Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charles Moore, David Sedaris and Damian Barr.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning by Charles Moore 

Charles Moore’s biography has been 16 years in the making and is based on unrestricted access to all Margaret Thatcher's papers, as well as on  interviews with her and all her major colleagues.

For Anne Applebaum, writing in the Telegraph, Moore’s work is the "definitive account" of Thatcher’s life. She celebrates Moore’s ability to "‘make Thatcher’s story fresh again" and to create a "multi-faceted picture of a compelling and unusual life".

Similarly, Jane Merrick of the Independent claims that Moore’s exhaustive work provides us with "enough new material (including previously unpublished correspondence with her sister, Muriel) to offer a fresh, even vulnerable person behind the mythology". That said, Merrick is wary of the "Establishment-backed and largely uncritical" version of events presented by Moore.

The Guardian’s Andy Beckett is more reserved in his praise. Whilst admiring the book's flashes of "dry wit" and acknowledging the "thoroughness and skill" involved in writing such a large tome, Beckett argues that the writing tends towards hagiography - Moore’s telling of her Grantham upbringing is "reverent" and "sepia tinged". Moreover, Beckett echoes Merrick’s assertion that the biography is lacking in honest criticism - "a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hangs over this book, and is never quite dispelled".

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

David Sedaris presents his new collection of essays from his journeys around the world. Occasionally, David Shariatmadari of the Guardian writes, Sedaris’s writing can appear "contemptuous" and hard "to like". Nevertheless Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls "also sings about how brilliantly clever, inventive and funny he is, a poet for everyone who wouldn't live the ordinary life if you paid them".

Whilst Max Liu of the Independent praises Sedaris’s humour, he is critical of his forays into fiction, describing them as "clumsy". When writing about his life, Liu argues, Sedaris is "poignant and amusing, but it's hard to recommend a slim volume of autobiography padded with forgettable stories".

This view is shared by Tom Cox, writing in the Daily Express. Cox argues that Let’s Explore Diabetes… gives unfortunate credence to the notion that Sedaris was at his best when writing about the menial jobs he did in his twenties and thirties, and now must resort to wringing comic episodes from his life as a rich author, catching aeroplanes between his multiple residences and spoken word shows. To fans of Sedaris, Cox claims, this may feel "flimsy", but to those new to Sedaris the book will provide "some of your biggest laughs of the decade so far".  

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

Maggie and Me is Damian Barr’s blackly comic memoir about growing up gay during the Thatcher years. Although critical of the "brassy finale" in which Barr "squanders the subtlety that went before it" by giving in to a "forced Thatcherism", the Observer's Adam Mars-Jones praises Barr’s "shrewdly constructed" memoir. It is, he writes, imbued with a "winning dry humour" and manages a "very sharp control of irony".

In a similarly laudatory review, Andrew Holgate in the Sunday Times praises Maggie and Me as "full to the brim with poignancy, humour, brutality and energetic and sometimes shimmering prose, the book confounds one’s assumptions about those years and drenches the whole era in an emotionally charged comic grandeur. It is hugely affecting."

This view is also shared by Olivia Cole of GQ: "[F]or all the pain, Maggie and Me is a tremendous, surprising read". She is also quick to praise the "honesty" and "difficulty" of Barr’s record of his experiences, praising the author as an "exemplary figure".

Margaret Thatcher on election day in June 1987 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

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