Skip to main content

In General Election 2019: the news media failed profoundly — but not in the way you think, Adam Tinworth buries the “lede.” Probably deliberately, as the whole piece is worth reading.

The key point is that the Reuters research showed that people spent only 16 minutes a week on average reading news during the election.

That’s a ludicrously low figure.

Also odd is that the Shortcut that I used to create this post pulled this text out as the title: “The Media & the 2019 General Election: trusted, but little consumed.” Which would be better in terms of not burying anything, but I can’t see where it came from. The <title> tag, I’d have to guess, but you don’t really see those on a phone. And not that much on a computer, once you’ve got more than a couple of browser tabs open.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (Books 2020, 2)

Translated by Stephen Snyder. I asked for this for Christmas, because I saw it reviewed in The Guardian and it sounded interesting. And it is, but I had some problems with it.

Let’s look at the blurb:

Hat ribbon, bird, rose.

To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed.

When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

That “[f]or some reason” is where this book doesn’t quite work for me. The setup is fine: a type of item, and the memories, the very idea of that item, disappears. The titular police make sure that all instances of the item — roses, hats, photographs… — are removed. But some people keep their memories and the ideas, and try to keep the things. The Memory Police find them and cart them off.

The protagonist’s mother was taken in that way when the protagonist was small.1

Why is it happening? How is it happening? Who are the Memory Police, and what happens to the people they take? Can they be resisted, and how can the islanders get their memories back? These are the sorts of questions you would expect to have answered, were this a science fiction novel. Are the islanders the victims of some sort of mind-control experiment? Are they in a simulation?

This is not a science fiction novel.

“For some reason”. Don’t read this expecting to find out what the reason is, or to get answers to any of the other questions.

All that said, I enjoyed reading it. The sense of danger, of menace, is palpable, but subtle. It’s about people trying to live their lives under these bizarre conditions. It’s just frustrating thinking about it now, about the unanswered questions.

But maybe I’m reading it wrong. In her essay “SF reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:

A reviewer wanted to make the zombies in Kelly Link’s “Zombie Contingency Plans” (in the collection Magic For Beginners) into metaphors. They’re not. They’re actual zombies. They may also be metaphors, but their metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that they’re actual zombies that want to eat your brains. Science fiction may be literalization of metaphor, it may be open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings, but what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.

The essay is largely about how there is a “toolkit” for reading SF — a set of understandings, of tropes — without which some can find the genre difficult to understand. We learn that toolkit, or build it, from early reading of the genre. But she follows the above quote with this:

When I read literary fiction, I take the story as real on the surface first, and worry about metaphors and representation later, if at all. It’s possible that I may not be getting as much as I can from literary fiction by this method, in the same way that the people who want the zombies and dragons to be metaphorical aren’t getting as much as they could.

Maybe that’s what went wrong for me with The Memory Police: Ogawa wrote a metaphorical work — about people trying to live their lives under bizarre conditions, as I wrote above. I read it with the expectation that the bizarre conditions would have an explanation, and they don’t, because they are “only” metaphors.

For, I would have to suppose, a totalitarian state, where the slightest infraction of arcane and obscure laws leads to being carted away by the secret police.

We also get sections of the novel the protagonist is writing. It is about a woman who loses her voice, and communicates using a typewriter. Then the typewriter is taken away from her. It works as a metaphor for the situation the protagonist lives in: a metaphor within a metaphor.

And from the Guardian review that started this:

Why this is happening is unknown; the ideology of totalitarian control and cultural isolation is implied, rather than explicitly outlined, and its intersection with the supernatural strengthens the feeling of allegory.

So maybe I should have been warned. Calling it “supernatural” suggests something more in the magic realism vein. That might be a better way to approach it. Magic needs — or at least, generally gets — less of an explanation.

  1. Note the lack of names, too: the editor is given an initial, R, but the only character given an actual name is a dog. 

The End of the Dream. The Start of the Resistance

Ian Dunt, writing at

What is happening is a tragedy. A betrayal of Britain’s role in the world. A betrayal of the Europeans who came and made this their home. A betrayal of the idea that this is a calm, sensible country, that thinks in practical and pragmatic terms about what it is doing, that deals in small ideas instead of grand ideologies.

The end of the dream. The start of the resistance.

Worth reading the whole thing.

Thing 2: Horsin’ Around

The second of the two good things today is that Netflix now has the last few episodes of Bojack Horseman.

It seems my only reference to it here was one allusive comment on the first episode. But it has consistently been one of the best things on telly. People dismiss it because It’s a cartoon with talking animals, but it’s so much more than that.

Issues of addiction, depression, fame, guilt, and so much more, sit alongside the funny animals. And it can be very funny, too.

Thing 1: How Good is the Place?

The first positive thing about today that I was talking about earlier is that tonight brings the final episode of The Good Place.

As this programme progressed it got hard to imagine how they were going to end it. And that remains true for me: they’ve already given us two good endings in the last two episodes, either of which would have been fine as a way to close the show. So how will they do it for real?

We’ll find out tonight.

In the Departure Lounge

Here we are, then, on the last day of the UK’s membership of the EU. We fought, we lost, and now we’ve got to live with the consequences.

Which won’t really start to take effect until the start of next year, of course, because we’ll be in the transition period until then. Until 2021 we’ll still be able to travel freely; there will be no added tariffs on goods; food standards will still be the high ones we’re used to.

Ah yes, food standards. Just the other day I had a realisation — no, it was something that I already knew. More a dawning fear of how close a bad thing was. What brought it home was this headline in the Independent: “Brexit: US insists chlorinated chicken must be on menu in any UK trade agreement.”

Obviously no-one’s going to force anyone to buy or eat chicken, chlorine-washed or otherwise. But remember why chicken in the US is washed in chlorine, and why importing it into the EU is banned: it’s because the food standards are significantly lower than those in the EU. The chlorine washing is to kill off bacteria and make the meat fit for human consumption.

So what that headline means is that a US trade deal could depend on the UK lowering its food standards. That’s what Brexit means: our government could choose to lower the standards of hygiene required in food production. Sit with that thought for a while.

There are a couple of good things to think about on this bleak day. Both of those are also from America, and neither has anything to do with Brexit. But I’ll leave them for later posts. Stay tuned.

I leave you with this delightful snippet of Alex Andreou, on the Remainiacs podcast, suggesting how to cope with today, and the future.

Irony Failure Among Elite Headteachers

Private schools criticise plans to get more poor students into university“. Of course they do.

Sally Weale writes in The Guardian:

Leading private schools have challenged plans to widen access to the most selective universities in England, warning they could lead to discrimination against young people “on the basis of the class they were born into”.

Which doesn’t happen at the moment. Not at all.

Who, Yes!

After my highly negative assessment of episode 3 (“the worst episode of Doctor Who ever“), episode 4, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” was fine, if forgettable.

And then last Sunday, we got — wait…


Don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen episode 5, “Fugitive of the Judoon.”

OK. Last Sunday we got “Fugitive of the Judoon.” Which is without doubt the best episode of Chibnall’s time as showrunner, so far. And may well be the most important episode since the programme came back in 2005. Or at least, be the start of the farthest-reaching changes since Russell T Davies brought us the concept of the Time War.

Two genuinely surprising reveals! Jack’s back; and… so is The Doctor? Whaaaattt???!!?

Fandom is, of course, rife with speculation as to where Jo Martin’s Doctor falls in The Doctor’s timeline. Future? Past? Or an alternative universe? And what of this “Lone Cyberman”?

Halfway through this, season, and it’s shaping up to be something very special. I just hope they don’t let us down.