Books in Brief: Sergio de la Pava, Rose George, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

Three new books you may have missed.

A Naked Singularity
Sergio De La Pava
A Naked Singularity was originally self-published by its author, a New York public defence lawyer, in 2008. The University of Chicago Press republished it in 2012 after a positive reaction online and slowly growing sales. Now, the book is front and centre in indie bookshop windows across Europe, bolstered by praise from critics who applaud De La Pava’s Pynchonian energy, inventiveness and hysterical cast of lawbreakers (and makers). The novel tells the story of Casi, a lawyer on the front line of America’s war on drugs, licking his wounds after his first defeat. The narrative takes the form of a slippery, disorganised projection of the New York justice system, a verbal descent into madness.
MacLehose Press, 864pp, £20 
 
Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Brings You 90 Per Cent of Everything
Rose George
 
“Friday. No sensible sailor goes to sea on the day of the Crucifixion, or the journey will be followed by ill-will and malice.” The first two sentences of Rose George’s book prepare the reader for timetables, ships and superstition. It is a travelogue of sorts, written in clear, straightforward English, about the people, pirates and machinery that make up the modern maritime industry: a series of complex, ancient and solitary traditions hidden from most, but as vital to life as ever.
Portobello Books, 308pp, £14.99 
 
The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing
Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster
 
In her essay “On Being Ill”, Virginia Woolf said that “rashness” was essential for appreciating Shakespeare, whose work was heavily guarded by patrician literary critics. “Illness,” she wrote, “in its kingly sublimity, sweeps all that aside and leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself.” Critchley and Webster write about Hamlet in short, vitriolic chapters, proposing a series of darkly intelligent questions and asserting Ophelia’s place as the real hero of the play. It is an ode to the spirit of “rashness”.
Verso, 288pp, £14.99
Eyes down, look in: Book shoppers in Munich. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
Show Hide image

Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses