Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jared Diamond, Lara Feigel and Marco Roth.

The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel’s reinvention of biographical writing breathes danger, excitement and passion into wartime London. Interweaving letters, diaries, fiction and civil defence records, The Love Charm of Bombs traces the restless, crossing paths of five writers – Graham Green, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel – as their proximity to death brings with it an aphrodisiacal consciousness of being alive.

Much like the shattering effects of the Blitz, Feigel’s work has divided critics. Nicholas Shakespeare’s review for the Telegraph praises The Love Charm of Bombs as “intelligently written, seamlessly presented and with something of the quality of a tapestry.” Yet he laments its wandering conclusion: “it might have packed more punch had it broken off with the all-clear siren and not followed her disparate group into the slow, grey post-war years.”

Craig Brown applauds the book’s ability to capture the “strange euphoria of war”. Like Shakespeare, however, he criticises its “bitty”, sprawling nature. Writing in the Daily Mail, Brown said that the five writers rarely come together and remain distanced from the public “almost as if they were members of a different race”. Feigel’s diligent provision of lengthy synopses are also “unnecessary to those who have read them and meaningless to those who have not.”

The New Statesman’s John Sutherland welcomes Feigel’s innovative remoulding of biography into “life writing”. The author, a lecturer in English and Medical Humanities at King’s College, London, “has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer.” Sutherland’s review focuses on the “metropolitan orgasm” in literary London and the way in which war stimulated culture, as seen among Feigel’s chosen writers. “Like slow bruises, great fiction emerged (love stories, most of them) in the postwar, post coital years.” Remarking on the dawn of “new biography” he adds: “Let’s hope they are as good as this one.”

 
The Scientists by Marco Roth

This memoir by Marco Roth details his adolescence, growing up in New York as the only child of members of the "liberal Jewish elite". But his father, a hematologist, had AIDS; the book charts Roth’s discovery of the real reason for the existence of his "microscopic sibling HIV". The Scientists will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer, notes that “The Scientists seems an odd title for such a literary quest”; with connotations of order and process, this book “departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life”. The author’s prose, he says, is “effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully.” However, this “compulsive memoir” is in Adams’s opinion also tinged with a hint of desperation; perhaps the pressure of success from his social standing, or the urgency with which Roth was “born, or doomed” to write this book.

Publisher’s Weekly also admires Marco Roth for documenting the “silence and shame” he grew up with, having such a socially respected father who suffered from AIDS. The sense of this memoir being a necessary eruption for the author is also captured in this review, with its description as “powerfully forlorn”, it is deemed “a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention.”

Jessica Winter’s review of The Scientists, in The New York Times, delves into the journey of self-discovery Roth endured whilst writing his memoir. Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, had previously written a book which strongly suggested that Marco’s father has been homosexual, and that he may have contracted AIDS “in the more usual way”. “This quasi revelation," Winter writes, "required a recasting of his own identity - if his aunt’s assumption was correct, he writes, ‘then my own existence was like a prop, a decoy to throw off nosy people like Anne’”. It may be because of this that Winter finds the tone of the book “intensely private” in the sense that Roth does not venture into any of the social, political or cultural debates surrounding the topic of AIDS. Winter notes Roth’s “almost paralytic analysis . . . a compulsion to perform an autopsy on the smallest event, exchange or artefact”. But it might be this, she suggests, that gives The Scientists its peculiar power.


The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Variously described as a biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist, Jared Diamond bridges the gulf between primitive society and modernity in The World Until Yesterday. Picking up from the theory of environmental determinism he introduced in Guns, Germs and Steel, the author argues that traditional societies still have something to teach us.

Soon to be reviewed by the New Statesman, the book has been both praised and condemned.

The Telegraph’s Tom Payne was “riveted by the thought-provoking study”, though remained unconvinced by the some of its central arguments. “I put this book down not completely convinced that I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life,” he said. “But it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, I dare say, [commenting on the New Guinean’s child-rearing practices] a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight.”

In an exhaustive review that surveys anthropological ideas, Wade Davis endorsed the spirit but not the execution and conclusion of The World Until Yesterday. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Davis argues that Diamond’s narrow focus on environmental determinism overlooks the importance of ideas. The author’s observations are “original” and “wise”, but his conclusions are “uninspired and self-evident”: “One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.” Diamond is praised for his New Guinean studies. However, his “limited” experience and research elsewhere means that “a book of great promise reads as a compendium of the obvious, ethnology by anecdote.”

By contrast, Peter Forbes's review in The Independent praises Diamond’s recalibration of primitive history: “Jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history.... he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.” Forbes, too, remarks Diamond’s bias towards New Guinea, “the region and the people he loves”.

17 August 1939: Members of the 3rd Women's Territorial Service, leaving Croydon station for their fortnight's training under canvas, kiss their husbands and boyfriends goodbye. (Getty Images)
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser