Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Seb Coe, Oliver Sacks and Sara Maitland

Running My Life by Seb Coe

Seldom does an autobiography polarise opinion as Seb Coe’s latest offering does. On the one hand, there is glowing praise from Rod Liddle and Paul Hayward in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph respectively. Running My Life is a "fascinating" and "singularly well-written" autobiography according to Liddle. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is difficult to envisage a more damning review than that proffered by Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian: "how the author got through [his book] without boring himself to death is a mystery".

How does Coe manage to divide opinion like this? A pre-existing interest in the author and his sporting career seem mandatory for appreciating Running My Life. Hayward is appreciative of the fact that Coe is "a good anecdotalist" and his "cinematic" life provides a wealth of fascinating details. Liddle similarly praises the surprising insights this book reveals: "As it happened, Coe was not posh at all — and not quite so clean-cut as we thought. We may have to re-evaluate, then, all these years later."

However, both reviewers notice that the books is slanted towards the most successful portions of Coe’s life. "Coe does not dwell too long on defeats," notes Liddle, whilst Hayward suggests "the reader risks backache picking up all the names Coe drops".

Aitkenhead's frank review begins thus: “Seeing as the London Olympics were such a hit, you would think that he must be a brilliant communicator. I did – until I picked up his autobiography.” The writer, she establishes is "a crashing bore" and his book falls short on almost every account one expects of an autobiography. "Seldom can a memoir have revealed less about its author," she observes, before lamenting that the book consists of "interminable minutiae of obscure athletics meetings," whilst being “bleached of all emotional meaning”. Furthermore, the text is full of baffling omissions: "Only… by the bye, does he mention his extra-marital affair. Even then he makes it sound pretty unimportant, when in fact it went on for a decade. He doesn't even mention his mother's death except as a belated afterthought."

The jury, it seems, is still very much out.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

It is difficult to review or comment on any Oliver Sacks book without first acknowledging his supreme status in the genre of popular science: "Sacks may be the world’s most well-known neurologist," Adam Higginbotham writes in his review for the Telegraph. "His four decades of writing have brought popular illumination to areas of brain science once confined to the arcane corners of specialist literature…and elevated the medical case history to an art form".

The trouble, of course, with setting the bar so high, is that it’s a difficult standard to replicate. Has Sacks achieved this with Hallucinations? The subject matter of his latest work is one "that has long fascinated him, but also one he believes deserves wider attention, in the hope that it can be defused".

What is most successful about this book, according to Higginbotham, is that "the most interesting case that he describes is his own". Indeed, there is an autobiographical dimension to this book which is new for Sacks.

James McConnachie, writing in the Sunday Times, agrees that this "startling" book uses a tried-and-tested formula - it seeks to surprise and amaze the reader by revealing the mechanics of the mysterious workings of the mind. In this case, the aim is to prove that "Hallucinations…are not just for drug-addled neurologists, the mentally ill or writers".

Sacks has not messed with that winning formula here: "[T]his book is at root a compilation of case studies drawn from a lifetime career as a physician and neurologist". McConnachie says that Hallucinations is "hugely satisfying book" which leaves the reader contemplating questions of a decidedly metaphysical kind. "The big question regarding hallucinations remains this: how can we be sure they are not real?"

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales by Sara Maitland

This book is the record of journeysthrough 12 different woods that Sarah Maitland took over the course of a year. Lucy Popescu, writing in the Independent on Sunday, says it is Maitland's personal reflections which are the highlight: "[I]t is Maitland's meditations on nature and the human responses to our changing landscape that are most memorable."

Jane Shilling, writing in the Telegraph, also praises Maitland's "richly digressive" text and approves of her "mildly subversive retellings of familiar fairy tales". Suzie Feay, writing in the Financial Times, is more critical, however. Her main gripes are structural: "Gossip from the Forest is really a book of two distinct halves that are hard to reconcile," she complains. "If you want to read about the development of forests from a historical, geographical and ecological perspective, the details are all here, but they sit oddly with Maitland's more creative musings about the roots of storytelling. The book doesn’t quite gel, in other words, but nevertheless offers much pleasure and instruction."

Lord Sebastican Coe (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage