Sunday, 25 November 2007

Books for enemies

Yesterday (Saturday) I was involved in a "Readers' Day" organised by Derbyshire Library Services. I gave two readings from Take Me Home, and (in the middle of the day) was involved in a panel discussion - a bit like BBC's Question Time, but with writers and readers instead of politicians, questions about thrillers instead of questions about Weapons of Mass Destruction. And it was all the better for that.

One of the questions on the agenda (which actually wasn't asked in the end) was "What book would you buy your worst enemy for Christmas?" Gosh, I thought, that's a difficult one. For a start, it'd be difficult to answer the question without being a bit too person-specific. One wouldn't want to be accused of (ahem) defamation. Also, I thought: why on earth would I want to waste a book on someone I don't like? Generally speaking, people I don't like don't like books, so it'd be a bit pointless. And, as far as I'm concerned (and I'm a bit a traditionalist about these things), if you don't like books, that's punishment in itself. It must be a pretty terrible existence, living amongst books (as we all do) and not liking them.

Sometimes, I think it's best just to ignore people one doesn't like. It was always my mother's advice about bullies at school. There's no point giving books, for example, to enemies, whether to "make them a better person" or to annoy them. If someone has irrevocably made a decision about you, what's the point? Best just to keep out of the way - however tempting it is to give them a copy of a H. P. Lovecraft novel ("I saw this and thought of you").

Actually, the ignoring (not ignorance) of contemptible people (or people you find contemptible) is one of the most powerful weapons in the world. It's a Weapon of Mass Destruction that politicians and especially left-wingers don't understand at all. This morning, I was watching one on of those Sunday-morning-type, castrato versions of Question Time, and the politicians on it were all bemoaning "student apathy." The conversation went something like this:

"What a shame," said one of these also-rans, a half-forgotten, ex-Home Secretary who was an also-ran before he even started politics, "What a shame that students don't have the kinds of marches we had when we were young. Students were so radical then, so political. Now they're all so apathetic." "Yes," said another also-ran non-entity from so-called New Labour, "and it reflects on the rest of the society, on voter apathy." I hear this kind of thing all the time at university, when academics bewail the lack of political engagement on the part of modern students.

Of course, when politicians and academics bemoan "voter apathy" or "student apathy," they conveniently forget the notable lack of apathy around the start of the Iraq war. Two million people marching in London doesn't sound like apathy to me. But both politicians and academics have a very narrow view of what political engagement might consist of. For academics, it's often that students aren't neo-Marxist enough, don't flog copies of Socialist Worker on street corners, like they did when they were young. For politicians, political engagement doesn't consist of anything but voting for their particular party.

People like this can't see that there are lots of different kinds of politics, lots of different ways of expressing political inclinations. And one of the most powerful ways is to ignore mainstream politicians - treat them with the contempt they so often deserve, just as one might ignore playground bullies. Apathy is the new radicalism. It might gradually undermine (I hope) the two-party - no, sorry, one-party - politics we've got in this country. To ignore these robots in charge of our country (and their mirror images in the other party) is the one thing that politicians can't stand. I mean, if you look at some of them, most of them went into politics because they couldn't get attention any other way when they were young. Politicians are generally people who couldn't get laid when young. And if people continued to ignore them, they'd eventually spin out of control and blow a fuse.

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