Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Annie Proulx, an anti-internet polemic and the tale of Lucie Blackman.

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

Writing in the Observer, Geoff Dyer is disappointed with "the story of how a great and ageing American writer came across a 640-acre spread of land in Wyoming, bought it and set about designing and building (more accurately, having people build) her ideal house on it." Despite some evidence of Proulx's "observational prowess and gift for verbally harnessing the elements", Dyer discovers that the writing falters without the "human and narrative purchase" that characterizes her best fiction. Consequently, Dyer "had soon had enough of it" and is left feeling that this book "begins suspiciously to resemble a way of covering the spiralling costs" of building a bespoke house.

"The absence of an over-arching narrative structure is the book's weakness," concludes Susan Elderkin in the Financial Times. Depicting landscape, Proulx's writing is "always a treat, the language dense and nutty in the way of a fruitcake". But without a fictional framework, Proulx's "baggy" memoir leaves "the mystery of how the writer begat the writing pretty much intact".

"Bird Cloud" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

In the Observer, Jessica Holland assesses Lanier's argument that "the web - with its anonymously written wikis and multiple-choice expressions of personality on Facebook - is eating away at our very souls." As "an original member of the Silicon Valley set", Lanier is "clearly very well-informed about IT", but his "social and spiritual" assertions "can't help but rely more on intuition." Ultimately, "it's tempting to dismiss it as the anxiety of an ageing innovator" who claims modern America is "dividing itself between a minuscule number of 'computing cloud overlords'" and "a vast majority of 'digital serfs'".

The Independent's Brandon Robshaw also remains sceptical about Jaron Lanier's cyber-age manifesto. Though he finds a certain appeal in the argument that the internet is turning people into "empowered trolls", whose "mob-like mentality" is deadening "individual creativity" and luring the masses into "easy, unthinking grooves", the book is ultimately "too abstract and too techy to make a good book-length read" and would probably be "better as a blog."

People Who Eat Darkness: the Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry

This is a "horrible tale, meticulously told" according to Brenda Maddox in the Times. Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old from Sevenoaks, was working as a bar hostess in Tokyo when she disappeared in July 2000. Her dismembered remains were found in a cave six months later. Parry, who was the Independent's Tokyo correspondent at the time, insists that "those who think that any woman who works as a "hostess" is a prostitute are wrong". Instead, they "offer drinks, charm and conversation" and are urged to go on dinner dates with besotted customers. To go home with a client was "Lucie Blackman's fatal mistake". Parry illuminates the differences between British and Japanese legal systems and reassuringly asserts that in Tokyo "a lone woman remains safer even at two in the morning than in any other world city".

Writing in the Guardian, Blake Morrison is gripped by "a compelling book, 10 years in the making, rich in intelligence and insight". Despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter, it is "heartening" that Parry refuses to engage in "hysteria or demonisation". Instead he is an "open-minded and sympathetic narrator" whose book "sheds light on Japan, on families, on the media, and (in ways that bring back memories of the Yorkshire Ripper case) on the insidious effects of misogyny".

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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain