In the Critics this week

Simon Kuper on Raymond Domenech, Chris Mullin on Simon Hoggart, Val McDermid interviewed and Kate Mossman on Scott Walker.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Simon Kuper, author most recently of The Football Men, reviews Tout seul, the memoir of former French coach Raymond Domenech. This is, Kuper writes, “a story of modern France and modern football” – as well as a “business book in reverse: a study in how not to manage people”. In his account of his years at the helm of the French team (2004-2010), Domenech “constantly breaks footballing taboos by revealing intimate moments behind closed doors”. None of the stars of the French game – Zinedine Zidane, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry, to name only four – emerge unscathed. As for Domenech, he appears not to have understood the young men in his charge. “Domenech seems to have regarded many of his players with contempt,” Kuper notes. What’s more, “Tout seul never mentions the issue of ethnicity but these players overwhelmingly grew up in black and brown ghettos far from the French mainstream.”

Also in Books: David Herman reviews In Two Minds, Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller (“one of the great figures of British culture over the past 50 years”); Lesley Chamberlain on Benoit Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida (“He buried philosophy and left a unique philosophical example in his wake”); Leo Robson reviews Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace (“It is … a shame that there now exists in book form evidence of Wallace as a practitioner of modest journalistic undertakings"); Chris Mullin on Simon Hoggart’s collection of parliamentary sketches, House of Fun (“Simon Hoggart is a very wicked man”); and Amanda Craig recommends children’s books for Christmas.

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to crime writer Val McDermid, who tells him that “crime is a good vehicle for looking at society in general, because the nature of the crime novel means that you draw on a wide group of social possibilities”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: architect Amanda Levete writes the second in a series of pieces charting the progress of her firm AL_A’s scheme for a new gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary Inside Claridge’s; Dannie Abse offers a poem for the run-up to Christmas, “Pre-Xmas at L’Artista”; the NS’s pop critic Kate Mossman wonders how Scott Walker’s reputation has survived so long; Ryan Gilbey finds much to admire in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey; and Antonia Quirke enjoys a Radio 4 series on Grimm’s fairy tales. PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Raymond Domenech despairs at his team during the 2010 World Cup (Photo: Getty Images)
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Strictly: Has Ed (Glitter) Balls got the winning moves?

Will the former Westminster high-flyer impress the judges and fans?

Ed Balls once had dreams of Labour leadership. Now, according to flamboyant Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli, the former Shadow Chancellor should be aspiring to “imitate the hippopotamus from Fantasia” every Saturday night, preferably while basting himself in fake tan.

Welcome to my world, Ladies and Gentleman. A place where the former Westminster high flyer  is more famous for sashaying around in sequins (and ineptly tweeting his own name) than for his efforts with the Bank of England. It’s a universe so intoxicating, it made political correspondent John Sergeant drag a professional performer across a dance floor by her wrists in the name of light entertainment.

The same compulsions made respected broadcaster Jeremy Vine alight a prop horse dressed as a cowboy (more Woody from Toy Story than John Wayne) and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe fly across the ballroom like an inappropriate understudy in an am dram production of Peter Pan. It is a glorious, if unnerving domain.

Ed Glitterballs, as he will henceforth be introduced at every after-dinner speaking engagement he attends, has trotted out many well-rehearsed reasons for signing up: getting fit, being cajoled by his superfan wife, Yvette Cooper, regretting a missed opportunity. But could it be that, as he relentlessly plugs his autobiography, he’s merely after a bit of Strictly stardust for his post-politics career? 

Let’s start with the basics. Politicians are generally unpopular, while anyone with a vague connection to Strictly is treated as a demi-God. So the chance for “the most annoying person in modern politics” (David Cameron’s words, not mine), to bask in reflected glory is a no-brainer.

It’s a valuable opportunity to be humble and self-deprecating — qualities so rarely on display in the House of Commons. Which of us sitting at home scoffing Maltesers, wouldn’t sympathise with poor old Ed being chastised by his impossibly svelte partner for having a beer belly? Early polls suggest the dads’ vote is in the bag.

When Widdecombe appeared on the show back in 2010 — one of the most astonishing rebranding exercises I have ever witnessed — Westminster colleagues warned she would lose gravitas. “My reply was yes I would, but what did I need it for now?” she said.

Strictly Come Dancing gives the nation an extraordinary capacity to forget. Maybe it’s the fumes from the spray tan booth, but Widdecombe’s stern bluster was soon replaced by the image of a sweet old lady, stumbling around the dance floor with gusto. Her frankly shameful record on gay rights evaporated as she traded affectionate insults with openly gay judge Craig Revel Horwood and won us all over with her clodhopping two left feet. Genuinely incredible stuff.

Balls won’t be another Ann Widdecombe. For a start he’s got the wrong partner. She had untouchable fan favourite Anton Du Beke, more famous than some of the celebrity contestants, who happily provided the choreography and patience for her to shine. Balls is with an unknown quantity — new girl Katya Jones. 

His performance has been hyped up by an expectant press, while Widdecombe's had the all-important shock factor. Back then nobody could have predicted her irrepressible stomp to the quarter finals, leading to a career in panto and her own quiz show on Sky Atlantic. And unlike John Sergeant, who withdrew from the competition after a few weeks owing to sheer embarrassment, she lapped up every second.

Neither, however, is Balls likely to be Edwina Currie. If you forgot her stint on the show it’s because she went out in the first week, after failing to tone down her abrasive smugness for the ballroom. Balls is too clever for that and he’s already playing the game. Would viewers have been so comfortable with him cropping up on the Great British Bake Off spin-off An Extra Slice a few months ago?

My bet is that after a few gyrations he’ll emerge as amusing, lovable and, most importantly, bookable. The prospect of Gordon Brown’s economic advisor playing Baron Hardup in a Christmaspanto  is deliciously tantalising. But what happens when the fun stops and the midlife crisis (as he takes great pleasure in calling it) loses its novelty? Can he be taken seriously again?

When asked about Labour’s current Corbyn crisis, Balls told The Guardian: “If I got a call saying, ‘We think you can solve the problem, come back and rescue us,’ I would drop Strictly and go like a shot.” Well, Jeremy Vine came out unscathed — he hosts Crimewatch now, folks! — and thanks to Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson casually led us out of Europe. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Great news all round for Balls, then, he’d have to work really hard to come out of this badly. But there’s a reason he’s the bookies’ booby prize, with odds of 150/1 to lift the glitterball trophy. An entertaining but basically useless act has never won the show. We’ll be bored by November.

“But Ed might be sensational!” I hear you cry. Unfortunately his brief appearance on this year’s launch show suggests otherwise. This weekend — the first time he and Katya will perform a full routine —  he will be giving us his waltz, one of the more forgiving dances, and a style Balls has already expressed fondness for.

After that come the sizzling samba, the raunchy rumba and the cheeky Charleston. These can be mortifying even for the show’s frontrunners. As a straggler, Balls may find himself dewy-eyed, reminiscing about the time Bruno compared him to a cartoon hippo. But if he can just cope with a few weeks of mild ridicule, the world could be his oyster.

Emma Bullimore is a TV critic