Even The Dogs, Jon McGregor, Bloomsbury, London, 2010

Christmas is the season of good cheer. It is also the season of forced gaiety and consumerist frenzy. It is also the season of bleak homelessness, addiction and other forms of individual and family disfunction. And should you wish to get an insight into the latter condition, you could do no better than to read Jon McGregor's, Even The Dogs. I am currently mourning Jim Crace's decision to retire from novel writing but praise the gods, Jon McGregor has miraculously arrived to fill the vacuum. And he does so with all the literary genius that we had come to love and expect from Jim Crace. Two literary geniuses proving, as if proof was necessary, that the centuries old art of novel writing is not dead.

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Pompeii, Robert Harris, Hutchinson, London, 2003

A rollicking, fictionalised account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which, without effort, wiped the Roman town of Pompeii from the living map. I say fictionalised, but it is clear from this historical novel that Harris has done his homework. Just a brief scan of the acknowledgements page at the end of the novel testifies to Harris's attention to historical accuracy. It's a great read, marred only perhaps by the decision to include a romantic interest. Still, the man has to make a living. The work is peppered with thoughtful philosophical flourishes alongside much Greco-Roman wisdom and the novel is all the richer for it. But for me, the highlight of the novel is the manner in which Harris interlaces his tale with the everyday reality of slavery the socio-economic bedrock of Rome and all other classical empires of antiquity.

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Of course, Russian sport is corrupt, but then so are the Olympics, Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 6/12/17

A welcome and overdue return to sporting polemics but predictably it's the same old story; corruption, doping and unaccountable oligarchy. Simon Jenkins does an excellent job in outlining the corrupt relationship between the Russian authorities and the IOC and FIFA. But more than that, he goes on to make the point that it is not only Russian sport that is mired in corruption and cheating. All nations are at it, not least the British, although they like to play the very British game of being holier than thou. What makes Jenkins article stand out from the pack is his ability to get to the root cause of much of this corruption. To cut to the chase, it is national chauvinism, says Jenkins, that is at the heart of all that is rotten with international sport and unless and until this nexus between national chauvinism and sporting excellence is broken, international sport will forever be dragged into the gutter.


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Let’s Turn the Tide on Plastic, Daily Mail, 30/11/17

Notwithstanding my unflinching revulsion of all that is the Daily Mail, complete with its non-stop xenophobia, its petty little England mentality and its outright racist bile, I am forced once again to congratulate its editors for their front-page campaign against the tsunami of plastic currently devastating our planet. I say, once again because they ran a similar inspiring front-page campaign not so long ago declaring sugar as the new tobacco. They were correct on that one and they are equally correct on their attitude towards discarded plastics. Just as The Sun, that vile tabloid rag, once came out defiantly against the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, so The Daily Mail occasionally demonstrates its better nature. It is rare but welcome nevertheless. But there is a glaring contradiction at the heart of their campaigning journalism; the not insignificant question of government regulation.

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Brexit and the Irish Question: Don’t mention the ongoing Occupation.

In a half decent article by Polly Toynbee, The Irish Question May Yet Save Britain From Brexit (The Guardian 28/11/17) she gives a hint at the Imperial rule that has so humiliated this small nation for so long. Toynbee writes; They (the Brexiteers) pretended it was nothing. Reviving that deep-dyed, centuries-old contempt for the Irish, they have dismissed it with an imperial fly-whisk as a minor irritation. Beautiful written and historically accurate. But it is not enough. Neither Toynbee, or Andrew Marr or Jeremy Paxman before them, nor the whole gamut of liberal journalists currently plying their trade in Britain, can bring themselves to openly admit that the remnants of the British Empire still occupy six counties of the thirty-two counties of Ireland. This is not some small pedantic point. Just imagine if the Germans still occupied the Channel Islands. Would liberal Britain, let alone the thousands of rabid nationalists still lurking in the corridors of power, quietly acquiesce to mid-20th

century German imperial occupation? I think not.


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I Am Not Your Negro, Film Review, Raoul Peck, 2017

Based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, this is an important piece in the jigsaw of America's Civil Rights Movement. But it is so much more. Baldwin was attempting, in his final work, to link together the lives, criminally cut short, of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the lesser known civil rights activist, Medgar Evers into a coherent whole. And Raoul Peck does full justice to that unfinished work. He does so by allowing plenty of space for Baldwin to speak his own wonderfully eloquent words rather than allowing others to speak for him. And the key message that this fine intellectual has for his white neighbours; America does not have a Negro problem but instead, he makes abundantly clear, America has an unresolved problem with race. Peck, in this fine documentary, gives plenty of room for Baldwin's thesis to be aired and, by interspersing the narrative with some contemporary footage, brings the message bang on up to the present day. Full marks.


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Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Transworld Publishers, London, 2003

This one is important, and perhaps more important than its author might have originally imagined. In an age where religion and other assorted superstitions are making something of a comeback, here is a novel that tenaciously works, on every front, to deconstruct all the nonsense about gods, fate and the god-given, subordinate role of women. That the novelist achieves this with much humour and empathy for her characters, whilst maintaining throughout a growing level of tension, is an achievement in itself. That the novel stands out, fifteen years on, as a searing indictment of all things patriarchal and metaphysical, is its real achievement.

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The War on Women, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, Simon & Schuster, London, 2016

For a harrowing journalistic account of how a violent, misogynistic patriarchy still rules our planet, you could do no better than to read Sue Lloyd Robert's The War on Women. It's not a theoretical exposition but the theoretical questions behind the viscous misogyny that continues to plague our species emerges clear enough. The book feels a little unfinished and that is probably because its author sadly died before she could tidy things up. And one cannot help but feel there is a vital missing chapter. Robert's does a heroic job of presenting the global picture, but where are the all damning chapters recounting Britain's shameful record of domestic abuse? The statistics emerging from the so-called western developed countries are truly shocking. By the time you have read this short blog, half a dozen women would have been battered nearly to death in their own homes by men they thought they could trust. Every week two will die of their injuries. This is truly a war on women and it's happening right in front of our noses.

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Another Country, James Baldwin

The title of this powerful novel is somewhat ambiguous and probably deliberately so. It might refer to the very different experiences that Black and White people experience in the USA. It might equally refer to the different worlds and experiences of gay and straight people, not to mention the many shifting shades in between. It might actually refer to the dreams and aspirations that we all have, contrasted with the hum-drum reality that most of us inevitably lead. Another Country could even refer to that geographical place that we all dream about; some place that we imagine is so much better than where we actually are. I suspect Another Country for Mr Baldwin, is all of these things; metaphysical, socio-political and geographical. Either way, Baldwin produced something of a classic, quietly simmering away until it explodes into anger, recriminations and personal revelations. But what I found both intriguing and shocking about this novel was that some fifty years on, the sickening reality of racial discrimination is as alive today in America as it was in the 1960's. Just why is it, I kept asking myself, is this supposedly most modern of nations stuck in a social dead-end when it comes to the question of race?


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Shooting in the US of A

I'm shooting from the hip

I'm shooting with red hot lead

I'm shooting at the passers-by

I'm shooting till they're dead.

I'm shooting from the rooftop

I'm shooting em in their beds

I'm shooting up my local school

I'm aiming for their heads.


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Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, No Brexit: It’s all quite irrelevant really.

Under the forty-year golden era of British EU membership, we had the introduction of zero-hour contracts, the rise of food banks along with poverty wages, chronic levels of personal debt, a chronically underfunded welfare system, a crumbling transport infrastructure and a completely dysfunctional housing system. The reason was simple. The EU was, despite some useful social and environmental legislation, firmly in the hands of the transnational corporates and the big banks. Neo-liberal globalism was the order of the day and to hell with the indigenous working class. In the southern nations of Europe, some 50% of the youth population were and still are unemployed. The vicious and self-defeating policy of austerity was imposed on all the nations of Europe while a tiny elite of corporate bosses and money speculators became obscenely rich. Greece was reduced to pauperism and politically, the widely discredited neo-liberal economic model has ushered in the rise of the far-right parties. So, regards to the benefits of the EU for Europe's working classes, not that much to cheer about. And after Brexit, it will be more of the same.

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Prison Ping: Coaching to a Captive Audience

Got an invitation recently to help out with a table tennis coaching session at one of Her Majesty's maximum-security prisons. I duly accepted the invitation, grabbed my bat and ball and set off down the road. This was to be part of an ongoing project to get the best ping players in the prison up to scratch and ready to take their official Level 1 coaching badge. From there, they would fan out across the prison wings, passing on their newly acquired skills to anyone and everyone that cared to learn. And, as an added bonus, when they had done their time, they would leave prison with a marketable skill which just may help with their reintegration into the outside asylum. I was arriving about mid-way through the project so I would get a fairly good idea of how it was all going.


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The State, Channel 4, 2017, Review

Someone should be congratulated for having the presence of mind to put this four-part drama onto our screens. Islamic State is not, I imagine, the easiest political beast to get one's head around, and this drama, while far from exhaustive, was a genuine if tentative attempt. The Daily Mail hated it with a passion, so by that measure it must have had something going for it. The drama focused on a handful of British recruits to the IS battle fields somewhere in Syria. The acting from these British Jihadists was woefully wooden - central protagonists that looked and sounded as if they had just stepped off a Holby City set. But the acting was not the key thing here. What the script writers had set out to do was to present something of a human dimension to the Islamic State Jihadists. Not an easy task I admit, given that Islamic State has morphed into something quite barbaric; a cross between an extreme religious death cult with fantasies of establishing a world-wide medieval Islamic caliphate, and a good old modern fascist police state.

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Terrorist, John Updike, Penguin, London 2006

I need to be careful I don't do a spoiler in this review. There must be still millions of people out there who have not read this magnificent novel and I wouldn't want to ruin it for them should they find the time and mindfulness to get a hold of a copy. Such efforts would not be wasted. John Updike needs no promotion to those that follow US 20th

century literature. But after the glory days of the Rabbit novels, Mr Updike somewhat faded from view. This post 9/11 offering merely reaffirms Updike as the master novelist the world knew him to be, both in terms of language, plot and theme. It is a sheer joy to read his prose; sparse, taut and invariably authentic. But this is not a literary blog. No, it is the central theme of the novel that interests me most; the social psychology of the would-be terrorist and the environment that nurtured that mindset.

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White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Penguin, London, 2000

I first read this seventeen years ago  back in the day, as they say, when everybody was going crazy over White Teeth and a shining new novelist called Zadie Smith. It was the ultimate millennium novel. And I, like everybody I knew, just loved every page of it. It brought us bang up to date on the theme of the day the search for identity and meaning. It was philosophy and politics and sociology and any other ology you might care to name but above all it was damn funny. Blisteringly funny but not of a slap-stick verity. No sir. This was political humour that was both subversive and personal.

After the excitement had died down I just locked the glorious memories of White Teeth in the classic novel section of my cluttered brain, along with Midnight's Children and God of Small Things and got on with my life. Seventeen years later, looking for some good old-fashioned holiday reading, I dug it out of the shelves, dusted it off and started to enjoy all over again. But I had reservations. Serious reservations. Would it be dated? Would it still be funny? And would it live up to my ideal of an all-time classic novel? I'm happy to announce that on all three fronts I can answer in the affirmative.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, Penguin, UK 2017

Here we have genius at work. Not just the genius of Roy's hypnotic prose, but also the genius of how the disparate threads of her story so effortlessly come together as the novel concludes. I'm talking also of Roy's genius in presenting so many conflicting world views; the view of India's teeming dispossessed and marginalised masses, of which India's brutally marginalised transgender community serves as the perfect metaphor for all those suffering a similar fate. Then there is the viewpoint of India's regimented military personnel ruthless yet human and even humane all at once. And there is the genius of Roy's representation the Kashmiri struggle both in its nationalist and cross-border Jihadist incarnations. Muslim, Hindu, Maoist and Sikh; the middle classes and the untouchables, the winners and the losers. All come to life with Roy's expert imagination, all jostle for our sympathies, all form part of India's rich but desperate tapestry of life.

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