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.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism