Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Weight, Sheryl Sandberg and Rory Carroll.

Mod: A Very British Style by Richard Weight

In Mod: A Very British Style, Richard Weight tells the story of Britain’s first and most influential youth cult, charting its origins in the Soho jazz scene in the 1950s. Writing in the Guardian, John Harris says that reading Mod conjured Proustian flashbacks for him and that as an adolescent growing up in the 1970s, “I was consumed by my first taste of what Mod had left behind, and it changed me forever: the initial rites included a poleaxed listen to the Who's My Generation.” Written by an academic, the book attempts to establish that Mod was not only the first distinctively British youth culture but a popular form of modernism – “an avant garde reaction to mainstream aesthetics, morality and politics.” However, Harris explains that uncertainty clouds Mod’s origins and its legacy: "Perhaps … we are all modernists now". Harris provides a critical analysis of the style: “Weight opts for a scattershot narrative, brimming with second-hand quotations, a bit like an undergraduate dissertation.” The main criticism is that the although the Mod ideal boils down to an emphasis on sharpness and an attention to detail, the book in contrast is rambling and so “it ends up missing its target, by miles.”

In contrast, Walter Ellis writes in the Spectator that Richard Weight has crafted an “elegant and thoughtful compendium” showing that there was more to the youthful revolt than Beatlemania and the Who. Ellis describes Mod as a social movement wrapped up in a fashion statement, and that Weight’s thesis can be summarised as showing that the Mods were a “populist version of the Enlightenment”. He concludes by saying “what matters is that he has done his job well” and is sceptical of what future cultural historians will make of the youth of today.  

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, gave a motivational Ted talk in 2010 about women in the boardroom, and Zoe Williams writes in the Guardian that her book Lean In is an “elongation” of this speech. Williams explains that this “is not a book about how women can become more equal: this is a book about how women can become more like Sheryl Sandberg”. It is a “goal-driven, ideology-free approach has some fascinating insights into the world of business itself”, and Sandberg’s thought processes leading her to Google and interview process for Facebook are “magnetic.” Sandberg’s approach is “emollient and inoffensive” and brings in relevant experiences of her own, “describing the "damned if you do, doomed if you don't" bind that women find themselves in if they boast about their achievements. Williams points out that despite winning a Henry Ford scholarship for her attainments in her first year at business school, jointly with six men, Sandberg didn't consider telling anyone, and that it is disappointing that a woman in the 1980s didn’t have the “spine to admit she was clever”.

On the other hand, Anne-Marie Slaughter in the New York Times writes that Sandberg is a “feminist champion” and that Lean In is “full of many such gems, slogans that ambitious women would do well to pin up on their wall”. For example, the phrase “It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder” describes the many different paths careers can take, sideways and even downward on their way up. At the same time, she concedes that the advice to young women to be more ambitious “can sound like a finger-wagging admonishment when taken out of context”. Slaughter explains that “Sandberg is not just tough, however. She also comes across as compassionate, funny, honest and likable.” Sandberg’s point in a nutshell is that “notwithstanding the many gender biases that still operate all over the workplace, excuses and justifications won’t get women anywhere. Instead, believe in yourself, give it your all.”

Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela by Rory Carroll

The Telegraph’s David Blair humourously writes “To survive in the court of King Chávez, you had to 'mould' your face into a mask and 'arrange features into appropriate expressions when on camera,'" writes [rory] Carroll. 'This,' he adds, 'was tricky when the comandante did something foolish or bizarre.’”

Rory Carroll’s latest book, Comandante has received much praise for the nuanced profile it offers of the “Bolivarian Revolutionary”, Hugo Chavez. Carroll, who has experience in reporting from regions, such as Iraq, with hostile political conditions, spent his next assignment in Venezuela. He reported from 2006-12 from a country where corruption, bureaucracy and crime rates were quotidian fare. Blair praises Carroll’s book as “beautifully written and acutely perceptive book … on the nature of power, in all its corruption and absurdity.” He later adds: “Now that the comandante has passed on, Carroll will have to update his account. When he does, this book will deserve to be the definitive work on Chávez in the English language.” The Financial Times’s Julia Sweig also praises Comandante as “a compellingly written, keenly reported portrait of Venezuela…He writes with tremendous pathos in explaining Chavez’s appeal to the millions of poor Venezuelans who, for decades felt, and largely were, invisible to the ruling elite.” She highlights how the book explains the Venezuelan public’s changing opinion of Chavez; having seen him as the face of change, they came to realise that he differed little from those who came before him.

The Independent’s Oliver Balch adds that the book “excels in showing what happens when a self believing ideologue grasps the reins of government and determines not to let go. It’s military politics, without the guns: outflanking opponents, consolidating power, barking orders, reprimanding ministers.” Balch observes how Carroll’s observations grow increasingly critical and animated towards the end of the book, yet he states this “criticism is built on an earnest attempt to understand a fascinating politician.”

Balch, Blair and Sweig all applaud Carroll’s favourable position to provide an insightful portrait of Chavez; which as Balch rightly observes, reveals “a more intimate image of Chavez than his own propaganda allows”.

A policeman escorts a teenager in 1964 after violence between Mods and Rockers in Margate, Getty Images, photographer Ronald Dumont, Hulton Archive
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism