Gruff Rhys live at the Barbican, London. Bertrand Langlois/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 1 July

The critics’ verdicts on Tristram Hunt, Gruff Rhys and Leslie Jamison.

Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt’s impressive CV as television historian and lecturer turned Labour MP is more master than “jack of all trades”, judging by the recent reviews of his latest book Ten Cities That Made an Empire. Hunt’s analysis of the rise and fall of the British Empire travels meticulously and ambitiously through different cities, beginning at the Boston Tea Party and ending with the impact of Liverpool’s vast exports.

The particular cities selected by Hunt for analysis, ranging from Dublin to Calcutta, are censored by the Independent, with Justin Huggler remarking “this is not a comprehensive survey of the British Empire. It barely touches on British colonialism in Africa beyond Cape Town ... or the Middle East, and Singapore only gets a mention in the Hong Kong chapter.” Surely one of the inevitabilities of a BuzzFeed-worthy format of ten cities is the limited number, and as the Observer's Robert Service concedes, “No book can deal with everything”, proving that what Hunt may lack in breadth he makes up for in depth.

Hunt’s objective approach to sensitive matters such as the slave trade and other debilitating aspects of colonialism is derided by The Observer as “a middle position between the two sides” adding that Hunt “dislikes any cut-and-dried analysis that suggests that the effects of British rule were wholly good or wholly bad for the subject peoples.” Michael Gove’s support of Hunt in the Times takes the view that the historian’s distanced narrative is “clever, stylish, carefully balanced ideologically so as not to give offence to vigorous partisans on either side of the debate and a pleasure to spend time with.” Hunt’s impartial gaze, while frustrating for some, demonstrates that his interest lies not in the dichotomy of condemning or rejoicing the British Empire but instead on exploring how colonialism transformed the urban landscape.

American Interior by Gruff Rhys

On an “investigative concert tour” throughout the USA, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys retraces the journey of his distant ancestor, John Evans, who sought to find the Madogwys, a fabled tribe of Native American Welsh-speakers. Although Evans never found the Madogwys, during his journey up the Mississippi river he created a map which would be used by Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition and, two centuries later, plots the points for Gruff Rhys’ own artistic journey in American Interior.

Rhys’ ambitious project takes a multimedia approach, appearing in four forms: book, album, film, and app, all named American Interior. Each form allows Rhys to tell the tale of his and Evans’s parallel journeys from a different angle. The book was praised by the Independent’s James Attlee as “charming and entertainingly written”, while the Guardians John Harris applauds a book which “brims with verve and fascination”. Harris recognises the risks of Rhys’ project: relating two journeys separated by two centuries “could easily go wrong”, but Harris assures the book “actually soars, thanks to three things: the strength of Rhys’s writing, his talent for finding the extraordinary among the mundane and his grasp of the subject.”

Yet, for Paul Lester of the Express, John Evans’s journey is overwhelmed by historical detail, leaving the reader’s mind “scrambled by all the dates and names.” Lester describes the book as an “avalanche of minutiae” and “a barrage of facts, albeit leavened with Rhys’ wry humour and neat turns of phrase.” Lester’s lukewarm response shows that with ambition comes the risk of failure. Gruff Rhys, like John Evans before him, is mapping out new territory.

In the London Review Bookshop on July 15th, Gruff Rhys will be in conversation with Iain Sinclair, discussing the project.

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s ruthlessly honest book studies the emotional and physical complexities of pain, grounded as it is in personal anecdotes which aim to avoid over-generalisation. There is no thought she appears to censor, revealing that before an abortion she told herself to “answer every question like you’re clarifying a coffee order”, leaping onto other essays about breakups, visiting prison inmates and getting her nose broken by a man who stole her purse in Nicaragua.

Former NS features editor Sophie Elmhirst, writing in the Financial Timesplaces Jamison in an “alternative tribe – patron saint, David Foster Wallace – who try to encounter the world more gently.” Jamison attempts to write and live according to empathy, concluding one essay: “I want our hearts to be open.” Elmhirst sees Jamison “surprising even herself with the Disneyish sentiment” in a review which is affectionate towards and impressed by the “winningly honest” Jamison. However, the Guardians Brian Dillon takes issue with the sincere, sermon-like call for open-heartedness “Too many essays conclude, as “Grand Unified Theory” does, with trite expressions where it seems the expectations of the well-formed lit-mag essay have pressed too hard”. For Dillon, while Jamison’s attention to vulnerability is “exceptional”, solidifying her place in the “alternative tribe” of empathy, The Empathy Exams is “more of a retreat at the level of thought than that of style.”

Jamison’s work is repeatedly compared with Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls due to its popular culture references and unashamedly confessional tone. Her unique blend of inspiration, ranging from Axl Rose to Charles Dickens, is criticised by the New York TimesDwight Garner who commented that “one or two of her lesser essays find her swinging too frequently from quotation to quotation, as if from vine to vine.” Yet Garner ultimately defends Jamison’s mix of gory personal injuries - such as a maggot-infested ankle - with cloying clichés, concluding that “the prose contains not a shred of self-help imbecility.” The originality of Jamison’s self-criticism may inadvertently lead to some soul-searching of your own.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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