Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Jon McGregor, Tony Judt and Faramerz Dabhoiwala.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor

In the Telegraph, Catherine Taylor notes the historically and geographically specific settings of the stories in Jon McGregor's debut collection: "[They are set] mostly around the sparsely populated flatlands of eastern England ... like all his work, precisely of [their] place and time". Taylor admires the specificities of character and situation: "The pivotal moments appear almost insignificant, but brim with drama and import - the dangerous listlessness of a couple of baleful ex-cons living in a caravan on a wealthy eccentric's estate; a harassed vicar's wife's angry, helpless acceptance of a mysterious uninvited guest". Though these stories can sometimes seem like "exercises in the limitations of the form," Taylor argues, "empathy remain[s] intact".

Linda Grant wonders, in the Financial Times, whether McGregor will commit himself to prose or aphorism: "One story is no longer than a two-sentence joke: 'Chinese restaurants, launderettes, baked potato vans. These are a few of my favourite extractor-fans.' " But, Grant goes on, debates about how to categorise the work would be a distraction: "Must we rummage around for new definitions of fiction? To do so would be to limit the pleasure for most readers of this evocation of the fenlands and towns of Lincolnshire, a place apart, the sky criss-crossed by military aircraft and the sounds of practice bombing." For Grant, McGregor's strengths lie not in structured eloquence but in explorations of the rugged: "The lyrical is not present in 'fine writing' but in the evocation of the feeling on your face of damp air and the sight of abandoned telephone boxes, soggy fields and the conical chimneys of power stations."

The NS published a story from This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You earlier this year.

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder

Tony Barber, in the Financial Times, notes that Thinking the Twentieth Century, a series of interviews Timothy Snyder conducted with the late historian Tony Judt, is as much biography as it is historical analysis: "It escorts the reader through nine dimensions of Judt's life, each given its own chapter heading: Jewish questioner, English writer, political Marxist, Cambridge Zionist, French intellectual, east European liberal, European historian, American moralist and, finally, social democrat. As these labels indicate, Judt was no inhabitant of an ivory tower but an adventurous, restless man who rarely stayed in the same city or academic post for long."

But for all Judt's wit and spontaneity, a coherent outlook emerges here: "The central message of Thinking the Twentieth Century is what Judt calls 'the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it'. If Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were abominable gangsters and tyrants, the intellectuals who defended them were also culpable." Barber concludes: "He is right: knowledge of history, though no guarantee against abuses of power, contributes something to sustaining freedom. Tony Judt's life was a brave and vibrant tribute to this truth."

In the Guardian, Neal Ascherson is struck by the improvised quality of the Judt-Snyder dialogue: "The two are talking without notes, references or inhibitions. As they grow excited, one thing leads off into another, and Snyder - as editor - hasn't made the mistake of imposing too much thematic order. He did, however, persuade Judt that he ought to talk about himself and his personal life as well as his opinions." For Ascherson, there is a defining paradox in the book : "[Judt is] right, surely, that we should remember th[e 20th] century not only for war and Holocaust, but for the most magnificent humane achievement in history. Judt and Snyder ask each other if it would take disaster, even wars, to retrieve that spirit."

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Germaine Greer, in the Guardian, takes issue with apparent holes in Dabhoiwala's scholarship: "It is not enough to show that somebody somewhere was thinking thoughts that we might think of as amazingly progressive, without investigating whether those ideas were leavening public discourse or changing the attitudes of the multitude" she complains. She prods affectionately at Dabhoiwala rather than sternly upbraiding him: "Perhaps because he is a member of the other place, Dabhoiwala ignores the kinds of economic, social and demographic history that were systematised at Cambridge" . But soon she is back engaging in more abrasive critique, noting "He nowhere tests his basic assumptions against actual behaviour." Also missing is that essential historical tool, a grasp of chronology: "For Dabhoiwala, the whole of western history begins somewhere in the middle ages".

In the Financial Times, Lucy Worsley argues that looks can be deceptive: "The beautiful cover of The Origins of Sex shows a lady with an enigmatic smile, hiding her breast beneath a shawl. She's serene and lovely but there's nothing overtly sexy about her. You'll need to read what's inside to discover that she was the celebrity Georgian prostitute Kitty Fisher." Worsley wonders if Dahboiwala's overview of medical and theoretical thinking on sex, and his "laudable" inclusion of philosophical and literary sources, irnores more general questions of instinct and feeling: "Just occasionally", she allows, "there's a glimpse of them ... But this is a brief flash of colour amid a lot of grey."

The Origins of Sex will be reviewed in a future issue of NS.

Show Hide image

How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror