The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

This elegant text is a strange tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich. The brilliant composer had a fascinating life, convulsed by extreme ideologies. Although the brief book is pessimistic and depressing, it expresses several emotions well.

However, the history covered by the author is a complex one. This means that the reader is not necessarily persuaded by all the Cold War politics on display. The condemnation of George Bernard Shaw jars, while the attack on Pablo Picasso strikes a false note.

The most interesting issue is arguably the lack of attention given to the Siege of Leningrad. This could have been explored in significant depth. What precisely did the great composer think about a hungry orchestra playing a symphony of his? Instead, the reader sometimes has to subsist on a dull diet of clever nationalist phrases:

“To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That was why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction in terms.”

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Beyond the Crash by Gordon Brown

This text is a reflection on some of the weaknesses of the international economy. It maintains that a lack of global cooperation is at the heart of many of the problems associated with contemporary capitalism. Nevertheless, its usefulness is limited by three major factors.

Firstly, the environmental crisis has worsened significantly since the publication of the book. Secondly, the optimism about the potential for international cooperation has been undermined by Brexit and by the election of President Trump. Thirdly, the call for ethical capitalism underplays the realities which have been associated with the continuing role of multinational corporations.

It seems that Gordon Brown was too quick to put pen to paper after he was rejected by the British electorate. A more thoughtful work would have been less defensive in tone. Further, Brown could then have devised a clearer route to the moral universe he would like to dwell in. Unfortunately, his clunky rhetoric may be unpersuasive to the reader:

“We must affirm that markets are in the public interest but not to be automatically equated with it, be honest that the fault is not with markets but with the dogma that markets alone are all we need, and then we act on the truth that markets cannot flourish or even survive by market forces alone and demonstrate by the standards we insist upon that markets are free but never again values-free.”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel addresses the themes of death and memory. A melancholic atmosphere is the result. It might make the reader think about the earlier work of the author. In particular, emotions captured by The Unconsoled and The Remains of the Day could come flooding back.

However, there is a distinctiveness about this text. This stems in part from the homage made to powerful myths. Such an approach is not typical of Ishiguro and could lead the reader to reflect on the possible influence of J. R. R. Tolkien.

While the narrative holds the attention, the style is occasionally a bit awkward. This is exposed in the dialogue. Novels which are not set in realistic situations do represent a challenge to fine writers. This is because natural ways of talking have to be imagined. Whether or not the following section rings true is open to question:

“A journey to our son’s village. It’s not far, husband, we know that. Even with our slow steps, it’s a few days’ walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain. And the spring will soon be upon us.”

Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubin

This illuminating text is about the potential consequences of high oil prices. It controversially claims that the price of oil was hugely significant in triggering the international economic crisis of 2007-2008. Nevertheless, the book does make some telling points about what may happen if oil becomes a lot more expensive once again.

It is useful to be reminded of the centrality of oil to the global economy. However, the complexity of contemporary capitalism is not quite captured by the author. Regardless of this theoretical deficit, the work is quite an entertaining read.

A strength of the text is its focus on the different ways in which oil is used around the world. In certain producer countries, oil is consumed with little restraint. Another relevant point which is made relates to the apparent link between prosperity and liberalism.  The prescient economist wrote:

“As our economic well-being deteriorates, will we continue to remain committed to those principles of freedom and tolerance?

These are not abstract questions- they challenge some of our most fundamental assumptions about our societies. Economic turbulence has not brought the best out of us in the past.”

 

The remarkable ebullience of John McDonnell MP

Many progressive people have been dismayed by Brexit, the bizarre popularity of Theresa May and the surprising election of Donald Trump. 2016 has been felt by some to be a year of unmitigated disasters. The British left has often seemed split. But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was replete with optimism this morning in the city of his birth.

The veteran socialist is of the opinion that neo-liberal hegemony is collapsing. He senses that the public are frustrated with business as usual. Recognising the poverty and profound inequality in the UK, he believes that an early election might not be as calamitous for the Labour Party as its enemies assume.

The analysis of McDonnell is apparently based on the thinking of Gramsci and others. He has noticed that opinion polls are often a poor guide to electoral behaviour. Further, he assumes that the disunity in the Labour Party may be matched by tensions within the Conservative Party because of the complex European issue. Clearly, the populist Shadow Chancellor is in no mood to succumb to negativity. Nevertheless, the superb campaigner could reflect on the maxim of Gramsci:

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

NHS For Sale by Jacky Davis et al.

This informative text is a powerful collaborative effort. Introduced by Harry Smith, it is a document which digs behind the misleading headlines of the press. Neither the creeping privatisation of the NHS nor the deleterious consequences of the complex process have received the media attention they merit.

The book is a lengthy one, but it is necessary to take a close look at the false narratives of politicians who have enabled expensive and inefficient privatisation to occur. There has been no attempt to establish a level playing field between the public and the private sector. Failings in the public sector are explored by the powers that be, while the practices of private corporations rarely receive the same kind of scrutiny.

The NHS has never been perfect. Further, it never could be. Nevertheless, the various pressures on the service have been intensified by the pursuit of private profit. This work raises many awkward questions for the British ruling class, and it ends with a classic quote from the American anarchist Noam Chomsky:

“That’s the standard technique of privatisation: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”