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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson – review

Consider the Fork, books The discovery of fire, writes Wilson, marks the moment when 'upright apes became more fully human'. Photograph: Alamy

Early on in this fascinating history of the kitchen, Bee Wilson ponders the possibility that there was, thousands of years ago, a single man who discovered for the first time that food could be transformed by fire. If such a man had existed he would not only have started off the entire history of cooking, but he would also have been responsible for altering our very physiology. Wilson, quoting anthropologist Richard Wrangham, explains how the discovery of fire marks the decisive moment where "upright apes became more fully human", providing, through a more balanced and nourishing diet, "a dull human body with a brilliant human mind".

Wilson's book seems light-hearted at first glance but through its deep inquiry into our changing relationship with food and cooking, throws light on the evolution and development of humanity itself. Effortlessly and elegantly, Wilson shows us, through discussion of spoons, forks, fridges and hobs, how the entire history of our species can be navigated in a journey around the kitchen.

Wilson takes us down almost all possible routes in her exploration of kitchen-related invention, from the earliest knives and pots to futuristic "smart fridges" with Wi-Fi and Twitter feeds. In an especially enlightening passage, she explains the emergence of the overbite in our anatomy as correlating with the development of blunt, non-corrosive table cutlery in the 18th century (a development that reduced the amount of cutting and chewing done at meal-times, eliminating the need for teeth that could "cut" for us).

Despite the fascinating content, however, Wilson's witty, colloquial style can sometimes feel forced (as, say, in the comparison between a medieval knife and Harry Potter's wand) and occasionally gets in the way of the otherwise concise narrative. But this remains both a poignant history and a reflective study of how we live today; modern kitchens, despite their "hard, chilly lines", are "filled with ghosts" of the inventors and engineers that have influenced the way we cook through history. No matter how futuristic our appliances, the act of cooking will for ever be "an old, old thing: using the transformative power of fire to make things taste better".

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hello and Goodbye by Patrick McCabe – review

mccabe hello and goodbye Master of Irish gothic: Patrick McCabe. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Hello and Goodbye contains two gothic novels in a single volume. They share a common trait: the narrators of both books are already dead.

Hello Mr Bones is narrated by Balthazar Bowen. In a former life this dashing aristocrat had befriended Valentine Shannon, a boy from a small village in the west of Ireland. Their relationship ended back in 1969 when Valentine accused his older friend of interfering with him. Faced with disgrace, Balthazar drove his car into a lake. His evil spirit presently lurks on the streets of London, seeking revenge from Valentine – now a 42-year-old virgin who is in love with a single mother called Christine Taylor.

McCabe's main protagonist, who takes on several personae – but usually goes by the name of Mr Bones – embodies a creepiness that will send shivers down your spine.

But depraved tales of child abuse, murder and gratuitous violence are subtly implied by the cunning narrator, rather than directly presented on the page. This is done through wacky, sinister phrases like "collywobbles jingle bobs" and "It's a bad day for us but a good day for doggies!"

In Goodbye Mr Rat we meet Gabriel King, a former IRA volunteer who became an informer and then fled to America, where he met Beni Banikin, a lesbian Amish writer from Indiana. Soon afterwards, Gabriel died from prostate cancer. In accordance with his final wishes, Beni brings Gabriel's ashes back to a small village in Ireland to be scattered.

It's at this stage of the story that McCabe descends into farce mode: Gabriel witnesses his own mock funeral, where former Republican comrades pay their respects by stamping his ashes on to the carpet of the local pub, and drunkenly bid farewell with abusive remarks like "Goodbye Mr Rat!" and "Goodbye fucker!"

Details of both novels are laid out in hoodwinks, sly remarks and warped sexual innuendoes, rather than a plot line of the conventional sort.

Over his distinguished career, McCabe has probably written too much fiction for his own good. Sometimes this has damaged his reputation. But this latest offering is a rewarding experience which sees the master of the Irish gothic genre return to his best form in years.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale – review

Evening clouds at twilight 'Things are easier at night' … images of deep, quiet water abound in The Bone Dragon. Photograph: Liam Grant Photography/Alamy

"People get it wrong when they talk about innocence," says Evie, the narrator of Alexia Casale's tremendous first novel. "They think it's something to do with ignorance about the facts of sex and all the nasty things that happen in the world. But facts don't change people: it's understanding how the facts feel that does."

Analysing Hamlet for English GCSE (Evie has little patience for the Danish prince's dithering) is nothing compared to the self-reflection she needs to deal with the emotional fallout from abuse. Evie leads us towards the heart of her darkness via narrative techniques that echo her fragile state of mind. Drawn inexorably to her past, she is nevertheless unable to look at it directly; instead, she protects her secrets like a dragon protects its hoard. She constantly withholds information, prepared to seed clues, but won't commit to full disclosure. The reader, like Evie, must make sense of her early years using only those fragments that rise from the deep – and those she can bring herself to share. "Some things should never be said … If you name the mist … you turn it solid, into something that no one should ever hold in their hands."

The novel opens with Evie waking from an operation on her damaged ribcage. When the surgeon presents her with a piece of her rib, she makes a necklace from it, carving the pendant into the shape of a dragon. For years she has been surrounded by loving, decent people (against whom she constantly judges herself): her protective adoptive parents; a fun-loving uncle; supportive friends; and an English teacher who seems to understand the feeling of "deep, dull, constant pain". What she suffered, however, remains buried. Evie gives short shrift to people who think they can advise a victim on something they haven't themselves experienced. Her two counsellors "got it as wrong as people can get it". It is the eponymous dragon who leads Evie back to where she does not want to go – and for a purpose yet to be determined.

This is neither fantasy nor magic realism. Beautifully evoked, the bone dragon is willed into existence by a tormented soul in need of help. He moves, says Evie, "with sinuous grace, winding down my arm and sitting on the back of my hand, tail curled around my little finger, possessive and warm". His character is imperious, his utterances cryptic. He tells her she is meant to heal, that "the keystone of our contract is that you should only understand as much as is to your benefit. You must trust."

In a series of haunting sequences, girl and dragon escape into the moonlit Fens. "Are you nocturnal?" Evie asks. "Let us simply say that many things are easier at night," the dragon replies. Images of cleansing fire and deep, quiet water abound, the night and swirling mists working as a perfect metaphor in the context of Evie's quest.

Weaving the central story with subplots involving bullying and a fatal car accident, Casale barely missteps. Dark, with unexpected twists and a strong – if disturbing – ending, the narrative has a relentless emotional charge. "I have come to you so that you will be free," says the bone dragon, in an outstanding debut that vividly portrays the power and fragility of the human heart and mind.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Beatles: All These Years, Volume One – Tune In by Mark Lewisohn – review

Photo of Tony SHERIDAN and BEATLES Early days: George Harrison and John Lennon on stage with Tony Sheridan (far right) in Hamburg, circa 1960. Photograph: Ellen Piel/ K & K/ Redferns

Whether or not the Beatles were bigger than Jesus remains a moot point. But that hasn't stopped seasoned Beatles writer Mark Lewisohn penning what is shaping up to be the bible of all things Fab – a three-volume definitive history.

Lewisohn is an all-knowing figure; the subject's foremost authority, a super-fan with skills beyond hyperventilation. Tune In, the first volume, has all the heft of the Old Testament, with greater forensic rigour. It is a hugely old-fashioned brick of a book, written (and priced) for a baby boomer generation who – like babies, perhaps – quite enjoy being told the same story for the umpteenth time. Beginning well before the beginning, this edition of Tune In runs to 946 pages of social, local and personal histories, interspersed with exhaustive explications of the wider forces and happenstance surrounding the Beatles' genesis. There is a whole page on the British money system, pre-1971; equally, Lewisohn often points up the casual sexism of the age, in which even the doe-eyed nice boy Paul McCartney indulged. His girlfriend Dot Rhone describes how she and Cynthia Powell, girlfriend of John Lennon, were forbidden to talk about music in company. Poor Elvis got called up, but the Beatles escaped national service by a whisker, a fact that is well-known, but whose significance is huge.

The sins of all their forefathers are covered in detail going back a couple of generations. We probably all knew the acerbic John Lennon could be a bastard, as cruel as he was witty, but Lewisohn uncovers interesting levels of illegitimacy in many of these often part-Irish Catholic families. In fact, they're not even called the Beatles until 300 pages in; Ringo doesn't actually join until around page 700. This is the story of the Beatles as schoolboys, of Lennon and McCartney "sagging off" to write in secret at Aunt Mimi's, of the latest rock'n'roll and R&B cuts, and of lost virginities, of Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best and Hamburg, of the "Piedels" – the German mispronunciation of Beatles, the Penises – on "prellies" (Preludin, the upper guzzled by many in the cellar clubs), ripping it up on the Reeperbahn. Sometimes, these famous men really seem like motherless children – both McCartney and Lennon lose their mothers in their teens and this huge, shared loss is given sensitive and apposite emphasis. Deaths, desertions and departures are key to the story.

Lewisohn's analysis of early rock'n'roll here lacks, perhaps, the hipster swing of a Greil Marcus. This is a textbook; but that is no barrier to enjoyment. There are academic-style endnotes, in which virtually every statement is substantiated by a primary or secondary source, and footnotes on minutiae – such as how many different ways Mersey Beat, the local scene's paper, misspelled "McCartney" in 1961. The detail extends to Jim McCartney asking his son Paul whether his bowels have moved on the day he sets off for Hamburg.

It is, in short, a work of scholarship that borders on the obsessive; a work made slightly easier, you imagine, by Lewisohn's previous Beatles publication, The Beatles: 25 Years in the Life (1987), in which the author practically stalked the Fabs in real time, figuring out exactly where they all were, and what they were doing, on any given day. There is the temptation, too, to imagine that All These Years is the Gospel according to Paul, even though a song on McCartney's latest album, Early Days, rolls its eyes at pop historiographers. "Now everybody seems to have their own opinion/ Of who did this and who did that," he warbles, "but as for me I don't see how they can remember/ When they weren't where it was at."

Although Lewisohn maintains that his is not an authorised biography, he has been working from within the tent, so to speak, for years. He has been employed by EMI and Apple Corps and written liner notes for McCartney albums. That said, there are no new interviews with either McCartney or Ringo Starr; Tune In relies on every other imaginable source, not least Neil Aspinall, the band's roadie-turned-manager. And McCartney's own frailties do not go unexamined. For all their musical heroics, every Beatle ends up having plenty of clay on his feet.

In the publicity materials for Tune In, Lewisohn asks us to "scrub what we know, and start again", implying that his is a fresh take on the Beatles, illuminated by deep research, over-turning received opinions, digging out unexamined truths. Ultimately, that is not quite what he achieves. The people and milieux that spring from these pages remain, largely, as we previously knew them: the core of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, sharing in-jokes and a taste for hard-to-find vinyl and black leather; George Martin, a fellow comedy aficionado with the studio skills to bottle their magic and the courage to give this unruly, untried band their heads. It is the breadth and scope of Lewisohn's endeavour that are unparalleled, the knowledge that the young Lennon and McCartney take two buses to some guy's house who is rumoured to know a B7 chord. According to an interview with Danny Baker, Lewisohn anticipates the next tome will be along in five or six years – just enough time, at a push, to digest this momentous first volume.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Eartha Kitt's life was scarred by failure to learn the identity of her white father, says daughter

Eartha Kitt on TV Eartha Kitt in a TV series in 1975 during her stay in Britain. Photograph: ITV/REX

Eartha Kitt's daughter has revealed that the singer died without knowing the identity of her white father, after being denied the truth by officials in the American Deep South.

Kitt's extraordinary life and elusive past has come under the spotlight five years after her death, with publication of a biography called America's Mistress: Eartha Kitt, Her Life and Times by British journalist John Williams.

The world-famous singer came from a dirt-poor background and only found out her date of birth when she was 71. But according to her daughter, Kitt Shapiro, who chose not to co-operate with the biography, when Eartha launched a legal fight to gain access to the birth certificate she fell victim to a cover-up by officials. The singer, who died in 2008, wept when she set eyes on the certificate in 1998, only to find that her father's name had been blacked out, said Shapiro, her only child, who had accompanied her mother. Shapiro said in an interview with the Observer: "My mother was 71 at the time and it was approaching the 21st century, and yet they were still protecting the name of the father even though he was clearly dead. They were protecting the white man because they would not have gone to that trouble to protect a black man. The courts still held it as legal to withhold the documentation. We were amazed. My mother assumed it was their dirty little secret."

Once called the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles, Kitt became a singer and dancer whose suggestive and sensuous performances captured the public imagination in the 1950s. Her former lover Charles Revson, the billionaire founder of Revlon cosmetics, even created a lipstick for her, calling it Fire and Ice. In the 1960s she made the role of Catwoman her own when she became the first black woman to achieve mainstream TV success in America with Batman, even breaking racial taboos by flirting on screen with Adam West in the lead role.

Much of Kitt's background remained shrouded in mystery, with the performer convinced that her date of birth was 26 January 1926. Born in the tiny hamlet of St Matthew's, South Carolina, Kitt's mother, Annie Mae Keitt, abandoned her daughter at an early age when she found a new man with little time for the light-skinned Eartha.

Shapiro, who now lives in Connecticut, said: "In 1927, to be a light- skinned black person in the South was just as horrible as being a black person in the white South. My mother was not accepted by the black community.

"She never found out her father's name, but always assumed he was white. My mother was referred to as a 'yellow gal', which was not a compliment. It meant someone who thought they were better than everyone else even though my mother was just a child at the time. She was horribly abused in the South. She was beaten, mistreated, emotionally and physically."

Eartha Kitt was taken in by a relative called Aunt Rosa, but far from finding sanctuary fell victim to her abusive relative and from a young age was obliged to earn her keep by picking cotton. But the horror did not end there because she witnessed the death of her mother when she was around seven years old.

Shapiro, 51, said: "She was convinced her mother was poisoned. My mother remembered being brought to her mother who was dying and a baby was passed over her mother's body. My mother's interpretation was that this was because the death was not natural: it was voodoo. It was spiritual."

Soon after her mother's death, Kitt was sent to live with another relative in New York, where she would later win a place with America's first black modern dance company, run by Katherine Dunham. During the company's tour to Paris and London, Kitt broke away to make a solo career and Britain would become a second home for Kitt and her daughter. But it was only when Kitt was invited to give a speech at Benedict College in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, in 1997 that the singer managed to come to terms with her original home.

Shapiro said: "It was like much of my mother's life: it was just a case of a door opening. She was invited to speak at this college and I went down with her. During the speech someone asked her about her background and parents since she was from the area. My mother said that she had tried to find her birth certificate during the 1950s but was unsuccessful.

"She said if anyone can find it, then she would be most grateful. So the kids found some information that eventually led us going back down to the South."

She added: "We had to get a lawyer and petition the court to get the records opened and this took about six to seven months. We flew down to see the records but were allowed just 15 minutes … She was very nervous and outside the judge's chambers she went quiet. She was visibly nervous about what she was going to see. I knew the signs because before she went on stage she was always terrified. It was a female judge who stepped aside while we read the records on her desk. The father's name was blacked out. My mother shed a few tears and then the 15 minutes was up."

Williams claims that Kitt's father was Daniel Sturkie, a local white doctor. But Shapiro said: "I do remember the name because we were told they were one of the local white families, but I cannot recall whether it was suggested he was the father. There were a lot of names."

Shapiro, who worked for her mother for more than 20 years, believes that this failure to find out her mother's origins explains her tortured relationship with the South and her own identity. "My mother never really felt comfortable in her own skin because she never really knew who she was until then. She did not even know how old she was. She had always put 26 January 1926 on her passport, but actually she was born on 17 January 1927."

Kitt became a leading light in the civil rights movement in the 1960s but when she condemned the Vietnam war on a visit to the White House her career in the US ended and the CIA branded her "a sadistic nymphomaniac". By then Kitt had divorced the father of her daughter, Bill McDonald, who was a white businessman and wounded Korean war veteran addicted to painkillers, and mother and daughter moved to London to relaunch her career in Europe. Shapiro said: "We lived in Knightsbridge and later Fulham. I went to school in London and spent many a year in England. My mother regarded England as a second home."

In 2008 Kitt died on Christmas Day at her US home after being diagnosed with colon cancer. Now her daughter has set up a business called Simply Eartha in her mother's memory, as well as managing her estate. She said: "She carried the scar of her rejection with her all her life. She was rejected for the colour of her skin ironically by both black and white.

"To some extent, I think my arrival completed her because it gave her a family that she never had."

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tell Me About It by Sue Limb - review

This book is about a little girl, Ruby, who goes on holiday. She meets another girl, Sasha.They have a big fall out. While all this was happening Ruby was learning to swim.

There are two main characters, Ruby and Sasha. Ruby is a happy lively girl who loves monkeys. Sasha is quite snappy and sharp and always wants her own way.

I like this book because it is funny and fun to read. I also like it because it isn't too long. I don't like this book because it has bad language in some parts. The illustrations in this book are very cartoon-like. They are also fun to look at.

Others should read this book because it is funny. I recommend this book for 7 or over.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

OFM awards 2013 best cookbook: Jerusalem

In the Middle East, there are few more contentious food issues than hummus. Lebanon, Israel and Egypt all lay claim to the best recipe.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the co-authors of Jerusalem, are well aware of the so-called "hummus wars". The two of them grew up in different parts of the city, Ottolenghi in Jewish West Jerusalem, Tamimi, a Palestinian, in East Jerusalem, and their book contains an entire section on hummus. So, when I meet them it's only natural to ask whose is the best. They laugh, a tad uneasily. "Probably Sami's," Ottolenghi, 44, says. "It's thicker in his blood." Tamimi, 45, gives a satisfied smile.

In 1997 both independently moved to London and found themselves working at the boutique bakery Baker & Spice. Did they know immediately they were kindred spirits? "That is perhaps a bit strong," says Ottolenghi, leaning back on a high bar stool, his long legs almost touching the ground."A friend of ours said that, back then, I was kind of hard to get to know," says Tamimi. He is the more quietly spoken one and he answers questions shyly, as though slightly embarrassed to be asked his opinion. "I think what connected us from the beginning was that we both came from the same place, spoke the same language." Ottolenghi waits for him to finish speaking before responding: they have the most delightfully respectful manner with each other. "We had a lot in common," says Ottolenghi. "Our friendship evolved because we were working together. it just took time."

Ottolenghi's previous book, Plenty, won OFM's best cookbook two years ago. Jerusalem was a different prospect: the idea came from Noam Bar, Ottolenghi and Tamimi's business partner, who suggested it was time for a more personal project, looking back at the food that had shaped them.

"We were sceptical," says Ottolenghi. "There were too many emotions," adds Tamimi. "It [Jerusalem] is a difficult place to live. There is a lot of conflict."

Ottolenghi adds: "There's a lot of history, a lot of religion on your shoulders."

But then they began researching the recipes: roast chicken with clementines, chermoula aubergine and sumac-spiced fatoush inspired by Tamimi's mother.

"Suddenly you started to understand how multilayered the food culture is," says Ottolenghi. "I grew up in the Old City and it's kind of divided, each quarter has its own food, although they go and buy from some markets in different quarters."

The wonderful thing about Jerusalem is its passion for cross-cultural pollination, resulting in food that transcends those invisible yet entrenched divisions.

"Food is a powerful thing," says Tamimi. Ottolenghi nods. "People can sit around a table and…"

Tamimi completes the sentence: "It gives people hope."

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Marinaleda: Spain's communist model village

Workers in the Olive groves of El Humoso, Marinaleda Workers in the Olive groves of El Humoso, Marinaleda. Photograph: Dave Stelfox

In 2004, I was leafing through a travel guide to Andalusia while on holiday in Seville, and read a fleeting reference to a small, remote village called Marinaleda – "a communist utopia" of revolutionary farm labourers, it said. I was immediately fascinated, but I could find almost no details to feed my fascination. There was so little information about the village available beyond that short summary, either in the guidebook, on the internet, or on the lips of strangers I met in Seville. "Ah yes, the strange little communist village, the utopia," a few of them said. But none of them had visited, or knew anyone who had – and no one could tell me whether it really was a utopia. The best anyone could do was to add the information that it had a charismatic, eccentric mayor, with a prophet's beard and an almost demagogic presence, called Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo.

Eventually I found out more. The first part of Marinaleda's miracle is that when its struggle to create utopia began, in the late 1970s, it was from a position of abject poverty. The village was suffering more than 60% unemployment; it was a farming community with no land, its people frequently forced to go without food for days at a time, in a period of Spanish history mired in uncertainty after the death of the fascist dictator General Franco. The second part of Marinaleda's miracle is that over three extraordinary decades, it won. Some distance along that remarkable journey of struggle and sacrifice, in 1985, Sánchez Gordillo told the newspaper El País: "We have learned that it is not enough to define utopia, nor is it enough to fight against the reactionary forces. One must build it here and now, brick by brick, patiently but steadily, until we can make the old dreams a reality: that there will be bread for all, freedom among citizens, and culture; and to be able to read with respect the word 'peace '. We sincerely believe that there is no future that is not built in the present."

As befits a rebel, Sánchez Gordillo is fond of quoting Che Guevara; specifically Che's maxim that "only those who dream will someday see their dreams converted to reality". In one small village in southern Spain, this isn't just a T-shirt slogan.

In spring 2013 unemployment in Andalusia is a staggering 36%; for those aged 16 to 24, the figure is above 55% – figures worse even than the egregious national average. The construction industry boom of the 2000s saw the coast cluttered with cranes and encouraged a generation to skip the end of school and take the €40,000-a-year jobs on offer on the building sites. That work is gone, and nothing is going to replace it. With the European Central Bank looming ominously over his shoulder, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has introduced labour reforms to make it much easier for businesses to sack their employees, quickly and with less compensation, and these new laws are now cutting swaths through the Spanish workforce, in private and public sectors alike.

Spain experienced a massive housing boom from 1996 to 2008. The price of property per square metre tripled in those 12 years: its scale is now tragically reflected in its crisis. Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008. Again, it is especially acute in the south: 40 families a day in Andalusia have been turfed out of their homes by the banks. To make matters worse, under Spanish housing law, when you're evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn't the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common – on more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.

When people refer to la crisis in Spain they mean the eurozone crisis, an economic crisis; but the term means more than that. It is a systemic crisis, a political ecology crack'd from side to side: a crisis of seemingly endemic corruption across the country's elites, including politicians, bankers, royals and bureaucrats, and a crisis of faith in the democratic settlement established after the death of Franco in 1975. A poll conducted by the (state-run) centre for sociological research in December 2012 found that 67.5% of Spaniards said they were unhappy with the way their democracy worked. It's this disdain for the Spanish state in general, rather than merely the effects of the economic crisis, that brought 8 million indignados on to the streets in the spring and summer of 2011, and informed their rallying cry "Democracia Real Ya" (real democracy now).

Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinaleda, attending a protest in Seville. Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, mayor of Marinaleda, attending a protest in Seville. Photograph: Dave Stelfox

But in one village in Andalusia's wild heart, there lies stability and order. Like Asterix's village impossibly holding out against the Romans, in this tiny pueblo a great empire has met its match, in a ragtag army of boisterous upstarts yearning for liberty. The bout seems almost laughably unfair – Marinaleda's population is 2,700, Spain's is 47 million – and yet the empire has lost, time and time again.

In 1979, at the age of 30, Sánchez Gordillo became the first elected mayor of Marinaleda, a position he has held ever since – re-elected time after time with an overwhelming majority. However, holding official state-sanctioned positions of power was only a distraction from the serious business of la lucha – the struggle. In the intense heat of the summer of 1980, the village launched "a hunger strike against hunger" which brought them national and even global recognition. Everything they have done since that summer has increased the notoriety of Sánchez Gordillo and his village, and added to their admirers and enemies across Spain.

Sánchez Gordillo's philosophy, outlined in his 1980 book Andaluces, Levantaos and in countless speeches and interviews since, is one which is unique to him, though grounded firmly in the historic struggles and uprisings of the peasant pueblos of Andalusia, and their remarkably deep-seated tendency towards anarchism. These communities are striking for being against all authority. "I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian," Sánchez Gordillo said in an interview in 2011, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.

In August 2012 he achieved a new level of notoriety for a string of actions that began, in 40C heat, with the occupation of military land, the seizure of an aristocrat's palace, and a three-week march across the south in which he called on his fellow mayors not to repay their debts. Its peak saw Sánchez Gordillo lead a series of expropriations from supermarkets, along with fellow members of the left-communist trade union SOC-SAT. They marched into supermarkets and took bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves. For this he became a superstar, appearing not only on the cover of Spanish newspapers, but in the world's media, as "the Robin Hood mayor", "the Don Quixote of the Spanish crisis", or "Spain's William Wallace", depending on which newspaper you read.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda. A socialist mural in Marinaleda. Photograph: Dave Stelfox

In the darkness of a winter morning, between 6 and 7am, Marinaleda's workers are clustered around the counter of the orange-painted patisserie Horno el Cedazo. Here they stand, knocking back strong, dark coffee accompanied by orange juice, pastries and pan con tomate: truly one of the world's best breakfasts, a large hunk of toast served alongside a bottle of olive oil and a decanter of sweet, salty, pink tomato pulp. Pour on one, then the other, then a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and you are ready for a day in the fields. Those with stronger stomachs also knock back a shot of one of the lurid-coloured liqueurs arrayed on a high shelf behind the counter; the syrupy, pungent anís is the most popular of these coffee chasers. All work in the Marinaleda co-operative in shifts, depending on what needs harvesting, and how much of it there is. If there's enough work for your group, then you will be told in advance, through the loudspeaker on the van that circles the village in the evenings. It's a strange, quasi-Soviet experience, sitting at home and hearing the van drive past announcing: "Work in the fields tomorrow for group B". The static-muffled announcements get louder and then quieter as the van winds through the village's narrow streets, like someone lost in a maze carrying a transistor radio.

When the 1,200-hectare El Humoso farm was finally won in 1991 – awarded to the village by the regional government following a decade of relentless occupations, strikes and appeals – cultivation began. The new Marinaleda co-operative selected crops that would need the greatest amount of human labour, to create as much work as possible. In addition to the ubiquitous olives and the oil-processing factory, they planted peppers of various kinds, artichokes, fava beans, green beans, broccoli: crops that could be processed, canned, and jarred, to justify the creation of a processing factory that provided a secondary industry back in the village, and thus more employment. "Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs," Sánchez Gordillo explained to me. This philosophy runs directly counter to the late-capitalist emphasis on "efficiency" – a word that has been elevated to almost holy status in the neoliberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.

Sánchez Gordillo once suggested to me that the aristocratic family of the House of Alba could invest its vast riches (from shares in banks and power companies to multimillion-euro agricultural subsidies for its vast tracts of land) to create jobs, but had never shown any interest in doing so. "We believe the land should belong to the community that works it, and not in the dead hands of the nobility." That's why the big landowners planted wheat, he explained – wheat could be harvested with a machine, overseen by a few labourers; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes were chosen precisely because they needed lots of labour. Why, the logic runs, should "efficiency" be the most important value in society, to the detriment of human life?

The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is reinvested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, €47 (£40) a day for six and a half hours of work: it may not sound like a lot, but it's more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Participation in decisions about what crops to farm, and when, is encouraged, and often forms the focus of the village's general assemblies – in this respect, being a cooperativista means being an important part of the functioning of the pueblo as a whole. Where once the day labourers of Andalusia were politically and socially marginalised by their lack of an economic stake in their pueblo, they are now – at least in Marinaleda – called upon to lead the way. Non-co-operativists are by no means excluded from involvement in the town's political, social and cultural life – it's more that if you are a part of the co-operative, you can't avoid being swept up in local activities outside the confines of the working day.

Private enterprise is permitted in the village – perhaps more importantly, it is still an accepted part of life. As with the seven privately owned bars and cafés in the village (the Sindicato bar is owned by the union), if you wanted to open a pizzeria or a little family business of any kind, no one would stand in your way. But if a hypothetical head of regional development and franchising for, say, Carrefour, or Starbucks, with a vicious sense of humour and a masochistic streak, decided this small village was the perfect spot to expand operations, well – they wouldn't get very far. "We just wouldn't allow it," Sánchez Gordillo told me bluntly.

Marinaleda's alternative is decades in the making, but other anti-capitalist alternatives are sprouting in the cracks of the Spanish crisis, in the form of numerous quotidian acts of resistance, not just strikes and protests, but everyday behaviour – the occupation of vacant new-builds by those made homeless by their banks, firemen refusing to evict penniless families, doctors refusing to turn away undocumented immigrants. There is also a new Marinaleda-style farming co-operative in Somonte, a collective farm established on occupied government land in 2012, only an hour or so's drive from the village. When I visited Somonte earlier this year, I met Marinaleños who had left their home to bring Sanchez Gordillo's message of "land belongs to those who work it" to new terrain.

When I visited in February this year, a young man called Román strode bare-chested through the endless fields to greet us, looking strong but tired – they work from dawn until dusk, stopping only to dip into much-needed cauldrons full of pasta, rice and bean stews; surplus vegetables are sold on market day in nearby towns. They were growing beans, pimentos, potatoes and cabbages when I visited, planting trees and trying to resuscitate 400 hectares of idle land – as best they could, with only two dozen pairs of hands. Paradoxically, in light of Spain's staggering unemployment figures, they still need more people to join their co-operative, and have more farmland than they can currently cultivate. One of the murals painted on the Somonte barn wall contained a telling slogan, alongside portraits of Malcolm X, Geronimo and Zapata: "Andalusians, don't emigrate, fight! The land is yours: recover it!" It's a message cried somewhat into the void, as thousands of young Spaniards scurry down the brain drain to Britain, Germany, France and beyond.

But Somonte is not without support. Hundreds of people have visited at weekends or for short stays, from Madrid, Seville and many from overseas, bringing their labour and other resources, to help with the land, to build infrastructure or paint murals, donating secondhand farming equipment, furniture and kitchenware. As we strolled past a small collection of chickens and goats, Florence, a French woman who had been living in Marinaleda before joining the "new struggle" in Somonte, explained that the land was some of the most fertile in Spain, but had for decades been used by the government to grow corn, to bring in European subsidies – it created next to no work, and no produce; the corn was left to rot. Those 400 wasted hectares were about to be auctioned off privately by the government when the Andalusian Workers' Union turned up in March 2012; they occupied it, were evicted by 200 riot police, and in true Marinaleda style, returned the next day to start again. The auction never took place. Somonte is now 18 months old, growing slowly but steadily, and is the kind of Marinaleda domino effect that the crisis may yet bring more of.

No one ever forgets "that strange and moving experience" of believing in a revolution, as George Orwell reflected after arriving in Barcelona on the brink of civil war to a society fizzing with energy as it fleetingly experienced living communism. Marinaleda is neither fully communist nor fully a utopia: but take a step outside the pueblo and into contemporary Spain, and you will see a society pummelled, impoverished and atomised, pulled into death and destruction by an economic system and a political class who seem not to care whether the poor live or die. Sánchez Gordillo's achievements are more than just the concrete gains of land, housing, sustenance and culture, phenomenal though they are: being there is a strange and moving experience, and, as Orwell suggested, an unforgettable one.

In the eight or so years I have known about Marinaleda, I have sometimes had to remind myself of the gap between the grandiose claims made about the village, by left and right alike, and the humble size and intimacy of the place itself. It is a village which means so much to so many people, across the world; but it has only 2,700 inhabitants, and whole hours can pass in which the only noise emanates from a motorcycle speeding down Avenida de la Libertad, or the vocal exercises of a particularly enervated rooster.

It is both poignant and appropriate that Sánchez Gordillo seems to see no bathos, or discrepancy, in devoting as much attention and passion to the local specifics of the pueblo – the need to start planting artichokes this month, not pimentos – as he does to the big picture, persuading the world that only an end to capitalism will restore dignity to the lives of billions.

The indignado movement had informed not just Spain, but the world, that millions of Spaniards were unwilling to brook the crisis. They were desperately looking for an alternative to the current system – and yet, in their midst, there was already one in operation. Faced with the massed ranks protesting in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, in Wall Street in New York, and outside St Paul's Cathedral in London, the damning questions rang out from conservatives and liberals: "What's your alternative? What's your programme? How would it work in practice?"

They may have ignored the village before, or dismissed it with a chuckle as a rural curiosity run by a bearded eccentric; but they can do so no longer. "What's your alternative?' bark the dogs of capitalist realism. Increasingly, the indignados are able to respond: 'Well, how about Marinaleda?'"

This is an edited extract

Dan Hancox is speaking at Bristol Festival of Ideas on 23 October; details at

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Autobiography by Morrissey

Morrissey, books 'Misinformed, mischievous or malevolent?': Morrissey at Glastonbury in 2011. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

It came upon a midnight clear. Or just after anyway, if you downloaded the ebook or queued in one of the several bookshops that opened at the witching hour just for the occasion. Morrissey once sang "there's more to life than books you know". True. But you wouldn't think so from the palaver that this particular music memoir has engendered. There have been fabulously wrong-headed pronouncements about its "TS Eliot-style" stream of consciousness format. TS Eliot never let his consciousness stream, and neither does Moz. What they mean is that there are no chapter breaks and that the breathtaking, almost insolently bravura opening pages are far, far more vital, lyrical and poetic than we have any right to expect from a pop singer's biography.

Then there is the matter of it being afforded Penguin Classic status, which has brought a huge and po-faced harrumph from the professionally offended in the literary establishment. It is, darling, a joke. A joke incidentally, that some of his shelf-mates in the Penguin Classics section, Joyce and DH Lawrence, say, would have relished.

There is more than a touch of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man about the brilliant opening chapters concerning his early life in the working-class streets of Stretford. There's a hint of Dylan Thomas, too, as well as Les Dawson and Adrian Mole. "Family life is chaotic and full of primitive drama as everything is felt intensely. There are no electronic distractions and everything is felt face to face. We are stuck in the wettest part of England in a society where we are not needed, yet we are warm and washed and well fed." This is the lodestone that he mined brilliantly in early Smiths classics such as The Headmaster Ritual writ large; he even slyly nods to his own lyrics from time to time. Some of the digressions are so odd as to be touching. There's a critique of the animation style of Captain Pugwash and a lengthy, earnest discussion of Peter Wyngarde's acting style: "he might occasionally rush into a following line without a punctuated pause (enjambment) but… he leads the way as the governing centre of Department S".

His baffling affection for the New York Dolls is in the public domain but we do learn some genuinely fresh stuff, such as his teenage love of poetry. Some of his verse enthusiasms we might have guessed at – Betjeman and Stevie Smith for instance – but others are a revelation; Auden, Robert Herrick, Housman. He quotes a stanza of the latter – "How often have I washed and dressed/and what's to show for all my pain/let me lie abed and rest/ten thousand times I've done my best/and all's to do again" – that could come straight from the lyric sheet of the first Smiths album.

It can't last of course. And it doesn't. It all starts to go wrong when, for us at least, it all started to go right, with the formation of the Smiths. On page 148, writing of an early rehearsal, there is perhaps the most tin-eared, embarrassing description of their music I have ever read. "The Smiths sound rockets with meteoric progression… bomb-burst drumming… combative bass-playing". One is reminded of that old axiom about artists being the least perceptive critics of their own work. Morrissey seems to have understood the Smiths less than we did.

The Smiths' career is dealt with in a manner that manages somehow to be both sketchy and wearisomely exhaustive. Chart positions are quoted endlessly as if crayoned in a schoolgirl's diary. There are a litany of slights, real and imagined. Scores are settled with depressing, mean-spirited regularity. Julie Burchill gets it in the neck. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade is painted as a sort of hippy Pol Pot: "Our skinny white bodies are lowered into the Rough Trade cauldron." If you know anything about the music biz you will know that this is as ludicrous a phrase as "the 1,000-year Reich of Oliver Postgate". Manchester music mogul the late Anthony H Wilson is mocked as "Meat fed Wilson". Be assured that anyone who has ever enjoyed a sausage bap or whose waistline is less than sylphlike incurs Moz's wrath regularly. Mind you, his description of the Hacienda nightclub crowd as "pork-pie chubbos" made this reviewer chuckle.

The generalised petulance reaches its nadir with 50-odd pages about the famous 90s court case brought by Smiths rhythm section Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke for unpaid earnings. It is simply too sad and dull to recount at length but suffice to say that the nastiness vented on Rourke and Joyce would seem to make the regularly discussed reunion unthinkable. Occasionally, he is just plain wrong, as when he states that there was an NME meeting in which the "unnameable" editor – it was Danny Kelly – declared that the paper should "get Morrissey". I was the deputy editor at the time and part of a small but vocal faction who fought Moz's corner and I can tell you, dear reader, that no such meeting ever took place. Misinformed, mischievous or malevolent? Who can say?

Two relationships, one with Jake Walters and one with Tina Dehgani, are described with affecting tenderness. "For the first time in my life the eternal 'I' becomes 'we', as, finally, I can get on with someone," he writes of Jake and he discussed having a child or, as he puts it, a "mewling miniature monster" with the latter. More of this would have been welcome. This is, after all the man who sang "It's so easy to laugh/It's so easy to hate/It takes guts to be gentle and kind."

"Get stewed," wrote Philip Larkin, "books are a load of crap." Autobiography is certainly not that, but it is as exasperating, coruscating, thrilling and deflating as its creator.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively – review

Penelope Lively, books Penelope Lively: 'She remains alive to the world, as any novelist should be.' Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

It's hard to know how to describe Penelope Lively's new book. At first, I thought she'd joined Diana Athill, Jane Miller and others in sending us a helpful and inquiring dispatch from the realms of old age (Lively is 80, with the result, she tells us, that people in their 60s seem not young exactly, but "nicely mature"). It turns out, though, that Ammonites & Leaping Fish is not precisely this kind of thing. Aches and pains are kept to a minimum; so, too, is the confusing behaviour of the young; death is mentioned hardly at all. The result is less of a memoir than a ledger on which its author has noted some of the objects and memories that, in this final stage of life, continue to tether her to the world that made her.

These days, Lively is costive with her time. She no longer has any desire to pass through airports and will attend only gatherings she is certain to enjoy. As she admits, this is a diminishment of sorts, but it is one she has got used to; there is comfort in the fact that while the body weakens, the mind has "a healthy continuity, and some kind of inbuilt fidelity to itself, a coherence over time". She may no longer be acquisitive, lusting after new clothes or cushions, but she remains alive to the world, as any novelist should be (and, for the record, she still writes very fine novels).

It's perhaps thanks to this particular thriftiness, then, that her book is divided into sections, nifty and economical. First, she maps out her life in brightly coloured snatches of memory: her childhood in Eygpt, the shock of moving to freezing cold Britain after the war, her years as a young mother, squeezing library books into her baby's pushchair. Next, she traces it through the books that fill her house and with which she will not part: the blue Pelicans, the copy of Silas Marner she bought in Alexandria aged 12, a pile of exciting new arrivals. Finally, she measures it by means of six precious objects, "the accretions of a lifetime": an ammonite picked up on a beach; a Jerusalem Bible with a mother-of-pearl cover; a couple of embroidered kettle holders; a model of an ancient Egyptian cat; a sampler from 1788 by a girl called Elizabeth Barker; a pottery sherd.

The final two sections are the most interesting and vital: other people's libraries are always fascinating, and I liked the stories her lifetime's cargo conjured, from a trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with her nanny to a morning spent bird-watching near Adelaide. But they also seemed to me to be the most important, too. Received opinion has it that the old don't need things; we expect them to move into ever smaller rooms, and their possessions, gathered over many years, to disappear to charity shops. As for their books, the sand is running through the hourglass; there is no time for rereading, let alone for discovering a new writer and working one's way through a backlist.

Lively, though, is as attached as ever both to her bookcases and to the items that adorn her mantelpiece and cupboard tops, and I found this incredibly cheering, for all that I also accepted it as a kind of rebuke. All of us dread a disease such as Alzheimer's; we worry, too, that our knuckles will start to resemble ginger roots and our eyes will turn milky and useless. But beyond illness, there are other, more existential anxieties. We fear losing interest. No one wants to think of their last days as something only to be got through, as if the hours were a loaf that needed to be used up, however stale. In this context, Ammonites & Leaping Fish is powerfully consoling. Lively is certainly sagacious, her words careful and freighted. But there is girlishness here, too. Things still catch her eye, her attention. New books. Old stories. Another day for the taking.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Angel Fever by L A Weatherly - review

This is THE epic end to an epic trilogy!

At the end of book two, we are left stranded, trying not to look back to see the disastrous leveling of Mexico City but to focus on what's ahead - what's left of it.

Willow Fields, half-angel and world's most wanted 'Terrorist', her boyfriend - the love of her life, the highly trained, highly dangerous Alex Kylar, Seb - another half-angel along with Sam and Liz, two other hunters, the only known survivors of the attack try to move on, move forward.

With the assassination of the Seraphic Council (the Original Angels), half the angels in the world are now dead, due to their psychic link, which should be a victory, but everything comes with a price…

Disaster has occurred in the human realm on the highest possible scale. Cities? Leveled. Government? Shut. Homes? Destroyed. Families? Ripped Apart. Everything humans once knew is now gone - and it's happened all over the world.

With the leveling of the world, the now head angel and Willow's father, Raziel, cooks up a rather diabolical plan - Edens: A new and perfect home for all humans to move into to be taken care of by the angels, which, of course, means Angel Burn on a much, much higher scale.

Angel burn is a lethal effect of angels on humans when they feed from them. It causes diseases that kill or make you lose your mind, and the worst part? The humans think that the angels have blessed them, when they are actually well, killing them.

With exoduses all over the world, the angel killers have no other choice but to recruit. In a short time, their numbers move from four to over a hundred! They're training and improving day by day, all lying in wait for the big day so that they can fulfill Willow's premonition - the link between angels is so weak, killing just a hundred would eradicate the race - forever!

There are a lot of more twists in the plot - ones that you will never expect that include Willow's mother becoming lucid, Seb's Father, the Earth's energy, The Angel's World, Raziel, Pawntucket (Willow's home town), and a mysterious Willow Tree.

Will they manage to outwit the angels? Does humanity stand a chance? Who does Willow choose? Do they live? Does anyone have a happy ending? The ULTIMATE tale about love, family, friendship, lethal angels, humanity and life! It's too good to miss!

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha – review

Gandhi ramachandra guha The young Gandhi: the bulk of his philosophy was shaped by his experiences as a lawyer in South Africa. Photograph: Mondadori/ Getty Images

For a man born into the obscurity of a remote village in western India in 1869, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who died at the hand of an assassin in 1948, still enjoys a remarkable and vigorous posthumous reputation. He has inspired Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and even the Dalai Lama. His techniques of nonviolent resistance have been widely copied across the world. During the Arab spring, the radical opposition in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia often displayed Gandhi's photograph during their protests, as a symbol of their methods and aspirations. His famous contemporaries – notably Mao Zedong, Roosevelt and Churchill – enjoy nothing like the same afterlife.

As with many great revolutionaries, Gandhi expressed his ideas in print throughout his career. Between 1903 and 1948, he published his opinions in a weekly newspaper, in Gujarati and English. Accordingly, his Collected Works, published by the Indian government in a series of about a hundred volumes, an accumulation of speeches, essays, editorials and interviews, provide an extraordinarily intimate picture of the man – but from an Indian point of view.

In Gandhi Before India, Ramachandra Guha, one of the subcontinent's most influential historians, has set himself the revisionist task of challenging this Indo-centric self-portrait of the Mahatma, not merely cleaning the family portrait, but uncovering a new backdrop and giving the whole restoration a new frame. Guha's impressive monograph, the first of two volumes, challenges the Gandhi legend as it was portrayed in, for instance, Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning film starring Ben Kingsley.

As well as the childhood in Gujarat and his two years as a student in London, Guha focuses on the now almost forgotten chapter in Gandhi's career, his two decades as a lawyer and community organiser in imperial South Africa before and after the Boer war. Guha is at pains to demonstrate that, up to his final return, aged 46, Gandhi had almost no knowledge of India in the wider sense. When he first went to London, at 19, MK Gandhi had never travelled outside his native Kathiawar. Later, in 1892 and 1902, he spent months in Bombay but, despite visits to Calcutta and Madras in 1896, had never actually "spoken to a single Indian peasant worker living or working in India itself". Rather, Gandhi's ideas, beliefs and deepest political instincts had been shaped by his remarkable career as a crusading lawyer in South Africa.

When Guha lists Gandhi's four major callings – freedom fighter, social reformer, religious pluralist and prophet – he clearly identifies each of these as having their roots in Natal and the Transvaal. Gandhi's most famous contribution to the 20th century, satyagraha (or "truth force"), the technique of mass civil disobedience, was also invented in South Africa. Gandhi's non-Indian side becomes even more distinct when Guha describes the minutiae of his African life and work. The big surprise is the degree to which the future Mahatma was so completely in tune with the wider ethos of the British empire, emerging, somewhat bizarrely, as an empire loyalist.

Indeed, when the Boer war broke out, Gandhi expressed hope for "a British victory". He had, meanwhile, become "the champion of the Indian cause in Natal", although this, as Guha shows, was less to do with his sympathy for the rights of his fellow Indians than the failure of his legal career during a return to Bombay in 1902.

When the call came to return to South Africa, Gandhi saw it as a way out of a professional impasse. Identifying his luck, he moved fast. Soon after his return to the Transvaal, he set up the newspaper, Indian Opinion, that would become the bridgehead for the battle on behalf of his people.

At this moment in the early 1900s, the many competing strands in Gandhi's life were almost wholly focused on South Africa. He was a lawyer working for clients in Johannesburg and Durban, and also campaigning for the rights of Indians in the Transvaal. He was a newspaper propagandist. Finally, he was becoming obsessed with the simple life, by solitude, diet, meditation and celibacy. In 1906, he took the vow of brahmacharya, curtailing all sexual relations with his long-suffering wife. If Guha's work has a weakness it is that, in focusing so intently on its new portrait, it neglects the human toll inflicted on those around the incipient Mahatma.

1906 marked the turning point. Gandhi returned to London briefly, and began to realise – not least through his meeting with the young Winston Churchill – that he and his fellows were irredeemably "alien". Much later, he was asked what he thought of modern civilisation. "I think it would be a good idea," came the reply. No accident, then, that soon after his return home, passive resistance landed him in prison.

As the lawyer morphed into the campaigning ascetic, he decided that "we would all profit from the kind of simplicity and solitude we find in gaol". While the future Gandhi begins to emerge, his contemporaries were already recognising his genius. Guha takes scholarly pride in tracking down the 1909 letter which first describes Gandhi as "a Mahatma" (a great and holy soul), the title bestowed on him by Rabindranath Tagore in 1919.

But this is to run ahead. Guha still wants to nail an Anglocentric Gandhi before his final return to India and now does so with the intriguing revelation that it was none other than GK Chesterton who helped inspire the text, Hind Swaraj (or Indian Home Rule) with which Gandhi would make the transition to his role as the father of Indian independence.

It's a truism of this genre that the closer the biographer comes to his subject, the more elusive they become. In the end, with or without South Africa, Gandhi was a remarkable man, for some a secular saint, with an extraordinary capacity to transcend issues of race, class, religion and even politics. Exactly what this amazing man was really like is rather missing from this volume. No doubt Professor Guha will put that straight in the second half of this ground-breaking study.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Goat Mountain by David Vann – review

David Vann, books A father and son out hunting: Van's book is 'a vision of hell focused on nature'. Photograph: Alamy

In their various ways, all David Vann's books are autopsies. His work, which is littered with corpses, is characterised by an exhaustive insistence on the mechanics of violence.

His third novel, Goat Mountain, starts with a catastrophe and steadily deteriorates from there. An 11-year-old boy goes on a hunting trip with his father, his grandfather and his father's friend, Tom. (We never learn any of the other characters' names, or anything much about their lives outside the airless Aristotelian enclosure of the plot, which is narrated by the boy from the remote vantage of a damaged adulthood.)

In the opening chapter, the group spots a poacher on family land. The father, observing the distant figure through the magnification of his rifle sight, hands the rifle to his son so that he can take a look at the intruder. Powerful forces of instinct and inculcation combine in the boy ("Some part in me just wanted to kill," he reflects, "constantly and without end"); without any thought or seeming volition, he squeezes the trigger and shoots the man dead.

The rest of the novel is about what happens: what happens to the body, what happens to the group and what happens to the idea of morality, of humanity, when a man has been killed in the same way, and for the same reason, as a wild animal – which is to say, no reason at all. "There was no joy as complete and immediate as killing," he writes. "Even the bare thought of it was better than anything else."

Part of the experience of reading Vann (over time across his oeuvre, and within individual books) is a kind of uneasy curiosity about just how dark he's going to get and where he's going to go to find that darkness. This new excursion is as harrowing as anything he has written, as thrillingly desolate, in its way, as the traumatic hallucinations in Legend of a Suicide, the brilliant semi-autobiographical debut in which he reopened the childhood wound of his father's suicide over a sequence of stories and a novella.

There is a long and gruelling section in the middle of Goat Mountain, in which the boy kills his first buck, which is one of the most intense and detailed examinations of an act of violence I have ever read in a work of fiction. Its unflinching realism – its patient delineation of the labours of killing, dismembering, dragging – eventually becomes a kind of nightmare surrealism. It is at once deeply disturbing and powerfully propulsive, a hallucinatory insight into what it means, and how it feels, to kill. The book is a vision of hell focused not on the supernatural, but on nature itself.

Vann is a writer who hunts big game. He tracks the same wild territory as Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy – the violence and perversity at the root of what we call human nature, the animal savagery that is our first inheritance. "Cain was the first son," says the narrator, an atheist who looks to the Old Testament to apply some gauze of meaning to the raw wound of his own violent past. "The first born of Adam and Eve. Cain is how we began, all who didn't get to start in paradise."

For all its unyielding darkness, Goat Mountain is, perhaps perversely, an exhilarating experience. It is, first of all, cathartic in the way of all good tragedies. But it is also exhilarating for the least perverse of reasons: the experience of reading a novelist of David Vann's rare artistry and vision.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Prayer by Philip Kerr – review

prayer philip kerr Moved in mysterious ways: a Billy Graham rally. Photograph: Keith Bedford/Reuters

The premise of Prayer, Philip Kerr's first standalone novel in a decade, is tantalisingly creepy. A series of high-profile atheists have died in mysterious ways, and FBI agent Gil Martins is moved to investigate when he hears a startling confession from a frightened woman: she says they were killed by prayer. Initially sceptical – he's a Catholic turned evangelical Christian turned atheist himself – Martins is soon dragged into a world peopled by menacingly charismatic pastors, avenging angels of death and dark, angry gods.

Kerr was one of Granta's best of young British novelists in 1993. He has won prizes for his writing in the past, but he's unlikely to scoop any gongs for Prayer, unless it's the Bad Sex award (more on which later).

This is a baffling novel, an uncomfortable mishmash of horror and serial-killer thriller which doesn't quite manage to succeed as either. It's narrated by Martins, who starts off as an intriguing companion, struggling with the loss of his faith (his wife kicks him out for his secret stash of Dawkins and Hitchens), and with burgeoning OCD. But his voice – and personality – quickly chafe, from his attitude to women (he looks at a colleague's underwear when she climbs a tree, and refers to a woman's "great badonkadonk"), to his pettiness (questioning a witness whose cheating husband has just died, he decides to "pay her back for jerking my collar so violently earlier on", and brings up the affair).

As Martins stumbles his way towards the truth – via handily discovered secret journals and video diaries – he ends up at an evangelical church with a huge congregation and a powerful leader, who doesn't take kindly to his investigations. And, amid chatter about ancient texts and "nothing less than the secrets that God revealed to Adam", Martins is, eventually, threatened himself, feels stalked by something implacable and ancient, and wonders if he is cracking up entirely.

Giving Kerr his due, once he gets going, towards the end of the novel, he is capable of summoning up a genuinely scary atmosphere and a satisfyingly malign presence. But this doesn't rescue Prayer. The dialogue is clumsy; his first-person narrator even addresses himself aloud, at one point: "'It's not that you're any better than a lot of other bastards in the Bureau, Martins,' I said… 'it just takes a while longer for you to give up on something.'"

The story is too slow-moving; a sermon lasts for almost four pages. And then there's that sex scene, in which Martins describes himself, unerotically, as "one who had almost forgotten what it was like to cleave unto a woman". Pants become "delicate shackles", there is talk of "the most intimate flesh", and an "impudent tongue", and – bearing in mind that all this sex is taking place as the characters face an impossible horror – speculation that "a shrink might have suggested I was trying to hide myself inside her in some Oedipal way". Bring on the shortlists for the Bad Sex award: this must be a leading contender.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Morrissey, you're a fraud | Carole Cadwalladr

Morrissey Morrissey in concert in Seattle in March 2013. 'He is the very definition of old news,' writes Carole Cadwalladr. Photograph: Mat Hayward/FilmMagic

If you think there's been a tad too much coverage of the newly released autobiography of a 54-year-old expat who was a culturally relevant force sometime back in the last millennium, then you are, perhaps, showing your age. You're under 40, perhaps, or over 50. You were not yet born, or still at the toddling stage, or had – what's the word? – oh yes, "grown up" by the time the Smiths burst on to Top of the Pops. You think the media's obsession with Morrissey's book is a bit weird.

It is a bit weird. And I say that as somebody who was a teenager at the time. Who learned all the lyrics to the album The Queen is Dead and over-identified with the whole doomy, solipsistic, "if-a-double-decker-bus-should-crash-right-into-us" maudlin adolescent angst that is at the heart of all Smiths songs.

And then I grew up. The last time I considered Morrissey an interesting or in some way relevant public figure was sometime back around 1992. He doesn't matter. He is the very definition of old news. And yet there he is splayed across all news outlets, front pages, bulletins, Twitter streams etc, which says far more about the people who dominate our news outlets and run our country than it does about Morrissey.

In a week in which the social mobility guru Alan Milburn published a report that described a growing intergenerational divide, the result of policies that are impoverishing the young at the expense of the old, the cult of Morrissey offers a small but significant clue as to why this might be so. It's the fortysomethings, mostly male, mostly white, who identified with Morrissey's tales of outsider woe a billion years ago, who are now running the country and controlling the nation's media, filtering experience through their eyes and returning it to us as news and policy briefings. Even David Cameron at Eton found common cause with the subjects of those songs: the dispossessed, the marginalised, the unlucky, the alone.

And those people are still with us. In greater numbers than ever. It's the 40-plus cohort who have changed. Not all of them; there are plenty of struggling fortysomethings out there. But many of those who live in London or the south-east, which includes pretty much all MPs, who had the sort of jobs that enabled them to buy houses – when they were still homes for people to live in rather than an international asset – are as comfortably off, myopic and self-absorbed as Morrissey.

The Morrissey generation is running the country, and even if they came from Preston or Hull or Lanarkshire, and shared a background not unlike his, they are now closer, in just about every way – security, capital, lifestyle – to the likes of David Cameron than some young lad from Manchester.

The oppressed have become the oppressors. They're just not owning up to it. All teenagers feel like victimised outsiders at some point. That's why young people keep on rediscovering Smiths tracks from nearly 30 years ago, gratified to hear their own pain articulated and reflected back at them. The difference is that this generation (or at least that vast part of it whose parents can't gift them a deposit for a flat and/or their tuition fees) is actually being victimised.

Friday's news that rents rose nationwide by 9.2% last year was as nothing compared to Thursday's news that British Gas prices are set to rise by exactly the same amount. You probably didn't even hear about it because, while 36% of the population rents, almost no one in public life, in government, in the media does.

Do the effing sums, someone. Anyone. A politician, perhaps? Hello. Paging the Labour party. Is there anybody out there? Because 9.2% of average annual rent – £9,084 – is a damn sight more than 9.2 per cent of average energy bills. British Gas customers – that is eight million households – face an average increase of £123 a year. Bad, but nothing compared with the £835 increase a year for the 8.3 million households in rented accommodation – £835! And that applies across the country, though if you live in London or the south-east, it could be more like double that.

That average rent increase? It needs to be found out of an average household income after tax of £16,034. How, exactly? Where? And Help to Buy? You could rename it Help to Put Rents Up Even Further. It could be retitled Help to Make Poor People Poorer. Help to Make Young People Even More Fecked. Because house prices are intimately linked to rental yields and this is just more disaster in the offing.

The British Gas news affects the Morrissey class; the rent increase won't. And even for people who do worry about these things – the Labour party, supposedly – they've got the focus completely wrong. It's not the energy markets that require state-sponsored intervention, it's the artificial inflation of house prices by government-designed policy.

Sod Morrissey, a bitter, old hasbeen who a couple of years ago told the Guardian that "it's a relief to feel relaxed in more places than just one" (he has homes in Los Angeles, Rome, Switzerland and Britain) and who called the Chinese a "subspecies" for their treatment of animals.

The class that he now represents – a middle-aged, capital-rich, metropolitan elite – doesn't give a toss about you. They've proved it in every way it is possible to prove.

Where's the new Morrissey? When will we hear from him, or her, or them? When will working-class, young people realise they are being robbed blind and that there is not a soul in power who represents their interests? Rise up, young people, because you have nothing to lose but your disenfranchised future and an extra grand a year in rent. "There's ice on the sink where we bathe," sang Morrissey once upon a time. "So how can you call this a home/When you know it's a grave?"

That's you, that is. Write a sodding song about it. Or failing that, have a revolution. This isn't a Thomas Hardy novel. You're not actually destined to be screwed over by the lord of the manor and left to die on a neolithic rock. It's politics, not fate. Eff off, Morrissey. And all who sail within him.

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History by Catherine Merridale – review

red fortress secret heart The Kremlin: ‘Its history, like the history of Russia itself, has been written and rewritten.’ Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/ EPA

You never forget your first view of the Kremlin, the crenellated walls towering over the river, the golden domes of the cathedrals, Red Square on its flank, the exotic fantasy of St Basil's Cathedral. More than any other great complex of buildings, except perhaps Peking's Forbidden City, the Kremlin radiates the will to power, to domination, to empire, and to mystery.

It is full of ghosts, too, the ghosts of those who lived or worked or suffered violent deaths there, the ghosts of the musketeers whom Peter the Great butchered on its walls, of the underlings whom Stalin sent to their deaths in the nearby Lubyanka cellars. You can still feel their terror as you walk late at night along the empty corridors in the old Senate building towards the office where the Georgian tyrant worked.

Moscow's Kremlin – the word means "fortress", and Moscow was far from the only Russian city to have one – began life nine centuries ago as an obscure wooden fort on a hill by a river in an almost impenetrable forest far away from what most Europeans then thought of as civilisation. Thanks to the ruthlessness, energy and sheer good fortune of its rulers, it evolved from the muddy centre of an insignificant princedom to become the capital of a mighty state. Peter the Great moved the government to his new capital of St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. But the Kremlin never lost its symbolic force and never ceased to provide the stage for coronations and other national celebrations. And in 1918, the ancient fortress once again became the seat of power when the Bolsheviks set up their shop there. In April 1989, it saw the beginning of a new revolution when Gorbachev's almost democratically elected assembly met there, and propelled Russia into a kind of unruly open politics unseen for 70 years. It was the object of Yeltsin's ambition when he boasted that he would soon return to "our Kremlin" as Gorbachev's successor. And it is still the backdrop to the confected ceremonies of Putin's Russia, with their pastiche 18th-century uniforms and their nostalgia for an imperial past.

Sometimes, indeed, it seems as if the Kremlin were not merely the stage, but almost the main protagonist in a drama where human actors had little more than walk-on parts. Its history, like the history of Russia itself, has been written and rewritten to reflect the passing requirements of whoever happened to be ruling the country at the time – tsar, commissar, democrat or Strong Man. Rebuilt after even the worst catastrophes – Napoleon's failed attempt to blow it to pieces, the bitter revolutionary battles of 1918 – it epitomises Russia's ability to survive, to recreate itself from disaster, come what may. After the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century, when the Russian state effectively ceased to exist, and again after the Soviet collapse four centuries later, the ceremonies of the Orthodox church were celebrated once again in the Kremlin cathedrals in a haze of gold, incense and glorious singing as a comforting symbol of continuity with a rose-tinted past.

It is this histrionic and partly manufactured role that Catherine Merridale describes in The Red Fortress. As in her earlier books on Russian attitudes to death and war, she combines impeccable scholarship with a deep feeling for the humanity of the people she writes about. Her style is accurate, spare, direct and warm-hearted, about as far from the academy as you can get. And she has done the work, ferreted around in the most unlikely archives, been to the most improbable places, and talked to people for whom other scholars might not have mustered the time, the energy, or perhaps even the interest. The Red Fortress is much more than just another book about the Kremlin. It is a brilliant meditation on Russian history and the myths with which the Russians have sought to console themselves, all centred on a place which for all of us – foreigners and Russians alike – has come to stand for a people, a state and a whole country.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Sammy Feral's Diaries of Weird by Eleanor Hawken - review

The book is very good and exciting, written by Eleanor Hawken. Sammy's life is pretty much normal, until one day his entire family turns into werewolves. Can Sammy find a cure for all this in the nick of time? But in the meantime things are getting seriously weird for Sammy...

In my opinion, this book is very funny and interesting. It's packed full of some mystery solving and is adventurous. Out of 5 I would give it an excellent 5.

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