Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Chinua Achebe, Alastair Campbell and the science of music.

The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe

John Sutherland in the Times expresses some reservations about Chinua Achebe's collection of essays, stating that of late he has produced "too many lectures and not enough novels . . . one would give the whole 172 pages of The Education of a British-Protected Child for the first paragraph of Things Fall Apart".

Helon Habila in the Guardian is more impressed: "It is a mark of Achebe's genius as a narrator that one could hear him many times on the same subject and never grow bored -- a reminder that in the art of the storyteller, it is not content alone that matters, it is also the performance, the presentation and the passion."

Jonathan Bate in the Telegraph suggests that what was promised is not delivered: "the blurb on the dust jacket reveals that it is really a 'volume of autobiographical essays, many of which have never been published before'. These are weasel words on the part of the publisher. Most of the pieces are not essays. They are lectures and addresses, often rambling, unstructured, tailored to particular occasions."


Maya by Alastair Campbell

"The basic plot is borrowed from Othello . . . and the tone and prose style from the novels of Tony Parsons." That is how Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, sums up Alastair Campbell's second novel. "Although it will pain large numbers of people to hear this, Campbell has written a book which is well plotted and suspenseful. Few who can bring themselves to start will be able to force themselves not to finish."

Others were less keen. "The problem with Campbell's novel," writes Joan Smith in the Sunday Times, "is that it has few likeable characters." She warns: "If you've set out to write an excoriating exposé of celebrity culture, maybe it's not such a smart idea to have a gushing endorsement from Piers Morgan on the cover."

Anthony Horowitz in the Telegraph is succinct and brutal: "If you were to sum up this grim, rather bitter book in one sentence, it would be this. He who lives by the media, dies by the media (and then comes back to life . . . and then quite possibly dies again)."


The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It by Philip Ball

Bee Wilson in the Sunday Times cannot praise this book highly enough: "Ball, a keen musician himself who has a PhD in physics . . . covers everything from tonality and scales to the question of whether music can be a language. I defy anyone to read this book without coming away better informed about why music affects us in such a profound way."

Wilson admires his sensitivity as a writer: "Ball never presumes that music can be reduced to some kind of scientific formula . . . His passion for music is evident on every page, and his enthusiasms (whether for gamelan or Glenn Gould) are infectious."

Steven Poole in the Guardian is slightly more qualifying in his analysis, describing it as a "flawed but fascinating work". He concludes: "It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away without having learned many interesting things; but aesthetics cannot be replaced wholesale by bean-counting analysis."

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood