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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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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