Britain’s Chaotic Elections
As Britain’s ruling elite prepares to face its electorate on May 6, the veteran journalist, Michael White, reviews new books that illuminate what he describes as “the teenage tendency” of modern British politics, “the shallow narcissistic adolescence” of those seeking office, in particular those seeking to retain it. In the minutes that I am writing this piece about this week's TLS, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is struggling to recover from having called a decent Labour-voting old lady “a bigoted woman” because she disagreed with him about immigration a few hours ago. The equally petulant complaint “You’ve ruined my life” came from the same mouth but towards his predecessor Tony Blair, according to an account from Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party. Acceptable from a fifteen-year-old, says White but not ideal from a 55-year-old occupant of Ten Downing Street.
The rages and tantrums of Mr Brown have surprised neither Blair's friends nor enemies. Rawnsley reports Blair’s chief of staff, the ex-diplomat Jonathan Powell, telling him that his greatest failure would not be Iraq, but his inability to nurture an alternative New Labour successor. Within months of Brown’s entry into No 10, the left-wing lawyer and MP, Bob Marshall-Andrews, who had long plotted Blair’s overthrow, was joking that his successor was a figure of Shakespearean tragedy: Brown combined the “suspicion of Othello, the indecision of Hamlet, the impotent fury of King Lear. Thank God we got rid of the Macbeths”, the MP told colleagues. Government officials had grasped even sooner that the Brownite cabal combined arrogance with ignorance: 'They had no master plan, no reinvention of New Labour, let alone the restoration of Old Labour for which some hoped. It had all been tactics.” To judge by the polls, the electorate is joining the elite in that conclusion.
Irène Némirovsky’s Troubled Life
By her late twenties Irène Némirovsky was a precocious, bestselling, and critically acclaimed novelist. At thirty-nine she was taken away and murdered by the Nazis as a “stateless Jew.” Smart literary friends in whom she put her trust had once applauded what they saw as her own anti-Semitism, but proved no help to her in the end. In hiding in rural France she completed two parts (out of a planned five) of Suite Française which, discovered in a suitcase sixty-odd years after her death, became a bestseller, too. Frederic Raphael deftly connects the threads of her difficult life and undeceived fiction as presented in Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt’s biography.
When her novel, La Proie, was published in 1938, Jean-Pierre Maxence, in Gringoire (later a savagely pro-Nazi publication in occupied Paris), “rated it a hundred times superior to the ‘overelaborate, artificial, heavy, even lumbering style of La Nausée’”, which the authors describe as “the first philosophical novel by a certain Jean-Paul Sartre.” Anyone who reads La Proie today, writes Raphael, is likely to second Maxence’s judgement. “Its account of political and social mutability between the wars has lost none of its edge. The rise and fall of the hero is that of Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir, transposed to the Third Republic; but less schematic and more trenchantly observed. Némirovsky displays an ability to inhabit male and female sexuality with equal conviction; she illustrates how close desire is to heartlessness, how gratitude spawns treachery and ambition self-destruction.”
The Bitter History of Sugar
Bee Wilson writes about Elizabeth Abbott's Sugar: A bittersweet history, noting the well known horrors of cane-cutting-and-boiling by Caribbean slaves and wondering whether the worst aspects were necessary or not.
Could the world sugar trade have grown in the spectacular way it did from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries without plantation slavery? If so, how? Scholarly opinion differs, she says, as to whether the Arab sugar trade of medieval times was free of slavery, but it certainly didn’t create the same monstrous factory-fields as British-ruled Barbados. “But then, the Mediterranean view of sugar was more that of a condiment, to be used sparingly, than the working-class staple it would later become. India—where delicious jaggery is melted into rich rice puddings—provides an alternative model of sugar production, since it has never been plantation-based.” The sweet-toothed, among whom Wilson counts herself, would like to hear whether a life spent in those high lonely grasses of the cane fields has ever been bearable; whether our cravings for muscovado and demerara can ever be justified; or whether we should all switch to maple syrup, tapped by happy Canadians.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.