Monday, May 07, 2012

Book Review : Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber 2000)

There are some books that one underestimates at one's peril.

Mr Phillips is a very ordinary man. An accountant, a London Commuter, a daydreamer about sex, he wakes up on Monday morning and readies himself for the office as he does every day. Except there is a difference today, as he was made redundant on Friday, and hasn't yet brought himself to tell his wife or family.

Over the course of the day, he meets his son for lunch, he chats with a pornographer, he sees a minor celebrity and gets involved in a bank robbery, reflecting all the time with his interior voice on the nature of his former job, his family, the memory or prospect of sex, or whether the probability of death between purchase and draw of a lottery ticket outweighs the probability of winning the jackpot.

Meanwhile, his life as an office-working, commuting wage-drone is dissected sliver by sliver, and is immediately recognisable to all who trudge up to London each day. "Like most experienced commuters, Mr Phillips has a variety of techniques for seizing somewhere to sit, sneaking around the side of the door and sliding into the jump-seats or barrelling down to the far end of the compartment, through the thickets of passengers, briefcases, newspapers, outstretched legs...The battle for a space prepared you for, was an allegory of the daily struggle. You could argue that those who fought their way to the seats were the people who needed them least. To them that hath shall be given, that was the deal." It is this juxtaposition of the quotidian with the interiorised faux philosophy which makes this book so funny and identifiable.

Mr Phillips is vaguely lustfully following D-list celebrity Clarissa Colingford into a bank, when crash-helmetted shotgun-wielding robbers burst in. As Mr Phillips lies on the floor he reminisces on his previous near-death experiences, mortality rates of lottery-ticket buyers and speculates of the reaction of his family to his death. And then he stands up.

Later, he helps an old lady with her shopping. It turns out that she is the wife of Mr Erith (as the rhyme goes, there are men in the village of Erith that nobody seeth or heareth), his fanatical old RE teacher. She shows Mr Phillips a book where several sayings, including one by Paul de Man, are embroidered. "Nothing, whether deed, word thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere, but only is a random act whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence." Has Mr Phillips' day been the confirmation or refutation of this and the other observations? Or is Lanchester subtly saying, pace de Man, that as a work of literature "Mr Phillips" means nothing, due to the irrelevance of human matters.

So is it trivial or profound? What is sure is that it is very readable, funny and full of blasts of recognition that this fortysomething office-worker found uncomfortably familiar.

Book Review : The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins (MacMillan 1998)

The prospect of a survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton from the unique perspective of someone who was not only a notable incumbent of this position himself, but also one of our finest writers on the politics of the period in question, seemed replete with possibilities. Firstly, we would be able to chart the evolution of the role from its high-Victorian incarnation in its current form through the troughs in its status during the wars, to its current position second only to that of the Prime Minister himself. Secondly, we could chart the evolution in economic policy through a turbulent century where the economics of Empire and Free Trade were turned on their heels by two world wars, the Great Depression and the rise of the Welfare State. And finally, we could examine the types of person who became Chancellor, and the success or otherwise of these types in the role.

Roy Jenkins' book attempts tentatively to address these questions, but only in the latter is he successful, and then only up to a point. The book's shortcomings, if such they be, are those of organisation and ambition. Certainly one cannot fault the sonorous, slightly orotund flow of Jenkins' prose, of a type that one rarely encounters nowadays, or the clarity of biographical exposition. Parallels with the current credit crisis are of interest, such as the Barings crisis of 1890, where overexposure to Argeninian and Russian Bonds nearly brought Barings Bank, and with it the whole city of London, to its knees - perhaps if this book had been written today and not 14 years ago, these parallels may have been made more overt (although the coincidence of Barings' misfortunes in recent times is underlined).

However, Jenkins has used his own work as frame of reference for determining the scope of the book, which is understandable but unfortunate. He sees Randolph Churchill as a natural continuation from the scope of his work on Gladstone, and Dalton's successors were all the subjects of essays by Jenkins. Churchill, Lloyd George, Asquith and Baldwin are the subjects of abbreviated essays as Jenkins has written at length about them elsewhere. Yet these choices encumber the subject as a whole. The modern Chancellorship was the creation of Gladstone and Disraeli, under whose tenures the position was elevated to that of of second in the cabinet and budget day became a national institution. This is only hinted at in the introduction. Instead, the first incumbent we meet is Randolph Churchill, biographically interesting but certainly not the most typical or successful holder of the office, and by concluding with Dalton partway through Atlee's landmark administration, there is a sense that we have ended with a story half-told which, once commenced, should have continued through to Gaitskill at the very least.

The second shortcoming is one of ambition, and this is partly caused by Jenkins organising his material biographically. Chancellors such as Harcourt, Hicks Beach and the Chamberlain half-brothers had more than one term of office, yet their records are looked at in the context of single biographies, so it is very difficult to get a continuous sense of how economic policy evolved in context, or of how the position of Chancellor itself changed over time.

This biographical approach does place emphasis on the type of person who succeeded as Chancellor, yet in the cases of Churchill and Lloyd George you have two of the most influential Chancellors of the 20th Century, but in these critical cases the biographical details relevant to their Chancellorship is skimped over. As a consequence, there is no discussion of the relationship in Asquith's administration between Lloyd George as Chancellor and Churchill as President of the Board of Trade, how Churchill's unemployment pension and labour exchanges complemented Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions, and how this contrasted with Churchill's performance as a Conservative Chancellor fifteen years later. This is a major shortcoming.

This is unfortunate, as a comprehensive overview would be very illuminating. As it is, biographical attention is given to some of the forgotten names of British politics such as C.T Richie and Sir Robert Horne - which is very worthy, and the resulting vignettes are interesting in themselves, but I can't help feeling that this book as a whole should be seen as an opportunity lost.