Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

I feel very tentative about reviewing this novel by V S Naipaul – he is, after all, a Nobel laureate, and I have no qualifications other than a love of the world of ideas and the writing of several novels that nobody wishes to publish.
The trouble is, I don’t like the book. I finished reading it, but the further through it I read, the more I was having to grit my teeth.
There are several reasons why.

First and foremost, this is a nihilistic book. It decries human aspiration and emphasises its futility. Only one character achieves his life’s goal, and that goal could be said to be bizarre: the character is an Afro-Caribbean man whose ambition is to have a perfectly white grand-daughter that he can acknowledge publicly. And he is a minor character.

The second reason I dislike the book is that it has a lack of credible emotions. The most glaring examples occur when the protagonist, Willie, is a member of a Maoist cadre in India. On one occasion he is present when his colleague blows out the brains of a man believed to have been an informant. Does Willie feel doubt? Guilt? Fear? Satisfaction? The author doesn’t tell us, doesn’t even hint. On the second occasion, he shoots dead a villager for no reason other than to terrorise the remaining villagers. Once again there is no emotion. Later on in the text, being an accessory to the first death fetches Willie a 10 year prison sentence. Does he think about the person who was killed? Not at all.
I can understand the emotionless killings in the nihilist context of the book. They could be said to be a metaphor for the lack of any value to a human life. One can imagine a psychopath being unemotional about the killings. The trouble is that later on in the novel Naipaul describes sexual relationships between men and women. In these, too, there is a lack of emotion – indeed, the only real emotion described is embarrassment.

The third thing I really dislike about the novel is the politics described towards the end. The poor are described in terms that are disparaging; they are viewed through the lens of far-right politics. This upsets me – but it’s also a flaw in the novel because it’s not true. Not merely is it not true, it neglects the genuine social progress that has been made during the period in which the novel is set – progress that in many cases arises from those who live in social housing who are so denigrated by the novel.

In the world that I see around me, people love, people hate, people feel. Love, especially family love, can work miracles. I don’t find any of that in this book.

The writing is bloody brilliant, of course…

From a liberal point of view – June 2017

The tragedy of Grenfell House is unbearable. I don’t propose to write about the event itself, because there’s nothing I can add to the testimony of those who were there, and those who survived.

However, there is an angle to the disaster that I have not heard mentioned, and it holds some pointers towards minimising the risk of similar events.

The Civil Contingencies Act (2004) places a duty on all Local Authorities to develop and implement a Local Emergency Plan.

That is to say, every Local Authority must carry out a comprehensive risk assessment of possible events that could lead to loss of life or serious civil disruption, and put plans in place to mitigate those risks. They must do this in partnership with other Category 1 responders, who include the Police, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service, and the Environment Agency.

Planning to mitigate the risks involves training and exercises designed to identify weaknesses in emergency response.

During my time working for the Environment Agency, I took part in training sessions and exercises in emergency response. Feedback from participants after the exercises showed how effective they had been at identifying problems. These problems were then resolved.

Now, I was just about to type “It’s obvious that a good risk assessment leading to an emergency plan that you practise must lead to a better result when a disaster happens.” But then I thought “No, it clearly isn’t obvious, or all Local Authorities would be doing it diligently”

So let me give you a (fictional) example to consider.

A tanker driver is suffering from Type 2 diabetes. He doesn’t realise it, and during his journey he feels progressively more unwell. He drives onto the industrial site which is his destination, and blacks out at the wheel. The tanker ploughs through the concrete wall around a tank containing a highly toxic chemical, and splits the tank. The tanker itself starts to smoulder, as diesel and oil from the damaged engine contact the exhaust.

You have a man slumped over the tanker’s steering wheel, a tanker which could go up in flames any moment and a tank slowly leaking a highly toxic chemical. What do you do first?

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise that if you’ve planned for an event like this, you’re more likely to respond correctly than if you just wing it.

So it’s extremely important that every Local Authority takes their duty under the Civil Contingencies Act very seriously, and does a proper risk assessment, and ensures that all responders have trained together.

I hope that post-Grenfell, every Local Authority in the country revisits its risk assessment and its emergency plan, and renews and intensifies its training and exercises to ensure that the plan will be effective.

From a liberal point of view – February 2017

Yesterday, the House of Commons voted in favour of Brexit. To say that I am angry about Brexit is to massively understate my feelings. I am outraged by a decision that seems so palpably against the national interest.
But what will my anger achieve?
Nothing positive.
In the short term it will make me less happy. If the anger is prolonged (and there’s a real risk of that), it will adversely affect both my mental and physical health. Perhaps worst of all, because angry people usually think less clearly, my anger will make me less effective in opposing the many socially damaging policies that this government wishes to introduce.
So, I shall abandon anger.
Easier said than done. How can I do it?
As an aspiring wordsmith I believe passionately in the power of words. There are many Facebook threads and many journalistic articles that are angry rants. Every one of the angry words that I read (or listen to) is nudging my mental state towards anger and away from tolerance. Recognising this gives me two practical steps that I can take.
Practical step number 1 – I shall only read factual articles about Brexit, and I shall even try not to read too many of those. I shall stop reading, or viewing, angry rants (except – maybe – Jonathan Pie…).
Practical step number 2 – I shall try to remind myself continually that what I must oppose are the policies (Brexit, austerity etc) and the mindsets (racist, misogynist, homophobic) without demonising the people. Many of those who voted for Brexit did so for motives that they thought were right.
That does not mean that I shall be doing nothing. I shall continue to write to my MP about Brexit, the NHS, and the arms trade. I shall sign petitions. I shall attend meetings* and demonstrations. But I shall try to do so effectively and without anger.
Wish me luck!
*For any South Devon readers, there’s a meeting in the Civic Hall, Totnes, at 7:30 p.m. Friday February 10th, to discuss the future of progressive politics. Caroline Lucas should be there!
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