In the Critics this week

Ryan Gilbey on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Douglas Hurd on David Hannay, George Saunders interviewed and Kate Mossman discusses Les Misérables.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Steven Spielberg’s upcoming release, Lincoln. Gilbey praises screenwriter Tony Kushner for his creation of a “fine-grained procedural drama” that is abundant with “unique structural and linguistic strengths”. Spielberg doesn’t go without praise, though, particularly where  the portrayal of slavery is concerned. Gilbey notes that this is a significant improvement on his 1997 brush with the subject in courtroom drama Amistad. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the 56-year-old president Abraham Lincoln is “genuinely mesmerising” with interesting comparisons drawn with the younger Lincoln depicted by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Gilbey picks up on the questionably unintentional continuity between the characters, and the “baked-in wisdom and joyfulness” that is clear in both actors’ portrayals. Despite painting an “intimately gruelling” picture of the civil war, Spielberg achieves a kind of “magisterial grandeur” in the film’s cinematography.

In Books: Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role: a Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN by diplomat David Hannay (“We shall need plenty of new Hannays if the opportunities of this century are not to be thrown away”); Maragret Drabble discusses John Burnside’s collection of short stories, Something Like Happy (“His characters are are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone”); Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart is reviewed by Stuart Maconie (“It is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions”); John Sutherland on Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (“An innovative exercise in this genre”); and Helen Lewis gives her opinion on Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal by Anne H Putnam (“There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach . . . it’s a one-woman-and-her-body-show”).

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders about his latest novel, Tenth of December. Saunders says: “When you bring morality up in relation to fiction, people think you’re propagandising and that, I think, is totally anti-art”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman sings the praises of the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables; Rachel Cooke is unimpressed by the second series of Borgen on BBC4; Antonia Quirke discusses the power of Radio 4’s Open Country; and Leo Hollis talks design at Missorts art project in Bristol.

Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day-Lewis at the recent premier of film Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses