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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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.