Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, May 31, 2023 Under: Book reviews
Assembly by Natasha Brown, Johnson At 10 by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
Assembly by Natasha Brown
This is a short work - barely even a novella - which contains some quite striking and at times challenging writing. And it’s encouraging to see something like this being given a big marketing push by a major publisher. But I’m still not quite sure what I think of it and whether it actually works.
Our narrator is a high flyer at a City bank. She’s also black - but the bank’s approach to diversity leaves her feeling as if her success is down to her race rather than her merits as an individual employee. She’s in a relationship with a white guy from an upper middle class family - but it’s suggested that he’s just going out with her to burnish his liberal credentials.
The thing I struggled with most is that no one ever seems to get the benefit of the doubt. For example, I think that at least some employers in fields like banking and law have now recognised that there’s a serious problem with diversity and genuinely want to do better, but struggle with it in practice. I would’ve liked to see the author take us inside the head of someone at the bank in charge of diversity and show how, despite being well-intentioned, they were still managing to screw it up. But we remain confined to the narrator’s head, who seems totally ground down by her existence - and the bank's efforts are portrayed as largely cynical and empty (which may be the case at some employers, but I don't think it's true of all - even if many are guilty of not doing enough and misdirecting their efforts). And as a result, what I came away with was a sense of hopelessness - of a society where racism in its most overt, blatant forms is largely (although not entirely) suppressed, but a rather more insidious, structural form of racism remains, gnawing away at the narrator, because our society has been built largely by white people to favour white people. The implication is that it is so ingrained, no improvement is possible - but personally, I find it hard to share that conclusion.
This is difficult territory because I am white, therefore I benefit from those structures and so perhaps I am pre-disposed to be defensive about it, which may be the real reason why I didn't feel that Assembly quite worked (but I don't want to admit it). So perhaps I don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt either. But as you can probably tell, it certainly made me think, which is always a good thing - so why not give it a try (it will probably be the shortest thing you read this year).
Johnson at Ten by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
This book manages to pull off two somewhat unlikely feats. First, it manages to somehow be both quite analytical and quite gossipy, sometimes at more or less the same time. Second, it made me have a modicum of sympathy for, of all people, Gavin Williamson- which is something I never expected to happen. This is because it recounts an episode where Williamson (then Education Secretary) and his aides had gone to meet the PM expecting to discuss what they thought was Johnson’s preferred solution to a particular issue. But Johnson had other ideas and wanted to discuss another approach to the problem entirely. So they had to talk about something they hadn’t worked up at all and all their preparation for the meeting was wasted. Afterwards, Williamson and his aides asked Johnson’s aides - “Why on earth didn’t you tell us he was more keen on what we just discussed than the solution we told you we were working on?”. To which they responded “Because we had no idea until we got in the room with you and the PM.” This encapsulates one of the key reasons why Johnson was such a bad PM; he had no focus, kept changing his mind all the time and kept telling people what he thought they wanted to hear (which was often the opposite of what he had just said to someone else earlier the same day). As a result, when his aides told people that “the PM wants X”, people just stopped believing it. If it was something they didn’t really want to do or it was difficult, they just sat on their hands. It’s really no wonder the country is in such a mess.
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