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11 October 2023

From Clinton Heylin to AK Blakemore: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Right to Rule by Ben Riley-Smith and One Fine Day by Matthew Parker.

By Michael Prodger, Freddie Hayward, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Chris Bourn

One Fine Day: Britain’s Empire on the Brink by Matthew Parker
Abacus, 608pp, £25

On 29 September 1923, the day the Palestine Mandate came into force, the British empire reached its apogee. It now covered 14 million square miles – a quarter of the globe – and accounted for 460 million people – a fifth of the world’s people. The only way was down. In his impressive history, Matthew Parker looks at what was happening on that day around the world. He notes that, “while imperial cheerleaders in Britain promoted and justified the empire as a form of international altruism”, among some of George V’s global subjects demands for change were already stirring. 

Parker has scoured newspapers, letters and diaries for nuanced, first-person accounts of the reality of empire. For Arthur Grimble, a Kipling-loathing district officer in the Pacific islands, it meant the end of innocence for the local people; for Hugh Clifford in Malaya it meant finding ground glass in his food; for the Ghanaian barrister Joseph Casely Hayford it represented “a national and racial death”. Parker also deftly displays how, for numberless members of the Commonwealth, empire meant little at all. 
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Jon Fosse and the art of tedium]

The Right to Rule: Thirteen Years, Five Prime Ministers and the Implosion of the Toriesby Ben Riley-Smith
John Murray, 432pp, £25

The Conservative Party is at its most perceptive when talking about itself. “[We are] like an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide,” William Hague quipped during the 2010 coalition talks. The next 13 years proved him right. In May this year the Tories surpassed New Labour’s tenure in office – but with five prime ministers to Labour’s two.

Unlike New Labour, there has been no coherent project. As Ben Riley-Smith shows in a sharp insider account of this long Tory reign, a constant revolution of ideas and leaders has drawn out the party’s time in office at the cost of cannibalising any progress. Factions within the party have often constituted both the government and the opposition. That was the case with Brexit and is too with public spending. George Osborne obsessed over cuts while Boris Johnson wanted to undo austerity. He considered ignoring the tight fiscal rules that Osborne set up. Liz Truss actually did. Then Rishi Sunak restored Osborne’s fiscal orthodoxy. The party has driven in circles and ended up where it started. When it’s taken as a 13-year project, one can’t help but ask: what was the point?
By Freddie Hayward

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The Glutton by AK Blakemore
Granta, 336pp, £14.99

The poet AK Blakemore’s second novel – which follows the Desmond Elliott Prize-winning The Manningtree Witches – is an invigorating take on historical fiction. In rural France in the late 18th century, a peasant, Tarare, flees his impoverished mother and violent step-father. He joins a raggle-taggle group of vagrants who, caught up in revolutionary fervour, are heading to Paris. The pack’s leader, Lozeau, takes a liking to young Tarare. First his care seems paternal, then we realise he sees a way to profit from the boy. He has noticed Tarare’s insatiable appetite, unending and unscrupulous: he happily gorges on troughs full of offal, live rats, “a blind puppy”. Lozeau makes Tarare “perform” for the appalled, delighted people who gather in town squares.

We learn all this as Tarare, aged just 25, tells his life story to the nun who nurses him on his deathbed. In her response there is empathy, sadness and utter revulsion. Blakemore does not guide us on which is the appropriate reaction: The Glutton is no moral lesson, but a gripping exploration into the deepest recesses of humankind.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: From Gordon Brown to Natalie Haynes: new books reviewed in short]

The Double Life of Bob Dylan Volume 2, 1966-2021: Far Away from Myself by Clinton Heylin
Bodley Head, 848pp, £35

Volume two of Clinton Heylin’s exhaustive – and exhausting – life of Bob Dylan takes us from the songwriter’s retreat from public life in the late 1960s up to the imposed hermitage of Covid lockdowns. It’s a granular, punctilious account, which seeks to be definitive. And through sheer weight of detail, something like a clear picture of the man beyond the mystique does emerge – but it’s hard won.

Heylin is a strident presence throughout, with an unpleasant habit of singling out others for scorn: fellow biographers for writing “hastily executed cash-ins”; members of the Band for their imperfect recall of Basement Tapes sessions; often Dylan himself, for being contrary or elusive – ie, for being Dylan; Paul Simon, for not being Dylan; various “witchy” women. Even the George Kaiser Foundation, which gave Heylin privileged access to its $22m Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, is derided for not buying up more memorabilia. At around page 50 it dawns: what chance do you, the lowly reader, have of any authorial respect? For Dylan completists this monumental fact-check will be essential. But they should be warned: reading it may sap all joy from listening to his music.
By Chris Bourn

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits