Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Victor Serge, Harry Mount and Robert Caro.

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge

Victor Serge stood out amongst the revolutionaries in the early years of the Soviet Union because of his rejection of the violent methods employed by its leaders. He wrote his memoirs in 1942 and died in 1947. This first full edition of the book in English was a long time coming, but has been welcomed with enthusiasm. John Gray, writing in the New Statesman this week, describes Serge’s tale as an “extraordinary story”, carefully depicting the changing nature of politics in the USSR. Whilst not centering the book on his own story, “the strand that links everything together is Serge himself - a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history”.

Nicholas Lezard, writing in the Guardian, agreed. He wrote of Serge: “This is a man of great courage, then, and utter decency. If there is a note in those words which reminds one of Orwell, bear in mind that Orwell didn't have to labour under the constant fear of the state murdering him, or his wife, or his child.” As well as a huge personal respect for the author, Lezard also has huge amounts of respect for the book itself as “essential, above all, as a denouncement of oppression, an eye-witness account, written in heat and at speed, but with the talent of the true writer, of what it was like to be at the heart of the machine – and to stand up to it”. Gray identified weaknesses in Serge’s understanding, where he was “consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop”, and unable to accept that “Mass terror was a condition of [the Soviet Union’s]survival”. Taking that into account, Lorna Scott Fox in the London Review of Books still described Memoirs of a Revolutionary as a “classic” account, showing a “heroism” in his stance. In Lezard’s words, “anyone who cares about justice and freedom of speech should have a copy”.

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow by Harry Mount

Harry Mount took on a formidable task in attempting to explain how exactly English society has come to be. Looking at the impact of geographical location, foliage and even soil type, he takes the reader through a comprehensive attempt to understand why exactly England looks as it does and the English act as they do. Alexandra Harris, writing in the Guardian, argues that even if Mount doesn't completely succeed in that task, his book does at least make the reader think: “If more people look around them in England this summer and notice what the kerbstones and window-frames are made of, then that can be no bad thing.” However, the cost of this new light on the mundane has been the crippling focus on fact and figures. Peter Wilby, writing for the New Statesman, argued that the tone is “discursive, understated and oddly flat; at times, as the author details soils and the genesis of place names, one has the sense of reading a GCSE textbook.” Harris agrees, lamenting Mount’s narrowly empirical focus on such an otherwise interesting subject: “why reduce it all to a relentless list of facts and figures?”

Clive Aslet, writing in the Telegraph, offers Mount little solace. Aslet welcomes Mount's defence of England’s “particularity”, which, he claims, has been eroded in recent years. It’s a conservative slant which Wilby claims may well be one of the most interesting parts of the book, leaving the reader “wiser and better informed on a range of other topics, not least the mood of One Nation Tories.” The cost of focus on this particularity is a recurrent theme: it falls into stereotypes, claims Aslet, an issue which Harris agues adds to the blandness of the book.

In conclusion, Harris asked: “Does all this get us any closer to understanding Englishness? Not really, though that's a lot to ask”. Wilby wrote:“I wasn’t sure that, beyond banalities about the weather, I was much clearer about how England made the English – How the English Made England might have been just as good a title”.


The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume IV: the Passage of Power by Robert A Caro.

Almost 40 years ago, when Robert Caro agreed to write a biography of Lyndon Johnson, it was expected that the series would be made up of three books covering all of Johnson’s time in office. Two and a half million words later, this fourth volume is expected to be the penultimate. It has become a series which, Tom Carson argues in GQ, has a Harry Potter-like following amongst an audience of “people deformed by Washingtonitis”.

It is a following which Lord Andrew Adonis, writing in the New Statesman this week, believes was hard-won. This most recent volume contains “one central insight: that Johnson’s legacy, good and bad, was determined by both moves and decisions made within a matter of days of John F Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963.” Caro’s latest volume moves beyond a simple biography to an analysis of not just Johnson’s time in office but the nature of office. Adonis argued that “in telling the tale [of Johnson], Caro not only re-creates one of the giants of modern politics, he tells a giant tale about power and about life itself”. Thispraise is echoed by the Economist, identifying not only Caro’s ability to look at the structure of politics but also the judgments made by individuals: “Mr Caro’s strength as a biographer is his ability to probe Johnson’s mind and motivations”. Caro manages to guide the reader through Johnson’s leadership skills, his civil rights successes and the reasons for his poorer choices.

The final volume of this series will deal with Johnson’s eventual downfall, Vietnam and the emergence of what the Economist refers to as the President’s “darker side”. It argues  that “Mr Caro’s many fans eagerly await” the final volume. This series may have prompted a Harry Potter-style frenzy, but this has been justified on all counts.

Lyndon Johnson with his cabinet in 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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