Reviews round-up | 7 January

The critics' verdicts on Linda Colley's book on the union, David Gilbert's "& Sons" and Mark Bostridge's history of England at the outset of the First World War.

Acts of Union: Acts of Disunion Linda Colley

With the referendum on Scottish independence looming on the horizon, Linda Colley’s Acts of Union: Acts of Disunion could be seen as a timely addition to the literary canon. The book focuses on what its title suggests – the disjointed way in which modern Britain has been created. However, having been adapted from a series of short talks that Colley did for BBC Radio 4, critics have not been universally pleased with the depth of the book.

David Robinson of The Scotsman appears disappointed by the fact that although it is worth getting Colley’s "historical perspective on what kind of country Scots ought to aim at living in […] the fact that Scotland only takes up one out of her 15 short chapters means that we won’t get too many answers." Although obviously impressed with the argument that "Britain was forged together through war, Francophobia, Protestantism and commercial prosperity" and the idea of Britain being an unstable "state-nation" with no common identity, his criticism of what the book is lacking in content and form seems to outweigh his reflection on its merits.

On the other hand, the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is hugely appreciative of Colley. Noting that she initially took issue with the length and depth of Acts of Union, feeling "the book was rushed, sparse and unsatisfactory", she states that on her second reading she began to fully understand "Colley's alchemic genius". Believing that the book’s pinpoint accuracy and demolition of "unreconstructed patriotisms, tight certainties, received notions and political manipulations" renders it a text to be admired, Alibhai-Brown is generous in her praise. Although she too has her own criticisms – specifically in the way in which the "monarchy is waved through and kneeled before" and a lack of recognition of historic ethnic diversity – like Robinson she is ultimately swayed by Colley’s depiction of an "unsettled nation".

The Economist takes a similarly appreciative line on Colley’s book. Stating that "the themes it explores are universal: how national identities react to globalisation and migration", the paper focuses on the awareness brought to specific, yet generally unrecognised, aspects of British history. This includes Britain’s "mythical" history as a liberal country, its "islandhood" and subsequent colonialism, and the fact that its unions were "forged in a time of conflict with Europe". Despite their praises, the Economist does note, as Robinson seems to imply, that Colley is not necessarily as neutral a writer on the topic of union as she claims, "for the prescriptions she offers are designed to maintain some kind of union".

& Sons, David Gilbert

Although published back in July, David Gilbert’s & Sons has just started to take off in UK literary circles. Telling the story of aging novelist Andrew Newbold (A. N.) Dyer’s attempt to reunite his estranged family in the wake of a close friend’s funeral. The book is narrated by the deceased’s son – who manages to get caught up Dyer’s messy life as he brings his three sons into the embrace of New York City’s Upper East Side for a life-affirming reunion. Gilbert’s second published novel, & Sons has received mainly positive reviews.

The Guardian’s Emma Brockes is particularly taken by the "charm" of "the unreliable narrator, Philip Topping," whom she insinuates is an interesting character. Her largest criticism of the novel is Gilbert’s tendency to focus on "surface details", stating that "Gilbert has to watch himself; he has been known to disappear, Alice-like, down rabbit holes of meaning." Equating this to his OCD, this flaw is forgiven however, with Brockes recognising Gilbert’s authentic knowledge of his hometown, New York City, and commenting on "a great scene in the Metropolitan Museum, where he spent a lot of his childhood".

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, amplifies the relationships Gilbert creates between his characters in relation to the novel that A. N. Dyer is famous for, Ampersand. Noting that the title of & Sons reflects Ampersand’s looming presence over the lives of AN Dyer’s sons, who are "struggling to establish a viable independence", Wood appears to admire Gilbert’s skill in weaving the metaphorical idea of the ampersand throughout the novel. He writes that one the novel’s "funniest and most biting scenes" is when Dyer’s oldest son thinks he has achieved success with a new script, but that soon it is revealed that the director's "real interest is in making a movie of Ampersand". Wood goes on to praise Gilbert’s "rich theme", stating that he "has a wonderfully sharp eye for the emotional reticence of the men of A. N. Dyer’s generation and class".

In The Financial Times, Erica Wagner is similarly complimentary. The novel makes overt references to the similarities between A. N. Dyer and JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. Wagner believes that Gilbert has been successful in creating this comparison, calling the novel "much more than a satire on the New York literary and social world". As with Brockes, she too finds the character of Philip Topping praiseworthy, describing him as "engaging company and a fine storyteller". Wagner concludes by applauding the "reminder that all of us transform our lives into stories – and that every narrative comes at a cost."

The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge

It has been 100 years since the beginning of WWI, and as can be seen with the skein of books being published this year by authors such as Adam Tooze, Frank Furedi and Neil Astley, the Great War is still very much part of the national consciousness. In his new book, The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge tells the story of England at the beginning of the war in a unique way – focusing on the small, yet important, initial details of a disastrous conflict.

In The Times, Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s descriptive review presents a positive recommendation of the book. She believes Bostridge’s main aim of the book is showing that "pre-war England was not as idyllic as popular tradition suggests", and approves of this message. However, Hallet also enjoys the "modest" and "humane" elements of the book. Stating that "Bostridge has a pleasantly off-hand way of introducing his major themes", Hallet is particularly pleased with what she deems an unromanticised depiction of the beginning of WWI.

Lucy Lethbridge of the Financial Times also likes the way in which Bostridge "takes us through" 1914, using "details found in a range of diaries, letters, newspapers and memoirs". She comments that the way in which Bostridge "digs out stories behind the stories" and in effect personalises the world of 1914, makes it easier for the reader engage with the past. For Lethbridge, the book harnesses the tragedy of the war through showing the way it was foreshadowed, noting that the book is "a truly gripping chronicle of the mood of a nation moving unwittingly towards catastrophe."

The NS's TV critic, Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, finds The Fateful Year to be a refreshingly "idiosyncratic diary", commending Bostridge’s rich details, and attention to the "shadows and portents," of 1914. Like Lethbridge, Cooke is affected by the foreshadowing of the devastation of war, commenting on the "descriptions of paintings, music and poems that seem to predict the coming carnage" as "unnerving". However, Cooke goes on to offer her criticism of the book, stating that some "episodes feel misplaced" within the narrative, and suggests that "its primary engine was a desire to honour an important anniversary", rather than offer a genuinely new idea about WWI.

Gilbert is praised for his depiction of New York. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

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

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