Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Claude Lanzmann, Andrew Motion and A N Wilson.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir by Claude Lanzmann

In the Telegraph, Nicholas Shakespeare delights in stories from the French director's life. Though Lanzmann is famous for Shoah, his 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, and lived life on the edge fighting for the French resistance, Shakespeare believes that the book has light as well as shade: "his memoir is also - surprisingly and triumphantly - a childlike celebration of life as Lanzmann sees it epitomised by the singularity of another hare that bounds out of the darkness". Though some dates don't seem to add up in this "dense" memoir, Shakespeare approaches such inconsistencies with ease, claiming they do not detract from the remarkable undertaking Lanzmann has attempted at the age of 86.

In this week's New Statesman, George Walden is similarly awed by Lanzmann's execution in condensing such a remarkable life into one (albeit large) volume. Calling it "a breathless book", he writes: "the zest for adventure is compelling, the writing - beautifully translated by Frank Wynne - fluent and inventive...the character and topographical sketches dazzling, the action sequences enthralling". But Walden is less forgiving of Lanzmann's embellishments, and does not hesitate to suggest that "A politician must justify his actions in the light of history; a writer and cineaste, it appears, is permitted his modish enthusiasms".

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

There's high praise for Andrew Motion's attempt to pick up where Robert Louis Stevenson left off in the beloved Treasure Island. In the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay claims the book convincingly recreates the style and scale of the 19th Century novel. "Motion is never afraid to slow the action in order to create some glowing effect of atmosphere or setting". In terms of its relationship to the Stevenson's classic, Feay believes it is a sensitively rendered homage: "The narrative's darker meditations and developments may stray into the territory of Joseph Conrad, but in a real sense, RLS is on this voyage too ... I think he'd approve of this rich and thrilling narrative which so ingeniously complements his own".

Writing in the Sunday Express, Martin Newell perceives that "Motion, probably for the first time in years, is having fun with this". The style, he says, is "airy, almost carefree, rapidly drawing the reader in", and has an "elegance" befitting the poet in Motion. Newell is also convinced by the attempt to recreate the world of Treasure Island, going so far as to say, "it is sometimes hard to perceive the join between their books".

Hitler: A Short Biography by A N Wilson

A N Wilson's take on Hitler and Nazism has, to say the least, received a mixed response. In the Observer, Nick Cohen describes this "short, sharp" work as "a liberation" when compared to the innumerable hefty biographies of Hitler, and praises the attempt to refresh a subject that has been exhausted by others: "Wilson refuses to play the 'parlour game' of counterfactual history and ask what if Britain and France had found the strength to stop the Nazis in 1936. The historian should only study what happened, he says". Cohen also writes that Wilson "is superb at putting himself in the shoes of others and sketching the mood of a time with a few strokes of the pen". But his adulation ends abruptly at Wilson's closing sentiments, which he believes let the entire book down since they are merely "witterings that are so asinine Thought for the Day could broadcast them".

Historian Richard J Evans dismisses not only the ending as misinformed, but the entire biography. In an acerbic attack in the New Statesman which spares no aspect of the book, he writes : "What might do as background research for a novel won't do as preparation for a serious work of history. Nor does he seem to have thought very hard or taken much care over what little reading he has done". Evans proceeds to list just a few of these failings, turning Wilson's claims inside out. Furthermore, he notes that "There are many contradictions in the book's arguments", and Wilson often uses "material that is marginal or irrelevant". Incredulity is the dominant note: "It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography".

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times