John Lanchester

John Lanchester’s Reality and Other Stories is due in October.

Diary: Getting into Esports

John Lanchester, 13 August 2020

Iremember, back at the start of lockdown, trying to draw up a rough mental ledger of things I would miss. The idea was to try and anticipate difficulties so as not to be blindsided by them. My list was heartfelt but unoriginal and consisted mainly, now I look back at it, of various blessings of city life that I had come to take almost entirely for granted. Seeing friends. Going for a walk...

Nobody​ is sure how many books Georges Simenon wrote. All sources give different totals. He himself didn’t know, indeed he couldn’t remember all of them. He had many pseudonyms, dating back to the time when he was starting out as a hyper-prolific hack in his Belgian youth. To complicate things further, many of his books were published serially and are of a length somewhere...

Diary: A Whiff of Tear Gas

John Lanchester, 19 December 2019

From abroad, you can get the gist about the protests, but you don’t see how completely inter-generational the divide is. It is one of those increasingly common issues – common globally, I mean – where you have a good chance of knowing what a person thinks if you know their age. Families are split; the accommodationist grown-ups miss few chances to harangue the protesting youngsters, and the youngsters miss few chances to resent it furiously. You get told, repeatedly, that the protesters are ‘children’, as young as 14 or 15 or even younger. This is supposed to suggest that the protests are in some sense trivial, though of course it’s possible to take it in the opposite sense, as a sign of how desperately fractured Hong Kong has become: a society in which only children can tell the truth, and only children feel they have any political agency.

‘Succession’

John Lanchester, 21 November 2019

The modern mode​ of watching television, largely uncoupled from broadcast schedules, makes a programme’s transition from critical acclaim to audience approval to mass adoption more gradual than it used to be. Once, there were immediate hits and misses. There still are – but it’s more common for the hits to build gradually, by word of mouth. Many shows seem magically to...

From the perspective of the West, we have a lot to learn from China, in particular about the scale and potential consequences of this new industrial revolution. Much if not all of the technology currently developed in China already exists in the West, in forms that are just as intrusive. The difference is that the technology is almost all in the hands of private companies. AI, big data, facial recognition: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and any number of smaller and emerging companies are deeply invested in these fields. Add what these companies know about you to the colossal amount of data held by the credit reference agencies, and we are as fully open to surveillance in the West as are the citizens of the People’s Republic. There is a touch of bathos to this: the technologies which are being used in China to invent a new form of the totalitarian state are being exploited here to make us click on ads and buy stuff.

Good New Idea: Universal Basic Income

John Lanchester, 18 July 2019

Will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events. If we are to avoid going down that route, we will need to have some different, better ideas; we will need to have some ideas about shared responsibility, shared security and shared prosperity. The left will need a new toolkit. It will need to have done its intellectual prep. That, more than anything, is what this new wave of work on UBI represents.

John Lanchester’s piece in this issue first appeared on the LRB blog. You can read it here.

The Case of Agatha Christie

John Lanchester, 20 December 2018

She knew that people could hate each other, and act on their hate. Her plots are complicated, designedly so, and the backstories and red herrings involved are often ornate, but in the end, the reason one person murders another in her work comes down to avarice and/or hate. She believed in evil, not necessarily in a theological sense – that’s a topic she doesn’t explore – but as a plain fact about human beings and their actions.

Story: ‘Love Island’

John Lanchester, 2 August 2018

Iona headed out into the stairwell for a bit of an explore. This upper floor of the villa had six rooms leading off a gallery, with stairs running down one side and a skylight above and walls painted white. It was very bright. She knew without looking that the other rooms would be bedrooms, and that this meant there would be six of them in the villa. Three girls and three boys. She couldn’t see any cameras or mikes so whatever they did with them must be very very clever, super-clever, because she was certain she was being watched.

That’s where we are with markets: non-change change, in the form of bonus regulation and ring-fencing; no change or change for the worse in the case of complexity and shadow banking and too big to fail; and no overall reduction in the level of risk present in the system. We are back with the issue of impunity. For the people inside the system that caused a decade of misery, no change. For everyone else, a decade of misery, magnified by austerity policies. Note that austerity policies were not recommended by mainstream macroeconomists, who predicted that they would lead to flat or shrinking GDP, as indeed they did. Instead politicians took the crisis as a political inflection point – a phrase used to me in private by a Tory in 2009, before the public realised what was about to hit them – and seized the opportunity to contract government spending and shrink the state.

Nabokov’s Dreams

John Lanchester, 10 May 2018

We find him struggling with sleep and remembering his father: ‘It is odd that my father who was so good-natured, and gay, is always so morose in my dreams.’ He watches rubbish television with Véra, he has a dream in which ‘somebody discussed “anti-Semitism in the world of waiters”,’ he has another in which Pelé shoots a football and he lunges to save it (once a goalkeeper, always a goalkeeper).

Story: ‘Coffin Liquor’

John Lanchester, 4 January 2018

Monday

I realised that things had gone wrong as soon as I arrived at my hotel. The receptionists spoke no English. Only when I showed them my passport did they seem to accept, with reluctance, that I had a booking. I was given a key and took my own bag upstairs. The room was a cramped, overfurnished space with thin brown walls. On the desk was an envelope of conference materials including a...

You Are the Product: It Zucks!

John Lanchester, 17 August 2017

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me. It goes back to that moment of its creation, Zuckerberg at his keyboard after a few drinks creating a website to compare people’s appearance, not for any real reason other than that he was able to do it. That’s the crucial thing about Facebook, the main thing which isn’t understood about its motivation: it does things because it can. That’s why the impulse to growth has been so fundamental to the company, which is in many respects more like a virus than it is like a business. Grow and multiply and monetise. Why? There is no why. Because.

One of the secret scandals of modern Britain has been the increase in the death rate. In England and Wales it went up by 5.4 per cent in 2015, an extra 27,000 deaths over the year before: too big a number to be a statistical glitch. The death rate fell from the mid-1970s until the arrival of the coalition, but has been going up since 2011. The fact that the death rate fell under successive Tory and Labour regimes and is only now rising suggests that there is something specific about recent policy which is making the death rate worse. The likeliest culprit is changes to social care, in particular care of the elderly. This is nothing like as big a scandal as it should be. Who should you vote for if you want this to change?

Short Cuts: Amazon Echo

John Lanchester, 2 February 2017

Just over​ ten years ago, on 9 January 2007, Steve Jobs stood up on stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and announced that Apple would be bringing out three new devices: a ‘widescreen iPod, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communication device’. The punchline: ‘These are not three separate devices. This is one device.’ That was the...

Short Cuts: The Great Refusers

John Lanchester, 20 October 2016

Most​ writers of fiction are interested in anonymity. If they aren’t tickled by the thought when they sit down to write their first books, they get to that point after the first couple have come out. Writing is solitary, private, inward, and involves something close to complete control; even when there are losses of control or agency, they’re of the sort that a writer has, most...

Brexit Blues

John Lanchester, 28 July 2016

The white working class is correct to feel abandoned: it has been. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients. It’s a system bitterly resented both by the beneficiaries and by the suppliers of the largesse.

When Bitcoin Grows Up: What is Money?

John Lanchester, 21 April 2016

It’s time for the bitcoin to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It could become merely a new way of ensuring the continuation of banking hegemony in its current form. That would be one of those final plot twists which leaves everybody thinking that although they enjoyed most of the show, the ending was so disappointing they now wish they hadn’t bothered. Or, along with peer-to-peer lending and mobile payments, it could have an impact as great as the new kind of banking introduced in Renaissance Italy.

Short Cuts: Sugary Horrors

John Lanchester, 21 January 2016

A gloomy​ headline for early January: four million people in the UK have diabetes. There are 700 new diagnoses every day, the overwhelming majority (90 per cent) with type 2 diabetes, the variety associated with diet and inactivity. In the last decade there has been a 65 per cent rise in the total number of diabetics. By one reckoning, one in five British retirees is a sufferer....

Short Cuts: Phished

John Lanchester, 3 December 2015

Got a headache?​ Help is at hand. At your local pharmacy or supermarket or corner shop or garage or indeed pretty much anywhere, you can buy a branded packet of 2-(4-isobutylphenyl)propionic acid, better known as ibuprofen, at a cost of £2 for 12 200mg tablets. (If that pharmacy is a Boots, you’re buying the medicine from the people who created it, since it was Boots’s...

Let’s all go to Mars

John Lanchester, 10 September 2015

Some stories are so well known in outline that we don’t really know them at all. The headline news about the Wright brothers’ invention of powered flight is so familiar that it’s easy to think we know all about it. David McCullough’s excellent biography The Wright Brothers brings the story back to life with facts that the non-specialist either doesn’t know or has blotted out with a misplaced broad brush. Yeah yeah, we get it: the brothers were provincial tinkerers who first flew their invention at Kitty Hawk, then became world-famous.

The Robots Are Coming

John Lanchester, 5 March 2015

In 1996, in response to the 1992 Russo-American moratorium on nuclear testing, the US government started a programme called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The suspension of testing had created a need to be able to run complex computer simulations of how old weapons were ageing, for safety reasons, and also – it’s a dangerous world out there! – to design new weapons without breaching the terms of the moratorium.

Short Cuts: Hang on to your Swissies

John Lanchester, 5 February 2015

You know​ that thing where you draw a line in the sand, stand behind it and declare: ‘They shall not pass!’ That’s what the Swiss National Bank, the SNB, did in September 2011, when it surprised the currency markets by suddenly announcing that it wouldn’t allow the Swiss franc to appreciate in value below CHF 1.20 to one euro. The SNB’s problem was that the...

Karl Miller Remembered

Neal Ascherson, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, 23 October 2014

People​ said things about Karl, but not often to his face. He might like the things or he might not, and that did not always depend on whether they were intended as compliments or the opposite. Personal remarks could be returned with interest, hot or cold. Whichever way, he remembered them with accuracy.

I can think of two personal remarks about Karl, in his early years, which reached him and...

Short Cuts: On the Official Worry List

John Lanchester, 11 September 2014

In the world​ of money, there is always an Official Worry List, containing the next big things which are likely to go wrong or blow up. The items on the list are sometimes problems we’ve all heard of, with obvious political and human ramifications, such as the Ukraine crisis, or the rise of Isis. The macro-economic take on both of these has less to do with widespread suffering and...

It’s All Over

John Lanchester, 19 June 2014

Small boys​ of all ages and both genders look forward to World Cups. Perhaps nobody, though, looks forward to it more than actual small boys. I’ve been looking forward to them ever since my first, in 1970 – the best, I still think. The thing I remember almost as well as the drama and excitement of the football was my incredulous horror at the thought that I would be 12 before...

Scalpers Inc.: ‘Flash Boys’

John Lanchester, 5 June 2014

Early in the afternoon of 6 May 2010, the leading stock market index in the US, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suddenly started falling. There was no evident external reason for the fall – no piece of news or economic data – but the market, which had been drifting slowly downwards that day, in a matter of minutes dropped by 6 per cent. There was pandemonium: some stocks in the Dow were trading for prices as low as 1 cent, others for prices as high as $100,000, in both cases with no apparent rationale. A 15-minute period saw a loss of roughly $1 trillion in market capitalisation.

Short Cuts: fUKd

John Lanchester, 22 May 2014

The general election​ of 2015 will be unique in contemporary British history for coming at the end of a fixed-term Parliament. This has had the predictable consequence of giving us a run-up to the election so protracted that it has already begun, with the parties titivating their policies, importing electoral gurus and covertly making plans to book advertising space. None of this is new:...

Short Cuts: Cooking for Geeks

John Lanchester, 21 November 2013

When Ferran Adrià, the Spanish maestro who is undisputedly the most influential chef of the last two decades, gave up cooking at his restaurant El Bulli, he announced that he was going to be starting a number of projects. One of them is intended to be a foundation dedicated to the study of himself. Another was a collaboration on the subject of food and science with Harvard. I think...

As the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, takes up his job, it’s a good moment to reflect on the nature and scale of the work ahead of him. In the rear-view mirror, he can see how our banks reached their current condition – a story full of failure, scandal, greed and incompetence. That, as far as the overall picture of modern Britain is concerned, is the fun part. The difficult thing is looking forward and trying to work out what to do next. That’s because in their current condition our banks are an existential threat to British democracy.

As anyone who’s been there recently can testify, the blame in Spain falls mainly on the banks – as it does in Ireland, in Greece, in the US, and pretty much everywhere else too. Here in the UK, feelings were nicely summed up by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which reported on 19 June that ‘the public have a sense that advantage has been taken of them, that bankers have received huge rewards, that some of those rewards have not been properly earned, and in some cases have been obtained through dishonesty.’

Short Cuts: Google Glass

John Lanchester, 23 May 2013

Last week I took 61,240 steps, covering 28.88 miles, and climbed the equivalent of 142 flights of stairs – not bad, but not as good as the week before, when I took 67,131 steps, covering 31.66 miles, and climbed 122 flights. I note with gloom that even then I failed to make my target of ten thousand steps a day. I know this with such precision not because I’ve turned into a cross...

When did you get hooked? Game of Thrones

John Lanchester, 11 April 2013

The writer Neal Stephenson, in response to a question about his own fame or lack of it, came up with a usefully precise and clarifying answer: ‘It helps to put this in perspective by likening me to the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa. It’s true of both the mayor of Des Moines and of me that, out of the world’s population of some six billion people, there are a few hundred thousand who consider us important, and who recognise us by name. In the case of the mayor of Des Moines, that is simply the population of the Des Moines metropolitan area.’

Let’s call it failure: The Shit We’re In

John Lanchester, 3 January 2013

Saying ‘I told you so’ is supposed to be near unbeatable fun, so it’s disappointing to report that, in the case of the government’s handling of the British economy, speaking for myself, no fun is being had. As George Osborne’s autumn statement made clear, the scale and speed and completeness with which things are going wrong are numbing. The Tories went into the 2010 election with a manifesto commitment to reduce the structural deficit. That’s what they set out to do.

Short Cuts: James Cameron under Water

John Lanchester, 26 April 2012

On 16 August 1960, a US air force captain called Joseph Kittinger stepped out of a balloon. The balloon was 102,800 feet above the Earth. It would be an exaggeration to say that Kittinger jumped out of a balloon in space, as he’s sometimes said to have done, but there’s no denying that his jump was, in layman’s terms, seriously freaking high. There is some footage of the...

Marx at 193

John Lanchester, 5 April 2012

In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense.

Short Cuts: The Art of Financial Disaster

John Lanchester, 15 December 2011

No essay in English has a better title than De Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. I wonder whether, if he were alive today, he might be tempted to go back to the well and write a follow-up, ‘On Financial Disaster Considered as One of the Fine Arts’? The basic material might be less immediately captivating, but there’s a lot to choose...

Short Cuts: #tevezexcuses

John Lanchester, 20 October 2011

Quantity changes quality, Hegel thought. It’s an observation which proves true in many different contexts, and one of them involves football. I know that I’m far from alone in finding the game much less compelling than I used to, and when I ask myself why, the answer involves two different kinds of quantity. One, there’s so much more of it, on television and everywhere else....

Quarterly GDP data don’t, on the whole, tend to make the person studying them laugh out loud. The most recent set, however, are an exception, despite the fact that the general picture is of unrelieved and spreading economic gloom. Instead of the surge of rebounding growth which historically accompanies successful exit from a recession, we have the UK’s disappointing 0.2 per cent growth, the US’s anaemic 0.3 per cent and the glum eurozone average figure of 0.2 per cent. That number includes the surprising and alarming German 0.1 per cent, the desperately poor French 0 per cent and then, wait for it, the agreeably frisky Belgian 0.7 per cent. Why is that, if you’ve been following the story, laugh-aloud funny? Because Belgium doesn’t have a government.

The economic crisis in Greece is the most important thing to have happened in Europe since the Balkan wars. That isn’t because Greece is economically central to the European order: at barely 3 per cent of Eurozone GDP, the Greek economy could vanish without trace and scarcely be missed by anyone else. The dangers posed by the imminent Greek default are all to do with how it happens. I speak of the Greek default as a sure thing because it is: the markets are pricing Greek government debt as if it has already defaulted. This in itself is a huge deal, because the euro was built on the assumption that no country in it would ever default, and as a result there is no precedent and, more important still, no mechanism for what is about to happen.

Short Cuts: Unlikeabilityfest

John Lanchester, 17 February 2011

Back when I was at university, the only people who ever used the word ‘narrative’ were literature students with an interest in critical theory. Everyone else made do with ‘story’ and ‘plot’. Since then, the n-word has been on a long journey towards the spotlight – especially the political spotlight. Everybody in politics now seems to talk about...

Let Us Pay: Can newspapers survive?

John Lanchester, 16 December 2010

During 2009, it was difficult to find anybody inside the newspaper business who was not profoundly depressed about the future of the industry. All the trend lines were downwards. The migration of readers and advertisers towards digital media was already a long-standing headache for the industry. Then came the credit crunch, whose aftermath brought recession, further decline in sales, and a sharp downturn in advertising. The result was industry-wide gloom. The historic strength of the newspaper business, from an economic point of view, is the fact that it offers two revenue streams, sales and advertising. Both of these have for years been under severe pressure. The story told by circulation figures is so obvious that it’s difficult to find anything interesting to point out about it. A recent OECD report, The Evolution of News and the Internet, makes the picture clear. Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. Since then, the speed of the downturn has increased.

Votes v. Seats

John Lanchester, 13 May 2010

John Lanchester's article in this issue was made up of four posts from his election blog (Smell the Glove / North Korean Flavour / How to Break the System / End of the World).

The government has to cut the deficit. That involves raising taxes and cutting spending. The government can’t do it too quickly, or it would tip the country back into recession. But the government will have to administer some cuts in spending, because the bond market insists on it. The government can’t cut too thoroughly, because the electorate won’t wear it. Inflation looks like the only way out. Not too much inflation, because the bond market wouldn’t like that. Also, the rules currently forbid it – but the rules, let’s face it, are the least of the problems. So it’s easy to see why financial insiders think it doesn’t make much difference who wins the next election.

Short Cuts: Kraft eats Cadbury

John Lanchester, 7 January 2010

When economic times are hard, big companies take the opportunity to eat smaller ones. This process does not respect national boundaries, particularly when an economy is as open to outsiders as Britain’s. This is an old story, so it’s hard to see quite why the prospective takeover of Cadbury by Kraft, the American food conglomerate, has got people going quite as much as it has....

Bankocracy: Lehman Brothers

John Lanchester, 5 November 2009

The collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers over the weekend of 13-14 September last year was an event of world-historical magnitude. What was so important about it wasn’t the local havoc it caused, the loss of jobs and livelihoods and savings; it wasn’t even the fact that the US Treasury’s decision to allow the bank to go bankrupt triggered a full-blown stock market...

Short Cuts: Caster Semenya

John Lanchester, 8 October 2009

Sports administration is one of those jobs which have built into them the fact that they attract attention only when things go wrong. A school sports day takes quite a bit of organising; anything bigger, and the complications grow exponentially. Events such as Wimbledon or the World Cup are mechanisms of extraordinary complexity, in which most of the moving parts are human, and these events...

It’s Finished: The Banks

John Lanchester, 28 May 2009

We (the taxpaying we) have no choice but to keep them in business, and yet no real idea what’s going on inside them . . . If the global economic crisis can be reduced to one single phenomenon, it is this: the fact that nobody knows which banks are solvent.

Short Cuts: Google Street View

John Lanchester, 9 April 2009

Stendhal said that the novel was ‘a mirror that one walks down a road’, ‘un miroir qu’on promène le long d’un chemin’. Although this maxim is generally agreed to be a masterful summary of the realist project in fiction, it has always brought out a literal streak in me. How much would the mirror show? Wouldn’t everything depend on how big it was?...

Short Cuts: the demise of Woolworths

John Lanchester, 29 January 2009

Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the UK’s biggest trade union, Unite, has warned of apocalyptic consequences if the government doesn’t pump some money into the UK car industry. ‘Our industry is on the ropes because of market collapse, particularly for the sort of high-value vehicles produced by Jaguar and Land Rover.’ The car business needs help, right now....

Is it Art? video games

John Lanchester, 1 January 2009

There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience. Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren't interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren't. Their invisibility is interesting in itself, and also allows interesting things to happen in games under the cultural radar.

Cityphobia: The Crash

John Lanchester, 23 October 2008

Byron wrote that ‘I think it great affectation not to quote oneself.’ On that basis, I’d like to quote what I wrote in a piece about the City of London, in the aftermath of the Northern Rock fiasco: ‘If our laws are not extended to control the new kinds of super-powerful, super-complex and potentially super-risky investment vehicles, they will one day cause a financial disaster of global-systemic proportions.’ The prediction was right, but the tense was wrong. The disaster had already happened, it just hadn’t yet played itself out in the markets.

Short Cuts: Life on Mars?

John Lanchester, 11 September 2008

To the naked eye Mars is unmistakeably red, the colour of blood and, by association, of war, and its light fluctuates in intensity as it wanders one way and then back again across the sky. It has been an object of fascination and speculation for all recorded history. Looking through a telescope more than a hundred years ago, Percival Lowell thought he spotted canals on Mars and hypothesised...

New Labour’s exes are a hard-publishing lot. So far we have had diaries from two of its central figures, David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell, and from a spin-doctor hanger-on (Lance Price); a memoir by its most senior diplomat, the former ambassador to Washington Sir Christopher Meyer; and now memoirs by the former prime minister’s wife, his deputy and his bagman. The granddaddy of them all, Blair’s own memoirs, are still to come. It is an unprecedented cascade of memoirs by prominent figures in a government which is, let’s not forget, still in power. The phenomenon seemed odd when it began – Lance Price was called in front of a Parliamentary committee in December 2005 to account for his temerity in publishing his insider’s account. By now we’re used to it, and it’s getting to the point where it would be more surprising for a New Labour insider not to publish a book explaining how he/she was both a. more at the centre of things than anybody had hitherto suspected while also b. not to blame for any of the stuff that went wrong.

A plop on the doormat and Volume 177 in the Library of America is in the house: Edmund Wilson’s writings from the 1930s and 1940s, including Classics and Commercials, The Triple Thinkers and The Wound and the Bow. There is something appropriate and even – without wanting to be corny about it – moving about seeing Wilson take his place in the Library of America. The Library...

Short Cuts: Ken or Boris?

John Lanchester, 10 April 2008

The London mayoral elections are on 1 May. The elections for the London Assembly take place at the same time. One salient fact about them is that abstention isn’t a responsible option. The election takes place under a bizarrely complicated system in which 14 seats, belonging to geographical constituencies, are awarded on a first past the post basis. The remaining 11 seats are awarded...

‘Important’ is a cant word in book reviewing: it usually means something like ‘slightly above average’, or ‘I was at university with her,’ or ‘I couldn’t be bothered to read it so I’m giving a quote instead.’ Very occasionally it might be stretched to mean ‘a book likely to be referred to in the future by other people who write about the same subject’. Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News, however, is a genuinely important book, one which is likely to change, permanently, the way anyone who reads it looks at the British newspaper industry. Davies’s book explains something easy to notice and complain about but hard to understand: the sense of the increasing thinness and attenuation of the British press. It’s not literal thinness: the papers, physically, are bigger than ever. There just seems to be less in them than there once was: less news, less thought (as opposed to opinion), less density of engagement, less time spent finding things out. Davies looks into all those questions, confirms that the impression of thinness is correct, explains how this came about, and offers no hope that things will improve.

Cityphilia: the credit crunch

John Lanchester, 3 January 2008

Uncritical and uninformed governmental Cityphilia received its biggest shock in decades this autumn, with the near collapse of Britain’s fifth largest mortgage lender, Northern Rock. Britain’s first genuine bank run in more than a hundred years shone a light in many places where the sun doesn’t routinely shine, and one of the first things to be brought into question was the ways banks work. As I’ve already said, my father was a banker, and I grew up hearing about that mythical beast, the bank run. It was often spoken of but rarely seen in the wild. Bankers are said to dread a bank run, but my dad talked about them with a certain black humour. They were always a sign that somebody had fucked up, big-time. They can also be a sign that something in the financial system is fundamentally wrong. The question hanging around in the residue of the Rock’s near implosion is which type of bank run this was – a fuck-up, or a harbinger of meltdown?

Short Cuts: Decoding Hu Jintao

John Lanchester, 15 November 2007

It is not true that the exchange of goods at the end of the Cold War was entirely one-sided. Granted, the Soviet bloc got gangster capitalism, rampant inequality and freeish elections; but we got some things too. Prominent among them has been the utterly choreographed, wholly undemocratic party congress. These were once a derided feature of Communist states. Now, though, our party conferences...

In Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism – a difficult book, but, it seems increasingly clear, the most important critical work of the last twenty years – Fredric Jameson observes that ‘the disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche.’ This thought-provoking assertion captures a truth about the shift from the modern to the postmodern: there is something pastiche-like about a great many contemporary writers, not least those who write in a personal voice which is in itself a variety of pastiche. Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate is fascinating for many reasons, and one of them is the way in that it is both a pastiche and a personal statement; a conscious, cold-blooded attempt to sum up everything Grossman knew about the Great Patriotic War, and at the same time to rewrite War and Peace.

Shtum: Alastair Campbell’s Diaries

John Lanchester, 16 August 2007

There is a structural flaw in British politics. In theory, we have a representative democracy: we the electors vote for members of Parliament, whose job is to represent us, and who, collectively, are the sovereign power. In practice, though, it doesn’t quite work like that. We the electors vote for MPs, who regard their primary role as being representatives of their political party, and who pay just enough attention to their electorate in order to get re-elected. In effect, power has been devolved from the electorate to the political parties, and in particular to the leader of whichever party is in government; given a fat enough majority, the prime minister can do more or less what he likes, and the only brake on his power is how much he can get his own backbenchers to sign up to. So a leader can, after winning a general election, in effect take the phone to the electorate off the hook for the next four and a half years.

Short Cuts: Manhunt 2

John Lanchester, 19 July 2007

‘Manhunt 2’ has just become the first video game to be banned in the UK in a decade. The decision by the British Board of Film Classification singled out the game’s ‘unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone’, and made it illegal to sell the game; along with a comparable ruling in the USA, this effectively kills Manhunt 2. An appropriate fate, one could argue,...

Short Cuts: Climate Change

John Lanchester, 5 April 2007

Since the LRB went to press with the last issue, climate change has made one of its periodic appearances in the headlines, with David Cameron and Gordon Brown each making announcements about what he will do when in office. This amounts to a green beauty contest, with the public in the position of the pen-sucking judges.

Cameron first. The Tory leader has hitherto, for all practical purposes,...

It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets.

Short Cuts: The Rise and Rise of Spam

John Lanchester, 25 January 2007

Some good news from the airy summits of Davos: ‘Spam,’ Bill Gates told the World Economic Forum, ‘will be solved within two years.’ Great! The problem will be fixed by the creation of a challenge-and-response system to slow down, then block, and finally – and this is the killer – charge money for unauthenticated emails. At the moment, an email can be from...

Conrad Black is not the only tycoon to have dreamed of global domination while buying and selling newspapers, and he is not the only tycoon to have had people fawning over him on the way up and shunning him on the way down; he is not the only tycoon to have lived large, issued writs and faced criminal charges; but he is the only tycoon with a wholly distinctive prose style. It is on show in a furious email Black wrote to Tom Bower, protesting that Bower’s forthcoming book about Lord and Lady Black was going to be ‘a heartwarming story of two sleazy, spivvy, contemptible people, who enjoyed a fraudulent and unjust elevation; were exposed, and ground to powder in a just system, have been ostracised; and largely impoverished, and that I am on my way to the prison cell where I belong.’

Diary: Blogswarms

John Lanchester, 2 November 2006

The best moment of the 2004 US presidential election was the moment when John Kerry had won it. It was on the day itself, in the late evening, GMT. The first poll results data were coming through on the blogs: unedited poll data of the type which one now knows needs extensive interpretation, but never mind. Kerry was doing fabulously. In fact, he wasn’t just doing fabulously, he was sweeping the board. He was up in Ohio! He was up in Pennsylvania! He wasn’t just up in Virginia, he was up by a double-digit amount! (At this point, anyone with detailed knowledge of American politics might have been given pause for thought.) Let’s skip the next eight years and send a dynamiting crew to Mount Rushmore right now! Don’t forget to warn them they might need two goes to get the chin right!

Short Cuts: NASA’s new stick of dynamite

John Lanchester, 21 September 2006

Nasa has awarded the contract to build the next generation of human-manned space rocket – called, rather nicely, Orion – to a consortium headed by Lockheed Martin. This announcement was surprising for a number of reasons, but one of the most unexpected aspects was that it happened at all. The Bush administration has been so lavish with its rhetoric and promises of funding and so...

Diary: Among the Balls

John Lanchester, 20 July 2006

8 June. Time for predictions. The entrails say that history seems to be the best guide to performance in World Cups. In the last six Cups, going back to 1982, 11 out of 12 slots in the final have been contested by just four teams: Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy. In fact, there has never been a final without one of these four teams.

Why? It is interesting and odd that history should be...

The Price of Pickles: Planet Wal-Mart

John Lanchester, 22 June 2006

The moment of revelation is a little different for every person who experiences it. For Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, the road to Damascus came in the form of a pair of knickers. At the time – 1945 – Walton was in his late twenties, and was running a small department store in Newport, Arkansas belonging to a franchise called Ben Franklin. Walton had grown up in Missouri and attended the state university, then gone on to a clerical job during the war. He married Helen Robson, borrowed some money from her lawyer-banker father, then opened his Ben Franklin ‘variety store’.

Short Cuts: cricket’s slanging matches

John Lanchester, 8 June 2006

It’s not true to say that only bad books make the bestseller list. But it is a little bit true, and it is always the case that bad books greatly outnumber good ones at the top end of the charts. Sometimes, too, you come across an example of pure negative correlation between the quality of a book and the level of its sales. One such example is upon us in the case of Being Freddie, the...

The Global Id: Is Google a good thing?

John Lanchester, 26 January 2006

Google is the only multi-billion-dollar company in the world that is also a spelling mistake. Back in the palaeolithic era (that’s the palaeolithic era in the internet sense, i.e. autumn 1997) its co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were graduate computer science students at Stanford. They were working on an insanely cool new search engine, wanted to incorporate it as a company, and needed to find a name. David Vise, in his breezy book The Google Story, tells how they came up with one. A fellow graduate student suggested to Page and Brin that they use the name given to what is sometimes, erroneously or metaphorically, called the largest number, 10100: google. They looked up the name on the internet, found that it wasn’t taken, and registered their brand-new brand, google.com. The next morning they found that the reason the name hadn’t been taken was because it should be spelled googol – and that googol.com had, of course, already been bagged. (It belonged, and still belongs, to a Silicon Valley software engineer and home-brewed beer enthusiast called Tim Beauchamp: ‘The links on this page are a mishmash of eclectic destinations that may be of interest to you. Actually, they may only be of interest to Tim but what the heck. It is his site!’) Lesser men might have considered that a bad omen, but Larry and Sergey are not bad-omen kind of guys. Just over eight years later, Google is the fastest-growing company in the history of the world – with, at the time of writing, a market capitalisation of $138 billion. Larry and Sergey, the Wallace and Gromit of the information age, are worth more than $10 billion each.

“In a few weeks from now, Labour will have been in office for eight years, and we will be in the middle of an election campaign which seems certain to win it at least four more. The party’s record in government evokes a range of responses on the left – from mild gloom to clinical depression, from irritation to rage, from apathy to horror – but one of the most consistent things it provokes is disorientation. This is a Labour government? This is what we were looking forward to for those 18 years of Tory rule? War, tuition fees, house arrest, wholesale subservience to American foreign policy, talk of services being ‘swamped’ by refugees, the deliberately manipulative use of fear, the introduction of ID cards, the suspension of habeas corpus – and these are the good guys. What happened?”

“At the moment, the discussion about poverty and inequality and class is so addled that there isn’t even a basic measure of, or consensus about, what poverty is. Poverty is not having money; inequality is having less money than other people. In Britain, to be poor is generally defined as meaning that you live on 60 per cent of the median income. But that isn’t a measure of poverty at all, since an entire society could be living on a dollar a day each, yet under this definition would have nobody who qualified as poor. This measure for poverty is in fact a measure of inequality, and the means of dealing with inequality are not just different from those required to deal with poverty but are in some respects their complete opposite.”

Bravo l’artiste: What is Murdoch after?

John Lanchester, 5 February 2004

“Chenoweth has found, looking at the accounts, that [News Corp’s] profits, declared in Australian dollars, were A$364,364,000 in 1987, A$464,464,000 in 1988, A$496,496,000 in 1989 and A$282,282,000 in 1990. The odds that such figures were a happy coincidence are 1,000,000,000,000 to one. That little grace note in the sums is accountant-speak for ‘Fuck you.’”

Diary: Unbelievable Blair

John Lanchester, 10 July 2003

“Blair’s political personality has always been predicated on the proposition ‘I am good.’ His dewy-eyed, slightly fumbling sincerity – his brilliantly articulate impersonation of earnest inarticulacy – has all along been tied to his self-projection as a Good Man. He is careful about not touting his religion in public, but he doesn’t need to, since the conviction of his own goodness is imprinted in everything he says and does. It is one of the things he has in common with the party he leads, and one of the reasons people are wrong when they say that Blair is a natural Tory.”

Short Cuts: Football and Currie

John Lanchester, 17 October 2002

It is possible to love football without loving the culture of the English Premiership. The waves of cash that have rolled into the game since the deal with Sky in 1991 may not have fundamentally altered the character of the sport – a quarter of a century ago, Tom Stoppard was making a character in his play Professional Foul complain about the ‘yob ethics’ of the game –...

Bond in Torment: James Bond

John Lanchester, 5 September 2002

It would be an exaggeration, but not all that much of an exaggeration, to say that the Bond novels are at heart a series of lavish beatings strung together with thriller elements . . . The tenderest, most yearning word in Fleming’s lexicon is ‘cruel’.

Diary: A Month on the Sofa

John Lanchester, 11 July 2002

Both Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have been playing in attack for Brazil. In Futebol Alex Bellos points out that Ronaldo was once himself known as Ronaldinho, because there was already another Ronaldo in the side, as well as a Ronaldão. When the current Ronaldinho came along, this could have meant that Brazil were fielding Ronaldão, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldinhozinho: big Ronald, normal-sized Ronald, little Ronald, and even littler Ronald. Instead the former Ronaldo dropped out, the new Ronaldo became Ronaldinho Gaúcho (after his place of origin), and the former Ronaldinho was promoted to Ronaldo, a title he still holds. All this is gripping. But what I want to know is, why are so many Brazilians called Ronald? Surely it can’t be anything to do with Ronnie Biggs? Or did he fit so easily into Brazil because it was already a country of many Ronalds?

Diary: Online Goodies

John Lanchester, 25 April 2002

At the Grammy awards the other week, an unusual note was struck by Michael Greene, a record industry bigwig. The only real point of interest at most award ceremonies is the frocks (and sometimes, admittedly, the hair), so it was a break with tradition when Greene and his tuxedo launched into the subject of Internet piracy. ‘No question the most insidious virus in our midst is the...

Lumpy, Semi-Dorky, Slouchy, Smarmy

John Lanchester, 23 August 2001

In January 1957 the New York Police Department arrested a man called George Metesky, whose activities over the previous 16 and a bit years had earned him the sobriquet ‘the Mad Bomber’. The Bomber had planted more than thirty explosive devices, favouring public places such as cinemas, train stations, libraries and phone booths. He hadn’t killed anyone but his bombs were...

Be interesting! Martin Amis

John Lanchester, 6 July 2000

In the middle of the current memoir boom it is easy to forget that the novelist’s memoir is a distinct and recent genre. There are, it goes without saying, any number of first-rate writers whose main claim on our attention is their autobiographical work; there are great writers whose letters and/or diaries add up to masterpieces of self-portraiture (Byron, Woolf, Flaubert); there are, and this, too, is a contemporary phenomenon, writers who turn to fiction after an explicitly autobiographical first book. But none of those cases is quite the same as that of the novelist of established reputation and readership who at some mid or late point in his career (the pronoun is not quite gender-neutral, since for some reason it is usually a man) sits down to tell the story of his life. Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is in this and other respects an important book, and it also establishes the defining problem of the genre, which is how to give the memoir an artistically gratifying shape while remaining true to the messiness and quotidianness of lived life. It’s a problem which, to my mind, the great man outrageously flunked, settling for a spurious and cod-mystical belief in pattern, as if life were as pretty in its shapes and echoes and motifs as a work of fiction – his fiction. The much-acclaimed result, while full of astounding things, is also hysterical and, in some important sense, feels false.’

Rebusworld: The Rise and Rise of Ian Rankin

John Lanchester, 27 April 2000

According to the OED, a ‘rebus’ is ‘an enigmatic representation of a name, word or phrase by figures, pictures, arrangement of letters etc, which suggest the syllables of which it is made up’. In 1987, Ian Rankin’s novel Knots & Crosses introduced us to a tough Edinburgh Detective Sergeant called John Rebus. A series of local girls had been kidnapped and strangled. Rebus – 41-year-old drinker, ex-soldier, failed husband, absentee father, Christian, annual rereader of Crime and Punishment – begins receiving a series of cryptic notes. The first few messages say There are clues everywhere. Then a message is delivered to Rebus’s home: For those who read between the times. It becomes clear that the killer has some personal connection to the detective. An Eng. Lit. professor at Edinburgh University calls Rebus to say that, as the author of Reader Exercises and Directed Exegetic Response, he has noticed that the names of the victims appear to make up a word: take the first letters of their Christian names and surnames and they spell out the word Samantha. That’s a rebus; it’s also the name of Rebus’s daughter. He dashes off to find her but she has already been abducted by the killer, an army buddy of Rebus’s who cracked during SAS training and has held a grudge against him ever since. Rebus gets there just in time to save his daughter, though not without being shot – the first of the many woundings, beatings and physical mishaps which befall him in Rankin’s books.’‘

From The Blog
20 May 2019

Game of Thrones is arguably responsible for a quarter of my not being able to speak Spanish. Has it been worth it?

From The Blog
8 May 2015

Hands up if you saw that one coming. I confess that I didn’t. The first line of the BBC announcement, ‘Conservatives largest party’, was no shock. Then there was a pause a few seconds long, and the projection of 316 Tory seats came up. I nearly fell off my chair. From that point on, the surprises only got bigger. Why was it so surprising, though? If you’d asked me six weeks ago what was going to happen, I’d have said, a little reluctantly, that the likeliest outcome was a Tory minority government. From that point to an outright majority is a step, but not a gigantic one. If I’d been granted a glimpse ahead to the result, I’d have said the Tories did better and Labour worse than expected, but not amazingly, bizarrely, unforeseeably so. The thing which turned this into such a blindsiding shock was the fact that the election campaign was so flat and eventless. For six weeks, nothing happened. The numbers refused to move. Then everything happened at once. The talk in politics these days is all about ‘narrative’ and ‘momentum’, but there was almost no sign of that in this election. There was little evidence that the electorate were paying any attention. The Tory campaign worked spectacularly, but did so in a new and peculiar way: it was like a pill that the patient refuses to swallow, and holds off swallowing, and then downs all at once.

From The Blog
7 May 2015

Relief at the fact that this general election campaign is over will for many of us be tempered by the fact that it also, most likely, isn’t over – in the sense that we probably won’t wake up tomorrow morning knowing the identity of the next government. There’s one important thing to bear in mind today. For most electors, most of the time, it isn’t true that every vote counts. There are usually about 100 seats in play in a general election. The others are safe seats, and while voting in them is an important part of belonging to civil society, blah blah etc, your individual vote is unlikely to have any bearing on the outcome of the election overall. This is one of the factors which leaves electors feeling disconnected from the whole process. This time is different.

From The Blog
6 May 2015

The Tory papers are hitting the delegitimisation thing pretty hard today. The front pages are: Nightmare on Downing Street (Telegraph)Miliband trying to con his way into No. 10, says PM (Times)For sanity’s sake don’t let a class war zealot and the SNP destroy our economy – and our very nation (Daily Mail)Post-election shambles looms as legitimacy crisis worsens (Independent, which may have surprised its readers by telling them to vote Tory) And then for light relief, the two papers owned by Richard Desmond: Why You Must Vote for Ukip (Daily Express)Brits live sex show on Magaluf booze cruise (Daily Star) The delegitimisation story is going to be an interesting test of how much power the newspapers still have.

From The Blog
5 May 2015

It’s forty years since anybody has won power in a UK general election without the backing of Rupert Murdoch. He’s not happy about the prospect. That’s the explanation for the surreal juxtaposition of the Sun covers from England and Scotland: ‘Vote Cameron!’ ‘Vote Sturgeon!’ It makes no sense, unless you see that what it’s really saying is ‘Vote Anyone But Ed!’ Miliband took an early decision to attack Murdoch, and as a result owes him nothing. To have people in office who don’t owe him is not Murdoch’s happy place.

From The Blog
4 May 2015

Something has been bugging me about this election, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and just in the last week or so I’ve realised what it is. It’s the near-complete absence of posters. Not just posters, but the whole apparatus of visual paraphernalia: banners and billboards and advertising. This is my fifth general election in the same street, and it’s the first time I’ve never seen a single election poster in the road.

From The Blog
30 April 2015

Time for a look at prospective election outcomes in close detail. The numbers haven’t moved much: if they were share prices, they would be described as ‘trading within a narrow range’. The real winning line, as I argued in my last post, is 323. At the moment no party looks even vaguely likely to get there alone. Instead, the bookies and the pollsters both have for some time had the Tories wobbling around somewhere in the range of 280 to 290 seats. Labour’s vote in Scotland has collapsed, as everyone knows; if it hadn’t, they would have a clear lead. Instead they are wobbling around the 260 to 270 level. With numbers like this, the other parties decide the next government.

From The Blog
28 April 2015

It’s that time, now traditional – traditional since 2010, anyway – when the general election is so close that people start to speculate/fantasise about a possible role for Sinn Féin in the electoral aftermath. The important role they’re most likely to play is not being there. There are 650 seats in Parliament, so the winning line is 326: that’s the number which gives a party an absolute majority. The presence, or rather absence, of Sinn Féin changes that. The Shinners, as they’re known in Ireland, currently hold five seats, and are on course to hold them all. But the Shinners don’t actually come to Westminster to take up those seats, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty to the crown. This changes the maths: 650 minus five is 645, so the real winning line is 323. Given how tight this election is, that could make the difference between Cameron being able to bodge together a minority government, and not.

From The Blog
27 April 2015

Sometimes, when you try to do something positive, it only draws more attention to what you aren’t doing. Ed Miliband has announced a new policy in relation to private sector rentals: for three years, landlords won’t be able to raise rents above the rate of inflation. It’s not hard to spot that this policy is targeting private sector renters. This demographic is young, and strongly represented in London, the only area of the south-east where Labour have good winning chances. For all the talk about London house prices and the winners from the housing bubble there, more London households rent their homes than own them. The bubble and the rental explosion are the same thing: homes zoom up in price, and a direct result is that fewer people can afford them.

From The Blog
24 April 2015

In the world of apparatchiks and backroom boys where the political parties find their leaders, there is usually a hot idea or ideas. These come in waves, obviously. Not long ago, nudging was a big thing. The idea came from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge. Downing Street set up an in-house nudge unit. Don’t laugh – even if you’re old enough to imagine Frankie Howerd apologising for having nudged your unit. The nudge unit, whose official title is the Behavioural Insights Team, was so successful that it attracted the highest, most meaningful, most irrevocable honour in our modern democracy: it was privatised.

From The Blog
22 April 2015

So the Tories believe they have finally found a theme which can ‘cut through’ on the doorstep: the peril of Scottish nationalism. Sir John Major was wheeled out yesterday to stress the danger we all face. In Major’s words, ‘this is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment that our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable government, pushed to the left by its allies and open to a daily dose of blackmail.’ If that was all he’d said, it would be fair enough as an expression of opinion. The trouble came earlier in his speech: The SNP have offered to support Labour in an anti-Conservative alliance. And of course, as you know, the Scot Nats are deeply socialist. And by support I don’t necessarily mean a formal partnership but an informal understanding, perhaps even an unacknowledged understanding, to keep Labour in power. Labour would be in hock to a party that pushed them slowly but surely ever further to the left. There is a difficulty with that statement: it assumes that everybody in Scotland has severe amnesia.

From The Blog
20 April 2015

At sporting events in the US, the organisers sometimes set up a fun thing called a T-shirt cannon. This is what it sounds like: a cannon, or rather a bazooka, which emits a thud and sends a T-shirt across the arena where it softly thwacks into one of the punters. Who doesn’t want to be hit in the face by a free T-shirt? The T-shirt cannon was brought to mind by the latest round of policy announcements from the Tories.

From The Blog
16 April 2015

It is morally wrong that five independent fee-paying schools should send more students to Oxbridge than the worst performing two thousand secondary schools combined. Agreed. The increasing ebb and flow of people across our planet is one of the greatest issues of our time. Yes. On the major issues of the day – immigration, the economy, our health service and living standards – the establishment parties have repeatedly and knowingly raised the expectation of the public, only to let us down, time and time again. Yes, broadly speaking. The IMF’s statement yesterday, to the effect that the fiscal projections in Osborne’s most recent budget are unlikely to be met, shows that they’re still at it. The Government continues to signal its intention to widen engagement in international conflict while, at the same time, implementing a crippling round of further military spending cuts. Yes. To help protect the enduring legacy of the motor industry and our classic and historic vehicles, Ukip will exempt vehicles over 25 years old from vehicle excise duty. That gives it away – all this is from Ukip’s manifesto. If the whole manifesto were like that last proposal, all lounge-bar populism and talk of political correctness gone mad, Ukip would be a less disruptive force in British politics.

From The Blog
14 April 2015

At an earlier stage of this general election, I thought about proposing one of those drinking games in which people have a shot or swig every time a Conservative on the campaign trail used the word ‘plan’. I’m glad I didn’t go ahead with that. Anyone who’d taken up the suggestion would now be in a clinic. It was already bad, but the Tory manifesto takes it to another level entirely. Guess how many times the word ‘plan’ occurs’. For purposes of reference, the Labour manifesto uses it 27 times. Answer: 121. It’s almost as if they were trying to stress the idea that they have a plan.

From The Blog
14 April 2015

I’m having trouble suspending my disbelief at the Labour manifesto. The party promises that it will: Cut the deficit every year Raise the state pension by whichever is the highest of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent Protect spending on health, education and foreign aid Hire an additional 8000 GPs, 20,000 nurses and 3000 midwives ‘Guarantee people a GP appointment within 48 hours, and on the same day for those who need it’ Reduce tuition fees Not raise basic or higher rate income tax, or VAT, or National Insurance Give every child a free unicorn Make rich people, tax avoiders and non-doms pay for it all I made up one of those promises. If you’re trying to guess which is fictional, here’s a clue: not the most unlikely.

From The Blog
13 April 2015

To understand the Tories’ general election campaign, you have to grasp its central premise: that the Tory route to power lies through a collapse in the Ukip vote. If the Ukip vote stays where it is, and the SNP vote stays where it is, the popular vote is more or less a draw. Thanks to the party landscape and the geographical distribution of the vote, that puts Miliband in Downing Street. So the Tories badly need Ukip to go away. This helps to make sense of things that would otherwise be inexplicable.

From The Blog
9 April 2015

Ed Miliband’s intervention on the subject of abolishing non-dom status is interesting. The non-dom loophole is flagrantly unfair and has corrosive effects on social cohesion: nothing more overtly shows that we aren’t in it together. Look at the upper reaches of the Sunday Times rich list and it’s full of non-doms. The richest people in the US are American, the richest people in France are French, the richest in Germany are German, and so on. The richest people in the UK are from countries where you learn never to ask how somebody made their first million. The reason this loophole has survived – though it’s bigger than a loophole, it’s more like an enormous tunnel – is always officially said to be because the non-doms spend so much money here, and generate so much economic activity, that they end up benefiting the UK exchequer. I don’t buy that line, because if it were true, other countries would have copied us. No other big country in the developed world has chosen to be a residential tax haven for the super-rich. It isn’t a joke or a riff or a slogan to say that the UK has a different law for the rich: the UK actually does have a different law for the rich. London is a wonderful city in many respects, but from the tax point of view it is Monaco-on-Thames.

From The Blog
8 April 2015

The BBC has a handy electoral poll tracker on its website. Here’s where we are: I’ve never seen polls like that. The thing which really stands out is that nothing stands out. They are as flat as the flattest of flatnesses. Five months ago, on 7 October, Labour was on 34 per cent and the Tories on 32. In the latest polls, Labour are on 33 per cent and the Tories on 34. That small advantage is not stable, though. The parties are passing the tiny lead back and forth between them like dope-smokers conscientiously sharing a joint.

From The Blog
3 April 2015

Front page of the Guardian: ‘Labour buoyed as Miliband edges Cameron in snap poll.’ Front page of the Telegraph: ‘Miliband flops as outsiders shine.’ The Mail: ‘Runaway jihadi’s father is Labour activist.’ The Sun, over photo of Miliband: ‘Oops! I just lost my election.’ ICM scored it as a narrow win for Miliband, YouGov for Sturgeon, Comres as a three-way tie between Cameron, Miliband and Farage, and Survation the same except with Farage a point behind. In other words, it was a draw. The main outcome, probably, is that nobody had a disaster; it’s not so much about winning as about not losing, and on this occasion there was no obvious loser.

From The Blog
2 April 2015

Tonight’s seven-way leaders’ debate is going to make for a bizarre couple of hours’ telly. The format goes like this: there will be an opening statement by each of the seven party leaders. Then the moderator asks all of them a question to which they each give a one-minute answer, followed by an 18-minute free-for-all debate. Repeat for a total of four moderator's questions, 28 replies, and four free-for-alls. Then closing statements from all seven leaders in turn. Here’s the sequence: A structured seven-way debate like this resembles nothing at all in most peoples’ lives, and that in turn will probably make it look as if the politicians on show also have nothing in common with anyone watching. The likelihood of anyone knowing anything substantively new after it is small, but the possibility of some form of drama is pretty high. I’m using the term drama to include comedy.

From The Blog
1 April 2015

Most of the time, the question that decides an election is the one everyone remembers being put by Ronald Reagan: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ It’s a good question, but at the moment in the UK it’s also a difficult one to answer. Yesterday, George Osborne triumphantly tweeted about the latest numbers. ‘GDP revised upwards from 2.6% to 2.8% for 2014,’ he said, and also: ‘Real household disposable income per capita up strongly on quarter & year... Living standards higher than in May 2010.’ That might sound like a clear answer to Reagan’s question. But the numbers are squidgier than they look at first sight.

From The Blog
30 March 2015

The general election campaign started today, which is strange, because it already feels as if it’s been going on for ever. The reason for that lies in the electoral rules set up in 2000, which set limits to spending during the festivities. The ‘long campaign’ began on 19 December 2014. During it, candidates can spend £30,700 per constituency plus 9p per constituent in the countryside or 6p per constituent in town. Today, 30 March, is the start of the ‘short campaign’, during which the respective limits are £8700 plus 9p/6p. This long/short campaign thing explains why it feels as if the election has been running since the dawn of time, and yet nobody’s said anything interesting and nothing has happened. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that between now and 7 May, every political party in the UK is allowed to spend 6p on me. You can’t buy much with 6p, not even a vote, which is no doubt part of the point.

From The Blog
8 February 2011

The BBC is encouraging its specialist reporters to blog, as a way of going into subjects at greater length and a greater degree of wonkery than they can manage in their broadcasting. The results are often interesting, especially on the economics side, where writers such as Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston often allow themselves to get more technical than they can when they're appearing on any of the Beeb's various news outlets. Here is an absolute corker of a piece from Paul Mason, offering 'Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere', from UCL to Tahrir Square. Here are some of them:

From The Blog
6 April 2010

Finally! The production we’ve all been waiting for, Mr Brown Goes to the Palace, has opened at last. There’s something very British about the way everyone has known for months that the election was going to be on 6 May, but that it’s only now that we officially know it. This point is so obvious it tends to be overlooked, but in the last thirty years, the incumbent party has only lost the election once. There have been five wins for the party in government, one win for the challenger. That was in 1997, when John Major took the power to declare an election whenever he liked it to one extreme: it was declared on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, and held on 1 May. That’s a full two weeks longer than the current campaign. Maybe Major thought that if the country had a long hard look at Blair, they would recoil in revulsion. He was right, in a way, it’s just that it took ten years for the effect to fully kick in.

See you in court, pal: The Microsoft Trial

John Lanchester, 30 September 1999

There are people who use computers. That, in the context of LRB readers and contributors, is most of us. Above them on the informational equivalent of the Great Chain of Being are the people who know about computers: the people who can tell us how to stick an unbent paperclip into the hole above a wonky disc drive to make the floppy pop out etc. All of these people are now on the Internet. Above them are the bona fide geeks, who are either people who have things professionally to do with computers, or who are far-gone in hobby-dom. These people can write code (which is geekspeak for ‘write computer programs’), mark up HTML to create web pages, and know not only what’s going on, but also what’s about to go on. Above them are the übergeeks, the illuminati of the digital revolution: the kind of people, to use one example from Po Bronson’s entertaining Silicon Valley collage The Nudist on the Late Shift, who reprogram their BMW’s chips to make the car 40 per cent more powerful, the kind of people who, in computer terms, can routinely achieve the impossible.‘

The first time we – that’s we the reading public – met Dr Hannibal Lecter, he was lying on his cot in his cell at the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane with a copy of Alexandre Dumas’s Grand dictionnaire de cuisine open on his chest. Lecter was incarcerated for having murdered nine people ‘that we know about’, and having crippled two others, one of whom (of whom more later) was permanently attached to a respirator in Baltimore. Dr Lecter was being visited by Will Graham, a Special Investigator attached to the FBI, in pursuit of a man who had murdered two families. When Graham arrives at Lecter’s cell, the good doctor wakes up: ‘Dr Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light redly in tiny points.’ Brrrrr. Is it chilly in here, or is it me?’‘

D&O

John Lanchester, 5 June 1997

Most good novelists make life seem more interesting than it is. The very fact that their work offers a continuous aesthetic or psychic frisson is a kind of falsehood, a betrayal of reality; and one of the hardest things for any writer to capture is the feeling that nothing much is happening. If I had to praise only one aspect of Anthony Powell’s work, it would be his ability to capture this dailiness and ordinariness, and to combine it with a range of incidents and characters as broad as that tackled by any English-language novelist this century. There is a stereotype of Powell as a snob and novelist of society, and it’s true that he has written about Eton in the Teens, Oxford in the Twenties, and all that; but his oeuvre also encompasses pub life, literary life, the British film industry in the Thirties, war in Northern Ireland and London, campus uprisings in the Sixties and hippy cults in the Seventies, not to mention such subjects as abortion, adultery, alcoholism, voyeurism, necrophilia, black magic, and the awfulness of MPs. There is a lot of the world in Powell’s work, and a lot of history too. To give just one example, The Military Philosophers, the ninth novel in A Dance to the Music of Time, contains a description of the Whitehall response to news of the Katyn massacre (‘One would really have thought that someone at the top of the Polish set-up would have grasped that this is not the time to make trouble’) that is both a grimly valuable piece of documentary realism and also a subtle account of the fact that realpolitik is often no more than brutal fantasy. And throughout all this, that sense of dailiness and ordinariness – which hereinafter I’ll refer to as D&O – remains intact.’

Diary: On Fatties

John Lanchester, 20 March 1997

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita – more specifically, on the evening of my 35th birthday, last week – I saw Tom Cruise. He was sitting at the next table in a restaurant, accompanied by his equally small and perfectly formed wife Nicole Kidman and eight buddies. I suppose the world’s two most famous Scientologists, apart of course from John Travolta and the late L. Ron himself, were in town for the premières of their respective new movies. Or perhaps this was just another symptom of the reinvention of London as the hippest, most happening, furthest-molecule-forward-on-the-cutting-edge city since Periclean Athens. (Actually, the alacrity with which the locals have fallen on Newsweek’s emetic paean to ‘Cool Britannia’ and Vanity Fair’s ditto to ‘Swinging London’ is a medium-sized symptom of decline in itself – but I digress.) Cruise was giving the dinner, it turned out, and he did a certain amount of pantomime with the wine, swirling and sniffing and sipping, before nodding with great formality and permitting it to be poured; after which everyone else swirled and sniffed and sipped and nodded with great formality, too. It wasn’t hard to work out who was the Alpha Male.’

With Luck

John Lanchester, 2 January 1997

During the latter half of the Second World War, Ludovic, the deranged and upwardly mobile murderer of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, becomes ‘an addict of that potent intoxicant, the English language’. He begins an obsessive study of books about words, and starts to write a volume of pensées (a piss-take of Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave). ‘Not laboriously, luxuriously rather, Ludovic worked over his notebooks, curtailing, expanding, polishing; often consulting Fowler, not disdaining Roget; writing and rewriting in his small clerkly hand on the lined sheets of paper which the army supplied.’ The Fowler referred to here is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler, usually known as Fowlers Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, and now brought out in a third edition, completely rewritten by the lexicographer Robert Burchfield.

Concierge

John Lanchester, 16 November 1995

Pound died in 1972; Auden, who was 22 years younger, in 1973. Both writers underwent the usual posthumous dip in attention and reputation. This familar dégringolade is a mysterious process, and one which seems much more arbitrary than the longer critical haul of a century or two. For instance, shares in Elizabeth Bishop (d. 1979) are at an all-time high, helped by the timely publication of her letters; while shares in Philip Larkin (d. 1985) are at an all-time low, helped by the untimely publication of his ditto. Graham Greenes (d. 1991) are on the way down, Robert Lowells (d. 1977, with the Collected Poems coming next year) are a good buy; stock in Anthony Burgess (d. 1993) should probably be held for a year or two; Borgeses (d. 1986) will surge once the editing and republishing are sorted out; James Merrills (d. 1995) should be sold now and rebought later; Becketts (d. 1989) look a little iffy (though would-be insider-dealers should keep an eye on that biographer chap in Reading). The only reliable way for a writer to avoid this post-mortem critical lull is to die prematurely. In British university English departments there are currently more theses being written about Angela Carter (d. 1991) than about the 18th century.

Unspeakability

John Lanchester, 6 October 1994

Musing over Don Juan, Byron asked his banker and agent Douglas Kinnaird a rhetorical question: ‘Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world? – and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis à vis? – on a table – and under it?’’

Styling

John Lanchester, 21 October 1993

Few discussions of the essay fail to begin etymological: essai, ‘assay’, ‘trial’ ‘attempt’. The project of the essay is interrogative, investigative, exploratory, provisional; the essayist’s duty is to seek a personal confrontation with Montaigne’s question, so characteristic in its quizzical severity: que sais-je? Or so we are told. In practice, though, the essay tends to be more or less the precise opposite of such a sober and responsible self-examination. The writers who have used the form in the questioning spirit – the essayists, from Montaigne to Stanley Cavell, who generate a sense that the act of writing is for them a genuine process of intellectual exploration – are far outnumbered by those for whom the essay is a forum for pyrotechnics and exhibitionism, for politics and for performance. The history of the essay – from Hazlitt on his first acquaintance with poets to Orwell on the sex life of the common toad – is the history of writers taking a break from other forms in order, not to ask themselves que sais-je? but simply to strut their stuff.’

Indian Summa

John Lanchester, 22 April 1993

Forests have been slain, not only in the manufacture A Suitable Boy, but in the production of its review coverage. An unusual amount of the publicity has been statistical, with journalists dwelling on the size of the book (1349 pages), its weight (an uncompromising 1.5 kilos), the size of the advances received (‘2.6 crore rupees’), and its status as the longest one-volume novel in the English Language. (Clarissa is longer and is now published in one volume, but wasn’t written that way.) The Indian reviews are generally rupee-driven, and widely acclamatory; one magazine says that Seth ‘has become India’s answer to Pearl S. Buck and Tolstoy’. The English reviews are also rupee-driven, and are more acclamatory still; the favourite comparison is with Middlemarch. Salman Rushdie writes to the papers to deny a rumour that he had dismissed the novel as a soap-opera: he says he’s two hundred pages in and going strong. On the other hand, the first American review calls the book ‘a cream puff’.

Diary: Arsenalesque Melancholy

John Lanchester, 3 December 1992

Most of the men I know display more emotion about football than they do about anything else. The most obvious of these emotions – the one that makes the biggest impression on first-time attendees at football matches – is anger. Everything from mild irritation to outright pre-psychotic fury is on open display; even celebration can look like a form of rage. And it’s no secret that this anger can sometimes turn into (or be accompanied by) violence – a violence which to many outsiders has come to seem what football is basically for. Books about football by people who came to the game as tourists, anthropologists or sociologists therefore tend to be books about the violence around the game. This has helped to create a state of affairs in which the terms ‘fan’ and ‘hooligan’ are widely regarded as functional synonyms.’

Catching up with Sammy

John Lanchester, 21 November 1991

A scene from provincial life: one Saturday about twelve months ago I was sitting in the press box of a football ground in the Midlands. The game had just finished (the home side lost) and I and my fellow reptiles were scribbling away at our match reports – written as such things usually are, to deadlines of a hallucinogenic proximity – when a commotion developed. A crowd of people was barging into the press box from an adjacent part of the stand. There were about fifty of them; they were angry and drunk and they were shouting a lot.

Oh my oh my oh my

John Lanchester, 12 September 1991

In this century there has been, running alongside the motif of the writer as drunk, another motif of the writer as anchorite, as recluse, as invisible man, as absconder from celebrity. The tradition, whose great precursor and prefigurer is Rimbaud, includes such star incogniti as Baron Corvo and B. Traven, but has perhaps never flourished anywhere quite as much as it is flourishing in the United States at the moment, where the reputations of celebrity hermits such as Salinger and Brodkey swell inexorably with every book they fail to publish. Conversely, when Thomas Pynchon finally broke his silence to publish Vineland two years ago, there was a strong sense of anticlimax, of a man having performed an act of vandalism on his own reputation: in going to such lengths to focus our attention exclusively on his work, Pynchon had paradoxically made it very difficult for any novel to compete with the wonderfully satisfying, wonderfully interesting fiction he has made of his life.

Strangers

John Lanchester, 11 July 1991

‘I was always surprised and truly amazed that anyone could be attracted by the macabre,’ Dennis Nilsen, the biggest multiple killer in British criminal history, has remarked. He went on:

Ng

John Lanchester, 9 May 1991

There’s a story that when Kazuo Ishiguro was studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia his tutor took him to one side. Ishiguro was at the time writing stories like the one contained in Firebird 2 – a punchy little McEwanesque conte in which the narrator’s mother dies from eating a poisoned fish. The tutor, who had worked in advertising, explained to Ishiguro the concept of the Unique Selling Point, or USP: the USP being the quality about a product which the advertiser wishes to stress in order to establish the identity of the brand. Thus, the USP of Fairy Liquid used to be that it was gentle on the washer-up’s hands, but is now – sign of the times? – the fact that it’s better value for money than its competitors. ‘Kazuo,’ the tutor allegedly said, ‘your USP is that you are Japanese.’

Born of the age we live in

John Lanchester, 6 December 1990

Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun in April 1969. The newspaper was an avatar of the Daily Herald, a Labour paper – the biggest-selling daily in Britain during the Thirties – that had fallen on hard times. In 1961 the International Publishing Corporation had bought the loss-making Herald as part of a deal involving the acquisition of several lucrative magazine titles. Hugh Cudlipp, chairman of IPC, had given the unions a guarantee to keep the paper going for seven years, and to keep it supporting the Labour movement; at the same time, the paper was not allowed to compete with the existing IPC title, the Daily Mirror. With these albatrosses tied around its neck, it’s not surprising that the paper’s circulation declined, notwithstanding its 1964 relaunch as the Sun, complete with the new Wilson-era slogan: ‘Born of the age we live in!’ When IPC finally decided to sell the Sun the circulation had fallen from 1.5m to 650,000 copies. After the print unions refused to discuss Robert Maxwell’s offer for the paper, Murdoch stepped in. ‘I am constantly amazed at the ease with which I entered British newspapers,’ he later said.’

How criminals think

John Lanchester, 13 September 1990

In his now-famous article ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson gives one of the defining characteristics of Post-Modernism as being ‘the effacement of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and the so-called mass or commercial culture’. This effacement of frontiers, which has often taken parodic form (the soup cans of Andy Warhol, the deliberate kitsch of architects like Philip Venturi, author of the feisty manifesto Learning from Las Vegas) is now itself parodied in Gilbert Adair’s funny and accomplished second novel. The narrator of Love and Death on Long Island is the Hampstead-inhabiting author of four novels more popular in France than in this country, as well as of ‘a history of angels’. As the novel opens his work is starting to recover from two decades of neglect, and he is awaiting the publication of his second non-fiction book, a discussion of Post-Modernism called The Gentrification of the Void.

Diary: Bad Trips in Cumbria

John Lanchester, 30 August 1990

I am agoraphobic – though when I hear case-histories of some of my fellow agoraphobics, who have to slay mental dragons and scale psychological Matterhorns before they can even begin to think about going out of the house, I feel pretty lucky. There are people who haven’t been outdoors for twenty or thirty years. In my own case, I have extended periods of complete equilibrium before what behaviourists would call a ‘bad learning experience’ intervenes, and seems somehow to teach me about the possibility of the phobia all over again.’

Diary: Watching the World Cup

John Lanchester, 12 July 1990

After seeing his first ever English Football League match, a West German football journalist turned to me and dazedly asked: ‘Is this what you have to watch every week?’ He was referring to several things he couldn’t believe about the game – its maniacal tempo and hectic physicality, as well as its tactical simple-mindedness – but mostly he was referring to what he saw as an evident deficiency of skill, and hence interest. This aghast reaction was duplicated all over Europe after England’s 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland in Sardinia, during the first round of the World Cup. It was one of the most sterile games anyone had ever seen, at times almost hallucinogenic in its dullness, and for a lot of people it summed up the tactical and technical bankruptcy that has overtaken football in this country.’

Self-Effacers

John Lanchester, 24 May 1990

It’s sometimes easy to forget that good writing is not necessarily brilliant on the surface. There are talented novelists who eschew local flourishes in favour of a tonal evenness which they believe better serves the purposes of structure, characterisation and plot. Their prose seeks to be transparent rather than dazzling. If one could plot writers on a continuum which measured the extent to which a prose style forces its brilliance on our attention, the four novelists here under review would be clustered towards the self-effacing side of the spectrum, with colleagues such as Burgess, Nabokov and Amis fils huddling together for warmth at the far end.

Cheers

John Lanchester, 8 March 1990

Though the incidence of alcoholism among American writers has been extraordinarily high, fictional depictions of the condition by American novelists are surprisingly rare. One of the most vivid comes from John Updike’s Bech is back, the second of his books to deal with the American writer’s life through the alter ego of unprolific Jewish novelist Henry Bech, here attending a party:

Strong Meat

John Lanchester, 11 January 1990

Harry Fonstein, one of the four main characters in The Bellarosa Connection, is a now-prosperous American-Jewish businessman who was saved from a Fascist prison and smuggled to America by Mafia types acting at the behest of Billy Rose, the famous Jewish showbiz figure (‘Damon Runyon’s pal’) whom he had never met. This is Harry:

Sour Plums

John Lanchester, 26 October 1989

In 1964, Time published a profile of John Cheever which, in a sub-heading, described him as ‘The Monogamist’. Subsequent events have proved that not to have been the fact-checkers’ finest hour. In 1984, two years after his death, Susan Cheever published Home before Dark, a memoir which portrayed her father, whose public image was that of an impeccably upper-middle-class monogamist suburban WASP, as a promiscuously bisexual alcoholic. One memorable scene had John Updike, a friend and rival – Norman Mailer called Cheever and him ‘the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender of the New Yorker’ – ringing the doorbell and being answered by Cheever, bombed out of his mind and stark naked. Home before Dark struck some people as devotedly filial, sensitive and moving etc, and struck others as an upmarket Mommy Dearest. But Cheever’s children hadn’t finished with him, and now The Letters of John Cheever, edited by the writer’s son Benjamin, means that he has become the victim of a familial double whammy.’

State of the Art

John Lanchester, 1 June 1989

The broad distinction among English football teams is between hearties and aesthetes. The aesthetes have, fortunately, tended to carry off the main footballing prizes – certainly they look set to do so this year, in the persons of Liverpool Football Club – but the hearties dominate numerically, and set the tone of most of the matches to be seen anywhere in the country on a Saturday afternoon. Hearties subscribe to two tenets, both of which have their origins in a characteristic national turning-away and turning-inwards. The first hearty tenet is called work-rate. Since the early Fifties it has been clear that England was not as good at football as it once thought it was: the traumatic 1950 World Cup defeat at the hands of the USA made this apparent, and it was emphatically rubbed in by the two cataclysmic losses to the Hungarians, 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest in 1954.

Foreigners

John Lanchester, 5 January 1989

Attentive readers of the Guardian’s news pages will already know about Arabesques. A 1986 report from Jerusalem told readers of a first novel by a 36-year-old writer which was making a big stir: it had already sold 22,000 copies. (An equivalent figure in Britain would be a hardback sale of 270,000.) A very important contributory factor behind the sensation the book was causing was the fact that its author, Anton Shammas, was an Arab writing in Hebrew, his ‘stepmother tongue’. Shammas describes himself as an ‘Israeli Arab’ – an ambiguous, problematic identity which is the subject of his novel.’

A Pom by the name of Bruce

John Lanchester, 29 September 1988

The albatross which features in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ isn’t really an albatross – that’s to say it isn’t the albatross you first think of, the Great Wandering Albatross. It’s either the Sooty Albatross or the Black-Browed Albatross (both of which are much smaller and easier to hang round your neck if you feel guilty about having killed one). Butch Cassidy did not die in a gunfight in Bolivia in 1909, as portrayed in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: in 1925 he turned up at the family home in Circleville, Utah and ate blueberry pie. Hitler was a vegetarian.’

Be a lamp unto yourself

John Lanchester, 5 May 1988

Is it possible for a novelist to write too well? This has sometimes seemed to be the case with John Updike, whose ability to evoke physical detail is unmatched. It is a virtue in accordance with his expressedly realist aesthetic. ‘My own style seemed to be a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena, and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is what it wasn’t – other-indulgent, rather. My models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green as I read them (one in translation): styles of tender exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real.’ The words that stand out in Updike’s description of what he is up to are ‘groping and elemental’. No one in their right mind would ever use either term to describe Updike’s prose, whose most striking characteristic is its evenness of texture and never-faltering fluency. It’s this evenness of texture that is the basis for the change that he writes too well.’

Catch 28

John Lanchester, 3 March 1988

Writing about sex tends to go wrong in one of two related ways. The first is through embarrassment or over-excitement on the part of the author: overly rhapsodic descriptions of sex, in particular, tend to cause feelings of unease (Lawrence, Mailer). The other, subtler way is through the failure to show sex as a function of character: to depict sex in fiction as a holiday from personality is to make sex, in fictional terms, merely digressive. One of the triumphs of The Swimming-Pool Library – a startlingly accomplished first novel – is the tonal control it achieves in writing graphically and explicitly about homosexual sex while never seeming flustered or prurient, and never wavering in the amused, ironic control of the narrating voice. ‘There were more reckless propositioners,’ the narrator says of the showers at his favourite swimming-pool, ‘like the laid-back Ecuadorian Carlos with his foot-long Negroni sausage of a dick; his (successful) opener to me had been: “Boy, you got the nicest dick I ever see” – a gambit only really useful to those who are pretty well set up themselves.’ The measured, formal movement of the prose, its hints of scholarly fastidiousness, give a flavour of comedy of manners to ‘acts in which’, the architecture-loving narrator remarks, ‘the influence of the orders, the dome, the portico, could scarcely be discerned’. However Dionysian the events depicted – fellatio, sodomy, an erection passing along a line of men in the shower ‘with the domino effect of a Busby Berkeley routine’ – the narrator’s tone remains, in keeping with his personality, resolutely Apollonian.’

Ozick’s No

John Lanchester, 4 February 1988

Cynthia Ozick’s critical writing everywhere expresses a ferocious distaste for the purely aesthetic. The central idea in Art and Ardour, her collection of critical essays, concerns the conflict between the aesthetic and the moral views of literature and of life. She tells the story of a friend’s child coming across a statue of an Egyptian cat deity in a museum. ‘ “I understand,” said the child, “how they wanted to bow down to this cat. I feel the same.” And then she said a Hebrew word: asur – forbidden – the great hallowed No that tumbles down the centuries from Sinai … ’ Asur: many of her speculations and evaluations seem to say that. A characteristic judgment is that made on Truman Capote, whose work is full of the idea that’

Absent Authors

John Lanchester, 15 October 1987

‘Those who have much leisure to think, Dr Johnson wrote, ‘will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or imagined, will produce new words or combinations of words.’ The words that aren’t in a dictionary can convey nearly as much information as the words that are: the main body of the OED, which was completed in 1933, has no entry for the first word I looked up in it – ‘genocide’. There is as yet no mention of ‘Deconstruction’ in the OED or in its Supplement.’

Dying Falls

John Lanchester, 23 July 1987

As well as having themes, preoccupations and voices, writers often have a favourite cadence, which is sometimes apparent as the shape towards which their fictions tend. If they do have such a cadence, it will be more apparent in short fictions than in their longer work, for very prosaic reasons: because the beginning and the ending of a short story are more likely to be read in the same sitting, and because you get more endings per volume to judge by. In poetry the tendency is more marked still – so marked, in fact, that a lot of contemporary verse seems to have the same shape, with the poem moving towards the ironic, downbeat shape that Terry Eagleton has called a ‘pulled punch’.’

As a returning lord

John Lanchester, 7 May 1987

This comes from ‘Thinkability’, the introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, and is, in a way, a typical Martin Amis paragraph:

From The Blog
12 May 2010

This election campaign was always likely to end with photos of David Cameron standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. The story had far more twists than anyone can have expected, but it’s ended up at the place where it’s been heading for some time. Still – quite a ride. The final flurry was the flurriest of all, with Brown’s resignation and the accompanying offer of a deal on PR bouncing the Tories into increasing their competing offer. At the same time, many Labour figures began to panic at the prospect of being shoehorned back into power via a coalition of arguable legitimacy. Some comments here have pointed to Britain’s rich history of unelected prime ministers. The history is indeed there, but I don’t think it’s relevant in the current circumstances. An unelected PM coming to power in a minority coalition in the most hostile media environment a Labour premier has ever faced: that’s an unprecedented formula, one which threatened to crash the party through its core-vote electoral floor.

From The Blog
11 May 2010

Considered purely as a piece of politics, both the content and the timing of Brown’s resignation were masterly. He gave the Tories time to not-quite make a deal – four days, the same amount of time Wilson gave Heath in 1974. Then he did two things which fundamentally alter the equation for the Lib Dems: he removed himself as problem and he made an offer on the alternative vote and PR which the Tories can’t match.

From The Blog
10 May 2010

No news yet. In with all the extraordinary excitement and unprecedented constitutional upheaval, I’m also starting to get a little bit bored. Apparently the mood-music or hint-music is that they’ll reach a deal today. According to the Guardian, ‘Cameron is understood to have told senior Tories that he would not be offering a referendum on electoral reform under his government’. That has to mean no deal, surely? But according to the FT, ‘The Lib Dems are demanding that Mr Cameron moves immediately to introduce a version of electoral reform – the so-called alternative vote – as a sign of his intention to carry out more far-reaching reforms over time.’ He’s also trying to insist on fixed term Parliaments.

From The Blog
9 May 2010

As far as I can tell, there’s very little actual news at all in the papers today. Yards of speculation and comment, but hardly any actual news. The only thing I can find is a Sunday Times report that the Lib Dems and Tories are discussing a ‘preferendum’, to set a menu of options for electoral reform before voters. This would happen during the next Parliament, as a precursor to a referendum on whichever specific reform the voters chose:

From The Blog
8 May 2010

‘This election result is not viable,’ Vernon Bogdanor said yesterday afternoon. ‘There will have to be another within months.’ (At least I think it was Vernon Bogdanor – it may have been David Butler or Peter Hennessy. It was a long siege in front of the TV, and apologies all round if I have misattributed. Constitutional experts don’t look alike but they do sound alike, I suppose because they are men from a similarish background who tend to be say-ing similarish things.) That had the ring of truth. What’s going on at the moment, with everyone busting them-selves to look serious and statesmanlike, is known in the American Senate as a ‘gravitas frenzy’. But the underlying realities are what they are. A Labour-Lib Dem pact will not work. Their combined totals only get them to 315, 11 short of a majority. Labour lost the election and the Lib Dems would be crazy to look as if they were putting Brown back in office. They would also be crazy to put Labour back in while the leadership issue was unresolved; the public wouldn’t swallow a second consecutive Labour prime minister for whom they hadn’t voted.

From The Blog
7 May 2010

Well that was a downer. It’s a good thing that the Labour party didn’t suffer a generational wipe-out of the sort which seemed possible a couple of months ago. But the prospect of real structural change seems remote today, as the parties jostle and try to find a way of stitching up the Lib Dems with a referendum on electoral reform that they are sure to lose. It’s a paradox of our shitty system that the disappointing Lib Dem share of seats (on an increased share of the vote) ends up with them having more power than they’ve had in many decades. As for that system:

From The Blog
6 May 2010

Britain decides! Or maybe it sort-of decides! Maybe it decides that it can’t quite make up its mind! But that counts as a decision too! A corker of a point from yesterday’s politicalbetting.com. It’s such a strong and simple point that I can’t believe I’ve never heard it made before. Here it is: only once since 1945 has the UK gone from a majority government of one party to a majority government of another. Which election was it?

From The Blog
5 May 2010

When you get in the groove of talking about the general election, it’s easy to forget that for a lot of people it’s barely taking place at all. Of the 650 Parliamentary seats, not more than about 150 are truly in play. If you’re living in the other 500, your vote barely matters. A few hundred yards up the road from where I’m writing and I’d be in Battersea, a Labour-held marginal which is one of the Tories’ top targets. About 300 yards the other way and I’d be in Streatham, a once-safe Labour seat which is now 75th on the Lib Dem target list. It would be in play if Labour had a total meltdown, and Clegg paid a campaign visit there a couple of days ago. Labour activists talk about it as a marginal seat, which not so long ago they didn’t do. About a mile in a different direction and I’d be in Tooting, which is an important marginal because it is the Tories 112th target seat. That’s significant because if the Tories win Tooting it means they are right on the cusp of power: Tooting would need a 6.09 per cent swing and the national figure the Tories are aiming for is 6.8 per cent.

From The Blog
4 May 2010

With everyone and his Labour dog calling for tactical voting, the always-good-value Tim Harford made an important point on the Today programme this morning. He says that about 10 per cent of voters report having voted tactically in previous elections. That might not sound like much but in most constituencies it is usually more than enough to determine the difference between coming first and coming third. The important point, though, was the one he made next:

From The Blog
3 May 2010

So, 72 hours to go, and the polls are pointing with a quavering, accusatory finger at a hung Parliament. Or maybe it’s a confident, optimistic finger – anyway, that’s where they’re pointing. YouGov has the Tory/Lab/Lib Dem projection as 34/28/29, ICM has it as 33/28/28. UK Polling Report looked at all five of the polls published on Sunday, four of which showed some momentum for the Tories after the third debate, and all of which showed the Tories as falling short, with the lowest projection 264 seats and the highest 315 (the target, remember, is 326).

From The Blog
2 May 2010

Yesterday I mentioned some of the various bizarre, horse-tradey outcomes which might arise from a super-close electoral result. Here’s one of my favourites: that the Tories win either 323 or 324 seats. This result would leave them one or two short, because there are 650 seats so the winning line for a majority is 325. Except that because the five current (and presumably future) Sinn Féin MPs don’t take up their seats in Westminster, the winning line for a majority in the Commons is in fact 323 seats. 1991, IRA lands a mortar in the garden of Downing Street during Cabinet meeting; 2010, political wing of IRA ensures that the Tories have a functioning Parliamentary majority. That strange ghostly noise is Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera either laughing or turning in their graves, it’s hard to tell.

From The Blog
1 May 2010

One way of mapping the difference between electoral systems is to plot them on a continuum between fairness and clearness. The two qualities tend to have a negative correlation. Countries in which each individual vote can plausibly be said to have some bearing on the outcome – i.e. countries with a system which is to some extent proportional – are fairer. But they often end up with coalition governments. Countries with some version of first-past-the-post tend to have clear electoral outcomes which in effect disregard the relevance of many votes. The German, Italian and Israeli (for instance) electoral systems are fair but not clear; the British electoral system is the epitome of a system which is unfair but brutally clear. In theory. Not this time, though:

From The Blog
30 April 2010

The news that the bond markets were having conniptions about Greece, and also about Portugal and Spain, was a suitably gloomy frame for the final, economics-oriented debate. If the new government cocks things up, we’re en route for the IMF to come in. So it was time to hear some detail about the parties’ plans to prevent that. Instead there was the usual theatre, in which the three men picked on each other’s proposed spending cuts and made a meal of them, in a manner analogous to that of grooming chimpanzees. This was their last chance to be specific about what’s coming – the most difficult period, in terms of state spending, for sixty years. They chose to whiff it, and thereby set themselves up for the disastrous possibility of winning the election with no mandate to do what they’re going to have to do.

From The Blog
29 April 2010

In Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks, there’s a story about Gladstone. Someone tells him an anecdote about two brothers having an argument about an inheritance in Derbyshire on Christmas Eve; the younger one, with the help of the butler, attacked the elder and caused GBH. He was put on trial, and fled the country on his solicitor’s advice. Told those bare facts, Gladstone immediately said that seven points were ‘especially worthy of attention’, and went through them at length. To adopt a conciser form of the Gladstonian manner, I’d like to draw attention to the following seven points about our prime minister’s encounter with Mrs Duffy of Rochdale:

From The Blog
28 April 2010

I was talking last night to a financially literate man who was complaining about the level of knowledge the Senate was showing in its grilling of Goldman Sachs executives. ‘This stuff about making a market, they just don’t know what they’re talking about,’ he said. (Market-making is a standard financial-industry arrangement in which an entity keeps a market in business by acting on both sides of transactions, so that the commodities in question can always be both bought and sold.) ‘It just isn’t that big a deal.’ Then he took a sip of his wine and, quietly and thoughtfully and as if to himself, said: ‘Mind you, in my judgment Goldman is essentially a criminal enterprise.’

From The Blog
27 April 2010

I’m still in New York – back tomorrow – where the story playing biggest right this moment is about the Goldman executives who are testifying in front of the Senate. Of the various things which are astonishing about Goldman, one aspect which really stands out is their demeanour. They really do a very convincing impersonation not just of not giving a shit, but of seeming to go out of their way to be disliked. It reminds me of the Millwall FC ethos, summed up in their song:

From The Blog
26 April 2010

Byron said that ‘it is a great affectation not to quote oneself’, but he never said anything about linking to your own pieces. Anyway, I’m going to do it here, because I wrote an op-ed in today’s Guardian revisiting some of the things I’ve written in the LRB and also on this blog. The theme is that unless the party leaders spell out some detail about the upcoming cuts, they won’t have a mandate to do the things they are going to have to do. I mention this because I’ve had a severe case of esprit de l’escalier about the Guardian piece.

From The Blog
25 April 2010

The big news here in New York is that I’ve bought an iPad. I’ve been fooling around with it and enjoying the general awesomeness. My preliminary verdict is a. that it is a beautiful toy, objectively expensive but not dear for what it is, and b. that in a couple of years, say by version 3, the tablet will have replaced the computer for most of us, most of the time. Even this version does most non-keyboard-intensive things more intuitively and more prettily and more conveniently than a laptop. The extra-large touchscreen makes you understand that this kind of interface is the future of computing. I’m not typing this on my iPad, however. That’s because while loads of software is already available for the device, crucial parts of Apple’s own software isn’t. Or rather, it is only available to customers with a US iTunes account. But my account is registered in the UK.

From The Blog
24 April 2010

A couple of days to let the second debate percolate, and the signs are that it didn’t have much impact.

From The Blog
23 April 2010

I’m in New York for the 30th anniversary of the LRB’s American launch. While this fact is not rocking the foundations of our democracy, it does mean that I had to listen to the second leaders' debate over the radio. As everybody knows, radio can have a dramatically different impact from television. The famous example was the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960, won by Nixon on the radio and, decisively, by Kennedy on TV. Though as soon as I type those words, I find myself wondering what the relative size of the audiences was. In 1960, was the TV audience really so much bigger than the radio one? Wouldn’t that have meant that the impact of the debate was much closer than it is reported as being?

From The Blog
22 April 2010

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Tory press’s onslaught on Nick Clegg over the last couple of days. One minute, the Lib Dems can’t get in the news, no matter what they do; the next minute, they’re notorious cat-stranglers. No, it’s even worse: they’re (gasp!) partly foreign! Well, sort of – Dutch mother, Russian grandfather, Spanish wife. ‘Is anything about this man British?’ yowled the Mail. It seemed a self-defeating way of putting it, since the answer is yes – he is.

From The Blog
21 April 2010

I never liked David Owen much – even by the standard of politicians, he always seemed to be a self-interested egomaniac – but his interview with David Hare in the Guardian today is interesting. Owen’s most striking claim is this one: I’m pleased that the great British public out there in their strange, almost instinctive way are groping towards a solution. They always do. The British electorate has got every election right in my lifetime, and I include the two in which I got kicked out. Not sure I agree, but it’s an interesting way of putting it – and I suppose the last three elections at least can be said to have been got right,

From The Blog
20 April 2010

Just snippets today. 1. The bond market doesn’t care who wins, as long as somebody does. Nine out of ten funds questioned by the FT said that there was no difference between the Tories and Labour. But they don’t like the idea of a hung Parliament, because they think it’ll make it harder to tackle the deficit. 2. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, there is no correlation between levels of immigration and support for the BNP. Of the ten local authorities with the highest levels of BNP support, nine have levels of immigration lower than the national average.

From The Blog
19 April 2010

Since the election was called I’ve been looking at a number of statistical sources who try to predict the outcome. I’ve been concentrating on sites where lots of individual opinions are aggregated, rather than looking for individual wizards. The three I’ve been regularly checking are:

From The Blog
18 April 2010

Last night I had a clear sign that I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the election. My sons recently listened to the whole audiobook of The Hobbit during a long car journey, and I decided to try them out on the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring (the fan-preferred extended cut, obviously). The opening sequence establishes the peace-loving, insular nature of the Hobbits and their love of the Shire, and makes it clear that for Tolkien the Hobbits were a form of surrogate Englishmen. Bilbo Baggins is talking about this in his narration and says: ‘They are quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk.’ I found myself thinking: 'Hmmn, they’ll be voting UKIP.’

From The Blog
17 April 2010

Explosive news. Not about the election, where things were quietish while the debate was digested, and not just about the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which is bringing an eerie calm to those of us who live under a UK airport flightpath, while causing chaos and mayhem all over Europe. There's also the news that Goldman Sachs are being charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The allegations concern the Collateralised Debt Obligations which the bank sold to its customers, and what sorts of shenanigans went on in the course of their manufacture.

Something like this has been coming for months. I’m going to quote something I wrote back in January:

From The Blog
16 April 2010

Front page of the Sun, over photos of the volcano and the leaders’ debate: ‘Britain Paralysed By Hot Air’. Vulcanologically inaccurate, but not bad. To be fair, the debate was better than that; and I don’t think anyone watching it would have thought that any of the three party leaders was thick or incompetent or mad or self-evidently unqualified. Needless to say – and yet here I am saying it – the most important subject of all, the deficit and impending cuts, did not feature in any serious way. But it would have been naive to expect otherwise and the exchanges were at least an entertaining simulacrum of real debate.

From The Blog
15 April 2010

John Self, anti-hero of Martin Amis’s novel Money, is forced to sit down and read Animal Farm. A determined non-reader, he finds it very hard work indeed, though the book does have a few points in its favour. ‘I must admit, I admire the way in which Orwell starts his book fairly late in, on page seven.’ The party manifestos are a bit like that. They aren’t really made for reading. I say that with feeling, since having managed to get to the age of 48 without ever having read an election manifesto, I’ve now read three in a week. The Labour and Lib Dem manifestos are especially stiff going. They are heavy on detailed policy specifics, and both take an essentially managerial view of Britain: they list specific proposals and aspirations, point-by-point. The Tory manifesto is different. It has more blank pages, for a start. John Self would like those.

From The Blog
14 April 2010

I’m not going to comment on the Tory manifesto until I’ve read it, which won’t be for a day or two since the sodding thing is 118 pages long. (I thought I might order the £5 hardback from Amazon for next-day delivery, but it isn’t available. In fact if you type in Conservative Party Manifesto, the top result is a second-hand copy of the 2005 Manifesto, for £10. Someone’s eye is off the ball.) The launch was interesting, though. Battersea Power Station has obviously negative associations, which rivals weren’t slow in pointing out: as Nick Clegg put it, ‘they’ve just launched it in a power station that doesn’t have any power.’ In fact it’s worse than that, since the power station is a very conspicuous relic, an abandoned shell, a purposeless eyesore which testifies both to the achievements of Britain’s past and the relative deterioration of its present.

From The Blog
13 April 2010

The coming Parliament will see the biggest spending cuts ever imposed on the UK. The key question in this election is what is going to be cut, and by whom. I said some critical things about John Humphrys the other day, but his opening question to Ed Miliband, alleged mastermind behind the manifesto, was trenchant: ‘Can you name us one thing, one service that people want, that you are telling them they can’t have?’ Miliband’s reply: ‘We are going to reduce spending on regeneration and legal aid.’ It is not Miliband’s fault, though it is horribly bad timing, that the news has just broken that the three Labour MPs charged with fiddling their expenses are all going to receive legal aid.

From The Blog
12 April 2010

We tremble on the verge of greatness today, as the first of the parties – Labour – sets out its manifesto. I’ll comment on it after I’ve read it. In the meantime, a look at how modern politics is conducted, in practice. In this election, one of the Tories’ main tools is a ‘consumer categorisation’ package called Mosaic, developed by the data management company Experian. They are one of the big credit ratings firms, and are also behind that software that spookily knows who you are and where you live when you type in your postcode.

From The Blog
11 April 2010

Shocker about Kaczynski, and all the others on his plane. As Denis MacShane points out, no modern European government has ever had its leadership removed en bloc in this way. I’ve noticed before, though, that a disproportionate number of heads of state and prime ministers seem to die in plane crashes. Barthelemy Boganda of the Central African Republic in 1950, Francisco de Sá Carneiro of Portugal in 1980, Samora Machel of Mozambique in 1986, Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan in 1988, Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprian Ntayamira of Burundi in 1994 – and now Lech Kaczynski of Poland. All the first six were either certainly or probably murdered, leaving Kaczynski as the only one to die in a straightforward crash, flying into a fog-bound airport in a creaky plane.

From The Blog
10 April 2010

What’s unique about this election? The quality of the debate? The riveting closeness of the contest? The charisma of the party leaders? The visionary vistas opening up in front of the British people as we contemplate the party’s rival visions for out future? None of the above. What’s unique is that it’s the first time (at least in the last hundred years or so) that both of the main parties are being led by somebody with a first-class degree.

From The Blog
9 April 2010

Michael Ashcroft’s power in the Tory party comes from two things: the fact that he was giving them money back when no one else would; and the fact that, in the aftermath of their 2005 defeat, he commissioned a study of the reasons for it. He wrote up the analysis and published it under the title Smell the Coffee. This report was to become, in effect, the intellectual underpinning of the party’s turn to the Cameronistas. Smell the Glove, sorry, Smell the Coffee, comes to a memorably blunt conclusion: ‘The problem was not that millions of people in Britain thought the Conservative Party wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them; the problem was that they were right.’ Even a non-Tory would agree with that.

From The Blog
8 April 2010

Oy! This is important. I’ve had two conversations since the elections were called with people who aren’t around to vote on 6 May and were saying that it’s too late to register for a postal vote. Not so! The system has been changed to be more flexible, and the deadline for registration is much later than in the past – I imagine in response to the historic lows of the last two turnouts, 59.4 per cent in 2001 and 61.4 per cent in 2005.

From The Blog
7 April 2010

Presumably there are people out there who admire John Humphrys’s interviewing style. I’m not one of them, and yesterday’s grilling of Neil Kinnock on the Today programme was an example of why not. Humphrys went after Kinnock on the subject of Labour’s 1992 loss, and whether there was a parallel with the current contest. The gist was: people didn’t vote for you because there was something about you they didn’t like. People might not vote for Brown because there is something about him they don’t like. How does that make you feel? So we had: ‘Your personality played a very large part in your campaign, you think it helped bring about your downfall, do you think that’s going to be the case with Gordon Brown?’ And then: ‘What they did was they looked at you as an individual and apparently they didn’t much like, or at least a lot of them didn’t much like what they saw. They will do the same with GB won’t they?’

From The Blog
26 March 2010

It's fair to say that almost everybody spends at least part of the day wondering what would be the result of a football match between a professional team and a hundred primary school children. Thanks to the internet, we need speculate no longer. The evidence is now in. The J-league team Cerezu Osaka can be seen here playing 100 schoolboys. The Metafilter link takes you to the goals but it's also worth seeing the moment at 4:50 when the two teams come out. I don't want to give away the result, but among the various points of interest is the extravagant way the professionals celebrate when they score against the children.

From The Blog
26 February 2010

To file in the department of 'Can this possibly be true?' – a piece from the New York Times about Wall Street's fascination with curling. That's right, curling, the mesmerically boring sport which is basically bowling on ice with heavy flat stones. After the closing bell in the markets, CNBC switches to showing the curling from Vancouver. Apparently the chilled-out boringness is why the moneymen like it. The guys on the Street say it is 'like chess on ice'.

From The Blog
13 January 2010

Google are in the news for saying that they might pull out of China, and/or stop censoring searches on its Chinese search engine – a topic of great sensitivity since they opened for (censored) business in China in 2006. But there's more than one sort of censorship, and those who think that self-censorship is one of the worst types will enjoy this. It compares the suggestions made by the search engine when you type in 'Christianity is' or 'Hinduism is' or 'Judaism is' or 'Buddhism is' with what happens when you type in 'Islam is'. It's more noteworthy given that the search suggestions in general roam wild and free. Type in 'Why is there' into the box and Google leaps to complete the thought with 'a dead Pakistani on my couch'.

From The Blog
8 October 2009

The flag of the pre-colonial Benin empire (via kottke.org): Isn't it weirdly like that Thurber drawing with the caption 'Touché!’?

From The Blog
29 May 2009

Right from the start of the MPs' expenses – sorry, ‘allowances’ – scandal, I think we’ve all had personal favourites. The multiply-flipping Labour ministers may edge the contest in terms of the outrageousness of what they’ve done, but the Tories have had the upper hand in terms of vivid details. The wisteria was good, the manure was better, the moat-cleaning was better still, and then best of all was the £1645 floating island for Sir Peter Viggers’s duck pond. (Incidentally, it’s not clear whether Sir Peter got the money: according to the Torygraph, the claim had ‘not allowable’ scribbled beside it.

Letter

Mischaracterisation

21 January 2016

I don’t understand why the editors published Natalie Smith’s letter saying that I ‘should be more careful in lumping together sugar, fat and salt as the cause of the decline in public health’ (Letters, 3 March). I invite readers to look at the piece I wrote, where it’s perfectly clear I did no such thing (LRB, 21 January). What I said, and what I think, is that the culprit...
Letter

It’s Finished

28 May 2009

John Lanchester writes: It may be relevant that my forthcoming book about the credit crunch is called Whoops.
Letter

Planet Wal-Mart

22 June 2006

John Lanchester writes: I entirely agree with Paul Seabright’s last paragraph. It would be absurd to say that ‘Wal-Mart and companies like it are the root of world poverty.’ I’m not clear what the connection with my piece is, though, since I don’t think that and didn’t say it.If Seabright knows a practical way in which we can help the rural poor of the developing...
Letter

Google: An Update

26 January 2006

Since the last issue went to press with my piece on Google in it (LRB, 26 January) there have been a couple of big stories about the company. The second piece of news was the less surprising: it was the announcement that Google is to start a search service in China, with servers based locally, and that it will co-operate with Chinese government censorship in the process. This means that it will block...
Letter

Serial Killers

11 July 1991

Paul Seabright (Letters, 15 August) writes that ‘armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large numbers.’ True: and what else is new? The actions Dr Seabright writes about – ‘the bombing of Dresden or the “elimination" of terrorist suspects’ – have been usefully described as ‘crimes of obedience’. The prevalence...
Letter
SIR: Mike Selvey’s diary piece in your last issue (LRB, 8 January) hits several nails on the head, and he is at least half-right in his assertion that ‘the real enemy of cricket as she is known is the limited overs stuff.’ The game is subject to its own version of Gresham’s Law, with bad cricket driving out good: in recent years this has been made especially clear by the way...

Hong Pong: John Lanchester

Thomas Jones, 25 July 2002

First, let me declare a disinterest. John Lanchester and I are both involved, in different ways, with the London Review of Books, but otherwise have nothing to do with one another. Now...

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On the Run: John Lanchester

Adam Phillips, 2 March 2000

The name is ordinary, so the book announces itself as a book about no one special; though, of course, when men without qualities become the subjects of novels a certain gravity (if not grace) is...

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