In the Critics this Week

Jeanette Winterson on Virginia Woolf, Rachel Cooke on House of Cards, Richard Holloway on John Gray and much more.

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is lead by Jeanette Winterson’s article on the “joyous transgressions” of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In her essay, Winterson discusses how Woolf “did away with the usual co-ordinates of biography and set off through time as though it were an element, not a dimension”. Woolf composed the novel as a “savage satire on sexism”, spurred by the Victorian gender roles among which she grew up. Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the model for Orlando, “often dressed as a man and often had affairs with other women in her disguise as ‘Julian’”, and Woolf responded to this, Winterson argues, in part because of her love for the “scope and the certainty of the Renaissance mind”. Shakespeare could understand the “manliness of a soldier, the intensity of a nun”, and Woolf’s novel enacts a similar full-mindedness. Winterson argues that Woolf wrote a novel which refuses constraints, where “Ageing is irrelevant. Gender is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant”.

In her review of House of Cards, Rachel Cooke is sceptical of the soothsayers who insist Netflix will revolutionise the way we watch television. Will House of Cards really initiate a culture of binge-watching? Though Cooke doubts it, she admits that if anything were to seduce her, it could very well be House of Cards, whose writing and production she praises, alongside Kevin Spacey’s lead performance. Ryan Gilbey thinks far less of the week’s big cinema release, This is 40, directed by Judd Apatow. Gilbey deems it “not so much cinema as four episdoes of Outnumbered set to a coffee-shop playlist”, and ultimately “40 percent Less Funny Than Any Previous Judd Apatow Film”.

In Books, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, reviews John Gray’s The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, in which the philosopher argues that “our capacity for language has prompted us to create myths that express the riddle of our existence”, yet “humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease”. George Eaton finds the prose of Richard Seymour in his book Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens “tediously inflated”, and his message undermined from the outset “by deploying ‘left’ as a synonym for ‘things I like’ and ‘right’ as a synonym for ‘things I don’t’”.

Elsewhere, Sarah Churchwell reviews A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (“the ethos of this novel is about the value of making things”); Alex Massie reviews On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford (“Edinburgh and Glasgow have never been friends...”); Peter Wilby reviews Calon: a Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby by Owen Sheers (“modern rugby involves more than stirring men’s blood against ancient wrongs”); and James Harkin reviews Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (“as mainstream institutions crumble, it’s easy to have a go at cultish organisations”).

 

Plus:

Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Tracey Thorn, whose book Bedsit Disco Queen chews over an essential question for the author: “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” Thorn discusses the mild careerism of her generation in comparison to today’s “terribly organised and ambitious” youth.

 

Elsewhere in The Critics:

Will Self on the elusiveness of raclette in Basel (“I liked the idea of shepherd’s slapping the cheese round down on a griddle by the fire, then scraping off successive wedges of golden deliquescence”); Alexandra Coghlan on the Sensing Memory festival at University of Plymouth (which “teems with compositional creativity”); Antonia Quirke on Radio 4’s latest series, Lyrical Journey which travels to the geographical setting of a famous song with its songwriter; and a poem by Maurice Riordan on the “drawn-out scream” of childhood, entitled "The Lull".

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf, 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition