See that girl


Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk, Sissinghurst, Kent (National Trust Photo Library)

Long ago as an Eng Lit undergraduate, I endured a term on 20th Century literature with a tutor who could have come straight out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel. Bearded, corpulent, booming-voiced, with a bottle of booze constantly at his elbow, he never wasted an opportunity to bully me because I liked Virginia Woolf. Lawrence, he thundered, that was what it was all about! Woolf was effete, privileged – she had servants! What did she know about real life? If I encountered him now I would say at least two things – one that bonking on the rug in front of a roaring fire in the household of a thinly-disguised Ottoline Morrell isn’t exactly social realism, and two that Lawrence had a servant, too. She was called Frieda, she left her husband and kids to service his monumental ego, because a wandering social pariah, and at least the Woolfs paid their domestic help.

I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.

Vita Sackville-West

I found myself thinking about this yesterday as I walked past a house that’s presently being renovated, and had to move into the middle of the road because the pavement was fully occupied by a bloke in a white van eating his lunch with the doors both wide open. That’s the thing about toxic (and occasionally non-toxic but thoughtless) masculinity – it is based on the assumption that men take up space and women squeeze around them. The first women to challenge this, and to literally demand their own space, tended to belong to social and/or intellectual elites. Vita Sackville-West, with her glorious book-lined tower writing room at Sissinghurst, comes to mind. As does Woolf herself, with her country retreat at Monks’ House and her accommodating, possibly celibate, marriage.

Elites have a bad press these days, but they have their uses. When privilege is really deeply entrenched, they are in a particularly strong and visible position to challenge it. Yes, I hear you all cry, what did Vita and Virginia ever do for the suffering unemployed? Fair enough, but how many of the people who throw rocks at Virginia know about the devastating series of personal losses she’d experienced by the age of twenty, and her horrendous struggles with severe mental illness before the era of anti-depressants? Let’s be terribly understanding and sympathetic about mental illness, let’s wear the T-shirt and tweet the supportive slogans, but God forbid that we should include someone wealthy in our circle of empathy.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Virginia Woolf

I am sure that Virginia, Vita and their circle could be ghastly, self-indulgent snobs. But that is because they were human, not specifically on account of their class or gender. And roistering males who expressed their creativity through titanic bouts of alcoholism and strings of wrecked relationships don’t seem to be exposed to the same scrutiny. Nobody’s social class or gender ought to give the a free pass. But in all fairness, that should apply to everyone, not only those considered to be cool and authentic.

There are an awful lot of people around like my tutor, who broadcast their personal preferences as self-evident truth. They congregate on Twitter, quick to mock Abba and say they got into The Clash. Fine, I’ve no problem with that. But this very quickly turns into bullying, forcing dissenting, more marginal voices into the middle of the road while you eat your lunch. Please, let’s call it out for what it is.

I can imagine the eye-rolling if I get back onto the subject of Dancing Queen. But one of the reactions that saddened me among the flood of tweets was that it was “the saddest song ever written.” It’s all about death, apparently. A sad old person watches a young girl lost in the moment of joyful self-expression, and mourns the loss of their youth. Sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all. That’s an interpretation, but mine is different. I see it as someone rejoicing as they observe a young woman’s confidence and freedom, her indifference to what anybody else thinks about her.

It’s quite possible to be older than seventeen but not particularly want to be on the dance floor yourself, to rejoice in the simple pleasure, confidence and freedom of others. Middle age has taught me that. We should probably spend more time watching young people find their joyful space, and cheering them on. It doesn’t matter what they are dancing to. It’s the dance that counts.


How dare Mrs May appropriate “Dancing Queen”?

Mamma Mia is the biggest bloody celebration of freedom of movement ever

dancing queen

So Teresa May, the most racist, small-minded, reactionary Prime Minister in living memory, has just ruined the best party song ever written, ABBA’s wonderful Dancing Queen.

I take this very, very personally. This is an anthem of female empowerment, every bit as much so as I Will Survive or RESPECT. In a music industry saturated with the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies, it is a rare, no-strings celebration of a young woman on her own, in no need of a partner, dancing to music and having a wonderful time.

And ABBA tell us to watch her. Learn from her. Stop treating woman as objects to be controlled. It’s actually a very Scandinavian message.

But the recent Mamma Mia movie gives another twist to this act of musical abuse. Because that movie is the biggest bloody celebration of freedom of movement ever. It’s about a young woman who can travel throughout Europe and do whatever she likes. It’s about the joy of different cultures, different nations, different outlooks, all coming together in one big joyous party.

Yes, it’s cheesy as hell. But dammit, we’ve never needed that dream more. And it shouldn’t be a dream. It should be a reality. The reality, the joy, the opportunity, the freedom that Mrs May is taking away from a generation of young people – with enthusiasm and glee.

I hope ABBA sue the pants off the bloody Tories.

Whatever happened to our world? I wish I understood

It used to be so nice. It used to be so good.


When the wrong label costs a life – please let’s get serious about allergies

There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time


Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who died after eating a baguette containing sesame from Pret a Manger (Picture from The Guardian)

This is a heartbreaking, shocking and utterly preventable tragedy. Unfortunately  it is not the first story of its type. A teenage girl, looking forward to a family holiday, grabs a baguette from an airport Pret a Manger before boarding a plane, unaware that it contains sesame. She becomes seriously ill on the plane and dies in hospital in Nice.

My son has already posted a long Twitter thread about this. He has a personal interest; he has a couple of life-threatening allergies of his own and recently had to spend a day in hospital abroad after falling foul of unclear labelling. We have travelled with him on family holidays, frequently having to explain that milk protein allergy is life-threatening, and not the same thing at all as lactose intolerance. The volume of press coverage given to clean eating and allergy/intolerance of certain foods, not all of it scientifically robust, has only added to the confusion. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes avoiding a particular food is a personal preference, and many a restauranteur has told a tale of someone who insisted on almond milk only to pig out on cheesecake from the sweet trolley. But for a small but significant minority, it is literally a matter of life and death.

There are countries – Austria happens to be one – where there is a clear, straightforward legal requirement to list all potentially dangerous allergens on any prepared foods offered for sale. It doesn’t guarantee complete safety but it certainly helps. A great deal depends not only on the system in place but on the training and commitment of staff. Many fast food outlets are manned by a rapid turnover of casual staff who may rarely see a line manager. Requests to see a printed list of all potential allergens may be met with bafflement, delays and rolled eyes from everyone behind the customer in the queue. There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time, and a good cheese sarnie never did anyone any harm. They are treated as a nuisance rather than customers to whom the retailer has a duty of care.

At this time of year thousands of young people will be going through Freshers Week, navigating social life without parental supervision for the first time. They may be anxious and eager to please, or distracted, excited, and rather short on sleep. Keeping safe with a severe allergy requires concentration and planning. I can imagine the feelings of their parents as they read a story like this.

It is not elitist to explain that eating a certain food could kill you. It may be inconvenient, but far more so for the sufferer than for those having to deal with it. Please let us work together to create a climate where no young person should feel embarrassed to ask for the guidance they need to eat safely and stay well. Retailers need to realise that systems need to be robust enough to withstand outsourcing and the gig economy, and make sure their staff, however temporary and lowly, know how to keep their customers safe. It is a tragedy when any young person with their life before them dies needlessly. It can, and should, be prevented whenever humanly possible.


When the dreaming spires become a nightmare


Undergraduates pose for a Matriculation photograph at University College, Oxford

I went back to Oxford last week, stayed for a few days, went to a conference and entered a University building (the English Faculty) for the first time since 1977. Also, as I travelled up the Banbury Road to my hotel, I had my first view of St Hugh’s College since I dropped out as a terrified 18 year old 41 years ago.

In those days St Hugh’s was still a women’s college, and women’s colleges tended to be spartan, underfunded places, out in the sticks, beneath the surface of leafy privilege. I had a tiny, freezing room with a bathroom down the hall. I also remember the food being awful, which seemed particularly galling when combined with the need to wear sub-fusc for Formal Hall dinners and bow to the Principal.

Nevertheless, Oxford was Oxford, and nobody was more surprised than me to find myself there. I had come up from a single parent family in a terraced house a few miles from Blackpool, via a grammar school that had managed to get a pupil into St Hugh’s the year before and had desperately wanted “a connection” with the place. Nobody forced me to go, but I only remember one member of staff telling me it would be anything other than blissful to be there, and I was at a very impressionable age.

So when I hated it, when I started retching and couldn’t keep any food down, when I was terrified of my tutor, baffled by Anglo-Saxon classes, mortified that I couldn’t ride a bicycle, convinced that everyone was much cleverer and more confident than me, when I finally broke down when faced with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland and the need to produce an essay in three days’ time, I thought there must be something wrong with me.

It would be unfair to criticise Oxford University based on my experiences decades ago, but Alan Rusbridger’s thoughtful analysis of the barriers still facing underprivileged students suggests that there is still a long way to go. From personal experience I can attest that it’s not just a matter of broadening access, though that certainly helps. It’s a matter of surviving and thriving when you get there, and powerful barriers to that happy outcome remain.

I wonder if the more privileged denizens of Oxford University fully appreciate how very alien their world feels to that vast majority of people? Again, I must qualify my impressions by recognising that they may be out of date. But I remember being utterly alienated and confused by some of the terminology – “collections” rather than “examinations” comes to mind. I knew nothing of the ceremony of Matriculation, a mass procession to the Sheldonian Theatre in academic costume that was far more formal and alienating than either of my children’s graduation days have been (In fact, I suspect that’s one reason why I turned up at Essex for my son’s absurdly overdressed). From the inside, it’s tradition and character and well worth preserving. From the outside, it can be terrifying. What if you’re trying to get by on £20 a week and you suddenly find you have to go to Shepherd & Woodward and pick up a whole set of medieval costume? It’s not easy to phone home to a hard-pressed family and ask for the money to do that.

I had a look round Eton College a few years ago. My main impression was how very similar to the older Oxford colleges it looked and felt. People who have been educated in this rarified atmosphere since the age of seven will have no idea how little their perception of reality accords with other people’s. It’s a subtle and powerful instrument of social inequality. They are prepared for higher education in all kinds of ways; not just superb academic resources but a wealth of cultural opportunities, useful contacts, self-belief and confidence. But I suspect the biggest advantage of the lot is that they arrive at Magdalen or Trinity simply assuming that’s what an educational institution is like.

Oxford prides itself on its one-to-one tutorial system. It seems to me that the Cambridge two-student supervision one is somewhat more humane. At least you’ve got someone to talk to about it, even if they grew up somewhere you can barely begin to imagine. You find out you weren’t the only one feeling completely inadequate and tongue-tied. The Oxford I remember had no formal teaching mechanism between the tutorial and the lecture. The result, for me at least, was loneliness and misery.

When I broke down and announced I was leaving, the lovely girls I’d made friends with all said, “We had no idea you were feeling like this.” Tormented by impostor syndrome, I hadn’t felt able to confide in anyone. I had gone up mentally exhausted after self-preparing for Oxford entrance, a round of university interviews and my A Levels, all within a year, and having to work full-time all summer to earn a bit of money (and this was in the halcyon days of full maintenance grants). Everything had led me to believe that I was stepping into a Brideshead paradise. I can’t blame the University for everything that went wrong. I never should have been there – and eventually I went somewhere else, did well and was happy. If I had had a bit more confidence, I would have turned down Oxford’s offer and gone there in the first place.

Rusbridger’s college, Lady Margaret Hall, now offers a kind of pre-university foundation year for promising potential students identified by charities. They are offered bespoke tuition followed by a chance to apply, and out of 21 candidates 16 have successfully done so. Such a scheme, or even a summer school along the same lines, would have made all the difference to me back in 1977. It wouldn’t just have stretched me intellectually. It would have given me the chance to ask all those questions that felt silly at the time but ended up making the difference between success and ignominious retreat.

I remember the train journey back home at the end of that October. I remember watching two girls with Northern accents share a bag of chips, and weeping with relief to be back in the world I understood once again. It’s taken me 41 years to go back, to spend an afternoon in the English Faculty Library without having a panic attack, to enjoy the place from a secure distance of time and self-respect. And to have the confidence to say, “It’s not just about me, Oxford. Some of it’s also about you.”

Brideshead Revisited image of Oxford University – article from Cherwell (OU student newspaper)

Volunteer burnout and mental health – the ugly truth

By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.


Until today I’ve avoided the subject of my library job coming to a rather messy end last October on this blog. Partly because I wanted to move on and not call out any of the people involved while feelings were still raw. It’s a bit undignified and I’m still not sure if I will be returning to that kind of work one day, so I was reluctant to burn my bridges.

What has made me reconsider is that this is Mental Health Awareness Week and a number of people have shared similar experiences on social media. Most of them have felt isolated and inadequate for being unable to cope with the unrelenting and unsustainable pressures of a job in the public sector in the current climate. Several have said that the thing they have found most helpful was others sharing their experiences.

I agree – this culture of grin and bear it is helping nobody. I suspect that the longer people like us go on trying to live up to ever-increasing expectations and growing workloads, the longer the present dire state of affairs in public services will continue. I can only speak for education. In the course of 15 months or so I went from 5 hours a week looking after one small school library (200 pupils) to three schools, three different sites, and over 1,000 children, plus well over 100 members of staff, having needs I was valiantly attempting to meet, officially in 16.5 paid hours a week, but in reality a full-time job and then some.

Some of this pressure was self-inflicted. I find it hard to say no and when my school became an Academy Trust it seemed like a great opportunity to roll out what had been a successful modus operandi elsewhere. I remain very proud of the three school libraries I either opened or revived, and the fact that they created at least one job other than my own. But I soon found myself trying to do a challenging job that I had absolutely no qualifications for, in a difficult environment where there was continual pressure on resources – financial, physical and human. Sadly, the bright era of co-operation between the three schools didn’t quite materialise, and I found myself in a situation where I was constantly suspected of having divided loyalties and vital information was undoubtedly withheld from me at times.

I think many of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was initially a parent-turned-volunteer who hung around and was eventually absorbed onto the payroll. Many colleagues appreciated what I was trying to achieve and the support I did my best to give to them. But I never quite felt I was one of the team. There were people who were only too ready to mention my lack of professional librarianship and teaching qualifications, though the Trust would never have been able to resource someone in the role who’d had them, and I left with nearly 20 years of experience under my belt. I probably had also developed a tunnel vision about the job which made it difficult for me to regard it rationally. I was always late, always fire-fighting, always putting on my best face for another class of lively 7 year olds, and always terrified that one day something would snap and I would be unreasonable or even unkind to one of those children I so very much wanted to inspire and help.

It took me a long time to realise how unwell I was. In fact, it wasn’t until I realised I was seriously contemplating throwing myself in front of a train rather than go to work the next morning. I won’t go into the gory details here. Some things could have been better handled, but nobody had the time to poke something that appeared on the surface to be working. My collapse surprised a lot of people and some were lovely and supportive. But I was asked to come into work three or four times after being signed off sick with severe depression to show other people how to do my job, and watch them struggling with things I could have done easily had I been fit and well. That did nothing to help my recovery.

It seemed for a while as if I would be able to return part-time to one of the schools where I had built up contacts, and a library service I was proud of and devoted to. In fact, once mental illness came into the conversation, I wasn’t even allowed to go into the building  to collect my things and say goodbye. Even bankers at Lehmann Bros got that. In education, the spectre of child protection always haunts you. I am sure the manager involved was trying to be professional but when you are already suicidally depressed and so stressed you are suffering from dissociative episodes and unable to drive safely, it’s hardly motivating to be treated as a potential threat to children’s wellbeing and told that you will need constant supervision should you have the temerity to come back into work. At the time, I wasn’t up to the job. But with better handling I could have been, and even an hour a week covering books would have done wonders for my self-esteem.

All that happened last October and I’m still not completely well. My medication has been increased and I spend my days gardening, working out, learning new things (my watercolours are coming along) and feeling useless and guilty. I am deliberately cautious about the time I spend on social media because I hear about so many people in desperate need and feel I am privileged and self-indulgent not to be out there helping them. Yes, I’ve done my bit, but I failed, I messed up big-time and feeling that I might never be able to handle a responsible job again is a hard thing to come to terms with. At 59, I don’t quite feel ready to retire. But it may be forced upon me.

What would I say to others in my shoes? Don’t promise to do a job people should be paying you to do. In libraries these days it’s happening all the time. And it’s wrong. It’s exploitative and in the end it doesn’t make things better long-term. Professional jobs need to be done by people who have the status, experience and training to do them and are paid accordingly. If you ignore these stark realities, and many decent people will, you will eventually burn yourself out and the resources to pick up the pieces may not be there. Even for professionals they are thin on the ground. And if you must say yes, do your utmost to surround yourself with people you trust who will have your back and fight your corner. Many genuinely intend to do so when you start, but such are the pressures on them that they will take the line of least resistance when you need them to say unpopular things, and ultimately throw you under a bus if that is the only way they can see to ensure that the show goes on. I do not say that in bitterness. I was bullied at work and did not speak out when I should have done. By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

That is probably enough for now. But if you are one of those burnt-out professionals sitting at home right now, there are two things to remember. You are not useless. And you are not alone.


“Not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” Getting stuff done in “This House”

How far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action?

That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other….We are not built for co-operation.

As Teresa May brokers another messy compromise in her attempt to quell the ever-shriller voices of thwarted Brexiteers and hold the Conservative Party together, it is tempting to regard these days as the most febrile and chaotic in British political memory. My husband always has an answer to that, “It was worse in the 1970s, they were wheeling MPs in on their death beds to vote then.”

James Graham’s whip-smart play, This House takes us right inside those turbulent times, when Labour would stop at nothing to defend their minute majority, when political life was dominated by deals and counter-deals with minority parties and rebels were begged to put personal idealism aside and toe the party line. It is astonishing that the final Callaghan Labour Government hung on for four-and-a-half years before losing a no-confidence motion by a single vote. Poised between a musical, a tragedy and a farce, it almost seems too entertaining, but there is a grim hilarity as the bodies, quite literally, pile up.

Westminster is a notoriously adversarial place. Probably the thing everyone remembers from a tour of the Palace is that on the Commons floor the Government and Opposition benches are separated by a gap precisely the width of two drawn swords. Incipient violence is contained by a web of arcane custom and gentlemen’s agreements. For example, when an MP is unavoidably absent for a forthcoming division, he can request a “pair” – that is, a member of the opposing party agrees not to vote. Most of these arrangements have grown up through custom and practice and can only survive if everyone follows their unwritten rules. It seems to work, most of the time. When it doesn’t, you get Heseltine waving the Mace around in fury and all hell breaks loose – perhaps gentlemen’s agreements matter more than we like to think.

The engine rooms of politics, particularly in a minority or hung Parliament, are the Whips’ Offices where individual convictions are hammered into party unity, superficially at least. Graham takes us deep into these hidden but vital centres of power. Often Labour and Tory whips face one another across the stage. And as the exhausting compromises wear on, the brutality of class warfare becomes more and more apparent.

James Graham writes brilliantly about the last days of Old Labour (and indeed Old Conservatives). This House shows us a collapsing political order on the cusp of seismic change, as the Conservatives back Thatcher as their leader and Labour rely on ageing Trade Unionists, who command loyalty and respect but are physically drained by years of manual labour and hours in smoke-filled rooms. It is truly shocking to see such giants staggering in to vote, one in a blood-stained shirt just hours after surgery, another in a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder. It is also extremely funny, though at times one feels guilty for laughing.

Several decades later, the haircuts and the music are different but a great deal remains the same. What I took away from this fascinating story was a reminder that, despite all, MPs are human beings, and there is an unexpected and moving gesture of fellow feeling between Chief Whip Walter Harrison and his Conservative opposite number, Jack Weatherill, at the very end. The final question is, how far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action? That argument is still continuing as the House limps toward an ominous new world order.

This House is currently on tour. I saw it last week at The Lowry, Salford Quays


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?


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.

canary wharf

Contrasting skylines at Canary Wharf, London (The Guardian)