Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Theatre

To Sir, With Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6 - 28 September

Based on E R Braithwaite’s autobiography and adapted by for the stage East is East writer Ayub Khan Din, To Sir, With Love follows the difficulties of Ricky, a black ex-RAF pilot, as a teacher in post-war England. Although struggling initially to find work, after settling in an East London school, he finds common ground with pupils who themselves have been marginalised and shunned. Made famous by the 1967 film starring Richard Poitier, this adaptation will debut in Northampton before touring the UK.  It stars Matthew Kelly as the school’s headmaster and Ansu Kabia as Ricky.

Art

Urban & Iconic – The World Of Street Art Gallery, 5 - 10 September

A multi media extravaganza with stencil art, free hand sprayed art, oil and acrylic and oil art, sculptures and live graffiti, this free exhibition celebrates some of the best urban art from the world over. The gallery will be open from the sixth to the tenth of September with live music provided by Happenstance and Maya Schenk.  

Film

Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival, 5 - 15 September

With 30 events from now until September 15 and the chance to see a range of classic films for free, there’s bound to be something in the Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival that grabs your fancy. As well as film screenings, the festival also includes filmmaking workshops, such as animation classes for children, to help people gain new skills and interests.

Among the new releases this weekend are Richard Curtis’ All About Time, the Austrian film Museum Hours, and the winner of the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Music

Last Night of the Proms, 7 September

For the world famous Last Night of the Proms, the music spreads across the UK with outdoor celebrations in Hyde Park, Glasgow Green, Belfast Titanic Slipways and Owain Glyndŵr Playing Fields. With an evening’s entertainment from a range of acts in a variety of musical styles, the events promise to be a spectacular conclusion to the festival. Umbrella advised.

Festival

Wigan Diggers Festival, 7 - 8 September

This free and annual open air event celebrates the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley and the associated seventeenth century “Diggers” movement. Calling themselves the “True Levellers” the Diggers were known for their egalitarian politics and are celebrated this weekend with poetry, music, film and a range of other activities.

 

Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: Getty Images.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era