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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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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