Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Remnick's Obama biography, David Mitchell and Helen Simpson.

The Bridge: the Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick

"Remnick's book is not impartial", writes Robert Harris in the Times, "The editor of The New Yorker, [Remnick] is overwhelmingly sympathetic to his subject. But then, in the context of the wider story of the black struggle for equality in America, how could he not be?"

Gwen Ifill, writing for the Washington Post, says: "Remnick efficiently strips some of the gloss off the version Obama offered in his best-selling 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. [He] deserves credit for telling Obama's story more completely than others, for lending a reporter's zeal to the task, for not ducking the discussion of race and for peeling back several layers of the onion that is Barack Obama."

"The great achievement of The Bridge is the sheer voluminousness of its coverage", writes Patricia Williams in the Guardian."The structure of the book resembles nothing less than an epic, like the Aeneid, or a morality tale, like Pilgrim's Progress."

"The Bridge" will be reviewed in the forthcoming New Statesman.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

This "accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful new novel travels back more than 200 years", writes Peter Kemp in The Times. Dejima is an artificial island offshore from Nagasaki, "a place where two empires chafe against each other." Kemp continues: "As his earlier works have shown, Mitchell is restless with genres . . . Switching style, mood and tone, while continuing to deal with the same themes, is a hallmark of his fiction. Here, this is adroitly effected." In the Telegraph, Holly Kyte says it will "doubtless earn Mitchell his fourth Man Booker nomination, and, if there's any justice, his first win."

Elsewhere, Henry Hitchings argues in the Financial Times that for all its "moments of brilliance" Mitchell's rich imagery occasionally borders on the "self-indulgent", whilst in the New Statesman, Leo Robson calls the book "a disappointment." "The basic narrative grammar is treated as a succession of boxes to be ticked, or hoops to be jumped through", he writes. "The juggling of divergent perspectives in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the adolescent solipsism of number9dream and Black Swan Green, have ill-equipped [Mitchell] for the challenges of the multi-character set-piece novel."

In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

"Simpson's talent for compression, and for working first-person perceptions seamlessly into a third-person narrative serves her well", writes the Guardian's Christopher Tayler of this short story collection loosely themed on climate change. For him Simpson "brings together an impressive number of micro-strands - parents, children, adultery, gardening, the Tudors - without becoming jumbled, congested or hard to follow, and comes to a sharp point." In the Times, Kate Webb agrees: "it is packaged with Simpson's deadpan wit - she is one of the most sharply funny writers in England today."

In the Independent, James Urquhart disagrees: "despite the muscular strength and succinct entertainment of the stories, the doomish density of her headline theme somehow dissipates the pithy attack that is the hallmark of Simpson's style." Likewise, Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph argues: "the problem with the collection is that though the title story is well observed, the references to climate change elsewhere feel forced . . . It's difficult to believe that this issue drives relationships, and one wonders whether Simpson is straining for coherence in the collection."

Despite these criticisms, however, Amanda Craig in the New Statesman writes that at her best, Simpson can "easily beat other admired authors such as Lorrie Moore and Carol Shields."

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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