A new, more positive, biography of poet Philip Larkin has been published Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 2 September

The critics’ verdicts on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Will Self’s Shark, and a new biography of Philip Larkin by James Booth.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, a book David Mitchell has described as his “mid-life crisis novel,” is the story of a 1980s teenager who gets entagled in a conspiracy threatening the structure of time. The New Statesman’s Olivia Laing admires Mitchell’s ability to recreate the past: “Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous,” she writes. However, she is less convinced by the overall structure of the book. “It has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot.”

The Times’ Melissa Katsoulis is more enthusiastic, writing, “In the wrong hands, magical storytelling like this would make you cringe. But in Mitchell’s it thrills. He is funny, hip and full of life.” She even goes so far as to start making predictions about literary prizes: “This beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas may well take him, finally, beyond the Booker shortlist.”

Louise Jury in the Independent suggests that not every aspect of Mitchell’s novel will be found universally appealing: “for sci-fi fantasists, the imaginary world Mitchell creates might be a thing of wonder, a Dungeons and Dragons for literate grown-ups. For others, I suspect the flesh and blood anguish of a long life lived well against the odds will prove the greater pleasure.” Overall, however, she is positive about the book, calling Mitchell a “consummate craftsman” for his ability to weave together different stories.

Shark by Will Self

Will Self’s eleventh novel is a prequel in narrative, though sequel in publication date, to Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. The New Statesman’s Mark Lawson praises Self for “saving the life of the hard reward that rewards the attention demanded,” even if he is a little hesitant about the density of the prose: “the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Jon Day is similarly full of admiration for Shark: “not only is this a truly wonderful novel, it also makes you want to revisit his previous work and read it with a keener eye.” He also suggests that Self has improved on what he began in Umbrella: “where Umbrella’s tricksiness sometimes made it feel like a work of historical fiction, in Shark the language feels urgent and necessary. What Self aired in Umbrella has hardened into a style.”

The highest praise comes from the Guardian, in which Stuart Kelly writes, “Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation . . . I have every expectation that when this trilogy does conclude, it will be recognised as the most remorseless vivisection and plangent evocation of our sad, silly, solemn and strange last century.”

Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love by James Booth

James Booth's new biography of Philip Larkin gives a more positive version of the famous poet than is customary. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon points out that “although Booth has carried out his own interviews and draws on previously unpublished letters, his biography contains no game-changing revelations,” and as such Booth’s positive presentation of Larkin relies on reinterpreting the existing evidence. “Sometimes, it works,” Deacon writes. Other attempts, however, are “not very convincing.”

The Observer’s Rachel Cooke is similarly mixed in her praise. Booth is said to be “unfair to Larkin’s lovers, women he apparently regards as the poet’s ‘creation’.” He also “overstate[s] the Larkin-haters’ case, the better that he might ride to the rescue.” All the same, “there is compensation in the form of his lengthy readings of the poems, which are close and thoughtful if not exactly exhilarating, and in his use of Larkin’s letters, which remind the reader again and again what a fantastic writer the poet was, even in casual mode.”

In the Spectator, on the other hand, Peter J. Conradi is much more positive, calling Booth’s biography “superb.” Conradi also suggests the book is superior to Motion’s: “Booth’s psychology is subtler than Motion’s and more convincing. His achievement is to paint a satisfying and believably complex picture . . . As for Larkin the misogynist, it is mysterious how the character painted by Motion could have had any love life at all, let alone a highly complex and fulfilling one.”

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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