This week I finally got around to reading Autumn by Ali Smith. I have been meaning to read it for a while because over the years I have been hearing an increasing volume of good things about her but because this was known as being her Brexit novel I ended up putting it off. I followed Brexit closely last year and so by the time this book came out I had become a little burnt out on the subject.
I had a similar thing with Howard Jacobson’s Donald Trump novel, Pussy. I went to see him talk at Cambridge literary festival and picked up a copy but still haven’t got around to reading it. There is just such a lot of Donald Trump in my life right now that what I need is a little less.
From what I understand both of these books were written with a lot of immediacy. Jacobson talked about going to his desk in a fury after the US election to get on with his book, like he was trying to get the rawest form of his own reaction to events down on paper before it became diluted. There will be plenty of time for objective analysis, but you can only have your first reaction once.
So I was expecting Autumn to be a bit like this. An outward looking, political sort of a book. An angry product of an angry time. And there is some of that in it. There are little references to real events in the real world that are still fresh in the mind, indeed that are still actively ongoing, and will be for some time. But it isn’t entirely like that. The scope of a novel about a major political event is going to be broad and far reaching, but the scope of Autumn is narrower, focusing as much on the small events of one person’s life. Brexit lurks in the background like a sinister shadow looming over everything, rarely mentioned explicitly, while the story of an old friendship unfolds. It’s a beautiful novel, and deserving of its place on the Booker longlist.
I was thinking recently that you can possibly think of books as either being outward or inward looking. There’s lots of ways categorising books (fiction/non-fiction, genres etc) but that the separation of books by whether they are exploring the world or exploring the person might be useful. Whether politics is the point of the book, or psychoanalysis. Science or meditation. I’m still trying to figure this idea out, it’s still only hazily formed in my head, but I thought it might be a useful way to think about writing at the point of writing. In which direction are you facing when you start putting the words down on the page? Are you writing about the world, or what it is like to be in the world?
But Autumn is a novel that is successfully looking in both directions at once. A book that isn’t just about politics, but the impact of politics on people, and of the impact of people on politics. The big events that inform our little lives. The narrow focus against a wider backdrop.
On Facebook recently I saw someone post ‘Is it safe to come out yet, or is everyone still a politician?’ There has undoubtedly been an explosion of political discourse recently in the wake of some major political events. The UK’s In/Out referendum stirred up a lot of heated debate about some very emotive issues like immigration, NHS funding and sovereignty. So yeah, for a while Facebook did seem like it had become swamped with politicians. But you know what? In a democratic society we are all politicians. We should be engaged with these things, and we should be vocal about it because the issues at hand are big and hard to understand and we won’t get anywhere by politely keeping quiet about it all.
This week I read a book called Five Ideas To Fight For by Anthony Lester. The five ideas are Human Rights, Equality, Free Speech, Rule of Law and Privacy. Lester, a human rights lawyer and liberal democrat peer, goes over each of the five, giving a short historical account of the UK’s relationship with them and exploring the difficulties we seem to be having in maintaining them. Things that seem fundamental might be on shakier ground than we might think.
It’s not always easy to tell when change is for the better. Was the conservative policy of scrapping the European Courts Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights an improvement or a dangerous slide away from the protection of those rights? Where do you draw the line between free speech and hate speech? Is government authorised invasion of privacy justified by security risks? It takes a lot of information to actually arrive at a well-formed opinion on these sorts of questions, and unfortunately well-formed opinions are not always easy to come by.
Five Ideas To Fight For wants to refocus our political discourse. We talk about border control but we should be talking about human rights. We talk about benefits but we should be talking about equality. Don’t lose the heart of the issue by surrendering to the details. Don’t act rashly and then realise the value of the things we just threw away. Especially when a lot of those things were so hard-won in the first place.
Even though Lester’s alignment with the Liberal Democrats is evident throughout one things shines clear through the book; the core ideals that form the bedrock of a civilised, free-thinking society are not the property of any of the political parties. They are the standards by which the actions of politicians should be judged, (and in a democratic society we are all politicians). The question of where we draw the lines is important because those lines are where our principles and our values lie. Fighting to keep them when it would be easier to let them go is what integrity is all about.
This book is absolutely worth reading.
You can buy it at Waterstones
Or at Amazon
Also, one of the nicest things to come out of what is often quite a bleak book is the small insight it offers into the House of Lords. Mostly the Lords are characterised as a bunch of unelected old men who sleep through the afternoon and get in the way of parliament. Anthony Lester offers a glimpse into a place where getting in the way of parliament is often a good thing, and being unelected actually has some valuable qualities to it.