Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Susan Hill, Philip Mansel and Linda Grant.

A Kind Man by Susan Hill

In the Telegraph, Lucy Beresford is profoundly moved by Susan Hill's tale of a ordinary man who becomes possessed with extraordinary healing powers: "Sometimes a piece of writing is so pure, so true, it is almost painful to read ... it was hard to read this story without regular recourse to tissues."

Matthew Dennison, writing in the Independent, concurs pointing out that whilst "Hill's justice is tough and unrelenting, the sort of harsh predeterminism once attributed to pagan deities" what remains for the reader is "the warmth and humanity of her writing ... with the result that, despite its shortness, this is a novel of huge emotional impact and moments of immense poignancy."

The one dissenting critical voice in an otherwise uniform cacophony of praise is that of Charlotte Moore in the Spectator, who finds the simplicity of Hill's narrative voice slightly wearisome and open to precise questioning: "The tale is so clean and spare that every detail is telling, or feels as if it ought to be. The problem is that when a false note is struck, it resonates."

Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean by Philip Mansel

From the Guardian, Norman Stone is impressed by Mansel's new account of the complex history of the Levant, weaving delicately through Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna as it does with historiographical panache. The sheer size of "the vast amounts of memoirs and official documentation" involved in such a task would intimidate even the most accomplished historian yet Mansel dexterously deals with them "with his usual elegance and skill."

Moris Farhi, writing in the Independent, salutes this "masterly work" in which Mansel "exposes the problems of achieving coexistence in a world fragmented by disunion ... Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut stand as unique symbols of achievable utopias."

Jason Goodwin, reviewing Mansel's book in the Spectator, thinks that Mansel's reveals the Levant to have always been a precarious notion, constantly seesawing from enlightened cosmopolitanism to demagogic nationalism: "Harmony held for certain places at certain times; just as often, Mansel describes a city sitting on a volcano of communalism, or foreign intervention. Time and again, Levantines crowded on to ships in the harbour, waiting for a signal to flee, or to return." Mansel's work is, however, an "impressive return to the eastern Mediterranean."

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Lesley McDowell, writing in the Financial Times, gives Grant's factual based novel a highly laudatory write-up, suggesting that by incorporating fact into her literary fiction she has managed to trump all her previous efforts in the latter genre: "Grant's reliance of reportage in fiction finally produces what for me is her best novel so far."

In the Telegraph, Jane Shilling is lukewarm without being fully persuaded by Grant's grant narrative for the baby boomer generation. "Her delineation of character is judicious rather than passionate - so that even characters in extremis live out their dramas at a safe distance from the reader's heart" writes Shilling, adding that the novel relies "for its emotional impact on the painstaking accumulation of detail rather than a driving narrative."

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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times