In the Critics this week

Leo Robson on Martin Amis, Peter Hennessy interviewed and Rainer Werner Fassbinder remembered.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson takes the measure of Martin Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo: State of England. Amis, Robson reminds us, for all that he is credited with importing the rhythms of the modern American novel into English fiction, “started off as a neo-Dickensian”. Lionel Asbo, Robson writes, is “a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche” – albeit one that is “at least as interested in race as class”. This is, Robson concludes, “is a contentedly throwaway piece of work, as can be deduced from the almost complete absence of reflections on physics, fascism and the waning powers of the middle-aged novelist”.

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to historian Peter Hennessy about his new book Distilling the Frenzy. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to an examination of the office of prime minister, one of the defining paradoxes of which is that it has a tendency to “overmightiness”, even though the occupants of No 10 rarely feel powerful. Hennessy agrees, though observes that “those who are on the receiving end of excessive prime ministerialism certainly feel it”. On the two great “command premierships” of the postwar period, Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s, Hennessy says: “There’s a difference. Margaret liked to get her way after a bloody good argument. Tony didn’t like the argument … And that’s a big difference.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews Anthony Beevor’s “utterly absorbing” The Second World War; Peter Wilby on How England Made the English by Harry Mount; Helen Lewis on Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum; and Alex Preston on Simon Mawer’s novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey assesses the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 30 years after the German director’s death; Antonia Quirke is entranced by Newshour on the BBC World Service; Will Self examines the subtle relationship between irony and snobbery; Alexandra Coghlan goes to Glyndebourne; and Rachel Cooke wades through a weekend’s worth of Jubilee programming on television.

Neo-Dickensian: Martin Amis (Photo: Getty Images)
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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt