In the Critics: The Centenary Issue

A.S Byatt on Terry Pratchett, Mark Damazer on Charles Emmerson’s history of the year 1913 and new fiction from Ali Smith.

In the Critics section of the centenary edition of the New Statesman, our “Critic at large” is the novelist A.S Byatt. Byatt explores her longstanding admiration for the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. “As a wartime child in the 1940s,” she recalls, “I was already puzzling over an image of a domed world poised on the backs of three elephants that stood on a monstrous turtle.” Byatt considers the latest in Pratchett’s series of books, co-written with the mathematician Ian Stewart and the biologist Jack Cohen, dealing with the science of Discworld. “Both Pratchett’s storytelling and the resolutely universe-centred perspective of the scientists make me happier to be human,” Byatt writes. “I look forward to the next volume.”

In the latest in a series of essays on visual art for the NS, the poet, critic and novelist Craig Raine writes about Picasso’s realism. Picasso “could be beautiful,” Raine argues, “but mostly he chose to be realistic … part of Picasso’s greatness is bound up with the idea that equivalence is more effective than literal representation, dull mimesis.” At its best, Raine concludes, his art is “reality tweaked”.

Our lead book reviewer is the historian Norman Stone, who reviews Brendan Simms’s Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present. Stone is struck by Simms’s “unrepentantly old-fashioned” approach. This works best, he suggests, when Simms writes about Germany, “the history of which he knows inside out”. Simms’s book reminds us, Stone writes, that “much of modern history can only be made sense of if you accept that Germany went ape”.

Also in Books: Jon Cruddas, MP and coordinator of Labour’s policy review, considers David Goodhart’s analysis of the costs and benefits of immigration in postwar Britain. “I was fearful of reading this book,” Cruddas admits. “However, I found greater nuance and texture than before”. In The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration, Cruddas concludes that Goodhart has made an important contribution to a “durable ‘one nation’ politics” of the kind Ed Miliband is trying to develop.

Will Hutton reviews Ben S Bernanke’s brief history of the 2008 financial crisis and Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig’s manifesto for banking reform, The Bankers’ New Clothes: “The question of how capitalism is to be better organised … is surely the issue, more than any other, that the New Statesman needs to address in its centenary year.”

PLUS: Mark Damazer on Charles Emmerson’s history of the year 1913; Claire Lowdon on Emma Brockes’s memoir of her mother, She Left Me the Gun; Robert Service on Stalin’s Curse by Robert Gellately; Douglas Hurd on Six Moments of Crisis by Gill Bennett; and Leo Robson on Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir by Greg Bellow.

Elsewhere in the Critics: NS culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire looks back at his predecessors in the literary editor’s chair; Labour MP Tom Watson shares his views on the Xbox’s latest game BioShock Infinite and Kate Mossman reviews James Blake’s new album.

PLUS: poems from the NS archive by W B Yeats and Philip Larkin feature alongside new poems by Christopher Reid and Wendy Cope; and The Human Claim, an exclusive new short story about the perils of credit card fraud by Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author Ali Smith

 

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage