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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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