In the Critics this Week

An attack on Gove's education reforms, Vernon Bogdanor on David Runciman, and Tom Watson plays Batman: Arkham Origins.

The book section this week begins with Vernon Bogdanor’s review of The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman. Bogdanor explains that the path to democracy has been a difficult one, and that it hasn't always been certain that representative democracy would represent a global norm. However, as waves of democritisation have swept over the globe on the 20th century, Runciman sets himself the difficult task of "analysing the crises facing modern democracies and how they have been overcome". The eponymous 'Confidence Trap' is the tendency for democracies to rest on their laurels:

…because democracies are so adaptable and know that they are adaptable, they allow problems to escalate. Confident that they will be able in the end to meet the problems, they defer resolving them… comforted by the knowledge that the system remains resilient.

Bogdanor is initially impressed; Runciman illustrates Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory about democracy in a "fresh and convincing way". Nonetheless, from the introduction onwards the book loses its steam and the structure of the book, a "tour d’horizon of seven crises of democratic uncertainty", fails to impress. The crises “amount to little more than a dusting over fairly familiar episodes from 20th century history and on occasion lack perception.” All in all, Bogdanor is left unimpressed; the book fails to address, according to the reviewer, the real confidence trap: "the tension in many advanced democracies between the inherited forms of democracy and the new ideological forces of modern society".

Educational reform is the name of the day in Francis Beckett’s review of Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege: Why There Is a Better Alternative. This is a book that challenges the reactionary policies of Michael Gove and New Labour’s education secretaries. Beckett is thoroughly impressed by Mortimore’s prose and seems even more impressed and surprised by his restraint to descend into polemic. In relation to Gove adopting a history curriculum that, in his words, "portray[s] Britain as a beacon of liberty", Beckett writes:

As a historian, I’m horrified by this. History teaching worth the name doesn’t celebrate anything, any more than mathematics does; nor does it portray Britain in a particular way. That sort of history teaching belongs in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, not here. Mortimore, again, is more restrained than I am…

Ultimately, Beckett produces an illuminating review on a crucial ongoing debate.

Our critic at large this week is Craig Raine who has looked at the work of Paul Klee at the Tate modern. He finds both magic and mechanism in the paintings:

In Klee, function meets fantasy. We learn from the Tate’s unusually helpful and interesting catalogue that when Klee was 50, his birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

The review brilliantly depicts the plurality of Klee’s methodology: his invention of the oil-transfer drawing, the use of pointillism and the fine watercolour sprays at the edges of drawings. Raine produces an insightful review to an extremely interesting artist.

The “single actor” movie is the crux of Ryan Gilbey’s review of Gravity, a film in which the majority of screen time is taken up by Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone. Gilbey sees this type of performance - an extended soliloquy - as the pinnacle of any actor's career. He notes that “such films are partly about the currency of the star” but goes on to argue whether Bullock “will be vital in bringing to the movie a type of viewer not statistically attracted to science fiction extravaganzas". That type? "female."

For Tom Watson, games represent nostalgia, and a comfort blanket. However, the new Batman game Arkham Origins was none-too-comforting and left him frustrated and grumpy. While being impressed by the combat system and Batman’s entire tech he just found the game too hard. "Cognitive science may be rebalancing the argument in favour of video games being good for humanity, but I’m afraid Batman: Arkham Origins is not."

This week’s critics section also features:

  • A review of Morrissey's Autobiography by Andrew Harrison
  • Douglas Hurd’s critique of Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy 
  • Fiona Sampson on The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox and The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior by a book by Cristopher Howse
  • Norman Mailer: a Double Life written by J Michael Lennon analysed by Daniel Swift
  • Yo Zushi examination of Paul Robeson: a Watched Man by Jordan Goodman
  • Radio 4's Open Country reviewed by Antonia Quirke
  • Rachel Cooke looking at the depiction of Iceland on BBC2
Francis Beckett is not a fan of history according to Gove. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
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Was this Apple Tree Yard sex scene written by a sexually frustrated politician?

No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt.

After much anticipation, the BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, an adaptation of Louise Doughty’s novel, aired last night. Newspapers had whispered excitedly over its opening sex scenes – the Sun exclaimed that this would be “the most explicit bonkbuster yet” (whatever that means), as the first episode would have more than five minutes of graphic sex throughout, in locations as varied as a toilet and an alleyway.

But the most toe-curling scenes of all occurred in a grander location – Westminster Palace. Dr Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson) meets a tall, dark and handsome stranger after giving evidence on genomes to the government (as all politics nerds know, there is nothing sexier than a select committee meeting.) What follows feels like the erotic fanfiction of a political hack who has spent far too much time at the Houses of Parliament.

They “run into each other” in the canteen, and flirt in Westminster Hall. Yvonne is about to leave - then our politico stranger brings out the big guns. Yep, the alpha move of all Westminster workers and tour guides. Here it comes.

Pow. No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt. As he runs off to get the keys, Yvonne’s loser husband Gary texts her.

Ugh, boring Gary, sat at home sniffling. You can just tell from a text like that that Gary has never been to the Houses of Parliament. Gary refers to the whole palace as “Big Ben”. Gary’s never even heard of the Chapel in the Crypt.

Not like this bloody Keeper of the Keys.

So in they go to the chapel, handsome stranger smoothly remarking that you can get married in here, because, as he knows, weddings are basically porn to women (seeing as they don’t watch actual porn). The sexual tension is palpable as he deploys facts about royal peculiars, Oliver Cromwell’s horses and Lord Chamberlain.

Yvonne gets dust on her coat, and our man hands her a handkerchief, because he really knows what he’s doing.

If you’ve ever been to the Chapel in the Crypt, you know what’s coming next. “That’s not the best bit,” says the stranger, walking over to a cupboard at the back. Yes, here comes the pièce de résistance, the sexual cherry on top of this weird fucking cake. “You’ve come this far,” he says lightly, but he knows this is the point of no return: if Yvonne sees this next reveal she will surely be a lost woman.

They creep into the cupboard, where he shows here the back of the door. YES, IT’S THE TONY BENN EMILY WILDING DAVISON PLAQUE!!!!!!!!!!!!

In one fell swoop, this complete stranger has persuaded a beautiful woman to climb into a dark and secret broom cupboard with him, whilst he simultaneously shows off his feminist credentials. He even explains who this iconic feminist was to Yvonne. A man showing off a plaque, made by another man to commemorate a dead Suffragette, to a woman. I have literally never seen anything more feminist in my fucking life.

And then, of course, they bang, right in front of the plaque. Did Emily Wilding Davison die for this? Probably.

It brings a tear to one’s eye. Undoubtedly this is the perfect British politics geek’s sex scene, and I, for one, applaud the BBC for this brave and stunning work.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.