In the Critics this week

South African photography, a history of protest songs, and DH Lawrence on screen.

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, admiring "the plain wonder of the paintings in close-up, with hand-held lights providing shaky illumination", as well as Herzog's "wonderfully chewy voice, which suggests a kind of innocent but authoritative insanity, has mysterious catacombs of its own". Voices aside, the "oppressive choral music" comes in for criticism.

Rachel Cooke harks back to her "blue-stocking phase" and her loathing for DH Lawrence; nevertheless, she finds BBC4's adaptation of Women in Love "as enjoyable as something by Lawrence could be". Happily, "mysticism and navel-gazing are kept to a minimum". David Flusfeder listens to The Reunion, on Radio 4, which catches-up with veterans of the 1981 Brixton riots. "What emerged most clearly was that no two guests, not even supposed colleagues, were ever part of the same community", notes Flusfeder.

Fisun Guner admires French rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose work is the subject of two exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Wallace Collection. The former is "a superb chronological survey" which demonstrates that Watteau "can be admired for his drawings alone"; whereas the latter "justly celebrates" his achievements on canvas, too. William Wiles visits the Barbican, where an exhibition of artists who "found inspiration in the decaying Big Apple" of the 1970s is running: "none of the artists attempts to impose order on a city that no longer makes sense; they prefer playing in ruins". This week's Critic at large is NS Culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire, who reports from Johannesburg where photographers "are striving to find new ways of recording the transformation of their country".

In Books, John Gray reviews The New North: the World in 2050, by Laurence C Smith, and finds it a "consistently challenging and mind-opening exercise in futurology" cataloguing "realities of which we are aware, but that we prefer not to think about". Chris Mullin reviews The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: A Collection of Counterfactuals, edited by Francis Beckett, concluding that it's "all very interesting, but...ultimately [is a] book for anoraks"; Ben Rogers writes about Edward L Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier: "It is one thing to defend cities," Rogers writes, "quite another to understand what makes them work". Yo Zushi considers 33 Revolutions a Minute: a History of Protest Songs by Dorian Lynskey, and the history of "dissent through popular music" that it traces. However, "it is too soon to write a eulogy to a mode of songwriting that has clearly not died out", for "to those who are listening, it remains a source of strength". Lastly, Antonia Quirke talks to Peter Bogdanovich about his 1971film, The Last Picture Show, based on the coming-of-age novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry: "film and book are (almost) equally magnificent" Quirke observes.

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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories