Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer and a critique of the modern media.

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

Peter Godwin gives a highly laudatory account of Conversations with Myself in the Observer, describing it as a self-portrait of "a man devoid of self-pity, who is immune to the temptations of self-aggrandisement". Godwin praises the book for containing "substantive political insights" on the negotiations to end apartheid, but notes that it is also filled with "unexpectedly lighthearted moments".

Graham Boynton, in his Telegraph review, is less glowing in his still fulsome praise, complaining of the "unnecessary foreword by Barack Obama" and the "strange traces of Harvard-speak throughout", the legacy of Mandela's American ghostwriter, Richard Stenghel. Boynton is, however, impressed by the book's ability to jump "from the mundane ... to the historic ... with barely a breath taken" and says it offers a thorough account of the "extraordinarily self-disciplined" Mandela.

Alec Russell, in the Financial Times, concurs, saluting Conversations with Myself as a "splendid finale to the Mandela literature".

The Return of the Public by Dan Hind

Writing in the Guardian, Roy Greenslade describes Hind's critique of the modern media as a "superb analysis of the way in which citizens have lost power in a political and economic system built around the free market".

John Lloyd, in the Financial Times, is more equivocal, pointing out that "Hind wildly overestimates the appetite for information and revelation, as he does the ability of journalism to create the kind of public he wants" but accepting that "there is something large-hearted in the view that the facts will not just set us free, but allow us to be fuller citizens".

In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin is largely positive, semi-ironically praising the "near-theological splendour of his opprobrium", though acknowledging that Hind's schemes to harness "the ultra-involved citizens of tomorrow" sometimes seem "fanciful or utopian".

Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer

In the Telegraph, Ruth Scurr is impressed that Gordimer's stories are both "deeply embedded in the social, political or historical context that gave rise to them" and yet seem "almost undated in content, style or tone". The first and final stories in this collection "provide a more meaningful frame to Gordimer's work than any stark set of dates".

Penelope Lively, though, writing in the Financial Times, is perplexed as to why the stories are "clumped according to collection but not dated". While, according to Lively, the inclusion of certain stories suggests that "perhaps sometimes she just wrote too much", this collection still illustrates Gordimer's "extraordinary capacity to summon up a time, a place, a people".

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit