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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon