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  1. Culture
13 March 2024

From Bridget O’Connor to Grace Blakeley: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Performer by Richard Sennett and Cloistered by Catherine Coldstream.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Jonny Ball and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Cloistered: My Years as a Nun by Catherine Coldstream

In 1989, when Catherine Coldstream was 27, she entered the Carmelite Order at “Akenside Priory” (a pseudonym) in Northumberland, where she stayed for 12 years. This radical, ancient Catholic order is cloistered and hermetic, sealing itself off from the outside world: nuns are screened by a grille from outsiders visiting the complex, and they don’t work in the community. Coldstream’s was a life of self-denial with few physical or intellectual comforts, spent in prayer and contemplation or doing manual work.

What could lead a young woman raised in a secular home in north London to become a nun? Grieving the death of her father gave Coldstream “the kind of recklessness and purity of intention that might not have been possible under easier, less drastic circumstances”. Despite its austerities, she at first enjoyed “the Life” at Akenside, but beneath its quiet serenity lay something darker and at times horrific, and Coldstream eventually flees, on foot and under the cover of night. Though Cloistered is a memoir of high emotion, its prose is always measured and considered, as is Coldstream’s contemplation of the monastic life – the appeal of which she still sees.
By Pippa Bailey
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £20. Buy the book

The Performer: Art, Life, Politics by Richard Sennett

Before he became a renowned social theorist, Richard Sennett was a professional, Juilliard-trained cellist. He knows, therefore, something about performance. As a writer he has specialised in social life as it manifests in public, and performing (and narrating and picturing, the subjects of his next two books) is, he says, part of our “expressive DNA”.

In this book he looks at every aspect of performing – where it is done, stage or street; the performances of demagogues; the audience who takes it all in; the masks, clothing and appurtenances of acting in public and so on. Sennett uses a wide frame of reference to bolster his analysis. He reveals that Louis XIV was a skilled dancer whose appearances and costumes added to his majesty; he discusses how Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary film Triumph of the Will recorded Hitler and Nazism at their most charismatic and malign; he notes that the Greeks acted out civic life in the agora or public square; and looks at why anthropologists trace the strictness of ritual to collective rather than individual expression. Sennett admits that while “All the world’s a stage” may be a trite aperçu, that doesn’t make it wrong.
By Michael Prodger
Allen Lane, 256pp, £25. Buy the book

Vulture Capitalism: Corporate Crimes, Backdoor Bailouts and the Death of Freedom by Grace Blakeley

Vulture Capitalism stands in the tradition of well-argued, orthodox Marxist analyses of capitalism and its discontents. Blakeley, a former New Statesman contributor, restates that for all the paeans to free trade, market efficiency, limited government and competition, Hayekian neoliberalism has produced an economy reliant on state intervention, regulation and planning on capital’s behalf. The case is made cogently, via forays into Marxist state theory, behavioural science and tales of corporate crime facilitated by ideological politicians.

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But some of Blakeley’s thesis is undermined by the claim that Thatcherism didn’t oversee a shrinkage of the state, but rather its reorientation in the service of big business. In fact, the state’s share of GDP was relentlessly lowered. Blakeley’s solution – a form of “democratic planning” – also seems quixotic: the planned economies of the Eastern Bloc weren’t famed for the autonomy they afforded individuals or workers’ councils. In the proposed socialist model, if production and distribution were to be “planned”, it’s unclear how this could be achieved without contradicting the deliberative functions of the very workers’ cooperatives Blakeley advocates for.
By Jonathan Ball
Bloomsbury, 416pp, £20. Buy the book

After a Dance: Selected Stories by Bridget O’Connor

Bridget O’Connor, the daughter of Irish parents, was born in London in 1961 and died of cancer in 2010. During her too-short life, she wrote wickedly funny stories – initially while working in a building-site canteen – and prize-winning plays. Her adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which she wrote with her husband, Peter Straughan) won a Bafta shortly after her death.

In this new collection her most accomplished and most devastating stories lie side by side. O’Connor writes of everyday characters so pitiful they are ridiculous, so awful they become lovable. There’s the misogynistic stalker Tony Wornel, who thinks quite a lot of himself (“I subscribe to a number of interesting magazines”) and overuses the phrase “to cut a long story short”. Another character thinks eating tofu is “like eating someone’s cellulite”. The narrator of “Harp” swindles the instrument from a busking student and then makes a song of her escapade: “I had the friggin harp, the friggin harp I have got. Zoom zoom zoomed across the lights. Down the Underground.” The language is unexpected and the twists are often absurd. Reading O’Connor is always a delight.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Picador, 160pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: From John Berger to Jenny Kleeman: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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