In the Critics this week

Dylan Jones on David Bowie, Ed Smith on Wagner and new fiction from Deborah Levy.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, visits “David Bowie Is …” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition, Jones writes, “is a proper multimedia extravaganza, and for Bowie obsessives like myself is probably the final word on the man (in a good way)”.

Our Critic at large this week is Ed Smith, who examines the enduring power of the music of Richard Wagner, whose bicentenary falls this year. Smith recalls going to a performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “The experience of Act III of Die Walkure that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining … The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel.”

Deborah Levy, whose novel Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, contributes a new short story to this issue, “Migrations to elsewhere and other aches and pains”.

In Books, Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer of the Guardian, reviews Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov. Both writers, Chakrabortty argues, are in thrall to what he calls “the engineering mindset”. “If this age belongs to any profession, it surely belongs to the engineer – not in the term’s historical sense of builders of dams and railways but in its new sense of makers of technology and software.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (“In 2013, feminism is at a crucial moment”); Suzy Klein reviews Dinner with Lenny: the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott (“The genius of Cott’s book is not only to remember but to recall with pinpoint accuracy and sympathy the flame of Leonard Bernstein that burned so brightly and so true”); Andrew Biswell uncovers the story of Anthony Burgess’s lost script for the film of the James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me (“[The producers] probably suspected (quite rightly) that Burgess was not taking the assignment entirely seriously”); Robert Hanks reviews the reissue of Louis MacNiece’s 1938 book about London Zoo (“To read Zoo is to share with [MacNiece] a glimmer of understanding of the distance and nearness of civilisation to the state of nature”); Hannah Rosefield reviews Mohsin Hamid’s novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia turns out to be as much moral fable as it is satire”); Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Eric Hobsbawm’s final book, Fractured Times (“Hobsbawm’s indifference the main problems of Marxist historiography … ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries”).

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Lucy Wadham about her book Heads and Straights, part of the Penguin Lines series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (“There were a number of key events in the life of my family … that had happened near Circle Line stops”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Alexandra Coghlan talks to Sir John Eliot Gardiner about Bach (“Bach fills whatever space you allow him to enter,” Gardiner tells Coghlan); Andrew Billen reviews The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London (“It is clear … that someone has lost their nerve”); Rachel Cooke is beguiled by Michael Cockerell’s documentary about Boris Johnson (“Whatever else he is, Boris isn’t dull”); Ryan Gilbey reviews Francois Ozon’s latest film, In the House (“In the House never sacrifices its thriller credentials”); Antonia Quirke celebrates Simon Russell Beale’s radio presenting (“Not just whole programmes but whole stations happily adjust around him”).

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals and “Riddle”, a poem by Bernard O’Donoghue.

The 'Starman' costume from David Bowie's appearance on 'Top of the Pops' in 1972. Photo: Getty Images
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage