Thursday, October 25, 2007

Rory Stewart and measurement

This is Rory Stewart, author of two of the more interesting books I've read recently, The Places In Between and Occupational Hazards.

Stewart has had an interesting life, in the Confucian sense. TPIB is about his walk across 800km of central Afghanistan in early 2002 (um, yes, mountainous territory, winter, walking. On his feet - what a nutter - admirable, but a nutter). He took five weeks covering between 20 and 30 km a day. The book is fascinating for his encounters with Afghans, for the sights he sees and the big picture, the awareness he has of history, not just immediate history, but also the long-distant past where great empires and kingdoms flourished and now are looted lacunae in our records. Ozymandias in action.

His second book, Occupational Hazards is more immediate and even sadder: it details the months he spent as a representative of the Coalition Authority prior to the handover of power to Iraqis in two provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar. It is a fascinating account of the frustrations, obstacles and attacks endured by Coalition officials and their genuine attempts to impose order, develop economies and encourage the rule of law in parts of Iraq.

One of the points Stewart makes that struck me most was the following: "the policy debate on Iraq remains obsessed with measurement and is expressed in words, which are as strident as the numbers are pedantic and as meaningless."

This leapt out at me, because I think that the bean-counters have taken over the asylum, not just in Iraq but in so many areas of political policy. And their defence against discovering that they are in the asylum is to count all the more frenziedly. I was talking with colleagues about performance targets in UK schools, where students who achieved the top grade of an A* at GCSE were identified as -1 in terms of the "value-added" measures applied to the school...There is no getting your head round that one, don't even bother.

Personally, I enjoy statistics, I've always quite enjoyed them since I trained up as a journalist in my early 20s, largely because I was guided by an economist who understood when the numbers were being played with and could explain the techniques used to obfuscate, obscure and confuse. So my sceptic's instinct is usually roused whenever people produce graphs and charts and rankings. Stewart highlights the nonsense when he comments on the way UN and World Bank and Pentagon statistics and data have been processed to produce "a global comparative index on civil and political rights". It's a mix of all sorts of information, from how many newspapers a regime has closed to levels of police brutality. But I don't need the comparative index to tell me that conditions in Burma and Zimbabwe are shit, whereas conditions in Chavez's Venezuela are not too shit, but the signs are getting a little ominous. And the comparative index is perhaps an interesting way to defuse the moral twinges in the corporate world about doing business with a dodgy regime - "well, their rating is only 120, that's not sooooo bad." Actually, I am not too sure that the multi-nationals which make their living out of doing business with dodgy regimes are capable of moral twinges. I can quite easily imagine a completely fish-eyed response from most board-room directors when asked if they have experienced a moral twinge about the deals they've cut. It's only when shareholders and NGOs make a crisis out of a deal that the moral twinges manifest themselves.

We use our data (we sophisticated westerners) to shield ourselves from the necessity of confronting the consequences of our decision-making. Making decisions whether it is about the health service or education or Iraq or NATO in Afghanistan involves moral choices because the decisions have, eventually, a direct impact on the lives of other humans. But that is perhaps too raw a reality for our politicians and bureaucrats to deal with. Measuring is easier, tidier, cleaner, neater. Decisions based on measurements require less coherent defence - you just point at the bean-counters and say, "well, that's what they came up with as a baseline indicator" or some such equivalent hooey.

I like measurements - I've just found out my son is 155 cm tall and 51k in weight, in the 98th percentile for his age range - and I'm glad that Galileo worked out what a second was, but I don't like being in thrall to measurements, which is where we are headed. We spend so much time measuring and counting that we forget to look at each other as individuals, as humans. A point that Stewart never forgets, in the midst of spending millions for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I am reading Atonement. Huh? You English teacher you, why didn't you read it when it came out?

Um, probably because I was too busy teaching English?

Anyway, here I am, not quite half way through and really not enjoying, but determined to finish because of course I will be going to see the film because it stars that pint-sized hottie James McAvoy. Well, actually, to digress, I don't fancy him - I almost certainly would kick him out of bed because he's cute but not my type. However, I do think this boy can act. I first caught him in State of Play, and he totally held his own against stalwarts like John Sims (now, him, there would be no kicking), David Morrissey and Bill Nighy. State of Play, in case you missed it, was the best conspiracy series on the BBC since Edge of Darkness which aired in 1985. For more info on SofP, check out this link

Oh, I'm not writing about Atonement? You noticed? Mmmm. I feel really shabby about not liking this book. I've flicked through it, I've read enough reviews to be totally spoiled and to understand why others admire it, but I am hating the book. Not the plot, which is why I am perfectly happy to see the movie, which I happen to think will salvage the best of the novel and make up for the utter irritation of the characters because Keira Knightley is lovely to look at and Saoirse whatsit and James McAvoy can act so they will fill the empty heart at the centre of this novel. Because the impression I have so far from reading the first third properly and skimming through the next two sections is that it is an exercise for the writer which exemplifies what's wrong with the British novel: too much self-consciousness, insufficient soul, too little passion, plenty of self-regard. I won't go into the whole business of McEwan's research and his dependence on the memoir of Lucilla Andrews because I think he is perfectly honest about his debt to her work.

But when I think of the gutsy, interesting novels I've read in the past four-five years, Atonement is a flickering night-light in the shadow of arc-lights. Carter Beats the Devil, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the People's Act of Love, The Corrections, Middlesex, Cloud Atlas, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, The Time Traveller's Wife. Now these are great books, readable, interesting, lively, engaging, rich, rewarding. Beside it, Atonement is a conceit. Now, John Donne wrote conceits, those wonderful, dense, allusive lyrics to mistresses and his wife, exploring emotions and yearnings and jokes through precise and sometimes mannered metaphors, but McEwan's writing in Atonement is like a conceit with no emotion. Yes, I know, I know - I can't say what I know for fear of entering Spoiler Territory. But what I want to get at is that a conceit is fine in a poem, but stretching it across a novel to make points about the nature of the novel is so self-referential that it actually destroys the worth of the novel as a fictional construct - obviously some people love this kind of thing, but I am of the philistine school that says that James, Woolf and Joyce who led the pack in the playing of authorial games were a dead end, and that James's contemporary Conrad was a far truer (and no less playful) artist. I don't think anything can substitute for the constituents of a really good story - plot, characters with whom the reader can engage and themes that look beyond the novel itself and explore the real issues of the human condition - truth, beauty, love, oh yes, and of course, freedom, thank you Baz and the green fairy.

Of course, McEwan touches on the big themes - especially love, to some extent truth and beauty. But it's like the touch of tissue paper - it looks good, but it dissolves too easily under scrutiny.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Aargh technology

Well, we switched from one Belgian telecoms provider to another - and it is all too much and too irritating - because we lost the internet entirely for 24 hours, and now I can only connect it up by shifting self and computer to the room which is meant to be our elegant salon with no tv and no computer and nothing hi-tech, just books and music. At the moment, there is no furniture either, because we are waiting for the delivery of our elegant chaise longue, sofa and wingchair. We have a carpet, bookshelves and a couple of Chinese trunks but ahem, nothing else.

At the moment, until I face up to ringing our new service provider, however, the modem only works on the main phone point which is in the elegant salon.

Perhaps this means that I will only actually go on the internet when I need to.....Hmmmm. Interesting concept. No more browsing and surfing.... Yeah, right. Now I just have to check out the vital statistics of that very interesting actor I saw in Spooks last night....

What this actually means is that I will start lying on the living room floor and surfing rather than sitting at my desk in my study for hours... and I will still get less done than I should because really, like I have to look up a poem or check out the lyrics for the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny for the minions and other world-shattering tasks that can only be done on the internet. Old Godzilla was hopping around Tokyo City like a big playground....

Friday, October 5, 2007

Why Madeleine Conway?

As I harass my friends, family, colleagues, students and any stray acquaintance to check out The Perfect Hero and prepare to shell out their hard-earned pennies, people are asking me, Madeleine Conway, why? Where?

First of all, right from the start, I wanted a pen name. I like my name. The surname is bland, manageable and we share it with a famous UK brand of children's shoes (no, not StartRite) and a coach company. It's easier to deal with than my maiden name, which caused that terminal deafness that people get afflicted by when someone talks to them in a slightly different accent (yes, like the Weight-Watcher woman in Little Britain when faced with the asian slimmer who speaks entirely coherently). At one of my early, more menial jobs, I was sent tons and tons of books for review by publishers, and they would ring to ask who to address the books to. It was a joyous day when I got one that was correctly spelled. My two favourite misspellings are Zabre Zarim and Zebra Kaolin. Now, I am used to my first name, and it would be odd to be called anything different, but it took some time, and the combination of exotic first name and worthy (but dull) surname is just Not Romantic. So I felt a pen name was the thing to have.

Which name? I thought about it, but it occurred to me that my grandmother's name was very romantic. Madeleine Conway. It has sweep and grandeur and an aura of eating Belgian chocolates dressed in a fuchsia peignoire and remaining very slim and elegant. Also, my dear Granny, much as I loved her, was a bit of an intellectual snob. Of course, if you are the sort of woman who has worked hard enough to get to Oxford in the 1920s, you are probably entitled to a smidgen of intellectual superiority. But it brought on a sense of delicious naughtiness to send Madeleine Conway out into the world once again, this time as a novelist of what my Granny would have called penny dreadfuls.

Madeleine Conway is a much nicer woman than I am. She doesn't get ratty or stressed, she is much thinner and massively more elegant (she might actually wear all the beautiful scarves my husband has given me for Christmas in the hope that I will suddenly transmogrify into Catherine Deneuve or Julie Delpy). She has a much less cynical, much more positive outlook on the world than I do - she skips and hops (gracefully of course), waving at the butterflies and flowers, like Fotherington-Thomas, but in a sophisticated female way:

And of course, most importantly, she believes in Leurve. Not to say that I don't, but my take on True Leurve and such is terribly pragmatic compared to Madeleine's rosy vistas. I am not particularly romantic, although I do enjoy (no, I'll come clean, love, adore and relish) a juicy romance. It is lovely to enter Madeleine's world where good triumphs and evil pays the price, where Love can conquer almost insuperable obstacles, where sweet girls meet men who will cherish them for all eternity and they all live happily ever after.

So that's why Madeleine Conway...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Covering up The Perfect Hero

Thar she blows, me hearties, The Perfect Hero on the horizon, and though I don't actually recall a bare-chested Freddie hoisting Hero towards his lips, perhaps that's just a senior moment on my part. Since purple is one of my all time favourite colours, I am perfectly happy with the cover.

To be honest, it is quite a while since I've thought much about my Hero and Freddie - I've been too busy working out situations of dire peril for my current heroine and her antagonists and protagonists and half the French court too. I had a perfectly marvellous idea this morning but then I fell asleep again and it's gone, so I think I'm heading back to bed for another attempt at plotting in my sleep.