Ian McEwan’s Saturday: Tony Blair and tone-deaf

 

© Vintage

 

“The butcher boy gets a bauble,” was my reaction to the news that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was to be made ‘a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter’, whatever that means, in the Queen’s New Year Honours List.  I call Blair ‘the butcher boy’ because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, which happened during his watch in 2003.  The invasion was launched to depose Saddam Hussein who, it was claimed, possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  However, these WMDs turned out to not actually exist and it became obvious that Blair and his invasion partner George W. Bush had spun a web of lies beforehand to make people believe that they did.

 

And it wasn’t just the WMDs that didn’t exist.  Since the invasion took place, up until the beginning of 2021, due to ‘coalition and insurgent military action’ and subsequent ‘sectarian violence and criminal violence’, between 185,000 and 209,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have stopped existing too – their deaths the direct and indirect results of Blair and Bush’s actions.

 

Actually, I’d been thinking about Tony Blair and Iraq before word came through of Blair’s ennoblement, because late last year I read Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday.  This describes 24 hours in the life of a middle-aged, London-based neurosurgeon called Henry Perowne, starting on the morning of Saturday, February 15th, 2003.  In real life, that date saw the biggest political demonstration in British history.  A million people took to the streets of London in an anti-war protest organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain.  Blair, of course, had a messianic belief in his own rightness and ignored the many arguments against war voiced by the protestors, and just over a month later Britain joined the USA and its allies in starting hostilities against Iraq.  The demonstration forms a backdrop to the events in McEwan’s novel and the forthcoming invasion is prominent in the thoughts and conversations of its characters.

 

I was a big fan of McEwan during my youth.  This was while he was in a weird, morbid, modern-gothic phase and wrote the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978).  Thereafter, McEwan became more wholesome and respectable and found success and acclaim as a writer of mainstream literature.  Saturday is only the third novel I’ve read by McEwan since he stopped being ghoulish. The others were The Child in Time (1987), which I enjoyed with some reservations, and Atonement (2001), which I thought was excellent, although a later allegation of plagiarism tarnished it a bit for me.  However, while I’ve generally reacted positively to McEwan’s work, I found Saturday problematic.  It seemed naïve in the statements it was making.  Also, its depiction of its central characters I found downright annoying.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Thesupermat

 

The day described in Saturday begins before dawn.  Perowne gets out of bed and notices an object that he first assumes is ‘a meteor burning out in the London sky’. He realises, though, that it’s a plane with an engine on fire, which makes him wonder if he’s witnessing an act of terrorism – terrorism being on everyone’s minds since events in New York a year-and-a-half earlier.  But it turns out that he’s seen an accidental fire on board a cargo plane, which manages to make an emergency landing at Heathrow.  Reassured, he gets on what’s been planned for the day ahead.

 

His first engagement is at a sports centre where he has a game of squash with his anaesthetist, an American called Jay Strauss.  Then he visits his mother, stricken with dementia in a care home, and does some shopping for a family gathering at his house that evening.  In addition to Perowne and his wife Rosalind, the get-together is attended by their daughter Daisy, son Theo and Rosalind’s father, the quaintly named John Grammaticus.  Later that night, he gets an urgent request from Strauss to perform some emergency surgery: “We got an extradural, male, mid-twenties, fell down the stairs… a depressed fracture right over the sinus…  I want someone senior in here and you’re the nearest.  Plus you’re the best.”

 

However, two more incidents make the day darker.  On his way to play squash, a distracted policeman allows Perowne to drive along Tottenham Court Road, officially closed off for the anti-war demonstration – with the result that he prangs another car coming out of a side-street, whose driver didn’t expect him to be there.  When he gets out to speak to the other car’s three occupants, Perowne realises the men are criminals, ready to beat him up if he doesn’t immediately pay for the damage their car has suffered.  But he also notices that the leader of the trio, a man called Baxter, is showing symptoms of a serious neurological disorder.  Using his knowledge of the illness, Perowne is able to distract and disorientate Baxter long enough to get back into his car and escape.

 

But that isn’t the end of it.  That evening, just after Perowne has welcomed his family into his house, a vengeful Baxter and one of his henchmen burst in and hold them at knifepoint.  There ensues violence, threatened violence and sexual humiliation, before Perowne and his son Theo manage to repel the invaders.  Baxter is thrown down some stairs, knocked unconscious and taken away in an ambulance.  When the phone call comes from Strauss, Perowne realises the injured man he’s being asked to operate on is Baxter, who traumatised his family a short time ago. As he prepares to leave, Rosalind demands, “You’re not thinking about doing something, about some sort of revenge are you?”

 

“Of course not,” Perowne replies, and proves to be as good as his word.

 

As McEwan was in 2003, Perowne is in favour of the Iraq invasion.  He’s not as gung-ho as Strauss, who grumbles about the protestors, “They dislike your Prime Minister, but boy do they f*cking loathe my President,” or indeed as Baxter, who snarls at them in an aside, “Horrible rabble.  Sponging off the country they hate.”  But to his daughter Daisy, who takes part in the day’s demonstration, he says: “No rational person is for war.  But in five years’ time we might not regret it.  I’d love to see the end of Saddam.  You’re right.  It could be a disaster.  But it could be the end of a disaster and the beginning of something better.”  Perowne has been influenced by the testimony of an Iraqi patient of his, an academic called Miri Taleb.  Saddam’s secret police once arrested Taleb and subjected him to ten months of physical and mental torment: “Even on the day of his release he didn’t discover what the charges were against him.”

 

Elsewhere, McEwan’s descriptions of the anti-war protestors seem a bit patronising: “The general cheerfulness Perowne finds baffling.  There are whole families, ones in various sizes of bright red coats, clearly under instructions to hold hands; and students, and a coachful of greying ladies in quilted anoraks and stout shoes.  The Women’s Institute, perhaps…  The scene has an air of innocence and English dottiness.”  Mind you, years later in an interview with Channel 4 News, McEwan admitted that he’d changed his opinion about the war and felt that the marchers in 2003 were ‘vindicated’.

 

From aa.com.tr

 

While I read Saturday, I tried to work out the significance of the villainous Baxter.  Was he a metaphor for Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime?  Or was Baxter’s intrusion into the Perownes’ home a metaphor for terrorism, erupting without warning in everyday life, destroying all notions of normality and security for its victims?  And what’s to be made of Perowne’s eventual decision to do the decent thing, operate on Baxter and save his life?  I got the impression Perowne represented McEwan’s ideal of an enlightened, democratic, liberal West, intervening in Iraq but doing so with everyone’s best interests at heart, including the Iraqis.  Unfortunately, the ‘ignorance, arrogance, neglect, stubbornness, panic, haste and denial’ displayed by Iraq’s Western occupiers following the invasion, which rapidly turned the country into a failed state, showed this to be a pipe dream.  The USA, Britain and their allies were a hell of a lot less benevolent, magnanimous and expert at what they were doing in Iraq than Henry Perowne was in the operating theatre.

 

If the political statement McEwan seems to make in Saturday is wishful thinking, certainly in hindsight, I was more troubled by the lack of self-awareness displayed by the main characters.  Fair enough, as a London neurosurgeon, Perowne is going to be a wealthy man.  His car, McEwan notes, is a “silver Mercedes S500 with cream upholstery – and he’s no longer embarrassed by it.  He doesn’t even love it – it’s simply a sensuous part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods.”

 

But his son Theo is an up-and-coming blues guitarist.  His mother arranged for him to get lessons from Jack Bruce, no less.  “Through Bruce, Theo met some of the legendary figures.  He was allowed to sit in on a Clapton masterclass.  Long John Baldry came over from Canada for a reunion…  By some accident Theo jammed for several minutes with Ronnie Wood and met his older brother Art…”  So, while most kids his age are worrying about entry-level jobs, rents and college fees, Theo, through his family wealth and connections, gets stupendous opportunities to develop his skills playing music – ironically, a type of music that was invented by impoverished black people living in America’s rural south.

