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‘The blues still stands for authenticity’: my Mississippi road trip

Inspired by fragments of lyrics and old recordings, novelist Hari Kunzru set off through Americas deep south

We were driving from New York to west Texas, and late in the afternoon we left Nashville and crossed the Tennessee state line into Mississippi. My girlfriend (now my wife), a writer friend and I were following the Natchez Trace, an ancient route that had been turned into a national park, a strip of unbroken green stretching 400 miles south. As I drove, the modern world of gas stations and strip malls fell away, and it seemed to me that I was travelling back into a yellow-hued past. It was beautiful, but at the same time faintly threatening, like several moments on that trip: the Disney castle that loomed up over a dark forest and revealed itself as a chemical plant; the electrical storm on the horizon as we pulled into a motel.

In the rural south, the three of us stuck out like a sore thumb. We were the set-up for a bad joke: an Asian woman, a white woman and a non-specific brown man walk into a bar More than once we brought a place of business to a halt. I remember a gas station with a diner counter where a row of men in hunting camo stopped spooning eggs into their mouths just to watch me pay for a soda. There was a diner in Clarksdale run by a Lebanese family (flag on the wall, tabouleh and hummus on the menu after the usual American items) where the waitress leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, New York?, as if making contact on behalf of the super-secret immigrant-welcoming committee.

Soon we left Mississippi behind, but the place was firmly lodged in my imagination: the signs of the Baptist churches raining hellfire on passing motorists, the empty bottles of Four Roses bourbon at the William Faulkner House, the Spanish moss hanging from the trees. Even before that journey Id been caught up in the music. Modern Mississippi (the part that isnt buying Faith Hill records) bumps along to trap and bass, nodding its head to Gucci Mane or the Jackson rapper Big KRIT, but I had got mixed up in a style that seems to have been consigned to heritage tourism: the country blues.

If I say its almost impossible to hear the blues now, thats not because its unavailable, quite the opposite. In every city in America (and most others around the world) there is a half-empty bar where a middle-aged man with a ponytail is yodelling about how he woke up this morning and got down on his knees. Young baby boomers fell in love with the blues, and made their taste global. In England, skinny young rock musicians like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones studied the old songs, then sold them back to America with extra heaviness. John Bonhams massive booming drums on When The Levee Breaks werent recorded anywhere near a levee, but in the hall of a Hampshire country house. Though the height of its popularity was 50 years ago, in the popular imagination the blues still stands for authenticity.

But since authenticity is catnip to capital, the blues has become a visual shorthand in advertising: a tastefully blown-out shot of a sharecropper sitting on a porch playing a harmonica, cut with a water droplet running down the flank of a beer bottle. Its hard to think of another kind of music that has been so thoroughly hollowed out.

But it is extraordinary music, if you can really hear it. Ive been making playlists of songs originally recorded on 78rpm shellac discs in the years before the second world war, songs that sounded like the work of ghosts. The voices of the old singers were distant in time, muffled by crackle and hiss, and yet somehow immediate. I started scribbling lists of names in my notebook, fingerpicking guitarists, men from the Mississippi hills who played fife and drums. Inevitably, I started writing a novel, if only as a pretext for my obsession. A couple of years after my first short trip, I went back, following a meandering path dictated by fragments of old lyrics and the life stories of musicians.

Hari Kunzru at Dockery Farm, a Mississippi blues mecca. Photograph: Hari Kunzru

One morning I drove through heavy rain towards the river, near a place called Rosedale. Lord, Im going to Rosedale, going to take my rider by my side, sings Robert Johnson, whos making his way through towns and women in Traveling Riverside Blues. The rider is from Friars Point, a little farther upriver, near the Stovall plantation where Muddy Waters was still an unknown tractor driver. She has gold teeth and a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul.

Rosedale today is a scatter of one-storey houses and cabins. On Main Street theres a bank, a courthouse and an old cafe selling hot tamales. Johnson must have stopped in places like that, because another of his girls (she long and tall, she sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall) sells them two for a nickel four for a dime. The tamale is a Mississippi delta curiosity. Shucks of corn, filled with ground meat and cornmeal, wrapped up with twine into skinny little parcels of steaming fragrant paste. I order them by the half-dozen, by the dozen; smother them in cheese and slather them in hot sauce. Most people argue that they were brought by Mexican migrants who worked the cotton fields in the early 20th century. A few say that tamales are far older, a trace of the maize-based agriculture of the mound-building Native Americans who once lived on the river.

The mounds, and the memory of the people who built them almost 1,000 years ago, are one of the many ghostly traces on the Mississippi landscape. Downriver from Rosedale, at Winterville, I walked around the base of one of these mysterious constructions, part of a culture that had disappeared by 1500. Big Bill Broonzy used to tell a tall story about his birth, claiming it took place during the great Mississippi flood of 1893. His parents (and their 15 other children) had fled to the top of a Choctaw mound, possibly even this one. There his mother went into labour, after his father had gone off in a rowing boat to get help.

You can be very close to the Mississippi river and still not see it. The reason is the levee, a huge mound of earth raised to prevent flooding. Not until you walk up on top do you witness the great sluggish beast making its way down to the Gulf. Since European colonisation, engineers have been battling to stop the Mississippi spreading itself out across the delta in times of heavy rain. As I stood on the levee near the river port of Greenville, the rain was falling hard and the Mississippi was rushing on in a great brown muddy torrent. I retreated to my car and spent the night in a motel on a strip of fast-food restaurants on the highway, listening to the sound of eight inches of rain falling on the state. I woke to discover that rivers and creeks had overtopped their banks, washing away roads and killing at least one person, a little girl swept into a storm drain.

Robert Johnson singing Me And The Devil

The National Weather Service classified this as minor to moderate flooding. The great flood of 1927 was one of the most destructive in the history of the US: 27,000 square miles were inundated, leaving some parts of the delta 30ft underwater. You can hear its impact in the blues. Charley Patton found high water everywhere, which drove him from one place to another, frantically looking for shelter. The water in Greenville and Leland, Lord, it done rose everywhere,/ I would go down to Rosedale but they tell me theres water there. Two hundred thousand people were displaced in Mississippi, most of them farm workers and their families. Its raining, it has been for nights and days./ Thousand people stands on the hill, looking down where they used to stay, sings Barbecue Bob, who is sitting here looking at all of this mud,/ And my gal got washed away in that Mississippi flood.

The flood had a wider impact on the lives of the black people of the delta. The federal response was to institute a massive programme of levee reconstruction, some of it using forced labour. The Mississippi levee camps were some of the roughest places in the south. Gangs worked from sun-up to sundown (traditionally from can see to cant or just from can to cant), wheeling barrows of earth and driving mule teams. Some men were free, others convicts, working off fines. Conditions were primitive. Bosses were armed and drove the workers hard. Cholera was rife.

Bluesmen Robert Johnson (on left) and Johnny Shines, circa 1935. Photograph: Robert Johnson Estate/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Near the camps, women set up their own tents, washing clothes and selling sex. Men on the levee hollering whoa and gee,/ Women in the levee camp hollering who wants me, sang the Texan Gene Campbell. Stories abound of drunken fights in camp jukes and barrelhouses, where bluesmen would play to patrons so inured to violence, it was said theyd tread on your corpse to get to the bar.

Many blues lyrics are based on levee camp hollers, work chants that could contain everything from gossip (That woman aint nothing but a downtown money waster) to advice on when its safest to ask for wages from a psychopathic boss (Oh, boys, if you want to go down to Mr Charlie and dont get hurt,/ go down Monday morning when the boys are at work,/ youll be alright) and the broken-down condition of the draft animals (Lord, I walked around the whole corral,/ couldnt find a mule with his shoulder well), which at times made it impossible for them to pull a load.

Inland from Rosedale is the monotonous landscape of the delta, flat agricultural land that in the 20s and 30s was devoted to highly profitable large-scale cotton farming. I drove through it under a lowering sky. The fields were full of standing water. At first it was a place where the majority of landowners were black; but by 1890 black people had been disenfranchised and a systematic pattern of lynchings had driven out most of the former owners and put their land firmly in the hands of white people. In the interwar period, it was known as a racy, modern place, where people went to work on large farms like Dockerys, the plantation where Charley Patton used to play to the pickers on payday.

No one else wanted to look at the old plantation in the rain, so I walked around the outbuildings on my own. At its height, the place had supported 2,000 black workers, who were paid in farm currency or scrip, tying them to the place. No wonder it was so glamorous to be a rambler, a rounder, able to move around freely. In Me And The Devil, Robert Johnson (often to be found around Dockerys) cheerfully greets Satan, whos come to take him to hell, and leaves instructions that you may bury my body, not in sanctified ground, but by the highway side,/ So my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.

Some, like Johnson, travelled all across the country playing music. Son House travelled, but he saw the upside of home: Clarksdales in the South, and lays heavy on my mind,/ I can have a good time there, if I aint got but one lousy dime. When cotton was king, Clarksdale was a thriving town, with streets of smart shopfronts in the newly fashionable deco style. Now its a fragile place, the downtown economy vampirised by Walmart and the other big box stores that lurk at the periphery of most southern towns. These days, Mississippi has the lowest average household income in the US, at just under $37,000 (30,000) a year.

I walked around Clarksdale, thinking about Son House, who saw the towns 20s and 30s boom time from the gutter. Every day in the week, he sings, I goes to Midtown Drugs,/ and get me a bottle of snuff, and a bottle of Alcorub. During prohibition, the poorest southern alcoholics, who couldnt even afford the price of a jug of country liquor, would try to stave off the comedown by sniffing rubbing alcohol or drinking camping fuel, known as canned heat. Crying, canned heat, mama, sings Tommy Johnson, sure, Lord killing me.

I stumbled around in a muddy graveyard as rain hammered down, looking for one of the three reputed graves of Robert Johnson. I stood outside the ruins of Bryants grocery, where in 1955 14-year-old Emmett Till was accused of reckless eyeballing and whistling at the owners wife. I climbed in and out of ruined shops on Jacksons Farish Street, once known as the black Mecca. I looked for railway junctions. At one time there were more than 100 lines serving the delta. Almost all have gone, except in the lyrics of the blues. The composer and bandleader WC Handy was asleep on a train in 1903, when in the depot at Tutwiler, just south of Clarksdale, he heard a ragged musician sing about going where the Southern cross the Dog. I found that spot, at Moorhead, the junction of the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo and Delta line, known because of its initials as the Yellow Dog. There are still rails, but no trains will ever run on them again.

Rounders such as Johnson would hop freights if they had no money for a regular ticket. I got to keep moving, he sings, blues falling down like hail./ And the days keeps on worrying me, theres a hellhound on my trail. The most famous train in the blues is the Midnight Special, implored by hundreds of singers over the years to shine her ever-loving light on me. Its a Texas train, the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Limited, which passed Sugar Land prison outside Houston, bringing dreams of freedom and redemption.

Lead Belly singing Midnight Special

But in the delta there was another known by the same name. Every fifth Saturday, at midnight, the Midnight Special left Jackson on the Yellow Dog line, arriving at dawn at Parchman Farm, the notorious state prison. Judge give me life this morning, down on Parchman Farm./ I wouldnt hate it so bad, but I left my wife and home, sings Bukka White. The Parchman Midnight Special shone a light on the men incarcerated there, because it brought wives and lovers on conjugal visits, as well as prostitutes who would be smuggled in for guards or trustees. And it always held out the tantalising possibility of freedom, the arrival of the woman with the umbrella and the pardon in her hand, who appears in various versions of Midnight Special saying, Warden, give me my man.

There are recordings from inside the prison, made by John and Alan Lomax. In 1948, a group of prisoners led by a caller known as 22 sang one of the many prison works songs dedicated to Rosie: Aint but one thing I done wrong, they sang, stay in Mississippi a day too long. That line ran round my head as I sat in my rental car outside the main gate. Flat farmland stretched away in all directions. Cars came and went, entering what is now the Mississippi State Penitentiary. If Id learned one thing about the blues by driving around Mississippi in the rain, it was that you have to listen to messages like that. I turned the key in the ignition and headed down the road, in the direction of Louisiana.

Hari Kunzrus new novel, White Tears, is published on 6 April by Hamish Hamilton at 14.99.

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The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

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Brad Stone: We should watch Uber and Airbnb closely

The author of new book The Upstarts on how the new breed of tech startups changed the rules of the game

At the start of the book you note that the dictionary definition of an upstart is either a newly successful person or someone who does not show proper respect to the established way of doing things
I wanted to frame the defining question of the book for the reader. Are these brilliant entrepreneurs who have built tremendous businesses through sheer creativity and ingenuity? Or are they renegades that grew in large part through contempt for the status quo? Theres an ambivalence that surrounds companies like Uber and Airbnb, and I think this question over their identity and the dual meanings of the word upstart gets to the heart of it. My own squishy answer, of course, is that they are a little bit of both.

Youve written about Silicon Valley for more than 20 years have we reached peak Valley yet?
In terms of the business impact, I dont think so. Theres a new set of transformative technologies such as machine learning, AI and virtual reality that will spawn another set of big tech franchises. But in terms of cultural impact, perhaps we are at peak Valley. For decades, technology entrepreneurship has been revered, and people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk were heroes. Now we have to contend with lost jobs due to automation, the effects of digital addiction and simple fatigue with all this constant change. So perhaps our feelings toward Silicon Valley are about to get a lot more complicated.

You met some of the individuals who had similar startup ideas to Uber and Airbnb but didnt become billionaires. Have these people been able to move on and were they reluctant to be featured?
I call these companies the non-starters. They had the same ideas but were too early, or too nice, or too idealistic. They all shared a strain of wistful regret; it is difficult to see someone else execute the same idea and win unimaginable success and riches. The best story was the founder of a company called Seamless Wheels a pre-Uber limo service who abandoned the business after getting a death threat on his voice mail, probably from a limo fleet owner.

Whats the best call Travis Kalanick has ever made?
Surrendering in China in an expensive battle with local rival, Didi Chuxing. Last year Uber lost $2bn trying to win that market; Kalanick couldnt bring himself to sacrifice his dream of building a truly global network. But the rules of competition in China will always favour the local champion and Didi, it turned out, had the same access to capital as Uber. By stepping away from the fight, Uber not only saved its balance sheet from more destruction but negotiated an impressive 17% stake in its rival.

And the best call Brian Chesky has made?
Branding the Airbnb user base as a community. For years before Airbnb, people posted their homes and spare rooms on the internet (via sites like Craigslist and Chesky and his colleagues drummed up an evangelical spirit to their endeavour and held meet-ups and, in later years, global conferences of hosts. It got Airbnb users to feel part of something larger and strengthened their ties to the company, even when it meant that they were violating provincial laws.

In most territories these firms operate outside of laws and regulations around minimum wages, health and safety, and tax collection has exploiting these loopholes been key to their success?
Absolutely just as Amazons navigation of its sales tax obligations was key to its success over its first decade. With tough interpretation of taxi and zoning regulations, neither Uber nor Airbnb would have gotten started. By the time many cities recognized their existence, both were fairly large and had the political support of their customers.

Black cab and licensed taxi drivers protest the introduction of Uber in London, June 2014. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

After publication of your book about Jeff Bezos and Amazon, Bezoss wife gave the book a one-star review on Amazon Were you surprised?
I can still remember the moment I saw it my coffee cup froze midair in my hand, my mouth configured itself into an expression conveying shock and confusion. Jeffs wife had never made such a public statement before related to the depiction of Amazon. And she was alleging serious mistakes in the book yet listed only one relatively trivial one. I think it might be the most prominent product review in the grand history of Amazon! Of course in the long run, perversely, it did nothing but boost the books prominence and turbo-charge sales.

Did you witness much sharing in the sharing economy?
Certainly some hosts on Airbnb are opening up their spare bedrooms to meet new people; and some drivers use Uber to carpool with strangers for the companionship. But the most productive members of each community are professional operators, making available their homes or cars as a way to earn or supplement a living. Its not the sharing economy at all, though that phrase has been useful for the companies to bolster their image.

Which sectors have been able to embrace upstarts disruption with any success?
The auto industry. Upstarts like Tesla have achieved enormous success but havent slowed down the car companies 2015 was their best year ever. The auto giants are all researching autonomous vehicles alongside the likes of Google and Uber and they could conceivably get there first. The real estate market has also remained fairly impervious to disruption, as well as (to everyones consternation) the airline industry. Perhaps an industrys immunity is related to the size of each individual transaction.

You state that the founders of Airbnb and Uber are very different from Bill Gates, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg How?
For all their strengths, Gates, Page and Zuckerberg are not charismatic communicators or storytellers. They generally avoided the press and focused their attentions inward. Chesky and Kalanick couldnt get away with that. Early on, they faced regulatory fights that their predecessors never encountered until much later. This took skills like mustering political coalitions, enlisting the support of customers and testifying publicly. They had to be politicians, as well as innovators and managers.

Are the fortunes and efficiencies created by these companies worth the price paid by the disrupted?
I think so as long as they follow on their promises. Uber has pledged to reduce or eliminate traffic in major cities within five years and to treat drivers more equitably. Airbnb thinks it can create a new industry where people are paid to provide authentic travel experiences. It has also set out to eradicate racial bias from its platform. Lets watch these companies closely and make sure they achieve their goals, instead of replacing one set of distant, dominant companies with another.

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Out from the shadows: why cruising had a cultural moment in 2016

From an acclaimed novel to an immersive theater experience, the divisive sexual practice made a comeback in art amid heightened anxiety over sex and gender

On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, I found myself in the dungeon-like basement of a sex club in Manhattan to see a site-specific performance called Adonis Memories. It was an immersive theater experience based upon oral histories with patrons of the Adonis movie theater, the once opulent movie house-turned-gay porn theater located off Times Square in the 70s and 80s. In its day the Adonis epitomized hedonistic group viewing of pornography, the kind of place where gay, queer and straight men could watch hardcore films together. Meanwhile, just offscreen, it was anything goes between the men in the audience, especially in the theaters infamous balcony.

The performance, the brainchild of Alan Bounville, a theater artist and activist, makes the audience contend with the gay art of cruising: the practice of fleeting sex between men, usually anonymously and without exchanging names, often in semi-public indoor spaces (bathrooms, saunas) or outdoors (rest stops, forests). Audience members watched actors re-enact Adonis patrons cruising each other, and made them complicit by having them follow the action around the space, deciding what they watched and what they didnt.

Cruising has been having something a moment in art over the past year or so, though its not as if it hasnt been depicted in fiction and non-fiction for some time. The act has received heavy criticism for depicting gay life as deviant and inherently dangerous. The late George Michael was outed when he engaged in a lewd act in Beverly Hills in 1998, and Republican senator Larry Craig was lambasted in media in 2007 when he tapped his right foot, which an officer said was recognized as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.

The shame was viscerally reinforced in the 1980 William Friedkin movie Cruising, in which Al Pacino must go undercover in the world of homosexual sadomasochistic sex he is assigned to infiltrate to investigate a string of murders. As Roger Ebert noted, the films controversial production did not just alarm conservatives but also the New York gay community [which] rose up in protest, worried the film would present a distorted view of gay life. It would imply the small subculture of S&M was more prevalent than it is, and that, if gays were into violence, attacks on them would somehow be justified. (James Franco was behind a less-seen riff on Friedkins film, Interior. Leather. Bar., in 2013.)

But the art of cruising is not simply about shame and self-hatred; it can also be a space of exploration and connection, as queer literature and art have reflected more recently. Its at the heart of Garth Greenwells much-lauded novel from earlier this year, What Belongs To You, in which an unnamed American narrator becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Mitko he meets in a bathroom in Bulgaria. Everything about their relationship is in the context of sex, and as Mitko and the narrator get to know one another, Greenwell presents gay male life through the prism of their complicated sex lives, moments of intimate partner violence, and the risk of sexuality transmitted disease.

That a book about cruising has been so welcomed by mainstream readers and critics, and featured on best of lists is pretty stunning. As Greenwell discussed in January, its been considered impolite to discuss not just in front of straight people, but also within gay circles until now.

Al Pacino stars in the 1980 film Cruising, directed by William Friedkin. Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Still, Greenwell contends that cruising spaces can be spaces of exploration and empathy, ripe for artistic and emotional study. And yet, due to its inherent corporeal hedonism that Greenwell and Bounville (and visual artists Prem Sahib and John Walter) have recently depicted, its largely been left untouched as a site of study within mainstream art or literature.

The reasons for this are many. One is that apps like Grindr and Scruff have made cruising possible on your smartphone. Another is that fear of HIV/Aids made the kind of free sexual exchange depicted in the Adonis play extremely dangerous, leading municipalities to shutter many theaters, bathhouses and saunas where cruising flourished. But as Samuel Delaney describes in his beautiful 1999 book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue, cruising was also a victim of gentrification. It was victim to the pressure from real estate developers which led cities like New York to dispatch the NYPD to clean up and crack down on any form of sexual assembly, so that places like Times Square could be rebranded as family-friendly and Disney-esque.

Mayors like Rudy Giuliani were as likely to clean up Times Square of what they saw as the filth of cruising as Republicans were to publicly decry depictions of queer sexuality in art. But what of the left? Why have they protested about such depictions, from Friedkins movie until now?

I think the marriage equality battle was important and its important that we won it, Greenwall said during an onstage interview in March. But he believes that it came at a really great cost. And that cost was a marketing campaign that took queer lives and translated them into values that could be appreciated by people who are disgusted by queer people.

So while Greenwell believes our current moment has allowed for a beautiful model of human life, and it should be available to queer people, he also worries about the effects.

I think it forecloses much of the kind of radical potential in queer life. And that radical potential, I think, inheres in spaces like cruising bathrooms and parks, where the categories by which we organize our lives, like race and class, get scrambled by desire, which is a reason why our culture is so terrified by desire, because it scrambles those things, he said.

Cruising inhabits a kind of sexuality that is about seeking fleeting pleasure, allowing for bodily expression to function as free-from commitment in the same vein that same-sex marriage is tethered to commitment. The multimedia artist John Walters addressed the disappearing act by mounting the exhibit Alien Sex Maze, a large-scale installation based on the shapes of cruise mazes, found in sex clubs and gay saunas, during 2015 Pride in London. Walters wanted to raise awareness about HIV and hosted testing onsite to decrease its stigma. He said: Im not actively facilitating sex, in his exhibits, I advertise my work on Grindr. If people want to have sex in the spaces I do my work, thats fine. It highlights the fact that you can repurpose any space for sex.

Then, last fall, British artist Prem Sahib had two shows in London which explictly dealt with cottaging, though the work is so clean and precise, a viewer might not know the reference unless they knew about underground gay culture. As Vice observed, the gay aspect of the work is thrilling and affirmative to anyone whos found themselves cruising in loos, losing themselves on a dance floor (preferably Berghain) or lounging listlessly in an odd sauna.

But one reason it is so surprising to see cruising being taken seriously in theater, gallery art and literature (domains which, no matter how much they may seem to foster the work of gay men, have their gates kept by straight people) is that a fear of possible cruising has been a driving force in American cultural politics. As the writer and scientist Joseph Osmundson wrote, This has been the year that cruising has reached the literary mainstream, but also the year that gay, queer, and especially trans bodies have been made criminal entities simply for existing in public bathrooms. All over the US, the threat of cruising has created a wave of transphobia, just as cruising is getting an airing in art from North Carolinas notorious HB2 bathroom bill to 11 states suing the federal government after the Obama administration directed US public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. As Osmundson writes, it is in bathrooms that these two trends integration into the mainstream literary canon and a rightwing backlash against gay and trans progress currently meet.

It is no surprise, then, that liberals and conservatives alike have been loth to discuss cruising, particularly as the most heralded (if tacitly secure) civil rights win for LGBT people same-sex marriage is only barely accepted on the condition of queer life being mythologically private and desexualized. Bathrooms have become such a source of sexual anxiety that, according to a large survey, a majority of transgender Americans avoid public restrooms altogether.

Good art, though, should walk us right into the mess of locations of conflict. Thats why it is so rewarding when Bounville, Greenwell, Walters and Sahib take us into these shadowy spaces, where so many gay connections have happened (and still happen). Cruising sites are spaces of gay censure and celebration alike, tense with the possibilities of danger and connection at the same time. They straddle the boundaries of the public and private, the respectable and the reviled. Cruising spaces may never be wholly resolved and thus they remain ripe for art.

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Rachel Cookes best graphic books of 2016

From dazzling biographies to fantastic fantasy and wry observation, the years graphic books would make great Christmas presents

When I began writing about graphic novels a decade ago, I remember worrying slightly about the supply line: would I really be able to find a good one to review every month? And it was tricky, sometimes. But what a difference 10 years has made. Im now in the awful business of running a beauty pageant: I have too many darlings, not too few. This year, especially, has been a bumper one. Memoirs, novels, biographies, reissued classics: if there isnt something to suit everyone on the bulging list that follows, Ill eat my copy of Persepolis.

First, memoir. It seems sometimes to be taking over, and this is as true in the world of graphic books as elsewhere in literature. Regular readers will know that I was waiting anxiously for the second volume of The Arab of the Future (Two Roads 18.99), Riad Sattoufs series of comics about his childhood in France and the Middle East, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint. But aAnyway, a reminder: its truly great. Picking up the story in 1984, when Riad is six, the Sattoufs are now back in Ter Maaleh, Syria, a situation that seems not to be making any of them very happy. Funny, dark and occasionally revelatory, this and its predecessor are my graphic memoirs of the year.

Stan and Nan by Sarah Lippett: one for fans of Raymond Briggss Ethel & Ernest. Photograph: Sarah Lippett

In no particular order, I also loved Notes on a Thesis (Jonathan Cape 16.99) by Tiphaine Rivire, a hilarious, consistently clever account of the authors struggle to complete her PhD; Stan and Nan (Jonathan Cape 16.99), Sarah Lippetts lovely elegy for her beloved grandparents and the lost England they represent (one for fans of Raymond Briggss Ethel & Ernest); and Saving Grace (Jonathan Cape 17.99) by Grace Wilson, which relates with immense wit its young authors seemingly impossible quest to find a room she can afford to rent. While were on the subject of life writing, Munch by Steffen Kverneland (SelfMadeHero 15.99) is a satisfyingly fat and digressive biography of the badly behaved Norwegian artist.

What about fiction? The most sumptuous and captivating graphic novel of 2016 is surely The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (Jonathan Cape 18.99), a feminist fairytale, which I recommend particularly (though not exclusively) if youre looking for a Christmas present for a teenage girl. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, this book returns us to Early Earth, the magical land to which we were first introduced in Greenbergs bestselling debut. High-born Cherry and her maid, Hero, are secretly and happily in love. But their bliss is about to be interrupted. A friend of Cherrys husband, a boor and a bully, has bet him he can seduce her over the course of 100 nights (the complacent husband will be away). What will the women do? Hero, like her creator, puts her faith in storytelling, distracting him with fable after fable. A wondrously intricate book, and a witty attack on the patriarchy, this is an instant classic, to be loved and kept for all time.

Special mentions, too, for Patience (Jonathan Cape 16.99), Daniel Clowess first graphic novel for five years, a tale of (what else?) time travel, murder, wrongful conviction and obsessive love; Hubert by Ben Gijsemans (Jonathan Cape 16.99), a book about loneliness in the big city that comes with some of the most delicately gorgeous illustrations Ive seen in years; Irmina by Barbara Yelin (SelfMadeHero 16.99), a lovely, rather old-fashioned novel of imperilled ideals in 1930s Oxford and Nazi Germany; and The Return of the Honey Buzzard by the award-winning Dutch artist Aime de Jongh, which is about a failing bookshop and its troubled owner (SelfMadeHero 14.99). I also press on you In Search of Lost Time: Swanns Way, Stphane Heuets deft retelling of Marcel Proust, whether you have already read him or not (Gallic Books 19.99).

If you like the idea of graphic short stories, you could do worse than invest in Spanish Fever, Fantagraphics new best-of anthology (ed Santiago Garca; trans Erica Mena) of work by contemporary Spanish cartoonists, while Last Look (Jonathan Cape 16.99) is just a reminder Charles Burnss magnificently creepy Xed Out trilogy (XEd Out, The Hive, Sugar Skull) in one volume for the first time. A great gift. Burns, of course, is strong meat, and genuinely mind-bending at his best. Much gentler, if were talking sci-fi, is Tom Gaulds lovely Mooncop (Drawn & Quarterly 12.99), the plangent story of a policeman who lives and works on the moon. The twist here is that, the moon having long been populated (there is even a coffee shop), people are now leaving it and returning to Earth, for which reason this slim book would make a neat companion, present-wise, for Hubert. The cook in your life, meanwhile, might enjoy Hot Dog Taste Test (Drawn & Quarterly 16.99), Lisa Hanawalts ribald graphic skewering of foodie culture, which is funny, weird and definitely not one for the clean-eating brigade. The day she spends shadowing Manhattans most famous molecular gastronomist, Wylie Dufresne, is priceless.

Ben Katchors Cheap Novelties: a world of lost diners, derelict canneries and cheap souvenirs. Photograph: Ben Katchor/Courtesy of the artist

Cheap Novelties: the Pleasures of Urban Decay by Ben Katchor, a recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur grants and a cartoonist for the New Yorker, was first published in 1991 in an unassuming paperback. Twenty-five years on, and now widely considered a classic, Drawn & Quarterly has reissued it in a beautiful hardback edition (14.99). It chronicles, in black and white, the wanderings of Julius Knipl, a tramping old-school real estate photographer, through the merchandise district of New York a landscape since changed beyond all recognition by gentrification and the rise of the chain store. A world of lost diners, derelict canneries and cheap souvenirs, read this one only if you can bear the melancholy that will undoubtedly sweep over you.

New York Review Books recent move into comics is also yielding results, classics-wise. From its small but excellent list, I recommend the lost-for-decades Soft City (20), an epic vision of a single day in a dystopian world by the Norwegian pop artist Hariton Pushwagner, republished with an introduction by Chris Ware; and What Am I Doing Here? by Abner Dean (13.99), a forgotten innovator of American comics from the 40s. Dean draws single-frame gags with a difference: being so deeply odd and more or less unexplainable, theyre too disquieting to be funny. Certainly, you wouldnt say his work is exactly throbbing with Christmas cheer: Will the three wise men please step forward! shouts one of his solitary naked everyman figures through a loud-hailer into a black void. But in these uneasy, topsy-turvy times, paradoxically, this might just be the book that winds up consoling you more than any other.

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The Art of the Deal by Donald J Trump with Tony Schwartz digested read

A timely reissue of the business tycoon/president-elects collected entrepreneurial advice from 1987 is redacted by John Crace

I dont do it for the money. Ive got more money than Ill ever need. Some of it yours. Lets face it, you dont file for bankruptcy six times if youre planning on paying your dues. The key to making the best deal is to let others take the hit. I do it because I can. If you can get away with losing over $1bn on a deal, youd have to be a schmuck not to. Theres no way that Donald J Trump is ever going to let himself be one of those deadbeat Americans with no hope and no prospects. No sir. And thats why were shamelessly republishing this load of tosh from 1987. Heres a diary of a typical Trump week.

Monday 9am. Call my broker, Alan Greenberg, to buy $25m worth of stock in Holiday Inns. I sense its undervalued. As we speak, its value increases to $30m. My cock goes hard and I decide to sell.

Tuesday 3pm. Try to evict Carly Simon and Mia Farrow from their rent-controlled apartments, but both want to play hardball. Their loss. When you do battle with the Trumpster, theres only one winner.

Wednesday 1pm. Lunch with Ivana. Try to grope her pussy. Probably not the best time to tell her about Melania.

Thursday 5pm. Some kid at the door says hes my son. Tell him to come back when hes made his first $10m.

Friday 10am. The banks foreclose on Trump Taj Mahal casino putting thousands of people out of work. But at least I come away with $50m. My cock goes hard again.

My style of dealing is quite straightforward: 1) Get as much as you can for yourself; 2) Theres always somebody stupider than you out there; 3) Any attention is better than none; 4) Promise people the Earth even if you know you can never deliver; 5) Get yourself a top haircut.

The most important influence on me when I was growing up was my father, Fred Trump. He taught me everything I needed to know about making money. If he had a fault, it was that he was not narcissistic enough. Fred never named a tower after himself. He also wasted too much time buying properties for deadbeats. If theres one thing Ive learned from real estate, its that poor people on zero-hours contracts just dont know how to look after themselves.

My first deal in Cincinnati taught me that lesson. Having persuaded the banks to lend me the money, I put the day-to-day management of the rebuild in charge of a man I knew to be a conman. I figured he would con the contractors far more than he would con me, so I would end up ahead on the deal. No flies on the Don! Though I was glad to sell the houses off for a $10m profit before the market crashed.

In 1974, I moved into the New York property market when I bought the Commodore Hotel near Grand Central Station. It was rundown and operating at a loss and everyone thought it was a turkey, but I could immediately see its potential. As usual, I was proved 100% right and made $280m in an afternoon after renaming the hotel Trump Plaza.

I then built Trump Tower after buying a department store whose owner didnt understand its true worth. That project taught me that most politicians are just in the game for themselves. Its a mentality I just cant understand. With Trump Tower, I was determined to build as big as possible and the results speak for themselves. I have my own apartment on the top three floors and employ some limey called Nigel Farage as my lift attendant. It could be worse. I could have had Piers Morgan working for me. Can you believe that man? I met him once for five minutes on a reality game show and he hasnt stopped going on about it ever since. The guy must have nearly as big a personality disorder as me.

After Trump Tower came Trump Castle, Trump Palace, Trump Island, Trump White House and Trump Great Wall of Trump. Basically, it was the same deal every time. I was fabulously brilliant and made a huge amount of money for myself while everybody else lost big time. I was living the American dream. Bankrupt one day, rich the next. But my biggest success is the 120-storey Trump Toilet that can flush every Muslim, Mexican and gay back into the sewers where they belong. It might even come in useful for this book.

Digested read, digested: The American nightmare.

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Curious George loses his home: world’s only store to be closed down

New building owners plan to replace Massachusetts store dedicated to playful fictional monkey with a stairwell, as customers and enthusiasts push back

Curious George must find a new home. The only shop dedicated to the mischievous fictional monkey is being booted out of its building at One JFK Street in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, forcing the childrens book and toy store to look for a new home.

Real estate investment trust Equity One bought the building last year, and has announced plans the gut the building. A stairwell will replace the current store, named the Only Curious George Store in the World, according to development plans obtained by the Guardian.

Curious George is a mischievous fictional monkey in a childrens book series originally written and illustrated by Margret and HA Rey. The creators of the now-famous series settled in Cambridge after fleeing Paris during Nazi occupation on bicycles with book manuscripts in their backpacks. Seven books were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, beginning in 1941. The series later expanded after the deaths of the Reys, and has been made into a television series.

Houghton Mifflin granted permission to friends of the Reys to open a Curious George-themed bookstore in Harvard Square in 1995. After a brief closing in 2011, the store re-opened in April 2012, with new owners Adam and Jamie Hirsch, and with a new name: the Worlds Only Curious George Store. Some products are solely available at the store.

Curious George store owner Adam Hirsch at the store in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photograph: Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Hirsches would like the store to remain in Harvard Square, and are currently looking for a new space to rent out. There is a cultural and deep-rooted connection between Cambridge and Curious George that we and other groups would like to see continued, Adam Hirsch said.

The store attracts over 100,000 visitors a year, according to the Hirsches. The small corner store bustles with exuberant children, and a cashier makes room for a stroller behind the counter as a child pulls his mother toward a rack of toys. The classic books sit next to stuffed animals, hats and puppets. Hirsch said, It puts smiles on everyones faces of all ages. Its a place to escape for 20 minutes. Its linked to literacy, education and learning. People want to hold onto that.

The store recently celebrated Georges 75th birthday with a block party that drew over 1,000 attendees, according to Hirsch.

Vanessa Tavares, 8, a Curious George fan whose letter calling for the store to be saved is taped to the shop window. Photograph: Sarah Betancourt

Taped to a window overlooking the square is a colorful letter to Cambridge officials from eight-year-old Vanessa Tavares. Her family drives to Harvard Square from the South Shore to specifically visit the store. Her mother Jennifer Hagan said: I bought her first book there as a baby. We always go to the store when were in Cambridge. She saw it on the news, and I told her, Honey, they might close the store, and she said, Where are my markers?

The building on JFK Street was owned by the Dow Family Trust for over 100 years, and was sold to Equity in fall 2015. Equity One representatives have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

In the meantime, a petition has been signed by more than 5,000 customers and George enthusiasts, urging community members and Commission leaders to support the store in its transition. The Commission will hold a public hearing on 1 December, in which alterations to the property will be discussed.

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Fitbitters of the world, unite! How the Soviets invented fitness tracking

Health and fitness monitoring devices promise a future of good health and pre-emptive diagnosis. Not to mention reduced (for some) insurance premiums. So what connects our new obsession with personal productivity with the dogma of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin?

At this years Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that can perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.

A revolution is afoot in medicine. And like all revolutions, it is composed of equal parts inspirational advance and jaw-dropping social catastrophe. On the plus side, there are the health and fitness promises inherent in the artefacts of a personal health surveillance industry all those Jawbones and Fitbits and Scanadu Scouts, iPhones and Apple Watches that promises to top $50bn in annual sales by 2018. The devices arent particularly accurate (yet), and more than half of them end up at the bottom of a drawer after six months. Still, DIY devices are already spotting medical problems before their users do, raising the likelihood of a future in which illness and medical conditions are treated long before the patient gets sick.

On the minus side, there is Kolkmans terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary individual can afford. The sunny west coast self-reliant rhetoric of the making and hacking and quantified self movements disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.

We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils, no unions, no guilds, no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places, no roads.

The Fitbit. Photograph: Fitbit

The responsibility for improvement and reform inevitably fell on the individual. Utopia was a personal quest in Nikolay Chernyshevskys novel What Is to Be Done? according to Lenin, the greatest and most talented representation of socialism before Marx. Even more hysterical, Tolstoys The Kreutzer Sonata prefers the prospect of human annihilation to its current unreformed (read: lustful) condition. Outside the library and drawing room, pre-revolutionary Russia floundered in a sea of cults, from machinism and robotism to primitive reticence, antiverbalism, nudism, social militarism, revolutionary sublimation, suicidalism One outfit called itself the Nothing, its members neither writing, reading or speaking.

Into this stew came the railways and the clock and all of a sudden self-regulation became easy and practical. In Leningrad in 1923, a theatre critic, Platon Kerzhentsev, founded the League of Time, in order to promote time-efficiency. Eight hundred time cells were set up in the army, factories, government departments and schools. The Timists carried chronocards in order to monitor time-wasting, wasted motion and lengthy speeches. Without watches, they tried to guess the passage of minutes and hours, and were awarded medals for spontaneous time discipline. They kept meticulous diaries of their every daily action. Lenin had the leagues personal productivity posters pasted up on the wall behind his desk.

Man will finally begin to really harmonise himself, Leon Trotsky prophesied in 1922: He will put forward the task to introduce into the movement of his own organs during work, walk, play the highest precision, expediency, economy, and thus beauty.

The poet Alexei Gastev whose forbidding toothbrush-moustache and crew cut concealed a lot of mischief took Trotsky at his word. He built a social-engineering machine. This giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights was a thing of no fathomable use whatsoever, yet Gastev insisted that a few hours workout would turn you into a new kind of human being. He rolled these machines out across the young Soviet Union, as a sort of mascot for his Central Insitute of Labour which, with Lenins personal backing, taught peasant workers how to behave in modern factories. A class at the Central Institute of Labour was a sort of drill practice: pupils stood before their benches in set positions, with places marked out for their feet. They rehearsed separate elements of each task, then combined them in a finished performance. (Judging by the sheer popularity of the classes, and the speed of the institutes expansion, the classes must have been quite enjoyable.)

Bernsteins kymocyclograph. Photograph: HANDOUT

Joining Gastev at the beginning of his career was the young Nikolai Bernstein, whose childhood spent assembling radios and building models of steam engines and bridges, set him in good stead when it came to mechanically registering the movements of the human body. He developed a high-speed camera called the kymocyclograph. The shutter, a round plate with holes in it, rotated before the camera lens, so that the photographic plate would record multiple images, each exposed a fraction of a second after its neighbour. (Motion-capture cinema, VR and all the other technologies that keep Gollum actor Andy Serkis on the talkshow circuit begin here.)

By the end of these studies, Bernstein had good evidence that motion could not be a simple matter of Pavlovian reflexes. His more nuanced model of motor responses amounted to a fully fledged theory of cybernetics, decades before Norbert Wiener coined the term in 1948.

The early Soviet Union gathered unprecedented amounts of data on human motion, fitness, behaviour and genetics, making it a world leader in the field. A new kind of human being healthy, fit, psychologically integrated and free of heritable disease seemed, for a few heady days in the 1920s, an achievable aspiration.

Then, in 1927, a miner called Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov went to work in a mine. He was no superman, but he was energetic and intelligent, and he could see ways of organising his work crew to increase the amount of coal they were able to dig in a single shift. On 31 August 1935, it was reported that he had mined a record 102 tonnes of coal in four hours and 45 minutes 14 times his quota. Barely three weeks later, on 19 September, Stakhanov and his crew more than doubled this record.

Alexey Stakhanov explains his system to a fellow miner, 1936. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Others rushed to follow Stakhanovs example, and newspapers and newsreels across the Soviet Union celebrated their efforts. In Gorky, a worker in a car factory forged nearly 1,000 crankshafts in a single shift. A shoemaker in Leningrad turned out 1,400 pairs of shoes in a day. On a collective farm, three female Stakhanovites proved they could cut sugar beet faster than was thought humanly possible. Such workers were awarded higher pay, better food, access to luxury goods and improved accommodation. Stakhanovism soon became a mass movement. In factories and even in scientific institutes, wrote the American psychologist Richard Schultz, the workers names may be posted on a bulletin board opposite a bird, deer, rabbit, tortoise or snail relative to the speed with which they turn out their work. A great deal of prestige is attached to the shock brigade worker.

For as long as human beings labour for others, their lot will improve only so far as their productivity rises. Investment beyond this point makes no sense. The Soviet Union of the 1920s was an impoverished state dotted with institutes of labour, health and maternity clinics, mental health services, housing offices and countless censuses. Coming to power at the end of the decade, Joseph Stalin replaced all this social engineering with, well, engineering. Magnitostroi, which is still the largest steelworks in the world, housed its workers in tents downwind of the chimneys. The construction of the White Sea Canal cost 12,000 lives around a 10th of the workforce.

Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data trickles uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test. The tests are aggregated and anonymised, and besides, the company is giving the worker a cut of the insurance savings the test will make. So wheres the harm?

Joseph Stalin: imagine how he could have exploited your Fitbit data Photograph: Hulton Getty

Well, for a start, anonymising data is incredibly hard to do. The bigger the datapool, the easier it is to triangulate data sets and home in on an individual. And while people can get thrown in jail for this sort of thing, algorithms are a lot harder to police. Has the computer said no to your mortgage application? Well, sorry, but there may simply be no human to blame: the machine has figured things out on its own.

An even bigger worry is the way that, in our smartphone-enabled and meta-data-enriched world, complete knowledge of human affairs is becoming increasingly possible, making redundant the entire gamble of insurance. At that point the scope for individual self-determination shrinks to zero and we are living in the world of Andrew Niccols excellent 1997 film Gattaca.

Unregulated wellness programmes are begging to be used as tools of surveillance, and thats not because anybodys actually doing anything wrong. Its because we have taken control of our own data, while at the same time forgetting that data ultimtely belongs to whoever can make the most use of it.

And it need not even be a problem, unless the class in power decide to replace social engineering with, well, engineering, health services with making and hacking, and civic societies with a desert, littered with the grinning skulls of people who aspired to west-coast radical self-reliance and failed.

Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings, is published by Faber & Faber (20).

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Jay McInerney: ‘You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes ridiculous’

With Bright Lights, Big City, the novelist established himself as the chronicler of New Yorks hedonistic 80s elite. Thirty years and four marriages later, he is still fascinated by wealth and Donald Trump though his friendship with Bret Easton Ellis is flagging …

It is more than 30 years since Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerneys first and most famous novel was published, and everything and nothing has changed. The 61-year-old still lives in Manhattan, in apenthouse a few blocks from one of his first addresses in New York. (In the early 1980s, the rent on his Bowery apartment was $375 a month. A night at the Bowery Hotel, where McInerney stayed last week while his air conditioning was being fixed, is $425). He doesnt snort cocaine in club bathrooms any more, but when hes in the city, he still goes out every night. And he retains a charm perennially described as boyish but that strikes me, today, as something more tentative, a state ofmild bafflement that seems poised between hopefulness and the ever-present threat of disappointment.

The most unwavering aspect of McInerneys life, at least as it pertains to his public image as a novelist, is his identification with the upper echelons of New York society, an affiliation that has earned him a reputation over the years as a social butterfly. McInerney is the first to say of his own experience: It became alittle unrepresentative. Successful novelist is not an everyman category, and to add, somewhat ruefully, that unlike the protagonist of his latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, who struggles to raise kids in New York on a publishing salary, when McInerneys own children were born, I was actually pretty flush.

The novelists divorce from Helen Bransford, his third wife and his childrens mother, wiped him out financially, but his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, is an heiress and a certified member of the Upper East Side social crowd, the ins and outs of which continue to preoccupy his work. In light of all this, I had expected to find someone a little mannered, a touch absurd in the Tom Wolfe style. Instead, this morning, McInerney is guileless to a degree that makes me feel vaguely anxious for him.

Bright, Precious Days is the third novel in a series, after Brightness Falls and The Good Life, and chronicles the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, who came to New York in the 1980s chasing a literary dream and woke to find themselves, at 50, in a small apartment with two children, one bathroom and no money for summer plans. McInerney calls this the life not lived; had he not become a successful writer, he would in all likelihood have become an editor like Russell Calloway, one of the stretched middle classes in a city increasingly hostile to anyone not on or married to a banking salary. Theyre lucky and privileged in some ways, hesays. But in other ways most 50-year-old parents would like to have some space and multiple bathrooms. These are the kind of sacrifices people make to stay in Manhattan. Is the price of being a New Yorker worth it?

This question and the assumptions underpinning it are, as with the focus of so much of McInerneys work, vulnerable to a charge of so what?. The Calloways, who live above their means and knock around town with hedge fund managers and billionaires, might move out of the city to a perfectly good life elsewhere. That they cant bring themselves to go not even to the suburbs, but merely uptown to Harlem is not a drama with wide-ranging appeal. Meanwhile, their creators view from the penthouse can come across, in these times, as a little unseemly. Beyond the exigencies of the story, the rich matter, says McInerney, because, I think as a writer its certainly interesting to observe them. And I think not enough people do. These people have a huge influence on the way that we all live. And I do think these [hedge fund] guys are usually either figures of satire or weird wish fulfilment girly romance-novel fantasy. But more often theyre objects of derision.

There is an assumption of philistinism, I say.

Exactly. And sometimes its justified. I had dinner with a friend of mine last night whos a Wall Street guy, and hes on the board of the Whitney Museum, hes the major patron of the Roundabout Theatre. Hes involved in so many cultural and charitable activities I admire that. I know him because hes a wine collector. I make fun of wine collectors; some of them are philistines. But I dont know. I try to keep an open mind.

McInerney is, famously, a wine collector himself and his enthusiasm for his billionaire chums on the scene is so artless, it feels a little grudging to hold it against him. Nonetheless, a few months ago, his old friend Bret Easton Ellis took McInerney to task, telling the Sunday Times that their friendship had cooled because Easton Ellis wasnt rich enough for McInerney.

McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis on the town together in 1990. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Huh! says McInerney. I didnt see that! He looks taken aback. Actually, Isay, Easton Elliss first charge was that their friendship had cooled because McInerney didnt like how his friend had portrayed him in his novel, Lunar Park. I actually thought it was very fun, says McInerney and laughs, mirthlessly. He insists on saying that. I thought it was very amusing. Bret never says … you can never take anything he says straight. Hes always gone for effect. Up until a couple of years ago, Isaw him pretty regularly. I hope to seehim next month when I go to LA on book tour. We were very, very close. I think when Bret decided to leave New York he chose to reject a lot of what he left behind. He had a very hard time here in the end and I think that, basically, hes very down on New York for very complicated reasons some personal, some symbolic and Ithink Irepresent New York and his old life, including some very difficult aspects.

In their heyday, the two men, along with the novelist Tama Janowitz, formed a literary rat pack and were frequently out on the town until dawn. McInerney gives a big sigh. Personally, Im a little sad about his wholesale rejection of the city. Hes been saying for the last 10 years that New Yorks over, New Yorks over. Well, just because you chose to leave, doesnt mean everything ended.

One thing that strikes me about McInerneys image in that era is that he was only a bad boy in comparison to some perversely old-fashioned idea of the novelist. Unlike Edward St Aubyn, say, McInerney never seemed in any real danger of falling down a drugs hole never to return.

No, no, I wasnt that guy, he laughs. I was the guy who, after staying up till dawn, would feel horribly hungover and remorseful for the next few days, before I went out and did it again. What is that book of [St Aubyns], set in New York? Its just gruelling. And wonderful.

He means Bad News, the second in St Aubyns series of five autobiographical novels that describes how he nearly died from a heroin overdose while in New York in the 80s. It makes me think, Hey, Im not so bad! He was so far out there. Also, I had to write.

You werent privately funded, I say.

I wasnt. I graduated from college and my parents said goodbye and good luck. They paid my tuition, and that was it. So I was scrambling around. When I first came to New York, I was writing freelance book reviews, doing freelance copy editing. Until I published Bright Lights, I was very strapped. Which Im, frankly, grateful for. Ive seen far too many trust fund kids fail to launch in any direction except down.

McInerney with his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, in 2005. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex/Shutterstock

McInerney grew up all over the US as his father, a sales and marketing executive, frequently changed jobs, eventually settling in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for his high-school years and graduating from Williams College in 1976. He went on to attain a masters degree, studying writing under Raymond Carver, at Syracuse University, and then moved to New York, where he set about living the rackety life that would provide the material for his first novel.

Bright Lights sold millions of copies when it came out in the mid-80s and established McInerney as an arresting new talent and, perhaps,, thanks to the vigour and innovation of that book, with its famous second-person narrative you are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning as a more literary novelist than he would turn out to be. In Bright, Precious Days, there are many good, sharp scenes that nail the social swirl and hypocrisy of wealthy New York, but there isnt much in the way of real psychological acuity, and many of the characters struggle to rise above the level of stereotype. McInerney has, it seems to me, suffered over the years bytrying to flog himself into a posher novelist than he naturally is.

Either way, he seems touchingly pleased with the good reviews the novel has earned in the US. For years, I felt like I had been paying for the success of Bright Lights, Big City; my perceived manner of life, whether its the alleged partying or being a semi-public figure, or being comfortably off. I feel like, with this book, it was finally judged on its merits. There are a lot of people out there who resented me. Ihope thats over.

Most novelists who read their own reviews can probably recite by rote the best and worst lines, but few would expose themselves to potential ridicule by doing so in public. McInerney is so game and, in this regard, so likable that he plunges in regardless, quoting word for word not one, but two Janet Maslin reviews in the New York Times, one of which is seven years old. Her review of his latest novel was a little cryptic, he says. But then when she said, Please, Mr McInerney, write another, I thought, I guess she likes it. Because her review of my short stories His idea of etiquette is holding a girls hair while she snorts a line of cocaine was favourable but very prickly.

McInerney is surely right when he says his early fame and wealth tipped opinion against him. Twenty years ago, when his twins were born, he was living in very un-writerly style in a four-bedroom co-op in the Carlyle hotel. (It was originally a two-bedroom, but, when the twins arrived, he bought the co-op downstairs from his friend Stephen Fry, and knocked through). And look I wish I had been more sensible. I wish I had invested more wisely. I wish I had bought the painting that Jean-Michel Basquiat offerred me at three in the morning, for $700. It would be worth like $30m today. I didnt invest wisely, I didnt conserve the money. I got divorced three times, which squandered money. On the other hand, I havent been a trainwreck, either. Ive been stumbling along fairly successfully.

His worst financial period was in 2000, when McInerney was overdue by a year in delivering The Good Life and living alone in a one-bedroom apartment. I was really up against the wall. I was getting divorced and trying to take care of the kids, and I had to really produce to get my way out of this. I was in debt. It was boom and bust. The Carlyle apartment mostly went to my ex-wife and kids which is as it should be. I dont regret any of that.

McInerney in 2006: he likes his fine wine. Photograph: David Howells/Rex/Shutterstock

He and his ex-wife remained on good terms, which is characteristic of McInerney. Of the various exes, he says, including the ones that I didnt marry, Im close to all but one or two. One knows men like this and they are always on good terms with their exes, always given the benefit of the doubt by their women on the basis of likability, affability and a mild but irresistible propensity to appear slightly lost. To marry four times is, of course, not a sign of cynicism, but its opposite. I am an optimistic person. I like to think Im romantic. McInerney shrugs and looks pained. I also think Ive settled down. You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes a little ridiculous.

In other words, he grew up and is now something of an elder statesman a scary thought. Well, Ive been waiting! The trilogy is an attempt by McInerney to take a mature, panoramic view of New York and some aspects of that aremore successful than others. The publishing world is, of course, very well rendered, but Corrine Calloway runs a food bank in the Bronx and there is some excruciating dialect Dont you be talking bout my kids. Aint none ayo fuckin bidness from the characters there, to whom Corrine ministers before popping off to lunch at the Four Seasons with her billionaire lover. Imention Jonathan Franzens spat overrace the novelists confession, in an interview in Slate, that he doesnt write books about race because, I dont have very many blackfriends.

Did he? I missed that one. Oh lord. Well. On the one hand I suppose I understand that response. On the other hand, Ithink if youre someone like Jonathan Franzen, who attempts to write on the grand scale about the large issues of the republic, and of existence, I can understand why somebody noticed this omission. Its true. Now that I think about it, there arent any black characters in his books. Well, far be it from me to criticise Franzen. Hes an important novelist. But yeah, suddenly it does seem slightly surprising. McInerney laughs good-naturedly. I hadnt thought of his work in that way, but looking back, yup: white, white, white.

The current political landscape is one that, along with everyone else in the US, McInerney can only look on at in wonder. In the 2008 election, he was an early Obama supporter and says of his tenure: I dont think hes done a terrible job, given what hes faced. Im not sure who couldve dealt with that obstructionist Republican congress; a Lyndon Johnson, or someone with slicker legislative skills couldve brought them around a little, maybe, although obstructionism is the religion of these rightwing republicans.

Incredibly, Rudy Giuliani, currently stumping for Trump, officiated at McInerneys fourth wedding. They havent met this election season but generally, When I see him,I just avoid the subject of politics altogether, because I know were not going to agree on anything.

As for Trump: Hes this cartoon of aNew York tycoon, and barely a tycoon at that. I have friends in the real estate business and they say, number one, he has hugely overinflated his wealth, and number two, hes impossible to do business with; hes not trustworthy, he sues everybody. Hes not well regarded in that community.

Its the community McInerney holdsdear. And seriously, he was not a presence on the Upper East Side social world. Hes not charitable, or philanthropic and hes not social. One of the reasons many of us think he wont release his tax returns is that hes never given anything to charity in his life. As a New Yorker, I regret that hes associated with the city I love.

Whenever McInerney starts a new novel, he has to clear out of the city to Vermont, or Rhode Island, until he has the thing under way. But he always comes back. And when hes in New York, he really does go out every night. Every night, he says. Otherwise, I dont know; thats the point of New York?

It is this, 30 years down the line, that distinguishes McInerney from so many other burnt-out veterans of his city and his trade the utter lack of a jaded world view. This is a nice apartment, he says, enthusiasm rising. But most of what Im paying for is out there.

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The cult of the expert and how it collapsed | Sebastian Mallaby

The Long Read: Led by a class of omnipotent central bankers, experts have gained extraordinary political power. Will a populist backlash shatter their technocratic dream?

On Tuesday 16 September 2008, early in the afternoon, a self-effacing professor with a neatly clipped beard sat with the president in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Flanked by a square-shouldered banker who had recently run Goldman Sachs, the professor was there to tell the elected leader of the worlds most powerful country how to rescue its economy. Following the bankruptcy of one of the nations storied investment banks, a global insurance company was now on the brink, but drawing on a lifetime of scholarly research, the professor had resolved to commit $85bn of public funds to stabilising it.

The sum involved was extraordinary: $85bn was more than the US Congress spent annually on transportation, and nearly three times as much as it spent on fighting Aids, a particular priority of the presidents. But the professor encountered no resistance. Sometimes you have to make the tough decisions, the president reflected. If you think this has to be done, you have my blessing.

Later that same afternoon, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the bearded hero of this tale, showed up on Capitol Hill, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. At the White House, he had at least been on familiar ground: he had spent eight months working there. But now Bernanke appeared in the Senate majority leaders conference room, where he and his ex-Wall Street comrade, Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, would meet the senior leaders of both chambers of Congress. A quiet, balding, unassuming technocrat confronted the lions of the legislative branch, armed with nothing but his expertise in monetary plumbing.

Bernanke repeated his plan to commit $85bn of public money to the takeover of an insurance company.

Do you have 85bn? one sceptical lawmaker demanded.

I have 800bn, Bernanke replied evenly a central bank could conjure as much money as it deemed necessary.

But did the Federal Reserve have the legal right to take this sort of action unilaterally, another lawmaker inquired?

Yes, Bernanke answered: as Fed chairman, he wielded the largest chequebook in the world and the only counter-signatures required would come from other Fed experts, who were no more elected or accountable than he was. Somehow Americas famous apparatus of democratic checks and balances did not apply to the monetary priesthood. Their authority derived from technocratic virtuosity.

When the history is written of the revolt against experts, September 2008 will be seen as a milestone. The $85bn rescue of the American International Group (AIG) dramatised the power of monetary gurus in all its anti-democratic majesty. The president and Congress could decide to borrow money, or raise it from taxpayers; the Fed could simply create it. And once the AIG rescue had legitimised the broadest possible use of this privilege, the Fed exploited it unflinchingly. Over the course of 2009, it injected a trillion dollars into the economy a sum equivalent to nearly 30% of the federal budget via its newly improvised policy of quantitative easing. Time magazine anointed Bernanke its person of the year. The decisions he has made, and those he has yet to make, will shape the path of our prosperity, the direction of our politics and our relationship to the world, the magazine declared admiringly.

The Feds swashbuckling example galvanized central bankers in all the big economies. Soon Europe saw the rise of its own path-shaping monetary chieftain, when Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, defused panic in the eurozone in July 2012 with two magical sentences. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro, he vowed, adding, with a twist of Clint Eastwood menace, And believe me, it will be enough. For months, Europes elected leaders had waffled ineffectually, inviting hedge-fund speculators to test the cohesion of the eurozone. But now Draghi was announcing that he was badder than the baddest hedge-fund goon. Whatever it takes.Believe me.

In the summer of 2013, when Hollywood rolled out its latest Superman film, cartoonists quickly seized upon a gag that would soon become obvious. Caricatures depicted central-bank chieftains decked out in Superman outfits. One showed Bernanke ripping off his bankers shirt and tie, exposing that thrilling S emblazoned on his vest. Another showed the bearded hero hurtling through space, red cape fluttering, right arm stretched forward, a powerful fist punching at the void in front of him. Superman and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke are both mild-mannered, a financial columnist deadpanned. They are both calm, even in the face of global disasters. They are both sometimes said to be from other planets.

At some point towards the middle of the decade, shortly before the cult of the expert smashed into the populist backlash, the shocking power of central banks came to feel normal. Nobody blinked an eye when Haruhiko Kuroda, the head of Japans central bank, created money at a rate that made his western counterparts seem timid. Nobody thought it strange when Britains government, perhaps emulating the style of the national football team, conducted a worldwide talent search for the new Bank of England chief. Nobody was surprised when the winner of that contest, the telegenic Canadian Mark Carney, quickly appeared in newspaper cartoons in his own superman outfit. And nobody missed a beat when Indias breathless journalists described Raghuram Rajan, the new head of the Reserve Bank of India, as a rock star, or when he was pictured as James Bond in the countrys biggest business newspaper. Clearly I am not a superman,Rajan modestly responded.

If Bernankes laconic I have 800bn moment signalled a new era of central-banking power, Rajans I am not a superman wisecrack marked its apotheosis. And it was a high watermark for a wider phenomenon as well, for the cult of the central banker was only the most pronounced example of a broader cult that had taken shape over the previous quarter of a century: the cult of the expert. Even before Bernanke rescued the global economy, technocrats of all stripes business leaders, scientists, foreign and domestic policy wonks were enthralled by the notion that politicians might defer to the authority of experts armed with facts and rational analysis. Those moments when Bernanke faced down Congress, or when Draghi succeeded where bickering politicians had failed, made it seem possible that this technocratic vision, with its apolitical ideal of government, might actually be realised.

The key to the power of the central bankers and the envy of all the other experts lay precisely in their ability to escape political interference. Democratically elected leaders had given them a mission to vanquish inflation and then let them get on with it. To public-health experts, climate scientists and other members of the knowledge elite, this was the model of how things should be done. Experts had built Microsoft. Experts were sequencing the genome. Experts were laying fibre-optic cable beneath the great oceans. No senator would have his childs surgery performed by an amateur. So why would he not entrust experts with the economy?

In 1997, the economist Alan Blinder published an essay in Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the American foreign policy establishment. His title posed a curious question: Is government too political?

Four years earlier, Blinder had left Princeton University, his academic home for two decades, to do battle in the public square as a member of President Bill Clintons Council of Economic Advisors. The way Blinder saw things, this was a responsibility more than a pleasure: experts had a duty to engage in public debates otherwise, the quacks would continue to dominate the pond, as he had once written. Earnest, idealistic, but with a self-deprecating wit, Blinder was out to save the world from returning to that dark period in the Reagan era when supply-side ideologues ruled the roost and nonsense was worshipped as gospel. After two years at the White House and another two as vice chairman of the Fed, Blinders essay was a reflection on his years of service.

His argument reflected the contrast between his two jobs in Washington. At the White House, he had advised a brainy president on budget policy and much else, but turning policy wisdom into law had often proved impossible. Even when experts from both parties agreed what should be done, vested interests in Congress conspired to frustrate enlightened progress. At the Fed, by contrast, experts were gloriously empowered. They could debate the minutiae of the economy among themselves, then manoeuvre the growth rate this way or that, without deferring to anyone.

To Blinder, it was self-evident that the Fed model was superior not only for the experts, but also in the eyes of the public. The voters did not want their members of Congress micromanaging technical affairs polls showed declining trust in politicians, and it was only a small stretch to suggest that citizens wanted their political leaders to delegate as much as possible to experts. Americans increasingly believe that their elected officials are playing games rather than solving problems, Blinder wrote. Political debate has too much spin and too little straight talk. In sum, too much meddling by elected politicians was a turn-off for the voters who elected them. It was a paradoxical contention.

Disaffection with the political mainstream in the America of the 1990s had created a yearning for white-hatted outsiders as potential presidential candidates: the billionaire businessman Ross Perot, who ran in 1992 and 1996; the anti-politician, Steve Forbes, whose signature proposal was to radically simplify Americas byzantine tax code. But rather than replace politicians with populist outsiders, whose grasp of public policy was suspect, Blinder advanced an alternative idea: the central-bank model of expert empowerment should be extended to other spheres of governance.

Blinders proposal was most clearly illustrated by tax policy. Experts from both political parties agreed that the tax system should be stripped of perverse incentives and loopholes. There was no compelling reason, for example, to encourage companies to finance themselves with debt rather than equity, yet the tax code allowed companies to make interest payments to their creditors tax-free, whereas dividend payments to shareholders were taxed twice over. The nation would be better off if Congress left the experts to fix such glitches rather than allowing politics to frustrate progress. Likewise, environmental targets, which balanced economic growth on the one hand and planetary preservation on the other, were surely best left to the scholars who understood how best to reconcile these duelling imperatives. Politicians who spent more of their time dialing for dollars than thinking carefully about policy were not up to these tasks. Better to hand them off to the technicians in white coats who knew what they were doing.

The call to empower experts, and to keep politics to a minimum, failed to trigger a clear shift in how Washington did business. But it did crystallise the assumptions of the late 1990s and early 2000s a time when sharp criticisms of gridlock and lobbying were broadly accepted, and technocratic work-arounds to political paralysis were frequently proposed, even if seldom adopted. President Barack Obamas (unsuccessful) attempt to remove the task of tackling long-term budget challenges from Congress by handing them off to the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission was emblematic of this same mood. Equally, elected leaders at least paid lip service to the authority of experts in the governments various regulatory agencies the Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and so on. If they nonetheless overruled them for political reasons, it was in the dead of night and with a guilty conscience.

And so, by the turn of the 21st century, a new elite consensus had emerged: democracy had to be managed. The will of the people had its place, but that place had to be defined, and not in an expansive fashion. After all, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the two most successful political leaders of the time, had proclaimed their allegiance to a third way, which proposed that the grand ideological disputes of the cold war had come to an end. If the clashes of abstractions communism, socialism, capitalism and so on were finished, all that remained were practical questions, which were less subjects of political choice and more objects of expert analysis. Indeed, at some tacit, unarticulated level, a dark question lurked in educated minds. If all the isms were wasms, if history was over, what good were politicians?

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before Congress in October 2011. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

For Blinder and many of his contemporaries,the ultimate embodiment of empowered gurudom was Alan Greenspan, the lugubrious figure with a meandering syntax who presided over the Federal Reserve for almost two decades. Greenspan was a technocrats technocrat, a walking, talking cauldron of statistics and factoids, and even though his ideological roots were in the libertarian right, his happy collaboration with Democratic experts in the Clinton administration fitted the end-of-history template perfectly. At Greenspans retirement in 2006, Blinder and a co-author summed up his extraordinary standing. They proclaimed him a living legend. On Wall Street, financial markets now view Chairman Greenspans infallibility more or less as the Chinese once viewed Chairman Maos.

Greenspan was raised during the Great Depression, and for much of his career, such adulation would have been inconceivable for him or any central banker. Through most of the 20th century, the men who acted as bankers to the bankers were deliberately low-key. They spurned public attention and doubted their own influence. They fully expected that politicians would bully them into trying to stimulate the economy, even at the risk of inflation. In 1964, in a successful effort to get the central bank to cut interest rates, Lyndon Johnson summoned the Fed chairman William McChesney Martinto his Texas ranch and pushed him around the living room, yelling in his face, Boys are dying in Vietnam, and Bill Martin doesnt care! In democracies, evidently, technocratic power had limits.

Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, central-bank experts continued to be tormented. Richard Nixon and his henchmen once smeared Arthur Burns, the Fed chairman, by planting a fictitious story in the press, insinuating that Burns was simultaneously demanding a huge pay rise for himself and a pay freeze for other Americans. Following in this tradition, the Reagan administration frequently denounced the Fed chief, Paul Volcker, and packed the Feds board with pro-Reagan loyalists, who ganged up against their chairman.

When Greenspan replaced Volcker in 1987, the same pattern continued at first. The George HW Bush administration tried everything it could to force Greenspan to cut interest rates, to the point that a White House official put it about that the unmarried, 65-year-old Fed chairman reminded him of Norman Bates, the mother-fixated loner in Hitchcocks Psycho.

And yet, starting with the advent of the Clinton administration, Greenspan effected a magical shift in the prestige of monetary experts. For the last 13 years of his tenure, running from 1993 to 2006, he attained the legendary status that Blinder recognised and celebrated. There were Alan Greenspan postcards, Alan Greenspan cartoons, Alan Greenspan T-shirts, even an Alan Greenspan doll. How many central bankers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? asked a joke of the time. One, the answer went: Greenspan holds the bulb and the world revolves around him. Through quiet force of intellect, Greenspan seemed to control the American economy with the finesse of a master conductor. He was the Maestro, one biographer suggested. The New Yorkers John Cassidy wrotethat Greenspans oracular pronouncements became as familiar and as comforting to ordinary Americans as Prozac and The Simpsons, both of which debuted in 1987, the same year President Reagan appointed him to office.

Greenspans sway in Washington stretched far beyond the Feds core responsibility, which was to set interest rates. When the Clinton administration wanted to know how much deficit reduction was necessary, it asked Greenspan for a number, at which point that number assumed a talismanic importance, for no other reason than that Greenspan had endorsed it. When Congress wanted to understand how far deficit reduction would bring bond yields down, it demanded an answer from Greenspan, and his answer duly became a key plank of the case for moving towards budget balance. The Clinton adviser Dick Morris summed up economic policy in this period: You figure out what Greenspan wants, and then you get it to him.

Greenspan loomed equally large in the US governments management of a series of emerging market meltdowns in the 1990s. Formally, the responsibility for responding to foreign crises fell mainly to the Treasury, but the Clinton team relied on Greenspan for ideas and for political backing. With the Republicans controlling Congress, a Democratic president needed a Republican economist to vouch for his plans to the press, Congress, and even the conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Officials at the notoriously reticent Federal Reserve say they have seldom seen anything like it, the New York Times reported in January 1995, remarking on the Fed chairmans metamorphosis from monetary technocrat into rescue salesman. In 1999, anticipating the moment when it anointed Ben Bernanke its man of the year, Time put Greenspan on its cover, with smaller images of the Treasury secretary and deputy Treasury secretary flanking him. Greenspan and his sidemen were economist heroes, Time lectured its readers. They had outgrown ideology.

By the last years of his tenure, Greenspans reputation had risen so high that even fellow experts were afraid of him. When he held forth at the regular gatherings of central bank chiefs in Basel, the distinguished figures at the table, titans in their own fields, took notes with the eagerness of undergraduates. So great was Greenspans status that he started to seem irreplaceable. As vice-president Al Gore prepared his run for the White House, he pronounced himself Greenspans biggest fan and rated the chairmans performance as outstanding A-plus-plus. Not to be outdone, the Republican senator John McCain wished the chairman could stay at his post into the afterlife. I would do like we did in the movie Weekend at Bernies, McCain joked during a Republican presidential primary debate. Id prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him and keep him as long as we could.

How did Greenspan achieve this legendary status, creating the template for expert empowerment on which a generation of technocrats sought to build a new philosophy of anti-politics? The question is not merely of historical interest. With experts now in retreat, in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, the story of their rise may hold lessons for the future.

Part of the answer lies in the circumstances that Greenspan inherited. In the United States and elsewhere, central bankers were given space to determine interest rates without political meddling because the existing model had failed. The bullying of central banks by Johnson and Nixon produced the disastrous inflation of the 1970s, with the result that later politicians wanted to be saved from themselves they stopped harassing central banks, understanding that doing so damaged economic performance and therefore their own reputations. Paul Volcker was a partial beneficiary of this switch: even though some Reagan officials attacked him, others recognised that he must be given the space to drive down inflation. Following Volckers tenure, a series of countries, starting with New Zealand, granted formal independence to their central banks. Britain crossed this Rubicon in 1997. In the United States, the Feds independence has never been formal. But the climate of opinion on monetary issues offered a measure of protection.

Healthy economic growth was another factor underpinning Greenspans exalted status. Globalisation, coupled with the surge of productivity that followed the personal computer revolution, made the 1990s a boom time. The pro-market policies that Greenspan and his fellow experts had long advocated seemed to be delivering the goods, not only in terms of growth but also in falling inequality, lower rates of crime, and lower unemployment for disadvantaged minorities. The legitimacy of experts relies on their presumed ability to deliver progress. In Greenspans heyday, experts over-delivered.

Yet these fortunate circumstances are not the whole story. Greenspan amassed more influence and reputation than anyone else because there was something special about him. He was not the sort of expert who wanted to confine politics to its box. To the contrary, he embraced politics, and loved the game. He understood power, and was not afraid to wield it.

Greenspan is regarded as the ultimate geek: obsessed with obscure numbers, convoluted in his speech, awkward in social settings. Yet he was far more worldly than his technocratic manner suggested. He entered public life when he worked for Nixons 1968 campaign not just as an economic adviser, but as a polling analyst. In Nixons war room, he allied himself with the future populist presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, and his memos to Nixon were peppered with ideas on campaign spin and messaging. In 1971, when Nixon went after the Fed chairman, Arthur Burns, Greenspan was recruited to coax Burns into supporting the president. In the mid-1970s, when Greenspan worked in the Gerald Ford administration, he once sneaked into the White House on a weekend to help rewrite a presidential speech, burying an earlier draft penned by a bureaucratic opponent. At the Republican convention in 1980, Greenspan tried to manoeuvre Ford on to Ronald Reagans ticket an outlandish project to get an ex-president to serve as vice president.

Greenspans genius was to combine high-calibre expert analysis with raw political methods. He had more muscle than a mere expert and more influence than a mere politician. The combination was especially potent because the first could be a cover for the second: his political influence depended on the perception that he was an expert, and therefore above the fray, and therefore not really political. Unlike politician-politicians, Greenspans advice had the ring of objectivity: he was the man who knew the details of the federal budget, the outlook for Wall Street, the political tides as they revealed themselves through polling data. The more complex the problems confronting the president, the more indispensable Greenspans expertise became. He has the best bedside manner Ive ever seen, a jealous Ford administration colleague recalled, remarking on Greenspans hypnotic effect on his boss. Extraordinary. That was his favourite word. Hed go in to see Ford and say, Mr President, this is an extraordinarily complex problem. And Fords eyes would get big and round and start to go around in circles.

By the time Greenspan became Fed chairman, he was a master of the dark arts of Washington. He went to extraordinary lengths to cultivate allies, fighting through his natural shyness to attend A-list parties, playing tennis with potentially troublesome financial lobbyists, maintaining his contacts on Wall Street, building up his capital by giving valuable counsel to anyone who mattered. Drawing on the advantage of his dual persona, Greenspan offered economic advice to politicians and political advice to economists. When Laura Tyson, an exuberant Berkeley economist, was appointed to chair Bill Clintons Council of Economic Advisers, she was flattered to find that the Fed chairman had tips on her speaking style. Too many hand gestures and facial expressions could undermine her credibility, Greenspan observed. The CEA chairwoman should simply present facts, with as little visual commentary as possible.

Greenspans critics frequently complained that he was undermining the independence of the Fed by cosying up to politicians. But the critics were 180 degrees wrong: only by building political capital could Greenspan protect the Feds prerogatives. Clinton had no natural love for Greenspan: he would sometimes entertain his advisers with a cruel imitation of him a cheerless old man droning on about inflation. But after a landmark 1993 budget deal and a 1995 bailout of Mexico, Clinton became a firm supporter of the Fed. Greenspan had proved that he had clout. Clinton wanted to be on the right side of him.

The contrast with Greenspans predecessor, the rumpled, egg-headed Paul Volcker, is revealing. Volcker lacked Greenspans political skills, which is why the Reagan administration succeeded in packing his board with governors who were ready to outvote him. When Greenspan faced a similar prospect, he had the muscle to fight back: in at least one instance, he let his allies in the Senate know that they should block the presidents candidate. Volcker also lacked Greenspans facility in dealing with the press he refused to court public approval and sometimes pretended not to notice a journalist who had been shown into his office to interview him. Greenspan inhabited the opposite extreme: he courted journalists assiduously, opening presents each Christmas at the home of the Wall Street Journals Washington bureau chief, Al Hunt, flattering reporters with private interviews even as he berated other Fed governors for leaking to them. It was only fitting that, halfway through his tenure, Greenspan married a journalist whose source he had once been.

The upshot was that Greenspan maximised a form of power that is invaluable to experts. Because journalists admired him, it was dangerous for politicians to pick a fight with the Fed: in any public dispute, the newspaper columnists and talking heads would take Greenspans side of the argument. As a result, the long tradition of Fed-bashing ceased almost completely. Every Washington insider understood that Greenspan was too powerful to touch. People who got on the wrong side of him would find their career prospects dim. They would see their intellectual shortcomings exposed. They would find themselves diminished.

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, in 2015. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, the triumph of the expertwas bound to be fragile. In democracies, the will of the people can be sidelined only for so long, and 2016 has brought the whirlwind. The Brexit referendum featured Michael Goves infamous assertion that the British people have had enough of experts. Since the vote, Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor once pictured as superman, has been accused by the government of running dubious monetary experiments that exacerbate inequality an attack picked up by William Hague, who this week threatened the central bank with the loss of its independence unless it raised interest rates. In the United States, Donald Trump has ripped into intellectuals of all stripes, charging Fed chair Janet Yellen with maintaining a dangerously loose monetary policy in order to help Obamas poll ratings.

Both Gove and Trump sensed, correctly, that experts were primed for a fall. The inflationary catastrophe sparked by 1970s populism has faded from the public memory, and no longer serves as a cautionary tale.Economies have recovered disappointingly from the 2008 crash a crash, incidentally, for which Greenspan must share the blame, since he presided over the inflation of the subprime mortgage bubble. What little growth there has been has also passed most people by, since the spoils have been so unequally distributed. If the experts legitimacy depends on delivering results, it is hardly surprising that they are on the defensive.

And yet the history of the rise of the experts should remind us of three things. First, the pendulum will swing back, just as it did after the 1970s. The saving grace of anti-expert populists is that they do discredit themselves, simply because policies originating from the gut tend to be lousy. If Donald Trump were to be elected, he would almost certainly cure voters of populism for decades, though the price in the meantime could be frightening. In Britain, which is sliding towards a wreck of a divorce with its most important trading partners, the delusions and confusions of the Brexit camp will probably exact an economic price that will be remembered for a generation.

Second,Alan Blinder had a point: democratic politics is prone to errors and gridlock, and there is much to be said for empowering technocrats. The right balance between democratic accountability and expert input is not impossible to strike: the model of an independent central bank does provide a template. Popularly elected politicians have a mandate to determine the priorities and ambitions of the state, which in turn determine the goals for expert bodies whether these are central banks, environmental agencies, or the armed forces. But then it behooves the politicians to step back. Democracy is strengthened, not weakened, when it harnesses experts.

Thirdly, however, if the experts want to hasten their comeback, they must study the example of Greenspans politicking. It is no use thinking that, in a democracy, facts and analysis are enough to win the day. As the advertising entrepreneur John Kearon has argued, the public has to feel you are correct; the truth has to be sold as well as told; you have to capture the high ground with a brand that is more emotionally compelling than that of your opponents. In this process, as Greenspans career demonstrates, the media must be wooed. Enemies must be undermined. And, if you succeed, your face might just appear on a T-shirt.

Two decades ago, in his final and posthumous book, the American cultural critic Christopher Lasch went after contemporary experts. Elites, who define the issues, have lost touch with the people, he wrote. There has always been a privileged class, even in America, but it has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings. These criticisms presciently anticipated the rise of Davos Man the rootless cosmopolitan elite, unburdened by any sense of obligation to a place of origin, its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance. To survive these inevitable resentments, elites will have to understand that they are not beyond politics and they will have to demonstrate the skill to earn the public trust, and preserve it by deserving it. Given the alternative, we had better hope that they are up to it.

The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan by Sebastian Mallaby is out now. To order a copy for 20.50, go to or call 0330 333 6846

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