Lionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis. A clever, though rather depressing, book about the criminal class in Britain. Lionel Asbo is every law-abiding Briton’s nightmare: a violent parasite who lives by his wits, drains resources from the state, and seems to have no redeeming value. He has changed his name to Asbo after being given an Anti-Social Behaviour Order as a young child.
The book balances critical social commentary (“State of England” seems rather pointed) with black humour and satire. Lionel embodies much of what is wrong with society at the lower end but he is so over-the-top dreadful that you can’t take him seriously. We are occasionally made to feel — well, not exactly sorry for him, but — that he is the product of a particular set of circumstances. He has a coherent philosophy of life that he does his best to pass on to his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, by dispensing pieces of advice such as: use porn instead of girls; always take a knife with you; prison is a good place to get your head sorted out.
The dogs, Joe and Jeff, were Lionel’s psychopathic pitbulls. Their domain was the narrow balcony off the kitchen, where, all day, the two of them snarled, paced, and swivelled — and prosecuted their barking war with the pack of Rottweilers that lived on the roof of the next high-rise along.
“You told me you fed them. And you never give them they Tabasco!”
“Uncle Li, I didn’t have the cash! They’ve only got the big bottles and they’re five ninety-five!”
‘That’s no excuse. You should’ve nicked one. You spend thirty quid, thirty quid, on a fucking dictionary, and you can’t spare a couple of bob for the dogs.”
“I never spent thirty quid! … Gran give it me. She won it on the crossword. The prize crossword.”
“Joe and Jeff — they not pets, Desmond Pepperdine. They tools of me trade.”
Lionel’s trade was still something of a mystery to Des. He knew that part of it had to do with the very hairiest end of debt collection; and he knew that part of it involved ‘selling on’ (Lionel’s word for selling on was reset.) Des knew this by simple logic, because Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for …
Des, though, has his own ideas and manages to survive his upbringing. He provides the necessary contrast to Lionel by working at school, sneaking off to the library, going to university, getting a job, and starting a family.
A lot of Lionel Asbo is funny, though the relentless awfulness of him gets tiring. He is a figure of cartoon proportions until the end of the book when he seems to commit a truly evil act that doesn’t fit with the so-bad-he’s-funny character we’ve come to know. Ultimately, it’s an unsatisfying book that’s neither one thing nor the other.
God on Trial is a 2008 television play written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The play is set in Auschwitz during World War II. The Jewish prisoners spend their last hours putting God on trial for abandoning the Jewish people.
The question being debated is whether God has broken his covenant with the Jewish people (“We are the chosen people”) by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide.
As the judge, Baumgarten (Stellan Skarsgård) weighs the evidence impartially and makes a revelation of his own towards the end. Schmidt (Stephen Dillane) is the Rabbi chosen as the Father of the Court, a quiet and thoughtful man who recites from the Torah. Mordecai (Rupert Graves) is the Inquisitor of the Court. Ezra (René Zagger) plays a Polish man whose look embodies the horror and loss he has suffered. Towards the end of the trial, Akiba (Antony Sher) breaks his silence with an impassioned speech in which he convincingly condemns God for betraying his people.
It is hard to single out any actor, as all the performances are stellar. I find the current trend for actors to retain their own accents even when they don’t suit the characters, odd and a bit disruptive, but that is the only discordant note in this impressive achievement. It is well worth watching. The dark nature of the material is alleviated somewhat by the prisoners’ decision to spend their remaining hours in traditional intellectual debate — which allows them to retain their humanity.