Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Blake Morrison, Christos Tsiolkas and Laura Bush.

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

"Morrison has created far more than a sinister take on the country-house novel," writes Christian House in the Independent on Sunday. "All his signature themes are present: the intricate complications of family life, the psychological mechanics of crime, the crassness of class boundaries and, most of all, the hypocrisies of modern masculinity. This is a suspenseful thriller," House declares, "but more importantly it succeeds as an exceedingly clever investigation into the strangeness of lies."

For John O'Connell, writing in the Times, "Ian [the narrator] is an authentic, copper-bottomed monster. But Morrison is too subtle a writer to leave it at that. The most fascinating aspect of The Last Weekend is its suggestion that Ian's bitterness and paranoia are explicable, if not justified."

In the Telegraph, David Robson opines that "the plot is touch artificial . . . [revolving] around a silly bet struck 20 years before. But the human basis for the story has the ring of truth. Meanwhile, the Guardian's Stephanie Merritt writes that "Morrison handles the elements of his novel with impeccable control", creating "the slow-burning feeling that nothing is as it should be".

 

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Stephen Amidon writes for the Times: "The destructive gesture that sets in motion Christos Tsiolkas's powerful new novel [first published in Australia in 2008 and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize] is an open hand briskly applied to the face of a spoilt three-year-old . . . The reverberations of the incident soon affect the lives of at least a dozen people."

"Tsiolkas uses his premise as a guy-line to stabilise his larger structure," writes Jane Smiley for the Guardian, "but his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70. And each of these characters is a sharp observer of those around him or her, so many more lives are illuminated as well."

For Doug Johnstone, writing in the Independent, Tsiolkas's international success "is deserved . . . because this ingenious and passionate book is a wonderful dissection of suburban Australian living, tackling issues of race, class and gender, but doing so with a keen eye on the personal".

"Perhaps inevitably," claims Johnstone, "not all the narrative [voices] work quite as well -- the two teenagers seem a little clichéd, while Rosie's story fails to explain her almost pathologically cloying attitude toward Hugo." Even so, for him, "This is a beautifully structured and executed examination of the complexity of modern living."

 

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

"Bush's account of her life before and after George W is cautious, pleasantly soporific, sweetly uncontroversial and untroubled by self-doubt," writes Elaine Showalter in the Telegraph. Painting a picture of a woman who is "pretty, motherly, modestly dressed [and] conscientious about her duties", the memoir, in Showalter's view, demonstrates "[Bush's] knack for seizing the inoffensive feminine middle ground". A "calculated and highly controlled autobiography", she concludes, the book is (in spite of its title) "written from the head".

For Sarah Baxter in the Times, although Mrs Bush evinces "a sly way of getting her own back on her detractors" and "can be a gossip at times too" -- offering a revealing insight into Prince Charles and Camilla's drinking habits, for instance -- when it comes to her husband she "confines herself to loyal expressions of confidence".

"The worst parts of her book cover her years in the White House," Baxter elaborates. "Ever in her husband's shadow, she has . . . nothing of interest to say about an era that began with 9/11, led to two wars, and ended with the election of the first African-American president."

The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr agrees that "the higher George Bush rises politically, the less interesting the book becomes", but writes, "[Laura Bush] is not simply a two-dimensional Republican version of a surrendered wife, and Spoken from the Heart is not simply a rousing appreciation of life by George's side." Rather, "what comes through is . . . that Laura Bush is a far more complex, interesting character than perhaps anyone had cause to guess".

"Spoken from the Heart" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

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