In the critics this week

A brief look at the Spring Books Special

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is a Spring Books special that sees our critic at large, Sarah Churchwell looking back at the “annus mirabilis” that was 1922. Noting the significance of literary works (T S Eliot’s, The Waste Land), inventions (sound for film) and discoveries (the tomb of King Tutenkhamen) that emerged during that time she states, “So much of what would come after is suggested embryonically in a catalogue of that remarkable year.”

Australian heritage is the focus of the Spring Books interview, when Nina Caplan talks to the prolific Peter Carey. His new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, briefly touches on their mutual heritage, and this is a revealing portrait of a writer who consistently tries to “deflect my attention from his roots”.

John Gray reviews The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy, in which Ferdinand Mount discusses “why Britain tolerates the rule of the super-rich”. Drawing analogies with Communism, Mount promotes “an inspiring message that politicians of all parties would do well to study and digest.” However, in a country that is “less radically flawed”, Gray raises the question: “Do politicians and the public really want to alter Britain’s course?”

Talking about his new novel, and “straightforward farce”, Skios, Michael Frayn is interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire about the challenges surrounding farce in fiction. Frayn points to the constraints of a staged production compared with the freedom of the novel surmising that, “In a novel, it’s harder because it’s easier.”

In the film review, Ryan Gilbey discusses Whit Stillman’s “idiosynchratic”, Damsels in Distress, which follows “a trio of female undergraduates who have dedicated their lives to improving the lot of their fellow students”. Although Stillman has “a fair stab at rescuing quirkiness”, Gilbey is concerned that “some of the scenes seem to be a re-write or two away from achieving their potential”. Then, in an enlightening interview, Stillman reflects on the 14 year gap between his last two films: “I failed as a film entrepreneur,” he tells Jonathan Derbyshire.

Rachel Cooke is gripped by a documentary on Channel 4 recalling the liquid bomb plot of 2006, when a group of British Muslims attempted to bring down seven planes over the Atlantic. “The gravity of the plot” and “the expansive ignorance” of the terror cell meant Cooke “could hardly breathe”.

Elsewhere in the critics: Helen Lewis on The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong; Leo Robson reviews Scenes From Early Life; Lindsey Hilsum’s review of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution; Ziauddin Sardar on In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World; Veron Bogdanor on Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-79. Plus: Will Self’s, Madness of Crowds.

Whit Stillman Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder