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.
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories