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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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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