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)
Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution