Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Di Cintio, Laing and Pagden.

Walls by Marcello Di Cintio

Walls by Marcello Di Cintio is an exploration of walls which divide people around the world, including the West Bank Wall, Belfast barriers and The Indo-Bangladesh ‘fence’, amongst many others. Di Cintio argues that these walls do not serve their intended purpose. Rather than providing security, they often prove more harmful to the people living in the areas around them.

Roger Boyes from the Times praises Di Cintio’s thoughts when suggesting that Di Cintio “uses his explorations as a way of thinking about unresolved conflicts” and is “at his best when he makes the trip into an adventure”. Boyes however, also states that “Di Cintio sometimes over-writes” and takes sides, saying he is “plainly laying out his preferences for the Palestinians over Jewish settlers.” Despite this, Boyes ultimately describes the book as something “that always follows its thread, that charmingly and unpompously accepts the haplessness of being an outsider.”

Raja Shehadeh from the Financial Times agrees with Boyes, writing that Di Cintio “realises the limit of what he, as an outsider, can experience.” He goes on to praise Di Cintio stating that he “writes with passion and empathy for the victims of those monstrous walls”, something which gives the reader “a sense of what it is like to live on one side of a wall and to experience the fragmentation and destruction”. In addition, Shehadeh points out that Di Cintio identifies “symptoms of a prevailing sickness afflicting many countries, causing them to resort to building expensive but useless walls” which ultimately proves to be “harmful to the people living next to them.”

Writing in the New Statesman, Owen Hatherley describes Di Cintio as “very good – honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid” but argues that it is easy to be “distracted” when questions are raised by Di Cintio, such as: "How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert?" Hatherley agrees with Boyes when stating that Di Cintio’s “sympathies are with the oppressed”, showing him to be taking sides. The idea of Walls, “the constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people”, are described as “not only enduring but thriving.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing focuses on six writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Laing visits the places in America where these writers had variously lived and drank, to find an answer to the question: why do so many great writers become alcoholics? Laing is influenced by her own childhood being surrounded by alcoholism.

Gordon Bowker of The Independent gives this book the thumbs up, describing Laing as a “fine and stylish travel writer, with a sharp eye for passing detail”, as she includes precise detail by looking at “the techniques alcoholics adopt to obscure their addiction – denial, displacement, and self-deception”. Laing uses a “rich array of images, and literary allusions” which allows her to make “intriguing links” to a “wider literary landscape”, something Bowker describes as ultimately providing the “beauty of Laing’s book”.

The New Statesman’s Talitha Stevenson explains how “Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition” provides the “greatest force” for the book. Stevenson continues and recognises the importance of Laing’s childhood in her being able to write in a psychoanalytical style: “Of a childhood scene involving her mother’s alcoholic girlfriend and the police, Laing notes that her strongest memory is ‘my conviction that if only I were allowed to speak to her I could calm her down – a piece of absurdly unrealistic co-dependence that’s had long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life’.” Laing’s own experience with alcohol “makes her a good match for her muddled subjects”, in writing about fellow writers. Stevenson describes Laing as not having produced an answer to the question, but rather “a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.”

John Sutherland of the Times agrees with Stevenson and reflects that “Laing’s childhood was blighted by the violent drunkenness of her mother’s lesbian partner”, which prompted her to write the book. Sutherland praises Laing's analysis of alcohol addiction in writers, noting that “Laing’s analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd.” Sutherland shares the sentiments of Bowker, and describes The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink as “truly worthwhile” because Laing “is a terrific writer.”

The Enlightenment: And why it still matters by Anthony Pagden

Anthony Pagden‘s The Enlightenment: And why it still matters tells the story of how the modern world was created. Anthony Pagden argues that the ideal of a global and cosmopolitan society became a central part of the western imagination in the tumult of the Enlightenment, and how those ideas have done battle against the more traditionally-orientated ideas of the world.

Stuart Kelly of the Guardian describes Pagden as being part of “the camp that believes an enlightenment, across several countries and with broad similarities of purpose and method, did indeed occur.” Kelly continues and states that “Pagden's selections from writers of the period are markedly partial” because of a lack of a “counterargument” provided by Pagden for the views of Edmund Burke in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. Kelly further complains at the lack of mention by Pagden of Karl Marx,without referencing Marx is to write the history of ideas without ideas or history.” Finally, Kelly describes this book as “strident, partisan and always willing to overlook a fact in favour of a thesis.”

The Independent’s Kenan Malik writes “Pagden's retelling of the Enlightenment story, and his defence of cosmopolitanism, are cogent and important” as Pagden is writing about something which “has significance well beyond the history books”. Malik identifies that Pagden pursues an important argument, that the Enlightenment “developed through a struggle with the ghosts of two Thomases: Aquinas and Hobbes.”

Noel Malcolm of the Daily Telegraph agrees with Stuart Kelly and states: “Pagden’s new book is firmly on the pro-Enlightenment side.” Malcolm questions Pagden’s assertion that had the “preconditions of the Enlightenment not occurred ... we would now be living in an ossified society, with little original thinking”, questioning this “an implausible scenario”. In addition, Malcolm describes aspects of Pagden’s version of the Enlightenment as having “its radical moments”. He finally describes Pagden as having the same notion of enlightenment as “put forward by that movement’s greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant: the point was to stop taking things on trust, and start thinking for yourself.”

West Bank wall being climbed by Palestinians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war