Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Simon Sebag Montefiore and John Gray.

Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Writing in the Guardian, Anthony Beevor has high praise for this account of the holy city's complex history: "Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality." Despite Montefiore's close links to Jewish Jerusalem, Beevor finds the narrative to be "remarkably objective". Though certain details could be quibbled over, it is a "reliable and compelling account, with many interesting points".

The Telegraph's Munro Price admires Montefiore's "compelling and thought-provoking" book, which eloquently investigates the city's "fascinating but ghastly past". Though it does not inspire optimism about Jerusalem's future, Montefiore illustrates one enduring lesson to be learnt from the past, that "attempts by any one religion to control the city are doomed".

Montefiore's book is delivered with "flair" and a "bracing pace", supplying "doses of salacious detail", says Rebecca Abrams in this week's New Statesman. It is "a gripping read that throws the city's present problems into sharp relief." Ultimately Montefiore's conclusions about the future are "muted but hopeful", urging each side to recognize the other's narratives of "tragedy and heroism."

The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray

Writing in the Financial Times, Stephen Cave describes Gray's book as "an absorbing study" of humanity's post-Darwinian anxieties. Gray's polemical and anti-humanist instincts "bore through the book like a worm-hole through an apple" as he seeks to "expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress".

In the Guardian, John Banville heralds the author as "a connoisseur of human idiocy". His "brief, modest-seeming yet profound book" charts the neurotic "teleological wishfulness" of educated Victorians and the "mad dreams" of savants and scientists who planned to embalm and reanimate Lenin's body. Ultimately, he offers a "compelling plea for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality".

Marek Kohn of the Independent praises Gray's "engrossing style" and his readiness "to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically" as he discusses the strange mixtures of mysticism and rationalism that have strived to overcome mortality.

Gray's work "is on to something important regarding the delusion that science consists of indefinite progress" according to Michael Burleigh in the Telegraph. Yet the quality of the book "deteriorates" as Gray's "deep pessimism" develops and he eventually "ends up sounding like Hamlet."

"The Immortalisation Commission" will be reviewed in a forthcoming New Statesman

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue