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.
WILDSCOTPHOTOS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism