Posted on Oct 18, 2013 with Comments 0
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- Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale – review
An exhilarating psychogeographical study of Moscow’s Kremlin will delight many and annoy some
Only a handful of major European cities are dominated by one historic site. The castles of Edinburgh and Prague, the Acropolis and the Kremlin in Moscow are in a class of their own. Yet as a site both sacred and defensive, the Kremlin was from its beginnings a more complex structure than those in the other cities. The walled settlement has not just imposed its own ring form on the city beyond, but withdrawn from it, a symbol of isolation within the urban landscape as well as in the wider world.
Many ancient Russian cities had kremlins (and the original meaning of gorod, a town or city, was a fortified settlement). In some places – Pskov, Novgorod and Vologda, for example – kremlins survive to this day. But the emergence of Moscow as the leading principality of the late medieval era gave the Kremlin there a consolidated temporal and spiritual power unmatched elsewhere in the Rus. It is this side of the Kremlin – its history as a power base – that has inspired Catherine Merridale‘s Red Fortress, a historical psychogeography of this famous landmark from its misty origins as a forest settlement to the modern era.
There are two “hearts” to Merridale’s narrative: the astonishing construction campaign in the 16th and 17th centuries, launched by Ivan III (referred to in his lifetime as “the Terrible”, but the father of the famous tyrant), and the life of the Kremlin in the Soviet period. Merridale is, fortunately, far too sophisticated a writer to suggest any direct continuity between the two. But in evoking Ryszard Kapuściński‘s concept of the wall as “a shield and a trap”, she suggests that the fortress mentality has endured: “The Kremlin stood above the confusion of real life, cut off from its messy hubbub, defended, certainly, but also locked in. It was a metaphor for a good deal of Russia’s subsequent history.”
Merridale distinguishes clearly between the appeal of the site to later generations of Russian nationalists as a transcendent symbol of cultural, political and spiritual supremacy, and the constant process of reshaping the Kremlin territory that took place over the years. The demolition of major ecclesiastical buildings in the late 1920s, and the trashing of centuries of archaeological evidence to build the Palace of Congresses in 1961 were particularly egregious acts of desecration. Buildings constantly disappeared from the Kremlin, as Merridale shows, and some of the most impressive structures, such as Tsar Boris Godunov‘s enormous cathedral, a unique effort to house Moscow townspeople in this reserve of elites, never got built at all.
Both in its modernist sense of “time in flux” and in its style, Red Fortress is at the furthest possible remove from Soviet schoolroom sermons about “the period of feudal atomisation” and the rise of the centralising state. Though Merridale has drawn on work by recent historians of medieval and early modern Russia, particularly in emphasising the international contacts of Muscovy’s rulers, she mostly ignores the canonical topics of those studies. This is a book of detail and imagination, in which the precise size and composition of the bricks used to make Aristotele Fioravanti‘s Cathedral of the Dormition occupy as important a place as diplomatic history or palace strife (though these are given their due). The result is something one could call a neohistorical account of the Russian past. Where sources do not supply information, Merridale resorts to imaginative excursus, capturing not just the enduring smell of the Kremlin in the pre-Soviet period (incense, candles, and in the period of its decline, mouse urine), but also the discomfiting moment at which two teams of Soviet professionals arrived at the Monastery of the Miracles in 1929, one to survey the place, and the other to pull it down.
Merridale expresses little sympathy with the Russian historical classics. But one figure with whom she does have something in common is the writer Mikhail Pylaev, whose studies of “old Petersburg” and “old Moscow”, still in print more than 120 years after publication, have a similar focus on the sumptuous and the bizarre. From another point of view, Merridale’s book is a brilliant contribution to the “Xanadu” strand in English literature: the fascination with the “otherness” of splendour and cruelty. This is not to suggest that she espouses every trite orientalising stereotype: it is above all the European setting of Moscow that dominates (a sketch of the period of Tatar dominance aside). But the Kremlin becomes a figure that allows Merridale to explore what she sees as extraordinary about Russian life, with the power of Orthodoxy and the power of demonic revelry placed in the centre of the picture.
The sheer force of the encapsulation may prove irritating to some, whether historians of a more conventional bent or internet trolls fulminating about insults to the Russian nation. At times, I felt like arguing with Merridale. There is something eccentric about centres: a history of the City of London that purported to be a history of the British empire, or the Catholic church through the prism of the Vatican, would be an appealing jeu d’ésprit, but how much more? Worse, the book can only enhance the tendency of journalists to use the (long anachronistic) term “the Kremlin” to describe every type of higher power in the country.
At times, too, the emphasis on secrecy seems overstated. For many working there, the Kremlin was just the nation’s largest feeding trough. The clinics and canteens of the place welcomed humble museum employees as well as the spoilt darlings of the Politburo. Schoolchildren who visited the Lenin mausoleum might suppress giggles inside the place, but afterwards lay bets on what the leader was stuffed with: sand, maybe? In the security-obsessed Kremlin, you can still, if you speak nicely to a guard, walk across St Ivan’s Square without a ticket: there is rule-bending as well as protocol. But Red Fortress made me remember the open-mouthed delight I took when, hardly old enough to know where Russia was, I studied the émigré artist Boris Artsybashev’s elegant, aetiolated portraits of medieval Russian princes in his version of the folktale Seven Simeons (1937). Merridale is scornful of leaden state-sponsored exercises in the style russe, but her own mythologisation has the vigorous delicacy of the modernist Russian revival.
In the final stages, the post-horses flag slightly. From some points of view, the Kremlin is still a place of major importance. Its museum directorate, run by Elena Gagarina, daughter of the smiling cosmonaut, has recently steered to completion one of the most controversial pastiche projects in modern Moscow, Catherine II’s neogothic palace at Tsaritsyno, more than two centuries after its chief architect, Vasily Bazhenov, was laid in the earth. But these are not subjects to interest Merridale; instead she retells the more familiar story of how the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer (not in the Kremlin), blown up in 1931, was rebuilt, funded by munificent support from the government as well as private donations, in the late 1990s. Yet the relatively perfunctory handing of the recent past is understandable: Merridale’s is the kind of writing that requires distance from its object. If the arrival disappoints a little, it has been an exhilarating journey.
- Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God and George Clooney by Piers Morgan – review
The punchable face and the invincible self-confidence … the latest memoir from the TV star is thin on gossip and full of lousy writing
The big scoop in this, the fourth volume of Piers Morgan‘s diaries, could scarcely be more unexpected: Morgan actually turned down the chance to appear – as himself! – in a Hollywood movie. He was to be interviewing a character played by Jim Carrey, whom he’d ask: “What’s going through your mind?” Carrey was to reply: “I really have to pee, Piers.” And then Carrey was to have done just that, all over his host. Piers passed. The whole episode made me slightly melancholy. Is his ambition off the boil? Is he starting to take himself seriously? The Piers Morgan of old, you feel, would have done anything for the honour of having Jim Carrey piss on him.
That punchable face, that invincible self-confidence, that willingness to soak up and even revel in abuse, that astonishing ability to fail upwards … Morgan is sort of brilliant and he’s sort of awful and he seems to embody, in his curiously weightless way, something of the temper of the times. He’s a very pure avatar of the celebrity culture – remember him (you probably don’t) hugging embarrassed-looking pop stars in the Bizarre column of the Sun back in the day? – and the way its values have penetrated the culture at large.
Launched into US television by Simon Cowell as a judge on America’s Got Talent, Morgan moved on from being rude about singing parrots and pole-vaulting dogs to replace Larry King on the flagship current affairs show on America’s most respectable news network. Actually, and this looks a little like a metaphor for his divided soul, he didn’t move on. Until NBC released him from his contract with America’s Got Talent, he did both at once – shuttling from coast to coast, now anchoring live coverage of a natural disaster, now having his dressing room invaded by a troupe of dancing elves.
When you find him interviewing Binyamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (“Like most despots, he’s a weird mixture of charm, ruthlessness, outrageous opinions and a very sinister stare”), whether you find it hilarious or depressing will be a matter of taste. Don’t expect geopolitical subtlety. His main observation after an encounter with Henry Kissinger is that “Kissinger would have been the greatest movie announcer ever”.
Actually, he interviews Ahmadinejad twice and, oddly, doesn’t seem to remember the first time when it comes to his account of the second. The first encounter has the Iranian president cracking fluent and even charming jokes, apparently in English. On the second, “it’s not easy interviewing him because he claims not to speak English, so your questions are translated and his replies are then translated back into your earpiece”. Pff. Who knows?
The first couple of volumes of Morgan’s diaries, let it be said, were extremely lively and enjoyable. Boorish, silly, boastful, self-contradictory and all the rest of it, yes: but they were full of good gossip and – since Morgan was the editor first of the News of the World and then the Daily Mirror – it was gossip that embraced both celebrity and high politics.
The biggest problem with this book is that there’s almost none of that behind-closed-doors material. Most of the interesting stuff that happens to Piers these days happens on television; three times a day to a potential audience of 300 million. So on the one hand, we can be more confident that quotes presented as verbatim will be accurate. But, on the other, for large parts of this he’s essentially transcribing a long-since-broadcast, long-since-reported TV show.
And, because the show is a going concern, any confidences that his A-list guests might have offered in the green room remain in confidence: he can’t risk pissing off celebrities and their publicists. Part of the fun of The Insider, his first volume of diaries, was the total disregard for off-the-record courtesies with which he retailed private conversations. He’d already burned his bridges with those people. These people, he still needs.
So, for instance, he gets drunk with George Clooney – “drinking a lot of vodka, discussing everything from phone hacking to the Sudan, and exchanging regular bear-hugs” – and what the reader takes away by way of insight is: “He’s hilarious.” Morgan’s guests are “iconic”, “fascinating”, “world-famous” and so forth, and our hero is prone to be “profoundly moved” if not “humbled”.
The insidery stuff is TV-insidery. We get a good deal about hotels, planes and the ruthlessness of the biz. The entry for Friday 5 June 2011, for instance, is as follows: “My ratings are getting decimated by a trial involving an alleged baby killer called Casey Anthony. A lot of our younger viewers are migrating to watch Nancy Grace cover this disturbing case on HLN, the news and views network. The big question is what the hell do we do about it? Larry got into ratings trouble overdoing coverage of hot tabloid stories like the deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson, because it alienated his core CNN audience. Jonathan and I discussed it with CNN president Ken Jautz, and we all agreed that we should pretty much leave the Casey Story to HLN. But it’s going to hurt us until the trial ends, no question.”
This may not be as interesting to all of us as it is to the author. That said, the needle with Larry King early in the book (more or less defused by puppy-dog shows of deference on Morgan’s part) is intriguing, and there’s a fairly jaw-dropping passage where he describes having Gordon Brown round to watch the footie.
He is most serious about his campaign for gun control, which has secured him lots of hate mail and a foreword by Michael Moore. Good on him, obviously. It seems to have been inspired in part by an HBO drama. In The Newsroom, Will McAvoy’s character “has a reputation for being too lightweight, a reputation he then decimates” – I know: don’t write in – “by suddenly transforming himself into an enraged, passionate hard-news assassin”. After watching it, Piers thinks: “I need to find my own voice about something I really care about.” A month later, after his first on‑air ding dong with a gun nut, a colleague says: “You know something – I think you found your voice tonight.” He sticks to a predictably sober defensive line on phone hacking when Leveson gets under way, by the way. So, as I say, gossip-wise it’s thin pickings and there’s not much in the way of political insight – he at one point suggests that all politicians should have admonitory quotations tattooed on their foreheads “at birth”, which would be a neat trick.
And, God knows, you don’t read it for the prose. Morgan is a very good TV interviewer (he really is), but he’s a lousy writer. Paragraphs as long as three sentences are a rarity, and countless small acts of accidental violence to the English language are perpetrated. In the post-mortem disfigurement of dead metaphors he shows a sort of genius.
“If they bury me into a deep pit of bile, I want to have them mutilated limb from limb.” “This bandwagon is well and truly up and running.” Jamie Oliver is “still ploughing his lonely but incredibly courageous field”. Charlie Sheen’s million Twitter followers are “the fastest accumulation of that milestone in Twitter’s history”. “I can almost taste their blood lust.” “This was a city that built him up, then spat him out and left him to fend, almost literally, with the wolves.”
Cheap laughs, I know. But in an age when Piers Morgan is one of the most important men in global television news you could say he’s got the expensive laughs sewn up.
- Morrissey's Autobiography is nearly a triumph, but ends up mired in moaning
Review: Morrissey is brilliant when he’s writing about pop music, but far too many pages are given over to court cases and feuds
Thanks to a hyped-up fuss that has done its job in spades, this much we all know: owing to its author’s provocative cheek and his publisher’s marketing nous, Morrissey’s autobiography is a Penguin Classic, which means it shares its imprint with Ovid, Plato and good old Thomas Hobbes. Self-evidently, though, it’s also a high-end example of a literary genre that now seems to form at least half of the publishing industry’s raison d’etre: the celebrity memoir, 2013′s most notable examples of which include the self-authored life stories of Mo Farah, Jennifer Saunders, Harry Redknapp and Katie Price (again).
Despite career wobble after career wobble, the author has become an unlikely British institution: as the blurb on the back reminds us, “in 2006, Morrissey was voted the second greatest living British icon by viewers of the BBC, losing out to Sir David Attenborough”. As unthinkable as it still seems, the prime minister will presumably be chillaxing with a copy as soon as he gets the chance.
What awaits him is, in its own way, as faithful to the celeb genre as all the other books that are piled into branches of WH Smith at this time of year. Though its 457-page splurge of text occasionally suggests a bold stylistic experiment – there are no chapters; nor, for the first 10 pages, any paragraph breaks – as with so many famous-person books, it also betrays a lack of editing. So too do some very un-Morrissey-like American spellings (“glamor”, “center” – this is in the UK edition), his strange habit of jumping between tenses, and the odd passage that simply doesn’t make sense. “I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast,” he writes on page 90. You what?
And yet, and yet. For its first 150 pages, Autobiography comes close to being a triumph. “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big,” he writes, and off we go – into the Irish diaspora in the inner-city Manchester of the 1960s, where packs of boys playfully stone rats to death, and “no one we know is on the electoral roll”. In some of the writing, you can almost taste his environment: “Nannie bricks together the traditional Christmas for all to gather and disagree … Rita now works at Seventh Avenue in Piccadilly and buys expensive Planters cashew nuts. Mary works at a Granada showroom, but is ready to leave it all behind.” And when pop music enters the story, he excels. Before the Smiths, Morrissey fleetingly wrote reviews for the long-lost music weekly Record Mirror under the name Sheridan Whiteside, and his talent for music writing is obvious. By the late 60s, he is marvelling at hit singles by the Love Affair, the Foundations and the Small Faces; in 1972, as with so many thousands, he marvels at David Bowie miming to Starman on an ITV pop show called Lift Off With Ayshea. “It seemed to me that it was only in British pop music that almost anything could happen,” he writes, which is spot on.
School, unsurprisingly, is hell, complete with Catholic guilt, unending brutality, and one grim incident in which a PE teacher molests him. When he leaves St Mary’s secondary modern, he falls into a period of torpor and self-doubt. And then Johnny Marr pays him a visit, and his life takes off – while, in keeping with an unwritten rule of celebrity memoir, Autobiography takes a serious turn for the worse.
There are not many more than 70 pages on the actual experience of being in the Smiths, and around a quarter of those are devoted to complaints about their record label, the supposed commercial underperformance of their singles, and Geoff Travis, who founded Rough Trade records in the mid 1970s, and has clearly not been on Morrissey’s Christmas-card list for several years. At first, what Morrissey says about Travis and his colleagues can be waspishly funny: before they signed the Smiths, he reckons, Rough Trade’s brand was “tubercular … hand-crafted on a spinning jenny”. But after pages and pages of moaning, it all starts to pall. Moreover, a pattern is set: any calamity or mishap is always someone else’s fault.
As the story winds on, the clash between this account and the story as told by Marr and others becomes violent: as all other credible accounts have told it, the Smiths broke up because Morrissey would not be handled by a manager, and as their business dealings turned chaotic, Marr was worn down by not just playing the guitar and writing songs, but dealing with lawyers and booking hire-vans. Small wonder that the two of them “signed virtually anything without looking”, or that their bond came to grief, probably the single biggest event in Morrissey’s adult life. In the absence of even the barest recognition of any of this beyond a tortuous passage that claims that all managers “merely manage their own position in relation to the artist”, Autobiography presents the end of the Smiths as a mystery, sullied by some innuendous stuff about Marr supposedly growing envious of Morrissey’s profile, which does not stand up to any serious scrutiny.
“Beware, I bear more grudges/Than lonely high court judges,” went the lyric of Morrissey’s 1995 single The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get, and he wasn’t lying. As the bitterness overflows, there are still flashes of wit, along with some rather rum views (his opinion of the Kray Twins might strike some as charitable). Circa 1994, he finally finds love and companionship with one Jake Walters, who has “lived a colourful 29 years as no stranger to fearlessness” and who has “BATTTERSEA” tattooed inside his lower lip. Morrissey evidently melts – but soon after, he reaches his peak of bitterness and unrestrained verbosity: 40 pages on the court case in which Smiths drummer Mike Joyce (“an adult impersonating a child”, he reckons) successfully made a bid for 25% of the band’s posthumous earnings, and a judge named John Weeks apparently became the human being Morrissey hates most of all. Here, all levity evaporates: it’s understandable that he feels so aggrieved, but when the verbiage dedicated to this stuff threatens to eclipse what he has to say about every other aspect of his career, something has gone badly wrong.
Towards the end, things pick up: he enjoys a career renaissance, moves to Rome, and once again finds romance and companionship with a character he calls Gelato. But a sour taste remains, and it’s hard not reach for a line from that beautiful Smiths song Half A Person, released a quarter-century ago: “In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more.”
- Mark Bruce Company: Dracula – review
Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Bruce and his extraordinarily gifted dancers navigate Bram Stoker’s hellish narrative with near-hallucinatory dexterity
Mark Bruce may be one of many choreographers to base a work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but out of all the vampire dances I’ve seen, his goes most deeply and most terrifyingly into the bodies and souls of the undead.
Even if there are brief sections where the staging feels overcomplicated by the parallel settings, characters and plots of the original, Bruce and his extraordinarily gifted dancers and design team navigate the material with near-hallucinatory dexterity. The smoky, candlelit atmosphere of Wilton’s Music Hall is clearly the ideal venue for this show, yet even in other venues the brilliantly imagined masks and props and gothic, fin de siècle set, would still conjure Stoker’s world to compelling effect.
Individual scenes are outstanding – the juggernaut stage fight in which Jonathan Harker and his friends attempt to subdue Dracula, or the lurching carriage ride in which three horse-masked dancers pound through a hellish roar of sound. The gore is unnervingly realistic throughout. Essentially, however, it’s out of pure movement that Bruce creates his most powerful drama.
The three vampire brides are horrifying not simply because of their dead eyes and their slutty, blood-smeared mouths, but because their bodies are graphically in thrall to a ravening twitching – a hunger that can never be sated. As for Jonathan Goddard’s Dracula, it must surely go down as one of the great performances of the year. This immensely elegant dancer moves as if possessed by all the forces of evil, combining a fang-like sharpness with a thuggish, monstrous strength, flashing with scintillating mockery, but evoking a spiritual emptiness that makes him look a thousand years old. This Dracula may be staged with the most low-tech means, but it raises the bar of dance theatre very high.
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- Thrillers – review roundup
Prayer by Philip Kerr, The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth, 419 by Will Ferguson, If You Were Here by Alafair Burke, Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler
Prayer (Quercus, £18.99), Philip Kerr’s first standalone novel in a decade, is a rum beast that uses the cosy familiarity of the thriller form to buttress a fantastical supernatural plot – “the strange and the sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and the easy”, as one character puts it, quoting Henry James. Gil Martins, an FBI agent specialising in domestic terrorism, is a lapsed Catholic confident in his atheism, never mind that it has caused a rift with his devout wife. However, when several enemies of the Christian right – scientists, polemicists, abortionists – die mysteriously, Martins becomes convinced that they have been killed by the power of prayer; that a charismatic Texan preacher whose church his wife attends has found a way to channel prayers so that they summon God’s avenging demon Azrael. As fans of his Berlin-set Bernie Gunther novels will know, Kerr is a details man. His deep-level research brings Houston and its environs to dusty, sun-bleached life. Martins’ narration, too, is deftly handled – Prayer demands to be read more than once. A shame, then, that the Amityville-style theatrics which, um, bedevil the last act should resemble bad CGI – too weightless and literal to be as scary as Kerr needs them to be.
Talking of weightless … Perhaps, if I hadn’t read Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim so recently, I would have been more kindly disposed towards Frederick Forsyth’s The Kill List (Bantam, £18.99). Hayes used the template laid down by Forsyth in The Day of the Jackal et al, but upgraded it to reflect the complexities of modern hi‑tech espionage. The Kill List‘s hero is US colonel Kit Carson, AKA The Tracker; its villain is The Preacher, an Islamist cleric who delivers his internet lectures in perfect English. Plot: The Tracker hunts down The Preacher, with a bit of last-minute help from Our Boys. Forsyth’s style mixes bombast and TV‑movie dialogue (“I do not want to shoot you, Sheikh. You are not he whom I seek”) with a laundry-list blankness, which may be deliberate but in practice reduces already one-dimensional characters to mere archetypes. Technical detail is plentiful, but much of it rings hollow in the light of Forsyth’s self-confessed “cyber-dumbo” status: “The records were fed into the computers which scanned them far faster than the human eye could read or the human brain digest.” Um, Fred – no offence, but wouldn’t the records already have been in the computers?
Canadian Will Ferguson is best known in this country for his 2001 satire of the self-help industry Happiness™. 419 (Head of Zeus, £16.99), which won Canada’s prestigious Giller prize last year, is very different – an elegant literary thriller about a shy but resourceful copy editor, Laura, who travels to Nigeria to confront the men responsible for her father’s death. Henry Curtis killed himself after he was bankrupted in an elaborate 419 scam – the kind that used to begin with an email from a west African prince promising riches if you sent him money first. (419 refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code that relates to obtaining money or goods under false pretences.) Alongside this revenge plot, Ferguson gives us the stories of three Nigerians whose lives have been blighted by lawlessness and western predation: the scammer himself, Winston, who is in the grip of a terrifying gang boss; pregnant Amina, escaping from her family of cattle herders across the dusty desert; and Nnamdi, a fisherman’s son drawn into the black market for petrol. 419 is immersive, neatly structured, and full of smart dialogue and oblique insights. Yet Henry, a retired schoolteacher from Calgary, never seems like the kind of person who would have fallen for a 419, even though the fictional one Ferguson devises is carefully targeted to its victim.
The daughter of crime legend James Lee Burke, Alafair Burke has two series of crime procedurals to her name. If You Were Here (£12.99), her first novel with Faber in the UK, is a likable standalone mystery in the style of Harlen Coben and Linwood Barclay. McKenna Jordan, a one-time prosecutor turned writer for a New York gossip mag, is investigating an internet story about a phone thief pulled from the path of a subway train seconds before it reached him. Footage of the incident reveals the woman who saved him to be McKenna’s friend Susan who disappeared 10 years before … That there should be a connection between these events and the case that ended McKenna’s legal career is as inevitable as the link is tenuous, but in most other respects Burke knows how to keep readers guessing.
Finally, the Folio Society has produced a beautiful edition of Eric Ambler‘s top-notch 1938 thriller Epitaph for a Spy (£29.95). A big influence on Alan Furst and William Boyd, Ambler focused not on professional spies but on ordinary people who happened to get caught in the web of espionage – people such as Epitaph‘s Josef Vadassy, whose Riviera holiday is disrupted when his camera is swapped with someone else’s and he suddenly finds himself in possession of photographs of important naval installations … There’s an introduction by Stella Rimington and bold, subtly retro illustrations by Paul Blow.
- Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke – review
An exuberant, glass-clinking celebration of 10 women’s careers, and of the joy that work can bring
At the end of My Brilliant Career, the 1901 novel by Miles Franklin (who was actually Stella Miles Franklin), the heroine who dreamed of becoming a writer is left thwarted and misunderstood, with little prospect of making the life she imagined. Rachel Cooke invokes that sad inheritance in her title, but does not dwell on it. Hers is an exuberant, glass-chinking book about 10 women a couple of generations later who – with phenomenal energy and determination – built the brilliant careers they wanted.
This is a splendidly various collection of “brief lives” written with both gusto and sensitivity. Most readers will know some of the subjects, but not all. There is Alison Smithson, the modernist architect. Margery Fish, gardener and plantswoman. The barrister Rose Heilbron, later a high court judge. Patience Gray, the cookery writer who far out-sold Elizabeth David. The archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, author of that sensuous geological masterpiece A Land.
One chapter is inhabited by three of Cooke’s Tremendous 10 (and yes, there is a touch of the hockey-stick in the tone, but the effect is generally invigorating). They lived in a crowded three-way relationship, so it all makes sense: the journalist Nancy Spain, Joan Werner Laurie, founder of She magazine, and Sheila Van Damm, who trained as a formation flying pilot, found there was no place for women in aviation, wondered what to do, and then became a racing driver. Sisters-in-law Muriel Box and Betty Box share a chapter because they were both making their way in the film industry. This is Betty Box who became Betty Box Office after producing the huge hit Doctor in the House. She had insisted on casting Dirk Bogarde; nobody else had thought he was much good.
Box looks sensational in the photos, taking a coffee break with Katharine Hepburn, but it’s important that Cooke studies directors and producers rather than the on-screen stars. All her subjects are poised between being exceptional individuals and being trailblazers in paths we might aspire to follow. She purposely decided not to write about Celia Johnson and Margot Fonteyn. Sylvia Plath was never in contention. So, though we’re used to reading about the lives of the great artists, writers and thinkers, this book is not about them. On the other hand, though we’re increasingly drawn to what Woolf called “infinitely obscure lives” that “remain to be recorded”, this is not a project of recovery. The idea, appealingly, is to think about women who became well-known for being terrifically good at what they did. They were professional pioneers of the 1950s, respected by their peers and remembered admiringly, perhaps not by millions, but certainly by those working in related fields. They were all career women when that was rare, and today’s working women are in their debt.
I am ashamed that, though I have an office next to the law faculty at the University of Liverpool, I did not know the story of Rose Heilbron, who studied here in the early 1930s. She became the second woman in the country to get a first-class law degree, before going on to take silk in her mid-30s. The court reporters loved the twinkle in her eyes and the angle of her wig, though eventually everyone had to concede that there was a bit more to her than that. When she successfully defended striking dockers in 1951, crowds of Liverpool workers lined the platform at Lime Street to salute her return.
Heilbron and Smithson stand out as the only representatives of women in “the professions” – this is not a book of office jobs. The triumphs of Margery Fish are in her garden at East Lambrook, where she collected thousands of plant varieties. In housecoat and sturdy shoes, she did not look the ultimate career woman. Nor did Patience Gray, learning to cook in the billiard room bedsit of a Gothic house, and later living “wild” in Apulia, “wizened and witchy-looking”, skinning foxes and harvesting weeds.
But this is part of Cooke’s point. Careers are made from inventiveness, willpower and addiction. Her gardeners and food-writers were no dabbling hobbyists; 12-hour days were standard.
Some of these women knew from the age of about five exactly what they wanted to do. Their rehearsals for life are admirable and touching. The logistics of reading long past bedtime can be challenging enough, but the future Jacquetta Hawkes needed to practice being an archaeologist. She drew bison on the garden wall to set the prehistoric scene. And then she snuck out at night to conduct excavations in the lawn, labouring into the small hours with torch and trowel.
Success took time. Muriel Box trained as a typist, lived on sausage rolls from the ABC restaurant, and got a job at a corset factory in Welwyn. At least she was independent: it was a start. There is an affecting story about what Heilbron did when her mother was dying, young, of cancer. Rose was still in training and was yet to be called to the bar, but she went out and hired, illicitly, a wig and gown. She allowed her mother to see, just once, the figure her daughter was on course to become.
Once each woman is launched, personal and professional lives compete for space on the page. The practical questions matter: what time will she get home at night? Who mowed the lawn? How long is the baby in that Moses basket by the desk going to be asleep? There is usually an unsatisfactory marriage to escape, and Cooke tells some astounding stories of wild passions, secret pregnancies and deceived children.
These sensations are never quite allowed to steal the show, because the real drama here is in the work. It’s true that from the outside hard graft can look a little dull. What Heilbron’s university contemporaries remember is that “she was always working in the library. I don’t remember seeing her at any dances.” This can be troublesome when you’re trying to tell a pacey tale; textbooks are not spectacular. Cooke leaves the scholar to her own devices in the library, and catches up with her later when she’s standing to give some nicely devastating after-dinner speech. Still, the compromise is understandable. Brief lives rely on abbreviation, and Cooke makes an art of it. This is a book in which people get MBEs for things they do in a sub-clause, and yet somehow we come to feel the long-haul nature of their efforts.
Resilience and stamina are much in evidence. “They were as tough as boots,” Cooke says approvingly of the Boxes: “They ate setbacks for breakfast.” But no one who’s any good takes things so easily. Later we meet Muriel looking altogether less boot-like, coping with the “low moods, painful joints, exhaustion, various infections and fevers” that routinely accompanied the process of making a film. When her subjects do eventually make it to the top, Cooke watches carefully what they do with their success. Are they freer, or happier? Are they impossible with their friends? Betty Box ordered up a floor-length mink coat and adored it, though on set in India she preferred to wear a poncho with secret pockets in which she could hide contraband gin for the crew.
“The bliss of work! The balm of it, and the satisfaction.” Cooke is speaking partly on behalf of her 1950s subjects: this is what, at some point, they all felt. She is also speaking openly and passionately for herself. Yes, work is boring or nerve-racking or sleep-depriving, but the pleasure, too, should be acknowledged and fostered. In a brilliant passage, she reads Alison Smithson’s designs for the interior of the Economist Buildings as a tribute to the professional lives that would be lived there:
“This was again Alison’s realm, and included a filing system in the form of glorious Japanese-inspired lacquer boxes. Pillar-box red and silk smooth to the touch … A woman who understood more than most the power and comfort of work, she could have paid the Economist’s harried secretaries and journalists no greater compliment than to imbue their daily rituals with beauty, and just a hint of the clandestine.”
In a painfully slow job market, many graduates of 2013 will find themselves at temporary desks eating sausage rolls for lunch, trying secretly, stubbornly to keep their ambitions in view. They will think it is a rare privilege to know the “balm” of doing what you love, though they will surely agree it is worth aiming for. So let’s talk about quotas, let’s talk about pay, and let’s follow Cooke’s lead in remembering to talk about joy.
• Alexandra Harris’s Virginia Woolf is published by Thames and Hudson.
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – review
The story of a boy who loses a mother and gains a painting, Donna Tartt’s long‑awaited third novel is an astonishing achievement
It is dangerous to write openings as compelling as Donna Tartt’s. In The Secret History, the one-page prologue gives us a murder and a narrator who has helped to commit it. The Little Friend starts with the death of a child who, by page 15, is found hanging by a piece of rope from a tree branch, his red hair “the only thing about him that was the right colour any more”. And now, in The Goldfinch, Tartt has a 50‑page two-part opening. In the first section, the narrator, Theo Decker, is holed up in an Amsterdam hotel, looking at newspapers written in Dutch, which he can’t understand; he is searching for his name in articles illustrated with pictures of police cars and crime scene tapes. Before any of this is explained, the story moves back 14 years to the day Theo’s mother dies, when he is on the cusp of adolescence. Her death takes place in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, as a consequence of an exploding bomb – mother and son are in separate rooms when the bomb blast occurs, and the descriptions of Theo regaining consciousness in the wreckage, and trying to find his way out of the ripped-apart museum before returning home, expecting to find his mother there, are written in astonishingly gripping prose. This is, of course, where the danger comes in: if, at the end of the kind of set piece to which the word “climactic” should emphatically apply, you still have 700 pages to go, aren’t you setting your readers up for disappointment?
Astonishingly, the answer is no. The novel changes gear and, for a while, is primarily involved with showing us, affectingly, the dislocation of Theo’s life – a dislocation both emotional and physical. His mother dead, his father long absent, he finds himself living with the Barbours, the family of a school friend; this is understood by everyone to be a short-term option, and the cold spectre of unknown and unloving grandparents who will eventually become Theo’s guardians hovers over the novel for a time until his father reappears, with his girlfriend Xandra, and takes Theo off to live with him in Las Vegas. There will be more twists and turns in this tale of a motherless boy whose life involves dramatic changes and is peopled with a vast cast of characters, many of whose affections and intentions it isn’t easy to work out. If there’s any one novel this strand of the story calls to mind, it’s Great Expectations – there’s even a character called Pippa, perhaps a playful melding of Pip and Estella. Pippa, near Theo in age, was also in the museum when the bomb exploded, and is the only person who Theo feels can understand his heart.
But there is a second strand to the novel, this one with echoes of Crime and Punishment. Young Theo Decker enters a museum with his mother; he leaves with a painting. The painting – one that actually exists in the world – is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt’s, who died at the age of 32 when a gunpowder factory near his studio exploded. Almost all his work was destroyed; The Goldfinch is widely considered the finest of the paintings that survived. “Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle,” Theo’s mother says to him, minutes before her death – an idea that runs deep in the veins of the novel. Picking up the painting from the debris and walking out of the museum with it isn’t exactly theft, not if theft involves the conscious decision to steal. Theo is acting in a state of mental distress, on the instructions of a dying man who tells him to take the painting. This man, it so happens, is guardian to Pippa – at this point, she is nothing more to Theo than an arresting-looking girl, all too briefly glimpsed, though, later, their lives will collide and separate, repeatedly.
But once Theo reads in the newspaper that the painting is believed to have been destroyed in the explosion, he chooses to keep quiet about his possession of it – and from here on, he is culpable. As the years go on, both Theo’s attachment to the painting (a thing of beauty, but also a physical connection to one of the last conversations he had with his mother) and his guilt over his continued possession of such a priceless work of art grows. So, too, does his fear of being imprisoned for stealing the object. It should come as no surprise, in a novel that opens with crime scene tapes and exploding museums, that the story of Theo and the painting is a story of betrayal, suspicion, double-dealing and shoot-outs. Raymond Chandler is no less a presence here than Dickens and Dostoyevsky. To say any more about the events of the novel would be to deprive a reader of the great joy of being swept up by the plot. If anyone has lost their love of storytelling, The Goldfinch should most certainly return it to them.
The novel isn’t, of course, all action and suspense. Some of its most memorable moments occur in stillness. Take Theo’s first experience of the desert skies of Las Vegas, after a life spent amid the light pollution of New York. Until now, he has only known the constellations as “childhood patterns that had twinkled me to sleep from the glow-in‑the-dark planetarium stars on my bedroom ceiling back in New York. Now, transfigured – cold and glorious like deities with their disguises flung off – it was as if they’d flown through the roof and into the sky to assume their true, celestial homes.” It is a glorious piece of prose, but placed within a novel about a boy who has lost his true home – which is, wherever his mother might be – it becomes heart-piercing, too. Tartt may already have displayed her great gift for plot in her debut, but the emotional register of The Goldfinch is of a different order from either of her previous works.
It would be wrong, however, to think that all the emotions are centred around loss. At the heart of the novel is an evocation of boyhood friendship – that of Theo and Boris, the Ukrainian outsider he meets on his first day of school in Las Vegas. Boris is an unforgettable creation – a thieving, drinking, drug-taking teenager who lights up each page he is on, even as he leads Theo into a world of excess. Their relationship works so well on the page in part because it has been prefigured by Theo’s friendship, in New York, with a boy called Tom Cable – a friendship with a “wild, manic quality, something unhinged and hectic and a little perilous about it”. Tartt doesn’t present Theo as someone who comes unmoored from his own character by the death of his mother, but, more convincingly, as a boy whose flaws become more deeply inscribed in him as a consequence of loss. Then again, it is not entirely right to think of Theo’s friendship with Boris as a flaw – the love between the boys is both simple and complicated, in the way of the best friendships. And when Boris re-enters Theo’s life in adulthood it is impossible not to hope he is there as a friend, even while fearing the opposite.
Plot and character and fine prose can take you far – but a novel this good makes you want to go even further. The last few pages of the novel take all the serious, big, complicated ideas beneath the surface and hold them up to the light. Not for Tartt the kind of clever riffs, halfway between standup comedy and op-ed columns, which are too commonly found in contemporary fiction. Instead, when plot comes to an end, she leads us to a place just beyond it – a place of meaning, or, as she refers to it, “a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.”
• Kamila Shamsie’s most recent book is Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury)
- The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease by Daniel Lieberman – review
Why children should chew gum and why fruit juice is junk food: life advice from the barefoot-running advocate
The effect the modern western diet has had on our health and wellbeing has been a rumbling issue for decades; it has become more controversial recently thanks to the influential evolutionary perspective on the subject. When the organic food movement began, the premise was that traditional farming practices were the norm, from which we have departed by adopting intensive techniques to produce highly processed food. This could be dubbed the Prince Charles Line. But seen in the light of evolution, as Daniel Lieberman considers it, farming itself was the Great Unnatural Practice. At the extreme, the evolutionary perspective has given rise to the Paleo lifestyle, an attempt to return to the way we lived before the invention of farming 10,000 years ago: to live “as evolution intended”.
Lieberman is far from endorsing such crass simplifications. Evolution, as he stresses, intends nothing. What actually evolves is due to many competing tendencies, and the result is always a work in progress with no destination. Notable figures including David Attenborough and the geneticist Steve Jones have remarked that human evolution has now ceased. Lieberman says this cannot be true: human beings continue to show a great degree of heritable variation, and reproductive success is also variable; so evolution of some kind must still be active. He goes further by regretting that for most of his career as a professor of human evolutionary biology he taught the old line that human biology has hardly changed since the Ice Age.
The question is: if human evolution is ongoing, what factors are influencing it now, as opposed to in the distant past? Genomic studies show that more than 100 genes indicate positive selection since farming began 10,000 years ago. Beyond the best-known example – the lactose tolerance gene, which has gone from almost zero to nearly 100% in northern Europe – most of them have not yet been characterised, but many almost certainly relate to the infectious diseases that accompanied hugely expanded human populations living hugger-mugger with domestic animals.
Lieberman is good at explaining why simplistic nostrums aren’t appropriate for considering creatures such as human beings. We are not designed specifically to do one thing, but to be adaptable to many. Thus dark skin protects against UV radiation in equatorial regions but is gradually lost in northern climates probably because the weaker sunlight found there would generate inadequate levels of vitamin D in heavily pigmented skin. The body is designed to be good enough to do many things, but not to be especially good at any one of them. It doesn’t have a large margin of error, unlike engineered structures such as bridges and aeroplanes, designed to withstand several times the stresses they will actually experience. Thus specialised animals out-compete us in speed, strength and visual or aural acuity, which was a problem when humans lived more or less in a state of nature.
Essentially, Lieberman’s message is that modern life has created mismatches between our abilities and adaptations and the stresses we place on the body by often living thousands of miles from our family’s origins, sitting down all day long rather than actively gaining a livelihood by physical work, and snatching at quick, high-energy foods.
The evolutionary approach produces some counterintuitive surprises. Fresh fruit juices are as much junk food as a cola drink – they produce a sugar rush, so it’s better to eat fresh fruit with its additional fibre; chewing gum as a child is a healthy pastime, if the gum is sugar-free (teeth and jaws need the exercise that modern diets fail to provide). Without going the whole Paleo wild boar, Lieberman suggests we can learn something from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He is a celebrated advocate of barefoot running, for example.
Since his book is all about trade-offs between incompatible attributes, it is only right to point out that, while his message is sound, it could have been made at half the length. In discussing the human plague of obesity he seems unable to resist the textual bloat that is equally a trait of our times. But given the vast outpouring in recent years of crank diets and earnest attempts to correct western lifestyle ills by some kind of Rousseauist regression, The Story of the Human Body is a reliable guide to a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.
• Peter Forbes is the author of Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage.
- Strength in what remains: book review
For the first book review of our series, Marianne examines Strength in what remains by Tracy Kidder
What lessons can foreign aid take from post-genocide Burundi? This is not the question that Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel asks, but within the narrative of Strength in What Remains there are important lessons in development effectiveness. The hero, Tutsi medical student Deogratias Niyizonkiza (Deo) , survives the genocides of 1993, and then homelessness and isolation in New York city. For Deo, a recovery from the trauma of his past has fueled his unrelenting pursuit of his childhood mission to build a village medical clinic in regional Burundi. His story is riveting and profoundly moving and the success of the clinic – the Village Health Works – is among its most rewarding aspects.
Though haunted by nightmares and sleeping rough in New York City, Deo meets a number of kind strangers who give him shelter, kindness, and access to what he says will heal him most – books. Eventually he gains entry to pre-medical studies at Columbia University and medical studies at Duke. His recovery is a long and wrenching process. Kidder’s attempts to render it accessible to the reader make for difficult, though compelling, reading. Ultimately Kidder admits that he cannot follow Deo emotionally into the “place beyond horror” to which Deo returns as he confronts his past, and in this sense we are at least partly relieved of that journey.
Deo has harboured a childhood ambition, and this is what saves him. As a boy, Deo had watched his best friend Clovis die suddenly of malaria, and had prayed for some magic to “get his friend back to life”. The prayer stayed with him, and for successive summers as he completed high school, Deo convinced friends to help him make mud bricks for a medical clinic he was determined to build. It would be sixteen years before he succeeded, and in the meantime he would survive a massacre at the very teaching hospital he attended as a medical student.
Why does Deo succeed where many others have failed, including a European Church-funded clinic nearby? Deo doesn’t need lessons from international organisations about sustainability, local ownership, gender and capacity building. He gains the support of the village early on, including continuing efforts to make the bricks for the clinic’s buildings. As his plans gain momentum Deo creates a separate committee for women when he sees the latter’s skill in determining village health and therefore clinic priorities. An international infrastructure company tells him it will cost US$50,000 to open up the clinic’s access road. In response, 166 impoverished Hutu locals donate their labour and tools – mostly shovels, pickaxes and machetes – for the six weeks it takes to widen the road. One works while carrying a feverish baby, who will die because there is no medical care in the village, in the hope that the road will save her next one.
This is not just a village effort: there is significant international expertise involved. However it is of note that the foreign aid links into this village health project are mostly created by Deo himself, with the continuing mentorship of his US mentor Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist. Deo had tracked Farmer down after reading one of his textbooks on poverty and medicine, and had interned in Rwanda with his NGO Partners in Health.
Now Deo’s mentor, Farmer gathers a group of NGOs who work together to provide solar-powered electricity, a generator and fuel in the meantime, and computers and a satellite system so the clinic can maintain records. Farmer also negotiates access from national and international health authorities to inexpensive supplies and medicines, including free HIV and TB drugs. Deo brings with him friends from medical school, one of whom will later return to run the clinic on a volunteer basis.
The clinic’s website lists its core beliefs: grassroots (led and driven by the community), holistic, results-driven, collaborative, scalable. Not the kind of thing that a donor can put their flag all over, and revolutionary in terms of poverty reduction and village health.
Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte is lecturer and research fellow at James Cook University’s Centre for Disaster Studies
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