In The Critics this week

David Runciman on Kennedy's last 100 days, Rachel Bowlby on the changing nature of parenthood and Rachel Cooke on the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe.

To kick-start this week’s Critics section is a review to complement our "What if JFK had lived?" cover of two new books about the assissinated president. Political scientist David Runciman begins by commenting on the role luck plays in determining a politician’s legacy: “Luck plays a big part in presidents' reputations – and not just in terms of what happens while they are in office (wars give presidents a boost; financial crises don’t).” He then contrasts the way Lyndon B. Johnson struck gold, while Kennedy’s office was unfortunately placed in times less conducive to political success. As a result, Runciman writes, Kennedy is remembered as “the crowd-pleasing playboy president” who was “brave, attractive and ambitious” but “ultimately ineffectual.”

Runciman then begins a diatribe against Jeffrey Sachs’ To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace arguing that “Sachs is an economist, not a historian”. Runciman criticises two assumptions he believes the book rests on: firstly the idea that “treaties matter” and secondly, more dubiously, the idea that “speeches actually matter”. With reference to Kennedy’s “Peace Speech” of June 1963, he berates Sachs for devoting “too much of his book to analysing Kennedy’s rhetoric line by line talking up its logic, its beauty and its power to move.” Runciman deals the final blow by saying “he provides no evidence that it made the vital difference, beyond how it stirred him as a boy and stirs him still.” His damning indictment of Sachs’ argument draws to a close with the phrase “Sachs is surely right that the world needs another prod in the direction of justice. But the early-1960s oratory without the early-1960s context isn’t going to do it.”

The Cambridge don then moves onto Clarke’s account of Kennedy’s final 100 days in office (JFK's Last Hundred Days: an Intimate Portrait of a Great President), which he says is, when compared to Sachs’ account, a "warts-and-all" portrait. That said, Clarke is still too optimistic about Kennedy’s potential for Runciman’s liking: he argues that it is rare for presidents to achieve in their second-term what they failed to in their first. He goes on: “Kennedy kept talking up what he was going to do – “after 1964” became his mantra in 1963 – but he was also an inveterate ditherer who made sure there was always a get-out clause.” Ending on a realistic note, Runciman finishes with the statement: “Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, like most of the others.”

Second up we have Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, one half of the Vagenda, reviewing Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book Pink Sari Revolution: a Tale of Women and Power in the Badlands of India. Cosslett first describes the media storm created by a young female student’s gang rape in India late last year. The coverage entailed a swift arrest of the alleged perpetrators, who were eventually charged for their atrocious crimes (the girl later died from her injuries in hospital). However, as Cosslett identifies, this is not standard practice for the justice system in India, which is often rife with police corruption, victim-blaming and incredibly intrusive crime-confirmation procedures. Cosslett praises Fontanella-Khan’s book for conveying “not only the sense of injustice felt by these often-abused women, who live in the poorest of regions, but also their will to make things better by fighting, sometimes literally, to be heard.” The book follows Sampat Pal Devi, leader of the Gulabi “Pink” Gang and their struggle for women's empancipation in India. Cosslett concludes that “by the end of the book, it is difficult to view Sampat and her followers as anything less than superheroic”.

Our Critic At Large this week is Rachel Bowlby, author of A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories. In “Birth Stories” she looks at the changing nature of parenthood, arguing that “over the course of the 20th century, having children became, in most western cultures, more of an active choice than a post-marital expectation.” Bowlby traverses the various new types of parenthood: gay parenthood, single parenthood, step parenthood and argues that there are now multiple interpretations of what exactly “biological parenthood” means. She explores the debates about what forms a “biological connection” between parent and child can take and concludes that “there are many more parental narratives to be told or discovered.”

Finally, Rachel Cooke reviews Channel 4’s latest four-part crime drama Southcliffe. She begins by agreeing that the drama about a murderer who kills 15 people in a small market town ticks all of the boxes and that over at Bafta HQ in Piccadilly ears will certainly be pricking up. Cooke, however, feels that Southcliffe is somewhat far-fetched and potentially “emotionally overloaded”. She concedes that it has certain plus points: the script has some “decent lines, the kind you notice and turn over in your mind afterwards” such as “I feel like a dead pigeon”, said by the murderer’s mother to her son. The criticism finally ends as Cooke decides that “Durkin certainly has an eye for an interesting horizon, for strange weather, for peeling clapboard – but I’m afraid that I don’t buy it at all as the work of art it clearly longs to be. Art simply isn’t this brutal, this laboured, this insistently pedantic.”

In The Critics this week - Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book “Pink Sari Revolution". Photograph: Getty Images.
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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge