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20 April 2022

Reviewed in short: New titles from Alison Colwell, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Warsan Shire and Richard Mainwaring

No Excuses by Colwell, Straits by Fernández-Armesto, Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice In Her Head by Shire and Everybody Hertz by Mainwaring.

By Anoosh Chakelian, Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Eleanor Peake

No Excuses: Turning Around One of Britain’s Toughest Schools by Alison Colwell
Biteback, 272pp, £16.99

There are certain teachers who become synonymous with the British education establishment’s own little culture war, and Alison Colwell – who has previously published dispatches from the helm of a tough school as “the Secret Head Teacher” – is one of them. Labelled Britain’s “strictest head teacher” by the Daily Mail, the leader of Kent’s Ebbsfleet Academy from 2012-19 is the type of head Tory ministers can get on board with: unabashed about discipline, exclusion and parental responsibility (when discussing ADHD, she cites the acronym “PPP”: “piss-poor parenting”).

Her uncompromising approach to behavioural standards is described with colour and – by her own admission – creative licence in this latest memoir, set in the fictional Lunsford Academy. An off-putting self-congratulatory tone and gushing quotes from admiring parents and staff litter the book (which opens with a quote by Mother Teresa) – leaving the reader guessing at what’s been embellished. The book is “a story of truth” as opposed to a “true story”, she writes, which ultimately makes what could be a stark insight into a troubled institution tricky to absorb.
By Anoosh Chakelian

[See also: How we fell in love with the polygraph]

Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £25

This history of Ferdinand Magellan is a thorough debunking. According to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the Portuguese explorer was not the great navigator who was the first to circumnavigate the globe but a rotten seaman, a maladroit manager of men, and a failure who neither found the spice-island riches he set out for nor made it home alive. His incompetence as a navigator and his woeful underestimation of the size of the Pacific doomed him to failure and his self-inflicted travails were compounded because he “always responded to setbacks with obduracy, like a compulsive gambler on a losing streak”. Of the five ships and 234 men that set out from Spain in 1519 only one vessel and 18 sailors made it back in 1522 (although one boat mutinied a year earlier and high-tailed it to Seville).

Fernández-Armesto, who, with no pretensions to modesty, claims that “I think I know as much about Magellan as you can know”, tells his tale with gusto and the occasional novelistic flourish. While he acknowledges his man’s good points – pride, daring, determination – he describes how in Magellan they curdled into arrogance, recklessness and ruthlessness.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: How Shirley Collins became an icon of English folk]

Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice In Her Head by Warsan Shire
Chatto & Windus, 96pp, £12.99

Warsan Shire’s debut full-length collection of poetry, which follows two pamphlets, is a contemporary exploration of the trauma of war and the damage it inflicts on the female body. Shire was born in Nairobi in 1988 to Somali parents who had fled their homeland, and was raised in London, becoming the capital’s first Young Poet Laureate. Now based in Los Angeles, she has achieved both pop-cultural renown – most notably through collaborations with Beyoncé – and political influence: lines from an earlier version of “Home”, one of the book’s standout poems, appeared on signs during protests against Donald Trump’s refugee ban.

Many of these poems detail pain. There are the “mermaids/with new legs” – girls learning how to walk again following female genital mutilation. One character tells their loved ones they have cancer. A mother waits for her husband to die, not knowing who she might be afterwards. But at the heart of this book is Shire’s compassion and celebration of human life. “Bless Your Ugly Daughter”; “Bless the Bulimic”; “Bless Our CCTV Star”: the very names of these poems ask that we empathise, that we praise.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Everybody Hertz: The Amazing World of Frequency, from Bad Vibes to Good Vibrations by Richard Mainwaring
Profile Books, 304pp, £16.99

In 2003 Nasa’s Chandra X telescope detected shockwaves from a supermassive black hole, the first time a black hole had been “heard”. Its note? The humble B-flat. In fact, astronomers have calculated that the ratio of each planet’s minimum and maximum orbital speed can be formulated into a musical interval. Earth’s is identical to the first two notes of The Pink Panther theme tune, no less.

The composer Richard Mainwaring demonstrates how musical vibrations affect us in surprising ways. He explains ghost notes, which are inaudible to the human ear but can cause psychological distress. In the 1980s a scientist in Coventry thought he was being haunted by spectral figures in his laboratory and became depressed. It was eventually discovered that his electric fan was causing soundwaves at 18Hz, the exact frequency that causes pain to the human eyeball, creating blurred vision and mental stress. Mainwaring’s focus on amusing his readers means this is not an entirely rigorous dive into the physics of sound, but it does offer a convincing “picture” of an invisible world.
By Eleanor Peake

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Douglas Stuart, Scholastique Mukasonga, Anna Qu and Margaret Willes]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder