Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Jonathan Sacks, Simon Mawer and Andrew Blum.

The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

The purpose of Jonathan Sacks’s book is not to prove the existence of God, writes Ziauddin Sardar in the Independent, but to demonstrate that it is “quite possible for a rational person to hold religious beliefs”. With “extensive erudition”, Sacks tours the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity and addresses the thoughts of atheists and philosophers in his quest to promote tolerance and challenge religious dogma, which he sees as a primary cause of evil in the world.

Sack’s central argument, that the meaning of a system must lie outside that system, is problematic, says Sardar: “It is easier to argue for the need for something beyond, more difficult to argue for a deity… It would have been more original to argue why God is needed in the first place.” The message that science and religion, explanation and meaning, are complementary is also unoriginal: “Sacks is rather unfamiliar with the rich heritage of Islamic discourse on reason and revelation,” says Sardar.

The exploration of classical Greek and Hebrew thought, though, is “quite brilliant”. Sacks makes “mincemeat” of the “primary school” arguments of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, says Sardar. And he shows “courage and integrity” on the problems of institutionalised religion: “the warning about the entrapments of power and the need for humility will not sit easily with his colleagues – here in Britain and in Israel. That, in my opinion, only enhances his stature.”

Writing in the Guardian, Richard Holloway agrees: “The compelling thing about Sacks is the passion with which he insists that only God can save us from the tragedy of nothingness.”

The book’s Wittgensteinian argument that “the universe cannot mean itself, only that which lies outside it” leads to an “awkward place”, admits Holloway. For Sacks, the fate of civilization lies in its answer to the God question: while "individuals can live without meaning, societies in the long run cannot". He thus makes the “large claim” that only God can supply the meaning we need. But “what makes Sacks such an attractive combatant in today's wars of religion is the passion with which he engages in the conflict,” says Holloway. “His argument may not persuade, but his passion almost does.”

 

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer’s novel about a bilingual girl recruited into the Special Operations Executive, the Second World War European spy network in which 39 women operated, is not without precedent, writes Alex Preston in last week’s New Statesman. Echoes of Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray abound as Marian Sutro, Mawer’s heroine, leaves her francophone childhood and embarks on a life of danger and excitement as “Alice”, a secret agent dropped into south-western France. The “conceit of nomenclature males the reading of what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward book more difficult and interesting,” says Preston. It forces us to “think about our own role, as readers, in the construction of these simulcra of real people.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Philip Womack calls the book “slick and thrilling and grown-up, like a slightly seedy uncle who smokes, drinks whisky and is always off seeing a man about a dog.” A spy is not necessarily an attractive protagonist, he says, but Mawer “gives us some compelling insights into Sutro – above all, her bravery, and her almost elemental need for risk, as when she jumps out of the plane.” The writing is “smoothly sophisticated” and “full of well-observed phrases,” he says.

“Mawer's wartime textures are extraordinary,” agrees Rachel Cooke in the Guardian: “no page ever reeks of the library; his set pieces are so beautiful you want to read them two or three times over.” While The Girl Who Fell from the Sky cannot match Mawer’s Man Booker-nominated novel The Glass Room, it is “beautifully done”, the precision at times rendering the author “more cartographer than novelist”. The heroine would have been more interesting had she not been “predictably beautiful”, says Cooke. But the overriding message is one of hope: “as numinous as faith, and twice as powerful… you apprehend its loss even as the strange ecstasy of it drives you on.”

 

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum

“The answer to what the internet is,” writes Helen Lewis in last week’s New Statesman, “is cables – and what’s inside them, which is pulses of light flashing a million times a second.” In Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet Andrew Blum journeys across Milwaukee, Texas, Wisconsin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and even Cornwall to satisfy his curiosity about the internet after a squirrel chewed through his broadband cable, slowing his connection. He wants to know: what happens when you send an email? Where is your Facebook page when you’re not looking at it? What exactly is the world wide web?

Blum sees cables that join together, speeding up the US internet by a fraction, cables that run under the sea, cables in underground hoses in New York. We “occasionally stray close to a good anecdote,” says Lewis. The “sloppily dressed” man who sparked terrorism fears when he appeared at a data centre in Oregon in 2004 requesting huge amounts of data turned out to be an employee from Google. The company is fiercely private as rivals are desperate for information about its engineering.

The most important question raised by the book, though, is never asked, says Lewis. There are mentions of the precariousness of the internet – an engineer from Texas-based Nanog (North American Network Operators’ Group) admits he once cut off Australia because it didn’t pay its phone bill. But if the web is so fragile and so vital, are we doing enough to protect it? “As we put ever more of our lives into ‘the cloud’,” she asks, “are we sure it’s safe there?”

Google's computer centre in the Dalles, Oregon (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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