Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Ben Goldacre, Slavoj Žižek and Philip Norman.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

Doctor, author and uncaged monkey Ben Goldacre’s second foray into the world of science-oriented abuse has been neatly reviewed by The Economist: “The book is slightly technical, eminently readable, consistently shocking, occasionally hectoring and unapologetically polemical. ‘Medicine is broken,’ it declares on its first page, and ‘the people you should have been able to trust to fix [its] problems have failed you.’” Helen Lewis, writing in the New Statesman, emphasises the difficultly of bringing an industry-wide malaise to public attention. “Explaining the myriad ways in which the evidence base is distorted, and the effect that has on real people, will never fit in a slogan, a headline or a tweet,” she writes, although the 137 character quote above would make a good starting point. Many reviewers express shock at the examples Goldacre gives, often too scandalous to be believed. “GlaxoSmithKline concealed the fact that one of its anti-depressants, paroxetine, increased the risk of suicide among children. It managed this because the drug was officially only licensed for use by over-18s and because it mixed the safety data for children in with that of adults, diluting the apparent risk.” The real strength of the book, Lewis decides, is that Goldacre is prepared to provide alternative models: “If poorly funded and easily swayed regulators can’t police the industry, then make the data available to everyone. Replace bewildering consent forms with shorter ones in plain English. Scrap the endless drug information labels that list every conceivable side effect (from heart attacks to bad breath) with simple checklists that show how common they are.”

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously by Slavoj Žižek

Reflecting on last year’s uprisings in New York, London, Greece and the Middle East, Žižek’s new book has been praised for its characteristically reorienting analysis, but criticised for its lack of direction. Poet Theo Dorgan, writing in the Irish Times, says: “This short book covers an immense amount of ground, with Žižek as a kind of manic avatar, a cosmic advance guard of the unborn future, examining and pronouncing on domination and exploitation under late capitalism, the return of ethnicity as a negative political driver, the Occupy movement (he’s for and against), the desert of post-ideology, unrest and upheaval in the Arab worlds, and what it means that we live in nonevental times.” Benjamin Kunkel, founding co-editor of n+1, wrote for the New Statesman that Žižek’s communism is “a heavy name very light of meaning.” “He disdains the idea, characteristic of ‘the archetypal left-liberal European moron’, that we need ‘a new political party that will return to the good old principles’ and ‘regulate the banks and control financial excesses, guarantee free universal health care and education, etc, etc’.” A good example of Žižek’s inimitable inability to finish his sentences there, which he often deems too tedious to bother following through. Yet Kunkel astutely recognises that instead of the entropic impasses which were the end of all of last year’s “dreams” (the death of Occupy, religion filling the political vacuum in the Arab world, nihilism and sneaker-grabbing in London), the period of greatest radical thinking was in fact amid the years of post-war reform, not in response to the neoliberal consensus that followed, “which demoralised radicals and reformers alike.” “Projects of reform, in other words, have tended to nourish hopes of revolution and vice versa. In present circumstances, the achievement of reforms might well pave, rather than bar, the way to a new society, not to mention relieving some of the human misery to be endured before the advent of the communist millennium,” Kunkel concludes, “If, on the other hand, the system were to prove incapable of incorporating any serious reforms, this would demonstrate the need for revolution that Žižek merely asserts.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

The chrysalis that miraculously turned into a butterfly “is a recurring motif in Philip Norman’s new biography of Mick Jagger, in which he charts in riveting detail Jagger’s own transformation from a humdrum LSE student in striped college scarf and cardigan into the beautiful renegade and rock star, living symbol of that naïve but in some ways rather wonderful 60s rebellious nonconformity,” Fiona MacCarthy writes in the Guardian. Norman, a former Times journalist who has written a biography of John Lennon and group-biographies of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (twice), has “a novelist’s awareness of the oddities of human relationships, and Mick’s father emerges as a fascinating figure”. MacCarthy praises the book’s treatment of Jagger’s younger life, preferring some of incidents from later years as recorded in Keith Richard’s recent autobiography, Life. Charles Shaar Murray, writing in the Daily Mail, values Norman’s presentation of Jagger’s role as both “entrepreneur and entertainer, lord of the manor and lout of the parish”, and agrees with both MacCarthy and Norman that the first quarter-century of the Stones story is far more interesting than the second: “Fast-forwarding through the latter stages harms the story not at all. Norman tells it with commendable thoroughness, engaging wit and boundless energy, much as Jagger has shown over the decades. At tale’s end, rock ‘n’ roll toddlers will drift off into platinum slumbers.” He does add, “Sadly, Norman omits my favourite Jagger story: those famous rubber features had long hardened into seamed granite when the late George Melly ribbed him about his wrinkles. ‘Not wrinkles,’ Jagger replied. ‘Laughter lines.’ ‘Mick,’ retorted Melly, ‘nothing’s that funny.’” Mick Jagger will be reviewed in this week's issue of the New Statesman.

David Cameron takes a tour around GlaxoSmithKline. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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