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)
ANN RONAN PICTURES/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES
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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain