Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Will Ellsworth-Jones, Robert Macfarlane and John Updike.

Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones

Banksy is an endlessly intriguing figure. This latest inquest into the man’s life asks probing questions of the Bristol-born artist’s life and legacy. “[Ellsworth-Jones's] book isn’t a biography, exactly,” write Tim Roby in the Telegraph, “it would be hard to write one when you’ve opted not to reveal the identity of your subject.”

Wynn Wheldon, writing in the Spectator, found much to like about this “competent, broadly sympathetic and enjoyable book”. He finds it an entertaining and informative story of a man Wheldon himself is charmed by, yet oddly uncertain about. “Will Ellsworth-Jones’s book hardly reveals ‘the man behind the wall’,” he writes, “but it does make clear how voracious a beast the art market is, and charts lucidly the way in which Banksy, a brilliant organiser, has tried to manipulate it to his own ends”.

Peter Conrad, in the Observer also finds the title of Ellsworth-Jones’s book slightly wanting, noting that the author does more to enhance the myth than he does to deconstruct it.  “Breaking the promise of its subtitle, Ellsworth-Jones's book catches no glimpse of the man behind the wall. All he can do is contribute to his mystique …But as in the case of Father Christmas, the legend, as Ellsworth-Jones says, is ‘better than the real thing’". He does, however, find the more journalistic probing of larger questions about the artist admirable. “Ellsworth-Jones writes perceptively about the 'ethical dilemmas' created by Banksy's marketing techniques… [Banksy] is shown by Ellsworth-Jones to be as capitalistic as his hero Damien Hirst. Banksy once wondered whether an artist should make money from work that was intended to draw attention to world poverty, and solved the problem by calling it ironic.”

 

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is a man known for his long walks and thoughtful prose. His first book, Mountains on the Mind, was what Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, called a “meditation on altitude”. His next, The Wild Places, was the story of “all that is left untamed on our islands”. The Old Ways, she writes, is “a book about the consensual, habitual manner in which paths are formed and maintained down the ages,” one that “now completes this loose trilogy on the various ways we're shaped by landscape”.

Cook calls this collection of tales from Macfarlane’s rambles along the trails of the British Isles “an unwieldy rucksack of a book”, flitting as it does from location to location, from Sussex to the outer Hebrides, Tibet to Palestine, tracing the footsteps of famous poets and meeting tramps, travellers and shamans. On a walk with the author, Cooke acknowledges his great capacity for naturalism and romanticism: “The thought occurs that Macfarlane doesn't stumble on enchantment; he creates it. It is as though – batty as this sounds – it follows him about, the landscape and even the weather rising to meet the challenge of his prose.”

Sam Leith, in the Spectator, finds Macfarlane’s prose equally enchanting and joyfully unforced. “There’s little more tedious in a novel,” he writes, “than ostentatiously fine writing…It’s normally bad writing. But fine writing — in the sense of precise, careful and original prose; lyrical without being pretentious — does exist. Macfarlane is an example of it. His virtuosity isn’t unobtrusive, but his tics of style become familiar without drifting, quite, into mannerism or gimmickry.”

He applauds Macfarlane’s inspiring use of language and capacity to conjure up scene, setting and sentiment, and to engage the reader. “You see these trees and pathways; you hear those birds. And there really are few prose writers who take such a poet’s care with cadence…. . If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed, and a bit more tempted to pop in to Millets.”

 

Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike

This collection of essays and criticism cuts a nice cross-section from the journalism of the late John Updike. Adam Mars-Jones writes for the Guardian: “Once or twice in the book Updike excels himself, once or twice he falls short of his own standards, and once or twice he produces work which stands at an odd angle to his usual preoccupations.” He is particularly impressed with Updike’s witty and surprisingly enjoyable musings on golf. “The pages on this subject provide some of the book's high points," he writes. “This is an America not much written about in the last half-century, not even by Updike.”

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times praises Updike’s literary versatility: “Updike was that rare creature: an all-around man of letters, a literary decathlete who brought to his criticism an insider’s understanding of craft and technique.” Although she notes it “lacks the deeply thought-out literary essays” of previous anthologies, as well as containing a few “disposable scraps of writing”, overall she concedes that it “offers the reader plenty of palpable pleasures, reminding us of the author’s sorcererlike ability to evoke the worlds other artists created with a simple wave of his wand, and his talent for making scholarly topics feel utterly immediate and real.”

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst uses his review for the Telegraph to celebrate a writer whose “prose had the sort of swaggering brilliance that surpassed his readers’ expectations and left them wanting even more”. Again, he sidesteps the “weaker pieces” and chooses rather to focus on Updike’s deft critique of artists and writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Vermeer. “It will be required reading for Updike’s many fans,” he concludes, “but it also serves as an excellent pick ’n’ mix introduction to his omnivorous intellectual range.”

A piece of Banksy artwork gets shelter under a plastic cover in North London, May 2012 (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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In “Gary Numan: Android in La La Land”, the paranoid android visibly defrosts on screen

This documentary about the making of Gary Numan’s new album is full of the warmth and silliness of family life.

In a month that sees the release of two high-profile, music-oriented mockumentaries (David Brent: Life on the Road and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), it’s strangely refreshing to see the real McCoy in all its tender, ingenuous glory. Gary Numan: Android in La La Land may be howlingly funny in places but it’s no joke. The film follows the British pioneer of vaguely menacing synth-pop (“Cars”, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) as he uproots in 2013 from a farm in England to a castle-style mansion in Los Angeles while putting the finishing touches to his comeback album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind). With him are his highly animated wife, Gemma, and their three young daughters, none of whom shows any of their father’s shyness in front of the camera. Encouraging children to say funny things on camera may be a cheap way of earning a laugh, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable when one of Numan’s nippers gives him the once-over and announces: “You look old when you don’t have make-up on.”

Besides, Numan’s persona was always so calculatedly chilly that it is a joy to see it defrosted on screen by prolonged exposure to the warmth and silliness of family life. That impassive robotic face is now finally human: the skin is creased and crumpled, the gnashers uneven. Those of us who saw him on Top of the Pops in the late 1970s and early 1980s will have been both thrilled and chilled by his sneering poise: he looked like a forgotten member of Kraftwerk who was peeved that the rest of the group had gone off on tour without him. It’s delightful to contrast that memory with the scenes here of Numan grumbling about his wife’s navigational eccentricities as he sits at the wheel of a Winnebago, or confessing that he is creeped-out by his ornate new home with its trap-doors and its hidden passageways.

The property seems like an unforced metaphor for how other people might feel about his unfathomable mind, though the film also has a lot of fun showing the sorts of domestic woes that don’t go away just because you’re rich and famous. At one point, Gemma is on her hands and knees scrubbing cat pee out of the curtains in their new abode – cue a perfectly-timed shot of the guilty party peering disdainfully at the camera. In another scene, Gemma points at a dog turd in the garden. “There’s a whole Kit-Kat in his poo,” she says matter-of-factly as Numan looks on, entirely unperturbed.

At the start of the film, as he hauls bales of hay awkwardly around his farm, Numan comes across like one of the Replicants from Blade Runner – his mannerisms seem learned or programmed rather than felt. The magic of Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s documentary lies in its ability to coax the human being reluctantly out from behind the stiffness, the neuroses. The singer describes himself as “anti-social” and puts it down to “that Asperger’s thing”.

Indeed, it seems his condition accounted for much of the apparent remoteness that hardened into a persona in the early days of his career. It’s easy also to forget what a pup he was: just 21 when “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” reached number 1 in the charts in 1979. And fame terrified him. He talks movingly here of confining himself back then to a single room, converted into a self-contained bedsit, in his vast house, where he would retreat each night to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail while eating chips. In his front room was a blow-up dinghy. “It actually made a comfortable sofa,” he says.

The ostensible focus of the film is the making and release of the new album after six years in which Numan struggled with depression and emotional paralysis while his money ran out. And it’s true that the final 20 minutes or so plays like the sort of extended promo for new product that smacks of a DVD extra. But the picture has enough honesty in its portrait of Numan’s marriage to earn its documentary stripes. Gemma is not only the singer’s wife: she also happens to be his one-time superfan, prone to dashing into his garden to have her picture taken in front of his house. You can’t help thinking it was behaviour like that which sent him running for his bedsit. Asked about her ambitions by the school careers advisor, she replied that she didn’t need to get a job: she was going to marry Gary Numan. (At this point, the couple had never met.)

What’s touching is that she is still his superfan – her adoration has survived the years of stress and desperation, the numerous and traumatic failed pregnancies that preceded IVF treatment, not to mention the conversion of pop idolatry into the everyday, the humdrum. Gemma might come out with the sort of clangers that the makers of This Is Spinal Tap would have thrown out for implausible dumbness. (“There’s an ‘i’ in ‘team,’” she insists, before recalibrating: “In my team.”) But she’s no fool. When the hard drive containing crucial backing tracks for Numan’s new album is damaged in transit, it’s Gemma to the rescue with the soldering iron. “Now cool it down,” she says. “Really cool it down. Put it in the fridge.” Gary Numan taking advice on the art of refrigeration – how cool is that?

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is on release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.