Grasping at Upheaval


Detail of left panel (The Earthly Paradise), The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-1505

by David Beer

Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of an Age of Upheaval,
by Jason Cowley,
Cromer: Salt, 308 pp.

In their uncertain but foreboding style, the Jesus and Mary Chain once sang of how heaven is too close to hell. It’s not entirely clear what they were inferring, but it remains an intriguing image. A reading of Jason Cowley’s artful new book might lead us to conclude that utopia and dystopia share a similarly close proximity. Strive for the former and you may well end in the latter. Amongst a range of issues covered in this collection of profiles and essays, it is the unyielding pursuit of an unachievable utopia, an overstretching for something better, that is set as the frame. It is here that some understanding of our present malaise might be found in the fragments of recent history.

Cowley, who has edited the New Statesman magazine for the last decade, deftly brings to the surface the thoughts, ideas and instincts of the characters he encounters. The mixture of pieces that make up the book–which is a compilation of writings from the New Statesman, Financial Times and Granta–has scope and depth but, despite some running themes, has a slightly fragmented or disjointed feel. There is much rich insight, but the format leaves less space for oversight. The book opens, for instance, with a delicate autobiographical encounter with Harlow in Essex, a piece which looks at the changing town in relation to Cowley’s own biography. A reflective and poignant piece that avoids sentimentality or nostalgia. That opening chapter sits alongside an exploration of what happened to the so called New Labour ‘golden generation’. When this is added to the third chapter in the opening section, a profile of the philosopher Bryan Magee, we have the general unifying themes of ageing and of unrealised futures but the chapters are still quite dispersed in their context and content. The ambition, which is undoubtedly an impossible mission in itself, of “making sense of upheaval” is stalled a little by this fragmentation.

The list of those interviewed or discussed in these profiles reveals a remarkable and uncommon level of access to both political and literary circles. The political profiles range from Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn to Theresa May, George Osborne, David Cameron and Nigel Farage. In the latter case Cowley exposes the crassness and human disregard of Farage in a particularly powerful chapter. On the literary and cultural side of things there are essays on Orwell, Le Carré and McEwan as well as Hitchens, Roth and Ishiguro, among others. Each prominent and influential in their own way. There are touching encounters with lesser known works, the pieces on Charles Hills and Marina Keegan are particularly affecting, as well as tales of sporting achievement and decline, with Wenger and Woods. Always articulated in crisp prose, there is both an elegance and sharp analytic tone to the writing. Cowley has a way of bringing out some detail or insight that is hard to turn away from.

There is a real curiosity at work in these pages. In one chapter he comments on the restlessness of the mind of the ageing philosopher Bryan Magee, it is a restlessness that seems to be shared by Cowley. The book shows a writer, over a fourteen year period, trying to work out what is going on and what is unfolding in front of him. The nature of the book, which offers no conclusion beyond the brief chapter postscripts, means that we don’t quite get any end point to this roaming. At the end of the book I was left to wonder what overarching things Cowley might have discovered from the period covered by these pieces. The book’s subtitle ‘Making sense of an age of upheaval’ is addressed by each chapter individually, but a conclusion of some sort would have allowed the shifting sands to have taken some form. Having said that, Cowley reveals in his introduction that he, like Magee in the later chapter, isn’t convinced that things can be understood or explained in complete terms–I wondered if the influence of the philosopher John Gray might also have been playing out here as well. In his essay on Ian McEwan, Cowley latches on to the authors ‘preoccupation with the randomness of human endeavour’. There is a sense of fortune, tragedy and chance to be found in many of the biographical stories, especially where political or literary careers were shaped by circumstance as much by endeavour. From struggling writers to tragic accidents, from political figures who couldn’t manage the forces of their times to those who rode on a momentary sentiment.

Cowley’s combination of curiosity and scepticism, he makes clear that his own politics often do not align with those of the people he profiles, provides glimpses into the flaws and traits of the figures who have been part of or who have tried to document the shifts of recent times. What It doesn’t quite give us is a feel for the dynamics, the forces and the overarching structures that might help us to make sense of these times. We might still wonder where we have ended up. Cowley’s book is more of a companion to the upheaval, a set of stories to occupy and inform, than an answer to the often repeated questions about what is going on. But, then again, the answers to such questions may not be possible anyway.


About the Author:

David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. His new book, The Data Gaze, will be published by Sage in November.