“Thanks to the many people on the left who’ve kept the spirit of resistance alight, including those who will violently disagree with chunks of this book.”
So writes Mark Steel in the acknowledgements at the end of his little memoir; words I thought fitted this reader exactly. I’ve long had a soft-spot for Mark Steel. My ears always prick up when I hear his name a the beginning of “Have I Got News For You” or “The News Quiz”. I loved his “Mark Steel Lectures” for similar reasons. He can be really quite funny, even if you happen to be disagreeing with him at the same time, which for this reviewer can be often.
A life long socialist and long-time member of the SWP, Steel wears his old-school leftist politics on his sleeve. This book, however, chronicles a crisis point in Steel’s life: the relationship with his long-time partner and mother of his children is in the process of breaking down, and he’s beginning to question the validity of his beliefs in a world seemingly resigned to the corporate takeover of planet earth.
Those who know Steel from television and radio will feel immediately at home in his easy going and conversational style. Although he touches upon some quite serious topics during the course of its pages, you are never more than a paragraph or two away from a joke. As with most humorous literature, the jokes are hit and miss. As with most humorous literature that contains a current of seriousness, his explorations of the post-9/11 landscape display a similar success rate.
There are bravura moments: his description of watching the twin towers fall really captured for me the vertiginous nausea of that tragic day. “I stood duly aghast, unable unable to sit down,” he writes, “as the first tower collapsed a dual horror was unfolding. There was the obvious devastation, slaughter and unimaginable suffering at the heart of the extraordinary images, but also the sickening certainty that this wouldn’t go away, like an earthquake or a tsunami. The aftermath would spit and explode for decades.”
His critique of the state of our high streets is also well worth going over. He has a point when he says that while socialism’s critics always argued that socialists want everything to look the same, if you look down the average British high street you will see corporate homogeneity writ large. What happened to “individuality”? What happened to “choice”?
It is with regards to geo-politics that I begin to part company with Steel. Like many in the left, he is virulently anti-war. Like many on the left, he is primarily anti-war – it seems to me – because he hates George W. Bush. Like many on the left, he allows his hatred of Bush to colour his attitude to the wider issues of global terrorism and war.
For instance, when writing about the war in Afghanistan, he lapses easily into the kind of moral equivalencing that is endemic in leftist thought. “The fleeting images of wailing, rage and confusion were familiar, like those in New York. The women waving their arms and gesturing to the rubble behind them may have been wearing black headscarves and crying in a different language, but the anguish, the bewilderment, the need to find someone to scream at were a perfect echo of the scenes by the remains of the Twin Towers.” A perfect echo? As in, they’re the same thing? I’ve heard that sentiment expressed in a number of ways, but it always carries the same implication: America is no better, morally, than its enemies. Anyone who refuses to admit a difference between America and al Qaeda really ought to think carefully before deciding to enter this debate. There is an obvious difference between the accidental killing of civilians in warfare and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorists. Nobody could argue that America was systematically trying to kill those Afghans, which is why Steel doesn’t even begin to try, at least not in so many words.
More annoying than his anti-war rhetoric though, is his feeble attempts at defending the loathsome George Galloway. Steel likes Galloway for the same reasons he is against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – Galloway hates America. Galloway hates America so much, in fact, that he wouldn’t think twice about shaking hands with anyone who hates America too, no matter how morally repugnant, or insane. His brown nosing of Saddam is well enough known, and Steel has the temerity to suggest that this is understandable, because, well, “our enemy’s enemy is our friend.” He celebrates Galloway’s unhinged and self-serving performance at the US senate as a bravura piece of dissent. When Galloway forms the “Respect” party Steel gets very excited, genuinely seeming to believe this represents an opportunity for left-wing radicalism, this despite the fact that Galloway formed his party around elements that are openly sympathetic, if not outright supportive of the aims of radical Islam – an ideology that can hardly be called left-wing. When Steel loses his faith (there’s no other word for it) in Galloway, it’s not because of his flirtation with Bathism, or his open support for the Iraqi and Afghan insurgency, or his cosying up to Islamism, but because of his bizarre appearance on Big Brother. Steel then describes a falling out between Respect and the SWP that has all the hallmarks of having fallen from the sketchbook of Monty Python.
Having said all that, I did enjoy this book. It has some wonderfully funny moments. The most successful parts for me were the personal rather than the political. His observations on ageing, relationships, and the anxieties and confusions of parenthood have an acute sense of emotional realism that rings painfully true – one that brings many nods of agreement from the reader. In particular the failing relationship that is at the heart of this book is rendered with a tragi-comic and self-deprecating lightness that cannot hide the enormity of the emotional turmoil within, and the effect is, in the end, quite moving. A touching memoir wrapped in an awkwardly fitting political donkey jacket, you might say.