In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Hockney, Alec MacGillis on the Obamas and Colm Toibin on Alice James.

The Critic at large in this week's New Statesman is the poet and novelist Craig Raine. In the first of a series of essays on the visual arts for the NS, Raine considers David Hockney's "abiding concern with the nature of representation". For Hockney, Raine argues, "photography's hegemony is finished ... For [him], the camera is only a near equivalent to the way we experience reality ... Hockney's aim is to place the viewer inside the painting." The results, Raine thinks, are not uniformly successful, but there are undeniable "high points" in this show. "Allow four hours at least," Raine advises. "There's a lot to look at, a lot to think about."

In Books, the American political journalist Alec MacGillis reviews Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage. "With a writerly touch, Kantor conveys the oddly regal universe of the White House though the eyes of a couple who, just a few years earlier, had been living in a mid-sized apartment and had 'campaigned in 2008 as being citizens of the real world'". The problem with Kantor's account, MacGillis writes, is that it "assumes a prevailing inside-the-Beltway view of the Obamas' challenges". (Jodi Kantor will be the subject of next week's Books Interview.)

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to Marwan Bishara about his new book The Invisible Arab. Bishara insists that the role of social media in the Arab Spring should not be underestimated. "Technology had an important contribution to make ... [It] allowed the youth to open up to the rest of the world."

Also in Books: Novelist Colm Toibin writes an appreciation of Alice James, sister of William and Henry. "What she and her two eldest brothers shared, what sets them apart and makes their lives of such continuing interest, was the quality and intensity of their self-consciousness." Other reviews: Leo Robson on Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson; Mona Siddiqui on Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri; George Eaton on Why It's Kicking off Everywhere and Rare Earth by Paul Mason; and Jonathan Derbyshire on The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on The Descendants; Rachel Cooke on We'll Take Manhattan (BBC4); Andrew Billen on Travelling Light at the National Theatre; "Test Card", a poem by David Briggs; Antonia Quirke on The Politics of Pandas (Radio 4); and Will Self's Madness of Crowds.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge