Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Niall Ferguson, Sue Miller’s 9/11 fiction and the life of Caravaggio.

Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon

"This is an exciting biography, punctuated with fights and feuds," writes Michael Prodger in the Sunday Telegraph; "Where Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio differs from that of previous writers is that he thoroughly scoured the criminal archives as well as the more usual repositories . . . he appears time and again in court records as either the aggressor in assorted brawls or as being mysteriously nearby when they happened."

For Peter Conrad in the Observer, "This is less a biography than a critical study that searches for traces of Caravaggio in the milieux, both churchy and raunchy, which he frequented. Graham Dixon's high-minded interpretations of the pictures don't always convince, but he describes paint with a rare poetic finesse."

Cristopher Bray, writing in the Independent, is also impressed: "Though the lineaments of this story -- from Caravaggio's brutish strutting through counter-Reformation Rome . . . to his impoverished, malarial death on the beach at Porto Ercole -- are well known, there is much that is new here . . . And though some of [Graham-Dixon's] iconographic hermeneutics are a little far-flung, there's no gainsaying the depth of research behind them."

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

In April, Ron Charles, writing in the Washington Post, delivered the following assessment of this tale of love-loss and false grieving in post-9/11 New York: "The Lake Shore Limited may be the closest thing we'll get to a [Henry] James response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all -- just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy."

But British critics have baulked at this assessment. "It is unlikely that [James] would ever have described, as Miller does, a person's shoulders as 'sheeny knobs'," writes Beth Jones in the Sunday Telegraph, "or used the expression 'soft structural whumps' to describe the sound of a couple having sex." Nor, writes Lisa O'Kelly in the Observer, "would he have been likely to invent a character who moaned aloud due to the proximity of a woman's 'warm dampness' ".

"Yet while her language can sometimes be pedestrian and there is too much filler detail," continues O'Kelly, "she remains an often sharply observant and perceptive writer, adept at revealing painful emotional truths about love and loss, regret and betrayal."

High Financier: the Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg by Niall Ferguson

Frank Partnoy, writing in the Financial Times, calls this an "illuminating and important new biography . . . of the man who built and defined S G Warburg". Its main lesson, Partnoy explains, is that "if Warburg's conservative approach had survived, his bank and others would have shunned consolidation during the 1990s, avoided excess risk and might even have dodged the recent crisis".

"There is little here of the blood and guts sustaining many popular biographies," Partnoy acknowledges, but "Ferguson's higher purpose is to introduce not the man, but his ideas . . . Warburg's bank preserved by sustaining its morals and reputation."

For Bryan Appleyard, writing in last week's New Statesman, "this is Ferguson at his finest . . . beautifully paced, dramatically subtle and psychologically shrewd". "He had access to 10,000 letters and a mass of previously unpublished material," Appleyard writes, "and has turned it all into a testament to what the world lost when it embraced a colder, harder globalisation than any imagined by Siegmund."

But for T J Stiles, writing in the Washington Post, "the very mass of Ferguson's expertise and research weighs upon his writing. I was surprised by his confidence in readers' historical and financial knowledge . . . [and] the bounty of manuscripts [available to Ferguson] occasionally leads to overindulgence, with a narrow focus on Warburg's views, not their impact."

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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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