Too freewheeling and meditative to fully cohere as a thesis or manifesto, New Model Island reads as if it could be the opening chapter in a more substantial work. It is nonetheless a thought-provoking intervention. The timing of the book’s publication is not insignificant, coming not long after Labour’s defeat in December’s general election – and not long before the current crisis. Whenever Labour loses an election – it has now lost four in a row – there are those within the party who say it would have fared better if it had been perceived to be more patriotic. By reminding us that community is sustained not by rhetoric but by material infrastructure, Niven issues a brave and timely rejoinder to those – on Labour and Tory benches alike – who would have us believe it can be magicked into being by platitudes and flag-waving.
The journey to this conclusion is a bewitching and unexpectedly moving one. A birth and a death compelled Niven to write what he describes as “part cultural polemic, part memoir”. His first child was born at the end of 2016 at the crest of the Trump-Brexit maelstrom. In early 2017, Mark Fisher, a friend of Niven’s, Repeater Books’ co-founder, sociocultural blogger and author of the influential leftwing polemic Capitalist Realism, killed himself. A crisis of faith ensued and New Model Island is Niven’s attempt to tunnel into the light.