Weirdly Normal – The City and the City

The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

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David Morrissey stars in The City and the City (BBC)

Borders are a mundane daily reality for millions, yet retain a sense of deep weirdness. It’s a paradox pushed to extremes in  The City and the City, now a BBC TV serial starring David Morrissey.

China Miéville’s dystopian fantasy – if such it is – reads like a rather dull police procedural, until the final lines of the first chapter when the protagonist notices and then “unsees” what appears to be a perfectly ordinary elderly woman. It’s the first indication that normal rules don’t apply in Besźel, the down-at-heel, vaguely Eastern European city where he lives. Gradually we piece together what appears to be impossible. The city has a twin, Ul Qoma, occupying exactly the same geographical space. But nobody is allowed to acknowledge this. Inhabitants are conditioned from birth to deliberately avoid seeing it, as are their opposite numbers across the boundary. It is a brutally enforced, State-sponsored act of mass hallucination.

Okay, we think, this is weird. We are in for a wild ride here. But the more we think about it, the more parallels with everyday normality seem to appear. We play along, expecting things to become trippier, or at least to get some explanation of how this extraordinary situation developed. Yet the tone of the narrative remains defiantly mundane. Our guide, the taciturn Inspector Tyador Borlú, doesn’t bat an eyelid as he describes the day to day reality of living in a place where you walk down a street navigating around people from another city whose presence you could be locked up for acknowledging, and (a particularly haunting example) he feels a frisson of unease when he notices a familiar street of crumbling buildings reflecting back light from the glass and steel skyscrapers of its unacknowledged neighbour. The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

The best fantasy, like the best satire, knows it is best not to exaggerate too much. A grounded, intricately described world that differs from our own in just one or two respects, perhaps simply in a matter of intensity or degree, is often the scariest and most intriguing. After a while the reader starts to accept its normality and even make comparisons with life in what we collectively call, “the real world.” In fact, the real world is full of borders. Some look very odd on a map, such as the shape of Norway or Chile, but make perfect sense when natural topography is taken into account. Others appear utterly arbitrary, but developed as the least-worst solution to decades of lethal and bitter conflict that could flare up again if anyone poked the hornets’  nest. And such arbitrariness may, with the passage of time, create its own self-reinforcing visible divisions. Many years of malnutrition has left the citizens of North Korea stunted, several inches shorter than their neighbours in the South. Economic gulfs open up between adjoining communities, apparently trapping one in a technological or social time warp. Languages that were once similar become mutually unintelligible.

But borders retain their fascination, particularly ones that run directly through human communities that once were united. They remain the subtext of every unspoken, carefully navigated conversation. What seems like an absurdist joke – a house with the front door in Northern Ireland and the back door in the ROI, can quickly turn nasty. A few years ago I visited Cyprus. It was, in every obvious respect, a relaxing trip. Except I never really did relax. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place’s tragic history, the community just a few miles away that might as well be on another world. The ruined luxury tourist hotels of Greek-speaking Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta locked up and left to rot since 1974 while tourists sunbathe just yards away, has haunted me ever since.

Mieville loves to write about cities, and they don’t have to be formally politically divided to be shaped by invisible boundaries. One of the first things you learn when you visit an unfamiliar conurbation is where the no-go areas are. Cross a street, and suddenly you feel unsafe. People look at you in a different way – or are you imagining it? Your language, gestures, maybe even your clothing, mark you out as suspect. And the barriers imposed by social inequalities, even in a theoretically stable state, can be surreal. Ordinary Londoners crammed into substandard, overpriced flats walk daily past billboards depicting sterile, idealised communities of unaffordable and often empty apartments. Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll do your head in. Keep your head down, head for the tube, don’t dwell on the body on the pavement inside the sleeping bag.

In the trope-driven Hollywood narrative, there is always a band of brave rebels fighting against segregation, borders, state-imposed realities. But what if we need borders? What if the fearsome secret police were the good guys, keeping us safe? Is that really so weird? UN peacekeepers, in Cyprus and elsewhere, are armed. And which is preferable – a peaceful, stable society where the vast majority of people just want to keep their heads down and carry on undisturbed by local ethnic tensions, or one where people think and speak freely and they flare up into dangerous conflict?

Our daily reality is composed of the world view we sign up to, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes imposed by brutal State repression, more frequently by unspoken mutual consent. All that Miéville does in The City and The City is to dial up the tension and the absurdist level a notch or two. It makes for a challenging read.

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Contrasting skylines at Canary Wharf, London (The Guardian)

Through Northern Irish eyes – “a portrait of love’s complexity”

It’s becoming clear that there are some people in English politics who would value a clean Brexit more than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Why isn’t this getting more press coverage? We may speculate, but surely one reason is that, to be honest, Northern Ireland doesn’t really register in a lot of people’s minds as an important place. A generation has grown up now without nightly reports of atrocities on the streets of Belfast. And many of us would rather not contemplate the intricacies of the province’s politics, believing vaguely that if they really wanted to “they could sort it out.”

I’m not entirely guiltless here myself, though I do remember the IRA blowing up the centre of Manchester, fortunately without loss of life. I don’t go out of my way to read about the Troubles, but recently Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break sneaked in under my radar. I bought it because I’m middle-aged and long-married, and his story of a couple like that on a short holiday to Amsterdam sounded like something I could relate to. I didn’t realise it was about the Troubles at all. But it is, and I admit with some shame that for the first time, after reading it, I felt some empathy with the people who had to live through them.

Gerry and Stella live in Scotland now, but spent most of their adult lives in Belfast. Stella grew up in poverty, Gerry in relative comfort, but both bear the stigma of being part of a minority. Stella remembers her large family losing a much-needed council house to a less needy Protestant family. Gerry lived and worked for years with bombs going off around him. And it becomes clear that they both continue to be affected by a life-changing incident, one that was very much of its place and time.

Marriages sometimes survive for decades because the people in them have learned to navigate around contentious areas. There are elephants in the room left unmentioned by tacit mutual consent. We see the dynamic clearly here – Gerry’s drinking is out of control, he pretends he’s hiding it from Stella, knows that she knows, but she hides the fact that she knows and is contemplating leaving him because he won’t confront it. And Stella is not simply a cradle Catholic, but an increasingly devout one. Gerry is frightened, and increasingly jealous of his wife’s faith, yet understands the need she has of it. Meanwhile, they rub along like all ageing couples, tolerant of each other’s foibles, resenting yet needing the rough edges of human interaction.

Holidays have a way of bringing such situations to a head. Trapped in a bland hotel room by icy weather and a tiredness that speaks of advancing age, determined to enjoy themselves yet somewhat adrift and always aware of the way a partner will respond or react, feeling one ought to make an effort even though excellent English is universally spoken, Gerry and Stella find the gulf widening between them impossible to overlook. Drastic action needs to be taken. But they are what their lives have made them, and ultimately they understand one another better than anyone else could. When illusions crumble, they are there to break one another’s fall.

It’s a quiet masterpiece. Very little happens outwardly but MacLaverty is a master of small but vital detail. He reveals his character’s secrets slowly and creates increasing tension as we circle around what we’d rather not know, and what they wish had not happened. By the last page, without any didactic special pleading, I was far more aware than I had been of how precious the Good Friday Agreement is, and the trauma that continues to haunt the lives of those who experienced life without it.

Midwinter Break reviewed in The Irish Times

The Curse of Peppa Pig – why kids crave brands, not books

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there.

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There’s been quite an outcry against the celebrity-author dominated list of giveaway titles for next year’s World Book Day. It’s a big deal, because for many people bookshops are unknown territory (they may only see books on sale occasionally in supermarkets in their neigbourhood). This is the only book their kids will own all year and if you think that isn’t a big deal come and watch the scrummage when they’re handed out on the day.

So does the celebrity issue really matter or are a few luvvie writers just crying foul?

I’ve always been able to see both sides of this argument but the tectonic plates of my attitude are starting to shift. On the plus side, some celebrities really are good at connecting with children and writing excellent books. Others can certainly turn in a competent job as part of their personal brand, with or without editorial assistance (a hornets’ nest I’d rather not dig into here).

So I’m not declaring war on all children’s books by people who started off being famous for something else. And anyone who grew up reading Enid Blyton or The Hardy Boys will know that the endless, formulaic series has been a staple of the sector for a long time. But the intellectual property of huge corporations is so deeply interwoven into children’s cultural landscape these days that I think some questioning of this trend is legitimate.

Robert McFarlane, writing this week in the Guardian, points out that a recent survey showed that many children are far more confident naming fictional Pokèmon than native wildlife. What bothers me even more in my own work is seeing how magnetic the effect of a well-exposed franchise is on children. Sit them down for a story and they cannot concentrate – their eyes are drawn hypnotically to the Star Wars book behind you, so much so that I actually put such titles out of sight. And don’t get me started on Peppa Pig.

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there. For some, I suspect that sitting unsupervised watching Peppa on a screen has taken the place of the comfort of sharing a story with a loved grown-up. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some political, some economic, and just blaming parents isn’t fair when libraries are closing , work is more scrappy and casualised than it’s ever been and books are unaffordable for many. Nor should we overlook the reality that for children whose first language is not English an international franchise can be a useful bridge.

The problem is that professional children’s library provision is in such terminal decline that in many cases the gateway drug has become a substitute for the whole experience of reading for pleasure. To persuade a child to try something new takes time. I am responsible for 18 classes a week in the three school libraries I manage. Sometimes all 30 kids come in together without adult support. With the best will in the world, if kids are clamouring to know where the Star Wars books are I will end up, at least sometimes, shoving one into their hands and moving on. I have had class teachers clamouring to know why the entire class isn’t back in the classroom after less than 10 minutes.

This is the climate in which we need to understand the prevalence of branding, which is now ubiquitous in the numerous literacy initiatives that exist. Running a book club on top of your duties as a class teacher and literacy co-ordinator? Thank God, you can download some colouring in sheets from the latest heavily promoted bestseller. You may long to start a discussion group for literature in translation, using the wonderful Pushkin Press list, but it simply isn’t going to happen.

I’ve seen it in book shops too. I’ve wanted to scream, “Don’t you know those books are written by an anonymous syndicate, that your child just likes the glittery cover or the superhero franchise, that they will be consuming the McNuggets of literature – £4.99 gobbled up in five minutes – when over here there’s real nourishment?” But you’d need someone sitting there all day to really make a difference.

Hence my conflicted relationship with any book or series that is described as a “phenomenon.” I’m certainly not going to stand between kids and their desire to read Marvel origin stories or Tom Gates. It’s not my place to undermine their genuine reading preferences and force classics on them against their will. But I wish there was time for more children to enjoy having that conversation. Letting big corporations have the last word on something as important as a child’s literacy is never ideal.

 

 

Wimpy Kids or British values – the great school library money grab

 

“it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

The recently reported survey results that teachers are increasingly paying for school resources out of their own pockets comes as no surprise to me. It’s not simply a matter of funds not being there. As one respondent points out,  “it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

Schools have discovered that one way to save money is to make it so exhausting and frustrating for teachers to get hold of the basic materials they need that many of them will just pick them up on the way home. Of course, that’s by far the most expensive course, but nobody said the teachers had to do it did they? If the teachers can’t be arsed to go through the right channels, then that’s their problem.

I can’t believe this hasn’t spread to what is left of school libraries. I’m already seeing its depressing, and entirely deniable, fallout. It’ll soon be time for the new Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid books. Last year I picked them up at rock bottom prices from the supermarket, which meant I could afford three copies, no small matter when you have a waiting list of 20 or more. Last year, when a teacher asked me for a book, I could order it when I got home on Amazon Prime and have it in her hands the following morning. And when the dinosaur craze hit Reception yet again, I could pick up five or six books at Oxfam on the way home, thus delighting not only a bunch of five year olds but a valuable charity as well. (At least that made me feel better about buying from the corporate monsters destroying independent bookshops).

Not any more. From now on, I have to put in a requisition and if we don’t have an account with that supplier, tough. Suddenly the books kids actually want to read have to compete with the school’s need for more stuff about British Values or the Ancient Romans in their classrooms. I have to find the time and the energy to make the case that kids deserve control over what they read for pleasure, and that the stuff they choose won’t always impress educational professionals.

I have been in this job for almost 20 years. I have never felt so powerless and frustrated as I do right now. And it’s not even as if this is the school’s money, at least not entirely. It was raised by the PTA, who have faithfully handed it over into my care for years, trusting me to provide the books children actually want to read. They spend hours organising fund-raising events. But they were never consulted about the school subsuming the proceeds into their own budget and, thereby, overruling their right to specify what it is used for.

I am sure the school would justify their new policy by pointing to a spate of recent high profile cases involving financial irregularities in schools. What is wrong with greater transparency? It’s like safeguarding – any new policy, no matter how batty, small-minded or illogical, is hard to question if to do so implies that you’re anti-safeguarding. Of course, I don’t want the right to make off with the proceeds of the cake sale. But for the last 20 years I have never submitted an expenses claim that didn’t include carefully collated receipts. And everyone seemed perfectly happy, particularly the children reading the books they enjoyed.

In the end, I just don’t have the bloody energy to argue in favour of Tom Gates or Minecraft books. People will probably wonder why it’s such a big deal to want the latest one when months later it will trickle down as a second-hand, well-meaning donation. The answer to that is simple – if the last release of something is just as good, why did anyone ever queue up outside a store?

So, I shall swallow hard, pay £8.99 and fill in forms galore for something I could once have got at Tesco for £5.00, and watch as my 90% pupil engagement drops week on week. I shall tell children they have to learn to wait for what they want and that it’s character building, and meanwhile have they tried The Wind In The Willows?  And eventually I’ll have had enough, and I’ll retire. I suppose I’ve had a good run.

 

Life in the kid-lit bubble

Every now and then someone will bemoan the difficulty of getting published if you happen not to be a celebrity. This week The Guardian have pointed out their proliferation in the field of children’s books, and lamented the way it restricts opportunities for talented mere mortals to get a look-in.

There is certainly some justification for this complaint, although I doubt very much whether the 1950s or 1960s were a golden age completely devoid of this kind of thing. Children have always loved long, crushingly formulaic series of books and seem to need such repetition to build up reading stamina. We may not have called Enid Blyton or The Chalet School brands, but undoubtedly that’s what they were.

There’s also the point that some celebrity writers are genuinely talented people; if you are already a famous stand-up comedian you’re likely to be extravert, good with words, and in tune with children’s sense of humour. So good luck to David Walliams. Some people are just good at more than one thing. Annoying if you’re plugging away at the day job, but undoubtedly true. I draw the line at George Galloway, however.

In fact, the marketing of children’s books is becoming ever more inventive (some would say desperate). This week I received 100 sample chapters of a new book for KS2, and the offer of a possible free copy if I agreed to post pictures of “happy children receiving the books” on social media. Chatterbooks is colonised by publishers offering creative craft kits for school and library book groups, and if you don’t tweet your pictures and appreciation you will probably be overlooked next time around. Whether we like such strategies or find them exploitative and creepy, there is undoubtedly a thriving and growing market in children’s books and a vast selection of beautiful ones around.

So all is well. Not quite. If all you ever do is follow the feeds of leading lights in children’s literature, you may get that impression. Anyone can be sucked into an online bubble and such bubbles soon inflate with indignation at the thought of their denizens’ ideals not being universally accepted. Some people would call such communities elites. Elites are not necessarily defined by vast wealth and sojourns at Davos. They can be driven by idealism, creativity and education. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them risky.

So I welcomed it when bookseller Leilah Skelton weighed into the kid-lit celebrity debate, pointing out the reality of book availability, selection and purchase opportunities for the majority of children in Britain today and their parents. “Can you imagine the only access to physical books being a Tesco chart?” she tweeted. “That’s a reality in more places than you’d think.” No wonder parents fall back on the known quantity of celebrity. Children devour books fast if they like them, and for many people £6.99 is not a trivial amount of money.

If we care at all about children’s reading opportunities we already know about the decline of libraries, book reviews in the press and trained librarians even where libraries for children exist. Leilah is absolutely right to identify these as the cultural changes feeding into the celebrity fixation. In fact, she doesn’t go far enough. Even in school libraries, there’s little money for anything other than donations and of course this only entrenches social inequality. Even if, as happened with one of my schools, you manage to stock a library with high quality titles, it will be a long time before Star Wars and Disney stop dominating your children’s book choices. Because that’s what entertainment means to them. They recognise what they see on screens.

Is the solution to ban the cheap and cheerful stuff? That’s likely to leave many of your children unmoored and overwhelmed with choice. The older they get, the more likely they are to walk out of the library completely rather than try to navigate it. That’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it’s not a place they are used to being in. If you put me in a shop filled with fishing tackle or motorcycle accessories I’d feel the same way. Over time, if you get the chance to work with them in small groups and resist the continual drip-drip encroachment of musical instrument storage, intervention groups, Y3 forgetting to tell you they’re out doing the Romans this week and losing Y5 and Y6 to SATS cramming for half the year, you will build up the trust to the point where they might try something unfamiliar. Opening the library is a great start. Eternal vigilance and a thick skin is useful if you want it to survive for long enough to make a meaningful impact on reading culture in the school.

There will probably always be wonderful children’s books around for those lucky enough to have access to them. But they are the tip of a huge iceberg of deprivation. In our little ivory towers we mustn’t lose sight of that. And we mustn’t despair either.

 

The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.

The Branding of Nadiya Hussain

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Nadiya Hussain’s first novel has just been published – is there no end to this lady’s talents? She has already proved her worth on the Great British Bake Off, released a lovely kids’ cook book and proved to be a charming and natural TV travel show host. And of course, she is justly valued as an icon of everything that inclusive, multicultural Britain should be.

She’s a delightful person and a worthy Bake Off winner. I wish her all the best; so, I am sure, does Jenny Colgan. But I do share Colgan’s reservations about Nadia’s overexposure. It’s not just Nadiya of course; it’s almost a rite of passage for people who became famous on TV for some completely different reason to produce a work of fiction – at the very least, a children’s picture book. A lot of comedians do it and in the case of the popular David Walliams, to give one example, they turn out to be pretty good. This is hardly surprising since humour is a much-loved attribute of many children’s books.

In fairness to Nadia, she’s probably in the hands of an agent by now and has only limited choice over what opportunities she doesn’t take up. And she acknowledges that she didn’t write her novel on her own. I don’t think Jenny Colgan’s showing any jealousy or sour grapes here. But she’s identifying a somewhat depressing feature of modern cultural life, one that I see daily in my work with children’s books.

Children’s fiction has always featured long, much-loved and formulaic series. But at least Enid Blyton wrote her own books. She wasn’t part of a syndicate dreamed up by marketing moguls, subsumed into a generic Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade. The marketing of Nadiya shows that branding is everything in publishing these days. The best way to get a book published is not necessarily (some would say never) to be a good writer, but to be famous for something else already. What does that actually say to children about how much we value good writing? That it’s something you get to do after you’ve done the important stuff, the stuff like being in the Big Brother house or on The Apprentice? That once you’ve been famous for fifteen minutes you have a right to be heard and to be taken seriously? Where does that leave Jenny Colgan’s child, “in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one….by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds.”

Of course, publishers would argue that they have to make money and that’s what people want. But people tend to want what they have been told that they want, by multinational corporations with agendas of their own. And any corporation has a tendency to rub the messy edges off those creative people that come into its clutches. I think books have become so brand-saturated because as a society we have stopped valuing the gatekeepers, the teachers and librarians, the arbiters of taste. In a spirit of misplaced anti-elitism we have convinced ourselves that such people have no right to impose their cultural standards on us. Voters have consistently supported governments that have presided over the running down of libraries and the stifling of creativity in schools. The result is that many people are deeply uncomfortable around books, so much so that they need the presence of a comforting character to make the experience palatable to them.

I see this in the school library all the time. At one time I was dismayed by the number of shoddily written, cheap Disney picture books that some children craved. I also confess to a deep aesthetic aversion to Peppa Pig. But my prejudices have mellowed somewhat as I’ve interacted more with children who have not grown up with a lot of books around them. For a small child, a book works best in close proximity to an adult, someone offering them undivided attention and a feeling of security and acceptance. For many children – and not necessarily poor ones – that role is now filled by the iPad or the TV. No wonder that the presence of a Disney character reassures them. And if they are lucky enough to have people in their lives who will build on that by buying them books, those adults are increasingly tempted to play safe by buying the 90th title in an interminably formulaic series that they know the recipient will like.

When I was a regular churchgoer, I became familiar with the pronouncement that God loves us enough to take us as we are, but not to leave us as we are. It does us good to be gently, persistently and lovingly pushed out of our comfort zone. Or would our political masters prefer us to stay there, marooned in our bunkers and transfixed by our screens? The best way to do that is to run down libraries, until you end up with people who won’t contemplate reading anything that doesn’t have a person from the telly on the front of it. So far, it seems to be working.

Nadiya’s lovely and genuinely talented. Perhaps a little brand-stretching is a price worth paying for her value as a positive role model in this increasingly divided society. But to misquote Arthur Miller, I congratulate her with a sense of alarm.