From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction

September 17th

Distraction from the catastrophic train-crash of our world-beatingly incompetent government’s Covid-testing programme being sorely needed, I stoically continue with the painstaking process of reading and correcting the proofs of Game of Stones, a novel I completed two years ago but delayed publishing.   I find I am pleased with some parts, less pleased with others, but only mildly frustrated that it is now too late to alter more than a couple of words here and there.   Because of the time lag since completing the final draft, I can look at it with relatively fresh eyes, remind myself what I was trying to do and make an at least half-detached assessment of whether I succeeded.

Before I was lured onto “the dark side” and joined the senior management of the University of Natal after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, I spent the first twenty years of my academic career in the English Department, initially teaching English but gradually managing to introduce more African Literature onto the curriculum.  I was particularly interested in, and most of my research focussed on, the generally covert ways in which fiction invites its readers to agree with the political and moral perspectives of its authors.  This is most obviously true of ‘popular fiction.’ In the 1970s and 1980s rather more white South Africans were reading, and having their race attitudes shaped by, Wilbur Smith than Dickens or Conrad.  My doctoral research focussed on the very different ways a variety of colonial and indigenous authors treated the 1950s “Mau Mau” emergency in their novels, partly because the race mythology around the revolt was heavily referenced in white race attitudes under apartheid.   There were four distinct groups of authors: metropolitan writers who used it to add exotic local colour to their stories; authors like Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley who used it to propagandise the generally profoundly racist Kenyan colonial settler view of the movement; and two distinct groups of post-Independence black Kenyan novelists who tried with varying success to counter the colonial mythology.   Many of my later publications in the last decade of apartheid were aimed at unpacking the extent of the racism and sexism being promoted by the hugely popular novels of writers like Wilbur Smith under cover of their skill as narrators of fast-moving and gripping story lines.    

Throughout the managerial half of my academic career I felt a lingering regret about the abandonment of academic research and teaching necessitated by the commitment to helping to manage the transformation of a large research-intensive university in the decade after the formal ending of apartheid.  So when I retired I thought it would be interesting to explore fiction from the writing, rather than the reading, end – very conscious of the medium’s power both to promote and to question political and other perspectives.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that the interest would need to be extended to the intricate ins and outs of the publishing industry, such as the copyright issue I elaborated on in my September 11th entry, in comparison with which the mere business of writing is comparative child’s play.   

Both my first novel, Despite the Darkness, and the sequel, Game of Stones, explore the interface between fact and fiction.  The action of the former takes place in the months immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency in South Africa in 1985, with the fictional action being set very precisely in its apartheid historical context and geographical location in Pietermaritzburg and incorporating some non-fictional personal experience of secret police harassment.  Game of Stones is set in Sheffield twenty-three years later and ties up the loose ends deliberately left with a sequel in mind.   Perhaps ‘exploring’ the interface between fact and fiction is too seriously academic-sounding a description of what I was doing in writing the sequel – ‘playing around at the edges’ of the interface might capture what I was doing rather better.   So, although some of the subject matter the novel touches on is, again, very precisely located historically, and very dark – historical events don’t get a whole lot darker than the Rwandan genocide or the Hillsborough disaster, the novel plays with authorial identity.   The plot of this novel has none of the relatively limited  autobiographical elements informing the first one, but one of the key moments in the plot hinges on the police having hacked the main character, Cameron’s, computer and read a chapter he has written giving an account of the notorious Forest Gate police raid in 2006.  The chapter, carefully researched and footnoted, which appears as an appendix to the novel, has been written as a chapter for a book Cameron is preparing titled The Age of Overreaction.  As it happens, the first project I embarked on after my retirement was the writing of a book titled The Age of Overreaction, whose putative contents page was destined to feature a chapter on Forest Gate.  I decided that writing fiction would be more interesting and could be fun, and gave up on that project, but decided that, if most fiction is in one way or another a recycling of fact, that particular chapter could be usefully recycled as an addendum to fiction.  Writing fiction, however serious, is a kind of play, and I enjoy playing with words – so, as I grind through the proof reading, I recall and recapture some of the enjoyment I derived from playing around as I wrote it, and don’t bother that it isn’t destined for fame and fortune.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Conspiracy theories

April 14th

Times of heightened stress and anxiety are, we are told, breeding grounds for rumours, fantasies and conspiracy theories.  In my time at different universities I had to deal at examination time with groups of students manifesting a range of different examples of this, from anxiety about a ghost stalking the corridors of a student residence, to students convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that there was a serial rapist on campus. Entirely justified anxieties about the Covid-19 pandemic have, predictably enough, bred their own conspiracy theories.  The most notable of these is the absurd notion that the disease was deliberately engineered in China and is not being propagated by a virus but via the signals from 5G masts.  Fed and watered on social media, recently given credence by Eamon Holmes on ITV, the moral panic fostered by this conspiracy theory has led to assaults on telecommunication workers and damage to masts.

I heard the 5G theory rightly being dismissed as “incredibly stupid” by two scientists on Radio 4 this morning, with a bluntness that I have not as yet heard being applied by our over-deferential media to our prime minister’s demonstration of anti-Covid-19 leadership via the shaking of victims’ hands.  But one of the most insidious features of conspiracy theories is that the more they are debunked by people who know what they are talking about, the easier it becomes for the people who don’t know what they are talking about to say “well, they would say that wouldn’t they”, and thereby co-opt the debunking as evidence of the truth of the conspiracy theory.  The more “establishment” the officials denying the conspiracy are seen to be, the more oxygen, to use a currently pertinent cliché, the theory gets.

It would be easy enough for anyone with nothing better to do under lockdown to make a few dodgy connections and overstretched deductions and come up with a conspiracy theory to float on social media.  So, for example, what happened to that vaguely genocidal idea of ‘herd immunity’ floated by scientific experts early in the pandemic and allegedly favoured by Svengali Cummings?  What, for that matter, has happened to Cummings, last seen (as far as we know) running away from Downing Street accompanied by his backpack?  ‘Herd immunity’, involving allowing 60% people to develop immunity by contracting the virus, was apparently dismissed as unacceptable to the public. It would have seen swathes of elderly and vulnerable people no longer being a burden to an economy that will take a very long time to recover, even with a boost like that.  So, the conspiracy theory would go, how do we know Svengali isn’t locked away somewhere cunningly orchestrating the same outcome for the elderly?  Why aren’t the statistics of deaths of elderly people in our care homes, in particular, and the community more generally being collected and published in the same way as the hospital statistics?  Why, allegedly, are death certificates not accurately reflecting the Covid-19 effect?  Why are the carers in care-homes not being supplied with adequate personal protective equipment?  Is it surprising that so many elderly people are dying?

The questions are mostly, individually, legitimate questions.  Link them together like that and you have the makings of a conspiracy theory that might well, if it were to be put out on Facebook, gain significant traction.  And the more it was denied by those in a position to engineer the allegedly sought-after outcome, the more truth it would perversely be credited with.  As my novel Despite the Darkness explores in some depth, you can’t prove a negative.   But such a corralling of disparate factors into a coherent conspiracy theory would, of course, be nonsense, even as it makes a perverse kind of sense.  Apart from anything else, it would demand a level of co-ordination, competence and organizational ability that is, all too obviously, lamentably lacking in our present government.   But it would still be interesting to know what Cummings is doing these days.