An authentic account of working-class life

Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis (J.D. Vance)

Non-fiction authors who write about what it is like when your resources and life prospects are limited are, by and large, no more likely to have experienced real hardship than their educated readers have lined up at soup kitchens.  George Orwell may have been Down and Out in Paris and London, but as an Old Etonian with some family members still around he could easily have fallen back on more comfortable lifestyle options if he had chosen to do so.  Even so, his fieldwork yields vivid insights into the lives of the low-paid and have-nots of his era.

A couple of admirable contemporary books which have recently drawn me into the lives of the less fortunate touch on crime-plagued areas of Mexico and the struggles of evicted retirees in Shanghai.  But both follow the usual template of the writer as outsider – the journalist playing amateur anthropologist.

J.D. Vance belongs to a very different category.  He has family who are still stuck in the rut of poverty and wasted lives – he spent his youth in that tough environment.  His book Hillbilly Elegy, recommended by Bill Gates (I’m going to check out the rest of his reading list), is an analysis of working class life written by someone who has lived that life.  It’s a rare gem.

At heart it is a memoir of growing up as rural working class in both the Appalachian part of Kentucky and Middletown in Ohio (which developed a sort of Kentucky hillbilly community, as streams of workers moved north in search of better employment).  Vance’s upbringing, and the luck (and hard work) that allowed him to break free of the cycle of underachievement, gives him the perspective to take a considered look at what is wrong, and why, in his hillbilly culture.

His is not an analysis packed with possible solutions to the malaise.  But neither does he resign himself to the impossibility of improving the prospects of the next generation of hillbillies.  On the whole his book reads as an undogmatic, balanced survey of the situation, informed by three sources: his own childhood memories, his own escape from his chaotic family to the utterly different planet that is Yale Law School, and recent academic studies into the condition of ‘his’ people.

You have to admire his honesty.  It can’t have been easy for him to write about what is wrong with the norms and mores of a group that includes many people he loves dearly.  A consistent concern in his investigation into why social mobility is virtually at a standstill is that the hillbillies have no expectations of improving their lives.  Their own mindset limits them.  It’s easy for them to blame governments or society and assume they themselves are powerless to bring about any change to their own condition.  The blame trend, Vance suggests at one point, is ‘gaining adherents by the day’.

Perhaps this deep-rooted scepticism about politicians, the press and a host of other external forces is what some of the admiring critics are thinking of when they claim, as in the quote from The Independent on the front of my copy, that this book gives insights into Trump and even Brexit.  The idea that this book is a portrait of Trump era America is misleading, though, as it was written before Trump was a serious presidential candidate.

I enjoy books like this that challenge certain common liberal assumptions.  For instance, pay-day lenders and loan sharks are a bad thing, aren’t they?  Not so, says Vance.  They enabled him to get his hands on cash.  Sometimes you need to pay for things upfront, and if banks won’t lend you money then these less reputable enterprises do at least give you another lifeline, so long as you’re disciplined enough the pay back the loan quickly.

He also takes issue with the assertion that economic regeneration cures all.  It is tempting to side with commentators who say that giving working class people access to jobs will solve the social problems of teenage parenthood, divorce, domestic violence and substance abuse.  But the sad reality is that too often, the young person simply doesn’t particularly want a job, or doesn’t want to exert himself much even when he has been given a foot in the door by a generous employer.

If there is a chink of light, albeit narrow, then perhaps it lies in hillbilly self-help.  You can blame your environment all you like, but at some point you have to get up and take responsibility for your own actions: give up the drugs, lay off the drink, spend your money wisely, improve your education.



The present tense tendency

My problem with the present tense

If I pick up a book that looks promising, but on flicking through the pages I find it’s written in the present tense, I’m afraid it’s less than likely to join my reading pile.

I do seem to be coming across more and more books which eschew the past tense.  Is it a contemporary fashion?  Maybe.  Or perhaps there have there always been plenty of books written in the present tense, but I used to neither notice nor care.

The Dark Room

The novel I’ve just finished reading, published in 2001, isn’t exactly contemporary, but it suffers from this stylistic affectation.  The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert comprises three narratives, with two set during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath and the other in the 1990s.  All are written in the present tense.  When playing ‘spot the past tense’, I did find some examples in story three, but only because it contains much more dialogue, in which characters refer to completed actions, than the previous two stories.

I’m glad the author realises that we generally use the simple past tense when chatting about what we did yesterday.  But the rest of the time, she uses the present tense – or the present tense, as in this piece of context setting:

“Helmut’s father has found regular work with Herr Gladigau, who owns the photography shop at the station.”

Now, I don’t want to sound like a cane-wielding grammarian, but there is a reason for having a simple past tense.  It’s for describing events that took place in the past.

Yes, I’m aware that one can use the ‘historic present’.  It’s a useful device which allows a writer to elevate moments of excitement and make them more tense and immediate.  But cover-to-cover present tense is another annoyance altogether…

“Paris falls and the Fuhrer returns triumphant to Berlin”.

It would do no harm to write fell and returned, would it?

The current prevalence of the present tense in literature seems to link to a trend for using it on the radio.  A few years back Radio 4’s John Humphreys took notable exception to the present tense fetish.  He didn’t like Melvyn Bragg and guests on the history and ideas discussion programme In Our Time uttering ‘The king uses his influence to….’ or ‘Socrates insists that….’.

I don’t really mind the radio usage.  Radio is a medium that is all about immediacy, which is why an evening newsreader reporting on something the Prime Minister said in a lunchtime speech will say, ‘The Prime Minister insists that all options are still on the table…’

But when it’s between the covers of a book, I’m dubious.

Bertie, May & Mrs Fish

Funnily enough, the other book I had on the go – a memoir of a 1940s rural childhood – happens to be a further example of start-to-finish present tense.

The real selling point of Bertie, May & Mrs Fish is the evocation of sights, textures and sensations, and the present tense actually suits this quite well.  The author, Xandra Bingley, is picturing herself as a child – and for a child, the present is what matters.  The photos don’t have captions, and we aren’t always sure of the identity of their subjects; this is all of a piece with the blurry, in-the-moment quality of the book.  The fact that the author has chosen to avoid the backstories and hindsight commentary that are usual in memoirs means that she is freer to concentrate on the here and now, the present moment.

Even so, it’s not a style, nor a tense, that sits easily with me.

My review of A State of Freedom (a novel by Neel Mukherjee, 2017)

A work infused with the plight of the poor, touched by a hint of mystery

The author’s third novel is an engrossing, layered read, made up of vaguely interconnected stories.

A middle class London-based Indian comes over to visit his parents in Mumbai and feels Western liberal guilt in his dealings with the women paid to cook and clean.  A desperately poor villager goes awandering with his performing bear.  A girl from a rural village moves to the city, and moves between employers, to better her income and life.

It’s a novel about migration.  Not so much to different countries, but within the same vast country.  Poor people accept and follow the course that fate sets them, leaving old lives behind and trying their luck somewhere new, a choice born of necessity.

Mukherjee is sympathetic towards his characters’ problems but also unsparing in his gaze.  I can’t help thinking that the author is like a doomsaying mechanic who you call up when you’ve made a mistake, like put petrol in your diesel car.  Ooooh, you’re gonna have problems there….

I am slightly bemused by the two additional, very short narratives that top and tail the book.  The first leads to a shocking, disturbing denouement which left me hanging.  I kept thinking we would get answers later in the book.  I still hadn’t lost hope when I reached the final few pages, where I thought we would be taken full-circle back to the beginning.  But no, we weren’t.

In fact, I would have liked a return to all the narratives.  I wished that the stories could be taken up again and perhaps find some sort of resolution.  A more satisfying coherence could have been achieved if the stories had shared more connections.  As for the closing narrative, which takes the form of a workman’s stream of voice reflections, it seemed a bit underdeveloped.  It’s not the best note on which to take our leave of the book.

The novel’s Indian flavour comes as much from its description of food, cooking and associated routines as from its depictions of poverty and allusions to contemporary problems such as corruption and Maoist insurgency.  It’s nice to see regional food traditions still firmly embedded in society: the Mumbai parents teach their cook to prepare dishes from their native West Bengal.

The novel itself, although often sad and downbeat, could be thought of as one of those richly complex, carefully composed Indian curries.  My tasting notes would declare it very good but not quite perfectly balanced.  The opening narrative is the dry-fried spice mix that introduces a subtle but fascinating tone of mystery that never quite goes away, yet there is something missing – the garam masala, if you like – that would have finished the book off perfectly.


Reading and real life

On Radio 3’s Private Passions earlier this year, the writer Vesna Goldsworthy touched on the commonly held view that reading books is no substitute for ‘real life’.  A voracious reader, Goldsworthy believes the opposite.  For her, books are the thing.

What about for me?  Do I feel I am living a real life when I am reading a book?  It’s true that I have sometimes used books to distract me from the world and to get me through suffocating days in which my life was going nowhere fast and I wasn’t getting out much.  I could immerse myself in an account of 19th century discoveries (or rediscoveries) of incredible wall paintings in India, or bury myself in the fictional tale of a doomed uprising by fruitpickers in 1930s California.  The material mattered less than its ability to lift me, for a while, out of a rut.

And yet it does not follow that those hours spent reading were hours passed in comfortable pointlessness.  For I am not so certain that the real world activities I was missing out on were so much more constructive.  Yes, in my case a healthy burst of social activity would have been very good for me: but possibly once we get above a certain base level of weekly socialising we’re into diminishing returns territory.  We can learn a good deal in just one hour’s worth of reading.  What’s more – and I’m honestly not trying to be flippant or pretentious – we can use what we have read and thought over to intrigue our companions in social encounters.

Naturally, the physical world affords us the vital opportunity to move around as nature intended and keep our bodies in shape.  Reading’s problem is that it is sedentary.  Unlike tennis, where doubles partners cheerfully banter away between or even during points, we cannot do anything else while we have our eyes fixed on a page.

Yet I don’t think we need to feel sheepish about reading.  First, of course, we should try to find profitable work around which to structure our day.  Then we should incorporate plenty of physical activity into our regime and cook ourselves wholesome food.  After that, the spare minutes or hours can usefully be filled by reading.

I think reading is an enterprise less detached from the real world than playing a game of chess, say, or watching a film or making cookies.  Because books force us to think about things left unspoken, to empathize with people we assume are very unlike us.  Books connect us to eras and places far removed from our own.  Ever so subtly, they rewire our brains.


Container ship tales

Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare (2014)

“Writers in residence” have earned many an organisation, company, city or even football club some cultural kudos.

An example from a quick web search today: the Royal College of Nurses has recently recruited a writer, whose focus will be poetry.

What about non-fiction works of writers in residence?  I can think of two, off the top of my head, and both concern methods of transport.

One is a A Week at the Airport, short volume about Heathrow by philosopher Alain de Botton.  The other, which I have just finished reading, is Down to the Sea in Ships, an account by Horatio Clare of his time on two Maersk container ships.

Clare wanted to see what life is like below decks and to indulge his fascination for the sea.  It was also a chance to shed light on work that few of us know much about, or pause to consider, but which we rely on to bring us the clutter that an overheated consumer society cannot do without (the same ships take our purchases back to China for recycling once we have tired of them).

From what I’ve read of Clare’s journalism, he’s an accomplished writer. But in this book I feel he is trying too hard to be writerly.  It is as if he feels that, in order to justify to Maersk that his time with them was put to proper use, he must pen something that has at least a surface-deep resemblance to the more finely-wrought examples of travel literature.  His poetic turns do occasionally evoke a sense of place, such as the bitterly cold environs of Montreal, but often they just seem to be there for the sake of it, ticking literary boxes and padding out the book.  It doesn’t help that the containers and pipes and shafts and oily engine bits (some of the technical stuff went over my head) are ugly and boring and not ideal matches for ‘nature’ writing.

Clare’s descriptions don’t always leave us with a clear or useful idea of a scene.  His poetic straining often gets buffeted by some prosaic and superfluous marine notes, as here:

‘The sea is cold shades of blue.  Rings of sun spotlight puddles of gold behind us.  We are at latitude 45 degrees 31 minutes North and making southwards, so we have passed the zenith of our Great Circle.’

To his credit, however, he has a neat way of describing his ships’ cargo from the point of view of its end use, which is of course the point of view that matters:

‘Two thousand tonnes of knives, forks and other steel household goods will be laid and deployed in homestead America, while three thousand tonnes of tables and chairs are set and drawn up for the meal’

He shares useful and salutary observations about the treatment of the lowest paid – generally Filipinos – in the cargo shipping industry.  But the men he meets at all levels are true ‘men’ in that their characters have been forged and strengthened not just by lonely lives far from home comforts, but also by their awareness that the world is largely indifferent to them.  They reminded me of soldiers in war memoirs I have read.  Despite the book’s shortcomings, in revealing how the products of a globalised world cross the oceans the author has done both the crew and the reader a useful service.

container ship

Real life and the novel: fiction helps us understand the world

The best novels confront us with the truth about what it is to be human

What does it mean to ‘write well’?  For a novelist, it means many things: intriguing ideas, some kind of storyline, neat phrasing, relatable characters, powerful descriptions.

But in this posting I am concerned with a novelistic device that, for me, elevates so many of the best books I have read.  I am talking here about articulating uneasy truths.

Margaret Forster does it well, up to a point, in Over, which I’ve nearly finished.  It is not actually a very ‘literary’ novel.  As an analysis of the impact on the narrator of her teenage daughter’s death, it’s a bit family drama-ish, too straightforward.  A touch underpowered, it needed more of that creative sparkle and tension that ambiguities can often provide.

Truth in fiction

But both its faults and its qualities did make me think about the best literary fiction I have read, and drew to the surface a hitherto rather vague query of mine: namely, how people who don’t read books get exposed to frank explorations of human behaviour and its contradictions.  For penetrating insights into life and relationships, it is hard to better a good novel.  Moreover, how can anyone manage to get a handle on those tantalisingly ungraspable aspects of our existence without the articulacy of an accomplished novelist to do part of the job for them?

The truths contained in fiction are the portals to the regions of the not-quite-known. This is probably why, if asked to name the world’s supreme art form, I would choose the novel.  Where it really earns its corn is in its ability to conjure up essential truths about what it is to be human.


The strength of Over lies in the sensitive unfolding of the narrator Louise’s painful memories, the thought processes of a bereaved mother.  She’ll say one thing to a friend, while thinking something almost completely the opposite.  She hesitates and admits to confusion in her feelings.  She’ll think the unthinkable about her own husband.  It all seems to ring true.   We might even recognise our own behaviours.  Recognising our behaviours is a step towards altering them: novels can indeed change the world.  I know that my own mindset (if not, yet, the way I act) has undergone some realignment as a result of fiction I have read in recent years.

Louise tries to justify her actions, which is as we should expect, for this is her story, but I eventually got a sense that the author herself, at the outset seemingly in tune and in sympathy with her subject, is not altogether on her character’s side after all.  This has forced me to rethink some of what I read earlier in the novel – now that I realise that I should not have taken on board everything in the woman’s account so uncritically.  That’s what I like a novel to do.

Even so, as I have suggested, I have read fictional works with many more ambiguities and more layers than Over.  Most of these works are justly celebrated, classics even.  They confirm, paradoxically, that novels do a better job of dissecting life’s complexities than factual books.  They resolve the hunch we already have about what we ‘kind of’ know, that which is just out of our reach.  At the same time they do the opposite by shaking up and turning over our accepted notions of how people think and behave.

No art form has greater scope for intimacy, and therefore truth-telling, than the novel – save perhaps the poem.  Paintings may move us, but do not detain us long; there are also limits to how far we can ‘know’ the artist’s intention or subject matter.  Feature films swamp the message with distracting images.

Non-readers perhaps find answers to life’s barely answerable questions through the some of the finer examples of cinematic drama, or through self-reflection and observation.  For me, these aren’t quite enough.  I need help from novels.

one book

Book buying in Mexico City

A traveller who owns and like using an e-reader can pack Thomas Hardy’s complete works alongside socks and shaving gear.

I’m not like that.  I need printed, bound pages.  So for my reading matter in Mexico City over the first six months of this year, I relied on a couple of books hauled over from England and, once I’d read those, what I could pick up along the way.

My overall literary experience in Mexico was one of mild frustration mixed with hints of excitements to come.  While I’m a fan of the shop selling used books in English, a quiet retreat above the American Legion in Condesa, I had to admit that its apparently wide selection was rendered slightly less than useful by its eclecticism.  A good part of the non-fiction section was beyond its shelf life, taken up by books on issues that may have been significant once upon a time, but alas no more.

A greater problem was the cost.  The newer, shinier volumes cost a bomb.  I restricted myself to old, scruffy paperbacks, which narrowed my choice.  However, as so often in life, less choice brings its own blessings.  If I’d had a broader selection, I might have gone through my time on this earth never having read Midnight Express, the entertaining and apparently ‘cult’ chronicle of a young American’s time in a Turkish jail in the early 70s – a book I had not heard of.  And I  would have missed out on Our Gang, Philip Roth’s uproariously over-the-top satire on the Nixon administration.

Not far away from this bookshop is the well-appointed Cafébreria.  As the name suggests, it is part café, part book store.  It has a good selection of English books in addition to its Spanish language titles.  But someone there seems to have forgotten that one of the main reasons for visiting a bookshop is the opportunity to browse.  Here, the majority of titles had tight plastic covers, compelling me to – well, judge the books by their covers.

But now to the more positive side of my Mexico book experience, which was the energising thought that I was on the verge of being ready to read a book in Spanish, my understanding and vocabulary taken to a new level by sustained exposure to the language and regular purchases of newspapers such as El Universal.

A conversation exchange partner gave me the titles of two books which she reckoned I would be able to cope with.  I never did actually get my hands of them, but for a while I liked to picture myself nestling up with a book in a foreign language!


But I did get my hands on something rather satisfying, right at the end of my stay.  A nice understated cafe called Pod Kfe has a couple of small shelves with second-hand books, mainly English ones, available for purchase or exchange.  These included four or five James Bond books.  All the copies were in as-new condition, and all were Penguin USA editions graced by illustrations of scantily clad or erotically posed females on the covers.

Their value on a Mexican bookshop shelf would equal a good few vodka martinis.  A fan of Bond novels, I brought along a couple of worthwhile books which I considered a fair swap, and went home clutching From Russia With Love.

Photo of Pod Kfe Français - Juárez, CDMX, Mexico

– Pod Kfe, Calle Marsella, Mexico City.  The book swap shelf can be seen on the left, just past the door