Crown and Country by David Starkey

“How are we to find the right way forward if we do not understand what has been?”

We currently live in a world of touch screens and keypads, instantaneous communication and constant information. It’s easy to forget there was once a time, not so long ago, when the internet did not exist. What did people do before the World Wide Web?

In Crown and Country, historian David Starkey takes us back to the dawn of the English monarchy and the birth of Britain as we know it today. Yes, it’s long and full of dates and names. But for anyone even remotely interested in the challenges that face modern-day Britain, this book provides a useful overview of previous struggles for leadership and power.

And, as anyone who watched the recent Russell Brand Newsnight interview can attest to, changes are afoot. We are living in a turbulent time and it is for this reason that I think the study of history is more important now than ever. How are we to find the right way forward if we do not understand what has been?

Of course Crown and Country is only the very tip of the iceberg and hardly provides a comprehensive overview of British history and politics. But if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to gain a better understanding of British leadership then it’s worth a skim-read, at least.

Plus you get to learn about the colourful lives of those ‘born to rule’ – this subject alone has always fascinated me. Imagine if all the luck (or lack of luck…) in the universe caused you to be born into the royal family and charged with the responsibility of ruling. What would you do? Isn’t it interesting the fate of millions of people is placed in the hands of ‘whoever happens to be born next in the line of succession’? I mean, it’s a bit of a gamble is it not?

Oh, and for Game of Thrones fans, you can draw a lot of parallels between real events in British history and those that happen in a A Song of Ice and Fire

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro Book Review

Do you ever wonder why some people are the way they are? Do you ever find it difficult to comprehend how some people can believe in certain things? Do you ever want to shake people out of their “stupor” and help them see what you deem to be true?

Sometimes what we believe in can seem so simple – and so right – that we cannot understand for a minute why people could possibly believe in something different.

But then, what is truth? What is right?

When I started reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a story set at a boarding school for clones in dystopian England, I found it absurd. The idea of human clones being created and raised to donate their organs and “complete” (die) before they could grow old seemed utterly ridiculous. “That would never happen,” I thought. “People would never let that happen.”

But, as I read on, it dawned on me that people let terrible things happen all the time. It dawned on me that the fictional world created in Never Let Me Go might not be as far from reality as I first thought.

But most of all, it dawned on me that it’s hard to draw a line in the sand between right and wrong, even though many societies and religions are built on this very binary.

Let me use a drastic example to illustrate my point.

When I was younger, I found it utterly incomprehensible how thousands if not millions of people supported Jewish extradition and anti-Semitism during the Holocaust. Yet, although we do not like to talk about it, many people fervently believed that Jews were the cause of their troubles. How could they justify this belief? In what world could this attitude ever be okay? I struggled to comprehend how the Holocaust happened, let alone how people believed and followed Adolf Hitler.

Yet that was when I underestimated the power of narrative – the power of storytelling. You might want to substitute the word ‘stories’ for ‘fiction’, and go as far to use the word ‘lies’. After all, what is fiction if not an alternative to truth?

Of course there is truth in fiction and vice versa, but the point I’d like to make today is that storytelling, narrative, fiction – whatever you’d like to call it – is powerful. Words and stories are people’s way of trying to make sense of the world around us, and when told in the right way, can transform a person’s understanding of their own existence, their own reason for being. Stories offer people a way to rationalise the incomprehensible. Just look at the Bible.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Holocaust, or religion for that matter, but the way I interpret the Antisemitism that occurred during the Second World War is that someone, somewhere, long before the war even began, exaggerated the truth. And this exaggeration grew and grew and grew, and like a game of Chinese Whispers, the story morphed and grew legs and started to walk on its own accord.

The people of Germany desperately needed a story to help them comprehend what had happened to their country. Antisemitism narratives had been circulating for years if not centuries, and picked up pace after the First World War. These narratives morphed into something sinister beyond words, but also served as a way for people to interpret their own suffering. Antisemitism narratives offered people an explanation for the injustices they had lived through – a scapegoat, if you will.

And so people, in their desperation, followed the Nazi party. They believed in the propaganda being circulated. They saw these Antisemitism narratives as their lifeline, as a way to interpret their own struggles. I’m not saying this is in any way acceptable, but when you look at it from this view point, you can see how people did the unthinkable – you can see how they thought the unthinkable. They were compelled by a powerful narrative, by a story that placed them as the victims and others as the villains.

It is this theme – the power of fiction, of narrative, the binary of victim vs villain – that I believe runs through Never Let Me Go.

Set in dystopian England, in a fictional boarding school called Hailsham, Never Let Me Go is an unsettling story about clones who are raised to be organ donors.  There are boarding schools across England – and perhaps the world – where these clones are raised with one sole purpose: to save the lives of others.

They are raised in the knowledge that one day, probably sometime in their early to late 30s, they will start donating their organs. First they might give a kidney, second they might lose an eye. They are raised in the knowledge that they will probably “complete” or die on their third or fourth donation, and their duty will be done. They are raised in the knowledge that they will have no children, no jobs, no opportunities that conflict with their destiny to donate their organs.

And the most unsettling part of this story? Not one character openly challenges this path. Not one donor goes up against the injustice of it all. The only teacher who creates a stir is swiftly removed from Hailsham and dissolves into the background of the narrative.

In fact, the clones seem to roam free and lead reasonably independent lives after they leave Hailsham. Before they start donations, they work as ‘carers’ for other donors, driving them to and from medical appointments and supporting them as they “complete”. They don’t seem to be followed around by security and there is no mention of what might happen should they decide not to fulfill their destiny.

The story’s protagonists, Kathy and Tommy, catch wind of a rumour that they may be able to apply for a deferral if they can prove they are in love, a chance to live an extra two to three years before their donations commence. At this point, Ishiguro offers us hope. I turned the pages hoping and hoping that Ishiguro would deliver me a fairytale ending, and that all would be well.

Let’s just say that my hope was met with frustration, denial and confusion. I didn’t get a fairytale ending. I didn’t even get the satisfaction of watching the clones try – and I mean really try – to escape the fate that was mapped out for them.

How could no one see this great injustice?  Why doesn’t anyone start a rebellion? How is Ishiguro letting his characters stand back and watch this happen? What is he trying to say?

Upon reflection, I think it all comes down to the power of a compelling story. Ever since they could walk and talk, the clones had been told over and over again their purpose in life – to complete. To give up their organs and to complete.

They had been raised to believe this was the only path, and so this is what they believe. When this is the only story you have been told, how do you know any different? How can we expect people to make different decisions when they are only privy to one version of the truth? Not everyone is born with the capacity or bravery to question and challenge the world around them. Most people will follow the path that has been set out for them, accept the faith of their fore-bearers  and do what has always been told is “right”. Why should the clones of Hailsham be any different?

The same goes for the people who are receiving the organ donations – for the public in general. They too were told a compelling story. They believe that the clones are not human, that they have no soul. The clones are believed to be replicas of the “scum of society”. Of murderers and rapists and psychopaths. The clones are the villains. The organ recipients are the victims – the victims of cancer, of disease.

And so there we have it. That familiar binary that is present in nearly every story: the victims, and the villains. One man’s loss for another man’s gain. The justification of right and wrong.

Never Let Me Go is the story of a world where terrible actions are justified. Although the situation itself is fictional, I believe there is definitely an element of truth to this piece of fiction. Every day someone else suffers so someone else can prosper. Every day, we create narratives to justify this suffering, and to cope with the challenging world we live in. Every time we sit down to eat a meal, someone suffers from starvation. Every time we fill up our cars, someone pays a price much dearer than money for the acquisition of oil.

Yet despite what we know of other people’s suffering, we continue. We live our lives. We eat large meals, we drive large cars. We might add a dollar or two to a charity bin on the side of the street, but most of the time we try to forget that there are other people in this world who are suffering. Much like the organ recipients in Hailsham probably try to forget where their new kidney or eye come from.

We tell ourselves stories to keep going. We seek beauty in life and suppress suffering. We play the cards that we are dealt and try to lead a good, happy, just life. However, Never Let Me Go is a sombre reminder that nothing comes without a price.

It’s bleak, it’s raw, it’s utterly confronting – but Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro will remind you of the lengths that we will go to to survive, and the stories that we will create to justify our presence in this unjust world.