Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Brian Sewell, Ian Rankin and Chinua Achebe.

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin

After a six-year hiatus, Ian Rankin’s DI John Rebus is back from retirement. “Admirers of the Rebus books will be relieved the hero has returned with little change except an increase in the severity of warnings from his doctor,” writes Mark Lawson in the Guardian. Rebus comes face-to-face with the hero of Rankin’s two most recent police books: Malcolm Fox. “The sections in which Rankin's two characters find themselves in the same book are fascinating psychologically because the author so clearly lets the older man have the better of the exchanges,” Lawson writes. “When Rebus notes Fox "sliming" around HQ and reflects that he seems more like "middle management in a plastics company", it's clearly what Rebus would think about the interloper, but also usefully channels a resentment that Rankin readers must inevitably feel about the loss of their favourite cop.” The plot revolves around a serial killer’s murders which take place along the A9. This results in Rebus undertaking many journeys around Scotland in his beloved Saab. His traversing of the country is one of several aspects – another being the book on Scottish myths that Rebus is reading – which leads Lawson to view Standing in Another Man’s Grave as a state-of-Scotland novel, a feature of which is the question of independence: “Although this book has only one direct reference to the prospect of independence, it is steeped in the feeling of a country on the cusp of potentially radical change.” Writing in the Sunday Times’ Culture Section, John Dugdale concurs, and adds: “If a statement is being made, though, it is a negative one... Agreeing with Clarke that Scotland is 'hard to fathom', Rebus sceptically calls it 'a nation of 5m huddled together clinging to notions of community and shared history'.” Though he praises the novel for being well-crafted, Dugdale is not excited by it: “Rebus’ thoughts are not just unromantic but humdrum, offering nothing of interest on the places he passes through.” Lawson disagrees however, finding wit and humour in the book: “While some elements of Rebus are generic (troubles with drink and women), he is without doubt the funniest among the classic fictional detectives, and his 19th case features some fine one-liners and a satisfying gag involving a bossy colleague's stapler.”

 

Outsider II: Almost Always: Never Quite by Brian Sewell

After releasing the first part of his autobiography last year, the life of Brian is proving to have no shortage of drama. This sequel includes, amongst other things, spies, stalkers and sex sprees. But is it worth reading? Sporadically so according to the reviews. “The book is of variable quality,” notes Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times, whilst Matthew Bell for the Independent suggests that Sewell is more concerned with marketing tactics than literary quality when he “divided what could have been one volume into two”. The general critical consensus is that the most eagerly anticipated aspect of this book – Sewell’s curious relationship with his Courtauld tutor and Cold-war Spy Anthony Blunt - ends up being the most disappointing: “These chapters don't necessarily make for the most entertaining,” notes Bell. Indeed, Sewell’s career as a whole isn’t the highlight of this memoir, as much of his art historical anecdotes are “too insanely detailed to follow” in Barber's view. A less-than-riveting account of his professional life is, however, more than made up for in his account of his personal life which is “lewd, very funny, not very likeable” according to Philip Hensher in the Guardian: “The joy of the memoir is largely in its filth,” he summarises. Indeed, Outsider II seems to have been written exclusively to the principle that sex sells, albeit not entirely successfully. “Sewell’s obsession with sex…grows wearisome after a while,” comments Barber, in agreement with Bell. “The relentless dishing up of graphic sexual stories becomes a little exhausting.” For those seeking scandal, however, Sewell doesn’t fall short. As well as unremittingly salacious details, his deliciously unrestrained assessment of certain newspaper editors will be “enjoyed by many journalists and possibly by libel lawyers” according to Barber, and, in Bell’s view, “will cause some choking on canapés in London's medialand.” Nonetheless, each reviewer concludes that the “energy” of Sewell’s prose is the redeeming feature of his memoir, transforming it into an undeniably engaging read. “Tremendously enjoyable” praises Hensher, whilst Barber summarises ““there is constant pleasure in Sewell's prose: the elegance of phrase, the wry humour, and the clarity of insight”. After all, as the Independent notes, “what should a memoir be, if not genital warts and all?”

There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience,” writes Chika Unigwe in the New Statesman. “It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others.” This war was the Nigerian-Biafran War, which resulted from a failed coup, a coup that was perceived to be plotted by the Igbo, Achebe’s tribe. “Biafra was the world's first properly televised conflict, and millions across the world were appalled by the horrors flickering on their screens,” writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in the Guardian. “Such people as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Martin Luther King and Karl Vonnegut galvanised international responses to the tragedy, in an age before 'Africa fatigue' had set in.” Achebe’s poetry is scattered throughout the book in which memoir becomes neutral historical analysis before reverting to memoir. The end of the book sees Achebe evaluate his country and prescribe recuperative measures: “The final chapter is an exhortation to better governance,” writes Saro-Wiwa, “in which he examines corruption, ethnic bigotry, state failure and the steps Nigeria must take to rehabilitate itself.” “Achebe, as an African intellectual, is perfectly placed to ask the important questions about why so few of the newly independent nations became, by most measures, successful,” writes Tim Ecott in The Telegraph. “Nigeria, he argues, had people of great quality, and its chaotic, shambolic, corrupt society is 'a great disappointment'.”

Ian Rankin in Edinburgh (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.