Recommendations – Wheen and Birmingham


This is the latest post in my self-imposed Recommendation Rule. The Recommendation Rule states that if I recommend a book to someone I then have to do a blog post about it.

The first one was The Strange Death of Liberal England, written up here.

This latest one is going to be a particularly efficient post for two reasons. One is because I’m going to cover more than one recommendation.

The second is that it covers two books I am always recommending to people. 

They don’t have a lot in common otherwise.

So, chances are I won’t have to do another one of these recommendation posts for a while.

(That said, there is a bit of a backlog building up. Memo to self: stop talking to people about books.)

(Yeah, like that will happen.)


How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World By Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate) 2004.

For all those po-faced and pompous dullards who have been intoning ‘post-truth politics’over the past few months as if they have discovered something new, Wheen was there more than a decade ago. And he was less inclined to assume that this sort of thing belonged only to one side of politics.


He is also funny and intelligent. This is a truly great book:  most of it hasn’t dated (apart from the cover-photo: today those people would be holding smart phones) and its bracing, excoriating scorn for the delusions of our age is a literary tonic.

Even the index in this book is funny E.g. “Philip, Prince: enjoys flying saucer review, 136; praised by extra-terrestrials, 137 – 8”.


 “Merton, Robert: says markets are not too volatile, 272, loses fortune because of market volatility, 273.”

“Blair, Tony: … Claims descent from Abraham, 165; explores Third Way, 226; likes chocolate cake recipe, 51…”. 

And so forth.

Wheen has a – mostly – sure eye for the follies of our age, along with the ability to write about them with a caustic if occasionally unfair wit.

But underneath the wit is a moral seriousness.

‘Even intellectuals who respect enlightenment values often seem reluctant to defend them publicly, fearful of being identified as “imperialists” or worse. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore. Some are manifestly sinister, others seem nearly comical… Cumulatively however, the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation, especially as many of the new irrationalists harkt back to some imaginary pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden age.’

Wheen begins in what he sees as the fateful year of 1979, with the ascension of both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher.

I think he’s a little hard on Thatcher, to be honest, even though she was never my kind of conservative (too ideological and too humourless). And most of his policy points skewer phase one of monetarism, which was ditched around 1981 because, ironically enough, the only way to restrict the money supply to the degree required would have involved the kind of fortress economy approach to capital controls more suitable to an extremely socialist economy.

He does also take some well-aimed potshots at Ronald Reagan’s rather fiscally careless enactment of supply-side economics.

And then he moves on to the whole New Age movement, the bizarre blend of all that hippy childishness and pomposity which was carefully and lucratively folded into the self-help and the management guru movement and industry.

The most important chapter I think is ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’ – on the rise of post-modernism, post-structuralism and all that.  Derrida, Foucault, and their addled disciples get a thorough and highly deserved going over.

‘Although much post-modernism made no sense, it is nonsense with a purpose: by using quasi scientific terminology the po-mo theologians intended to explode the “objectivity” of science itself. The fact they knew nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry was no obstacle.’

He has much fun with Luce Irigaray who attacked Einstein’s E=MC2 as being a ‘sexed equation’ as it privileged the speed of light over other less masculine speeds.  and suggested the reason sites are not unable to arrive at a successful model for turbulence was because it viewed the concept of fluid as being feminine.

He also quotes Barbara Ehrenreich as asking, rhetorically, whether it matters if ‘some French guy’ wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one: she answers her own question by pointing out it doesn’t matter much, really, – except that on US campuses, ‘such utterances were routinely passed off as example of boldly “transgressive” left-wing thought’.

Wheen, as a former editor of Marxism Today and a socialist himself,  identifies this kind of frivolous academic obscurantism as being fatal to the Left.

This is Wheen’s main point, I think, and it is a neat paradox that he uses humour, aggressively and effectively, to make it.

You will find few people so tediously serious as the kind of folk who come up with that type of “boldly transgressive” notion outlined above.

Yet this over-earnest self-righteousness is a carapace over something essentially frivolous, childish and irresponsible.

Wheen does the opposite. He uses humour to make a serious, grown up and responsible case for facing things as they are, rather than taking refuge in mumbo jumbo of various kinds.

This shift by academic humanists and social scientists towards such ways of thinking betray the ‘progressive’ heritage, he argues.

His star witness is Alan Sokal, who pointed out it would be impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity are no longer valid.

Sokal came up with one of the great hoaxes of the last 25 years of the 20th century when, in 1996, he contributed to academic journal Social Text a paper entitled “Transgressing The Boundaries: Toward A Transformative Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity”

It was entirely comprised of post-modern mumbo-jumbo and meant nothing.

The editors of academic journal Social Text who, as Wheen acidly notes, ‘must have noticed the supposedly imaginary external world from time to time, not least when the sun rises every morning’ read it with some enthusiasm and published it with acclaim.

When he revealed the hoax, he was vilified because it was felt he had betrayed his own side by showing the post-modern emperor was wandering around the nudd.

Social Text’s editors accused him of exposing them to ridicule from conservatives, which, in any point-missing championships, would be through to the finals without dropping a set.

From there, Wheen travels via the Princess Diana cult, the fraudulence of Al Gore, fundamentalist religion of all kinds, and the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

You do not have to read any of these academics or politicians or management gurus to read this book: their ideas are, unfortunately, embedded in the lymph nodes of our time.

But Wheen writes better than any of them, and he writes for the intelligent non-academic reader.

It is a great read. No one will read it without disagreeing, probably very strongly, with some of Wheen’s points.

It will make you laugh, it will make you annoyed,  but most of all it will make you think.

And you can’t ask anything more of any book.

The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco by John Birmingham (Duffy and Snelgrove) 1997.

‘Aristotle said if you hold your farts in you die. I’m not sure where he said that but some big university guy told me so it’s probably true. Kind of wished I’d kept it to myself though. Our place wasn’t worth living in after word got around and I had to take a long and eventful road trip t to get away from it.’

That’s the opening paragraph. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Picked this one up at Wellington airport, many years ago, before a flight to London. Got some funny looks on the LA leg of the flight as I kept collapsing in hysterical laugther.

Really. It is that good.

Okay, the humour is Aussie, blokey, and will be highly offensive to a lot of people. It contains sex, drugs, gambling, and Pauline Hanson.

There are jokes at the expense of goths, vegans, lesbians, the Queensland police force, Social Security bureaucrats, real estate agents, and people who voted for Pauline Hanson.

But it is an uproarious tale, one which accumulates in an incendiary finale which reminded me of Spike Milligan’s ‘Puckoon’ novel.

The book is a kind of sequel to Birmingham’s more well-known ‘He Died With a Falafel in His Hand’ and features a number of the same characters and/or contributors to that earlier book.

For the uninitiated, “Falafel” is that book many of us who spent formative years in flatting situations (‘share housing’ to use the Aussie term) have muttered about doing: writing a book about some of the strange people and stranger behaviour of those people.

Birmingham actually did it, in the mid-1990s, and it became a play and a film. It was though a series of episodes and vignettes.

‘Tasmanian Babes’ has a plotline, with heroes, villains, and jeopardy.

And comic relief. Bundles of it. It is very much a book to read if you need to cheer yourself up.

Going Jest

Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan (VUP)

A friend – himself a novelist with four published works notched up on the Macbook – mused a year or two back about the dearth of comic novels in New Zealand literature.
It is not a new lament. The lack of humour has often been commented on, and on this issue it is difficult to go past one of the most magnificent philippics ever written on the state of local literature, with particular reference to its inward looking sombreness, penned by Quiet Earth author and academic Craig Harrison in the New Outlook.
Some of Harrisons polemic was the shriek of agony from a soul who, in a moment of negligent folly, had agreed to judge a short story competition.
This is not the sort of thing most people look back on without some stabbing regrets, but the experience seems to have seared Harrison.
There were 125 entries, he reported, and the overall impression left was “life in New Zealand constituted of an uninterrupted parabola of misery…a notable feature of many stories was the retribution meted out to characters who momentarily gave way to happiness: sexual, aesthetic or social. They were nearly all killed on the next page.”
That, and a general attitude from the countrys literary community that sees `”artists'” as special, sensitive souls tormented almost to madness by the angst of living in a nihilistic universe populated by morons (i.e. people who cant understand their poetry).
Harrisons essay, though, rises to a serious conclusion of its own, urging the need for writing that captures “vigorous, resilient, witty, defiant and even triumphant feats of the imagination…. as well as entertaining, or suggesting means of confronting and coping with (rather than despairing of) the problems of existence, especially in an age increasingly devoid of traditional and religious consolations.  It means we are being deprived of something important in the truest sense.
I thought of this essay admittedly more than 20 years old now when Radio New Zealand interviewer Kim Hill asked author Danyl MacLauchlan if he was going to do a serious book. 
There was more than a hint, in the question, of well this humour thing is all very well, but when are you going to do something worthwhile? 
Humour intelligent humour is a serious business. It is not all cheap yuk-yuks. Unfortunately too much of what passes for laughs tends to be produced by the intellectual and moral 10 year olds of radios whacky morning breakfast crews. Either that, or superannuated Pommie immigrants who have somehow convinced people of their wit despite being about as subtle and funny as a claw hammer.
It doesnt need to have an overt point either. Perhaps it is a legacy of the A Week Of It tv show of the late 1970s and the spin off McPhail & Gadsby series; maybe it is simply a function of New Zealands historical statism, but there is a tendency to see satire through an almost exclusively political lens.
Humour doesnt have to have a pointand nor does satire, except to throw the light of laughter on human foibles and more generally on the human condition. Politics is a subset of this human condition but only one of them, and certainly not the most important.
What it needs, most of all, is an antic spirit, illuminated by intelligence and not only a sense of the ridiculous, but a positive, exuberant enjoyment of that ridiculousness.
So, does Unspeakable Secrets deliver?
If any part of New Zealand were to be treated as a strange separate world, with overtones of access to an alternative universe, then – with the possible exception of the Auckland property market – Wellingtons Aro Valley would have to be it.
The main character is named after the author and McLauchlan has stated this follows the practice of several well known literary lions. 
However,  instead of making his namesake an all powerful hero, admired by men and irresistible to women, the Danyl character spends most of his time running around Aro Valley with no trousers on due to accidents and not due to excessive bedroom action.
It is a nice postmodern touch: the Debagging, rather than the Death, of the Author.
The essential hopelessness of Danyl and friend Steve is established early on: in the opening scene a frail old man beats up Danyl while Steve refuses to help (“I’m a scholar…I can only observe.”)  and they engage in those quasi-academic discussions of the terminally over-educated deadbeats (“Let’s see your medical doctors do that. Theyre just shills for the Enlightenment.” “I like the Enlightenment. I like living after it.”)
Steve is, by the way, a magnificent comic creation: deep in discussion around the emerging mystery of what actually is going on in Aro Valley, he muses they need to “Take a look a the big picture here. Start with the basics. First we need to ask ourselves, what is the greatest mystery in all of human history? A mystery so vast and yet so obvious few even know it exists?”
Ah, yes. Some of us have flatted with people like Steve.
The emerging mystery, around the comically menacing figure of The Campbell Walker, keeps 
reader engaged enough in the plot line and the mystery to pull the book along.
There is a tendency for some of the battier characters to talk in expository style, in the way people never do in real life but often do in very bad novels. 
Apparently one of McLaughlans inspirations is the work of Dan Brown and I think this might be the Dan Brown stuff some reviewers have referred to: I have to confess I am not a close student of the Brown oeuvre and will have to defer to superior knowledge in this area.
Other influences are plain: the character of Danyl is in the fine tradition of hapless naïf heroes which run from Voltaires Candide through Waughs Paul Pennyfeather and Pratchetts Rincewind,
while the mysterious building in which The Campbell Walker is preparing..what, exactly?…for humankind reminded me of something out of Scooby Doo.

There are probably other influences, in-jokes and references which passed me by. In fact, Im fairly sure of it.

But that doesnt matter. The trick and it is a difficult one is to sprinkling those sort of nuggets through a book but making sure the book works even if readers do not get them.
And Unspeakable Secrets succeeds brilliantly at this.
More please. And dont get too serious.