Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Thomas Frank, Tessa Hadley and Bill Cash.

Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

In the Observer, Nick Cohen writes: "Considering what conservatives allowed financial markets to do, the fact that the right could be furious with anyone but itself is an astonishing story and one that Thomas Frank was born to cover." Cohen calls Frank " one of the best leftwing writers America has produced," and admits that "before I read this book, I assumed that the extremism of the Tea Party would guarantee Obama a second term, however dismal his performance in office had been. Now I am not so sure."

In the New York Times, Michael Kinsley observes that Pity the Billionaire "is not the world's most subtle political critique. But subtlety isn't everything. Frank's best moments come when his contempt boils over and his inner grouch is released." Of Frank's criticism of Obama, Kinsley writes that the President "deserves a bit more credit from the left than Frank is willing to give him." Kinsley concludes: "It would have been nice to know a bit more about where Thomas Frank is coming from. Otherwise, he starts to sound like those Tea Party people whom he rightly mocks for being very, very angry with no idea why or what to do about it."

Mark Greif, in this week's New Statesman, argues that Frank fails to make the case that the US Tea Party movement articulates the genuine grievances of ordinary Americans: "What matters about the Tea Party is not that it represents the grief of ordinary Americans at vanished savings, lost jobs and underwater mortgages. On the contrary, it has articulated the fears of a small propertied class, past the age of educating children or raising families, which worries that it will have to pay a price for the rest of society, and which nurtures a pre-existing rage at immigrants and a liberal black president."

Gillian Tett in the Financial Times writes that the book "deserves to be read by right and left alike. It certainly does not pretend to be neutral or scientific; Frank is an avowed liberal and fierce critic of the Republicans. But the thesis is provocative, and the book is witty and highly readable."

Married Love by Tessa Hadley

In the Independent, Rachel Hore reads the stories in Hadley's new collection as "movie clips of lives in transit, their small shifts of focus yielding up flashes of psychological insight." "Her tales, told in light, deft prose, are engagingly lifted by humour." Hore praises the variation in form and observes that "Hadley's endings are rarely neatly tied; it's as though she prefers to leave her readers to revisit and work everything out themselves. This nearly always delivers rich pleasures."

In the New Statesman, Olivia Laing writes: "Hadley's facility with changes in emotional weather is matched by a knack for aphoristic expression." She draws comparisons with the work of Chekhov, observing that "[a]s in Chekhov, there is a sense, in this deliberate understatement, that one is seeing the world as it is, unadorned and unconcerned".

Edmund Gordon in the Observer calls Hadley's prose style "delicate, restrained, sometimes erring on the side of formality; her narratives chart upheavals of the heart with earnest attention to psychological development. The world she writes about is ethnically homogenous but social distinctions are microscopically observed." Gordon calls Hadley "one of the most clear-sighted chroniclers of contemporary emotional journeys" and concludes that "she excites... in the freshness and variety of her perceptions, the way she uses established techniques to tell us urgent truths about the here and now."

In the Spectator, Philip Womack argues that Hadley is "one of the most interesting writers around... This collection shows a writer quietly growing in style, perception and grace. She conveys to the reader that rare ability to see completely into someone else's head."

John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator by Bill Cash

Tristram Hunt in the Guardian reveals that Cash is actually a distant cousin of Victorian statesman John Bright. "The result is a welcome biography of the remarkable Quaker, orator and agitator behind the repeal of the Corn Laws, the 1867 Reform Act, and the mid-19th century spirit of pacific internationalism." Hunt calls the biography "a meditation on the nature of true, authentic conservatism" and remarks that it "often reads as a cumulative series of intense, male friendships between Bright and such people as Gladstone, Disraeli and Chamberlain."

Writing in the Spectator, Jane Ridley calls the biography "an oddly old-fashioned account. Cash is not interested in exploring Bright's ideas about democracy, for example, in the context of the time. He makes little of Bright's private life. Bright suffered a major breakdown in 1856, brought on by his unpopularity for opposing the Crimean War, and he retired from public speaking for two years; but the author makes no attempt to probe this puzzling episode."

Hunt concludes that the author "spends too little time on situating Bright within his times... The political life - masterfully recounted - can sometimes feel overbearing. This book is as much about Cash as Bright."

George Eaton in this week's New Statesman calls the biography "thoughtful and perceptive" and praises Cash's attempts to "rescue Bright from obscurity". Eaton draws on the similarities between the two men, notably their commitment to civil liberties, parliamentary sovereignty and backbench independence. Eaton concludes that Bright "would surely have appreciated Cash's intellectually subtle and deftly written work. At last, his extraordinary life has the biography it deserves."

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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