In the Critics this week

Norman Lamont on Iran, Michael Rosen on children and literature, Leo Robson on John Lanchester and J

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, the lead book review is by former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont. Reviewing Trita Parsi's A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, Lamont argues that western policy on Iran has failed. "[It] has become institutionalised," he writes. "As one US state department official put it: 'Thirty years of doing something in a certain way is pretty powerful.'" Yet the case for doing things differently, Lamont thinks, is unarguable. "Washington's containment policy is accompanied by other measures such as cyber warfare, sabotage and, allegedly, the murder of Iranian scientists. Iran seems to be retaliating by targeting Israeli diplomats, The spiral continues."

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to American writer Nathan Englander about his new collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Englander says he "appreciate[s] and love[s]" the short story form. "There was so much pressure when I was writing [my] novel. I've also freed myself from this idea of definition ... I tell stories, that's it."

Also in Books, the NS's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson breaks with the burgeoning critical consensus on John Lanchester's novel Capital. "Lanchester's new novel," he writes, "has the daunting dimensions, totalising ambition and democratic cast list of a 19th-century novel in modern-day dress." However, "as a portrait of metropolitan decadence, [Capital] is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms."

Also under review: David Herman reviews Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Wood; Jane Shilling reviews the watercooler book du jour, Rachel Cusk's memoir Aftermath ("Readers who admire the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny will find precision, beauty and a complicated truth in Cusk's narrative. The censorious will enjoy it, too, for different reasons"); Maurice Walsh reviews Douglas Murray's Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry; and Robert Hanks reviews New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin.

Our Critic at large this week is the children's author and poet Michael Rosen. Rosen complains that children's writers are rarely asked for their opinion on how to get children reading - more's the pity. "The makers of children's books are people who spend their lives trying to figure out ways to make [their] wisdom interesting ... What infuriates me .... is that the past 30 years have seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of this wisdom."

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Michael directed by Markus Schleinzer; Will Self's "Real Meals"; Kate Mossman on Madonna; Antonia Quirke on Radio 4's Living World; Rachel Cooke on Jeremy Paxman's series Empire; Andrew Billen on In Basildon at the Royal Court; Hunter Davies's "The Fan"; and "2004", a poem by Owen Sheers."

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses