In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on Paul Auster, Ryan Gilbey on Woody Allen and Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Michael Chabon.

In the Critics section of the New Statesman this week, Simon Heffer reviews Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, a new book written by five Tory MPs including Elizabeth Truss, who was promoted to the front bench as an education minister in the recent reshuffle. He argues that what the five politicians have to say is both sensible and illuminating. “Their words, because of the empiricism that underpins them, have an authority not seen in a policy submission by a group of Tories since the original One Nation group in 1950,” writes Heffer. He goes on to declare that although many on the left will dismiss the arguments as, to use Theresa May’s phrase, “nasty”, these ideas “represent a long-overdue confrontation with a reality that the present government seems not even to have half the measure of.” The main thrust of the book is that we continue to live beyond our means: “the authors … say that without serious cuts in taxation, funded by even deeper cuts in public spending, there will be insufficient impetus and incentive in the private sector to economic recovery … They warn the present opposition that nothing has changed… There has to be a better way: and [they] seek to find it.” Ultimately, Heffer finds that the book adds something worth hearing to the current political conversation: “[T]his book deserves to be taken seriously by all with an interest in politics, whatever their beliefs.”

Elsewhere in the Critics, Sarah Churchwell is underwhelmed by Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. “Readers hoping to find an inventive and intelligent exploration of grief will be disappointed by Winter Journal … in fact, readers expecting too much of anything will be disappointed. Auster is too fluent a writer to produce a book that is irredeemably bad but Winter Journal is eye-wateringly pointless, drifting inertly from one unremarkable thought to the next.” Churchwell finds Auster’s decision to address himself in the second person tedious and alienating: “there is a reason why writers avoid the second person: the paradoxical effect is not to create intimacy but to estrange the reader. There is something coercive in his use of “you” that provokes a reflexive resistance, a constant mental chorus asserting the reader’s difference from him.” As for the subject matter? “It offers little more than a series of lists,” says Churchwell, concluding that “the real lesson of Winter Journal is that the more lists a book compiles, the more helplessly listless the book becomes.”

“To wish for world peace might seem naïve but it’s an act of the staunchest realism next to the hope that Woody Allen will one day return to making films worthy of his name,” begins Ryan Gilbey’s review of Allen’s 42nd and most recent film, To Rome With Love. So, he says, “it’s a perfect time to receive with gratitude Allen’s comic roundelay, easily his least-bad movie in a decade or so.” Faint praise perhaps, but Gilbey stands by it: “while this movie feels like what it is – a late-period bagatelle from an artist too remote to render human encounters without mannerism – its silliness is rejuvenating … not one of the stories adds up to a hill of borlotti beans, but the echoes and resonances between them generate a cumulative spell. Each plot concludes with the renouncing of the superficial, and a return to humility: Americans and Italians alike are disabused of their illusions, and the only enduring magic is shown to be the chance and chaos of love.”

Also in the Critics: Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Michael Chabon, poetry by Judi Sutherland and Rachel Cooke on ITV’s The Scapegoat.

Sarah Churchwell finds Paul Auster's book underwhelming in the latest issue of the New Statesman.
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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue