I miss Roger Ebert already

The "best known film critic in America" has died, aged 70.

I miss Roger Ebert already. His great achievement as a critic was to make discussing movies personal. He was a great anti-intellectual and a populist - in the best sense of the word - in that that he approached pop culture with a liberal spirit: hoping for the best, eviscerating the worst. Reading Ebert on film provided more than one generation with the confidence to talk about their experiences at the cinema, for work, or for fun. You didn't even need to speak, if you didnt want to. Everyone has thumbs after all.

Ebert began his career as a reporter and features writer, hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. When he moved on to reviewing the following year, he took the narrative-driven fundamentals of beat reporting with him to the arts desk. He had a prodigious memory, a head full of stories. His memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011, allowed him to focus on the activity that had come to define his life, movie-going, and providing him with a unique way of understanding the life it produced: “I was born inside the movie of my life,” the book begins. “The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

His accidental entry into criticism, regular appearances on television (on Sneak Previews and At the Movies), led to disgruntlement from thoroughly-schooled rivals who accused him of reducing the art of reviewer to a series of subjective gestures. But all criticism is, to some degree, subjective – is it not? Orwell testified to the idea that a writer simply likes a book or does not. The challenge comes in attempting to justify that emotion. Ebert did it daily, for over forty years.

Only three days ago Ebert announced on his blog that he was taking a “leave of presence”. In recent years, I have followed his thoughts on illness, religion, and the future of criticism, almost as regularly as his reviews (astonishingly, last year was Ebert’s most prolific – he reviewed 306 movies and wrote weekly blog posts). Despite having undergone a series of debilitating operations since his diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2002, he planned to oversee a series of projects (including a new website, the annual Ebertfest and an upcoming documentary on his life), while reserving the right to “wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

For many, Eberts “leave of presence” has become an almost palpable absence of presence: in print, online (despite his best intentions, Ebert became a prolific tweeter) and on television. President Barack Obama paid him tribute: “For a generation of Americans – especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive.” 

At the last, he addressed his readers, to whom through writing about film he had become a sweet great-uncle, in the conspicuous glasses and over-sized jacket of a local oracle. His final blog post ended with an expression of gratitude: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

The American critic in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror