In the Critics this Week

Birds, an exclusive short story by Hanif Kureishi, Mexican art and Elizabeth Taylor.

The first extensive review in this week’s Critics section comes from John Burnside, who looks at the “gorgeously produced” Birds and People, a book by Mark Cocker and David Tipling. Burnside notes how topical this 600-page compendium is, as it focuses on our exploitation of birds, as well as celebrating birdlife.

Burnside uses the review to discuss the danger birds face in the UK, and asks, what can we do to ensure that in future, a book that “avowedly “explores and celebrates” our relationship with birds need not refer so frequently to habitat loss, deforestation and various forms of direct persecution?”.

...Emmanuel Levinas created a philosophy in which each of us is confronted with what he calls “the face” of the other, which implores and challenge us not to do it harm, but to respond to it from a position that goes beyond mere respect, or even compassion- a position that, because it understands the necessity of the other to our own continued being approaches the deeply unfashionable condition of reverence. That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, a solipsistic mode of thinking that takes such absurd indicators as GDP or the Dow Jones as measures of prosperity.

Burnside produces an infectiously passionate review, critiquing our treatment of birds and our society more broadly.

The Critics section this week also features a short story by Hanif Kureishi on the end of a marriage. Entitled The Racer, the story follows a man and his wife, “in the week of their divorce, before they moved out of the house they shared with the children and stepchildren for twelve years”. The fraught couple agree to race each other around their neighbourhood.

Outside on the street, he bent forwards and backwards and jiggled on his toes, churning his arms. She stood next to him impatiently. He couldn’t bear to look at her. She had said that she was eager to get on with her life. For that he was glad. Surely, then, he couldn’t take this ridiculous bout seriously? The two must have looked idiotic, standing there glaring, seething and stamping. Where was his wisdom and maturity? Yet nothing had been as important as this before.

He concentrated on his breathing and began to jog on the spot. He would run to the edge of himself. He would run because he’d made another mistake. He would run because they could not be in the same room, and because the worst of her was inside him.

Kureishi's story is gripping from the very first sentence.

The Critics art section this week includes Michael Prodger’s review of Mexico: a Revolution in Art currently exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts. Prodger lambasts the fact that the review misses the most obvious, most unique feature of Mexican art, the “public murals and especially ... the nationalist, socialist and historical wall paintings of 'los tres grandes'”.

Unsurprisingly, in an exhibition held five and a half thousand miles from Mexico and in the small rooms of the RA’s Sackler Galleries, there are no murals to be seen.

What there is instead is a selection of paintings and photographs by both Mexicans and foreigners that illustrate something of the countries turbulent social and artistic progress during the three formative decades from the outbreak of the revolution in 1910 to the end of the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, the last revolutionary office holder, in 1940. While there is a single painting by each of the big three- and a tiny, Nicholas Hilliardesque miniature by Rivera’s wife, the overrated darling of Mexican painting, Frida Kahlo- the rest of the show, sans murals, is a curious artistic sampling that tries to ignore the elephant in the room.

Prodger offers insightful criticism of an exhibition that only succeeds in documenting what happened in the Mexican revolution, “an unusual exhibition in that it contains few pictures of the highest quality and no indisputable masterpieces.”

This week’s television section features Rachel Cooke’s critique of BBC 4’s Burton and Taylor. Cooke gives a brief history of other BBC 4 biopics before analysing the performances of Helen Bonham Carter as Taylor, and Dominic West as Burton.

Wow. I didn’t entirely buy Bonham Carter as Taylor, though her acting was superlative (film-star spoilt is harder to play than you think). But West, I totally bought. It was like watching Burton, only...better. West is a more accomplished actor than Burton, or at any rate, a less hammy one, and he is twice as sexy, if you ask me. The voice- coal wrapped in velvet- was perfect (”the theatrical equivalent of a big cock,” said this version of Burton, when Taylor praised it), and the manner was suitably retro: Terry: Thomas meets Dylan Thomas. I cant believe there is a man alive who looks better in a camel pea coat than west.

Cooke goes on to praise the writer, William Ivory, in her rich and entertaining review.

This week’s extended critics section also features:

  • A host of summer reading recommendations from our contributors
  • A review of Ben Wilson’s Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy by Stephen Taylor
  • The Best Art Noveau Restaurant in Europe, a poem by Tim Liardet
  • Jane Shilling’s review of A Long Walk Home: One Women’s Story of Kidnap, Hostage, Loss- and Survival by Judith Tebbutt
  • Tom Fort’s critique of End of Night, a book by Paul Bogard
  • Sarah Churchwell’s review of Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Stuart Burrows analyses What Maisie Knew the new film adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel
  • An investigation of the enduring appeal of crime fiction by Ian Sansom
  • Ryan Gilbey’s review of the film Frances Ha
  • Antonia Quirke offers her opinions on Talk Sport Radio’s Fisherman’s Blues
  • Geoffrey Wheatcroft attends the Schubertiade festival in Austria
Michael Prodger is less than impressed with the exhibition of Mexican art at the Royal Academy of Arts. Picture: Getty Images.
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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain