Issue 186 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review



Last word on Malcolm

Ghosts in our Blood
Jan Carew
Lawrence Hill £10.99

Ghosts in our Blood

The life of Malcolm X has been well documented in books, documentaries and in Spike Lee's popular film. Despite this many still believe he was a 'reverse' racist and a preacher of violence. For many years after his death the American authorities and the Nation of Islam helped fuel this belief in the hope of lessening Malcolm's influence on future generations. What is less well known is how his break with the Nation of Islam led to a complete transformation and reappraisal of his former political beliefs.
Weeks before his death Malcolm was in Britain to speak at the Oxford Union and LSE. These last few weeks are the subject of Jan Carew's new book which records conversations with Malcolm whilst in London in February 1965.
It is the beginning of the book dealing with Malcolm's last year that is the most fascinating. Carew's aim is to make clear that the Malcolm X of 1965 was very different from the demonised figure he was portrayed as in the media.
When Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, this was a political break and not one based on personalities or disillusionment with Elijah Muhammed--though these were factors. Carew makes explicit how Malcolm moved to the left, toward revolutionary internationalism in these last few months, 'The black liberation struggle had to be internationalised, rather than ghettoised'. As he travelled through Africa and Europe he began to realise that what was needed was a 'global struggle of oppressed against oppressor and exploited against exploiter'.
Malcolm had always despised established black leaders for kowtowing to liberals and racists. Even when he was in Africa, combined with the euphoria at seeing these countries boot out colonial powers was the realisation that 'blacks in charge of their own destiny were actively collaborating with the enemy and showing more contempt for their own people than the white proconsuls'. This led him to acknowledge that economic exploitation was linked to racial exploitation. He was attempting to grapple with the relationship of race to class.
Perhaps the most fundamental change in Malcolm's political outlook was his attitude to whites. He no longer saw them as 'white devils' but came to understand that anti-racist whites could be part of the struggle. What Carew paints is a vivid portrait of a man who, despite being stalked by death, never despaired of fighting oppression. Malcolm made it clear to Carew that his 'role as a leader was not just to analyse the world, but to change it'.
Carew has done a great service in providing a clearer image of a man who was a revolutionary to the end. Their talks touched on many issues, including Marxism, which Malcolm was trying to explore and understand in terms of the struggle against racism. Tragically, the only role models he had were the emerging independent countries of Africa, Cuba and the ideas of some American socialists, who have argued that Malcolm was a socialist.
Jan Carew is careful not to make such claims because, put simply, he was not. Malcolm X was a revolutionary figure who had broken from the insular, narrow, nationalist mould of the Nation of Islam.
In reappraising his former beliefs he certainly moved to the left but this movement was also accompanied by many contradictions--such as could black and white be in the same organisation? His views on socialism were shaped by the national liberation struggles and he still talked in terms of the 'African Revolution'. Though he condemned established black leaders in the States, he had illusions in the African leaders' ability to bring the US to heel over racism.
Today, 30 years since his assassination, there is a tendency in some quarters to rewrite history and to sanitise Malcolm into a safe role model for black kids. If he can pull himself out of the ghetto--the argument goes anyone can! Carew's book is not in this category. He acknowledges that the reason Malcolm X is perhaps a greater and more powerful figure than when alive is precisely because he never sold out. His uncompromising commitment to fighting the system that breeds racism and his insistence that all blacks had a right to defend themselves against racist violence by any means necessary is his true legacy. This is what should be remembered when charlatans like Farrakhan or even Clinton sport an 'X' baseball cap.
Talat Ahmed

Fired by the famine

Fenianism in mid Victorian Britain
John Newsinger
Pluto Press £6.95

Fenianism in mid Victorian Britain

The impact of the potato famine of 1845-48 on Irish society was profound.
Yet amidst all the hunger and desperation resistance began to grow, and the bitter memories of the awful devastation were to act as a spur to the rebirth of militant Irish Republicanism, and to one of its most important chapters: the growth of the Fenians.
The Fenian movement has not had a great press from historians.
Yet the movement was one of real influence, with support capable of mounting a significant challenge to British rule. Furthermore it was overwhelmingly a movement of the working class of the towns and sections of the rural poor.
At its height this 'secret society' had anywhere between 50,000 and 80,000 members, with strong support in the United States.
Its leaders, of whom the most significant was James Stephens, were mainly products of the lower middle classes, and were widely influenced by the great upsurge of revolutionary waves that swept Europe in the 1840s.
Nor were they rabidly anti-British. Indeed sections of the radical movements in Britain were drawn into their confidence--Stephens himself joined Marx's First International.
When it came to drawing up the proclamation of the Republic the Fenians, under the influence of English radicals and unlike the 1916 leaders, did not include references to God or religion, but did call for solidarity from British workers.
Sadly their rising in 1867 was badly timed, tactically naive, and relatively easily crushed. Two years before the movement seems to have been much better placed, but a loss of nerve by Stephens, and a completely diversionary and calamitous attempt to invade Canada by the American wing of the movement, meant that by far the best opportunity to strike a blow against English rule was lost.
John Newsinger's excellent little book outlines and analyses these events well, doing justice to the movement and its leaders, examining their strengths and weaknesses. It is an easy and enlightening read from a revolutionary socialist standpoint. The book is not helped by a rather grandiose claim on the back page blurb about 'new and distinctive interpretation' of the period.
This claim is based on two things: firstly Newsinger argues that Fenianism should not be seen as 'part of an unbroken nationalist continuum' and secondly he attacks Irish revisionist historians.
As to the first of these claims, Newsinger doesn't, it seems to me, make clear exactly where this course takes us. He explains rightly that each major uprising against the British (1798, 1867,1916-22, and 1968-95) arose out of quite specific and different events and conditions.
Nevertheless a continuum does exist. Each movement arose out of the failure to resolve the national question: Tone's failed bourgeois revolution of 1798 meant that conditions were still in place for the horrors of the famine, and thus the birth of Fenianism.
The failure of the Fenians meant that the national question was still not resolved and would again produce the background to 1916. The ultimate failure to bring complete independence in 1921 created the sectarian Northern Ireland state.
Of course each new explosion involved different sections and classes of Irish society in different ways, just as each requires different methods and solutions. The bourgeois Republican ideals of Tone offer little by way of resolving the conflict in the North today, a conflict which, nevertheless, has its roots in the past. After rereading the passages closely I am still not clear as to whether Newsinger disputes this.
His demolition of the revisionist historians, however, is excellent and entertaining. He mocks their attempts to downplay and write off the Fenians, rightly seeing it as part of the ongoing attempt by sections of today's Southern Irish intelligentsia to downplay the importance of physical force revolution in Irish history.
Yet this whole section lasts no more than three pages, and at the end of the book one couldn't help feeling that the author was being cut short just as he was getting into his polemical stride. Nevertheless an enjoyable and informative read.
Pat Stack

Out of sympathy

American Tabloid
James Ellroy
Century £15.99

American Tabloid

James Ellroy writes crime novels devoid of any sympathetic characters. His main protagonists are cops, gangsters, politicians and millionaires. They are all corrupt, sexist, homophobic, racist and more often than not, murderers. Real figures like Hoover, Howard Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa mix with Ellroy's anti-heroes.
If you read crime novels it is refreshing to find a writer so completely cynical about the police and the political system. For Ellroy there is little distinction between the cops, the Mafia and the politicians.
They are all 'bad men' fighting to secure their place in a rotten system.
His previous novels have centred on Los Angeles in the 1950s. Ellroy's strength is that he writes exciting, fast paced thrillers against the background of that corruption.
With American Tabloid he has moved his novels onto a wider stage and away from the straightforward crime thriller. The story is set against the rise of John F Kennedy.
The three central characters are entangled in an intricate plot involving the CIA's attempts to overthrow Castro, the Kennedys' attempts to build a power base through a campaign against corruption in Hoffa's Teamster union, and Hoover's attempts to undermine the Kennedys.
Ellroy portrays the Kennedy clan as corrupt. We see Joseph Kennedy and his family building a political dynasty with the millions raised through prohibition busting and gangsterism in the 1930s. Nothing is allowed to impede their progress. Stories of JFK's womanising are viciously suppressed when a sleazy tabloid tries to spill the beans. Ellroy's intention is to 'demythologise an era' so that we see the Kennedys as the 'shuck-and-jive' politicians they really were. I can't argue with that!
Politically this may not be the most incisive of novels. But when it comes to thriller writing Ellroy is certainly one of the best.
John Baxter

Theatre of revolution

The Young Brecht
Hans Otto Münsterer
Libris £17.95

The Young Brecht

The German revolutionary playwright Bertholt Brecht has come in for considerable criticism in the years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Since Brecht was held up by East German Stalinists as the champion of art in 'actually existing socialism', it is not surprising that when this stopped 'existing' Brecht's reputation would suffer with it. This denigration has taken place on two levels.
Firstly, the value and character of his plays have been doubted. In some cases, commentators have tried to deny their revolutionary nature.
Secondly, Brecht has been criticised for events in his personal life. John Fuegi's recent biography, The Life and Lies of Bertholt Brecht, tries to show that Brecht stole many of his ideas from the people he had worked with, especially for his most famous play The Threepenny Opera; and that Brecht took credit for the numerous collaborative efforts in which he was involved, and made other people's ideas appear his own. However, many critics of Fuegi's book have pointed out (quite correctly in my opinion) that to work in theatre cooperatives, as Brecht did for most of his life, was to lead inevitably to his using other people's ideas in his work.
It is within this context that the translation of Hans Otto Münsterer's account of Brecht's early life, The Young Brecht, can help. Münsterer, a close friend, describes his relations with Brecht in Augsburg, Bavaria, in southern Germany between 1917 and 1922. To be in Bavaria at the end of the First World War was to be witness to the knock on effect of the Russian Revolution, which saw the setting up, if only briefly, of workers' and soldiers' soviets in the Soviet Republic of Bavaria. Though spending little time describing the events of this crucial part in German history, Münsterer shows how Brecht became slowly radicalised by this revolutionary period.
A (vaguely) patriotic youth during the 1914-18 period slowly became a talented poet and songwriter, whose outpourings were criticisms of both war and European heroic values. Unfortunately, however, Münsterer's account devotes much detail to Brecht's personal and family life and does not speak of his direct involvement in the political upheavals taking place.
The translators of Münsterer's book considered it important therefore to include a second half which, using Brecht's diaries and those of his activist brother Walter, gives a more detailed account of Brecht's political involvement. Brecht was indeed elected onto a soldiers' soviet in 1918, and did have strong connections with the Spartakus revolutionaries (he hid the Augsburg revolutionary leader Georg Prem in his apartment for a time). But he was, it seems, not at all a political activist, and, by his own admission, he suffered like everyone else serving on the soldiers' soviet 'from a lack of political conviction'.
With good translations of his poetry and writings from this period, this book gives an insight into how the events of 1918-19 influenced Brecht to become interested in Marxism after 1926, and go on to be one of the greatest left wing playwrights of the century.
Andy Stafford

Before disgraceland

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley
Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown and Co £17.99

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley has not, on the whole, enjoyed a sympathetic press since his death in 1977. But even when Presley is not being treated as a postmodern joke, he is typically portrayed as a talentless racist hick, who made his fortune ripping off black musicians before dying a Benzedrine addled, cheeseburger bloated wreck: a symbol, in fact, of everything that revolutionaries most hate about capitalist America.
The popularity of this view is understandable, given, among other things, the generally dire nature of his music during the 1960s and 1970s, his hypocritical posturing with Richard Nixon in opposition to drugs and much else besides. Nevertheless, there is one thing wrong with this version of the Elvis Presley story, namely that--for the first eight years of his career at any rate--it is completely false, as has at last been comprehensively demonstrated by Peter Guralnick in this first volume of a biography which traces Presley's life up until he was drafted into the US army in 1958.
Guralnick's account brings out three crucial aspects of Presley's relation to black music and culture.
The first is a reaffirmation of the originality of his early work. Guralnick demonstrates that, although there was already a two way traffic in musical ideas between white country and black rhythm and blues before 1954, their fusion into rock and roll resulted in a new form. He regards Presley as a serious singer and musician who painstakingly and consciously effected this fusion. Around 40 years of familiarity with the early recordings, and the cosy iconographic status which Presley now enjoys, have combined to obscure the musical impact of his first records. It is particularly exciting, therefore, to read the description here of Presley and his band recording their first single, 'That's All Right', and the astonished reactions of everyone lucky enough to have been in the studio.
The second point is to show that Presley was, initially at any rate, as popular with black audiences as with white. There is a fascinating description of his performance (and the audience reaction) at a concert organised by the black radio station WDIA in 1956.
This takes us on to the third and most controversial point: racism. The view expressed by Public Enemy in 'Fight The Power'--'Elvis was a hero to some but he never meant shit to me/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain'--must be doubted in the light of the preceding paragraph; but there is more. Sam Phillips, Presley's first and greatest producer, is quoted as saying, 'if I could find a white man who sang like a nigger, I could make a billion dollars.'
Sam Phillips was no socialist, but an astute liberal businessman. He did, however, establish the only white run studio in Memphis which recorded black artists and was regularly denounced for it by his fellow whites. Similarly, for a poor white like Presley to embrace black music, to go to black areas in search of that music, to wear the clothes associated with black hustlers in segregated Tennessee was not to behave like a racist.
But for all his sensitivity in discussing the cultural and racial components of the 'New South' into which Presley was born and raised, Guralnick does not explicitly comment on the historical context of the origins of rock and roll. For example, on 1 December 1955, the same day that Presley signed to RCA Victor Records, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus, thus precipitating the struggle for black civil rights that was to dominate American politics for the next two decades. Although that struggle featured obliquely in the work of black rock and rollers (Chuck Berry's 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man', for example), it took more that ten years for the music which Presley helped create to deal explicitly with these political issues.
The system destroyed Presley personally, just as it did comparable talents like Robert Johnson, Hank Williams or Charlie Parker; his particular tragedy was that it also destroyed him musically.
The decline and fall of Elvis Presley will presumably be the theme of Guralnick's next volume. For the moment, however, we have this portrait of Presley at the peak of his powers. For anyone wishing to understand his impact on popular music, this book, along with Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, is the place to start.
Neil Davidson

Trotsky as icon

Trotsky as Alternative
Ernest Mandel
Verso £14.95

Trotsky as Alternative

There are now a lot of books devoted to Leon Trotsky--Isaac Deutscher's magnificent trilogy, three studies by different SWP authors, an earlier work by Mandel and a number of others.
To this collection Mandel has now added the work under review and it has to be said that there seems precious little justification for it. If it has been written with a specific political purpose or to respond to a particular situation, this is not made clear. Likewise Mandel doesn't appear to have anything new to say except in minute particulars and on various marginal matters.
This is not to say the book is without merit. Mandel has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Trotsky's writings--five decades of quoting him for internal polemics in the Fourth International have seen to that. Also Mandel is an active Trotskyist which places him closer in spirit and politics to Trotsky than some writers who have tackled the subject.
Nevertheless, the book's weaknesses outweigh its strengths. As an introduction it is unsatisfactory (unlike Duncan Hallas's excellent Trotsky's Marxism) because it tries to cover too much ground and too many issues. As a work for the more experienced reader or specialist it disappoints and irritates. Mandel has a habit of raising a contentious issue, for example Trotsky's role in the trade unions debate of 1921-22, or his position on black nationalism in the late 1930s, making a few confident assertions about it and then slipping off onto something else without substantiating the assertions or discussing the issue in depth.
Both these problems are related to a third. Every sympathetic analyst or biographer is likely to a greater or lesser extent to paint Trotsky in his or her own image. In this case the boundaries between Mandel's ideas and Trotsky's are blurred again and again, and this is facilitated by the paucity of direct quotation, referencing, evidence and historical context.
This process begins in the very first chapter which is devoted to a 17 point exposition of the law of uneven and combined development. What we are presented with is not Trotsky's concept in any particular text or series of texts or at any particular time or even in its stages of historical development, but Mandel's own synthesis. To be sure, Mandel's ideas derive more or less from Trotsky's but it is still Mandel we are getting, not Trotsky--a fact confirmed by the footnotes which are used mainly to make supplementary points rather than cite Trotsky's works.
And the trouble with Mandel's Trotsky is that by and large he is a figure with the creases ironed out. Mandel does acknowledge the occasional difficulty and even error but you always feel these are being smoothed over and minimised. Nor does this tendency enhance Trotsky's stature. On the contrary, in glossing over difficulties in aspects of Trotsky's political life and thought, Mandel also underplays the truly incredible difficulties in the objective situation through which Trotsky so valiantly battled to preserve genuine Marxism. In fact much less sense of Trotsky's greatness as a revolutionary emerges from this work than from Tony Cliff's more critical study.
Finally Mandel has the infuriating habit of trying to demonstrate the vindication of Trotsky's ideas by quoting some Russian source or figure who happens to have said something similar to him. Thus, we are told that Trotsky's United Opposition campaigned against 'the public promotion of sales of vodka, with arguments that anticipated those of Gorbachev's leadership more than 50 years later'. This both insults Trotsky and speaks volumes for the accommodation to Stalinism that underlines the politics of the author for all his protestations of loyalty to the Old Man.
John Molyneux

Levellers in arms

The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland 1645-1653
Ian Gentles
Blackwell £14.99

The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland 1645-1653

The New Model Army--the very name sends a shiver down your spine, but how many of us actually know anything about it apart from the fact that is was the force that won the English Civil War, supposedly the first bourgeois revolution in history?
The book explains the role of men like Oliver Cromwell, Philip Skipton, Thomas Fairfax and others in setting up the army and ensuring it was properly funded by a loan from the merchants of London. There are details of how the men were recruited and what class the rank and file came from, their motivation and expectations.
The chapters on the political radicalisation of the army during the course of the war, the influence of the Levellers, Quakers, Anabaptists and other radical sects are quite extensive. The events around the army's mutiny and eventual invasion of Ireland are explained as a victory for the aspiring bourgeois element among the officer core around Cromwell. This was in opposition to the bulk of the rank and file, mainly yeoman farmers and artisans.
But the book is about more than the history of social conflict and political infighting, as the author explains quite graphically what it was like to actually fight in the New Model Army. For example, he describes the Battle of Naseby where the New Model Cavalry, made up of ploughmen and cobblers 'and other such scourings of the world' rout the aristo scum led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, reputedly the finest cavalry commander of his day. New military strategies were adopted too. Disdaining orthodox siege warfare, the army would storm the Royalist fortifications at night using scaling ladders, cold steel and hand grenades.
So here we have a book containing both socioeconomic and military history. Why should you spend money on a book about events that happened 350 years ago?
Academics churn out essays and books in order to prove that the English Civil War was no more than a simple misunderstanding that got out of hand. They believe that the history of 'this sceptred Isle', apart from this minor aberration, has followed an evolutionary rather than revolutionary path.
However, if you read this book you will know that this is a dullard's lie. You will learn about the New Model Army and the beheaded king. Maybe you will think that we have done it once before and now it's time to do it again.
John Brown

History for the taking

Theories and Narratives
Alex Callinicos
Polity £12.95

Theories and Narratives

Can we make sense of history? For Marxists, the answer is not only that we can, but that workers can transform the society we live in, and change the course of history.
This is a conclusion that is rejected by the vast majority of academics. For those enchanted by the ideas of 'postmodernism', the very attempt to make sense of how societies develop is authoritarian. The roots of fascism and Stalin's crimes lie for them not in those societies but in any ideology which seeks to reduce everything to a rigid scheme--a 'grand narrative'.
A popular idea linked to this is that writing about history is just a specific form of storytelling. This often fits neatly with the right's enthusiasm for 'dates and names' history--where kids in schools are taught about famous events and individuals. According to this view, history proceeds by a combination of accidents and grand designs.
In responding to these arguments, Alex Callinicos shows how even 'narrative history' is based on theories and assumptions, even if they are not explicit. He attacks the relativism which leads some postmodernists to deny that there is any objective truth in writing about historical events. At its sharpest, faced with the horror of the Holocaust, and with people like David Irving who seek to deny it, such theories either fall apart or lead to reactionary conclusions.
Alex also draws a distinction between theories and philosophies of history. He argues the criticisms often levelled at Marxism apply rather to speculative philosophies of history. Hegel for example explained historical developments without recourse to cause and effect, but rather in terms of a grand scheme independent of human beings. Marxism in contrast is a theory, open to empirical modification and refutation. It develops out of the experience of the working class movement, and starts from the contradictions in the real world which make our society pregnant with change. This potential--to eradicate poverty, inequality and oppression--is the sense in which Marxism sees 'progress'.
The liberal notion of progress--that capitalism is gradually improving our world--sits ill alongside the Holocaust and Hiroshima, brought to us by two of the world's most advanced nations.
Alex also attacks the idea that Marxism is Eurocentric. Alongside the devastation caused by capitalism there are the achievements of pre-capitalist societies outside Europe. But equally these cannot be looked at uncritically, since these 'non-Western' civilisations were class societies with often brutal repression.
Marxism's global approach, understanding such contradictions and starting from the point of view of the exploited, means that it does not share the Eurocentrism of liberalism while sharing classical liberalism's desire for progress.
Theories and Narratives is a contribution to the debate about the nature of historical writing, not an introduction to it. This book is heavy going for anyone not familiar with the arguments of the writers involved in these debates. It is not helped by the style, which is at points obscure--with foreign words and phrases which would lose nothing from being translated. Nevertheless, it will be useful for anyone who comes up against such arguments.
Nicolai Gentchev

Long in the tooth

The New Victorians
Rene Denfeld
Simon & Schuster £16.99

Vamps and Tramps
Camille Paglia
Viking £17.00

Vamps and Tramps

Camille Paglia's 'advice to both sexes at the end of the century' goes as follows: 'I would say to men: get it up! And to women I would say: deal with it!'
Paglia, a right wing self publicist, argues against affirmative action policies, favours the death penalty, endorses pornography, and argues the prostitute is 'a prowler and a predator, self directed and no one's victim'.
Her book attacks feminism, political correctness and women's studies and promotes a collection of bizarre ideas--for example, freeing our 'pagan' sexual nature. This seems to involve being seductresses, exercising 'vampiric power' over men and looking at pornography; and, for men, being macho and having a permanent erection.
This throws women's rights into sharp reverse: women and men adhering to and encouraging sexual stereotypes, a return to mysticism, and plain old reactionary politics. Little wonder that Paglia is a big fan of capitalism, claiming it is 'the vehicle of women's modern liberation'.
Rene Denfeld argues from a more left wing perspective. She points out that young women are alienated from feminism and draws parallels between the anti-men, anti-pornography, anti-heterosexuality stance of some feminists and Victorian ideals of women as pure, sexless beings victimised by men.
It's true that the further from any orientation on working class activity it has moved, the more out of touch with the majority of women feminism has become. At times feminist positions dovetail with the right wing--as over the banning of pornography.
But, while the likes of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin may be easy targets, the main barrier to women's equality is not feminism.
Both Paglia and Denfeld spend a lot of time attacking feminism for derailing the progression of women's equality.
Both writers hark back to days when feminism won gains for women, yet Denfeld rubbishes 'outmoded' tactics like demonstrations. She quotes approvingly a National Women's Political Caucus spokeswoman explaining why her organisation refused to sponsor the huge 1992 pro-choice demo in Washington, 'For what it would cost us to participate in this march, we can elect several women.'
The message couldn't be clearer: capitalism works, talk of a backlash is paranoia, all we need is more women in government. Collective struggle is firmly off the agenda.
Neither author sees any contradiction in criticising feminism for being out of touch and, at the same time, recommending electing women, backing Clinton and advocating lifestyle changes that only middle class women could attempt. Neither of them is remotely in touch with the lives of of working class women.
Megan Trudell

Tune in, drop out

High Fidelity
Nick Hornby
Gollancz £14.99

High Fidelity

Nick Hornby is famous as the author of Fever Pitch, a brilliant story of life as an Arsenal fan. High Fidelity isn't fact, but fiction, and the main character is not a football obsessed (adolescent) 35 year old, but a music obsessed (adolescent) 35 year old.
The narrator, Rob, is kind and considerate. He votes Labour. He owns a record shop on the Seven Sisters Road. His girlfriend, Laura, is a lawyer. She used to be a legal aid lawyer, passionate about tenants' rights. Now she's just intense about her career. When she leaves him, Rob spends an evening reordering the tapes in his collection: not alphabetically or chronologically, but according to the date he bought them.
One of the issues in the book is class. Rob sees himself as middle class, but in society's terms (and his parents') he is a failure. In one passage he gets invited to a dinner party with the friends of an old girlfriend. The people he meets are a class apart: 'They have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they have opinions and I have lists. Could I tell them anything about which journey is the worst for jetlag? No. Could they tell me the original lineup of the Wailers? No. They probably couldn't even tell me the lead singer's name.'
The book starts with Rob's account of his adolescent relationships--most of which end with him being dumped. We see patterns of behaviour that are repeated in the later chapters. This is one of the book's big ideas. Men are just 'little boys ten or 20 years on'. One of the main reasons that Laura drops Rob is that he cheated on her (and so she had an abortion). His response to her dropping him is to fantasise jealously about the sex she has with her new lover. Rob is an Old Man trying hard to be a New Man, 'I can see what feminists are on about, most of the time, but not the radical ones.'
High Fidelity is well written and wryly observed. It can be very funny. It captures the 'no consciousness, no desire and no pleasure' of teen relationships; the boring routine of working in a 'tiny, failing business'; and the emptiness and the dreams of lives at the butt end of the music scene.
It is an enjoyable read, but without anything especially profound or political to say. Wait for the paperback.
Dave Renton

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