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7 September 2022

Reviewed in short: New books by Jayne Buxton, Edward Enninful, Simon Heffer and Emma Donoghue

The Great Plant-Based Con by Buxton, A Visible Man by Enninful, Henry “Chips” Channon: The Diaries (Volume 3) edited by Heffer, and Haven by Donoghue.

By India Bourke, Christiana Bishop, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

The Great Plant-Based Con: Why Eating a Plants-Only Diet Won’t Improve Your Health or Save the Planet by Jayne Buxton
Little, Brown, 544pp, £25

That not all scientific facts are created equal, or wielded in a responsible way, is something Jayne Buxton claims to be wise to. But while her book myth-busts distortions in pro-plant-based food science, it does not apply the same rigour to its own biases. Her opening lays out her thesis that there is a “convincing case for sustainable meat production”, and makes repeated reference to the work of Dr Frank Mitloehner, who she says fights “the onslaught of misinformation with fact-based refutations”. Yet Mitloehner is hardly a disinterested source; some of his research has been funded in part by the US livestock industry. Reading his name unquestioned in this context should send up red flags.

As a consequence, it is hard to take Buxton’s provocative book in good faith. She laments “the demonisation of meat and dairy”, but in attacking those who raise concerns she further stokes the culture war she professes to despise. The hypocrisy of it is enraging, not least since the world’s farmers urgently need support to face the climate challenge – and because many, unlike this book, are striving to make the necessary change in an inclusive, not divisive, way.
By India Bourke

A Visible Man by Edward Enninful
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £25 

In 2017 Edward Enninful became the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, the magazine’s first black – and first male – lead. The New York Times called his appointment “a barrier-breaking choice”, but we learn from his memoir that he was also the obvious choice. Enninful brings intimacy to his chronological narrative by beginning with his loving but chaotic early childhood in Ghana and his parents’ decision to relocate to London. At 16 he was scouted by a model agent, and gained bookings and styling commissions. From here his career soared.  

Enninful’s account of the London fashion scene in the Nineties is electrifying. Yet between the entertaining anecdotes he is candid about the emotional toll his work and hedonistic lifestyle has taken: from the pain he felt when his father threw him out aged 18 after he chose fashion over university, to the humiliation of being racially profiled at his workplace by security in July 2020. Enninful’s vulnerability is moving, and, in an industry that determines what is considered beautiful, his book leaves the reader reassured by his being at the helm.
By Christiana Bishop

Henry “Chips” Channon: The Diaries (Volume 3): 1943-1957, edited by Simon Heffer
Cornerstone, 1,168pp, £35

This third and final volume adds another 1,000-plus pages of Chips Channon’s unexpurgated diaries – with barely a dull passage among them. Simon Heffer’s editing has been as adroit as the task is monumental, and his stamina as bottomless as his subject’s. Here Channon, the American-born Conservative MP and society libertine, plays out the last phase of his rich life. The entry for 22 February 1951 gives a flavour of just how rich: Prince Paul of Yugoslavia offers him £5,000 for his French commode – “Shall I sell it?”; after Commons business there’s cocktails with the Rab Butlers (“How clumsily they entertain”), where a guest confuses Regency and rococo – “very absurd”; and news arrives of the death of André Gide – “I used to see him fairly often in 1918” but he became “foolish and venerable with time”.

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This brusque eye and tart tongue report on such set pieces as VE Day and George VI’s funeral as well as his own knotty love life, the theatrical world he was introduced to by Terence Rattigan, daily politics, any number of royals – major and minor – and his deaf chef. It is never less than diverting.
By Michael Prodger

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Haven by Emma Donoghue
Picador, 272pp, £16.99

Artt, a famed scholar and hermit in 7th-century Ireland, has a vision of a bare island in the sea where he is to found a monastery. So he plucks two monks from their order – Trian, young, with an affinity for nature, and Cormac, old, pragmatic, a late convert – and sets off. Artt is charismatic, unyielding and “zealous for all hardships”. Conflict is inevitable. The island they land on is known today as Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry. There is archaeological evidence of monks living there from the late 600s, in distinctive stone beehive huts, but tradition puts them there early in the century.

This story, by Emma Donoghue, the author of the bestseller Room, is entirely fictional. She uses her gift for internal drama and precise characterisation to evoke the monks’ claustrophobic existence. Tension comes not only from the chafing personalities, but the competing demands of living in communion with nature and with God (at least in Artt’s fundamentalist way). Life on the island is, Trian says, “like an elaborate riddle”. The question is whether the monks can, or should, bear it.
By Matthew Gilley

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Steve Brusatte, Selby Wynn Schwartz, Katy Hessel and Seán Hewitt]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained