Last year, in Waterstone’s, I lifted a book, Slow Horses, by Mick Herron (unknown) – then quickly read every one of his 7 Slough House spy stories – hooked. Herron is candid: ”John Le Carre gave me permission to become a writer … He showed me you could invent an entire world”. So, Herron invented a place called Slough House, where ‘spooks’ who have ‘blundered’ in the mainstream secret service are exiled to mundane tasks. Naturally, each novel contrives to involve these ‘failures’ in some sort of proper spying.
The masterful world of Le Carre’s George Smiley, is set in the gloomy years of the Cold War, whereas Herron’s fictional universe is an expression of our own chaotic times – which he handles as farce; ‘a burlesque counterpoint to Le Carre’. One character – a loose-cannon MP with a floppy haircut and a bicycle – is happy to ally himself with the nationalist far-right, in pursuit of personal power. Herron doesn’t mince his words – there is anger at the Brexit lies and other govt manipulations.
This book series is known as the Jackson Lamb stories, after the veteran agent who presides. Lamb is obese in body; revolting in personal habits; gratuitously insulting in manner; but he is also a deadly super-spy – steps ahead of everyone. Herron characterises him as a manager, who remains, at heart, a field officer. “Jackson Lamb is motivated by self-loathing and has a dark past which I haven’t interrogated too closely”. But the writer has revealed enough of his offensive hero’s head and heart to build a substantial readership; I’m hooked.
In 1987, I was awarded a ‘fellowship’ to spend some weeks in the USA; I was looking at community development, but my lasting impression (shock) was the difference between black and white America. The TV and cinema they exported to Scotland was in deep denial of this racism. Whilst I respected and admired the ‘concept’ of the US – I became fearful that such ‘buried’ divisions would become increasingly ungovernable. On Saturday, Fintan O’Toole posted a piece, ‘Can Joe Biden Make America Great Again’; he suggests that as president, it will not be Biden’s skills as a fixer which matter – that it’s his private life – shadowed by darkness and loss – which could equip him as a ‘healer’.
I suspect we’ve only just begun to discover the eventual consequences of leaving the EU: Polly Toynbee focuses on the early disruption to trade and free movement (e.g. Scottish seafood). Paul Mason tries to discern where the UK Govt will make its international alliances from our new position of ‘unsplendid isolation’.
Covid-permitting, I will routinely go a wee drive for a fish and chips lunch, which with trimmings, will cost about £20. It’s upsetting to be reminded, this week, that for millions of fellow citizens on benefits – £20 can be the difference between ‘coping’ and not. Is there no political party that’s serious about equality. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.
In 1979, during the referendum for a devolved Scottish Parliament, Fintan O’Toole, staying with a friend in Renfrew, attended a public meeting; he reflects this week on the subsequent evolution of the SNP and independence movement. I particularly like this piece by George Kerevan about the imminent creation in Scotland of a non-party, national membership organisation – to now lead the independence movement; he references the Catalan National Assembly; the kind of open democracy a future Scotland should aspire to.
Nicola Sturgeon accepted this week, that her govt ‘should have done more, sooner’ about the ‘national disgrace’ of Scotland’s record drugs deaths. The new budget allocation of £50m annually is a sharp reversal of cuts to frontline services. BBC News article.
The silencing of Trump on social media has highlighted the authoritarian power of the Tech giants; we can’t have people who are not democratically accountable, deciding which speech is acceptable and which is not. I like John Naughton’s take on this – and his suggestions.
Passage from Fintan O’Toole’s Guardian article – 16th Jan 2021:
“His familiarity with the dark can be Biden’s great strength. In his own life, he has been there and come back. He knows that it cannot be denied, but that it can be transcended. He can invite America to encounter its own darkness – the legacy of slavery, the persistence of official and unofficial white supremacist violence, the failure to provide the access to education and healthcare necessary for the equal dignity of citizens – while reassuring its citizens that after such acknowledgement can come real change for the better”.