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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Nigel Farage's love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII

Film has given Britain a dangerously skewed perspective on World War II

For months now it’s been hard to avoid the publicity for what seems like an epidemic of new World War Two films for 2017. June brought us Churchill (starring Brian Cox), which concerns Operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. A month later, in July we were pushed back four years, to Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan’s film of the evacuation of Allied troops from French soil in the summer of 1940. April had already brought Their Finest, a comedy about making a - let us not let the irony go unacknowledged -  stirring film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in the event’s more or less immediate aftermath and November will bring us Darkest Hour, some events in which will predate all three earlier films, as Gary Oldman’s Churchill struggles through the earliest days of his war premiership.

This glut is peculiar. There are no significant round anniversaries to commemorate (e.g. Dunkirk is 77 years ago, the Normandy landings 73). More, we’re meant to be in the middle of a series of commemorations of the horror and waste of the Great War of 1914-18, but that seems to have slipped away from us in the political turmoil that’s engulfed this country since 2014. Instead, it’s to the Second World War we return yet again. To modern Britain’s founding myth.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that these films should come along together, and at a seemingly odd time. They were developed separately, and films takes so long to conceive and produce that no one could have anticipated them arriving together, let alone arriving in a toxic Brexit Britain where they seem like literally the least useful things for anyone in the UK to watch right now. As works that will inevitably, whatever their own creative intentions and merits, be hi-jacked by a press and political culture that is determined to gloss its opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and its appalling mishandling of the process of exit with garbled references to, the conflict the films portray.

This is an impression that is not exactly dismissed by Nigel Farage posting to twitter of an image of himself standing next to the poster for Dunkirk, along with a statement in which he encourages all young people to see the film. For what reason, we’re entitled to wonder, does he make this encouragement? Does he admire the sound design? Or the aerial photography? Or is he just a big fan of Mark Rylance and Harry Styles? Or perhaps he is, inevitably, indulging in a behaviour that some might call "nostalgic"? Of pining for the past. Except, of course, nostalgia requires an element of pain. The suffix "algia" the same as employed when referring to chronic conditions. For Farage and his ilk there is no pain in this behaviour, just the most extraordinarily banal comfort.

Farage is asking us and asking the young who voted against his chosen cause by an overwhelming majority, and who are are sickened by where he and his ilk have brought us - to share in his indulgence. To enjoy, as he does, those fatuous analogies between the UK’s isolation between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour with its imminent failures in European politics. To see that "escaping from Europe with nothing is at least better than not escaping at all". Or to believe, once again, in a "plucky little Britain, standing up against the might of a wicked mainland European tyranny, its back against the wall".

All this, confused, indeed nonsensical, as it is, is being invoked, as surely as the anti-EU right have always invoked Churchill. This is despite his own family recognising him, as the EU itself does, as the fervent pro-European he was. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of the whole post-war pan-European enterprise.

What Farage and his behaviour demonstrates, yet again, is that British culture, in many ways, learned not merely the wrong lessons from the war against Hitler, but exactly the wrong lessons. It’s a lesson that found its most enduring, poisonous expression in Margaret Thatcher’s breathtaking assertion that the European Union was a "third attempt" by Germany to take over the world.

In contrast to the rush of war films in cinemas, television has recently given us glimpses into theoretical worlds where Nazism did succeed in conquering the planet, in Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle and BBC One’s SS-GB. There are lessons too, in these alternative histories, proper lessons that we have collectively failed to learn from the real one. Which is that fascism or authoritarianism are not diseases to which anglophone countries are somehow miraculously immune due to [insert misunderstood historical fetish of choice].

The Man in the High Castle, particularly in its more subtle first series, goes out of its way to show Americans that their lack of experience of collaboration with Nazi occupation is a result of circumstance, even luck. Not because collaboration is a peculiarly European tendency. SS-GB also worked hard to demonstrate the helplessness of occupation, and how that leads to the sheer ordinariness of collaboration. Both show the understanding that while fascism from the outside is funny accents and funny uniforms, fascism from the inside is your neighbours informing on you and the absence of the rule of law.

That experience of occupation, of subsequent complicity, and humiliation, felt by many other other European nations, is absent in Britain. Farage’s fellow Leaver Liam Fox, without anything resembling self-awareness, asserted that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history". Fox’s remark summed up, again seemingly unintentionally, the oafishness of the principle Brexiteers. A group who exemplify a culture that boils a vast and unimaginably complex conflict down to the title sequence of Dad’s Army - an animation in which a Union Flag is forced off the European continent by a trio of Nazi triangles, and after returning home bobs around defiantly. A group who, in a strange and witless inversion, have fantasised themselves into a position where they see the Britain’s membership of the European Union as the occupation the country once avoided.

This is the UK’s postponed tragedy. At a timethat European countries experienced national humiliations which fundamentally reconfigured their understandings of their place in the world, the UK got yet another excuse to shout about how much better it was than everyone else.

I’m a child of the very late Seventies. I grew up in a world where (British) boys’ comics were dominated by war stories rather than science fiction or superheroes, where literally everyone knew several people who had fought in World War Two - and almost everyone someone who could remember World War One. That war was the ever-present past. I am, as a friend who teaches history neatly phrased it "Of the last post-war generation." After me, the generations are post-post-war. They are free. The moral clarity of the war against Hitler has, in the end, been a curse on British culture - a distorting mirror in which we can always see ourselves as heroes. 

But, not, of course, all other generations. The war generation collectively (I make no claim that there were not exceptions) understood what the war was. Which meant they understood that the European Union was, and is, its antonym, not an extension of it. Unlike their children and the eldest of their grandchildren, they had real experience of the conflict, they hadn’t just grown up surrounded by films about how great Britain was during it.

The Prime Minister who, or so he thought, had secured Britain’s European destiny had also, as he related in his autobiography, seen the devastation wrought by that conflict, including by shells he himself had given the order to be fired. Like Helmut Kohl, whose worshipped, conscripted older brother died pointlessly fighting for Hitler, and Francois Mitterrand, himself captured during the fall of France, his experience was real and lived, not second hand.

This can be seen even in the voting in 2016 referendum. That the young principally voted Remain and the old voted Leave has been often noted. But if you break that over-65 vote up further, there’s a substantial flip to back towards Remain amongst the oldest voters, the survivors of the survivors of World War Two. After all, someone who is 65 today was born nearly a decade after the war ended. It was their parents’ war, not their own. A war that has been appropriated, and for purposes of which those who fought in it would, collectively, not approve.

Let’s return to Dad’s Army, after all, BBC Two does often enough. Don’t Panic! The Dad’s Army Story (2000) a cheerful history of the sitcom great written and presented by Victoria Wood contains a telling juxtaposition of interviewees. The series' surprising continued popularity is discussed and Wendy Richard (born 1943) expresses a nostalgia for the war years, and how people banded together during them. This is a sentiment which Clive Dunn (born 1920) bluntly dismisses. “Like most people I had a foul war,” he says, and disgust and horror briefly pass across his face.

It’s the difference between those who remember war, and those who only remember war films.