A strong whiff of goodbyes: The Pole and Other Stories, by J.M. Coetzee, reviewed

New books by, articles about or Sasquatch-like sightings of J.M. Coetzee routinely send me back to that infamous YouTube clip of Geoff Dyer face-planting while being introduced by Coetzee at the Adelaide Book Festival – an episode often cited as evidence that the Nobel Laureate has no sense of humour. The garlanded ex-South African’s work is famously as dry as the Karoo, and Coetzee himself has been accused of having only ever laughed once. But a smile is visible in ‘The Pole’, the longest story in this collection. Beatriz, in her late forties, is an educated Spanish woman, ‘a good person’ in a ‘civilised’ (read dormant) marriage, involved in organising

Boris, Biden and the era of big government

Bill Clinton’s declaration that ‘the era of big government is over’ summed up the late 1990s political zeitgeist. Centre-left political parties could win if they accepted the small state model bequeathed by the Thatcher-Reagan consensus. Now things feel very different, as I say in the Times today. The stimulus Joe Biden signed into law is huge, $1.9 trillion (£1.4 trillion): three times larger than the financial hole created by Covid. Here there has been nothing as dramatic. But it is still telling that Boris Johnson is insistent that the public finances won’t be brought back into order by ‘austerity cuts’. Big government appears to be back. Politics is going to become

Why Covid cuts are off the cards

How will the UK recover after lockdown? Although social distancing is expected to continue for months, talk has turned to how the government will deal with its coronavirus debts. The Treasury is seeking to raise £180 billion over the next three months to meet its pledges – putting the UK on course to see its budget deficit rise to a level never seen before in peacetime. Some estimates put borrowing this financial year at over £300 billion, far outpacing the years following the financial crash. This has led a number of public figures to predict a return to the Cameron and Osborne era with mass cuts in the years ahead. However, when Boris Johnson was

Toxic regulations, not the fire brigade, are to blame for the Grenfell deaths

It has been bizarre to hear the London Fire Brigade taking the brunt of the blame for the deaths of 72 people at Grenfell Tower. Its commissioner Dany Cotton certainly deserves condemnation for persisting in telling residents to stay put when it ought to have been clear early on that fire was engulfing the building and it needed to be evacuated. Her suggestion that she ‘wouldn’t change anything we did on the night’ — in spite of the role her advice played in boosting the death toll — compounds her errors. Yet by the time the fire service arrived, tragedy was already assured. To pin the blame on Ms Cotton,

The great Tory health splurge

A fortnight before Philip Hammond delivered his last Budget, the chief executive of the NHS gave a speech making the case for more funding. Simon Stevens had brought with him picture of a Vote Leave poster, promising £350 million a week for the health service, which he showed to his audience. What a good idea, he said. He wasn’t coming out as a Brexiteer, but he did think the Leavers had a point about giving an extra £350 million a week to the National Health Service. In fact, he went so far as to say that the ‘public want to see’ this promise honoured. And if politicians don’t cough up?

Corbyn can be beaten – here’s how

The Tory party is suffering from an intellectual crisis of confidence. Before 8 June, its collective view was that Jeremy Corbyn was simply too left-wing to be a serious candidate for the prime ministership in modern Britain. He hadn’t learnt the lessons of Labour’s defeats in the 1980s, and while he might excite a noisy 35 per cent of the electorate, thought the Tories, he’d never be able to put together a general election-winning coalition. Corbyn, however, came closer to victory than any Tory had expected. His Labour party got 40 per cent of the vote and took seats off the Tories. Not one of them had seen it coming and,

All is not lost | 5 May 2016

Marina Lewycka’s latest happy-go-lucky tale of migrant folk in Britain takes a remark by the modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin as its epigraph: ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people.’ In the vertical community within one of Lubetkin’s postwar blocks of flats in East London we meet hapless Bertie, resting actor caught on the hop by the spare-bedroom tax; disabled Len, thinking positive about his benefit reassessment; Violet, dreaming of her childhood in Kenya at her desk in a City insurance firm; and many more — some powering ahead in our new age of golden job opportunities and zero-hour contracts, others not so much. In fact, after his mother’s death, Bertie

High life | 4 February 2016

Athens Viewed from Mars, this is a sunny, peaceful city. Up close, however, things ain’t what they used to be. First, those wonderful Greek smiles are gone, replaced by wintry ones at best. People are worried, as well they should be. At the Divani Caravel hotel, once owned by yours truly, the staff greet me as though I were a conquering hero. I was a benevolent owner who used to party and spread the wealth. Now things are more professional, and the hotel is profitable because of expert management. The staff is the best in Athens by far. The migrant crisis is secondary, from what I hear. Pension reform and the

We are not all in this together

Not so long ago I stumbled into a little pop-up in Hoxton: a delightful tearoom hardly bigger than a walk-in wardrobe, all 1940s home-craft ‘boutique’ style. Nice table linen, a ‘make-do-and-mend’ tea service with artfully mix-matched china, victoria sponge slices, and the strains of some popular bygone tune in the background. I’m not sure I got much change out of a crisp new tenner, but retro heaven, right? Before I’d even got my hands on Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia (nice austerity-era block-red dust jacket) I had the feeling — call it gut instinct — that this sort of austerity chic might not be quite the author’s thing. I

The green ink brigade is now running the show

Daily they drop into my email account — alongside the more obviously useful stuff about how I might elongate my penis or ensure it performs with greater fortitude than at present, and the charitable offers from women who live ‘nearby your house, Roderick’ and apparently wish to test whether or not those previous solicitations I mentioned have been acceded to with success. Alongside all that stuff are the fecund exhortations from a bunch of online campaigning organisations. Click democracy, a sort of spastic form of activism whereby you stick it to da man simply by pressing a button. They come, these missives, from the likes of and 38 Degrees. Sometimes

Greece Notebook

At the weekend, I tried — and failed — to get some money out of an empty cashpoint near Omonia Square. The Eurobank cashpoint was covered in fresh anti-German graffiti: ‘No to the new German fascism,’ it read in Greek, ‘No to the “dosilogous”.’ That’s the Greek for Nazi collaborators in the war. For any cashpoint users who couldn’t speak Greek, the graffiti artist helpfully added, in English, GERMANY= 卐. If the new, German-led EU austerity package goes ahead, the swastikas will keep spreading through Athens. I felt sorry for a German family eating ice cream in the deserted Estia café in Plaka. The couple, with four strapping children and

Barometer | 25 June 2015

The spirit of 1945 No one would have been more surprised at the sight of 100,000 people marching in London under the banner ‘End Austerity Now’ and demanding ‘Tories Out’ than Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and briefly Chancellor of the Exchequer in Attlee’s government. — Hard though it might be to remember now, but austerity was once a proud Labour policy. The rationale of the policy, devised by Cripps, was that by suppressing private consumption, resources could be spent instead on boosting exports. — Any anti-austerity march in 1947 would have been led by the Conservatives, whose slogans of the time included ‘Starve with Strachey’

Late news: what was really served at the Mansion House banquet

Last week’s deadline did not allow me to report from ringside at the Mansion House dinner, but there was so much to observe that I hope you’ll forgive a late dispatch. What a vivid guide to City psychology and precedence it offered. In the anteroom, Lord (Jim) O’Neill, the Treasury’s new Northern Powerhouse minister, could be seen chatting to ex-BP chief Tony Hayward, now chairman of mining giant Glencore Xstrata. At the top table, HSBC chairman Douglas Flint was carefully separated (by António Horta-Osório of Lloyds) from Governor Carney, so they could avoid discussing HSBC’s plans to move back to Hong Kong. But in prime place next to George Osborne

Anti-austerity protester makes sign out of box for £600 television

Seemingly missing the democratic process that returned a Tory government with a majority and an increased share of the vote, the hard left took to the streets of Westminster over the weekend to protest against austerity. However, has ‘austerity’ really hurt all of the protesters who took part? Look closely at the box one used to make their ‘no cuts’ sign: A 50 inch Sony LED TV that retails at over £600. The face of modern Britain’s dispossessed. Meanwhile rumours abound that Ed Miliband has already found a new job following his resignation as Labour leader: However, this is at best a short-lived career change as Miliband has since been spied on his

Let Greece leave the eurozone

To listen to Greek government ministers addressing the outside world during their breaks from negotiations with eurozone leaders this week, it would be easy to form the impression that Greece had a mighty economy upon which all other eurozone countries were pathetically dependent. ‘Europe is going through the difficult process of understanding that Greece has a new government committed to changing a programme that has failed in the eyes of everyone who doesn’t have a vested interest,’ said finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. The reality is that Greece is the dependent country, propped up by its creditors, and it is Greek government ministers who are having trouble in understanding the situation

Team Osborne party with John Maynard Keynes

The Chancellor’s economic brain, Rupert Harrison, looked distinctly restless last night, sipping champagne in John Maynard Keynes’s drawing room. Osborne’s chief-of-staff, the architect the evil Tory austerity, did not seem entirely comfortable as he stood beneath an imposing mounted copy of The General Theory. This awkward tableau came about thanks to the launch of a book about the Bretton Woods summit by Sky News’s Economics Editor Ed Conway. The party was gathered in the very house from which Keynes departed on his way to the famous conference in July 1944. Conway said: ‘It’s quite rare to have a book launch these days. You either do it if you’re expecting a global best seller,

France’s political system is crumbling. What’s coming next looks scary

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Freddy Gray discusses the end of the French republic” startat=1844] Listen [/audioplayer]Last week President François Hollande, following his party’s humiliation in the European parliamentary elections (his Socialists won roughly half as many seats as the National Front), decided to cheer himself up. He left Paris and travelled to Clairefontaine to mingle with France’s World Cup football squad. ‘If you do win the World Cup final on 13 July,’ he told the millionaire players (most of whom avoid Hollande’s taxes by being paid outside France), ‘you will deserve a triumphant welcome. But we will not be able to give you the reception you will deserve, because the Champs-Elysées is

How France’s left-wing government learned to love austerity

For years, George Osborne cut a rather lonely figure on the European stage. He was portrayed as the only major statesman who advocated austerity. But finally he has some company. Another European leader has burst away from the pack and is promising to freeze all welfare benefits for a year, cut health spending, cut taxes — and to be honest with the people by saying that ‘we cannot live beyond our means’. The Chancellor can derive much pleasure from the fact that his new ally is François Hollande. Until now, the French president has been the great hope of Keynesians the world over. He revelled in this celebrity. He was out

George Osborne is entitled to look smug

The popular pastime for financial commentators this season is sticking pins in George Osborne. To those on the left who hate everything about him, to those on the right who think he should have used the fiscal crisis as an opportunity to slash state spending far more than he did, to those in the middle who prefer their politicians to be vacillating blunderers blown by fate, and thereby easier targets, this Chancellor is pretty bloody irritating. The UK is expected to be the G7’s fastest-growing economy this year, and Osborne’s doubters at the IMF have had to admit, in a mealy-mouthed way, that they were wrong to try to point

Does Ed Miliband feel betrayed by Francois Hollande?

President Hollande’s private life continues to fascinate the whole world (other than the French press pack, obviously); but it is worth noting that the embattled president signalled a major shift in economic policy yesterday. France is a couple of years late to the austerity party; but it will experience €50 billion worth of cuts in 2015 – 2017, on top of the €15bn scheduled for this year. When Hollande won the Élysée, he promised ‘another way’. But he’s been mugged by reality. Austerity est arrivé. All of which is a little embarrassing for Ed Miliband, who told ITV in May 2012: ‘I congratulate Francois Hollande. I know from our conversations in London