 

Similarly, Perowne’s daughter Daisy is a graduate of Oxford University and a poetess who’s just had a collection of poems published.  It no doubt helps that her grandfather, John Grammaticus, is a famous English poet who lives in a chateau in France.  Though both lauded and loaded, the old man is bitter about how the world has treated him: “John minded when Spender and not he was knighted, when Raine not Grammaticus got the editorship at Faber, when he lost the Oxford Professorship of Poetry to Fenton, when Hughes and later Motion were preferred as Poets Laureate, and above all when it was Heaney who got the Nobel.”

 

I may have missed it in Saturday, but I don’t remember the Perownes reflecting on their good fortune, on having so much in a world where many people have so little.  It’s especially galling that Theo and Daisy, whom we’re supposed to like as characters, don’t acknowledge their luck in having fulfilling, creative lives, doing the things they enjoy doing, that most people their age can’t have because they lack the wealth, security, support, time and connections.  Perhaps once, back when many of Theo’s British-blues heroes were youngsters from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, Britain offered some social mobility and the arts weren’t necessarily the preserve of the elite.  But that’s hardly the case in 21st century Britain, when money, poshness and who-you-know seems to be prerequisites for careers in music (Florence Welch, Mumford and Sons, James Blunt), acting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Pattinson, various Foxes) and literature (while the 2003 and 2013 Granta lists of ‘Best Young British Novelists’ showed some ethnic diversity, about 60% of those novelists had still attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities).

 

I’d assumed McEwan would use Baxter, who’d obviously never had the opportunities gifted to Theo and Daisy, as an instrument to comment on this when he crashes into the Perownes’ comfortable world.   However, the ‘home invasion’ section of Saturday is relatively brief and the bitter commentary I expected didn’t appear.  Baxter gets strangely emotional after he forces Daisy to recite a poem to him, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, but that’s all.

 

This muted acceptance of the advantages enjoyed by the Perowne family irritated me most about Saturday.  In this respect, it seems as tone-deaf as Tony Blair was about the war that the novel ruminates on.

 

From change.org

George, where did it all go wrong?

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

Last Thursday saw the Prime Minister of England – sorry, Prime Minister of Britain – Boris Johnson arrive in Scotland for a one-day charm offensive.  This was intended to remind Scottish people of how lucky they were to be part of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ‘mighty’ union as Johnson grandly put it, and dissuade them of any mad notions of voting for Scottish independence, which, according to recent opinion polls, 54% of them are now minded to do.  Determined to press the flesh with the maximum number of Scottish people during his visit, Johnson flew into the bustling Caledonian metropolises of the Orkney Islands and RAF Lossiemouth.  A little unfortunately, the Orcadian mainland is home to a small settlement called Twatt, which led to some unkind quips being made on social media about there already being ‘one Twatt in the Orkneys’.  It was also slightly unwise for the PM to parley with some local fishermen and pose for photographers holding a pair of clawed, antennae-ed crustaceans, as social media was soon heaving with comments about how he ‘had crabs’.

 

But Johnson isn’t the only British political chancer to have foisted himself upon Scotland recently, proclaiming the message that red, white and blue unionism is good while Saltire-waving indie is bad.  For July 2020 has seen the return to Scottish soil of one George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway.  Or to give him the title that immediately appears when you type his name into Google, ‘George Galloway cat.’

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time I considered Galloway one of the good guys.  Well, one of the goodish guys at least.  This was while he served as Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead, later Glasgow Kelvin, from 1987 to 2005.  For many years Labour MPs formed the bulk of Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons, but apart from a few high-fliers like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson, destined for cabinet jobs under Tony Blair, they were an uninspiring lot – a big, grey Scottish-accented blob whose only function was to shamble through the voting lobbies at their party’s bidding.  They were nicknamed the ‘low-flying Jimmies’, though to my mind they were a living, if barely sentient, definition of the Scots word ‘numpties’.

 

However, the Scottish Labour MPs contained a small but interesting awkward squad.  The squad included the admirably his-own-man Tam Dalyell; and the very leftward Ron Brown (who shocked the British establishment by heading off to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and then on his return warning that it probably wasn’t a good idea for the West to fund the Mujahideen, later to morph into the Taliban); and the trio of Dick Douglas, John McAllion and Dennis Canavan, all of whom would later end up estranged from the Labour Party and end up supporting the cause of Scottish independence.  Plus, of course, the ultra-awkward George Galloway.

 

Galloway was too left-wing for traditional mainstream Labourites’ liking, which was fine by me.  I also approved of his constitutional stance.  Though he didn’t go as far as espousing independence for Scotland, he advocated a large measure of home-rule for the country within the framework of the UK.  And when John Major’s Conservative Party won the British general election in 1992 and dashed hopes of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up for at least another half-decade, and a campaign movement called Scotland United was formed to maintain pressure for the creation of such a parliament, I wasn’t surprised when Galloway became one of the movement’s leading lights.

 

From twitter.com/thoughtland

 

To keep the issue in the public consciousness, Scotland United held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I participated in a couple of these, though I can’t remember Galloway addressing the crowds.  I do remember, however, one Saturday marching down to Leith Links in Edinburgh where, after speeches, we were treated to a gig by the Scotland United-supporting pop / soul band Deacon Blue.  At one point, singer Ricky Ross pointed out the nearby premises of Leith’s Conservative and Unionist Association and started singing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, which contains the pertinent lyrics, “…how does it feel / To be on your own, with no direction home / A complete unknown…?”  The memory makes me nostalgic.  Trying to establish a Scottish parliament by having Deacon Blue sing Bob Dylan at the Tories.  Those were the days.

 

Still, it was already clear that Galloway had a dodgy side.  From 1983 to 1987 he’d served as general secretary of the British charity War on Want and stories of his antics during a conference in Greece – Galloway confessed to getting to know some local ladies ‘carnally’ – led to embarrassing tabloid coverage.  I seem to remember one newspaper reporting his attempts to justify his behaviour with the headline I BONKED FOR BRITAIN.  This presumably helped give rise to Galloway’s nickname ‘Gorgeous’.  Meanwhile, his simultaneously smooth and self-righteous manner caused a lot of people I knew, even ones who shared his politics, to profess that they hated his guts.

 

During the next two decades, following Galloway’s exploits was a seesawing experience.  He’d do something crap, then redeem himself by doing something impressive, then blow his restored credibility by doing something crap again.  At the crap end was his grovelling to the Iraq despot Saddam Hussein, which in 1994 saw him utter the famous line, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”  Later, Galloway claimed, not very convincingly, that he’d aimed this line at the long-suffering Iraqi people rather than at Saddam himself.

 

But he deserved kudos for his opposition to George Bush Jnr and Tony Blair’s misguided, mendacious and ultimately catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.  He denounced Bush as a terrorist, got himself expelled from the Labour Party, sued and won against the Daily Telegraph after it claimed Iraqi agents had secretly paid him with cash from the United Nations Oil for Food programme, and then squared up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in 2005.  The senate confrontation was probably his finest hour.  He gave those senators a mauling.  “…(I)n everything I said about Iraq I turned out to be right,” he declared, “and you turned out to be wrong.  And 100,000 have paid with their lives, 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies.”

 

Though he’d  torched his bridges with the Labour Party, Galloway managed for a time to defy Enoch Powell’s famous adage that ‘all political lives… end in failure.’  He formed the Respect Party, stood for election in the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and won it from Labour.  He stood down as MP there following a schism in the Respect Party, but in a 2012 by-election pulled off a similar stunt by winning Bradford West from Labour.  Both constituencies had sizable Muslim communities and there were copious allegations about Galloway dishing religious-related dirt on his opponents – that in Bethnal Green he’d played up the fact that the Labour incumbent, Oona King, had a Jewish mother; that in Bradford West he’d raised the issue of the Labour Party’s Muslim candidate drinking alcohol; and that in the run-up to the 2015 general election he’d accused his Labour challenger, another Muslim, Naz Shah, of supporting Israel and lying about an arranged marriage.  But Shah had the last laugh because she won Bradford West back for Labour.

 

© Channel 4

 

True to form, Galloway’s 2005 triumph in Bethnal Green was soon negated by his idiotic decision to take part in the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.  This resulted in such colossally cringy moments as George, no longer so gorgeous, dancing in a leotard beside the late Pete Burns of the band Dead or Alive, or pretending to be a cat and licking cream off the lap of actress Rula Lenska.  Hence the word ‘cat’ popping up beside his name on Google searches.

 

More seriously, Galloway secured a job as a host on the Iran-government-funded Press TV in 2008 and that same year earned himself the ire of gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for claiming that a gay man executed in Iran was punished for ‘sex crimes’ rather than for being gay.  He landed himself in more hot water in 2012 when he defended Julian Assange against rape charges by describing having non-consensual sex with a sleeping woman (after consensual sex with her when she was awake), which Assange was accused of doing, as ‘bad sexual etiquette’ but ‘not rape’.

 

Galloway’s support for Assange was evidence that, as the 2010s progressed, he was increasingly happy to clamber onto any bandwagon that he thought would boost his profile.  So he campaigned vociferously for a ‘no’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – ‘just say naw’.  Mind you, he was scathing of his ex-comrades in the Labour Party who’d joined forces with the Conservatives in the anti-independence Better Together movement.  “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative,” he told Prospect magazine, “please shoot me.”  Remember those words.  Prior to the referendum, I watched him in a televised debate and discovered that, like a cartoon character, he’d now acquired a costume, a rarely-off-his-head fedora, and a catchphrase: “That is nonsense on stilts!”

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter/@VirendraSharma

 

Perhaps upset that his contribution to saving the United Kingdom didn’t result in ennoblement by a grateful David Cameron – he could have been Lord Galloway of Nonsense-on-Stilts – George then threw his lot in with the Brexiteers and campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in 2016’s referendum on that matter.  This spawned some nauseating photographs of him, a supposed socialist, posing with Nigel Farage, ex-City of London spiv, immigration dog-whistler and Donald Trump’s biggest British fanboy.  That said, pictures of Galloway embracing the extreme right-wing nutjob Steve Bannon at a debate in Kazakhstan in 2019 were even more mind-melting.

 

The increasing number of causes that Galloway hitched himself to seemed in inverse proportion to the number of votes being cast for him in elections.  A 2011 attempt to get into the Scottish parliament saw him win a less-than-awesome 3.3% of the vote in Glasgow.  His performance in the 2016 London Mayoral contest was even worse (1.4%) and attempts to run in English constituencies in the 2017 and 2019 general elections had equally dire results.

 

Now George has a new wheeze, which is to run in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections as head of something called Alliance for Unity, of which he says: “We have only one goal – to get the SNP out.”  To this end, Galloway has declared himself willing to work with even the Conservatives.  Yes, this is the man who a half-dozen years ago invited folk to shoot him if they ever saw him do that.

 

He intends to stand in the south of Scotland, a rural, down-to-earth area where I can’t see many people falling for his self-serving, narcissistic brand of bullshit.  Maybe he figures he stands a chance because he shares a name with one of the regions there, Dumfries and Galloway.  And who does he really expect to vote for him?  Not Scottish independence supporters, obviously.  Labour supporters will hardly vote for someone so willing to climb into bed with the Tories.  And the hard-line loyalists / British nationalists who increasingly form the main support for the Scottish Conservative Party these days will hardly be enamoured with someone who’s said of Northern Ireland: “There is no Northern Ireland.  It is six counties in the north of Ireland.  It should have never been in the British state in the first place.”  Nor will his urging of Arabs to kill British troops in Iraq in 2003, one of the final straws that got him chucked out of Labour, win him their admiration either.

 

George Galloway may still look, talk and act like the cat that’s got the cream.  But I suspect he’s now used up the last of his nine lives.

 

© The Sunday Mail / From pressreader.com