Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Mark Pagel, Grace McLeen and Paul Preston.

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel

For Robin McKie, Pagel provides an assured and illuminating account of the history of human evolution and its inextricable relationship to cooperative culture. Writing in the Observer, he is convinced by Pagel's theory, remarking that "There is nothing pre-ordained in our genes to account for the societies we have created". Rather than the innate selfishness of our genetic make-up dictating how we behave towards one another, Pagel posits that it is in fact our ability to forge and learn from meaningful relationships that leads to human advancement. McKie highlights Pagel's account of honour killings, and their acceptance in some cultures, as an extreme manifestation of the natural leaning to uphold a good reputation: "we hold open doors, stand aside for others, help the elderly, give to charity and even risk our lives to save animals. It is all done to build up our own reputations so that others will seek us out and co-operate with us".

Tom Chivers in the Telegraph takes a more measured approach, pointing out that Pagel's work makes for less of a stark distinction from Dawkins's seminal The Selfish Gene, and more of a complementary thesis that re-examines what appears to be co-operative behaviour. Though Pagel charts examples of the long history of cooperation between humans that has fuelled social and technological progression, this is tempered by an underlying selfishness to make advantageous alliances to safeguard our own genes: "our psychology ... is full of tensions between the need to advance the interests of culture, and the benefits of looking out for number one".

The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen

"Deep, fantastical and powerful" is how Viv Groskop describes McLeen's debut novel in the Independent on Sunday. She notes how McLeen has brought her own experiences of growing up in a religious fundamentalist family to bear upon the novel, creating a strongly believable voice in the form of Judith, the book's ten-year-old narrator. Though the world into which Judith is drawn is often sinister, full of bullies, strikes and hatred, Groskop is charmed by the humour of the novel and the Land of Decoration in the title, a playtime paradise through which Judith attempts to alter real-life events to her advantage.

Writing in the Observer, Nicola Barr also testifies that the book lives up to the widespread hype, praising the "beautiful" way in which McLeen allows the language of Christian texts to infiltrate Judith's world. Burr observes that the book works on a wider, social level, despite it featuring an inward-looking narrator: "this young writer has done a bold, brave thing, writing what is effectively a religious allegory set in the mid-80's Welsh valleys".

Although Alexander Larman in the Spectator adds his plaudits to the chorus, he's left underwhelmed by the book's concluding stages, which don't seem to match the "strange, rich world" that McLeen so admirably crafts. Nevertheless, he comments on the "compelling, and at times, hideously tense narrative" and adds to the general consensus that this debut novelist "approaches a potentially absurd subject with great moral clarity and purpose".

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

Giles Tremlett describes this as "an essential read for anyone wishing to understand Spain and its recent history". Preston's work, he writes in the Guardian, sheds some much needed light on the abhorrent acts perpetrated by Franco's dictatorship, and in turn "destroys the myth cherished by some Spaniards that he was a 'soft' dictator". The titular holocaust is bound to grab attention and is clearly intended to shock, but, says Tremlett, Preston adopts the word with good reason. Only until recently have Spaniards have been facing up to the extent of the atrocities committed by the regime, such was the lasting power of Franco's brainwashing campaign: "Preston charts the prejudice that led Spain's reactionary right into this bloodletting. Decades of dictatorship, and the ensuing silence after Franco's 1975 death, have kept this out of Spanish minds. Only over the past decade, as campaigners have dug up mass graves, has a desire for knowledge burst through".

In the Financial Times, although Victor Mallet concedes that "his sympathies indeed lie with the Republicans", he states that Preston nonetheless retains his focus on the "civilians and their suffering, as well as the class enmities and twisted ideologies that lay behind the conflict". Similarly to Tremlett, he warns that the book is not for the faint of heart, as it provides in-depth accounts of the systematic slaughter of 200,000 men and women: "Piling horror upon horror, Preston leaves no room for doubt that the events he describes were exactly that: crimes so appalling that they negate out humanity".

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories