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28 February 2024

From Marianna Spring to Jason Okundaye: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring a lost memoir by Harry Edward and The Painter’s Daughters by Emily Howes.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio, Barney Horner, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Michael Prodger

Among the Trolls: My Journey Through Conspiracyland by Marianna Spring

As the BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent, Marianna Spring is uniquely qualified to explore our conspiracy-laden social media age – perhaps especially so, given that her employer is often accused, typically by fringe alt-right figures, of being part of these supposed conspiracies. Here she draws on her reporting, showing how conspiracy theories, birthed in dark corners of the internet, now reside in mainstream online spaces. As seen in recent years, with anti-vaccine demonstrations and the insurrection at the US Capitol, some spill into the real world.

A central question runs throughout: what’s in a conspiracist? Some are driven by a genuine belief, while others – such as the single mother turned conspiracy figurehead who has replaced her estranged family with the fantastical theories of her followers – are based on weaker foundations. Though Spring’s exploration of the impact of online disinformation is cutting, she is shy in proposing solutions (“I’m an investigative reporter, not a policymaker,” she writes). With upcoming elections in both the UK and the US, Among the Trolls charts the mountain of misinformation that democracy will struggle to overcome.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio
Atlantic, 352pp, £18.99. Buy the book

When I Passed the Statue of Liberty I Became Black by Harry Edward

While researching early Olympic medallists, the writer Neil Duncanson stumbled across the unpublished memoir of Harry Edward, a sprinter who won two bronzes for Britain in 1920. Born in Berlin to a Guyanese father and Prussian mother, Edward grew up happily in prewar Germany. Yet it wasn’t until he emigrated to the US in 1923 that he “became black”.

Edward’s fidelity to “international sportsmanship and brotherhood” propelled him into a lifetime of fascinating serendipities: beating Harold Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire fame) at the Olympics; being an ancillary to the Harlem Renaissance; organising workers in 1930s New York; coordinating refugees for the UN in Greece after the Second World War, and again in 1950s Vietnam; before completing, at 71, a master’s degree in international relations. Edward describes all this in prose that, while fiercely condemnatory of racism, does not rely on the emotiveness of the subject. His manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers before his death in the 1970s. At last, his dignity and humanistic outlook are being shared with the world.
By Barney Horner
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99. Buy the book

Revolutionary Acts: Love & Brotherhood in Black Gay Britain by Jason Okundaye

The most intriguing character in this detail-laden oral history of black, gay Britain over the last five decades is Alex Owolade. His is a name that the book’s author, the journalist Jason Okundaye, has come across so often during research that he is intimidated to approach him. That all changes when the pair speak on the phone, and Okundaye is delighted to find Owolade “extremely campy with an infectious cackle to boot”. Owolade, now 60, first came out as gay when he reported back to his local Support the Miners group on the 1985 Pride demonstrations. From then on, his personal identity and belief in the power of grass-roots action overlapped and he became a formidable activist, organising on behalf of victims of homophobia and racism. He also clashed with other campaigners – some of whom Okundaye interviews here too – due to his belief that “the black gay and lesbian movement was right-wing”.

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In his social history, Okundaye takes in Section 28, underground club culture, police brutality and the Aids epidemic. In doing so he draws out the points of tension between the movement’s pioneers, refusing to sanitise their tough, fraught – yet often triumphant – struggle against marginalisation.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £20.
Buy the book

The Painter’s Daughters by Emily Howes

History tells us that Thomas Gainsborough loved many things: women (so much so that a cache of his risqué letters was burned at his death), music, painting landscapes (but not faces), and his daughters. The paintings he made of his two girls, Mary and Margaret – “Molly and the Captain”, as he nicknamed them – are among the purest expressions of paternal love in art. He showed them as children chasing a butterfly, or holding a cat – and always together.

In 2022, one of Gainsborough’s portraits of the girls was at the heart of a fine novel by Anthony Quinn. Now the bonds between father and daughters and between Mary and Margaret themselves are examined by Emily Howes in her debut book. This is rich emotional territory: the girls’ lives were not happy – a rapidly failed marriage, mental illness, one sister devoting her life to the care of the other. Howes has a sure hand and never strays too far from known facts, nor does she slip into Jane Austen pastiche when describing the family’s life in Bath. Instead, she makes a satisfying tale out of the complicated, and poignant, ties that bound.
By Michael Prodger
Phoenix, 384pp, £20. Buy the book

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[See also: From Lucas Rijneveld to Amitav Ghosh: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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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