JEWS DON’T COUNT by David Baddiel

I really like David Baddiel. His television comedy work was my era. He made me laugh hard back in the day. As a social media user, his wit and comical observations shine through to this day. I was drawn to this book for other reasons though. As I try and read far and wide and learn more about ethnic minorities and their cultures, Baddiel’s voice is strong in guiding me. His extraordinary BBC documentary, Confronting Holocaust Denial left me reeling at the depths of antisemitism exposed.

Jews Don’t Count rummages amongst celebrities, politicians and us, the general public, exposing the hypocrisy in our current world of virtue signalling, identity politics and ‘gotcha’ social media campaigns. It might be true that minorities are thankfully championed and supported in the public domain far more than when I was a young man, yet, as David Baddiel shows, Jews are largely (and glaringly) omitted from the agenda of the anti-racists.

It is a tough and uncomfortable lesson which Baddiel delivers in this short but mightily powerful book. At around 150 pages, it still finds room to pin down every riposte from even the most ignorant and bigoted view points. I saw somewhere this book described as a ‘polemic’. I’m struggling with that as the author’s case building and arguments really do leave no room for doubt as to the experience of Jews.

Baddiel is a great writer and such a persuasive and informative voice. Not that I would want to, but I couldn’t find any counter narratives within my own understanding or beliefs to any of the many cases studies employed here. I would consider myself to be progressive and anti-racist, not to mention left-leaning when it comes to politics. Have I ever been guilty of the dismissive, lazy racism (in the form of antisemitism) which Baddiel points to here? I hope not. But, I’ll be making sure I take my better understanding into the future. I thank Jews Don’t Count for this.

The book is crisp and cutting as well as beautifully elegant in its delivery. Remarkably, Baddiel rarely drifts into raw anger, but is constantly firm and refreshingly open. We shouldn’t need reminding that the Nazi’s (and Communists) feared and hated Jews. Both spread the image of a monied and powerful group who aren’t to be trusted. The modern day left and progressives seem to use the perceived wealth and whiteness of Jews to justify excluding them from the anti-racist and anti-persecution agendas.

Baddiel (very much leaning to the left himself), shows time after time again how Jews are portrayed in political campaigns, literature, the press and in the rest of the media, as being the white, privileged and capitalist enemies of progression. Worse though, Jews are too often subjected to physical, verbal and emotional racist abuse. Racism is not acceptable, full stop, a stand we must all take.

I read this pacey and urgent text in a day and feel enriched by the experience. From football terrace chants to comedy, the racism experienced by Jews simply would not be accepted were other minorities to be similarly abused. I am left with a determination to speak up with more force and confidence and to be brave enough to challenge those of my peers who seem to have (and what a horrible and dismissive phrase this is) a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to antisemitism.

The arguments made in Jews Don’t Count aren’t just powerful, they are essential, but you really need to read this book to understand just how powerful. It is not for me, from my actual position of white, middle class privilege to make this case, but it is for me to urge you to read the book.

Coincidently, I read Jews Don’t Count directly after reading A Meal In Winter, a powerful, pocket sized novella which has The Holocaust and antisemitism at its heart. I recommend both.

A MEAL IN WINTER by Hubert Mingarelli

This small book set me on a journey of discovery. I’d not heard of the author until I listened to the book being discussed on Radio 4’s A Good Read. The program is a rich source of reading suggestions and often encourages me to delve further into less commercial areas of literature. I was fascinated by the debate about this book and immediately added it to my wish list.

It is a small book (a ‘novella’ perhaps) and as such is a quick read. What it lacks in thickness is more than made up for by its depth. It challenged me to pause and consider again just how war plays out for those in the middle of it. The story is set in the depths of a Polish winter during World War II. We see a brief snapshot of the war for three German soldiers. The book’s narrator is one of the three and he delivers an almost monotone account despite the most awful circumstances surrounding their roles in Poland.

The three are desperate to avoid the “work” which is carried out at the German base. This work, it turns out is the most horrific imaginable, acting as executioners to the Jews who have been captured and brought back. They convince a commanding officer to instead use them to go out into the freezing wilderness to find Jews and bring them back to base. To their inevitable fate. It is chilling. And breathtakingly awful.

The whole story is made so much more grizzly by the matter of fact way the Germans talk about their roles. This is a translation from Mingarelli’s native French (Un Repas En Hiver) by Sam Taylor. Sadly I don’t read in any other language than my own native tongue, because I’d be intrigued to know if the sparsity felt the same in French. For me the tone conveys a numbing and a weariness in the soldiers. They had been part of a gruesome Europe wide crusade and the sheer magnitude of The Holocaust seems to have sanitised their minds to the task. Their humanity remains only tenuously intact, although they aren’t portrayed as out-and-out monsters.

The Jew they capture is hiding out alone, cold, hungry and filthy. The three soldiers find he offers no resistance as they begin their freezing journey back to base. On the way, they hole up in a derelict cottage. They need shelter and warmth as the night approaches. They are spooked by a local Polish man who mysteriously joins them. The animosities are large in the small building, but the Germans nervously accept his presence.

The Pole is hateful and hostile to the Jew and our soldiers find themselves protecting him from the extreme anti-sematic attitude of the unwelcome visitor. Like I say, the narration implies an ambivalence towards the Jew – whilst they don’t seem to care about his fate, they certainly wouldn’t let the Pole dictate the options for him. Despite the light touch of the narration, I formed a very clear mental image of the cottage, right down to the distances between the characters and the nature of the shadows cast by the light from the fire they light. I’d be a happy man if I could write such detail without needing to resort to gushing and descriptive prose. It is, in my opinion, a beautifully written book.

Mingarelli published A Meal In Winter in 2012 (this translation followed in 2013) and was nominated for some prestigious awards. There are some big questions for the reader here. Who did I feel sympathy for as the group of four prepared and ate a meal (after an unspoken debate about whether to allow the Jew his share) with their collective, and meagre, supplies? The answer is obvious, or it should be, and the powerful emotions which rose in me serve as timely reminders to never forget.

In a clever and hinted at sub-plot, there is a mortal fate awaiting one of the three. It is striking that his worries are more about whether his own son will grow up to be a smoker, for example, than the horror about to be dealt to their captive if they carry out the mission to deliver him to base.

Without having a common language between them, the Germans, the Pole and the Jew play out their moral and desperate choices through their actions and gestures. It is truly remarkable to witness this interplay between the five of them through Mingarelli’s prose and the spaces within it.

A quick read which left me reeling. I’m now two and a half books later still getting flashbacks to A Meal In Winter.

I strongly recommend.

RECORD PLAY PAUSE by Stephen Morris

Stephen Morris never really got on with formal education. You’ll discover the extend of his aversion to the classroom through the early part of this excellent memoir. That he writes with a wit, with a passion and with aplomb is down to his passion for reading I reckon. He spent many an hour in his youth in libraries, book shops and, of course, record stores. But not so much in school! His love of music is maybe predictable but the extent of his passion for literature came as a pleasant surprise.

I ordered Record Play Pause after hearing Morris on Radio 4’s A Good Read. He impressed me with his enthusiasm and critical commentary on the books being discussed. Through this BBC podcast, he introduced me to the (very) leftfield world of author David Keenan (read my review of Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device here).

All of which meant I was very much looking forward to creasing the spine of Record Play Pause.

Well, what a joy this book is. There is always a level of trepidation when turning the first page of a memoir (or autobiography). How many are launched in hardback and given as Christmas presents – selling in large numbers simply because of the name on the front? Too many I reckon, and a large proportion will be dry, bland, descriptive affairs destined to gather dust and never be read.

I needn’t have worried. The attention to detail which we all enjoy so much in his musicianship is on display here in his words too.

There is a humble self awareness about Stephen Morris, which is comes through wonderfully on the page. Here we follow his childhood, teenage years and the all too short career of Joy Division (Morris is promising a Part II which will take in the New Order era), the book combines his determination to follow his dreams with a darkly humorous catalogue of mistakes and mishaps.

It would have been easy (and lazy) for him to let the narrative follow the life of Joy Division’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, leaving Morris playing a secondary role – the mass media only ever mention Curtis and one particular Joy Division song (Love Will Tear Us Apart) – so he could have ‘cashed in’ on that angle of the story. Not a bit of it, this is the world of Stephen Morris through the words of Stephen Morris. Given the beautiful way with language the man has, my library of musical memoirs is so much richer because of this book.

The sad suicide of Ian Curtis is dealt with tenderly but without gushing romance. Morris’ fondness of his friend and bandmate comes through in the passages around the time of Curtis’ death. It is dramatic and a turning point in all the band member’s lives, but I like the way the author shows us that moment in time without melodrama nor voyeurism. He pulls no punches but also doesn’t add any unnecessary band-standing to the story.

I could claim that the book will appeal to everyone, whatever your musical tastes, age, or your record buying history, but that may not be completely true. It would more than stand up alongside any other autobiography of a musician trying to find his way in the world, but I found myself nodding along as Morris reminded me of bands and venues as well as music press and radio which have also featured in my life when I was a young man. Without these reference points, the reader might possibly become lost in the chronology. That said, because of the popularity of New Order, and the legendary status of Joy Division, I’m sure nearly everyone will enjoy the story.

Anyone with even a passing interest in music (and a love of the written word) will finish this book enriched. The very northern, very ‘real’ nature of Joy Division and their association with the emerging Factory Records and the legendary Hacienda night club is told in eloquent and honest detail.

Stephen Morris writes in a coy, subtly humorous and thoughtful voice which is a delight to read.

I heartily recommend this book and eagerly await Part II!

FRANCIS PLUG: HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR by Paul Ewan

Regular readers (for there are a few!) might remember that I made a few pledges in my manifesto for 2021. One of those pledges was to keep buying books from independent publishers. I chose this beauty from Gallery Beggar in January. Like a full roast dinner I wasn’t put off by it’s size and woofed down all 300 pages in a couple of days.

Paul Ewan has created the fictitious Francis Plug and tells the tale of learning about how authors behave in public through Plug’s eyes. On the front cover The New Statesman declare it “a comic masterpiece”, and I’m not going to argue. From quite early on I found myself irritating my wife as I burst out laughing. Francis Plug isn’t so much a car crash waiting to happen, as constantly in the middle of one. On more than one occasion I found myself looking away from the page cringing as it became apparent what inappropriate questions Plug was about to ask.

Ewan pulls off a neat trick – quite early into the book I was living the story, I’d forgotten that Plug was a creation. He attends literary events, armed with a copy of each author’s Booker Prize winning novel and attempts to get them signed whilst observing the writers’ behaviour, attire and manner. All of this is research for the book he’s writing, How To Be A Public Author. Which, of course, is the book you are reading. Even though it is fictitious. For me, Paul Ewan has been fiendishly clever in making Plug believable – there are pictures of dedications to Francis Plug at the start of each chapter and Plug’s behaviour plays little tricks with the narrative in relation to each author. Or rather Ewan does.

He attends some events as a genuine ticket holder, others he simply waits outside for the signing and others still he enters through devious and dubious means. The same goes for the books themselves, although I won’t spoil this brilliant little twist for you.

For sure it is a literary tale, there are anecdotes about 25 or more Booker Prize Winning authors, but the joke never tires because it is different every time. Parallel to Plug’s literary journey is the disintegration of the rest of his life. There are moments of poignant beauty alongside the humorous carnage. Plug is a lost and lonely soul and I couldn’t help but feel sad for him as his work and meagre domestic life start unravelling. The drink is never far away as he battles his own self-destruction. The ultimate goal is to culminate his research at the actual Booker Prize ceremony leaving him both able to complete the book and also prepare himself for when he is awarded the prize himself. He is happily deluding himself that this is a given.

Written in a such a way that I couldn’t help but march forward from chapter to chapter. Plug notices some charmingly obscure details in each of the surroundings he finds himself. He takes these little details and creates new behaviours for himself. Peeling stickers off the books on supermarket shelves to decorate the trolley handle, whilst adorning the books with labels he’s taken off the fruit. Maybe it’s just my humour, but those quirky anecdotes kept me smiling throughout the book.

My lovely wife Nicky has just started reading Wolf Hall and so I had to share with her Plug’s challenge that maybe Hilary Mantel had made up the name of the town where she lived, Budleigh Salterton, in order to throw people off the scent. A quite lovely scene.

Now that I’m working harder at my own writing I can only imagine the years which have gone into creating such a richly detailed tome, whilst retaining the light hearted romp through the literary world.

There is a sequel. It will soon be joining my ‘to be read’ pile.

If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading have a gander here. Or for more reviews, why not feast your eyes here.

THE MOTEL LIFE by Willy Vlautin

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, reading books is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Unless, I suppose, if you only read one author in one genre of fiction. 

So, with Nicky having given The Motel Life an “It’s…… o…..k…” I thought I’d find out for myself. Some books have a build up – this was featured on Radio 4’s A Good Read and Benjamin Myers (one of my absolute favourite authors) described Willy Vlautin as one of (if not the) best American novelist around.

What is all the fuss about?

I’ll tell you, The Motel Life is a novel about life. About two brothers living on the margins of society. About rolling with the punches but also about being defeated by the punches. About loyalty, family, responsibility. About opportunity, but mostly about the lack of it. About guilt and a deep sense of right and wrong. About finding (or not finding) love. About pain.

Two brothers, surviving on the scraps thrown to them, go on the run after an error of judgement leads to a fatal accident. They then rummage through the mess of small town America. Our narrator, Frank, and his elder brother Jerry Lee (along with the dog they acquire along the way) bounce off a small cast of characters. They are far from simple, but their story is told with an uncomplicated delivery. 

Vlautin’s prose is personal, crisp and percussive – I could feel the rhythm of the story pulling me through the pages. I’m no American cultural expert, but The Motel Life could be an early Springsteen album. Jerry Lee drives the narrative – cracking the top off another beer and facing each challenge without a dramatic build up – and is a comfort to his brother as their luck deteriorates and a boost when good fortune comes their way. He also did that for me as a reader, Vlautin (through Jerry Lee) explores a persistent but fragile humanity which I felt obliged to believe in and left me needing to root for the brothers despite their desperate, poverty stricken cause.

Day to day life is often complicated for ‘normal’ people and Willy Vlautin demonstrates this with these naive but strangely determined brothers. I suppose you could call it Americana (it just wouldn’t fit set in my small town here in the UK) and for me it is an understated gem.

I absolutely loved it.

To see what else I’ve been reading, have a click here or for more reviews here.

The Human Son by Adrian J Walker

After reading the hundred year old dystopian classic, We, I thought I’d bring myself right up to date with the genre. I have previously devoured two of Adrian J Walker’s futuristic tales (The Last Dog On Earth and The End Of The World Running Club). Both were excellent page turners, emotionally charged and set against desolate, post apocalyptic landscapes. Was I hoping for more of the same? Another dystopian journey while our actual lives during the last year has at times felt like they are being lived in a bleak work of fiction, is that what I wanted?

I needn’t have worried. Walker’s latest opus (it was published during 2020) is not only quite different from other futuristic tales, but also a beautiful read.

At first glance there appears to be all the ingredients for a dystopia – 500 or so years in the future, the earth no longer inhabited by humans, but with this book we are almost immediately treated to some hope. The race (The Erta) who now sparsely inhabit the planet were originally one of the last human projects. A last ditch attempt to reverse human damage. Well over those few hundred years that is exactly what The Erta have achieved. So, unlike a typical dystopian, or science fiction tale, the earth is in fine fettle.

Why The Human Son? Well, The Erta decide that their work is done and an experiment should be carried out in trying to create Homo Sapien again in the form of one child, to see how he (for it is a boy, eventually named Reed) will respond and adapt.

Walker has an eye for the soul in his characters, and so Ima (chosen to be the boy’s ‘mother’) immediately had my backing in the project. The writing is almost poetic at times. The book became part of me for the whole read. I always know I’m enjoying a book when my phone goes untouched during my break at work. Or if I read a few pages while I cook.

With reference to some of the literature, journals and podcasts about literary fiction I’ve been consuming lately, The Human Son felt almost refreshingly light in its delivery. Not that it is lacking in any depth at all, just not trying to go beyond giving the reader the actual story. Despite this, there is nothing formulaic. Walker has created Ima to be ‘imperfect’ and the idea that the science of The Erta will trump the emotion of humanity is challenged throughout.

The Human Son is imaginative, but so much more too. The deeper I went in, the more I was getting out. I found myself using the book as a mirror too. The human behaviour which led to the earth reaching its tipping point in the book is going on all around us right now. This isn’t force fed by Walker, it is crumb fed. And that feels right. 

Sure it’s a climate emergency book, but it is also a study of how society can fall apart, how even a supposedly scientifically created race can lapse into factions and quarrels. Not only that, it is a wonderful study of parenthood, of childhood and coming of age. 

Boasting almost 500 pages, the book soon had me turning the pages and there is nothing daunting about the story. I’m finding myself tired of book labels – who decides what is genre fiction, or literary fiction? What I like about Adrian J Walker’s books is that he seems happy to be classed however the world of books decides. For me, his books are thrilling, exciting, dramatic and pacy, like any thriller. And yet, the levels of poignancy and moments of stillness lend his books an atmosphere of contemplation at times too. That particularly goes for The Human Son. Emotions are gently exposed and discovered as the truth of Reed becomes apparent to both him and Ima.

Walker also pulls off the trick of narrating in the first and second person – Ima is telling the story for Reed to find at a later date. This produces a little bit of clumsiness for me towards the end of the book, but not enough to put me off my reading pace. 

A fine read which had me asking myself plenty of questions about existence and truth.

I heartily recommend.

Please check out my previous book reviews, and my reading list for 2021. And if you’re really down with kids, why not have a gander at my Instagram Page too.