Review: CHECKOUT A Life on the Tills – Anna Sam

I have just returned from France where shopping in Carrefour, Leclerc and Auchan was the usual delight, er, er, experience, so very different from shopping in British shops, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.  It was fun reading the inside story on working in superstores in Anna Sam’s book Checkout.  If ever there was a lightweight holiday read this is it, but it also worth reading as a snapshot of something in daily life we take for granted – the visit to the supermarket till.

Anna Sam worked for eight years in a Leclerc superstore in Rennes as a check-out operator (a job which she amusingly describes as “beepeuse” in her interview with the Daily Telegraph). With her degree in French literature, Anna Sam was never going to be content with sitting at the till year in year out, and when she cottoned on to the power of the Internet, she launched her blog, Les Tribulations d’une Cassiere, (see the Google Translate version here) which became an instant success.

Book deals and possible film offers followed with the result that Anna Sam is no longer a beepeuse, showing once again the power of the Internet to catapult people into prominence.

Enough of the background.  Checkout is a humorous but also rather humbling account of the experience of dealing with customers – people like you and me who have to shop and try to keep the experience as quick and efficient as possible, often ignoring the real people who work in our local stores.   Customers continue mobile phone conversations while packing their bags.  They sneeze over the operator.  They belittle the staff in front of their children (“if you don’t work hard at school you will end up in a job like this”).

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Review: Born Yesterday – Gordon Burn

Gordon Burn died two weeks ago, after a writing career in which he developed a reputation for covering difficult subjects with a radical pen.  Burn sliced through the myths about celebrity and fame, whether dealing with notorious criminals (Fred and Rosemary West, Myra Hindley, Peter Sutcliffe), or well known figures in the entertainment and sporting worlds (George Best, Alma Cogan).

Despite his subject matter, Gordon Burn was never prurient or out to shock, but wanted to get behind the person to the reasons for their actions and the meaning of what they did.  He came to his topics dispassionately but shone a torch into murky corners to show the complicit systems in media and politics that supported the lives of outcasts and celebrities alike.

Burn was not a run of the mill author.  His friend the artist Damien Hurst wrote in an article in the Guardian, “I really do think he was the greatest writer, the best writer of our generation on art. It was because he was a novelist that he was so good: he brought something else to the table. There is so much bullshit and art-speak in the art world, it drives me nuts. Gordon cut through all of that”.

His last book, Born Yesterday is about as good a tribute to Gordon Burn as you could get.  It is a strange book, for at first glance it does not appear to be fiction at all, more like a rolling news review of 2007.  Burn covers many of the major news events of the year, including the abduction of Madeleine McCann, terror attacks at Glasgow airport, Gordon Brown’s succession from Tony Blair, the catastrophic flooding that affected great areas of the country.  All these stories are interleaved throughout the book, but as you read them you realise that this is not journalism at all. Continue reading

Review: Don’t Get Fooled Again – Richard Wilson

Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?).  It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.

Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.

Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated.  He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer.  The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.

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Review: Keith Laidler – Surveillance Unlimited

Like most British people today, I frequently read about the intrusion of public and private organisations into my private life, whether local councils putting gizmos into my dustbin or security cameras watching my every move as I walk down the street. It is only on reading a a book like Surveillance Unlimited: How We’ve Become the Most Watched People on Earth that you realise quite the extent of surveillance on your every move, and if you have paranoiac tendencies then this is definitely the book to avoid (but essential reading for everyone else).

Keith Laidler begins his book by describing a typical day in the life of a “database citizen”, from arriving home by plane after a business trip to Germany, traveling across London using his Oystercard, driving home and stopping for petrol, and using his mobile to phone his wife (and inadvertently joking that “there was no Al Qaeda attack on the plane”, thus triggering an analysis of his call).  By this time its only midday, and when John finally gets to eat dinner with his wife in the evening, over 20 surveillance interventions have been recorded.

Government and the commercial world have today achieved the “tyrant’s dream” in which it is possible to listen into the telephone conversations of every citizen, read their email, track their movements, profile their lifestyle, preferences and political affiliation.  And as Laidler points out repeatedly through his book, the legal structures necessary to prevent abuse lag far behind the abilities of the new technologies.  I used to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter very much as no-one would be interested in me, but having read this book, I can see the power of data mining and aggregation, which enable a vast range of officials and private companies to gain access to my private life, and most importantly, to get it terribly wrong and then to inflict untold unjust penalties on my through their own mistakes and incompetencies.

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Review: The Prodigal Tongue – Mark Abley

In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley has provided us with a tour of the state of the English language in Britain and around the world.  His main conclusion seems to be that although “English” is the new Esperanto, a world language spoken by people on every continent, its not so much standard English that predominates so much as “Englishes”.  These are widely varying tongues, with a core of what we know as English, but much adapted to local circumstances, infiltrated by words from many other languages, and not even retaining the original meanings of a large number of words.  Speakers of Western English may be very surprised to find how little they understand when they converse with an “English speaker” in say Japan, Malaya or the Philippines.

Abley points out that English is immensely adaptable.  It continually absorbs new words, transmutes the meaning of existing words and moreover, other countries use it to fill the gaps in their own languages.  The Finnish do not have a word for “please” but now use ours, and have dropped their own word (anteeksi) in favour of “sorry”.  Slovakian teenager boys address their girl-friends as beib (babe) or hany (honey).  The Austrian magazine “News” headlines “Das Grosse Interview” and Austrian cellphones offer “Downloaden”.  Numerous similar examples are quoted and it is difficult to see how any language purist of another tongue can suggest any way in which this “Englishisation” can be stopped.  We are going to find English all over the world, particularly in the worlds of business, entertainment or technology.

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Review: The Angel of Grozny – Ãsne Seierstad

In Angel of Grozny, Ãsne Seierstad provides a deeply personal insight into the life and times of the Russian Republic of Chechnya.  Her book is full of personal anecdotes and descriptions of her visits to a vast range of people in Chechnya, and while this makes it very readable, it can at times be a little disjointed, and it is not always easy to find a common thread.  Her bravery and persistence in seeking out these stories is a wonder in itself however, and several times I found myself wondering how she would get out of the situations she found herself in.

Seierstad first visited Checyna during the war in 1994, when the break-up of the Russian empire was in full swing. Boris Yeltsin, while encouraging other Soviet nations to “take as much sovereignty as you can”, drew the line at allowing Chechnya to gain its independence because he felt that this would threaten the borders of Russia itself.  The result was a violent war, with Chechen fighters confronting young Russian soldiers with the traditional daggers and assassins’ bullets, only provoking severe retaliation from the Russians against the civilian population.

Seierstad begins her book by describing her first visit to the country as a young reporter for a Swedish newspaper, managing to infiltrate herself deep into Chechen-held territory, where she met Chechen fighters and village elders, even staying in the home of a senior Chechen leader.

Eventually peace negotiations with Russia took place and Chechya gained a semi-independence from Russia.  However, when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister of Russia in 1999 another war started, even more brutal than the first, killing tens of thousands of Chechens and leading to ultimate Russian victory, greatly enhancing Putin’s reputation among his own people, leading to his appointment as president in 2000.  The Chechen leaders were killed over the next few years during a “normalisation process”, resulting in a Chechen republic fully integrated with Russia, with every official  photograph of the Chechen President Ramzan being accompanied by another one of Putin.

Seierstad’s book is largely about her recent return to Chechnya, during which she travelled extensively and interviewed many people both citizens and officials.  Much of her book describes the plight of the many orphaned children of Chechnya.  She stayed for several weeks with Hadijat, the “Angel of Grozny” of the books title, who began to take in and look after street children, and runs a non-official orphanage based in her home and the homes of some of her supporters.  The children’s tales are harrowing, and there is no certain future for them, for the instability of life in the republic results in a daily struggle for survival.   Such is the damage done to the children through war and poverty, abuse and neglect that it seems impossible at times to see any future for them.  Hadijat somehow managed to create a family experience for them however, and her influence on the children is considerable.

Seierstad manages to gain an extensive interview with President Ramzan himself.  Ramzan is adulated by most of his people  but this seems to be the adulation due to a tribal chief rather than the leader of a democracy.  He seems to be a man both humble and autocratic at the same time, and evidently immensely dangerous to his enemies.  He is a committed Muslim and this leads to statements about the need to “protect” women by keeping them modestly dressed and focusing on their domestic duties, while he himself has no compunction about being seen with glamorous models.

The tension between Whabbist Islam (as preached by followers of Osama Bin Laden) and the mainstream Islam approved by the state is visible throughout the book.  The mainstream Islam is seen as a means of social control and order, whereas Whabbist Islam is outlawed and its followers seen as enemies of the state.

This book is probably about as good as it gets if you want a picture of Chechyna today.  There is much of interest, not least the way in which a Muslim republic can form part of modern Russia.  The countless personal stories give it a much human interest, but there is also plenty of background to the history and politics of Chechnya, such that having read this you feel you know as much as you need to know about this sorry nation, whose troubles are probably far from over.

Review: Black Mass – John Gray

In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, John Gray explains how Utopian thought recurs throughout human history and is as powerful a force today as it was in the Middle Ages.

After tracing the history of Utopianism though the ages via Sir Thomas More, John of Leyden, the Jacobins of the French Revolution and many others, Gray turns to the 20th century, where Utopianism dominated the main ideologies of Communism, Nazism and Maoism, leading to unparalleled disasters for humanity.  Gray quotes Leon Trotsky, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.  And above this ridge, new peaks shall rise”, amply demonstrating the belief common to all Utopians that there is no limit to human advance.

Gray demonstrates that Utopians never shrink from violence and deceit to achieve their goals.  It is not enough to reform social institutions for society as it exists is beyond redemption:  the old order must be overthrown.  Peope who seem to be embedded in the old stability are seen as the enemy, and are treated with terror tactics each of which seems to go further in its viciousness (e.g. Stalin’s treatment of the peasant class, as so ably demonstrated by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia ).

The Utopian mindset was all too visible in Nazism, with its vision of impending disaster, to be quickly followe by a new world.  Hitler’s “Volk” was a mystical entity, conferring immortality on its participants, and the potent mixture of beliefs bears comparison with any of the mediaeval millenarian movements.  Even militant Islam is shown to be Utopian in nature, with its intellectual founder, Sayyid Qutb being heavily influenced by European thinkers, particularly Nietzsche, and ideas lifted from the Bolshevik traditions.

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