Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Runciman, Margaret Drabble and Iain Sinclair.

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman 

Despite a troubled past, democracy has become the accepted mode of modern politics in many parts of the world. However, in recent times, perhaps due to the difficulties in transitioning into this form of government in the Middle East and the miseries caused by the crash of 2008, democracy has witnessed a bit of a loss of confidence. David Runciman seeks to address this lack of confidence by explaining democracy’s inherent problems. The Confidence Trap suggests that the problem is confidence itself. Government officials defer resolving problems because they are too confident in a system that is adaptable and resilient in crisis, and so allow their problems to escalate. Runciman sees this pattern repeating in history and points to seven crises as examples.

Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian is impressed with the book. He finds Runciman’s book “lucid” and “original”. He argues that Runciman’s thesis is a “paradoxical idea that the author repeatedly expresses through paradox.” Such as the lasting success of democracy produced through lots of little failures or a leadership crisis that allows a nation to end up with the right one. The book is “presented with a bracing intellectual confidence” that is devoid of graphs and conventional data, rather it is written “colloquially” and “does not shy away from the sweeping generalisations.” The book is “ambitious, in the best sense of that word.” Freedland does identify that Runciman does not offer any answers but thinks that answers perhaps do not exist. All in all, Runciman is a “compelling guide.”

Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London, is disappointed with the book for the very reasons it is praised by Freedland. In his review for the New Statesman, he describes the book as “less a work of research or scholarship than a commentary on events, strong on paradox and epigram rather than analysis and written in a somewhat rhapsodic style, which occasionally becomes wearisome.” Statements can be “vacuous” and worse Runciman fails to address the main challenges faced by democracies today: how they can be “induced to defend themselves”.

In the Financial Times, Mark Mazower recognises that despite the books global remit it is primarily concerned with America. For him, this myopia diminishes the discussion of the resilience of democracies in adapting to crises when compared to other polities. He highlights the lasting success of dynasties (the Ottoman and Habsburg), the adaptability of fascism and even of Soviet communism. However, the focus on America reminds us that there is “an international dimension to this subject that is closely connected to American self-perceptions” as the “world’s first real democracy” and has having the responsibility to pump “freedom around the world.” Despite Runciman remaining “relatively sanguine” about the issue, by the end he is “sounds worried about the problem of overconfidence”.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Dame Margaret Drabble’s first novel in almost decade follows a young anthropologist named Jessica Speight and her daughter Anna, the titular “pure gold baby”. Set in the swinging sixties, this is a novel about single parenthood and a child with an invisible disability. 

The Independent is thrilled with Margaret Drabble’s return to fiction with a “poignant but ultimately uplifting tale.” The review sees the question of dependency at the heart of the novel: whether Anna has given Jess an excuse to “shy away from the hardships of raising funds to work in the field?” And how “Jess copes being away from Anna is even more interesting than how Anna copes away from her mother.” Eleanor, the novel’s narrator and Jess’s friend, has been given a “conversational style that sometimes slips into a conspiratorial tone.” She mentions in passing characters and events whose true implications are made apparent later in the novel; this is praised as being “much like in fragmentary, real-life conversations.” Drabble’s prose is “graceful and flowing” even though she has a penchant for the word “proleptic” which “appears several times in the novel”. In the end, this is a “quiet, contemplative ... anthropological study of women”.

Jane Shilling at the Telegraph finds parallels between this novel and Drabble’s third, The Millstone (1965). Both are about single mothers who are supported by an “affectionate community of friends in Seventies north London.” She stresses that the novel is about “themes, rather than character.” Returned memories do not lead to revelations and are just another image in the collective fragment pile which is the novel. Shilling notes that “in some ways [Drabble’s] current novel resembles a jigsaw; its ambitious themes of parenthood, innocence, wounded children, anthropology, literature, madness, ageing, illness and love juxtaposed to form, if not quite a coherent pattern, then something tantalisingly close to it.”

Private Eye remains wholly unconvinced by Drabble’s new work. The Eye recognises that Drabble is returning to a subject matter where she has previously been a virtuoso, most notably in The Millstone. However, the difference is with this encounter the baby is “profoundly, though ineluctably, backward” and that “the whole idea of narrative locomotion seems, equally mysteriously, to have deserted [Drabble].” Drabble preaches “an exemplary tolerance while remaining horribly snooty about the wrong kind of opinions,” and turns “downright disdainful about nearly every manifestation of popular culture in sight.” Eleanor’s narrative inconsistencies are also amiss; they involve “the juxtaposition of a mystifying amnesia about dates, relationships and personal histories ... with almost total recall of nursery rhymes and bygone brands of confectionery.” Most damning of all, perhaps, this is a book in which “hardly anything happens”.

American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light by Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s recent literary forays have been in the ambitious psychogeography of London. He walked around the M25 in London Orbital and followed in the footsteps of the poet John Clare in Edge of Orison. His new book leaves London behind and tracks his ventures to America in search of authors who were an influence to him in his childhood – most of whom fall into either the Beat writers or the Black Mountain Poets. 

The Sunday Times's John Self is complimentary. He is impressed with the long line up of authors in the book: William Burroughs, “the man who sold Jack Kerouac’s raincoat to Johnny Depp”, Greogory Corso, Alexander Baron and even Albert Speer. Sinclair holds up “names faded and talents forgotten.” His prose particularly impresses, Self describes Sinclair's ability as “undimmed, particularly his writing about place.” The traits that typify Sinclair are “history, localitlity” and “an eye for absurdity” all which are neatly present in his final journey in England: “from Hastings to Hackney, by swan pedalo.”

Kevin Jackson at the Literary Review explains that this book is Sinclair’s odyssey. Whereas all his previous books have been about staying put, in this he goes out into strange territory. As an Iain Sinclair fan he is unsurprised than the outcome is far from straightforward, it is well supplied in Sinclair’s long digressions “and dozens of short ones”. In the book’s scope, however, there are also some moments that are “grimly comic and captured in deft, memorable phrases”, specifically Sinclair’s trip to visit the elderly Burroughs. The book uses quotes sparingly and “is much better on the spirit than the letter of [the authors’] works.” Fundamentally, it is “less than bracingly, intoxicatingly written”.

“The virtuality of everything Iain Sinclair knows is powdered in the dust and refracted through the desuetude of the British experience,” writes Iain Finlayson in the Times, “it is the fulcrum on which he spikes this psalter of praise to the memory of Hip.” In this short but verbose review Finlayson maintains: “The fast shutter speed of Sinclair’s prose pins the dated cultural moments, his ventriloquism refracts the period jargon; the pinwheel of his imagination fires off the tangential topographical associations.” He seems to like the book.

Margaret Drabble in the study of her London home in July 1974. Photo: Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty Images.
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge