In the Critics this week

John Burnside celebrates chance encounters with animals, Ray Monk looks at Wittgenstein, Alice Gribbin interviews John Banville and John Gray reviews Rowan Williams's ventures beyond the wardrobe door.

The Critics section of this week's New Statesman opens with John Burnside's ode to animal encounters, “of the fleeting, gorgeous exchange of a look” that is "an occasion of quiet, if short-lived joy." He laments that “real animals, wild animals, have all but passed from our lives.” “There is so little of the wild in us.” This is tragic because as “Paul Shepard has said … I suspect the greater loss is of another kind – the way a local fauna links the concept of self and the uniqueness of place in different cultures. The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of animals.’”  In Burnside’s opinion this coarsening means that “Nature poetry has become more urgent than ever,” praising in particular William Stafford’s “laconic and unsettling” Travelling through the dark, which asone of the most beautifully dramatised moments in modern poetry, creates a scene in which the only live thing seems to be the car engine, and the man.”

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

Under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.

A similar outlook can be found in Rowan Williams’s The Lion’s World: a Journey into Narnia. As John Gray writes in his review, “Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in [C S Lewis's] Narnia [novels]”. “‘The passionate campaign against nature itself is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity’ – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world.” Williams's book is a “concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study [which] can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the places of humankind in the scheme of things.” Gray is uncertain of the relevance the book’s epigraph, which echoes Wittgenstein’s aphorism “'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof on must be silent’… a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism … it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.”

Serendipitous, then, that Ray Monk has the answer to this exact question. “Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important.” “For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture” and “not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words.” Monk explains that is why Wittgenstein puzzlingly referred to himself as a disciple of Freud. Furthermore, he sees these strands of thought as embodied evocatively in a recent exhibition, Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Photography. “The exhibition began with its most intriguing item: a composite  photograph made up of four portraits or Wittgenstein and his three sisters. At first, it looks like a picture of a single person … enabling one to see directly the very strong family resemblances that existed between these four siblings.” Monk emphasizes that this notion of ‘family resemblances’ “is cruical to Wittgenstein's later philosophy”.

Alison Gribbin's interview with John Banville on Ancient Light, his latest novel about a 12-year-old who has an affair with his best friend’s mother, also has some philosophical and Freudian moments. Banville tells Gribbin: "The older I get, the more I realise writing is a process of dreaming… we like to imagine we’re in control, but actually we’re not. I think I’m less the writer than I’m the written.” He also clarified the assertion he made on Radio 4 that "writing sex into a novel is impossible" by saying that “the act is wonderful but writing about it is terrible … The erotic always tends to affection, love or negative things. You can’t write about fantasy without being ridiculous. I would love to write a pornographic book- I think it’s a great challenge.” Watch out E L James! Considering the inherent eroticism of the subject matter, combined with the strong first-person voice, Gribbin asks Banville if we are supposed to long for the interiority of the mother. He replies that “the point of Mrs Grey is that she lives on the surface.” “Nietzsche says: on the surface, that’s where the real depth is. It’s true. All a work of art can do is present the surface. I can’t know the insides of people.”

One might imagine then that Banville would be as enthused as Ryan Gilbey about a moment in the film Take This Waltz, in which a husband “gazes through the window at Magot [his wife] – her lips mouthing the words to a song that he cannot hear, her head moving to a rhythm that is inaccessible to him and likely always will be.” Gilbey, however, was less enamoured of the movie as a whole, arguing that actress Michelle Williams is "sometimes all that separates Take This Waltz from Amelie.”

Last, but not least, Brian Dillon reviews Will Self’s latest, and Man Booker-longlisted, novel Umbrella, about the Encephalitis lethargica epidemic, which sucked “victims into somnolence, torpor and coma." "The patients had not merely spun down into slow-mo; they had been seized first with a variety of tics and tremors, clawing motions and darting eye movements. In this sense, as Will Self discerns, theirs was a suitably modern, even modernist, affliction.” As such “Umbrella is as much a novel about the historical slump of modernist fiction – and its potential reanimation – as it is about the fates of encephalics.” “Yet Umbrella is not exactly a pastiche of modernist styles, nor… an effort to recharge those modes at one century’s remove… its relationship with modernism is as much a matter of historical allegory as structural or textual affinity.” “All of which suggests that Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humour.”   

Author John Banville, interviewed in this week's New Statesman (Photograph: Getty)
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game