the British Library: A Symposium

Our panel of 6, plus the 7th who moved unseen among us. (Photo: Chris Power)

Our Aickman evening at the British Library was, I believe, something of a success. At least, I like to imagine the man himself was with us in spirit, wearing the smile that a ghost would wear while we sang his praises. To be a ‘neglected’, ‘cult’ author is of course to be a bit of a phantomic presence, a perpetual ghost at the feast of English letters, maybe doomed to walk the earth forever unwelcomed. But Aickman is now a kind of fixture in the nation’s great library, and that’s not nothing, as they say in showbiz.

We tried to summon him right from the start of the night by playing a small audio clip of him reading, very characteristically, from ‘Bind Your Hair.’ (In a letter to Ramsey Campbell of June 1978, now lodged in the BL archive, Aickman writes: ‘I always read each story aloud to a [certain] selected person... There is nothing like reading aloud for the tidying up of stylistic shortcomings.’)

Then Ramsey himself spoke, reading from the memoir The Attempted Rescue in which Aickman praises the mountain-film era Leni Riefenstahl at vivid length and makes a tortuously felt effort to exonerate Riefenstahl of her later closeness to the Nazis. It was an astute way for Ramsey to open a window on Aickman’s unbending opinions – mostly of an artistic nature, some of them expressed in political conservatism. He was – to put it mildly, though it was put so on several occasions during our evening – a man out of time, who felt himself born in the wrong age.

Reece Shearsmith’s reading from ‘The Hospice’ could have lasted all night, such was the pleasure it stirred; and Jeremy Dyson’s turn with ‘Wood’, a superb if less-celebrated story replete with a secluded village and some sinister corn dollies, showed very well why The League of Gentlemen, as well as the contemporary turns both in English nature writing and supernatural writing, are really rather Aickman-esque.

In the end I had to ask the panel: here is a superb writer, a writer’s writer, writing (whether he disdained it or not) in one of the world’s most popular genres – why, then, is he still not better known? One reason, perhaps, is now to be found in the BL archive: a letter to a literary agent in which Aickman distinguishes between ‘entertainers’ who ‘write for a specific market’ and ‘artists’ who ‘write in response to a voice inside them.’ Aickman refused to sell out, whether or not anyone was buying. His friend Jean Richardson told me that he steadfastly refused to inject his stories with ‘more subtle sadism’ of a sort that might have served to ring the mainstream bell. No tears, then – for Aickman did what he wanted to do, and the outcomes earned him undying respect, that elusive immortality that many an artist will dream of.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Robert Aickman at the British Library 10.11.2017

Aickman photographed by Jean Richardson

Is Robert Aickman the twentieth century’s ‘most profound writer of what we call horror stories and he, with greater accuracy, preferred to call strange stories’? That was the view of Peter Straub, celebrated author of Ghost Story among others. I think ‘most profound’ is perfectly justifiable even before we get to considerations of style, which in the case of Aickman are considerable. The work is pregnant with unease, melancholia and dread – perfect, then, for this time of year, and also for any other.

To speak of only one treasure in that archive: the Library now holds the manuscript of Aickman’s only unpublished novel, ‘Go Back at Once’ (1975); and that title is so marvellous and so very Aickman that I’m not sure I’d even want to read the work, such is my pleasure in just knowing that it exists.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Graeme Souness: buzzer, cruncher, spreader

‘We called him Sowness when he was at Middlesbrough.’ This, if I’m remembering right, was Bob Mortimer’s memory of how Graeme Souness was welcomed when he joined Jack Charlton’s team as a player on Teesside; and I think it’s true, because my granny in County Durham called him that and all - even when Souness was at Liverpool, skipper and top 'Jock' who could no longer be imagined to hail from anywhere other than Scotland.

You would tend to want to get his name right in person, I'd guess. There was a flair to how Souness carried himself on and off the park, but at Middlesbrough he acquired his principal reputation, for a flint-like toughness. What a player he was, though. ‘Most midfields are made up of a buzzer, a cruncher and a spreader’, Bob Paisley once observed. ‘[Souness] is all three.’ The crunching is what we recall most feelingly, maybe. But the ‘spreading’ was the flashiest element: Souness had a rare gift for abrupt switches of play from left to right through pinpoint flighted passes. He also rifled in some brilliant goals.

Souness is widely felt to have impaired his footballing reputation through management, even though he won a fair few trophies with various clubs. He alienated the Liverpool support by talking to the Sun after Hillsborough, though in 2011, however late it was, he made a pained and dignified apology. By the time he finished as a boss at Newcastle in 2006, though, it was clear that Souness felt the game had gone to the dogs, full of players to whom he wouldn’t have given the time of day when he was playing. But the modern manager simply has to finesse such matters, and Souness is maybe an arch example of a player who was too formidable an ex-pro to sit easily in the dugout.

Souness has just published a new memoir and I must say I enjoyed his previous ones. In an interview-feature with Souness for the Glasgow Herald, Teddy Jamieson does a good job of getting lines out of the great man and is kind enough to quote me appositely from Keegan and Dalglish.