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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times