Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dave Eggers, James Shapiro and a history of anarchism.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Although he has reservations, Harry Shearer in the New Statesman welcomes this book on Hurricane Katrina: "Eggers is blessed with a story Hollywood movie-makers would kill for". In the Guardian, Valerie Martin criticises the "queasy-making hagiographic tribute that occupies the first 80 or so pages of the book", only warming to it once she has seen "what Eggers is after -- nothing less than an indictment of the entire Bush era". In the Telegraph, Sameer Rahim concurs: "Eggers clearly wants his story to be a parable about the War on Terror"; but wonders if "Eggers's good intentions might come at the expense of balanced journalism". Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Independent is not perturbed, however: "Reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's documentaries, this is a true story told with the skills of a master of fiction", he writes.

The World That Never Was by Alex Butterworth

John Gray, the New Statesman's lead book reviewer, describes this account of turn-of-the-century anarchism as "riveting... teeming with intrigue and adventure and packed with the most astonishing characters". In the Times, Iain Finlayson praises "an intelligent political and social overview", and in the Independent, Sheila Rowbotham says the book "conveys the labyrinthine coils of conspirators and spies with graphic panache", even if it "leaves the reader puzzling over what exactly this world that never was actually meant to [its] protagonists." Christopher Howse of the Telegraph is less enamoured: "among the cast of Butterworth's sometimes bewildering narrative, too many simply disappear".

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Although "fully explaining the authorship controversy isn't a job for a Shakespearean scholar: it's a job for a pathologist", writes Michael Dobson in the Financial Times, the result "isn't just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question." In the Times, John Carey finds that "Shapiro's book is unlikely to cut much ice" with conspiracy theorists. "All the same, it deserves to. It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny". Hilary Mantel, writing in theGuardian, is impressed, too. Shapiro's "glinting, steely facts" are "the most riveting part of his book." She continues: "Shapiro is at his most combative when he engages with the autobiographical approach to Shakespeare studies... Self-revelation, Shapiro persuades us, was not an early modern mode."

"Contested Will" will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times