In the Critics this week

Benjamin Kunkel, Talitha Stevenson, Will Self and more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson examines the proliferation of new forms of addiction and the representation of addictive behaviour in literature. “All addictions,” Stevenson writes, “arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack … An addict tries to get ‘clean’, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.” Addiction takes many forms, as novelists have long understood. “Most novels,” Stevenson contends, “are … about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties.” Stevenson considers examples of this structure in the fiction of George Eliot, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

In Books, American writer and n+1 co-editor Benjamin Kunkel reviews Slavoj Žižek’s new book about Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. “For many fellow leftists,” Kunkel observes, Žižek’s assumption of a highly idiosyncratic public persona “has been both a winning performance and a vexing one … [H]is intellectual celebrity has seemed a symptom of the very intellectual impasse he has diagnosed … [T]he figure of Žižek seemed to represent, encouragingly, the lifting of the post-cold-war embargo on radical thought and at the same time, discouragingly, its reimposition.”

Also in Books: Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe reviews her compatriot Chinua Achebe's memoir There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra; the NS’s pop music critic Kate Mossman reviews Matt Thorne’s biography of Prince; and Labour peer Andrew Adonis pays tribute to the late Philip Gould in his review of Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life, edited by Denis Kavanagh.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Leos Carax’s new film Holy Motors; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s new Victorian period drama The Paradise; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 4 documentary about a Tibetan lama; Andrew Billen on Carol Churchill’s new play and Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time; “Clapper Bridge”, a poem by Fiona Benson. PLUS: Will Self’s "Madness of Crowds".

Dreaming dangerously: Slavoj Žižek
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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