Jonathan Lynn: Books that changed my life
Jonathan Lynn is the multi-award winning author behind The Complete Yes Minister and The Complete Yes, Prime Minister as well as director of such films as My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards. He speaks to us about the books that had a profound influence on his life and work, as well as his new novel Samaritans.
by John Stuart Mill
When I was 11 or 12, my class was given this book to read. I think most of the others found it dull. I found it exciting: it changed my life and has been the basis of all my political thinking ever since. It was a revelation, expressing the notion that we should be free to say or do anything, anything at all, with one proviso: that it did not cause harm to other people.
It established boundaries between liberty and authority that made sense. Mill viewed the tyranny of the majority as even worse than the tyranny of government. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant... Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Mill stated three essential liberties: freedom of thought, including the freedom to act on such thought (free speech); freedom to pursue tastes (provided they do no harm to others) even if they are deemed "immoral"; and freedom to unite so long as the involved members are of age, nobody is forced, and no harm is done to others.
1984 and Animal Farm
by George Orwell
I read these books a little later, in my early teens. 1984 showed how dictatorships distort truth by the perversion of language: NEWSPEAK. In1984 independent thinking is a Thoughtcrime, controlled by the Thought Police. The book predicts a world in which the ruling party is a moral vacuum, believing only in power for itself, a world of total government surveillance (“Big Brother Is Watching You”) and permanent war. Was his prediction wrong?
Today, the message of On Liberty has been appropriated by neo-liberals and neo-cons (same thing?), people who call themselves conservatives but are in fact radical revolutionaries, using the concept of freedom to establish their own authority by (for instance) falsely claiming that their religious liberty needs to be protected by curtailing the liberty of others (gay marriage, abortion, etc). This Orwellian use of the word "liberty" means, in effect, “I believe in freedom for me but not for you.”
Animal Farm, a satire by Orwell, is easy to read and reveals the greed, hypocrisy and hunger for power that makes totalitarianism absurd. This was what I wanted to do when I eventually became a writer: take complex issues, try to understand them and then make them accessible to my viewers or readers by making them funny.
by Joseph Heller
One of the funniest novels ever written. I read it when I was a law student at Cambridge. It's the story of Yossarian, a US airman in Italy in the Second World War who is enraged because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. But it’s not the enemy who are trying to kill him: it’s the US army, by continuously extending the number of dangerous missions he has to fly before he can go home.
This is the famous catch: a man is insane if he continues to fly dangerous missions and is therefore eligible to be sent home—but, if he applies to be sent home, he proves that he’s sane and therefore must continue flying. The book is not only the greatest comic novel about the brutality and madness of war, it is also a masterful analysis of bureaucratic idiocy, something I spent years thinking and writing about in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. If art is criticism of life, satire is criticism of life by ridicule. Maybe it can help to improve the world a little by shining a light into dark places.
About my new novel Samaritans...
Like the army in Catch-22, the American health care system is almost beyond parody. Almost, but not quite. I invented Samaritans Medical Center in Washington DC, a struggling hospital beset by rising costs and poor management. The Board, in desperation, hires a hotel man as it's new CEO: MAX GREEN, VP of hotel operations at The Lions Den, a Vegas casino.
He understands everything about check-in and check-out, number of dinners served, number of beds occupied but he has no interest at all in health care. He does, however, in the Trump political climate, see how to make a huge profit out of hospital care and potentially make billions.
"US infant mortality rates are among the highest for developed democracies—it’s just not working"
Samaritans Medical Center is a metaphor for the United States. America is the world’s richest country with the most expensive healthcare in the world, and yet the World Health Organization rates US health care 38th best in the world, behind Colombia (22nd) and Saudi Arabia (26th), and just above Cuba. And still most Americans can’t afford it: the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States is medical debt.
In spite of continual statements by politicians that American healthcare is the best in the world, a 2016 study from Johns Hopkins hospital states “more than 250,000 deaths per year are due to medical error in the U.S.” That makes medical errors the third leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer. US infant mortality rates are among the highest for developed democracies. It’s just not working.
"UK governments have been slowly dismantling the NHS for years by starving it of funds"
Although the President promised better healthcare for everyone, he and the Congress are currently planning to deprive 24 million people of health insurance—people with pre-existing conditions, the poor and the pregnant, the disabled and the elderly, taking away what in every other developed country is not a privilege but a human right. In Britain too, successive governments have tried to run the health service as a business. UK governments have been slowly dismantling the NHS for years by starving it of funds. But should healthcare be driven by quarterly returns? Are patients customers—or patients?
“Who knew it would be so complicated?” the President recently said. Well, maybe it isn’t. Healthcare cries out for someone to tell the truth, which is that you’re not entitled to anything in America unless you can afford it, not even the chance to save your life.
Samaritans by Jonathan Lynn is published by Endeavour Press on July 6, price £7.99 paperback original
Enjoyed this story? Share it!