Things Can Only Get Bitter Alwyn W. Turner

Aurum, pp.72, ebook, £2.99

An ebook arrives! The future of publishing on my hard-drive. All the big profits are in cyber-publishing these days, as I discovered last month when I downloaded an ebook for three quid and found it contained just 85 pages. This one, by Alwyn W. Turner, has only 72 pages, but it’s a penny cheaper at £2.99. I read it in less time than it takes to bake a potato.

Turner’s theme is the agony of the British left. In 1992, Labour’s shock defeat at the polls plunged the party into despair and gave the modernisers a mandate to do whatever was necessary to win power. Turner’s plan is to revive our memories of that ignoble turning-point and to enshrine 1992 as the must-have date of 2012.

He faces stiff competition from Dickens, Captain Scott and the Titanic, among others, so he calls on the finest talents he can muster: Jeremy Hardy and Gordon Brown. ‘Voting Labour is like wiping your bottom,’ Hardy mused in 1992, ‘I can’t say I like doing it, but you’ve got to because you’re in a worse mess if you don’t.’ As the polls closed on 9 April, Brown, then shadow trade secretary, announced that the Tories had ‘lost their mandate to govern’. Whoops! A few hours later a Conservative majority of 21 had been confirmed.

Turner’s book unfolds like an essay plan. There’s a chapter on comedy, a chapter on music, a chapter on rave culture, a chapter on football. It’s a pity he can’t write terribly well, although it helps to explain the book’s extreme brevity. (If I don’t put many words into it, no one’ll notice I can’t use them.) When he employs metaphor, as he does constantly, he’s like a man wrestling with a bag of snakes. They keep jumping out and biting him:

The week of Diana’s funeral saw the traditional establishment miss a heartbeat before being reinvigorated under the tender care of Tony Blair, the people’s prime minister. It also marked the final neutering of the cultural renaissance of the 1990s, stripping away any hint of subversive challenge to leave behind just the veneer of Cool Britannia.

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Turner forgets that the 1990s were great fun. Rising prosperity, new experiments in film and music and the hilarious bungling of John Major’s government gave the left a sense of hope and excitement. But Turner, a lifelong gloom addict, approaches even the most innocent and joyful developments in a mood of sulky intellectualism. Here he is describing a pop concert:

At a time when the atomisation of society predicted by E.M. Forster in The Machine Stops seemed finally to be upon us, there arose a corresponding need for a shared experience.

In August 1996 Oasis played two gigs at Knebworth to a quarter of a million people.

He views everything through the dour goggles of sociology. The newly devised national lottery he regards as a ‘fervour’ which drives people to ‘seek comfort in the anonymous democracy of the crowd’. Silly jargon blinds him to simple facts. Lottery players seek the comfort of wealth, not of ‘anonymous democracy’. And the crowd is exactly what they’re trying to escape.

When Turner looks at rave culture he sees a moral crusade rather than a simple rite of bacchanalian ebullience. He quotes Oona King, the future ex-Labour MP, who described raves as ‘a triumph of collectivism’. You what? Raves are just crowds of stoned kids dancing their nuts off in a field. Every page of this book is crammed with these knackered Old Labour prejudices. And the shadow of Blair looms ominously over everything Turner discusses.

What is this treatise for? To describe it as a hoax put out by a shameless publisher to scam money from first-time foragers in the ebook market would be to overstate the case. I doubt if the publishers have the guile to swindle cyber-surfers in that way. More likely, they felt the need to jazz up their spring list with an ebook, and so asked a lazy editor to commission a lazy author to propose a lazy idea and turn it into a lazy book.

And here it is. The flimsiest and most banal 72-page tome in history. However, it does contain one nugget of truth. Turner’s wrist-slashing pessimism demonstrates that the worst ordeal the left can face is victory.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Culture, Left-wing, Non-fiction, Politics (UK)