Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dawkins, Leigh Fermor, and King and Crewe.

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins

He is the world’s most famous atheist and evolutionary biologist. Author of The Selfish Gene, responsible for popularising the gene-centered view of evolution, and more recently, The God Delusion; An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is the first volume of Richard Dawkins's autobiography. The memoir explores both the emotional and intellectual influences that shaped Dawkins's upbringing and young adulthood. It is a journey that takes readers from childhood in colonial Africa, to teenage rebellion and finally, Oxford. Here is a narrative that blends a love of poetry with scientific skepticism, and the result is a mixed response from the critics.

Writing for the Guardian, Richard Fortley praises the authorial style of the scientist, culminating in an account that is “surprisingly intimate and moving”.  “Dawkins's mother is delightfully described,” writes Fortley, “Most geeks cannot write: it is a brutal fact of living symbiotically with machines. But then most geeks do not have a taste for poetry.” An Appetite for Wonder gives readers a window into the personal conflicts and chapters of Dawkins's life, including a memory of a particularly inspiring teacher, “who put the young scientist on the road to zoology and to Oxford, where he has spent more or less his whole life.”

Brandon Robshaw in the Independent is likewise pleased with Dawkins's readability. “The reason Richard Dawkins’s books are so successful is that they are both intellectually rigorous and refreshingly easy to read.” The first volume of his autobiography, we are told, is “no exception”. “The book simply bubbles with ideas,” continues Robshaw, relishing in observations and theories which pepper the memoir. But Robshaw is also pleased with Dawkins's biographical style: “Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, and he beautifully conveys the tweedy, pipe-smoking atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie”.

Jenni Russell, writing for The Sunday Times, is at odds with the reviews of both Robshaw and Fortley. What Robshaw calls “delightfully described” narrative is reconsidered by Russell to be “jarring awkwardness.” The awkwardness is said to stem from an inability to write about the nuances of human beings. Robshaw notes: Dawkins “isn’t observant, has no gift for conjuring up characters or situations, and is unwilling to reveal anything other than the most superficial emotions in himself.” A “misjudging of tone”, Dawkins is reported to lack “the skills or characteristics of a good autobiographer” which results in a book that is ultimately “self-promotion without self-knowledge”. 

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Hailed as one of the greatest British travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor began his journey through Europe in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. But it was not until middle-age that he wrote up his travels, publishing A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. Despite ending the latter with “To be concluded”, his death in 2011 suggested that, sadly, the trilogy would never be completed. But since then, his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer Colin Thubron have edited a Leigh Fermor’s unpublished work into The Broken Road.

Writing in the Financial Times, Suzi Feay writes that despite the fact that Leigh Fermor never finished the work, “it’s a surprise to find that the book is so readable”. She hails above all Leigh Fermor’s well-known energy, saying that “The sheer zest with which he delineates each monastery, its history, setting and eccentric monks, is infectious.”

William Dalrymple, writing for the Guardian was also impressed by how polished the book was, despite having to be finished by editors. He writes that “few of us thought it likely that it would contain any material to equal its great predecessors. The wonderful surprise is that, while the book is certainly uneven, and contains some jottings and lists that are little more than raw, unworked data, overall it is every bit as masterly as Between the Woods and the Water”. He concludes that “by any standards, this is a major work. It confirms that Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation, and this final volume assures the place of the trilogy as one of the masterpieces of the genre, indeed one of the masterworks of postwar English non-fiction.”

The unfinished nature of the book is noted in the Scotsman as well, but the reviewer comments that, although this is effectively a draft, it is a “Patrick Leigh Fermor draft, which makes it superior to the finished work of most other writers. The youthful joy shines through, and the deep cultural learning that was superimposed in later years is there in sufficient quantity to lend wonder to this fragmented tale.” The reviewer concludes that “This will be the last full book by Patrick Leigh Fermor to appear in print. Anybody who loved its two preceding volumes will fall upon it hungrily. Anybody who has not read the two preceding volumes should do so without delay.”

In the New Statesman magazine, Jeremy Seal again acknowledges that "the text sometimes lacks the perfectionist gleam found in Leigh Fermor's earlier work", but overall judges that "these occasional slips barely show through the dazzle". He also hails the editors' "stroke of brilliance" in including Leigh Fermor's separate diary he kept during his exporation of Mount Athos which, Seal concludes, "finally brings the journey to its rightful end in the spiritual heart of the country that was to prove, though the young author did not know it yet, Leigh Fermor's 'real love and destination'". 

The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

A historical catalogue focusing on the worse errors of governments from the last 30 years, The Blunders of Our Governments shows the British establishment in its worse hours. Authored by a former and current Professor of Government at the University of Essex, this book is probably not the best choice for someone who is deciding whether to embark on a career in British politics.

King and Crewe show where the accountability in our political system lies, as explained by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. “Obviously a government can be punished for its blunders at a general election. But the top civil servants sail serenely on, to collect their knighthoods and fine pensions”.

A big theme of the book is the inability of civil servants and politicians to comprehend people’s lives outside the Westminster bubble. Peter Wilby, in The Guardian, sums it up fantastically concisely: “The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it 'cultural disconnect' – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day”.

Sonia Purnell, in The Independent, describes the cause for the appalling record of blunders. “Part of the problem is a dangerously common desire among politicians to be seen as action heroes whose innate good sense and dazzling cleverness preclude the need to pause to consult or bother with boring detail”.

Self-promotion without self-knowledge? Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times