Books in Brief: Andrew Lycett, Robert Calderisi and Tom Cheshire

Three new books you may have missed.

Auguste and Jean Piccard, along with Auguste's wife Jeannette, on another expedition in May 1934. Image: Getty
 
Wilkie Collins: a Life of Sensation
Andrew Lycett
 
Andrew Lycett, a biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, has done some investigating into the father of the detective novel and in this biography reconstructs Wilkie Collins’s tangled domestic life, which revolved around two mistresses. The writer who specialised in family secrets had secrets of his own. He also had a limitless capacity for drugs and a place at the centre of Victorian cultural life – he was a friend of Charles Dickens and the painter John Everett Millais. Here is the author of The Moonstone as a character from one of his “sensation” novels . . . except that this is all true.
 
Hutchinson, 544pp, £20
 
Earthly Mission: the Catholic Church and World Development
Robert Calderisi
 
The former director of the World Bank takes a balanced look at the contradictory and controversial stances of the Catholic Church, which has been criticised for its position on birth control, abortion, child abuse and priestly celibacy. Here, Robert Calderisi points out that 65 per cent of Catholic schools are in developing countries and that in some parts of Africa it provides up to 50 per cent of health and education services. It is also a provider of antiretroviral drugs to combat Aids and has established credit unions to promote economic self-sufficiency. There are two sides to the Catholic coin.
 
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20
 
The Explorer Gene
Tom Cheshire
 
The Swiss family Piccard has a habit of going higher, deeper and further than anyone else. In 1931 Auguste Piccard reached a height of 51,775 feet in a balloon, higher than any man before him. His twin, Jean Felix, then promptly went higher. Auguste’s son Jacques went to the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench, in a family-designed submarine, and his grandson Bertrand was the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. Tom Cheshire tells the story of these high – and low – achievers and examines what pushed them ever onwards.
 
Short Books, 301pp, £20

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage