Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Philip Pullman, Hilary Spurling and James Kelman.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman

For Archbishop Rowan Williams in the Guardian, this book is a "very bold and deliberately outrageous fable" that represents "Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical, though one or two passages feel like easy point-scoring -- the annunciation story told as a seduction, or the mechanics of a fraudulent resurrection".

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds that Pullman "traces the familiar journey towards the cross and makes it fresh", and that his "retelling of the central story in western civilisation provides a brilliant new interpretation that is also a thought-provoking reflection on the process of how stories come into existence and accrue their meanings".

Salley Vickers in the Telegraph declares that "Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power to provoke and disturb", while Richard Holloway in the Observer describes the book as "powerful", and agrees with the other critics that the book has hints of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck's Life in China
by Hilary Spurling

In the Guardian, Isabel Hilton enthuses: "Hilary Spurling has written an elegant and sympathetic portrait of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century." Pearl Buck was a woman who did an "immense service . . . in presenting Chinese people as sentient human beings, individuals even, to the American reading public". For Hilton, Spurling's biography is "illuminating and compelling", and gives the impression "that Pearl Buck had the last laugh".

To Claudia FitzHerbert in the Telegraph, "Spurling describes a writer who delivers both halves of the injunction to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar". Moreover, Spurling "examines the meaning of this divided inheritance, where home is always elsewhere and familiarity replaces belonging".

Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times writes that "what interests Spurling is the source of her subject's 'magic power' as a writer", and how she could "tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination". She concludes that Spurling "has never written a dull sentence" and that she, too, "has magic power as a writer".

If It Is Your Life by James Kelman

Mike Wade in the Times writes of James Kelman and his new collection of short stories: "For readers accustomed to thinking of him as a dour writer, the happy surprises here are the love stories, recounted by Kelman's male narrators as they try to make sense of the women in their lives."

He decides that Kelman is "rescued by his black humour", which owes something to "the verbal comedy of Flann O'Brien", and concludes: "It is certainly never difficult to distinguish between this Scotsman and a ray of sunshine. But If It Is Your Life is a fine collection and an excellent window on Kelman's brooding world."

Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph is similarly impressed: "Kelman takes us inside his characters' heads, replicating the rhythm and tics of Glasgow talk by means of a demanding, highly crafted prose style that flits between thought and speech." He concludes: "Certain pieces are as good as anything Kelman has done . . . Like Kelman's best work, it is tender and funny in a way that may surprise those who know him only by reputation."

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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