Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Irvine Welsh, Sam Harris and George Dyson.

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

Skagboys examines how Welsh’s original Trainspotting anti-heroes - Renton/Rent Boy, Simon/Sick Boy, Danny/Spud, Frank/Begbie, Tommy et al - succumbed to heroin, or "skag". Theo Tait, writing in the Guardian, is critical of Welsh’s “rehashing” of his original masterpiece: “the reader has a vivid sense of a great talent tamely revisiting his glory days”. Moreover, “Skagboys is also just too long: it essentially goes over the same ground as Trainspotting, but it's about three times the size”. Yet, Tait concedes, “there are many unforgettable episodes, such as the visit to a squalid shooting gallery, where one large hospital syringe passes round the room from junky to junky, like the angel of death. Even at his weakest, Welsh performs the mysterious feat of making you think that his characters are real”.

The Telegraph’s Keith Miller is unconcerned by the repetitive nature of Welsh’s prequel: “With such a crew, anybody would be hard pressed not to repeat themselves a bit”. Likewise, Arifa Akbar writing in the Independent suggests, “the success of Skagboys comes from its similarities to Trainspotting. It offers more of the same, though excellently constructed more of the same”. “It can't have been easy”, he notes, “for Welsh to colour in the lives of characters created nearly two decades ago, and the endeavour could have resulted in unintentional pastiche. So it is an achievement that they retain a sense of authenticity”. He goes on to describe their stories, as “filled with pain, sadness, and the bewilderment of young lives going wrong”. However, Akbar, too, observes that several of the characters are undeveloped, that they are “characteristically themselves”, and “become nothing more, treading water in their roles rather than gaining dimension”.  He also acknowledges Skagboys' lack of “the political urgency [that characterises] its predecessor”. Instead, he praises its “absorbing, energetic writing”, concluding: “Its banter, outrage and razor wit sing off the page”.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In New Atheist Sam Harris’s latest book, now out in paperback, he attempts to apply science to morality arguing against the claim that the scientific worldview has nothing to say on moral questions. Jules Evans, writing in the Observer, describes the results as “mixed”: “It's a pity the book is so bull-headed, because Harris's topic is an interesting one, and he himself is an interesting figure who brings together the disciplines of science, moral philosophy and contemplative religion. Unfortunately, he seems to see this as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about wellbeing, if we stop trying to punch their lights out”.

In the New York Times Kwame Anthony Appiah, reviewing the hardback in 2010, was also unsure of Harris’s argument. “What he ends up endorsing,” Appiah concludes, “is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?”.  However, he praises Harris’s ideas regarding neuroscience: “He says much that is interesting and important: about the limits of functional magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for studying brain function; about the current understanding of psychopaths; about the similarities in the ways in which moral and nonmoral belief seem to be handled in the brain." However, he found himself “wishing for less of the polemic against religion”, and wanting “more of the illumination that comes from our increasing understanding of neuroscience”.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

The Observer’s Evgeny Morozov gives a positive account of George Dyson’s history of the modern computer, which recalls an “important chapter in the convoluted history of 20th-century computing”. “Alas”, Morozov goes on, “the book is not perfect. Dyson ... bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale. We get to learn of the discrepancy between the British and Canadian war records of Jens Fredrick Larson, the architect of the institute's main hall; the price of oysters served at lunch meetings of its building committee; the price of nappies in Los Alamos hospitals in the 1950s”. He is also sceptical about the “slew of untenable generalisations” that result from Dyson's efforts to connect Von Neumann's cold war computing to today's Silicon Valley: “Is it really true,” he asks, “that "Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think"?” Moreover, notes Morozov, “occasionally, Dyson makes mystical claims that no serious historian would endorse. What to make of his statement that "only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons they had allowed us to invent"?”. Yet overall he praises Dyson’s effort as “engrossing and well-researched”.

In the Telegraph Manjit Kumar is also concerned about the amount of jargon in Dyson’s offering, “faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader”. However, Kumar acknowledges the “years of research and writing have enabled him to bring to life a myriad cast of extraordinary characters each of whom contributed to ushering in today’s digital age”. “Dyson,” Kumar notes, “has done the difficult job of reminding us of how much we owe [Neumann and Turing] and how far we have come in such a short time”.
The jacket illustration for Irvine Welsh's Skagboys.
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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge