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26 November 2023

From Elton John to Wendy Cope: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Tremor by Teju Cole and A Woman I Know by Mary Haverstick.

By Barney Horner, Pippa Bailey, Matthew Gilley and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Watford Forever: How Graham Taylor and Elton John Saved a Football Club, a Town and Each Other by John Preston, with Elton John
Viking, 304pp, £22

When Elton John became chairman of Watford Football Club in 1976, they were one of the worst professional teams in England. After appointing the meticulous manager Graham Taylor a year later, Watford managed three dazzling promotions in six years, finishing as the second-best club in England by 1983. John Preston, the author of A Very English Scandal, captures that remarkable rise in Watford Forever.

Preston’s account puts John and Taylor’s friendship at its centre. They were an unlikely duo, one a dandyish “fancy pants” rock ’n’ roller; the other, a diligent coach and fan of Vera Lynn. John’s personal contribution to the book adds an in-the-room gravitas, and helps define the communitarian importance of football, though Preston doesn’t hide from the racism and homophobia that wracked the sport in the Seventies. Watford Forever is a snapshot of an era before today’s financial stratifications, when a crumbling club could, with the right leadership and good coaching, reach the top.
By Barney Horner

[See also: The Booker Prize is becoming irrelevant]

A Woman I Know: Female Spies, Double Identities, and a New Story of the Kennedy Assassination by Mary Haverstick
Scribe, £25, 544pp

When the film-maker Mary Haverstick began interviewing the American pilot Jerrie Cobb, she thought she was researching for a Hidden Figures-type film about the Mercury 13, a group of female pilots who passed the same physical tests required for spaceflight as male astronauts, only for Nasa to cancel the programme. But then Haverstick coincidentally befriended a Pentagon agent who gave her a thinly veiled warning about the project. Curious, Haverstick uncovered an American CIA agent called June Cobb, just three years older than Jerrie, and noticed a remarkable set of parallels between the two women: both lived in Oklahoma City, and then in Guayaquil, Ecuador; both spoke fluent Spanish; both were aviators; both made expeditions into the Amazon; both were involved with drug stings. The list goes on. But were they in fact the same person?

A Woman I Know, which comprises years of research, is a pacy but ultimately unsatisfying read, as Haverstick is never able to conclusively answer the question. With only circumstantial evidence, her wildest theory – that June/Jerrie played a role in the assassination of John F Kennedy – is little more than titillation.
By Pippa Bailey

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[See also: AS Byatt’s hard truths]

The Orange and Other Poems by Wendy Cope
Faber & Faber, 48pp, £8.99

Wendy Cope’s poetry is often characterised as “light”, as if being easy to enjoy were a bad thing. It is warm and funny, accessible and short. In this lean introductory selection covering poems from 1986 to 2018, very few extend beyond a single page. Faber notes that “The Orange”, the title poem, has “found a new generation of fans on social media” and you can see why: it’s a pithy, poignant lyric devoted to the joys of everyday life.

This sort of hopeful verse comprises much of the collection, but what gets obscured in this conception of Cope is how sad her poems can be, bitter at times, and how skilfully she undercuts wry humour with bathos. “Some More Light Verse” – Cope seems happy to poke fun at her reputation – repeats the wearying movements of life: “Nothing works. The outlook’s grim./You go to yoga, cry, and swim.” “Tich Miller” tells a funny story about a fellow misfit in PE classes, then slams on the brakes at the end: “Tich died when she was 12.” A Collected Poems is coming in 2024; this appetiser is a reminder of Cope’s variety and keen observational eye.
By Matthew Gilley

[See also: The everyday economists guiding Rachel Reeves]

Tremor by Teju Cole
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £18.99

Across a novella, a novel, an essay collection and a photo-book, Teju Cole has marked himself out as an adroit stylist. His second novel, Tremor, continues his nimble balancing of the formally inventive and the morally profound. Its central theme is how to understand beauty in a world of violence. Its protagonist Tunde is, like Cole, a Nigerian-American professor of photography at Harvard. Shopping for antiques, he sees a collection of African masks, which sets his mind whirring about colonial history. A later chapter is made up of a lecture Tunde gives about the British army’s theft of the Benin bronzes during their 1897 massacre of the city. In one polyphonic section, we meet various inhabitants of Lagos, including a man who rehearses his own funeral annually, organising food for his community to eat as he lies in a casket upstairs. There are humorous moments here, alongside threads of poignancy. Tunde regularly addresses his thoughts to “you”, a close friend who died several years ago.

Tremor is a novel about art, and Cole writes wonderfully about music, particularly on a trip Tunde takes to Mali. But, the novel insists, no matter the aesthetic pleasure we find in life, or the desire to understand the horror of the history that made this art, human connections are the reason we’re here.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: Books of the year 2023]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now

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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