Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Sue Gerhardt, Aminatta Forna and the Chris Morris biography, though not in t

Lucian Randall, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris

Sameer Rahim in the Telegraph finds that this biography of the man behind Brass Eye and Jam "cites many examples of Morris's personal kindness and generosity", while conceding that he is "not a crowd-pleaser", and his "uncompromising comic vision ... has often landed him in trouble". Elizabeth Day in the Observer notes that Chris Morris "trades on his anonymity", and "the first quarter of Disgusting Bliss is thus hampered by a lack of interesting information." She concludes: "impeccably researched and fluently written, Disgusting Bliss paints Morris as a frantic-minded perfectionist, a visionary unwilling to cede control of his projects. He emerges from this biography as someone maniacally convinced of the rightness of his vision, who steamrollers opposition and approaches controversy with relish." For Arifa Akbar in the Independent, the book is "illuminating, if all too admiring" and an "inspiring read for budding anarchists". Sophie Elmhirst in the New Statesman finds that "Randall offers a feast of anecdotes. It feels as if he has interviewed everyone Morris has ever worked with, a method that can read heavily at times", and restates the critical consensus: "Randall confirms the portrait of Morris as an uncompromising creator."

Susan Gerhardt, The Selfish Society

Phil Hogan in the Observer begins by this describing this book, inauspiciously, as "quite inspiring" and "the latest to join the clamour against consumerism revived in recent times". Gerhardt is "is more understanding than condemning" compared to other commentators on the subject, but "the diagnosis - that acquiring a lot of stuff doesn't make you happy - is the same". Lesley McDowell in the Independent on Sunday is impressed that "Sue Gerhardt's polemic is an unusual thing: it not only pinpoints what is wrong, but also suggests ways to put it right"; she also "knows that she is taking on long-cherished beliefs". McDowell sums up Gerhardt's approach thus: "If we don't change the way we bring up children, beginning from the moment that they are born, we will stay depressed and in debt", and concludes: "I believe her." David Evans in the Financial Times writes that "The idea that broken Britain might be mended with cuddles will attract cynicism, but Gerhardt has the neuroscience to back it up." He also notes that Gerhardt "quotes everyone from Engels to David Cameron along the way".

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love

For Tim Adams in the Observer, Aminatta Forna's second novel is "ambitious and deeply researched", in which "Freudian archetypes are everyday reality" within its setting in Sierra Leone circa 2001. Adams quibbles that "There is a neatness and a coincidence to this plotting that at times seems strained but serves Forna's wider point that everything is connected if you look hard enough", while praising Forna's depiction of "Sierra Leone's monstrous recent history": "As Forna's forensic reinhabiting of the aftermath of the conflict reveals, these wounds may have vivid physical realities, but it is always behind the eyes that they are felt most keenly." Lucy Atkins in the Sunday Times agrees about the plotting: "This is delicately and skilfully done, and although sometimes the coincidences seem distinctly unlikely, they somehow work." She concludes that "This is a slow novel that occasionally feels as if Forna could have pared things back a little. But then, the steady pace makes the awful revelations all the more disturbing." Jane Shilling in the Telegraph declares that "This is an ambitious project", but finds that in this novel "Forna weaves an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tragedy and loss". Although she agrees that Forna's plot "has something too much of artifice - almost mechanical - about it", she decides that "Forna understands that it is only by making patterns out of chaos that humans find the courage to continue living."

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

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