Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Joseph Stiglitz, Sheila Hale and John Banville.

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

 
“Economic power is shifting to the east, putting huge pressure on tax revenues. Meanwhile social needs are rising – because of economic inequality (including 25 million unemployed in Europe), on the one hand, and social pressures from demographic changes, on the other”, writes guest-editor David Miliband in his leader for the New Statesman this week. In this context, the publication of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality is timely. Stiglitz has been “a notable crusader against austerity economics and in favour of tighter controls on financial capital”, writes Robert Kuttner in the NS. Kuttner praises Stiglitz’s “rare combination of virtuoso technical economist, witty polemicist and public intellectual”, as well as the economist’s “refusal to pull his punches” – a characteristic that has left him marginalised in Barack Obama’s Washington. “That is a huge loss for sensible policy,” warns Kuttner. The Price of Inequality moves beyond the social effects of rising inequality, to examine its negative economic consequences in producing a macroeconomic drag. Furthermore the economist demonstrates a hardening of class lines, with the top 1 per cent transforming into a hereditary elite. Stiglitz considers how a more egalitarian society is better suited to maintain macroeconomic balance. Significantly, Stiglitz argues that severe economic inequality is accompanied by a significantly uneven influence on the setting of economic rules. “This puts at risk not just decent capitalism but democracy, too,” Kuttner concludes.
 
Yvonne Roberts, writing in the Observer, praises Stiglitz for his passionate description of how “unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream”. Stiglitz does so not according to a revolutionary creed, “but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few”. In this sense, Stiglitz joins a band of economists including Paul Krugman and Michael J Sandel “who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism”. But Stiglitz’s remedies to curb the wealth of the top 1 per cent are too extreme for Samuel Brittan, writing in the Financial Times. “For most of my writing career”, Brittan writes, “I have been unmoved by the 'equality' brigade”. Brittan finds a reflection of the state of US politics in “the shrillness and bitterness” of The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz’s unsurprising advocation of managed capitalism - top tax rates above 70 per cent, restoration of union powers and curbs on globalisation, leaves Brittan with waning sympathy. 
 

Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale

 
In a new biography of Titian, Sheila Hale attempts to plug the gaps in our knowledge of the Venetian painter, following the last full biography in English published in 1877. Mark Hudson, writing in the Telegraph, deems that the celebrated “richness and complexity” of his paintings is not reflected in details of his life. Hale may be “full of arcane and intriguing facts about the city”, but Hudson feels that “the book doesn’t get us much closer to Titian as a human being”. Hudson forgives this - “devastating revelations about such distant events can’t be summoned out of thin air”. Despite crediting to Hale an “evident, sometimes wide-eyed, awe of the artist”, Hudson observes that “Venice itself is Hale’s first love” and “rather than try to minutely integrate the art and the life, she provides great wodges of socio-cultural context then tries to weave Titian into it.” Hudson questions the complex “artistic personality” that must lie beneath, but concedes that “where there’s a good story to be told, Hale retells it efficiently” and seems happy to finally see shadows of contemporary characters “step into the light for the first time.”
 
The Independent's Fisun Güner laments a shy portrayal of Titian's character, saying “the artist appears as the shadowy companion to the thing that really seems to fascinate this biographer, Venice itself.” Güner finds that the biography makes for an enchanting journey through Venice, and while Titian himself is more difficult to explore, “it's easy to lose oneself in this absorbing portrait of La Serenissima”. Güner stops to note Titian as the “hard-headed businessman” in Hale's account, and though heaped under her “devotional praise”, “Titian didn't embody the Renaissance ideal of the artistic genius”; what Hale shows instead is a compelling but strategic account of what few facts we know about Titian and his city. Michael Prodger makes a similar judgement in the Guardian, adding that Hale's biography is “an example of measured scholarship, judicious opinion, and telling framing detail”, emphasising Titian as Hale portrays him: the great and humble genius we know him as today. 
 

Ancient Light by John Banville

 
“Prose stylists share a tendency to ripen and then rot”, observes Claire Kilroy in her review of John Banville’s Ancient Light for the Financial Times. While Banville’s The Sea won him the 2005 Man Booker Prize, The Infinities (2009) “proved a perplexing read”. Left at a crossroads, Ancient Light – the third instalment in Banville’s Cleave trilogy, finds the author electing “to have a moment”. Banville revisits Alexander Cleave, an actor whose only child Cass lost her life in mysterious circumstances in Italy. 10 years later finds the retired Alexander still lost in the difficulty of his daughter’s death, narrating a tale that is “illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating”.  The strands of Alexander’s life blend “into a single meditation of breath-taking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears”.
 
A “sense of distortion, of objects and people being turned into things of “fragments and disjointure” persists throughout” as Alexander looks back at a love affair with his best friend’s mother from his teenage years, writes John Preston in the Telegraph . “We’re in a world where the past is more vivid than the present, and the dead somehow more alive than the living”, observes Preston, noting that while Banville’s use of language “dips into self-consciousness at times, it can also be startlingly brilliant”. But Preston considers the two halves of the book – the idyllic account of Alexander’s affair and the more “forced” contemporary narrative, and finds a combination that ultimately makes for “an uneasy pairing”. Leyla Sanai in the Independent  agrees that Banville “perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion” and is “astute on the emotions of sexually abused boys who crave the sex but may resent their lost childhood”. Like Kilroy, Sanai finds that Banville’s rich, startling imagery makes for a reading experience “akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline”, his Nabokovian prose “a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured”.
 
Prophet warning: Joseph Stiglitz (Photo:Getty)
Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times