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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred