In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on Donald Spoto, Helen Lewis on Grace Coddington and Claire Lowdon on Nancy Huston.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell reviews The Redgraves: a Family Epic by Donald Spoto. Although the book is billed as a biography of a theatrical dynasty, it is in fact focused almost exclusively on the pater familias, Michael Redgrave. “As seems to have been the case in life,” Churchwell writes, “[Michael Redgrave] is the centre, the rest of the family the orbiting moons.” Spoto pays particular attention to Redgrave’s bisexuality. “Spoto strongly implies that Redgrave’s primary erotic energies were directed toward men.” Though, Churchwell points out, “he also had several long-term sexual relationships with women.” There is a more serious problem with Spoto’s book, however. “By the end,” Churchwell notes, “his generally admiring tone has become positively hagiographic … [I]t is time for celebrity biographies to begin to aspire to something more commensurate with the power of their subjects.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Grace: a Memoir by the creative director of US Vogue, Grace Coddington (“Coddington’s crashing lack of interest in anything non-fashion-related begins to grate”); Claire Lowdon reviews Infrared by Nancy Huston, the novel that this week won Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award (“The sex – there is a lot of sex – is truly terrible, worse than DH Lawrence on a bad day”); Michael Sayeau reviews Travels in China by Roland Barthes (“Barthes took [his trip to China in 1974] as an opportunity to experience a real-life manifestation of the politics that he, at a safe distance, had espoused”); Bryan Appleyard reviews Inside the Centre, Ray Monk’s biography of the father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppenheimer’s [career can be seen] as a failure to grasp the way his inner world would be seen by the outside”); and Peter Popham pays tribute to Sir Geoffrey Hill at 80, Britain’s best living poet.

Elsewhere in the Critics: “The Coup”, a short story by Tom Rachman; Ryan Gilbey on Seven Psychopaths, directed by Martin McDonagh; Alexandra Coghlan on English National Opera’s Carmen; Rachel Cooke on Christmas television adverts; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 4 interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Michael Redgrave with his three children Vanessa, Lynn and Corin. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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