In the Critics this week

Julia Copus on illness and creativity, John Gray on Jared Diamond, Kate Mossman on Nick Cave and Johnny Marr and Sheila Heti interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet Julia Copus writes about the link between physical illness and the creative life. Copus was diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 26. “Hilary Mantel, a fellow endometriosis sufferer, believes the disease was at least partly responsible for her choice to become a writer,” she notes. “In some ancient cultures there is a deity for illness, which strikes me as refreshingly clear. If such a god existed for us today, I would be glad of the chance to offer up a prayer of thanks for the rich crop of art he has nurtured into being.”

In Books, the NS’s lead reviewer John Gray writes about The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies by American polymath Jared Diamond. “If we’d retained some of the constructive paranoia of traditional cultures,” Gray writes, “we might still not have able to prevent the neoliberal experiment; but we would have been better prepared for the fiasco that has ensued.”

Also in Books: Simon Heffer reviews Sorry!, Henry Hitchings’s books about the English and their manners (“Hitchings comes to the unhelpful conclusion that although everybody seems to think manners are getting worse, actually they are not. How does he know?”); Alexandra Coghlan on Alan Rusbridger’s memoir Play It Again (“Rusbridger follows the well-trodden path back to the instrument of his youth”); Heather Brooke reviews two books about Britain’s secret state, Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain and Classified by Christopher Moran (“Cruel Britannia makes for deeply depressing reading. But to ignore its findings would be to grant impunity to actions that reveal the worst of human behaviour”); Sarah Churchwell on Alone in America, a study of the representation of loneliness in American literature by Robert A Ferguson (“Are Americans really more susceptible to estrangement than others?”); novelist Linda Grant reviews Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by the Holocaust survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka (“Nothing else I have read comes close to this profound examination of what the Holocaust means”).

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Canadian writer Sheila Heti about her novel How Should a Person Be? “I think of it as a novel – but only because I can’t think of a better word … I love fiction … but when I was writing this I was asking myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Zero Dark Thirty’s ambivalence about torture; Rachel Cooke is underwhelmed by a new BBC comedy, Bob Servant Independent; Antonia Quirke sings the praises of a Radio 4 Extra adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Matt Trueman visits the London International Mime Festival; and Kate Mossman reviews new albums by veterans Nick Cave and Johnny Marr.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Guitar hero: Johnny Marr performing with Modest Mouse in 2008 (Photo: 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