“Beatrice Webb refused to be a deb” – and other centenary clerihews

The satirist Craig Brown’s first published article appeared in the <em>New Statesman</em> in 1978. He fetes our centenary with choice clerihews praising everyone from Jemima Khan to Malcolm Muggeridge.

  1. Beatrice Webb
    Refused to be a deb.
    She thought life much lusher
    In Soviet Russia.
     
  2. The reputation of Sidney Webb
    Continues to ebb
    As they look through his files
    Under “Stalin’s show trials”.
     
  3. A C Grayling
    Has only one failing:
    Given the green light he
    Holds forth like God Almighty.
     
  4. David Hare
    Takes special care
    To ensure his plays don’t lack
    A very long speech about the
    State of England delivered by
    a disillusioned character,
    preferably dressed in a mac.
     
  5. Hugh Grant
    Said “Shan’t!”
    When told to shut up:
    Naughty pup.
     
  6. Malcolm Muggeridge
    Gave a thug a fridge;
    He was naturally contrarian
    When confronting the barbarian.
     
  7. Harold Pinter,
    Outraged the Statesman wouldn’t print a
    Poem called “Fucking Yankee Shit Wank Jerk”,
    Yells: “But it’s a hugely important work!”
     
  8. John Maynard Keynes
    Helped workers lose their chains
    And, by way of relaxation,
    Wrote The Inflation of Currency
    As a Method of Taxation.
     
  9. Jemima Khan
    Coos: “Wow, it’s so much fahn
    “Associate-editing the Staggers,
    “One of my absolute fave glossy maggers!”
     
  10. Alastair Campbell
    Took a gamble
    On WMDs; and lost,
    To our cost.
     
  11. Eric Hobsbawm
    Considered obeying orders the norm
    And so didn’t react
    To the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
     
  12. John Major
    Went into rage a
    Day after the Statesman laid bare
    The (wrong) affair.
     
  13. Martin Amis
    Wasn’t cast in Les Miz
    Though they should have found room: he
    Is sufficiently gloomy.
     
  14. Richard Dawkins
    Favours radio talk-ins.
    “Prof, we’re putting you through
    “To God on line 2.”
  15. J B Priestley
    Was rarely beastly.
    He preferred to sit on the fence
    Of plain common sense.
     
  16. Cyril Connolly
    Would eat and drink bonnily,
    >Causing him to shout,
    “In every fat man a thin one is
    wildly signalling to be let out.”
     
  17. Julian Assange Says: “Le patron mange
    “Ici, because I’m now the chief member, see,
    “Of the Ecuadorean embassy.”
     
  18. Denis Healey
    >Has gone all touchy-feely,
    Recently paying hommage
    To Nigel Farage.
     
  19. Bruce Page
    Had a talent to enrage,
    Declaring: “Evelyn Waugh
    “Is a writer we deplore!”
     
  20. Arthur Marshall
    Proved too partial
    To darling Mrs T.
    (Oh deary, deary me!)
     
  21. George Orwell
    Didn’t tour well;
    He could be heard to murmur
    Rude remarks about Burma.
     
  22. Kingsley Martin
    Took no part in
    God Save the King:
    It wasn’t his thing.

1 & 2 With only modest reservations, the founders of the New Statesman, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, supported Stalin through the Great Purge.

3 One of A C Grayling’s pieces for the NS began: “What religious people mean by ‘god’ means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts . . . ”

4 The playwright David Hare still contributes to the NS.

5 Despite heavy criticism, the actor Hugh Grant is resolute in his campaign to curb press freedom.

6 In 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a pioneering article for the NS against the “tedious adulation” of the royal family.

7 Harold Pinter would be sent into a fury whenever a publication turned down the opportunity to publish one of his poems.

8 John Maynard Keynes was the chairman of the Nation when it merged with the NS in 1931, and remained a guiding force.

9 Jemima Khan is the NS’s associate editor.

10 Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, guest-edited the magazine in 2009.

11 The late historian Eric Hobsbawm remained a dutiful member of the Communist Party even beyond the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

12 While still prime minister, John Major sued the NS after it printed rumours of an extramarital affair (though not the affair he had earlier enjoyed with Edwina Currie).

13 Martin Amis was the literary editor of the NS from 1977-80.

14 Richard Dawkins guest-edited the Christmas edition of the NS in 2011.

15 J B Priestley was a regular contributor; an article by him led to the founding of CND.

16 Cyril Connolly (pictured right) was a regular contributor to the NS in the 1930s.

17 Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is now residing at the Ecuadorean embassy in Hans Crescent, London SW1.

18 In an interview with the NS last month, the nonagenarian Denis Healey spoke fondly of Margaret Thatcher, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

19 & 20 When he was the editor of the NS, the Australian Bruce Page declared Evelyn Waugh his least favourite author; he also fired his columnist Arthur Marshall, allegedly for saying “Cooee! Isn’t Mrs Thatcher doing well?” while visiting the NS offices.

21 & 22 George Orwell, the author of Burmese Days, fell out with the NS editor Kingsley Martin. In 1962, Martin wrote The Crown and the Establishment, an argument in favour of British republicanism.

Craig Brown’s first published article ran in the NS in 1978

Beatrice Webb, presumably refusing to be a deb. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era