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10 April 2024

From Neel Mukherjee to Gavin Stamp: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Sunken Lands by Gareth E Rees and The Spinning House by Caroline Biggs.

By Michael Prodger, Pippa Bailey, Barney Horner and George Monaghan

Interwar: British Architecture 1919-1939 by Gavin Stamp

When Gavin Stamp, the architectural historian and, as “Piloti”, an acerbic columnist for Private Eye, died of cancer in 2017 he left his greatest work incomplete. Interwar, a wide-ranging and deeply informed survey of British architecture from 1919 to 1939, has now been buffed and finished by his wife, the historian Rosemary Hill. The book represents the culmination of Stamp’s interest in the many styles that proliferated between the wars and is also an attempt to correct the view that only modernism mattered.

Using examples from around the home nations – churches and town halls, banks and memorials, houses and schools – he traces the multifaceted nature of the period. Here are brutalism and repurposed classicism but also the new Georgian, updated Egyptian revival, mock Tudor and modern gothic. The familiar names, such as Edwin Lutyens and Giles Gilbert Scott, are joined by a host of lesser-known but accomplished and often innovative figures such as Owen Williams, responsible for modernist buildings for Boots in Nottingham, and Charles Holden, whose stations help give the London Tube network its distinctive look. When so much of our built environment is unlovely, Stamp shows why it is worth looking again, and harder.
By Michael Prodger
Profile, 576pp, £40. Buy the book

The Spinning House: How Cambridge University Locked Up Women in its Private Prison by Caroline Biggs

In 1561, Elizabeth I put her signature to a charter that would remain law for more than 300 years, giving the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University substantial powers over the city to guard its male students from immoral temptations. These included the right to imprison “all public women, procuresses, vagabonds… found guilty or suspected of evil”. Between 1823 and 1894 alone, university proctors and special constables known as “bulldogs” carried out more than 6,000 arrests. No confessions or statements were taken, no proof of drunkenness or solicitation required.

In The Spinning House, Cambridge local Caroline Biggs chronicles the rise and fall of the private prison through the stories of four women held there: Elizabeth Howe, Emma Kemp, Jane Elsden and Daisy Hopkins. The sentences at the Spinning House were short, but for many proved consequential. Howe, for example, died 25 days after her arrest for being suspected of being a “loose and disorderly person”. The coroner deemed prison conditions to be the cause. Biggs deftly blends historical research with creative retelling, bringing prison records to full and chilling life.
By Pippa Bailey
The History Press, 224pp, £20. Buy the book

Choice by Neel Mukherjee

Almost everyone on the planet is condemned to suffer capitalism’s self-devouring logic, yet choosing how to suffer remains the privilege of a few. This is what Neel Mukherjee transmits in Choices, his latest novel – or rather triptych of loosely connected stories that seek to locate the personal in the macroeconomic. The first two parts are set in London, centred on white-collar protagonists who rationalise personal crises as collateral damage from neoliberalism. Yet their attempts to mitigate their alienation are narcissistic and self-indulgent, and only hurt those around them.

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These moral equivocations can be lost in the complexities of the developed world. The quandaries are starker, however, in the book’s third segment, in which a rural Bengali family receive a cow to help lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Here the theories of academics meet the unforgiving landscape of lived reality, and the consequences play out in harrowing detail. Choices shows that there is something profoundly wrong with how we order our societies. But there’s very little we can do about it individually.
By Barney Horner
Atlantic, 320pp, £18.99. Buy the book

Sunken Lands: A Journey Through Flooded Kingdoms and Lost Worlds by Gareth E Rees

We are all, holds the writer Gareth E Rees, “children of the flood”. Each chapter of Sunken Lands recounts one of man’s 2,000 known flood myths (stories such as Noah’s Ark or Gilgamesh) and details a stop on Rees’ tour of the Earth’s drowned and drowning places, from the Norfolk fens to post-Katrina New Orleans and an underwater Roman town. In the ancient stories he hopes to find wisdom for our current climate peril.

The book’s ultimate subject, however, is not what should be done, but what it is like not to know what should be done. “It isn’t easy,” Rees writes, “being an endemically anxious person in the 21st century. Existential perils have piled up faster than my mind can comprehend.” Today he is a “neurotic middle-aged man” who cannot light the hob without suffering visions of resource wars, migration crises and species collapse. Much of his life is spent wondering “why the planet isn’t full of screaming people”. The early parts of Sunken Lands drag for a lack of argument, but these fretful notes, when they come, are touching.
By George Monaghan
Elliott & Thompson, 272pp, £16.99. Buy the book

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward