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The Spirit Level by Pickett & Wilkinson

The Spirit Level by Pickett & Wilkinson

Six alternative realities (plus literary events from 24 Sept 2019)

How close are we getting to the alternative worlds and cultures that have been written about in the last ten years? And is the way our world is developing the one we want? Angela J. Phillip has a look at six of them.

‘The Spirit Level’ – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2010)
What affects the well-being of a society most – is it capital growth or is it equality? This book is based on research findings that The Economist said were hard to dispute. The authors discuss issues such as why people in the UK distrust each other more than people in Japan, what effect equality (or the lack of it) has on various aspects of society such as obesity, illiteracy, the rates of teenage pregnancy etc. One of the most worrying findings is the effect that inequality has on mental health. As the UK drops further and further behind in rates of equality, this book provides not only evidence for the damage being done, but also suggestions for ways to change our reality into an alternative one that would be better for us. The Spirit Level.

‘Never let me go’ – Kazuo Ishiguro (2010)
A love story between cloned human beings who, unbeknown to themselves, have been raised and nurtured to be organ donors inspires a sense of disbelief and increasing horror. Could anything like this really happen? To begin with, it’s not clear what is happening so the reader relates to these people as ordinary human beings. It’s only later that it becomes apparent what their ‘purpose’ is, a purpose which has been determined by others and over which the clones have no control.

My first reaction was shock and a half-belief that it could never happen but then I thought of experiments done on dogs (and many other animals), where they are tortured ostensibly with the intention of making life ‘better’ for human beings.

‘Gone Girl’ – Gillian Flynn (2012)
A thriller concerned with mystery and crime deals with the alternative realities of husband and wife. As the title says, a girl is gone. The story is told first from the husband’s point of view and then from the wife’s (she is the gone girl). As the story unfolds, the reader is drawn into first one reality and then the other. From time to time the stories coincide, but mostly they don’t and what is awful is that the perception of the people around them and the wider public (including the police) depends not on what the ‘truth’ of the matter is, but on who is the most powerful partner in this battle between husband and wife.

‘Life after Life’ – Kate Atkinson (2013)
Think of all the what-ifs in your life and all the other paths you could have taken. Where might you be now? This is a novel about Ursula and her lives, versions of the same life from a single starting point that could be changed by chance or some small difference in events that would take that same life down different tracks.

Some people have said that this is a book about writing, about how powerful the writer is, able to make characters do whatever she wants and create for them whatever kind of life she chooses. Others have suggested that the novel explores the possibility of different identities for Ursula – but I don’t agree with either of these opinions.

First of all, it is my experience that as a writer, it is extremely difficult to make a character behave in the way you wish rather than in the way the character wishes. Secondly, it follows from this that even if, as the writer, you construct several different life paths for the character (as Kate Atkinson has done), the identity of the character will not change. What will change is the way a character develops (like a human being who is not in a novel) depending on what they have learned. And it is this that is interesting. Did Ursula learn more in some lives than in others? And could we learn more in some life paths than others? And how much control do we have over these?

‘The Silence of the Girls’ – Pat Barker (2018)
This is the story of Homer’s Iliad told from the point of view of Briseis who is taken as a trophy of war first by Achilles and then by Agamemnon. She has no power. The women have no power. They have to suffer so this is an alternative version of events told from a feminist perspective.

“And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” Briseis says, “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

It is good to consider the alternative version of events told by a woman but there is always an alternative version of any event. The alternative version is that of the defeated versus the victorious whoever the two sides happen to be. The powerful always get to tell the tale so we must remember that this is never the only version of the story.

‘The Testaments’ – Margaret Atwood (2019)
The Testaments takes place 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, and when Atwood first created Gilead she thought that readers would find it hardly believable that there had been a coup in the US that had replaced liberal democracy with a male theocracy. Perhaps the overwhelming popularity of The Testaments (first published earlier this month and already gone back to press twice) is something to do with the fact that such a reality no longer seems very far from the realms of possibility. Democracy in the UK looks threatened, too. Let’s hope that these accounts of alternative realities warn as well as entertain.

Please buy these books at independent bookshops if at all possible (links in the next section).


Bookbuster 39 Queens Rd, Hastings
Thursday 24 October 6 – 9 pm £2 entry Sheer Poetry: An open mic poetry night
Go to Bookbuster’s Facebook page and see more.

Printed Matter Bookshop 185 Queens Rd, Hastings TN34 1RG
Monday 30 September at 6pm at the shop. Das Kaptal Reading Group.

Jan 2020: Book launch of Paul Anderson’s Suedeheads & film screening of Horace Ove’s ‘Reggae 1970’ at The Electric Palace Cinema, Old Town.

The Bookkeeper Bookshop 1a Kings Rd, St Leonards
Come and look at their Facebook page to see what’s happening.

The Literary Shed Writing Circle run by A. Vasudevan
Two-hour weekly writing sessions in safe, creative spaces in Hastings and St Leonards
Tuesday 24 September from 10–12 am (free) at Sea Kale, 29 London Rd, Saint Leonards-on-sea TN37 6AJ NB This is an extra session.
For further information, please email:, subject: WRITE-INS.

Writing Courses from CWP with New Writing South
2 year Creative Writing Course
Advanced Writing Course
Autobiography and Life Writing Course
For details on all courses, please see  Creative Writing Programme in collaboration with New Writing South

See review Word of Mouth – marvellous creative writing courses from CWP and New Writing South


Well, folks, that’s it for this week. I hope you’ve all had a good week and that your projects are going well.

For an update on my writing, please see:  The Hard Part & before that  Oh joy

For a selection of other posts on my writing journey, please see

Thanks for reading and happy writing.

Angela J. Phillip

Images supplied by Paul Way-Rider taken from Amazon.

Posted 09:00 Tuesday, Sep 24, 2019 In: Hastings Bookchat

Also in: Hastings Bookchat

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