Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on the latest books by Orlando Figes, Colm Tóibín and P D James.

Crimea: the Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

Angus Macqueen in the Observer praises "Figes's lucid account of three years of bloodletting in the Black Sea", whose chief merit resides in "attempting to place the Crimean war as the fulcrum of 19th-century Europe between Waterloo and the First World War". "With his deep understanding of Russia and its uncomfortable position in the world, Figes elegantly underlines how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century."

For Mark Bostridge, writing in the FT, "The book's true originality lies in its unravelling of the Crimean war's religious origins." The rivalry between the Catholics and the Greeks, backed by France and Orthodox Russia respectively, "is represented as the vital spark igniting the conflagration that followed". The author of Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend (Penguin) finds less convincing other aspects of Figes's book, including his characterisation of Florence Nightingale, which "relies on tired old sexist taunts".

Oliver Bullough in the Independent acknowledges that he is not unbiased: Bullough's book Let Our Fame Be Great was the only one to be reviewed positively by Figes, who savaged all other rival accounts of the Russian Revolution in comments "unwisely" posted on Amazon. While recognising that "it is not a perfect book, and his sourcing can be erratic", he concludes that Figes's "lucid, well-written" account is "the only book on the Crimean war anyone could need".

"Crimea: the Last Crusade" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín

For Hermione Lee in the Guardian, the "stories in The Empty Family – like the painful stories of family conflicts in his last collection, Mothers and Sons – are threaded through with regret and need". A few "soggy moments" set aside, Tóibín's "scenes of longing for lost family homes or missed landscapes" are admirable in their "dramatic economy". Lee sees the depiction of "women's interior lives" in particular as "one of Tóibín's great strengths".

Keith Miller in the Telegraph comments on "a certain autobiographical element: in the characters' age, sexuality, nationality and profession". "But from the particular crucible of his own life," she writes, "Tóibín has forged something of wider, if not quite general, interest: a schedule of the principal torments available to the educated, left-leaning, upwardly mobile, male baby boomer in middle age."

David Mattin in the Independent notes the "deep-running concern for modernity, and the spiritual deformations that it visits on us", underpinning the nine short stories in Tóibín's collection. "Running deep beneath the stories is a concern for our new, modern rootlessness, and the collapse of old certainties."

Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

Edmund Gordon in the Observer, thinks that, "As a personal (and gleefully partial) survey of the highlights of English detective fiction over the past 200 years, her book offers much that will enlighten and entertain." He is less convinced by her claim that "the genre has been unfairly stigmatised by critics, and is as worthy of academic attention as any other kind of writing". But her "modesty", combined with "intellectual vigour . . . make it impossible not to take [her views] seriously".

For Amanda Craig in the Independent it is "P D James's longevity, as well as her serene intelligence, that makes this book especially noteworthy and enjoyable, for at 89 she has grown up with the Golden Age of detective fiction as well as made a substantial contribution to it".

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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