In the Critics this week

John Gray on Brian Leiter, Leo Robson on Julian Barnes and Kate Mossman on Kylie Minogue.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews Why Tolerate Religion? by the American political philosopher Brian Leiter. “Why treat religiously based claims of conscience as morally privileged, while denying similar exemption to others?” Gray asks. “How such conflicts can be settled is far from clear but Leiter believes there is no reason for giving religions any special standing.” There is nothing special about religion, Gray goes on: “Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency … Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted.”

Also in Books: Leo Robson reviews Julian Barnes’s essay collection Through the Window, and is put off by Barnes’s “rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive” writerly persona – “Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye pokes”; Antonia Quirke reviews Richard Burton’s diaries, the “most captivating book of the year”; Vernon Bogdanor reviews Making Thatcher’s Britain, a collection of essays on the legacy of Thatcherism, and The Conservatives Since 1945 by Tim Bale; and David Shariatmadari reviews Sara Maitland’s exploration of the fairy tale, Gossip From the Forest.

This week’s Critic at large is writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson, who asks why so many of the pathologies of modern life are assuming a form previously thought to be peculiar to creative writers. “As a psychotherapist I see people with solicitor’s block and banker’s block and designer’s block and surgeon’s block – and the pain is the same pain in each case.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: NS pop critic Kate Mossman reviews Kylie Minogue’s The Abbey Road Sessions (“Minogue has become a mannequin upon which her fans project grand abstracts like joy, strength, liberation and love”); Matt Trueman reviews Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre and Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre; Antonia Quirke enjoys an episode of Radio 3’s The Essay; Rachel Cooke defends the BBC’s arts presenter Waldemar Januszczak; and Ryan Gilbey welcomes Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt as “a Midwich Cuckoos for the Savile era”.

Kylie Minogue performing in Sydney, 2011 (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times