Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on John Lanchester, John Wyndham and the Bloomsbury Group.

 

Talk is cheap

In Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, Robert Harris, writing in the Sunday Times, finds Lanchester's "chatty economic primer" a solution to the conundrum that "the arts have paid so little attention to what is the greatest phenomenon of the age: the transference of power and wealth from sovereign countries to supranational financial institutions".

Howard Davies in the Guardian finds that John Lanchester has avoided a fictional treatment of the financial crisis and instead "attempts both an economic and a sociopsychological analysis of the roots of the crisis". Despite its "accessible, and at times flippant style", Davies concludes that the author is not "an infallible guide to this treacherous terrain, though there are times when he describes the landscape as well and as engagingly as any".

Meanwhile, Paul Mason in the New Statesman finds the narrative flair welcome, but adds: "there has been a plethora of plays and television dramas, and the media discourse on the crisis is incessant. Any addition to this overload -- even one written so lucidly -- has to contribute something new." Ultimately, "Lanchester's real contribution lies not in his analysis, but in the vantage point he takes."

 

Chaos theory

Plan for Chaos is a previously unpublished John Wyndham novel, written some time between 1948 and 1951. For Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph, it begins "like it was written by Raymond Chandler after an X-Files box-set binge", before the author entered more familiar territory. "A more serious shortcoming is the lack of the nightmarish quality that pervades Wyndham's best books." Kerridge concedes that "if this is prentice-work, it is interesting to see Wyndham already grappling with the big themes that would continue to preoccupy him".

Leo Mellor in the Independent expected it to be as bad as other "lost-and-found" books, but discovered an "extraordinary lost masterpiece" that displays the author's "literary roots in pulp sci-fi short stories for the US market . . . [and] anticipates late-20th-century technological developments to dramatic effect".

 

The truth hurts

Angelica Garnett returns to the theme of growing up hin the Bloomsbury Group and her struggle with its legacy in The Unspoken Truth: a Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories.

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph finds that they depict "the urgent tension between the egotism of creativity and the artist's need for human connection", but senses "something insubstantial about these stories, over which a faint air of apology sometimes hangs".

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times discovers that "the old Bloomsbury commitment to truth-telling and self-examination" is fully apparent, but argues that the Garnett stories lack structure: "In the end, they fall into the unsatisfying limbo that lies between memoir and fiction."

Alex Clark agrees in the Guardian: "In spite of the signposts pointing us in the direction of authentic lived experience, these pieces often appear both unconvincingly fictional and at the same time not quite fictional enough."

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The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories

From randy Postman Pat to white supremacist Smurfs, we present to you your childhood in tatters.

We can probably all agree that, these days, nothing is sacred. If you can (as a few very insistent YouTube videos have told me) pay to watch live snuff films on the dark web, there’s probably someone out there – in the thronging nest of perversions that is the internet – ready to take something special from your childhood (say, a favourite TV programme) and make it unclean.

Which is exactly what happened when an internet-spawned theory found history’s least sexual fictional character, Postman Pat, to be a stop motion sex monster. The theory goes that he has fathered a lot of children in the village school, many of whom have ginger hair; Pat is the only red head in Greendale.


Because humans are incapable of not picking at every innocent thing until it goes gangrenous, here are some other childhood-ruining fan theories.

Babar is a colonial stooge


Babar lording it over the colonies. Photo: Flickr/Vanessa

Could everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic French elephant be an apologist for centuries of Western brutality and conquest? Well, yes, obviously. According to the “Holy Hell Is Babar Problematic” theory, the fact that the titular character was born in Africa, raised and “civilised” in Paris, then sent back to Elephant Land to be king and teach all the other elephants how to be French, makes Babar about as suitable for children as a Ladybird introduction to eugenics and a Playmobil King Leopold.

For further proof that this theory isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, but actually political correctness gone quite sensible, just look at some of the (deeply un-OK) illustrations from the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic.

The Smurfs are white supremacists


A horrifying vision of ethnic uniformity. Photo: Getty

Or maybe “blue supremacists” would be more accurate. Either way, they’re racist. Possibly. It’s been pointed out that the Smurfs all wear pointy white hats. Apart from their leader, Papa Smurf (the ultimate patriarch..?), who wears a red one. Meaning these tiny munchkin thingies are (maybe, just maybe) sartorially influenced by none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

This seems tenuous at best, until you look at a few other factors in this theory brought to light by French political scientist Antoine Buéno. Buéno suggests that the dictatorial political structure of Smurf Village paired with some actually quite convincing racism (when Smurfs turn black, for example, they become barbaric and lose the power of speech), equals Nazism.

What’s more, the Smurfs’ main antagonist – a wizard called Gargamel – is not unlike an antisemitic caricature from Nazi propaganda magazine Der Stürmer. He’s dark haired, hook-nosed and obsessed with gold. Oh, and he has a cat called Azrael, which is the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.


 

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And, in case you’re not already far enough down the “Smurfs are racist” rabbit hole, just look at Smurfette and her long, blonde hair. Aryan much?

SpongeBob SquarePants is a post-nuclear mutant


Forever running from haunting memories of radioactive atrocity. Photo: Flickr/Kooroshication

According to one fan theory, this Nickelodeon classic may have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes than we think. SpongeBob, a talking sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple with a meowing snail, may well be the product of nuclear testing.

In the Forties, the US detonated two nukes in an area of the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob lives somewhere called Bikini Bottom. Coincidence, or an especially dark analogy for the dangers of radiation and man’s lust for destruction? Hm.

Tom and Jerry is Nazi propaganda


Skipping merrily through the Third Reich. Photo: Flickr/momokacma

Either we’re so obsessed with Nazism that we look for it (and find it…) in literally everything, or the antics of a classic cat and mouse duo really do contain coded messages about the futility of the Allies’ war with the Third Reich.

If we’re going for the latter, let’s start with the characters’ names. Tom (Tommies were British soldiers) and Jerry (Jerries were German ones). Now remember, Tom is the bad guy. In every episode, he tries to kill Jerry by any means possible, but is foiled every single time, getting blown up by sticks of dynamite and flattened by falling anvils along the way.

Tom and Jerry first aired in 1940 – the same year as the Battle of Britain. So, if the reference to slang for Brits and Germans was unintentional, it was more than a little bit unfortunate. And, according to some albeit sketchy-looking corners of the internet, this was no accident at all but a message (in that Jerry constantly outwits Tom) about superior German intelligence.

Although this may seem like the least compelling of all of these dark fan theories, it would explain why I always had a gut feeling the painfully smug Jerry was the actual baddie.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.