Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Grace Coddington, Ian Cobain and Julian Barnes.

Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington

As its readers have been known to endow US Vogue with a semi-biblical air of authority, the recent release of Grace Coddington’s memoir (Coddington is the magazine’s creative director), has been met with much anticipation. Since shooting to fame following R C Cutler’s Cutlers 2009 documentary The September Issue, Coddington has acquired a huge fan base for her fashion-stereotype defying personality. She "‘thinks that fashion should be transporting, provocative and even intellectual, who bemoans the dominance of celebrities and digital hocus pocus in fashion photography," writes Booth Moore in the LA Times. As a result, her book is "an engaging memoir", which "for anyone with a passing interest in the fashion industry, [is] worth a read for the name-dropping alone".

Although Moore considers Coddington to be "open about her private life," other critics think the book skimps on personal details. Christopher Muther, writing in the Boston Globe, finds her reticence frustrating: "Coddington seems unable to share her inner biography. The same guarded treatment is given to her two divorces, which she describes matter-of-factly, again subtracting emotion from what was likely a difficult time."

Janet Maslin, reviewing the book in the New York Times, notes that Coddington's prose is hardly reaches high literary standards: "Since Ms Coddington has 'barely read two books in my life that aren’t picture books', the text here… is light and glossy". However, this doesn’t affect its fundamental readability. "She fills the book with comedic little sketches and handily caricatures many friends and colleagues," such as "Puff Daddy’s wanting to appear smack in the middle of a Leibovitz two-page spread despite being told he would disappear into the fold of the magazine".

The criticsagree that Coddington's "delicious, page-turning life story" makes for an engaging read, both for the swinging-Sixties excesses of her early life, as well as for the insights it offers into "‘how fashion has changed from a small, niche business into a global pop culture medium". Look out for our review in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain

Ian Cobain’s study of the use of torture impresses most of the criticsm with the exception of David Blair in the Telegraph. Although Blair says Cobain’s account of the treatment of German spies by British MI5 agents in 1946 is “a genuine contribution to history”, he says the Guardian journalist’s “treatment of two recent cases is troubling”. Referring to the two Britons who claimed they were tortured in Afghanistan, Rangzieb Ahmed and Salahuddin Amin, Blair criticises the omission of “key elements”, including the fact that, in both cases, the Crown Court and Appeal Court rejected important aspects of their case.

In contrast, Stephen Howe in the Independent says “Cobain's work ... offers a dramatic challenge to official dishonesty and public complacency, past and present.” Clive Stafford Smith in the Guardian calls Cobain’s account “excellent” and adds that it is “a vital contribution to our evaluation of how Bush and Blair – and their heirs – have thwarted the march towards democratic openness”.

 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) by Julian Barnes

Although Julian Barnes is best known for his award-winning fiction, it seems he is capable of entrancing readers with any kind of book. Through the Window delights many reviewers, including the Telegraph’s Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who praises Barnes’s “ability to make the familiar look unfamiliar, holding pieces of writing up to the light and slowly turning them until they start to glint”.

Likewise, Roger Lewis in the Financial Times enjoys the writer’s “muted, cagey, crafty, close” prose and how “suddenly, almost without our noticing it, a person is put very firmly in their place... I particularly relished the way the hitherto unimpeachable Orwell is dismantled with remarkably little fuss”.

Leo Robson, in this week’s edition of the New Statesman, is rather more critical: “In his fiction, Barnes manages to forge some ironic distance from this perspective; but writing in his own voice, he is confined to it, with unpalatable results.” The critic adds that “[e]ven the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye-pokes.” Robson examines Barnes's apportioning of praise and blame: “In the course of praising Penelope Fitzgerald, he makes various detours to disparage those who disparaged her, never troubling to explain that his knowledge comes from Fitzgerald’s own letters, hardly unbiased testimony.”

Grace Coddington, creative director of US Vogue (Photograph: Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
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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