Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Iris Murdoch, Nick Kent and Joshua Ferris.

Iris Murdoch: a Writer at War (Letters and Diaries 1939-45), edited by Peter J Conradi

"Reading Murdoch's letters during this period is something like being plugged into the national grid," writes Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times. Yet, in her view, this is no thanks to the editor: "Murdoch's youthful mind is as sharp and polished as a sword, but Conradi's editing is not. Random footnotes pop up like glove puppets interrupting a soliloquy, to explain that 'Je t'aime' means 'I love you' and that Baudelaire is a French poet."

Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer also has quibbles, finding the collection "a strange volume, poorly conceived as well as thoroughly self-sabotaged". There is "little here which couldn't have been written by anyone of the period sufficiently bright and smug". In the Telegraph, Claudia FitzHerbert appreciates Murdoch's evolution "from the jejune chrysalis of her student experiences".


Apathy for the Devil: a 1970s Memoir by Nick Kent

Nick Kent, writes Robert Sandall in the Sunday Times, "had a Zelig-like knack for being in the right place at the right time. Wherever the action was, for most of the 1970s, the dandyish Kent with his notepad and drugs stash was never far away." His memoir is "in a compulsively readable class of its own".

Tom Horan in the Telegraph is less than impressed with this former NME writer's vocabulary: "A kind reading of his prose style would be to say that it perfectly suggests the era that it is describing . . . Bands are always 'combos'; songs are not written, they're 'penned'; nothing begins, it 'commences'; almost everything is 'ongoing'." However, it is also a "fascinating read", which becomes most fascinating when "Kent reveals a side to punk that has been given a gloss of glamour down the years: the mindless violence that surrounded it".


The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Ferris's second novel is described as "strange" by Christopher Tayler in the Guardian. He compares the protagonist Tim's life to "something out of early Paul Auster -- resonant but opaque, Europeanly alienated but firmly located in an American landscape".

For Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph, "Ferris spreads the malaise on thick by tackling the subject of inexplicable mental illness". But by the end, "the story has long since run out of mileage". Peter Parker in the Sunday Times concurs, finding the novel "intriguing but ultimately disappointing".

For Robert Epstein in the Independent, this follow-up is also a disappointment due to overwhelming expectation, deeming it "distressingly bleak rather than distastefully blithe; staccato-sentenced rather than sardonically satirical".

Reviews of Nick Kent and Joshua Ferris appear in forthcoming issues of the New Statesman.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue