Friday, 23 May 2014

Incendiary - Chris Cleave


I'm not really sure why I chose to read this particular book. I mean, it was no trouble at all as it's fast paced and actually very easy to get through but after finishing it I couldn't decide what it was about it that irked. But then it dawned on me what it exactly was: fucking everything.

Incendiary by Chris Cleave was published in 2005 and prior to its release a poster campaign was launched advertising its forthcoming availability. This included posters on the London Underground designed in a mock front page newspaper style depicting the London skyline in flames and boasting the headline question 'What if?'. The day after the official launch party for the book (wine and nibbles to celebrate a story of Londoners being blown to bits), British-born radical Islamic suicide bombers set off their wares on a bus in Tavistock Square in London and on the London Underground causing death, destruction and mutilation. For real. Suddenly an advertising campaign for a book about London being bombed by Muslim terrorists became the most insensitive promotion in living memory and 'What if?' became the most stupidest question in the world. Needless to say, the posters were hastily took down.

Before I go any further, it's useful to know a bit about the author and where he's coming from. Brought up in Buckinghamshire, Chris Cleave is an Oxford graduate who at the time of writing the book was a journalist at the Daily Telegraph. He now writes for The Guardian. That's all we need to know, really.

Incendiary is written in the form of a long letter to Osama Bin Laden from an unnamed, working class woman whose husband and child have been killed along with a thousand other people in a suicide bomb attack at an Arsenal vs Chelsea football match. She's at home on her sofa shagging a journalist from the Telegraph (don't ask) when she sees it all happen live on television and from there on she spends the rest of the book in a state of shock.
Whilst attempting to make her way to the Arsenal stadium to search for her family she's involved in a car crash and ends up in hospital where she's visited by Prince William, onto whose shoes she vomits. The woman's husband had been a police officer in a bomb disposal unit so on leaving hospital she heads for New Scotland Yard where she's offered a job as an administrative assistant by her husband's old boss. On returning home, she enters her flat only to be greeted by the sight of the Telegraph journalist shagging another woman on the same sofa again. The woman's wearing nothing but pink stilettos and is shouting "Fuck me you posh bugger I deserve it, it's all I'm good for" whilst the journalist is calling her a "dirty working class slut".
The journalist's name is Jasper Black (no relation to Conrad Black, former owner of the Telegraph) and the woman in pink stilettos is his girlfriend, Petra Sutherland, who also writes for the Telegraph as a 'lifestyle columnist'. Jasper becomes a drug addict (cocaine, of course) whilst the two women become friends who go out shopping together for clothes. In the meantime, the newly widowed woman starts sleeping with her husband's old boss who reveals to her that the security services knew in advance that the Arsenal stadium was going to be bombed but didn't prevent it happening as it would have revealed to the bombers that they were under surveillance, making it far more difficult to prevent an even bigger bombing that was supposedly being planned.
The woman takes this information to Jasper and Petra who, seeing it as a massive scoop, take it back to the Telegraph. The story is never printed, however, due to it not being in the national interest. So, Jasper ends up being shot dead by a police sharpshooter, Petra gets promoted at the Telegraph, and the woman ends up stacking shelves at Tesco where she starts writing her letter to Osama.

Incendiary has gone on to be published in 20 countries and has been turned into a film of the same name starring Ewan McGregor, which is all well and good but it does make me wonder. You see, the book has been sold as being about the bombing of London by Islamic terrorists but actually much more than this the book is about class.
There are just four main characters: The police boss who is the dutiful worker obeying his orders, Jasper the journalist who is middle class, Petra the girlfriend columnist who is upper middle class, and the unnamed narrator who is working class. All these characters are written and presented in such a clich├ęd, stereotypical manner that it feels like the book has almost written itself. The journalists (particularly Petra) are depicted as obnoxious, self-serving elitists and who or what Chris Cleave - a middle class, Oxford-educated Telegraph journalist himself - bases this on is anyone's guess? But it's the depiction of the narrator - a working class woman from Bethnal Green, in the East End of London - that is the most irksome because she's depicted as conforming to every white, working class stereotype imaginable. She's not very bright, she's illiterate, unsophisticated, she wears Nike tracksuits - she even eats fish fingers. She's Harry Enfield's Waynetta Slob caught up in world affairs. She's the chav pikey ned demonisation of the white working class in novel form, written without irony or humour.

So it makes me wonder: Has Chris Cleave ever actually been to Bethnal Green or has he perhaps just driven through it a few times with his car doors firmly locked? Has he ever actually met anyone who's working class or has he simply watched every episode of Shameless? Does he believe his depiction of a white, working class woman is authentic? Do his publishers? Did the producers of the film of the book? Do his readers? If they're middle class (as almost for certain his publishers and the film producers are) then the answer is probably 'Yes'. If they're working class then they're horribly wrong and have bought into the myth that is peddled by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

It may come as a shock to some but in actual fact working class women (and men) are extraordinarily myriad and diverse in their character, their outlook, their appearance and their sensibilities and it might be hoped that an intelligent, Oxford-educated person like Chris Cleave would know this and to have the wherewithal to not fall prey to stereotypes forged by the conservatism and the prejudice of the right wing press.
But then wait a minute. Chris Cleave was a journalist who was writing for the right wing press. So the circle is drawn. Everything makes sense.

Incendiary is relatively well written but it's also crass, obvious, insensitive, insulting, shallow and pretty obnoxious. It irks. Chris Cleave is probably a really nice bloke but he's also a disrespectful idiot who in all likelihood is really proud of himself and of this book that he's written.
But he's wrong. And horribly so.
John Serpico

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