Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on James Salter, George Monbiot and David Goodhart.

All that is by James Salter

All That Is offers an intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive. The critics are divided over whether this is one of James Salter’s (87) best novels yet.

Leo Robson, writing in The New Statesman provides a balanced critique of Salter’s latest tale: “At times you recoil […] from the hard-boiled worldliness and the straitened conception of women and the lordly indifference to movements in the public sphere. But mostly, Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to be helpless.”

Geoff Dyer of The Independent resolves that Salter has created “a strange masterpiece”. Whilst his writing style can at first seem “a tad awkward”, this awkwardness is to be enjoyed once the reader gives themselves over to his “distinctive rhythms. Mastery, eventually, is an indifference to how things are meant to be done.”

The Guardian’s James Lasdun, on the other hand, believes Salter cannot yet be hailed a “great” writer. “He's a little too loftily impassive and perhaps a little too interested in creating crystalline verbal beauty, to compel the word "great", at least without strong reservations.” Nevertheless he concedes that Salter is “amazingly good.”

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

Feral is George Monbiot’s call for us to “rewild” our planet, to “love not man the less, but Nature more.” He passionately explains what environmentalists stand for as oppose to against.

For Sam Leith of The Spectator this peculiar and involving book — three-quarters exhilarating environmental manifesto, one quarter midlife crisis — has an enormous amount to recommend it.” Whilst there is much to digest and reflect upon, there is also “much to be excited by, and the odd bit to giggle at.”

Philip Hoare, writing in The Telegraph, has high praise for Monbiot’s continued displays of wit and irony. “As a passionate polemic, it could not be more rigorously researched, more elegantly delivered, or more timely.” The book’s “what ifs” are verging on “eccentric” but “we need such big thinking for our own sakes and those of our children.”

Frances Stonor Saunders of The Guardian is more witholding of admiration. Monbiot writes in a “gloomy mood, mourning the loss of the improbable bestiary that lies under Nelson's Column, and with it a world that was once rugged and wild and big.” He also fails to address questions on how to “calibrate human demands with the ideology of the wilderness.”

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration by David Goodhart

According to David Edgar’s Guardian review Goodheart “seeks to challenge what he sees as leftwing myths about immigration.” Whereas Goodhart argues that the rise of the National Front and other examples of British racism have been widely over-emphasized, Edgar points out the sheer numbers of racially-motivated violence, which beggars Goodhart’s notion of an overly-liberal attitude to immigration.

Jon Cruddas’ New Statesman review supports Goodhart, writing that “by closing down the argument” via knee-jerk accusations of racism “the left allowed the right to shape the tone and language of the immigration debate, particularly in England.”

Ian Thomson appears to split the difference in a review for The Telegraph. He concurs with Edgar about the problematics of Goodhart’s tone and self-identification, but like Cruddas, acknowledges British Dream’s usefulness as a “a useful guide to the vagaries of our mixed-up, mixed-race nation.” And by recounting the story of his immigrant mother, Thomson reifies diversity and adaptation, and attests to a kind of British hybrid vigor.

James Salter has published his sixth novel, aged 87. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood