Burying the hatchet

Adam Mars-Jones wins award for the "most trenchant book review of the past twelve months".

At a very jolly ceremony at the Coach and Horses in Soho last night, Adam Mars-Jones won the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year Award, organised by the review aggregating website The Omnivore. The prize, which rewards the "author of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months", was judged by the journalists Suzi Feay, Rachel Johnson, Sam Leith and D J Taylor.

In the winning review, of Michael Cunningham's novel By Nightfall, Mars-Jones writes:

Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references. If you're constantly referring to landmarks, it doesn't make you look as if you're striding confidently forward - it makes you look lost. ...

The book's pages are filled with thoughts about art, or (more ominously) Thoughts about Art. Since its action occupies little more than a day, the effect is highly artificial, an avalanche of compacted insights, so that Peter can see in his wife's tired beauty in the morning light "a deep, heartbreaking humanness that's the source and the opposite of art". Even when these are golden formulas - like that one - they are leaden as moments, making the narrative degenerate into a string for wise and lovely beads. ...

Two comely young people standing in the lake shallows, "looking out at the milky haze of the horizon" - that's not an epiphany, that's a postcard.

The judges also gave an honourable mention to the runner-up, the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson, for his review of Richard Bradford's biography of Martin Amis:

Martin Amis - snooker player, smoker, pithy interviewee, latter-day Napoleon of Notting Hill, sledgehammer satirist, underbelly fetishist, sporadically great novelist, victim of press intrusion and dental surgery, weepy memorialist of middle-age woes - needs a biographer who can separate the myth from the truth, who can pick through the debris of aphoristic soundbite and self-mythologising anecdote and find . . . something.

Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. ...

[Bradford's book] is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing - about spectacularly good writing.

Mars-Jones was presented with an actual hatchet by Rachel Johnson and a year's supply of potted shrimp by the award's sponsor, the Fish Society.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution