Liberty, Equality, Fraternity… Modesty?

I learn that one of Oxford student journalism’s many aspirants has resigned from a mid-rank post at Cherwell because his article wasn’t published online.

Well, good riddance, I would think. Such self-publicists – often averse to the slog of promotion, and always eager to find a fast track in controversy – are sadly a frequent blight on student journalism. They usually get short shrift from higher-ups who know the type, and dishonourably evaporate from the scene once they get a whiff of Spring Week. But this particular character had a brassy determination which invites at least a tip of the hat. Freddie Hayward took the opportunity to write about his brave sacrifice and condemn Cherwell’s supposed culture of censorship in the New Statesman, a magazine I read and subscribe to. Taking advantage of the NS editor’s email address – which he had presumably obtained from the very student newspaper he was decrying – Hayward informed us that “the freedom to criticise ideas is being eroded.” How convenient for him that he happens to be our Solzhenitsyn, with a nice credit on the CV to boot! Purely incidental, I am sure.

If I have developed one new feeling about the English private schools since arriving at Oxford, it is an admiration for this shameless ingenuity that they instil in their customers. While Mr Hayward (King’s School, St Peter’s) pulls out nails of censorship from his hands and displays the stigmata for a popular weekly magazine, another student (St Pauls, Exeter) demonstrated similar instincts when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Oxford Union presidency this week. Standing for the ‘insert verb’ slate, this hack assured floating voters that he alone stood for liberty, being “the only candidate for President to have voted NOT to disinvite Steve Bannon” last year. Well I don’t have a major objection to that per se, but one might take these defenders of free speech more seriously if they weren’t posting about their heroic deeds on Linkedin. If the ultimate goal is a well-paid job, which invariably it is, the value of the struggle is just a little diminished. In David Dwan’s recent book on Orwell, he has highlighted the great man’s uniquely conflicted understanding of the French revolutionary triptych of ‘Liberty’, ‘Equality’, and ‘Fraternity’, where each acts as a moderating force on the excesses of the others. To this end, perhaps we could add ‘Modesty’ to the old formula?

Donald and I

A short reflection on 2017, the president, and me

Around six months ago, I wrote that the Trump phenomenon was so shocking for the lack of literature it produced. Not literature on the president’s side of the debate. Such a jumbled and contradictory stream of barbs could never form an ideology with intellectual clout (despite the best efforts of American Affairs magazine). No, the lack of literature was on the opposition side. The president is so foul, yet David Cay Johnston’s old exposé (The Making of Donald Trump) was still the go-to text so long after the inauguration. I was only pondering this peculiarity at the time because another high profile book on Trump had finally dropped: Howard Jacobson’s Pussy. That novella about Donald and his people was a bit of a mess, hammering as it did all the gossip Jacobson could find on Trump into a rather slapdash roman à clef. This week as 2018 makes itself known, that sinister hearsay and chatter about the first family (and their bootlicking adoptees, Bannon, Spicer, and Priebus) has been proven true by the luckiest journalist alive – Michael Wolff. Somehow, Wolff managed to insinuate himself into the White House and stayed long enough to burn the whole place down. The President, with his already muted senses dulled further by the chance of publicity, allowed the ex-Hollywood Reporter journalist to just come and… hang around. From a first glance, it seems Wolff’s interviews with the inner circle in Fire and Fury are explosive. I feel a little sorry for the intern who will no doubt be asked to read each line, very slowly, to Trump. Although by the time he’s got through all 300 pages, it might be 2020. It seems that the significant new book on Trump I was searching for in May has finally arrived.

It also occurs to me that in another article on the commander-in-chief last year, I charged him with obstruction of justice and argued that even though Trump deserves impeachment, the congressional Republicans won’t depose him unless electoral reward is guaranteed. I think my framing of the issue was about right, although this new year people talk less of impeachment and more of the twenty-fifth amendment: removing the President on the grounds he is unable to discharge the office. The sad truth I have now realised is that we’re all way off the mark. Wolff’s Fire and Fury will demonstrate Trump’s crippling inability to be President, if it needed proving. The more significant revelation is that those Republicans on Capitol Hill with the power to change things don’t care.

6th January 2018

Smokers need freedom, not permission

Considerate and calm, smokers want nothing more than to be left alone

I was unsurprised when the high-minded administrators of Exeter College decided to play mother this week, and propose a smoking ban for the alleged good of their students. And I was disappointed at the slightly damp rejoinders offered by the college’s tobacco-loving students.

Smoking was described by opponents of the ban as “symptomatic of the working class”, another one of those crass but fashionable statements which assume everybody in an economic group thinks and acts the same. But whether these arguments hold up to scrutiny or not is beside the point. Individual smokers have their own motivations, which shouldn’t require justification to the authorities of their university.

I didn’t start smoking because I grew up without much money, but because I like tobacco. I like the rush of nicotine to the blood. I like the peace of sitting in the quad, undisturbed, without the need for a social excuse. I like the opportunity to retreat from the boredom of an office, or a library, or an argument in the kitchen. And I like smokers. It’s a young person’s hobby, and a particular type of young person at that. Cigarettes might not be good for you, but they’re definitely good to you. Smoking is the proclivity of someone who, exceptionally at this University, isn’t planning to settle down in a Surrey semi-detached with a wife and two kids. It’s the pastime of someone who doesn’t actually believe they’re so brilliant that they should live forever.

If there’s one thing that really puts us off quitting, it’s the insufferable piety of the smoke-free. I’m sure all smokers reading this have heard it: “smoking kills, you know!” Yes, of course we know, it says it on the front of the packet. These encounters aren’t even the worst. It’s the melodramatic coughers, and splutterers who really grate on me. Their spiteful idea, that we should be stripped of our ciggies because they don’t like the smell, was also the motivation of Exeter’s proposed ban. The exact phrasing was “inconsiderate behaviour”. But smokers are, in my experience, considerate. We have moved out of restaurants, bars, and pubs, and onto the street. Even on the outdoor verandas of gastropubs and eateries, we exhale in the opposite direction from those people choosing to eat in our domain. And smokers, seeing a child or an elderly person coming their way, turn their cigarettes away to spare discomfort

But this is not enough for the deans of Exeter College and Oxford University at large, who continue to believe that we need them to enforce good politesse. They are mistaken. All we need is for them to leave us alone.

Cherwell, October 2017

‘Energetic and farcical, if a little undisciplined’ – Paul Foot review

It feels as though the word “bizarre” was invented to describe ‘Tis a pity she’s a piglet’

Paul Foot walked out onto the stage of Oxford’s Old Fire Station somewhat like an alien landing from outer space. “Greetings!” he barked, dressed with a shiny shoulder-padded jacket, silver dress shoes, and a necklace of conkers.

This particular extra-terrestrial did not come in peace though, beginning his show, ‘Tis a pity she’s a piglet, with some confrontational lines on the nervous disposition of the audience.

Although it was a Saturday night, the room, according to Foot, had the atmosphere of a Tuesday evening. This was unorthodox ice-breaking from an unorthodox comic, and established the rather on-edge mood of the evening.

After some preliminary explorations in the ‘observational’ – school days, marriage, etc – Foot took us into his world, the realm of the ridiculous. Beginning with a discus- sion of ‘literal surrealism’, a genre which he claims to have invented, the comic began to rattle off a series of bizarre vignettes, which he described as “possible but unlikely.”

After imparting to us the story of a businessman who sat on a chocolate bar, Foot came up against the first and most determined heckler of the night, who remarked rather loudly: “I don’t get it.” Foot countered by repeating the joke once more – directly at the dissenter’s reddening face – adding a slightly meta elaboration about the soiled businessman’s disillusion with his career.

This elicited hearty laughs from most of the room, but I suspect the slain heckler was putting on a bit so that the kook would let him alone. Such moments, when Foot ad-libbed and engaged with his sceptical audience, were preferable to his more mechanical instances of farce. Foot was, after all, showing us his ‘routine’, and so the most outlandish moments were hard to believe. They were spoiled by a lingering sense of rehearsal.

One segment of the show centred on Foot asking members of the audience to abuse his best friend, a teddy bear. This was derailed slightly by two women who seemed to have adopted the notion that they were the comic’s sidekicks. ‘Fiona’, who was asked to punch the teddy bear in the face, launched into a bizarre spectacle in which she pretended to be deprived of hands.

Of course, we didn’t pay to see her. Foot had some trouble handling what he termed their ‘postmodern approach’ to audience participation, but managed to steer the show away from their obstruction in the end.

In this instance of ‘crowd work’, Foot demonstrated his skill as an experienced performer, if not his ability to write a disciplined show.

The title, ‘Tis a pity she’s a piglet, and the allusion to Ford, remains unexplained. The stronger parts of the performance involved Foot playing off his audience, and with this in mind it seems a saving grace that the gig was performed at the Old Fire Station on George Street.

This proved a far more intimate setting than the Playhouse, Oxford’s larger venue of choice for ‘TV’ comedians, where I speculate Foot’s style would have proved a little impractical.

The show concluded with an extended riff on the long since concluded Oscar Pistorius trial. This felt indicative of Foot’s abrupt leaps from one gag to the next throughout the performance, which were a mark of his boundless energy, but also his lack of self-discipline.

Cherwell, October 2017

She gave us our political inheritance

‘Queen Anne’ is a complex portrait of England’s most reluctant yet innovative monarch

Crippled, grieving, and the laughing stock of England. This is how the Princess Anne, heir to the English throne, begins her story in Helen Edmundson’s play Queen Anne, now showing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Emma Cunliffe’s impressive portrayal of the woman who didn’t want to be Queen never falters in communicating Anne’s jittery weakness. Even when wearing the purple robe of state, with orb and sceptre in hand, she hunches visibly, and talks to her counsellors with a nervous high-strung voice. Rising like a phoenix from a vicious smear campaign orchestrated by her closest confidante in the latter half of the play, the central paranoiac element of Anne Stuart’s character never leaves Cunliffe’s performance. Rather, as the Duke of Marlborough tells us, “she has become the Queen.” Though she is personally feeble, Anne begins to fulfil the essentially performative role of the English monarch that was emerging in the years following the Glorious Revolution.

Queen Anne is set during a period of momentous change in British government and society. This is most obviously demonstrated in the title character’s acceptance of her role as an increasingly apolitical head of state, the basis of our modern constitutional monarchy. But it is also shown in characters such as Robert Harley, Speaker of the Commons and later Lord Treasurer. Though played with a particularly comedic flair by James Garnon, his character offers more than comic relief. Harley is the archetypal modern politician, responding to almost all questions from the Queen with his trademark answer “yes, no, maybe”. There were also some unintentional laughs elicited from the audience by Chu Omambala’s Duke of Marlborough. He plays England’s chief soldier with such a declamatory staccato that he was almost chewing up the scenery. Nevertheless, he is given some of the play’s great lines by Edmundson. After a century of civil war, republicanism, a decadent restoration, and another revolution, Marlborough sums up the mood of his time with the words: “These Stuarts have outlived their use.”

Edmundson’s play is probably best described as a court drama. Though the Queen and her entourage at one point move from St. James’ Palace to Kensington, the action never leaves London, and almost all of the characters are aristocrats and members of the elite; there are, for example, some notable cameos from Jonathan Swift (Jonny Glynn) and Daniel Defoe (Carl Prekopp). But Edmundson gives us a glimpse of the real England through the play’s musical interludes. They illustrate the extent to which the ‘majesty’ of the English monarch had been debased throughout the preceding Seventeenth century. We begin with a pantomime depiction of Princess Anne and her husband Prince George copulating, followed by a phantom pregnancy where instead of bearing a child, the parody Anne passes wind. This shocking insult to the heir apparent is made particularly cruel by the context of Anne’s many miscarriages, and the recent death of her eleven year old son William. The revellers’ satirical songs later play a central role in a crisis of Anne’s reign, when she stands accused of “passionate femininity” with a handmaiden. The playwright here demonstrates the increasing power of satire and unfavourable public opinion over the royal family itself. We see the origins of the modern smear campaign acted out for us on stage, with strong undertones of Diana Spencer. The story of the satirists comes full circle towards the play’s close, as they parade effigies of the Marlboroughs and ceremonially hang them, pre-empting the decline of the couple’s fortunes. At the end though, we are still left pondering that old question that haunts the issue of tabloid propaganda today; do they shape opinion or simply reflect it?

The Queen learns to rise above the politicking, and accepts her situation. And though that might seem a little passive of her, there was perhaps no greater struggle than for a monarch at this time, shrouded in the language of divine right and magnificence, to accept their place as one cog in the machinery of the modern state. While earlier Anne had complained about the divisive language of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’, she embraces both parties as servants of the Crown, remaining informed and dutiful no matter what the political stripes of her government were. Perhaps Anne truly becomes the Queen when she decides to sacrifice her oldest and most intimate friendship with the power-hungry Countess Marlborough for the sake of the realm. This reminded me of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, where Elizabeth II faces similar tribulations early in her reign. But whereas Queen Elizabeth only learnt to accept precedent, Queen Anne shaped it. Queen Anne is, above all, a play that shows us our political inheritance.


Cherwell, August 2017

Something Amis

‘The Pregnant Widow’ scales the nuances of sex and ageing with wit and compassion – so why does ‘Lionel Asbo’ fall so short in its parody of England?

In 1966, a Motown singer of moderate success called Jimmy Ruffin first posed the question ‘what becomes of the broken hearted?’ And it was in that same year, according to Martin Amis, that humanity discovered sex. He differs here slightly from Philip Larkin, who in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’ located the date we started ‘doing it’ properly around 1963, somewhere ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban / and the Beatles’ first LP,’ noting also that such a date ‘was rather late for me.’ Larkin’s focus on the intersection of sex and age would also be a hallmark of Amis’ discussion of the sexual revolution. But pedantry aside, Ruffin’s mellifluous enquiry gained a certain poignancy through the years of the sexual revolution, and afterwards, when there were many more broken hearts to be found. Amis’ novel, The Pregnant Widow (2010), is a semi-autobiographical exploration of this period. Taken from the work of Alexander Herzen, the ‘pregnant widow’ is not so much a character, but rather a stage in revolutionary history.

Poised between the death of the father (the fall of moralistic sexual discretion) and the birth of the child (the rise of second-wave feminism) it is the moment of greatest fragility. Amis takes a nuanced approach, exploring the differing effects of the sexual revolution on a range of characters, from the indomitable femme fatale Gloria Beautyman, to the protagonist Keith Nearing’s childlike sibling Violet, whose story ends in a tragic collision of booze and casual sex like Amis’ own younger sister Sally. This would explain the novel’s subtitle, ‘Inside History.’ The author takes an idealised period (the ‘she decade’, as he calls the 1970s in one of the novel’s intervals) and presents it through the lives of individuals, even his closest relatives like Sally. He admirably seizes on the British media obsession with the Amis family that was for so long used to berate his work (being regularly written off as the less talented offspring of Kingsley), and inverts it to create a thoughtful novel about the social upheavals of the late twentieth century.

Another of Amis’ recent novels, however, takes a rather different approach to social analysis. In characteristic Amis fashion, Lionel Asbo (2012) picks its target: the caricature council estate lout of many a tabloid front page. The novel was thought-provoking in completely the wrong way, the caricaturist’s joke distinctly falling flat. In the most famous of his comic novels, Money (1984), Amis parodies the decadent excesses of wealth. Fair prey, I think, within the context of a decade when cash bought morality off. But what can really be gained from a crucifixion of England’s impoverished classes? W.H. Auden, in his essay ‘Reading’, remarked: ‘one sign a book has literary value is that it can be read in a number of different ways. Vice versa, the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus… one is bored to tears.’ These words kept floating around my mind as I read Lionel Asbo, with its unpleasant depictions of the down and out: ‘Granny Grace was an early starter, and fell pregnant when she was just twelve.’ My suspicion that this kind of ‘comic writing’ could only appeal to a certain type of person was confirmed as I looked over the novel’s praise. Of particular note was the Mail on Sunday critic’s revelation that he ‘read the book in a sitting, chortling throughout.’ The titillation of the powerful at the expense of the weak seems to be the driving motivation of the novel. As in The Pregnant Widow, Lionel Asbo’s subtitle, ‘State of England’, is loaded with meaning. It cannot simply be read as the chronicle of one extraordinary thug who gets lucky off the back of a lottery ticket. Instead it should be considered with the author’s paranoia in mind, stemming from a preconception that Lionel Asbo and his like are indicative of working class life in twenty-first century England.

Amis has proved time and again throughout his career that he is one of Britain’s most talented writers. The problem with Lionel Asbo lies not so much in the construction of the prose, which is impeccable as always, and in brief but all too infrequent sparks, illuminates even the most inane aspects of life lived in poverty. The novel really suffers because it has nothing to say. Even in attempting to approach the issue of poverty, his efforts stumble. Perhaps this is why The Pregnant Widow, with no working-class characters of note, stands out as a better piece of fiction.

When asked to name her favourite writer, Susan Sontag would always reply with Shakespeare, much to the chagrin of interviewers and dinner companions, who expected America’s greatest cultural critic to come up with something a tad more obscure. ‘I care passionately about many things that don’t get into my fiction and essays,’ she remarked in later life, ‘because what is in my head seems to me to lack originality – I never thought I had anything interesting to say about Shakespeare.’ The phrase ‘write what you know’ is one of the most overused and pernicious pieces of advice that can be given to an aspiring creative. Pure knowledge of a subject is not the key to good writing, and some of the most beloved fiction is derived from the escapism and extrapolation of an author, be it the fantasies of Tolkien and Rowling which have created generations of voracious readers, or the dystopian worlds of Orwell and Atwood, which still inspire lifelong anti-totalitarian convictions. A certain factual grasp of the subject can of course aid coherent fiction, but greatness, as Sontag notes, comes out of originality. In Amis’ better novel The Pregnant Widow, the narrator’s identity (teased throughout but never confirmed) seems to be the protagonist Keith Nearing’s ‘superego’. This unconscious narration is original and innovative, presenting the temporal situation of the novel (misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of ignorant hatred all rife), but with the sensibilities and prejudices of the author forbidden from interference. Despite The Pregnant Widow being by far the more autobiographical of the two novels, I felt far less aware of author’s presence than in Lionel Asbo, where a sneering judgement cuts across narrative worth.

Amis knows ‘how it’s done’, or at least how it should be done. The story of The Pregnant Widow is anchored in a consideration of the English novel: the protagonist Nearing is consuming all the Dickens, Eliot, and Shelley he can in the summer of 1970, before beginning a literature degree at Oxford. His affair with Glory Beautyman, one of the novel’s central events, is spurred on by a heated debate over Elizabeth Bennet’s motivations in Pride and Prejudice. In one instance, there is a perceptive riff on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and her illustration of a poor man made wealthy, Heathcliff. The black villain of the moors, in all his complexity, is a far cry from Amis’ characterisation of Lionel (pronounced ‘Loyonoo’, apparently), a Frankenstein’s monster cooked up in a melting pot of tabloid news articles about ‘youth culture’, and heavy-handed pop culture references that could have been lifted directly from Wikipedia: ‘he resembled, some said, the England and Manchester United prodigy, striker Wayne Rooney.’ In The Pregnant Widow, our unconscious narrator describes a writer as the person sipping their drink in one corner of a party; watching, thinking, and formulating. When he emulates this philosophy, Martin Amis is at his very best. But in Lionel Asbo, he resembles the brash provocateur, at the centre of a social gathering, loudly opining on things he neither knows nor cares enough about.

It was really good fortune that saved my faith in Martin Amis. In an effort to catch up on his recent work, I had read Lionel Asbo with disappointment, afraid that one of my favourite authors had cast off on the path of irredeemable decline. But as luck would have it, I found a copy of The Pregnant Widow by chance at a book stall just off London Fields, and did the regular survey: cover, synopsis, praise. The friend who I was staying with did the same, and decided also to take a peek at the inside fold, where on most hardbacks you will find a portrait of the author. We laughed, not because of the image’s affectation, which is common. Rather, because something was so obviously missing. The right hand was poised upward – check. But instead of a cigarette nonchalantly hanging between the fingers, Amis seems to be clutching a marker pen. The subject of ageing is something he takes on with admirable self-deprecation through the novel. Keith Nearing’s internal wrangling on whether to take up smoking again is littered with the justifications of youth: ‘yeah, non-smokers live seven years longer… It won’t be that convulsive, heart-bursting spell between twenty-eight and thirty-five. No. It’ll be that really cool bit between eighty-six and ninety-three.’

The crux of these remarks, and others, is Amis’ creeping realisation that it is hard to age with dignity. The old are caught out in moments of wishful thinking, hovering their hand to hold a cigarette when they packed in the habit years ago. His perceptive ruminations in The Pregnant Widow are the product of an author ageing, but not declining. Lionel Asbo, on the other hand, is Amis’ attempt to be resurrected as the writer of his younger days, crafting biting satire and despicable, but often sympathetic, characters. And yet it misses the mark by a long way. These two novels show us that originality is a far greater thing than cliché, and that thankfully, Martin Amis still has something to say. In the final pages of The Pregnant Widow, Nearing’s superego concludes ‘it’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.’ Lionel Asbo was published shortly after the untimely passing of the author’s best friend Christopher Hitchens. It was also dedicated to him, although I am not sure that street-fighting Marxist of old would have taken kindly to the book’s sentiment. He was never uncritical of his lifelong confidant, lambasting Amis’ biography of Josef Stalin, Koba the Dread, in a review for The Atlantic. Just like The Pregnant Widow, Amis’ upcoming 2017 novel has been long in the making, with him reportedly starting work on it over a decade ago. Moving from a focus on ageing, to the logical endpoint (death), we can only hope that this new work will mirror the thoughtful contemplation of The Pregnant Widow, rather than the misguided posturing of Lionel Asbo.


Oxford Review of Books, June 2017

Rhetorical reactions to the President

A review of Pussy, Howard Jacobson’s Trump satire

We have all become accustomed to the cry of ‘fake news’, pronounced since last year from the mouth of the new US President, or his Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump. When he vanquished the Clinton machine in November, Trump turned his gaze fully to the Fourth Estate, declaring media organisations the new opposition in America.

Over the course of the campaign, voices of articulate criticism were best given a platform in the spindly pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. But now, as we see the bookstore shelves dedicated to discussions of Trump steadily lengthening, perhaps lightning fury has finally given way to weighty contemplation. Following Trump’s ascension to the White House, I wanted to see a revolution in the discourse surrounding his election.

In the weeks and months surrounding November 8, searching for a substantial exposition of the Trump phenomenon was a fool’s errand. There were two main ports of call. First, a thin volume entitled Trump & Me—Penguin’s hastily published reprint of Mark Singer’s 1996 profile of the Manhattan Megalodon. This humorous enquiry made for leisurely reading in the summer of 2016, when all bets were on a Clinton victory. But satisfying post-election literature, it is not.

The other option was investigative journalist David Cay Johnston’s critical biography of Trump’s “tremendous success,” The Making of Donald Trump. Whilst this was, at first reading, an admirable dissection of Trump’s moral and often fiscal bankruptcy, the book now leaves us feeling cheated. How could a man as repugnant as this lie his way from the Trump Tower penthouse to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

But while the new President hurtled through the first 100 days with pause only to tweet and swing a golf club, the writers of America (or at least those who could face the ‘American Tragedy’ of Trump’s victory, as David Remnick called it) were working away.

The first major fictional offering post- presidency is Howard Jacobson’s Pussy (he might have been warier of the title). This half-satire, half-elegy to liberal America, was written in the immediate weeks after the election. While Jacobson’s prose is intended to show us the inadequacy of Trump, I am afraid it more clearly demonstrates the inadequacy of his opponents in their reactions to defeat.

Indeed, the fact that Trump is so objectionable in so many ways presented a goldmine of potential attack lines to Clinton and her supporters last year. To many Republicans, the inexcusable behaviour of their candidate was anathema, for they were the ones who had to defend him publicly whilst attempting to masquerade as people with a shred of decency.

For his opponents, Trump’s various misdemeanours could be fashioned into a cache of poison dart invectives throughout the campaign, targeted expertly to turn designated sectional interest groups. For defence hawks, there was Trump’s professed isolationism. Women were given a heavy dose of his misogyny and allegations of sexual assault. Clips of Trump’s race baiting and his support from the white supremacist David Duke were aimed at black and ethnic minority Americans. Of course, his ‘America First’ economics were given a good airing for Hillary’s big buck donors who have done very well out of globalism. But as the Clintons have now quietly retired to walk their dogs and write pulp fiction political thrillers, the attacks have turned disparate. The precise crossbow of the Democratic party machine has been packed up until 2020, replaced post-inauguration by the chaotic firing of scatterguns by those, like Howard Jacobson, who are still searching for answers.

The title of Pussy and its accompanying front cover illustration of an infantile Trump, dressed only in a nappy and holding a doll of a naked woman, clarifies the novel’s main polemical line—the new President’s attitude to women.

In this roman à clef, Prince Fracassus (obviously Trump), lusts after his female teacher Doctor Cobalt, is open about his taste for hardcore pornography, and demonstrates an intense hatred of intelligent women such as Sojjourner, who engages in sex work to finance her degree: “He resorted to Twitter. ‘Met a bitch called two js. Great piece of ass with two as. Moved on her, not close.’”

These points, though not particularly original, satirise Trump’s misogyny quite well. While reading the book, one oscillates between titillation and despair, a credit I think to the accuracy of Jacobson’s caricature. But this is all slightly undermined by his shtick toward the fictional Ivanas, Ivankas and Melanias of the tale, who the writer describes as dressing “in a vertiginously low-cut sequined evening gown that appeared to be entirely open, but for a paper clip.” I wonder if it is credible to hold dual outrage, on the one hand at Trump’s attitude to women, and on the other at the chosen dress sense of the scantily clad women around him. Herein there seems to be a contradiction, which is endemic in many attempted takedowns of ‘The Donald’, whereby liberals accept a traditionally right wing prejudice as their first premise and then hold Trump in contempt because he violates it.

This is the case in Jacobson’s fictional account, where we are supposed to take a disliking to Trump because the women around him aren’t ‘classy’ enough. But it can also be seen in David Cay Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump. On the subject of revenge, he quotes the Sermon on the Mount, professing that Trump’s business dealings are “in direct opposition to both Christian and Jewish theology.” During the Republican presidential primaries, this was the critique that such shining lights of secularism as Ted Cruz offered, appealing to the theocratic instincts of much of that party. It seems misguided for the liberal opposition (now more portentously named ‘progressives’), to be endorsing right wing principles in the hope of landing a cheap shot on Trump.

In Pussy, Jacobson also ridicules Trump on similarly religious grounds: “Fracassus was frightened. He’d seen a television programme in which a father took his son to the top of a mountain to slit his throat but then God stepped in to stop him. Not a great storyline but he liked when the father slit a ram’s throat instead.” It is unwise of liberals to form an ugly alliance with those who do not accept the fundamentals of women’s liberation or the separation of Church and state in a desperate attempt to do the President harm.

Through the course of most significant political careers, we can see development of personal belief systems executed in office, be it Thatcherism, Stalinism, or Kissingerian realpolitik. But with Trump, things seem to be going in the opposite direction. Faced with the power of his office, we are not seeing Trumpism, only Trumpery. His individual consistency is in being a showman, but one who is essentially worthless and devoid of substance. To run on a platform of non-interventionism, and then subsequently provoke a diplomatic incident by bombing a Syrian airfield (though not necessarily unjustified) highlighted the volatility of Trump’s behaviour, and his lack of beliefs.

In Pussy, it is unclear whether Jacobson objects to Trump the man, or to what he represents about “a society that set great store by fantastical coiffure.” In a pointless rehash of Marco Rubio’s futile attempt to emasculate Trump in front of the fickle Republican primary debate crowds, Jacobson insults Prince Fracassus as being “slow-witted,” and having “small hands.”

This trivial kind of venting—which is more prominent in the earlier chapters—shows how writing the book so soon after November 8th affected the quality of Jacobson’s prose. As the novel goes on, the author’s remarks on Fracassus become more perceptive.

Focussing on Trump’s famed relationship with cable television, Jacobson presents the young Prince Fracassus as a critical viewer. He writes, “whatever was combative and divisive he liked; whatever was discursive and considered he didn’t.” Jacobson also considers how far television nasties influenced the relative cruelty of Trump as he grew up into a ruthless entrepreneur: “sadistic surgeons, bent cops, the Discovery Channel’s dictator of the week—it was on these that he grafted his own image.”

He seems to be raising the question of whether Trump was born repugnant, or whether he is a product of the America in which he grew up, the country that gave him its greatest endorsement of all at the 2016 Presidential election.

The result in November certainly made a lot of liberals angry, not only at the new commander- in-chief, but also at the public. In his essay ‘None of the Old Rules Apply,’ the writer Dave Eggers reveals how in a post-election conversation with fellow Democrats, “we all talked about where we will move: Belize; New Zealand; Canada. We no longer knew our own country.” The implied sentiment that a kind of unbridgeable gap opened between liberalism and the United States last year, is reflected in Pussy. Despite quite forcefully making the point that Fracassus and his real-life counterpart President Trump were bad eggs from birth, Jacobson also shows a sneering attitude to those who elected him. He doubts the very ability of the electorate to make ‘sensible’ choices: “voters, in all likelihood not knowing what they were voting for, felt the same. Lie to us, lie to us.”

However, it seems unwise to predicate a movement of democratic opposition on the founding premise that the voters are typically idiots. Those who want to remove Trump from office as soon as possible do themselves no favours by describing “Caleb Hopsack, leader of the Ordinary People’s Party (OPP)” as “championing of all things unquiet and unrefined.”

The first step to regaining power is destroying the entire poisonous notion, ironically propagated by billionaires like Trump, that liberalism is elite. Some like Jacobson disapprovingly tut at the electorate. Others, like Linda Sarsour in her essay ‘The Ultimate Wake Up Call’ revert to repeatedly shouting through caps-lock “THIS IS NOT NORMAL”, and emphasise the value of “OUTRAGE” in obnoxious tones not far removed from the President’s own childish tweet storms. But all this is only solidifying the received idea of ‘metropolitan elitism,’ or to use one of Jacboson’s own lines: it is ‘ironising the archetype.’

Donald Trump will still be the President tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after. Though Mrs Clinton may have won the popular vote in November, the crushing apathy her kind of politics induced allowed her opponent to flourish. It could do so again in 2020 if the Democrats select a similar candidate.

Reading Pussy, I was admittedly disappointed, hoping as I had since the election that Trump’s earth shattering victory would at least trigger a creative renaissance in writing, satire, and political opposition to conservatism. The book left me wanting for all of the things which I hoped it would provide. Instead of getting red in the face, those who oppose the administration should get even, by turning the voters against Trump.

A lively discourse on the American Left over the next few years, about what went wrong and what can go right in the future, will be far more productive than trotting out the attack lines of ex-Republican candidates and calling the general public stupid. It is the politicians, not the people, who should seek redemption.


Cherwell, May 2017