Book Review: Brexit & Ireland

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum of 23 June 2016 did not go as expected. By a slim majority those of the UK electorate who voted, chose to leave the EU. Since then there has been continuous emotional outrage and rhetoric published in the mainstream media and on social media. Much of this has centred on the personal and economic impact of limiting immigration and the apparent enfranchisement some now assert to openly voice their horrifying xenophobia.

There is, of course, more to it than this. The EU is, amongst other things, a behemoth of bureaucracy. Its increasing federal powers have over the years been the subject of much criticism. Since the referendum vote, the EU’s positive aspects have been much vaunted by those appalled at the prospect of Brexit. Yet because a country leaving the EU is unprecedented, the longer term impact can still only be guessed at.

Brexit & Ireland is written from the latter country’s point of view. Physically, historically and economically close they have been European allies since they both joined what was the EEC in 1973. The two countries recognise many bilateral agreements. Since the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles in 1998, the island of Ireland has effectively functioned as one unit, albeit with differing laws and currency north and south. The difficulties to be overcome if the UK leaves the EU while Ireland stays is the subject of this book.

Although it is refreshingly educative to read a calm and balanced account of the potential political and economic issues – rather than the personal – raised by Brexit, the detail makes for rather dry reading. Around half of the text explains the challenges faced by sectors that work across the border and with the UK. These include: agriculture and fishing; food processing and distribution; just in time supply to supermarkets across the Irish Sea. Horse racing and breeding gets a mention as does medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. It is not just goods that benefit from unhindered travel but also a workforce, tourists and students.

Ireland was well aware early on in the process of the difficulties it would have to overcome, yet was hindered by the EU’s stance on negotiations with the UK. If Ireland wishes to remain within the EU then it must abide by EU rules and timetables. After Brexit, the UK wishes to continue to trade without borders but will not accept free movement of people from the entire EU, or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Other EU member states demand that the UK be punished for daring to leave – they will not countenance allowing the UK to ‘have their cake and eat it’.

A key issue for Ireland is to maintain the peace within the island and this requires that the border remain simply a line on a piece of paper, not a series of cumbersome controls that may require the military to enforce. The EU states that it supports the peace process yet refuses to consider a customs and tariff free arrangement with a country unwilling to pay to be a part of its existing agreements.

“Tusk and his team were eager to help Ireland. But other member states suspected that by being too flexible on the Irish border, they were playing into the hands of the British. Concessions given to Ireland might just suit the British as well.”

“The EU is an historic political project whose future is at stake”

“allowing the UK to have their cake and eat it […] would destroy the European Union”

There are many other borders between EU and non EU countries in the world. Those that function efficiently rely on mutual cooperation. There is reluctance within the EU to allow what Ireland and the UK would benefit from, but other disputed territories, such as Gibraltar or Cyprus, worry that Brexit would set a precedent that they are unwilling to accept.

The author’s access to key documents and political discussion highlights the intransigence over issues which reminded me of the loyalist and republican viewpoints I had to listen to growing up in Belfast. Each side felt justified in their stance, claiming that lack of progress was entirely the other’s fault. It is a comparison that strikes fear given where it led back then.

When it takes a group of EU negotiators two weeks to agree to the wording of a single paragraph in a document, and this can then be thrown out by the DUP unhappy at the suggestion of a border running down the Irish Sea, it is no surprise that little progress is being made. With Theresa May beholden to the DUP since the last UK General Election,

“the unionist and nationalist views on any particular issue come to the fore, rather than the collective interests of Northern Ireland.”

The numerous pages dedicated to the economic difficulties of Brexit are eclipsed by potential damage to the peace process if the EU demands a hard border.

“Peace and prosperity is underlined by the free movement of goods and services.”

“We need to look at the border in isolation and to look for bespoke solutions.”

This does not please certain EU member states.

“Pressure will come on the Commission to balance the wishes of the UK and Ireland and the political wishes of the other 26 leaders around the Council table.”

The author highlights potential positives for Ireland from Brexit but these rely on global businesses being willing to relocate there. Ireland is in competition with other EU countries wishing to attract businesses that will leave a UK that is not in the EU.  Unsubstantiated claims have been made by competitors that Dublin does not have the necessary infrastructure, housing or quality education. Without the UK to support them in EU decision making, Ireland is losing out.

Irish businesses who would be hit by punitive cross border EU custom and tariff regimes could ask for transitional aid from their government to enable them to move business operations south, but the EU is ‘notoriously strict on state aid’. Many businesses rely on the land so moving is not an option.

The final chapter covers a round of negotiations on the details of Brexit and highlights the difficulties of dealing with a notoriously slow moving organisation that scrutinises every detail, fearing a chink in the armour it is building.

“Theresa May was effectively saying ‘if it weren’t for the European Union being so pesky about the four freedoms and things like that, then we wouldn’t have this problem.’”

What comes out of this book is that it is more complex than this, but made more so by the self protecting intransigence of an unwieldy organisation fighting for its survival.

Any Cop?: This is as detailed and factual a perspective as I have read about Brexit. The UK is entering unchartered waters without a map or visible compass. Ireland has clearly stated that it has no wish to follow. Without more flexible support from the remaining EU members, staying may prove untenable.

 

Jackie Law

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Gig Review: Launching the Marlborough Literature Festival programme

On a sunny evening last week I travelled to the beautiful town of Marlborough for a literary party of a type new to me. I had received an invitation to attend the launch of the Marlborough Literature Festival programme, to be held at the White Horse Bookshop on the high street. It proved a friendly if packed event.

The festival started small and has grown since its inception, but never too much to lose its intimacy. Using just a few nearby venues – rooms at the college, a church hall, art gallery, library, and the town hall which also hosts the festival’s box office, pop up bookshop and tea shop – it aims to offer

“events with enough variety – from bookbinding and beer to poetry and politics – for everyone whatever your age or interest”

“This year we welcome several leading authors whose names will be familiar to all, as well as those you may not yet have heard of, but who we think are well worth looking out for.”

The expected highlight of 2018 is the attendance of children’s author David Walliams. So popular was his event expected to be that he agreed to perform twice on the festival Sunday – and both events sold out on the first morning tickets went on sale, demand bringing down the on line booking system much to the frustration of everyone involved.

David Walliams is not the only big name to attend. The Golding Speaker is Rose Tremain. Kate Moss, Alan Johnson, Max Hastings, William Boyd and Chris Cleave will all be there. You may check out the full programme by clicking here.

Back though to the launch party. Those I chatted to were: involved in the festival organisation; representing the sponsors; from local media. All were invited to enjoy a glass of wine, browse the programme and purchase tickets. The queue for these ran the length of the bookshop throughout the event. There was also a healthy interest in the books on display.

Personally I am looking forward to listening to the Hiscox Debut Authors – Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson. I am also intrigued by the Translation Duel where Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne debate the literary dilemmas posed by L’Amant by Marguerite Duras.

Whatever your interest, if you can be in the area do please consider attending. There are now many literary festivals to choose from and I believe this is a good thing, especially for local book lovers and their independent bookshops. These can only survive if they receive your support.

You may follow news of the festival on Twitter: @MarlbLitFest 

You may also follow the bookshop: @whitehorsebooks

 

Book Review: Under the Knife

Under the Knife: The History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations, by Arnold van de Laar, offers an eye watering, riveting, always accessible account of surgical techniques and development from biblical times through to the present day. The operations detailed focus on well known names – figureheads, tyrants and celebrities – as well as the medical practitioners who pioneered new practices, mostly without anaesthetic. Along the way technical terms commonly used by doctors are explained.

With the benefit of hindsight the unhygienic conditions that prevailed for so long may horrify, as will recurring treatments such as blood letting. For centuries surgeons and doctors were regarded separately, each developing their skills but rarely working together. Progress was sometimes accidental with a key observation or new practice ridiculed by peers until accepted by a high profile patient.

“in the Middle Ages common sense was obscured by tradition. Rather than looking at the results of their actions, our medieval forefathers would follow what some great predecessor had written in an ancient book.”

The Hippocratic Oath, historically taken by medical students as a step towards qualifying as a doctor, used to contain the line ‘I will not cut for stone’, implying that such dangerous practices as lithotomy – stone cutting – should be left to experts. The first operation detailed in the book involves a Dutch man who ignored this advice and, in desperation, cut out his own bladder stone at home. It was larger than a chicken’s egg and somehow he survived. The formation of such stones is explained as is the more standard operation to remove them and how this has changed over the years. Bladder stones are caused by bacteria. What was once an everyday complaint is now rare.

Treatment for asphyxia – problems with breathing – is then explored by detailing treatment of a very famous patient following a shooting – President John F. Kennedy. As we know he did not survive, following in the footsteps of the first president of the United States, George Washington, who suffocated after his doctors refused to perform a tracheotomy – a cut into the windpipe to allow air into the lungs. This and similar treatments are described along with when and why they may be needed.

Further chapters cover other common complaints: wound healing, including reasons for circumcision; shock, which in medical terms means a failure of the blood’s circulatory system; obesity and its complications, recurrent amongst popes over the years; fracture; varicose veins and other problems caused when our ancestors decided to walk on two legs; peritonitis, which killed Harry Houdini; narcosis and the introduction of anaesthetics for which Queen Victoria was thankful; gangrene; aneurysm; castration; hernia; stroke and more.

Bob Marley died because his religion forbade him from accepting required treatment. Alan Shepard became the fifth man to walk on the moon thanks to a placebo. Lenin suffered multiple strokes throughout his life, the causes and effects of which likely contributed to making him the tyrant he became, although he may have been felled due to lead poisoning from a bullet that remained in his body following a shooting years previously.

As well as detailing key operations, methods of diagnosis are discussed along with complications that can arise due to surgical error. Successful surgeons can become much sought after, especially by those willing and able to pay. Michael DeBakey was one such man in the twentieth century. Described as a maestro by his famous patients he enjoyed to the full his reputation and fame. Nevertheless he dismissed an assistant’s concern during an operation and did not follow through when the patient, the deposed Shah of Iran, developed worrying post operative symptoms which ultimately led to the former leader’s death.

“great surgeons can sometimes make a mistake. Complications are, after all, part and parcel of operations and the risk of problems can never be counted out, no matter how great you are.”

Each of the twenty-eight chapters offers a fascinating insight into surgical developments and subsequent treatment. They are written with sympathy and wit in a style that enables lay readers to understand and learn more about doctor’s reasoning, vernacular and limitations.

For anyone interested in little known medical issues suffered by the famous over the centuries, in how their own body functions and the work of those who may be called upon to keep it going, this is a well structured, digestible, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, John Murray, via Bookbridgr

Gig Review: Will Eaves in Bath

It is rare for me to attend an author event when I haven’t yet read the book being discussed. However, when I spotted that Will Eaves was to visit Toppings in Bath I couldn’t resist. His latest book, Murmur, has garnered many rave reviews on a wide variety of sites. Also, it is published by CB Editions. If Charles Boyle is willing to get behind an author then they must be worth checking out.

On the day of the event I was caught somewhat on the hop. Due to a clash with a popular sports broadcast the start time was changed, a message I received only a couple of hours before. It was worth the rush to get there. Will proved to be a friendly, patient and considerate speaker, attributes that were needed given some of the persistent questioning he encountered from one particular member of his audience.

Murmur was inspired by Alan Turing and is written from the point of view of an avatar based on the famous mathematician, biologist and philosopher. Will did not wish to cover Turing’s role at Bletchley Park as this has been much written about already. Instead he was interested in how such a genius would cope with the state sponsored torture of chemical castration, his barbaric punishment, having being charged with gross indecency. The book is about the experience of taking the drugs prescribed – the pain, stress and humiliation. It is about intelligence and secrets, trying to to decode a biological response.

Will imagined that Turing would study his own reaction, attempting to strip away the personal yet never being able to get away from this. Any experience is only ever fully felt by the person involved. Will’s Turing wishes to discover where his pain lies, emotional as well as physical.

The central section of the book is a series of dreams that are relayed as they occur. The importance of each dream isn’t what happens – other people’s dreams are rarely of interest to any other than them – but rather how they felt. These dreams are book-ended by letters between Turing and his fiancée in which he tries to work out what is happening to him. The dreams are at times surreal. They are written with a pulsing beat, a structure that sometimes constrained the author but also provided discipline.

Turing was administered the prescribed drugs at the Royal Infirmary. He was also required to meet with a psychoanalyst who proved more sympathetic to Turing’s predicament than expected. What he had been, a past self, would remain irretrievable. Will believed Turing would wish to understand what he had become, to uncover any pattern formation.

Two readings provided a flavour of the book. The audience were then invited to ask questions.

Will was asked if he understood the maths.

He talked of wanting to solve a puzzle, of Turing’s theory of consciousness, of artificial intelligence. He mentioned that in any system there are aspects that will never be proved. He consulted with a mathematician and physicist, not from the university where he works.

He was asked if he thought that Turing had committed suicide (this seemed to be veering even further away from the subject under discussion but the questioner was proving persistent). Will didn’t know, and the event chair intervened to bring things back on line.

Will told us that the book had taken six years to write. To gain background information about dreams he read Freud and Jung but wouldn’t describe this as research.

He was asked why he changed Turing’s name.

This was to avoid the sticky situation of putting words into the mouth of a genius. None of Turing’s dreams were written down so these were entirely invented. The pivotal sexual encounter occurred in London rather than Manchester as Will is unfamiliar with the latter city.

He was asked what started him on his journey to write the book

Will couldn’t remember. Perhaps it was the centenary of Turing’s birth, reading essays he had written. Will had just started a new job and was looking for a fresh project. Turing’s voice was asking to be heard.

The evening was drawn to a close with time to have books signed. I enjoyed a conversation with one of Will’s former students who was most complementary of his teaching. I then made my way to the front with my purchase. By this time the persistent questioner had once again commandeered Will’s attention so I did not have the opportunity to talk further. Whilst I regret the missed opportunity it did not spoil my evening. I now look forward to reading what sounds like a fascinating book.

 

Murmur is published by CB Editions. Signed copies are currently available at Toppings in Bath.

Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eye Books.

Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile

The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch, is a crime thriller set in a burgeoning New York in 1799. At this time there were few laws and fewer law enforcement employees. The city was managed by racqueteers who kept a fragile peace through violence and intimidation. A recent state ruling had resulted in the freeing of a large number of slaves who vied with the Irish community for whatever low paid work they could find. The racqueteers ran brothels, collected protection money and guarded their turf through a network of spies and thuggery. Those residents with capital tried to increase their holdings via investments and scams operating through the unregulated stock market which met in busy coffee shops around Wall Street – the devil’s half mile.

Into this powder keg of risk and resentment arrives our protagonist, Justy Flanagan, fresh out of university in Ireland where he learned the law, alongside more practical skills fighting English oppressors. Justy’s uncle, The Bull, is a feared overlord in New York who took the boy in following his father’s suicide. Justy no longer believes that his father took his own life. He suspects murder and has returned seeking justice and revenge.

Justy sails into New York aboard a ship on which his good friend and former comrade in arms, Lars Hokkanssen, is working. On arrival in port he meets an old friend from his childhood, Kerry O’Toole, who has turned to a life of crime. Justy feels a degree of guilt for leaving Kerry to cope while he sought to better himself. He refuses to blame her for what she has become.

Justy locates and questions his father’s old acquaintances to discover for himself who the partners were in the financial scheme blamed for his death. He is aided by Lars but is watched by those who wish to protect their secrets. Violence follows, the death count rises and ideals are compromised. Justy becomes embroiled in sickening plans.

The squalor and brutality of a fast growing settlement are well evoked. The resentments felt by those whose jobs are threatened by a sudden influx of new workers is familiar, as is the timeless greed of those eager to make money by whatever means, including feeding abhorrent appetites. Justy is something of a trope with his high mindedness, skills in killing and moral ambiguity. Threads are set up that suggest a possible sequel.

The author offers plenty of twists as the plot progresses along with an ongoing quandary over who can be trusted. There are rather too many crises and serious injuries fought through as Justy interacts with his enemies. The historical setting is of interest but as a crime thriller I struggled to maintain engagement. A violent story built on a plausible premise but not one for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.

Book Review: The Hurtle of Hell

The Hurtle of Hell, by Simon Edge, opens with a near drowning during which the protagonist, Stefano Cartwright, has an out of body experience. He views himself from above surrounded by a concerned crowd as a stranger attempts to give him the kiss of life. Stefano then travels along a tunnel of light before briefly encountering a being he believes to be God. Prior to this Stefano would have regarded himself as an atheist having rejected Christian beliefs and teachings as a teenager. Now he faces a personal crisis, fearing his current lifestyle will result in an eternity condemned to hell. Stefano’s long term boyfriend, Adam, cannot understand what has happened. A gulf opens between them.

Meanwhile God is growing bored with his lonely life at the centre of the universe. He travels to its outer edges and contemplates what may lie beyond. He is perturbed to have been glimpsed while looking through the seeing tube that enables him to zoom in on features that grab his interest by a hominid from

“the third rock from a middle-sized star in a spiral galaxy in a part of his universe that he technically classified as ‘over there'”

God’s interest is piqued. He has never before been seen. He seeks out the hominid from time to time casually observing its strange habits and interactions with little understanding.

Stefano cannot shake his fears. Everywhere he looks he sees messages that he believes could be spiritual warnings meant for him. When Adam tries to help the situation worsens.

The narrative takes the reader back to Stefano’s childhood and the expectations of his parents. As he was coming to accept that he was gay, the AIDs epidemic was garnering media attention. Finding his home life intolerable Stefano moved to London, effectively reinventing himself and setting aside the family he left.

Following an unfortunate accident with his seeing tube, God must spend time learning more about these hominids. He discovers that they have attributed a great many strange powers to him which he regards with incredulity.

“Hominids could never have a realistic grasp of how insignificant they were, of the different scales on which they and the creator existed”

Nevertheless God makes the most of his new experiences, even growing fond of some who he observes. Their perspectives of the god they have invented and the universe in which they exist may be incompatible with practical reality but God derives pleasure from learning more about how they think and act during their brief lives.

The structure of the story flows with ease through the varying voices, providing insights into the prejudices, concerns and selfishness that each of the characters must face. The character of God adds much humour, his observations an effective commentary on organised religion and man’s exaggerated sense of his own value. It is both amusing and sobering to reflect on.

This is a light read but provokes sufficient questioning to maintain interest. An entertaining addition to my summer list.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.