In the Critics this week

A History Special featuring David Cesarani on Holocaust studies, John Gray on the history of political violence and Sherard Cowper-Coles on Aghanistan.

Much of the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is devoted to our annual history special. In his “Critic at large essay”, the historian David Cesarani surveys the changing face of Holocaust historiography. “Holocaust studies” as we recognise them today were born, Cesarani argues, in the aftermath of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The work of Jewish historians who’d either been interned in the camps or had fought as partisans shattered forever “the stereotype of Jews passively accepting their fate”. Nevertheless, Cesarani concludes, “the ‘lessons of the Holocaust’ seem no clearer” than they did 50 years ago, and “efforts to comprehend the Jewish tragedy continue to provoke as much controversy as reflection”.

In the lead book review, John Gray considers the long and bloody history of political violence. Reviewing Max Boot’s history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies, and Martin A Miller’s The Foundations of Modern Terrorism, Gray argues that “lumping together every kind of irregular warfare into the category of terrorism, as is often done today, blurs the difference between those who have terror as a tactic in guerrilla warfare … and networks such as al-Qaeda that have opted for terror as their sole strategy.” Happily, Gray concludes, “we hear little these days of the absurd ‘war on terror’”.

Also in Books: Britain’s former special representative in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, reviews Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary (“if those who have directed [the latest war in Afghanistan] had applied the lessons that leap from the pages of both these books, the Afghan people might have harvested a more enduring dividend from the spilled blood and squandered millions of the last, lost decade”); Juliet Gardiner reviews Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy (“[Kennedy shows that] a greater understanding of the vital contribution of logistics and supply lines, plus the imagination, practical ability and dogged hard work of the ‘problem solvers’, … eventually coalesced to achieve an Allied victory”); Daniel Swift reviews The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography the Italian nationalist poet and later fascist sympathiser Gabriele D’Annunzio (“In fashioning himself into a public figure, D’Annunzio prefigured both mid-20th century fascism and our modern cult of celebrity”); Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin magazine, reviews Freedom National, James Oakes’s book about the destruction of slavery in the United States (“it was not the inevitable march of progress that destroyed American slavery – it was a political movement”).

PLUS:

Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Norman Stone about his latest book on the Second World War, his admiration for AJP Taylor and the future of secularism in Turkey, where he lives and teaches: “[Syrian refugees] make sure their little girls and little boys are doing their Quran lessons separately. But that’s precisely the kind of thing that secular Turkey was set up stop. This is fantastically dangerous …”

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Pablo Larrain’s film No (“No is an inspiring watch”); Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Anais Mitchell and Jackie Oates (“much of the thrill of this music lies in [Mitchell’s] fresh utterance of attitudes and ideas that have slipped out of view …”); Thomas Calvocoressi visits “Light Show”, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London; Rachel Cooke is not convinced by Stephen Poliakoff’s latest magnum opus on BBC2; Antonia Quirke is delighted to hear some frank discussion of sex on Radio 4; plus Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

 

Afghan children play in a street in Herat. [Photo: Aref Karimi/Getty Images]
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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