In the Critics this week
Jonathan Wilson on football, T S Eliot's letters and James A Robinson on China.
In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Jonathan Wilson laments the loss of tactical innovation in football: “For a time, World Cups were won by countries that best executed a new way of playing the game,” he writes. He cites England’s 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley in 1953; British suspicion of ‘pseudo-intellectualism’ saw the home team stick to a 25-year-old formation, only to be blindsided by Hungary’s decision to move a centre-forward to midfield. “Tournaments used regularly to throw up such scenarios,” says Wilson, “but these days we know more. Even without internet streaming … it’s just not possible for a team to stun the world with an entirely new incarnation of football.” Club players study systematised routines, writes Wilson, but at international level time is limited, rendering the game “inherently – unavoidably – conservative.”
Adam Kirsch reviews The Letters of T S Eliot, Volume III: 1926-27, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. Eliot published little poetry in 1926-27, explains Kirsch, devoting much time instead to his position as editor of the Criterion. “Readers who come to the letters for insights into Eliot the man or poet will surely be frustrated,” Kirsch writes; “about three-quarters of them are devoted to routine editorial business.” The volume displays Eliot’s progression from “iconoclastic American poet” to “devout English man of letters,” says Kirsch, but one must read around the letters for the most interesting story, “that of Eliot’s spiritual evolution, of which his professional and literary evolution was an index.” In “loving and unguarded moments”, writes Kirsch, such as the letter the poet wrote to his ill mother, Eliot emerges as both constrained and consoled by Christianity, “as the man he was disappears inside the man he chose to become.”
In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to political scientist James A Robinson about his book Why Nations Fail, which argues that political institutions are vital to economic growth: “It’s the way that societies organise their economy and their policy that is crucial for how successful they are,” explains Robinson. It is not about leaders or geography, he says: “the idea that Sierra Leone, for example is poor because of malaria or because it’s in the tropics is absurd.” What “distinguishes east Asia from, say, sub-Saharan Africa, is the history of political centralisation,” he says. China will not sustain its current boom, he cautions: “The thing the Chinese Communist Party really cares about is staying in power”; in a “choice between allowing the institutional changes that will drive development or staying in power, it will choose staying in power.”
Also in Books: David Herman reviews Golden Harvest: Events at the periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross; Maurice Walsh looks at the life of John Casement in his review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt; Philippa Stockley reviews The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town by Todd Langstaffe-Gowan; plus novelist Francine Prose on the great writers who inspire her.
Elsewhere in the Critics: Leo Hollis on the changing look of the City; David Flusfeder on Radio 3; Ryan Gilbey on David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis; Will Self’s ‘Real Meals’; Rachel Cooke reviews The Men Who Made Us Fat; and Sophie Elmhirst on the perennial problem of noise.