A Week in Books: We still ignore dissenting voices

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The Independent Culture

In Britain, we prefer our dissidents sanctified, and safely dead. Throughout his centenary year, bland, mainstream celebs from politics, the arts and the media have been lauding George Orwell for just those spiky, non-conformist virtues they have never shown. After so many cotton-wool tributes, it came as a relief to see Nineteen Eighty-Four supported on the BBC's Big Read by a figure that some viewers will have actively wanted to dislike - the combative comedian, Jo Brand. And she did it rather well.

Even most heretics opt to stick with the pack, cheering on some limelit Lenin of stage and studio (Monbiot, Pilger, Moore). But radical showbiz remains showbiz - tailored for a market, moulded for a niche. Truly independent voices remain as unwelcome as ever. However attractive or humane, they stay on the edges of a culture that likes to take its sedition with stardust sprinkled on the top.

The author and journalist Jeremy Seabrook has, for a quarter of a century, published superbly researched and eloquently written books about the lives of people we make invisible: the poor, the old, the young (both at home and abroad); groups made marginal in social or sexual terms. As far back as 1978, he diagnosed the crisis of the postwar welfare state in What Went Wrong?, a decade before Labour's "modernisers" got to work. Much of his best early work appeared in New Society magazine, where editor Paul Barker nurtured a peerless stable of literary and journalistic thoroughbreds. Since then, his shrewd and sensitive investigations have moved from post-industrial Britain to places in the Third World - India and Bangladesh, mostly - now fighting to endure the gales of globalisation.

Seabrook's compassion can upset, even more his quiet anger. His memoir, Mother and Son, paints a classic but deeply discomfiting portrait of working-class family life. But, if he shuns sentimentality, he also avoids moralism. One book (Travels in the Skin Trade) dares suggest that commercial sex between Western tourist buyers and young Asian sellers can involve respect and reciprocity; it may call for a more complicated response than simple outrage.

It remains a mystery to me why this talented and principled author is not hailed everywhere as the conscience of contemporary Britain. After all, it's not as if he bangs on like some tedious and hectoring Dave Spart. Seabrook writes like a guide, and a friend; not a pundit or preacher. His books are always intimate and engaging, enriched by the hard-won wisdom of both author and interviewees.

No - he simply brings troubling news, whether from Blackburn or Bangalore. Seabrook diagnoses all the symptoms of chaotic change: loss, loneliness and dislocation, in East and West alike. To read him is to look into a mirror, and to recoil at the sight.

A World Growing Old is his latest book (Pluto Press, £12.99). Typically, it explores the costs - and the hopes - of an ageing society through personal reflections, solid research and interviews around the world. His travels take him from older gay men in Brighton to genteel Anglo-Indians in Calcutta, to the women elders-turned-carers of Aids-ravaged Tanzania, and to the seniors of a leper community in Delhi where "differences of religion, caste and status" are seen as "superficial and arbitrary". Typically, he brings out how much these forgotten elders have in common. Typically, he refuses to guilt-trip his readers, underlining that we are all buffeted by the forces that split families, shatter traditions, exhaust the young and isolate the old.

And, typically but sadly, A World Growing Old emerges from a small publishing house of the kind that retail chains will often scorn to stock. If so, they - and their customers - will be missing out on a national treasure. Sometimes, even the book trade needs to exercise the prophet motive.