Ann Fleming, née Charteris, was born into the aristocracy and married wealthy men. Photograph: ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby'sAn extraordinary stash of letters that shine a light on the tangled relationship between the James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, and his wife, Ann, from their intense and secret affair to the bitter end of their marriage, are to appear at auction.Sotheby’s is selling more than 160 letters between the couple, written over 20 years. Gabriel Heaton, a specialist in books and manuscripts at the auction house, said the letters in their scope and scale provided what “must surely be an unmatchable record of the life of the author as his fortunes changed”.They also provide insight into the rise of Bond. Heaton said it was no coincidence that Fleming wrote his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in the year of his marriage.Ian Fleming had numerous flings and affairs with other women. Photograph: ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby'sIt was “both as an outlet for his libido and imagination, and also in an attempt to make money for a woman who was used to being unthinkingly rich”.Ann Fleming, née Charteris, was born into the aristocracy and married wealthy men. Her first husband was Shane O’Neill, the 3rd Baron O’Neill. After his death in military action in 1944, she married the newspaper magnate Esmond Harmsworth, the 2nd Viscount Rothermere.During both marriages she and Fleming were lovers, an intense relationship that had sado-masochistic elements. “I long for you even if you whip me because I love being hurt by you and kissed afterwards,” Ann once wrote to Fleming.In 1948 Ann became pregnant with Fleming’s child, a girl who was a month premature and lived only eight hours. The collection includes a number of sad and gentle letters written by Fleming on Gleneagles stationery shortly after he played golf with Rothermere, the cuckolded husband.‘I have nothing to say to comfort you,’ Ian Fleming wrote in one letter to his wife, Ann. Photograph: HandoutIn one letter he writes: “I have nothing to say to comfort you. After all this travail and pain it is bitter. I can only send you my arms and my love and all my prayers.”Fleming had numerous flings and affairs with other women and when the couple finally married in 1952 that was never likely to stop.Ann once wrote to him: “You mention ‘bad old bachelor days’ – the only person you stopped sleeping with when they ceased was me!”A letter from Fleming written on British Overseas Airways Corporation stationery reads: “In the present twilight, we are hurting each other to an extent that makes life hardly bearable.”Heaton said the letters were packed with stories of high society, travel, love of nature and gossip.“They are quite something, it has been a real treat,” he said. “They are an extraordinary read because Ian Fleming is pretty much incapable of writing a dull sentence.”Fleming wrote all of the Bond novels at GoldenEye, his house in Jamaica, a place visited by many of Ann’s remarkable circle of friends. The artist Lucian Freud, for example, and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, with whom she had a long affair.A letter from Ian Fleming. Photograph: HandoutThere were also surprising visitors. “Truman Capote has come to stay,” Fleming writes. “Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me. On the heels of a telegram he came hustling and twittering along with his tiny face crushed under a Russian Commissars’ uniform hat [...] he had just arrived from Moscow.”The letters consist of more than 500 typed and handwritten pages, at least three written on endpapers torn from books. Two of the letters from Ann are written on the back of a gin rummy card and a hospital temperature chart.They will be offered in Sotheby’s online literature sale between 3 and 10 December and come with an estimate of £200,000-300,000.It was important to keep them together, said Heaton. “They are much more than the sum of their parts, the correspondence as a whole is far more substantial and interesting and revealing and exciting than simply an accumulation of individual letters.”
Two years after Last Week Tonight was sued by a coal executive for critical coverage, Oliver addresses the ‘scourge’ of Slapp suits. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver ripped into frivolous lawsuits meant to silence dissent, an issue with which he has personal experience: two years ago, Last Week Tonight was sued by Bob Murray, the then CEO of Murray Energy, the largest private coal company in America, after the show did a segment highly critical of the coal executive. Since then, “because the case has been in litigation, we haven’t been able to discuss it”, Oliver explained. But Murray recently dropped the lawsuit, “so we can finally tell you exactly what happened – which is honestly worth doing, not only because it’s a crazy story, but it actually points to a much bigger problem here”. But first, Oliver offered some background on the Murray lawsuit: Murray objected to Oliver’s characterization of him as “someone who looks like a geriatric Dr Evil” and a segment in which a staff member dressed up as a squirrel and delivered the message “Eat shit, Bob!” on a large check (in reference to a former employee’s diss of the CEO written on a $3.22 bonus check). Murray’s lawsuit sought damages, because he claimed that “nothing has ever stressed him more than this vicious and untruthful attack”. It’s “an odd thing to say”, Oliver commented, “given that, as I just mentioned, he oversaw a company whose mine collapse in Utah resulted in the deaths of nine people. “Obviously, the lawsuit was a bullshit attempt to silence us,” Oliver continued, “perhaps best exemplified by a motion that Murray filed to try to get a gag order to prevent us from rebroadcasting the story or even having it up online.” (The piece is still online, “big time”, at www.stillontheinternetbigtime.com.) The lawsuit was, unsurprisingly, dismissed by a West Virginia court last February, but Murray appealed the case to the West Virginia supreme court. The case languished there for over a year before Murray dropped it (Murray Energy is also, perhaps relatedly, now reorganizing for bankruptcy). Which raises the question: “What was the point of him putting us through all of this in the first place?” Oliver asked. “I would argue that winning the case was never really his goal.” And that intent connects to Oliver’s larger issue of the day: Slapp (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) lawsuits. Slapp suits are, Oliver explained, “frivolous suits with no legal merit specifically designed to stifle public debate or dissent. “The whole point is to put the defendant through a difficult, painful experience and even if cases fail in lower court, as they often do, the plaintiffs can find ways to extend them through intensive discovery requests, depositions and appeals that drain the defendants’ time and resources. “Pretty much everyone from judges to legal scholars agree that Slapp suits are a scourge,” Oliver continued, which is why 30 states have some sort of anti-Slapp legislation, usually requiring plaintiffs to sufficiently justify their claims early in the process. But that means 20 states do not have such laws – including West Virginia, where Murray filed his suit against Oliver despite neither of them living in the state. Murray also, according to the Washington Post, sued nine journalists between 2001 and 2015 for critical coverage, as well as environmental protesters at the company’s headquarters in Ohio. The local newspaper that covered the small protest, the Chagrin Valley Times, and the protest’s organizers beat Murray’s suit but were tied up in litigation for years; the paper paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and removed its Murray-related articles from its website. The Ohio judge in the 2014 case explicitly wrote in his decision that the ruling demonstrated the need for Ohio to adopt anti-Slapp legislation. This was the point, Oliver said: “Lawsuits are like famous Instagram pugs – they don’t have to work to be considered very, very successful. “By cultivating a reputation for being aggressively litigious, Murray may have actually got what he wanted and successfully applied a chokehold to how he is covered.” Oliver pointed to two lawsuits against Murray with serious and corroborated accounts of workplace harassment and misconduct that have been suspiciously underreported in the press. “I would argue that one reason [for the silence] might be that organizations are justifiably wary of getting sued by Murray,” Oliver said, “because even if they are baseless, his lawsuits can do major damage.” The suit against Last Week Tonight cost them over $200,000 in legal fees, Oliver said, “and even though our insurance covered part of it, and we were lucky that HBO stood by us. This lawsuit was infuriating, took up a lot of time and resources, and resulted in a tripling of our libel insurance premiums despite the fact that, to reiterate: we fucking won this case!” The whole episode points to how “we badly need effective anti-Slapp laws nationwide to deter powerful people like Bob Murray from using the courts to shut down people’s legitimate dissent”, Oliver said. Murray will probably sue them again for the new segment, Oliver concluded, despite the fact that every line was vigorously vetted by lawyers and that “loose, figurative language that cannot reasonably be understood to convey facts” – AKA jokes – have long been considered protected speech by the supreme court. And in the end, Oliver said, “it would be really tempting to say a bunch of loose, figurative things about Bob Murray right now not just on our behalf, but on behalf of every small newspaper and individual that he has sued and on behalf of every employee who’s felt ill-treated by his company and who may have wanted to tell him to, say, eat shit, but couldn’t”. The last two years have been “too exhausting” to say more about Bob Murray, Oliver said – but he could sing, and he launched into a five-minute, Times Square-set musical number of jokes aptly titled Eat Shit, Bob.
Artist says his class photos on show at Tate Britain could be a catalyst for UK schoolchildren. Year 3, Steve McQueen’s “portrait of citizenship” at Tate Britain, could be the catalyst to inspire a new generation of artists, according to the Turner prize and Oscar winner, who said British children deserved access to world-class art education. McQueen, whose ground-breaking work features portraits of more than 76,000 London schoolchildren and took a year to complete, said Year 3 would help to promote art education in school and the need for diverse work to be included in art institutions. “I remember going to the National Portrait Gallery and the only black people I saw there were the guards,” said McQueen. “Art school was my liberation, that was where I could achieve my goals and realise myself. That opportunity should be offered up to every single kid and they can go off in whatever direction they want. “You think of someone like Alexander McQueen or Damien Hirst, both came from working-class backgrounds. They had the chance to experiment at school – and they ended up at the top of their game.” Just under 70% of London schools took part in the project, with a huge amount of safeguarding work needed – including gaining consent from parents of all of the children photographed. Teams of photographers took pictures in at least 80 schools per week, ran 90-minute workshops with the pupils, and took the portraits that were often shot in gym halls. Clarrie Wallis, the exhibition’s curator, said the project was also about “instilling a mindset” in schoolchildren that they could go on to achieve what they wanted. Wallis said Year 3 offered Tate Britain a chance to “champion why creativity matters” and introduce itself to a new generation of children, many of whom had never been to a gallery before. Each day for 20 weeks, 600 schoolchildren will be brought to Tate Britain to view Year 3. Each class photographed will have a chance to see their picture hanging on the gallery walls and also in larger form on a digital screen, accompanied by a video of McQueen addressing them directly. Wallis said Year 3 prompted viewers to ask what opportunities there were for children and what influenced their outcome in life. “Is it ability, opportunity, or luck?” she said. “At the moment, in the exhibition, they’re presented on a level playing field.” McQueen said the project was a powerful way to address some of the racial imbalance in major art institutions, as London schoolchildren – regardless of background – were now able to see themselves in one of the most respected art spaces in Europe. He said: “Do you see yourself on the wall in this museum? If you do, you think of yourself as being important because you’re on the walls of this very important institution. “It’s also about coming to central London. Some kids don’t even get out of their borough. They’ve never come to town before,” said McQueen, who also spoke of how school visits inspired him as a child. “Those school trips were very important to me. You get your packed lunches, you sit around with an excitement, you enter the space. Then you just try to sort of grapple with it all, and it opens and expands people’s minds and their possibilities.” Tate Britain, the arts commissioning organisation Artangel and the creative learning specialists A New Direction all backed the project, which will also be displayed on 600 billboards dotted throughout the capital. At Pimlico underground station, 16 class portraits line the platforms to create a “platformorama”, and Tate estimates that in total about 17 million people will see the work on the billboards that are in place until 18 November. McQueen said the work would never be sold and the pictures would be sent to the schools at the end of the exhibition, which will run until 3 May 2020.
Novels by PapaWelcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.Let’s start with some Reasons To Be Cheerful. Nina Stibbe’s comic novel is “just what I wanted now” says lonelybloomer:> Funny, light, touching, sarcastic. Like Adrian Mole, but with a girl (for the record, Adrian Mole is my desert island book). I just love the working-class British struggle, and books where everyone eats toast. I see there’s more to come in the series, and I’m excited to read it.Rick2016 has enjoyed We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson:> Merricat and Constance are two of the best protagonists in fiction and Jonas is one of the best cats. Narrated by Merricat, an intelligent, emotionally disturbed, sensitive girl of 18 (but who seems younger), it’s such an engaging, tightly written and convincing book.> > The genius of Jackson’s writing is the way it mixes a creeping sense of horror with wonderfully cozy descriptions of life at the house. Plenty of other writers would have made the latter deliberately saccharine, but I found myself desperately wanting everyone to leave Merricat and Constance alone to enjoy their idyllic life. Which, given the actual events of the book, says something about the spell that Merricat’s narrative voice is able to cast.> > I don’t want to say too much more, for fear of spoiling the plot (and, while the book’s main strength is its atmosphere, it’s probably worth avoiding the blurb if, like me, you hate spoilers). But I’d recommend it unreservedly and will definitely be reading more of Jackson’s work.Lynne James has just reread Mary Renault’s The Mask Of Apollo:> Anyone who thinks historical fiction is trash needs to read Renault. The politics of 4th century BC Sicily are very like our own times, and the re-creation of Greek theatre with its actors and techniques is very interesting“I have dipped my toe into the world of Elizabeth Taylor,” says GELBuck who has been reading The Sleeping Beauty:> A love story, I suppose, but the plot acts more as a vehicle for the author’s sweetly vicious social observations. I suspect she would have been a malicious presence at a cocktail party – you wouldn’t even realise she had slipped a stiletto between your ribs until you turned away and noticed the blood pooling in your Gucci loafers.Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley Of The Dolls has made Swelter laugh:> I’ve been enjoying Valley of the Dolls as a bestseller-y kind of combination romance novel/sordid show-biz expose, but I just read what may be the greatest cat-fight in literature, which had me laughing and chortling for five pages. I had to see if I could find the scene from the film; I did, but it’s no match for the book’s version, which just has so many wonderful touches that serve as grace notes to the confrontation. Ah, the inimitable art of a master author!“This week I was introduced to one of literature’s greatest characters,” says safereturndoubtful, “Frank Mansfield, from Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter”:> When this was first published in 1962 the ancient blood sport of cockfighting was on its last legs in the US, only still legal in Louisiana and New Mexico. Yet Willeford’s novel has gained admiration and a cult status by far more than just the aficionados of the sport, and that is his huge achievement. Another, is that it has aged so well… Willeford writes boldly and with sympathy for his flawed hero and the sport which the reader initially can see only see as barbaric and cruel, with a revulsion for those involved, and is steadily won over by the wonderful writing; a fine example of the power of great literature.Finally, Full Moon, a Blandings Castle novel by PG Wodehouse, has been “working its magic” on Dennis89:> If you’re in need of a pick-me-up then may I heartily recommend. Daft? Yes. Formulaic? Yes. But God in terms of writing, narrative and language then you’re in the hands of a true master.> > It makes me recall something that Stephen Fry once said ... that a large proportion of Wodehouse’s readership came from those confined to prisons and hospitals. And that all of us, for a greater or lesser part of our lives, are sick or imprisoned in one way or another, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, a balm for hurt minds.There’s definitely a case for prescribing Wodehouse novels through the NHS. Interesting links about books and reading * Why does anyone need permission from Harvard to make a movie about Emily Dickinson? * Mick Herron rereads the novels of John le Carré. * A beginner’s guide to becoming obsessed with Jeanette Winterson. * More proof of the heroism of librarians in a report into how libraries are helping to cope with the US opioid crisis. * William Burroughs wrote a treatment for a film called Bladerunner. (But not that one.)If you’re on Instagram, now you can share your reads with us: simply tag your posts with the hashtag GuardianBooks, and we’ll include a selection in this blog. Happy reading!
Lilian Baylis Studio, LondonIt’s hard not to warm to this bright Welsh company, but some of the more experimental works were confused in design and execution. It takes a lot of grit and pluck to run a small ballet company. With a fraction of the resources of a major institution, you’re never going to stage Swan Lake, or attract the top-flight talents of a Royal Ballet; you have to have a different vision. Newport’s Ballet Cymru seems to run on sheer positivity, the beaming smiles of the 12 young dancers almost disconcerting during their opening salvo, artistic director Darius James’s Celtic Concerto, but they quickly get you on their side. It’s a brisk, bright and light dance to the sound of harpist Catrin Finch – a proudly Welsh endeavour. Danila Marzilli is the standout dancer, with fluent, full-bodied command of the choreography. But this triple bill shows another side of the sweet and spritely Welsh Ballet. Following a not-too-subtle sketch on division and repair by Patricia Vallis comes a commission from up-and-comer Charlotte Edmonds, 22. Plucked from training to a choreographic apprenticeship with the Royal Ballet, she’s now working as a freelance dance-maker across Europe. Her piece for Ballet Cymru, Wired to the Moon, comes with a blurb about functioning systems and interconnected technology. What it actually shows us is a choreographer still finding her voice on a stage dressed with various experimental tropes: set blocks that the dancers move themselves, sand pouring from the ceiling, a clock counting down, a street noise soundscape and piles of televisions (cathode ray, which doesn’t shout future tech, more degree show art installation). The dancers in black suits and bored-model stares perform casual cool, frantic gesticulation and jagged-edge moves, mixing music video vibes with ballerina pointe shoes. There’s a confusion of ideas here and a company not experienced enough to sell it. But there are signs that Edmonds is the real deal – amid a frenetic early solo, there’s a sudden slowdown and focus pull on the smallest of movements, a little ronde de jambe en l’air, toe kissing the knee, and it’s a gem of a moment. Even if this piece doesn’t come off, it’s a laudable, still enjoyable effort, and you can’t help but warm to this plucky troupe. . Ballet Cymru tours the UK until 7 December.
Pleasance, LondonTheir tongues firmly in their cheeks, Figs in Wigs’ boisterous parody ranges from pun-filled comedy skits to cocktail-making in hazmat suits. You probably won’t remember the page in Louisa May Alcott’s novel where the March sisters lick a phallic, vodka-soaked ice sculpture. Nor the bit where they make lethal cocktails while dressed in hazmat suits. It’s safe to say this is not a direct adaptation. Revelling in brazen, absurdist satire, outlandish performance collective Figs in Wigs do anything but revere the 19th-century classic, instead hurling at it an off-kilter blend of feminist performance art, stomach-ache comedy and futuristic dance. Levitating – human statue style - a few feet above the ground in glittering pink robes, the five Figs (Alice Roots, Sarah Moore, Suzanna Hurst, Rachel Gammon and Rachel Porter) spell out the motifs and symbols they’ll later use, like prophetic York Notes. The show’s tongue is so deep in its cheek it’s choking, as deadpan explanations link the classic story to contemporary concerns, boshing their way to a thesis of Alcott doing her birth chart and fighting for the active removal of greenhouse gases. The whole production is a boisterous piss-take – of theatre, literary analysis and the canon. Presented on a blood-orange set, a painfully affected am-dram sequence gives way to a series of high-concept, pun-filled skits, with visual metaphors barrelling out of control. Through the chaos, the Figs indulge in earnest irony, ribbing theatrical tropes and the way we crave deeper meanings in every image we’re fed. Yet Little Wimmin is also a celebration of what it mocks. Dances are slick, the timing is impeccable and they delight in the playfulness of stagecraft, using the Pleasance’s revolve to particularly glorious effect. The show may be too cool to pretend it cares, but it’s an ode to storytelling, and an anarchic glimpse of how much fun experimental performance art can have when not restricted by a budget littler than its wimmin.
‘Shame is also revelry, and a body / is a spillage’ … Bellarmine jars at the Museum of London. Photograph: Graham Turner/The GuardianDrunken Bellarmine after Renee SoIn this spirit of affliction I beheld two things, that shame is also revelry, and a body is a spillage, or an addiction. I do not know if this thing belongs to me, tipped-up set of weights that promises, but never delivers, equilibrium. I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings, but look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons. I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons. I have been lonely. Every time I say the word ‘I’ I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply ashamed. I want my shame to be a kind of proof that deduces the world, and that’s the worst shame of all. I have been theatrical, entropic, parting with myself for company. This heartsore will not stop weeping and look, the sky is sick, knitted too tightly; my face is up your sleeve like a card trick. DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty, fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby. I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells, raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.From Emily Berry’s 2017 collection, Stranger, Baby, Drunken Bellarmine somehow delivers what the speaker says is beyond him or her: hard-won equilibrium. Yet nothing is smoothed over, muted or reconciled. The poem, like much of the collection, logs the vertiginous and rocky inner voyage of a speaker in extremis after the loss of their mother.Although an ekphrastic poem, it belongs to its context. The powerful opening statement is biblical in tone and vocabulary: “In this spirit of affliction I beheld two things …” But we could be forgiven for assuming the persona of the collection is still speaking, at a raised pitch, of course, but not beyond its established range.Drunken Bellarmine is the title of a fiercely comical knitted “portrait” by Renee So. The poem doesn’t usually concern itself with directly “translating” the image. Visual associations sprout readily from initially abstract soil, seeded by the vivid quartet of nouns in lines two and three: shame, revelry, spillage, addiction. At first I “saw Maenads and Dionysian revels, the glory and comedy of inebriation, incontinence and violence. The term “spirit of affliction” could even suggest one of those hangover jokes, usually found funny only the morning after the morning after. I felt quite reluctant to look up “bellarmine” because the poem spoke so powerfully on its own.The word alludes to the Tuscan saint and theologian of the counter-reformation, San Roberto Bellarmino. Like its relative, the Bartmann jug, the bellarmine pot incorporates the face of a Bearded Man, and is designed to hold food or drink. Possibly the term originated in Protestant mockery of the ascetic Catholic Bellarmino. Berry’s poem was commissioned by the Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection for a Southbank Centre event in 2015, Artpoetry: Poets Respond to Paintings.The theological aspect of the backstory adds weight to a poem that interprets the visual as analogy, a portrait of good and evil, wrong and right. The term spirit of affliction gains nuance. Theologically, it can denote an evil spirit, so the Drunken Bellarmine could represent a demon. Job’s afflictions also come to mind (“This heartsore / will not stop weeping.”) The suffering, self-despising Bellarmine is also able wittily to criticise his creator: “the sky is sick / knitted too tightly.” For a moment, he solipsistically interprets his surroundings and the “you” he addresses (“my face is up your sleeve”) as knitting.Primarily, the poem seems to be the oration of the Bellarmine upon himself, giving us a wonderfully accurate picture of ever-shifting comic-pathetic-demonic-human complexity. The vocabulary of self-analysis is gloriously rich: “theatrical”, “entropic”, “sticky”. You can imagine a case of supernatural possession, in fact, the voice speaking through the poem’s mouth, giving a new ambiguous timbre to the real voice without obliterating it, as would be the aim in a conventional dramatic monologue.The reference to “leaking” and “the bloody clump of cells” later on suggest menstruation. The knitted, twisted Bellarmine oddly voices a unity of characterstics: it is man-woman, child-adult, sinner-confessor, philosopher-drunk. Of course his/her reasoning may not quite make sense, as when the wanting “to be loved for the wrong reasons” is glibly reversed to wanting “to be hated for the right reasons”. The Bellarmine is intelligent and self-aware, yet dominated by the most invasive and least rational-seeming of emotions, shame. The speaker hasn’t found his voice or himself. He is physically split and that fissure is also his mental state. He (it’s hard not to think of the speaker as primarily male) is almost physically wrecked, but not able to escape self-consciousness and self-mockery.In the drama of mourning, the body sometimes quite brutally pushes itself forward and takes control: mind and body engage, argue, coalesce. Dualism is exploded as myth. “These poems emerge from a place that had been completely mute for a long time,” Berry said in an interview with Ralf Webb. The revelatory processes of Stranger, Baby combine tidal energy with filigree verbal nuance and observation, creating a vigorous and unusual elegiac narrative, in which the pressure is as analytical as emotional.Despite that warning shout, “DON’T LOVE ME”, the Bellarmine’s plea is to be allowed to be childish. Whatever his stickiness and guilt, he has also mounted a convoluted argument for the right to be loved – one that, after all, mothers generally manage to grant their shamelessly messy babies.
Ho Sok Fong: critical in her poetic fashion. Photograph: Kuan Chee WahThe winner of an English PEN award, Chinese Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong’s second short story collection is her first to be translated into English. There’s a surreal bent to many of the stories in Lake Like a Mirror: everyday logic seems to slip, as if in a dream. It can be just an uncanny shiver, as in March in a Small Town, in which a man checks in to a guesthouse every day, without acknowledging he’s visited before. But some stories go further, sneaking towards magical realism. A woman vomits white balloons; another has an amphibious, frog-like guardian angel. In The Wall, an old woman becomes so thin that Fong’s childish, yet also strangely omnipotent, narrator can “see the air passing magically along her throat, making her vocal cords quiver like violin strings”.Fong is clearly fond of elusive narrators – in Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani, she slides between characters, and first- and third-person narration, to disorienting effect. Here, and elsewhere, the meaning or metaphorical thrust of her work can be hard to grasp, but her writing is beguiling and seasoned with striking imagery. Rain falls in “silent needles from the sky, then shatters noisily against the ground”; an emerging diver opens his mouth wide, “as if trying to inhale the clouds”.Fong allows different parts of her stories to hang together lightly, and they may chime more easily for readers with knowledge of Malaysian culture. For those without it, the collection provides a fascinating glimpse, not least into the repressive nature of a strictly Muslim society. A couple of notes – added, I presume, by translator Natascha Bruce – include a jolting reminder that all ethnic Malays are required to be Muslim, and applications to leave Islam are rarely granted.Two of Fong’s stories draw attention to this, set in rehabilitation centres for women “judged guilty of licentiousness, deviant ideology, gender confusion, apostasy”. She’s highly critical, albeit in her own poetic, shifting fashion. Descriptions of wind blow through this collection, but are wistfully prominent in these stories about young women bored, damaged by confinement. The title story also focuses on political/religious censorship. An exhausted young Chinese Malaysian tutor, whose pupils remind her of a herd of docile elk – “no one ever broke the rules” – teaches at a university where staff are also terrified of breaking rules. After allowing a Malay student to read an EE Cummings poem aloud, the teacher is accused of promoting homosexuality and risks losing her job.Aside from the unexpectedly buccaneering, action-packed tale October, which features hot-air balloons, pirates and brothel keepers, most of the stories are enveloped in ennui and exhaustion, focusing on women trapped by circumstances or lack of opportunity. An unemployed woman is bored listening to gossip in a hairdresser’s (“time slipped through hair and washed away down the sink”); a disillusioned stepmother at an amusement park is “plagued by a nagging sense that everything was turning to dust”. Despite the distilled strangeness of much of Fong’s prose, spending so much time with lethargic, disengaged protagonists can ultimately prove enervating.• Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (translated by Natascha Bruce) is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
The late musician’s collected lyrics reveal a singular songwriter capable of tenderness, nihilism and everything in between. Lou Reed’s literary ambitions were there from the start, nurtured at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, where he studied English under the mysterious poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, whom he would later acknowledge as his “spiritual godfather”. In 1966, having disappeared from public view for several years, Schwartz died alone and unsung, in a sleazy hotel in Times Square, aged 52. He had struggled with alcoholism, mental health issues and the heavy weight of early fame. Schwartz could have been a character in a Lou Reed song. Instead, Reed wrote two songs about him. The first, European Son (to Delmore Schwartz), is the final track on the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The song was actually recorded a few months before the poet’s death and sounds more like a put-down than a homage: “But now your blue clouds have gone/ You’d better say so long/ Hey hey, bye bye bye.” It may have been a riposte to the older writer’s oft-voiced disdain for the pop song. In 1982, Reed opened his 11th solo album, The Blue Mask, with My House, an altogether more reflective song in which the singer describes his mentor as “the first great man that I had ever met”. He also compares their early friendship to that of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses – no shrinking violet, Lou. If Schwartz cast a long shadow, he was not the only ghost to haunt Reed’s lyrical imagination. In 1990, alongside his former Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale, he released Songs for Drella, an entire album of vignettes in memory of Andy Warhol, his other great creative touchstone. As I’ll Be Your Mirror, a revised version of Reed’s collected lyrics, highlights, he often trod a line between Warhol’s deadpan, almost nihilistic blankness and Schwartz’s more intensely descriptive and urgent poetry. Reed’s core musical influences were similarly wide-ranging, spanning the uncompromising free jazz of Ornette Coleman and the honeyed harmonies of countless 50s doo-wop groups. Then there was his subject matter, which veered from the graphic (Heroin, I’m Waiting for the Man) to the intimate (Pale Blue Eyes, Perfect Day). Reed was nothing if not an artist of extremes. In one of the introductions to this volume, James Atlas describes him as “a nihilist who loved life”, which just about nails it. All this made him a singular songwriter, his best work often defined by that cruel-tender dynamic – has there ever been a more beautiful-sounding song about hustlers and speed freaks than Walk on the Wild Side? This hefty book is so full of contrasts that, were you coming cold to Reed’s oeuvre, it would be hard to reconcile the songwriter who penned the masochistic Venus in Furs with the romantic balladeer who, on I Found a Reason, croons: “I found a reason to keep living, and the reason dear is you.” Sinatra would have worked wonders with that couplet, but would not have ventured within a country mile of the former song’s “whiplash girl-child in the dark”. Martin Scorsese, in his richly anecdotal intro, writes that Reed “spoke and sang in the voice of the lowest of the low, the dregs, the ‘least among us’ – the people looking for the first thing that gives them the right to be”. This shores up the notion of Reed as the ultimate “dirty realist” songwriter. It is this Reed who occupies an exalted place in the canon of rock songwriters: the street poet whose junkies, dealers and misfits inhabit a now all-but-vanished New York. What intrigues most, though, as Reed’s lyrics are laid bare, are the myriad other Lous: camp Lou (Vicious), bitchy Lou (Hangin’ Round), nostalgic Lou (Coney Island Baby), hard-bitten Lou ( Dirt), crassly provocative Lou (I Wanna Be Black) and, perhaps surprisingly, activist Lou (There Is No Time), whose call to arms seems even more urgent in today’s ongoing state of emergency. Atlas makes the bold claim that I Wanna Be Black is “an astonishing poem” that would be “nearly impossible to imagine being recited anywhere by anyone today”. But astonishing is hardly the word for determinedly tasteless lines like: “I wanna be black/ Have natural rhythm/ Shoot twenty feet of jism, too/ And fuck up the Jews.” Deliberate offence in the service of satire no longer cuts it. Perhaps, as this song shows, it never really did. Ultimately, I’ll Be Your Mirror suffers from the same disjuncture that afflicts all volumes of collected song lyrics: the distance between poetry and songwriting. Good poetry sings on the page; even the greatest songs struggle to find their voice in print. The deft and seductive Walk on the Wild Side falls flat here – “Doo da doo da doo/ Doo da doo” anyone? Likewise the sense of nihilistic enervation that Reed evokes in the repeated line “And I guess that I just don’t know”, on Heroin. What you are left with is an echo of the song that plays in your head as you read the words. Without the surge and sway of the music and Reed’s drawled delivery, the poetry is drained from the lines. To borrow a line from Reed at his most determinedly Yeatsian, the lyrics alone struggle “to set the twilight reeling”. . I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Collected Lyrics by Lou Reed is published by Faber (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
‘Migrants do not steal the natives’ jobs’: boats leaving Cuba for Miami in May 1980. Photograph: Archivo/AFP/Getty ImagesA recent YouGov survey confirmed that economists are among the least trusted professionals in the UK. Brexit is only the latest factor in the public’s rejection of an occupation that has either failed to raise the alarm over impending crises or provided justification for the inexcusable practices of bankers and the wild claims of politicians.Who can forget the Queen’s devastating question, after the 2008 crash, to members of the Royal Economic Society: “Why did no one see it coming?” How can Nobel prize-winning economists be forgiven for providing the theoretical sermons that helped concoct the structured derivatives that Warren Buffett would later describe as “weapons of mass financial destruction”?Good Economics for Hard Times is the latest attempt by economists to defend their profession. It is, happily, an excellent antidote to the most dangerous forms of economics bashing: the efforts of opportunistic politicians to weaponise discontent with mainstream politics and to press it into the service of a xenophobic ideology that denies facts and serves the interests of a nativist, global oligarchy.The book’s authors, MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, write beautifully and are in full command of their subject. They examine the most crucial issues humanity faces (migration, trade wars, the scourge of inequality, climate catastrophe) with a combination of humility over what economics cannot tell us and pride over its contributions to our limited understanding. On every page, they seek to shed much-needed light upon the distortions that bad economics bring to public debates while methodically deconstructing their false assumptions. In their words, the book’s noble, urgent task is “to emphasise that there are no iron laws of economics keeping us from building a more humane world”.> They point out that Warren’s wealth tax, though good and proper, cannot raise more than 1% of US national incomeSerendipity would have it that even as Good Economics… was still in the pipeline Banerjee and Duflo, who are also partners in life, were awarded (with Michael Kremer) this year’s Nobel prize in economics. It was an inspired choice. Unlike previous winners, mostly older white males whose grand theories are built upon mathematics of dizzying complexity, they have made a name for themselves by studying the circumstances of the world’s poorest people. Most interestingly, they have specialised in borrowing the methods of randomised trials in medicine and deployed them in developing countries to ascertain which policies can alleviate suffering with given resources.Their own conception of what economists should be doing is disarmingly down to earth. They see themselves as society’s “plumbers: we solve problems with a combination of intuition grounded in science, some guesswork aided by experience and a bunch of pure trial and error”. A comparison with John Maynard Keynes’s conception of economics is telling. He thought that it required us to be, at once, “mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher”. That we must “contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought”. That we must remain “as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician”.While such lofty ambition implanted a dangerous delusion of grandeur among many of the economists whose theories have caused many people great hardship (for example, grand theorisers of the financial market’s supposed self-correcting capacities), there are passages in Good Economics… when this reader would have liked a little more of Keynes’s ambition. For without it, the plentiful facts do not go far enough in exposing the deeper causes of our current predicament. The book’s greatest contribution is its methodical deconstruction of fake facts: migration, we learn, is not on the rise – indeed, at 3% of global population, it is at the level it was in 1960. Natural experiments (involving Finns expelled from the USSR in 1945, Cubans flocking to Miami in 1980 and Jews settling in Israel in the 90s) prove that migrants do not steal natives’ jobs; they just help expose the holes in public services and social housing left by austerity. As for trade liberalisation, which economists treat as super-important, Banerjee and Duflo suggest it brings relatively small benefits while doing a lot of damage to the poor in countries such as the US and India. The resulting discontent turbo-charges racism: the moment white blue-collar men lose hope and apply for disability welfare benefits, it is no longer enough for them to denigrate black people and Latinos as “welfare queens”. They must now be depicted as gang members or rapists.In the chapters on growth, inequality and climate change, the reader comes closer to encountering the authors’ politics. While on the side of progressives such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, their own stance is more mainstream. They support schemes to help the victims of globalisation (by paying firms in declining areas to keep older workers employed, for instance). They want governments in developing countries to help people move to areas with better jobs, but also to assist those who want to stay to look after their elderly or their village. They favour the smaller picture, where they can be sure that public investment will make a difference. But what about the larger stage on which humanity’s drama unfolds?Banerjee and Duflo consider Sanders’s job guarantee scheme but reject it, because they do not believe worthy jobs can be produced by the state in such big numbers. They point out that Warren’s wealth tax, though good and proper, cannot raise more than 1% of US national income, while Ocasio-Cortez’s 70% marginal tax rate for the super-rich will simply motivate firms not to distribute profits but place them in trust funds. Alas, the fact remains that any serious tackling of climate change requires spending in the vicinity of at least 5% of total income. So where will the money needed for the international Green New Deal and the redistribution (both global and local) of wealth that humanity needs so desperately come from? Banerjee and Duflo do not say.They would welcome a change of heart among IMF staffers: “The IMF now requires its country teams to include inequality in factors to take into consideration when providing policy guidance to countries and outlining conditions under which they can receive IMF assistance.” When I read this, I laughed, thinking that someone must have forgotten to send this email to the IMF’s Greek mission. Every book as important as this one must include a theory of change: how shall we use its insights to bring about a more humane world? Banerjee and Duflo’s offering is enlightened selfishness by the rich (“The rich may eventually see that it is in their self-interest to argue for a radical shift toward the real sharing of prosperity”) and razor-sharp analysis that is disseminated to the public (“The only course we have against bad ideas is to be vigilant”).This is unconvincing, but it could not be otherwise. To provide a persuasive progressive policy agenda at a time when the usual fixes (quantitative easing, taxation) no longer work, the roots of capitalism’s stagnation and flirtation with climate catastrophe must come to the surface. It is a remarkable sign of the times that, as my friend the philosopher Slavoj Žižek once said, even the brightest minds would rather fathom the end of the world than plan for the demise of capitalism. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Good Economics… is precisely this: it demonstrates both the brilliant insights that mainstream economics can make available to us and its limits, which a progressive internationalism has a duty to transcend.Yanis Varoufakis is a member of Greece’s parliament, where he leads the new MeRA25 party, and a professor of economic theory at the University of Athens. He is also a former finance minister of Greece.• Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems by Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo is published by Allen Lane (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
All is not as it seems ... Reece Pantry and Stanley J Browne in One Under. Photograph: Patrick BaldwinWhen a man steps in front of a London Underground train, the city screeches to a halt. But in that moment, the lives of his loved ones also come to a shuddering stop. And, as Winsome Pinnock’s portrait of grief explores, it takes them much longer to begin moving forward.Pinnock’s reimagining of her 2005 play directs its focus on mental health and loneliness. What was a tale of two men haunted by guilt becomes a study of bereavement, depression and paranoia. Staged by Graeae as part of Ramps on the Moon, a programme designed to integrate disabled and non-disabled theatre-makers and put accessibility at the heart of the creative process, it’s a reminder that not all disabilities are visible.One Under has the shape of a thriller but the only real mysteries are the complex patterns of grief and the unknowability of another’s mental anguish. We see two timelines, separated by the shattering death at the play’s centre. In the aftermath of Sonny’s (Reece Pantry) suicide, train driver Cyrus (Stanley J Browne) and Sonny’s adoptive mother Nella (Shenagh Govan) search for answers, convinced that all is not as it seems.Interwoven with these scenes are moments from the last day of Sonny’s life, as he sweeps sad-eyed launderette worker Christine (Clare-Louise English) off her feet.Sad-eyed ... Reece Pantry and Clare-Louise English in One Under. Photograph: Patrick BaldwinIt’s a tricky play: heartrendingly tender at some moments and bogged down with unlikely coincidence and cryptic motives at others. Amit Sharma’s production deals better with the former than the latter, bringing gentleness to delicate scenes of connection but struggling to make sense of the play’s more enigmatic sequences.Amelia Jane Hankin’s compact, multipurpose set surrounds the performers with a curving wooden structure – part climbing frame, part ribcage.Elegant though it is, it strands all the action in the centre of the stage, leaving gaping expanses on either side. Meanwhile the integrated captioning, billed as “creative”, lacks the imagination displayed in previous Graeae productions.By refocusing on mental health, One Under speaks more urgently to current conversations. Yet it remains a strange, slippery piece, yielding no more answers to its audience than to the people Sonny leaves behind.• At Live theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, on 12-13 November. Then touring until 21 December.
Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture Piscator has been a London landmark since British Rail commissioned it in 1980. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The GuardianArts Council England has been criticised for failing to remove a sculpture by the British artist Eduardo Paolozzi from outside Euston railway station, where it is now in the middle of a building site as part of redevelopment work to prepare for HS2.Toby Treves, a former Tate curator and trustee of the Eduardo Paolozzi Foundation, said the council had assured him that it would transfer the sculpture to another site by the end of last year, but nothing had happened. It is understood meetings took place last week about another possible site.The sculpture is boarded up, but Treves is concerned for its safety because two buildings around it are being demolished. “The plan for Euston station is such a radical renovation, they won’t be finished working there for eight years,” he said. “They’re knocking down the two towers immediately outside the entrance, which is where the sculpture’s sited. The main thing is, it ought not to be in the middle of a building site.”Paolozzi, who died in 2005, is seen by many as the father of pop art in Britain. He is best known for his colourful mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station in London and the striking bronze depiction of Sir Isaac Newton in the forecourt of the British Library.His huge abstracted sculpture of a head, titled Piscator, made from 16 tonnes of cast iron, has been a London landmark since British Rail commissioned it in 1980 for the Euston station forecourt.Treves said dealing with Arts Council England had been an extremely long and frustrating process. “It was all supposed to have been moved by the end of last year, but it still hasn’t been,” he said. “The buildings are coming down around it. It had gone into some sort of bureaucratic black hole.”The Arts Council said: “We are not in a position to comment in more detail during pre-election sensitivity, but can confirm that talks are in an advanced stage regarding the sculpture and a new site has been identified.”The sculpture, created from mechanical and organic shapes, has an aluminium finish and measures 3.1 metres x 4.6 metres x 1.85 metres. It was inspired by Erwin Piscator, the 20th-century German Expressionist and political theatre director who collaborated with the playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht in Berlin.Paolozzi designed it to be seen from above, from surrounding offices, as well as from the ground. He once said: “I was asked to do a large sculpture in London near Euston station and, in the preliminary paperwork, the head was called the Euston Head. The entire decision was up to me to make the head out of any material, but I have always wanted to improve on using iron as a public material.”Treves questioned why Arts Council England preferred to keep a major piece of public art behind hoardings rather than on show.He first raised concerns about the sculpture in the Guardian in 2016 because the foundation had struggled for years to find out who owned it, and so could not have it restored. It has suffered the effects of air pollution and traffic dirt. He said at the time: “The absurdity of this is that the foundation would willingly pay to restore and clean the sculpture, but we can’t do it without the permission of the owners.”The foundation has since established that British Rail commissioned it and later transferred ownership to the Arts Council.The cost of moving it would be a few thousand pounds, to which the foundation would make a contribution, Treves said: “But it’s the Arts Council’s property. They do have a duty to look after it.”
Zadie Smith, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Jia Tolentino and Nayuka Gorrie challenged their audiences to do the work at a paradigm-shifting event. There are writers’ festivals that make you want to buy and read more books – and then there are the rare gems that shift every idea you’ve had about everything and leave you wanting to remake the world. The inaugural Broadside festival, held in Melbourne this past weekend, was billed as a feminist festival – but it was so much more than just one “ism”. And showing up was not enough: panellists regularly implored audiences to use their brains and do the work. The writer, Call Your Girlfriend host and Tech LadyMafia founder Aminatou Sow decried the “corrosive” nature of modern punditry. She believes the explosion of political podcasts and commentary in recent years indicates “everyone is outsourcing their thinking and their morals”. Indigenous Australian academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson urged audiences to consider their personal relationship to Indigenous sovereignty and what it means to live on unceded land. And finally, Monica Lewinsky challenged the audience to control their impulses and respect her boundaries by refraining from tweeting, photographing or otherwise broadcasting her discussion. She earned a standing ovation. Here were a few things that blew our brains at Broadside. Feminism is a ‘white woman’s thing’: Aileen Moreton-Robinson If we really want to decolonise feminism, we need to “centre Mother Earth” and de-centre humans, Moreton-Robinson said, in one of the most talked-about panels of the weekend. It’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of Moreton-Robinson’s book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, the first published work in Australia to engage in feminism from an Indigenous perspective. In her panel event on Saturday she explicitly rejected feminism, calling it a “white woman’s thing”. “I never say I’m a feminist because I’m not part of that,” she said. “My female ancestors have made me what I am, not feminism.” Feminism – born from western, Enlightenment thinking – was tainted from the beginning, she said. It “wanted to distance itself from nature” and “had to disconnect the woman from nature”. Survival and hope can only come from a greater connection to the land. “We will not survive while we continually think we are worth more than every other living thing,” she said. “Lots of different cultures have relationships with non-human others. The Earth is not an inert thing. Once you have a concept of that, everything is alive: where you walk, and how you treat the Earth is how you treat every living thing.” The climate emergency makes Moreton-Robinson’s message even more prescient. And the call to arms? Everyone, feminists included, needs to learn “how to relinquish power.” The internet will harm you: Jia Tolentino and Zadie Smith This was the event that had book nerds salivating. Zadie! And Jia! Together in conversation! With two of the brightest minds and liveliest voices in contemporary writing on stage together, expectations were high. This panel smashed those expectations. The conversation was at such a high level and moved so quickly – encompassing mortality, selfhood, technology and how to be a good person – that you were still digesting one truth bomb as the next landed. Sydney writers’ festival creative director Michaela McGuire called it “one of the best festival sessions I’ve ever seen. What a rare privilege to see two writers so evenly matched in intelligence, curiosity and verve”. Tolentino writes about the internet for the New Yorker, and is, as they say, extremely online; while fiction writer and essayist Smith – half a generation older – doesn’t use a smartphone and is suspicious of the internet. The conversation between the two on how online has changed the self, captured this dynamic. Smith started by wondering: “What is so smart about your smartphone? It’s a massive delegation of human capacity.” In this, we lose the capacity to recall information, direct ourselves around streets and towns, and engage with the outside world. Instead we are in thrall to the internet on our phones – “the mirror of strangers” – and in turn we get “our sense of self from strangers”. From here “the place of retreat [from the judgment of others] becomes smaller, smaller and smaller”. When we perform our online selves, Smith said, we are seeking affirmation from others that our identity is fixed, solid and OK. “Unseen operators see you looking in the mirror of the internet asking ‘Am I a person?’ – and they are manipulating the shape of the mirror.” It seems remarkable to Smith that “something that feels as natural as the ocean is only a few years old”. Instead of being glued to her dark mirror, Smith said, “I feel most free dancing among strangers. It might be a 1990s thing. To me, individuation is a kind of hell; the most human thing is to be part of people, less aware of the self. I’m always trying to lose myself.” She'-E-Os won’t save us – and neither will capitalism The festival was pervaded by a scepticism towards mainstream feminist campaigns which fight for equal representation in the halls of power. On a panel about feminism and capitalism, Jia Tolentino said the logical end point of feminism “is always anti-capitalism”. In the United States at the moment, she said, the single most important feminist movements are the Fight for $15, Medicare for All and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In the same discussion, Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto – niece and granddaughter of two former Pakistani prime ministers – expressed contempt for the way women in elite positions use oxygen from activist movements to line their own pockets. “I’m personally offended by the fact that just because we’re women, we should be excited that a Hollywood actress wants to make the same millions as her male co-worker.” American writer and professor Tressie McMillan Cottom said this “trickle-down feminism” is not sufficiently concerned with the ways in which inequality is produced and reproduced. “I think how scary it is that we cannot imagine another way of living, so we reproduce a system that’s trying to kill us.” She noted the capitalist system is adept at coopting “the work” and “trying to sell it back to you”. Justice, redistribution and cooperative power are vital for the future of the feminist movement, and of humanity: “You can’t get to those conversations by understanding yourself as an economic subject,” she said. “I can have absolutely no economic value and still have human value. That’s feminism.” The language of motherhood can be broken and mended The shattering legacy of colonialism was a recurrent theme of the festival. “How does one learn to mother when the state is your mother?” Nayuka Gorrie asked in their moving opening address to the festival’s Saturday night gala, Things My Mother Never Told Me. Their talk dealt with the lasting impacts of the stolen generations, particularly the loss of language. They often wonder, “What feelings would I feel that I can’t feel now because of language?” Aretha Brown, an 18-year-old artist and First Nations education activist, made a similar point. “There’s reasons why forced separations leave long scars,” she said. “I don’t know my history or my stories.” Gorrie, who is pregnant with twins, said: “I feel the responsibility to mend what has been done to our bloodlines.” It’s a task they’re daunted by, but happily not one they’ll have to do alone. Gorrie’s mother is teaching herself Gunnai/Kurnai, using resources from the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, and has written two picture books for her future grandkids in language. For dancer and artist Bhenji Ra, motherhood is more about actions than words. Growing up Catholic, her mother “learned her body was a sacred sacrament” but it was also a site “of trauma and abuse”, Ra’s sex at birth did not match her gender identity and she knew her mother struggled with the idea of having a daughter, because she wondered, “How will I protect her from the things I cannot protect myself from?” Ra’s mother didn’t teach her how to be a woman. Instead, “I learned to survive by simply watching her”. Bhenji Ra is now a mother herself, to a group of young trans women she has come to count as family. She says, “the biggest lesson I can teach them is through actions, the spirit and the body”.
Joseph Goebbels’s wife, Magda, and children in a 1935 magazine shoot. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images Rabbits for FoodBinnie Kirshenbaum Profile, £12.99, pp384Kirshenbaum’s seventh novel opens with the protagonist, Bunny, sitting on a bench in a psychiatric ward awaiting the arrival of a therapy dog that never appears. She is in hospital following a New Year’s Eve breakdown after months of depression. As the novel spools back in time, we follow Bunny’s journey from accomplished writer to psychiatric patient, by way of her best friend’s death and flashbacks to her childhood. In the hospital, Bunny clashes with the doctors, makes wicked observations on her fellow patients and writes hilariously about the hospital’s creative writing class. Razor-sharp, astutely observed and acerbically funny. Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s GermanyJames Wyllie The History Press, £20, pp288 “Among the thousands of books about Nazism,” writes Wyllie, “barely a handful focus on the wives of the leading figures in Hitler’s regime.” Redressing that imbalance, Wyllie tells the stories of the wives of Goering, Goebbels, Himmler and others, charting the trajectory of each from first becoming involved in the movement through the war and beyond, into “the postwar twilight of denial and delusion”. Highlighting similarities in the women’s backgrounds, Wyllie provides a distinctive prism through which to view the period. WakenhyrstMichelle Paver Head of Zeus, £8.99, pp368 (paperback)It’s 1966 and 69-year-old Maud lives as a recluse in a semi-derelict Suffolk manor house, which she has inhabited since her father bludgeoned someone to death with a pickaxe more than 50 years ago. Having lived out the rest of his days in an asylum, her father has recently died, leaving behind a triptych of paintings that may have contributed to his madness. The narrative returns to Maud’s troubled childhood with her tyrannical father, whose misogynism and sexual exploitation we learn about through Maud’s reading of his diary. Treading a fine line between the supernatural and psychological torment, Paver’s tale is atmospheric and intriguing.• To order Rabbits for Food, Nazi Wives or Wakenhyrst, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
The novelist’s red-hot streak of invention continues with this rollicking girls’ boarding school story. Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel is a fast, fizzy read. Tash, the daughter of a mysterious Russian billionaire, arrives at an English boarding school. Then we’re into 224 pages of sheer audacity and voice as Tash tries to figure out who she is. Thomas is satirically attuned to the intricate frustration of teen life, the ignoble obsessions of puerile minds and the speed at which hygiene, decorum and false pretences vanish in a single-sex boarding institution. This makes for an entertaining, irreverent and wrong-hilarious read. The girls engage in competitive anorexic narcissism (“Fruit has been specifically bred by insatiable, corrupt farmers to be full of sugar”), mortification of the flesh through sport and snobbery about local “plebs” whose tattoos are “desperate cries for help rendered in fading ink”. The girls both enact and encounter various forms of contempt, inappropriateness, ambiguity and sleaze. The novel is full of brilliant lines and I’m deliberately not quoting the best ones, to save them for buying readers. OK, just one. Some male trauma counsellors come to visit: “Look, where do you even get two therapists who look so much like paedophiles? ...[One of them] has the eyes of a lifeguard who lets people down.” I came to Oligarchy having devoured Thomas’s brilliant Worldquake fantasy series, similarly set in a remote town with young characters and a strange school. She is on a red-hot streak of invention right now and these narratives succeed because of the novelist’s deep understanding of the cracks and quirks of such communities. Underneath the inconsequentiality of Tash’s teenage high jinks is a barely repressed sense of panic and self-doubt. She is full of fear about returning to her old life of “people shouting at each other, but always about the wrong things”. When Thomas slows down for a moment I am reminded how excellent her dialogue is. She expertly conveys the complexities of character through natural speech, as when Tash is advised by her worldly Aunt Sonja or has a date with a privileged guy who is at once snobbish and observant and “smelled triply of boy and man and animal”. The text is haunted faintly by other narratives. I caught whiffs of The Virgin Suicides, The Crucible, The Bling Ring, Clueless, Alan Warner’s The Sopranos, Picnic at Hanging Rock, the fervour of Antonia White’s Frost in May and the anguish of Edward St Aubyn. But these don’t stick, banished by the sheer blast of stroppy, scathing energy. This is more like Malory Towers with wifi or Sweet Valley High with the sweetness taken out. There are sinister whispers about murder, suicide, mass hysteria and tragic school folklore. But they are outweighed by the wit, which is plentiful, freewheeling and almost shocking in its callousness, like the childhood memories of when a girl “dropped acid and watched The Silence of the Lambs while the house flooded and no one did anything”. Despite the occasional spangles of darkness, this is hugely enjoyable. It’s about as menacing as a cool girl’s black glitter nail polish – and just as much fun. . Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas is published by Canongate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Engineered to make the room shake ... Tim Minchin. Photograph: Andy HollingworthTim Minchin was “misdiagnosed” as a comedian, he says in his new show, Back. You can see what he means: comedian doesn’t begin to cover the talents of a man who composed the musical Matilda, then moved to Hollywood to write and direct his own $100m animated movie. That project was cancelled after four years’ work, triggering a depressed Minchin’s return to Australia and – indirectly – this new tour, his first for eight years. It is in many ways a triumphant comeback, a three-hour spectacular tracing the story of Minchin’s life in “old songs, new songs and fuck you songs”. It comes with a guarantee to raise the roof – if not with as many laughs as one might have wished for.I feel churlish saying so because Minchin lays it on thick here, with a slick seven-piece band and set engineered to make the room shake. It can’t be faulted as an onslaught of entertainment, even if one wonders whether Minchin’s songs – many of which depend on linguistic dexterity for their effect – are best served by this push-the-boat out approach. You can see the attraction to the rock’n’roll nerd himself, whose tracks always aspired to the condition of rock opera. That was part of the joke – but it’s a part that evaporates when the fantasy becomes reality and Minchin’s puns are subsumed beneath the wall of sound.Big, brash musicality ... Tim Minchin. Photograph: Andy HollingworthThat’s not an issue at the start of the show, which finds our kohl-eyed, big-haired host alone at his piano performing old favourite, F Sharp, and that torrent of wordplay and atheist sarcasm, Thank You God. There’s some anecdotes about his early years as a cash-strapped musician and actor, a period we might designate (after his fellow ginger Simply Red) as: money’s too tight, Tim Minchin. As if to celebrate that those days are gone, the curtain then drops in a blaze of lights to reveal his backing band, and the register changes from intimate to grandiose. There follows a brassy reworking of If I Didn’t Have You, while his ode to cheese is given a hyperactive makeover. New songs include bittersweet ballad Leaving LA and I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, a song about resisting sexual temptation that flirts with a humblebrag and ends up being lovely.Lowlights include a lecture about confirmation bias and the lack of empathy between today’s siloed social tribes – all good points, but not novel and made with a heavy hand to tee up Minchin’s earnest song on the subject, 15 Minutes. But there are many highlights, among them a droll indoors standup section deriving from John Mayer’s single Your Body is a Wonderland, and a closing number introduced as Minchin’s effort to emulate Bob Dylan. Its dissimilarity to Dylan seems to be the joke until this violently intemperate number persuades you that it may well be the perfect (petty, plaintive) protest song for our hostile times.The encore offers the bonus of When I Grow Up from Matilda, a gem of a song that sparkles a little less when performed this stridently. I’d rather it had been handled with the light touch of Carry You, an a capella tribute to Minchin’s recently deceased tour manager. Here, as elsewhere, it feels as if Minchin’s put a lot of himself into a show that delivers on autobiography, opinion and big, brash musicality – if a little less so on comedy.•At Eventim Apollo, London, 12-14 November. Then touring.
A stirring compendium by Fergus Butler-Gallie of the lives of clergy who stood up to Hitler. At a time when hateful, divisive and xenophobic politics are being pursued in parts of Europe in the name of defending “Christian culture”, this is a timely and uplifting book. Before the Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie embarks on a whistlestop tour of saints and martyrs who fought the good fight against Hitler and fascism, he recalls the words of St Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female: all are one in Christ.” Take note, Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński and Matteo Salvini. What follows is an hugely enjoyable if slightly eccentric account of clerical heroism in the face of evil. One would be tempted to call it a romp, were it not for the depth of moral seriousness that motivated the priests and nuns whose stories are recounted. Butler-Gallie starts off with Canon Félix Kir in what is billed as a tale of “white wine and espionage”. Kir, a priest and politician in the Burgundian town of Dijon, helped more than 5,000 PoWs to escape during the course of the war through a slave labour scam. He miraculously survived an assassination attempt, went on the run and reappeared atop an American tank as it rolled into his liberated home town. Apparently, this bit of showmanship infuriated General de Gaulle, who thought it stole some of his limelight. As with the other heroes of his book, Butler-Gallie is keen to offset Kir’s moral courage by fondly chronicling his flaws, notably a love of alcohol. “Well into his late 80s,” he writes, “Kir would take several hours over lunch, almost always washed down by a blanc-cassis, a whole bottle of red and a slurp of sparkling white to finish, before – astonishingly – returning to his desk for an afternoon’s work.” After the war, producers of the national hero’s favourite drink successfully sought permission to name it after him. Butler-Gallie’s humorous, rollicking approach works well with a character such as Canon Kir, but occasionally the jauntiness is a bit wearing. In a chapter on the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged in Flossenbürg for his part in the plot to kill Hitler, he includes a slightly off-colour joke about the sexual voracity of the Lutheran minister’s father. The chain-smoking Sister Sára Salkaházi, who died at the hands of Hungarian fascists after hiding Jews and others at risk of deportation to the camps, is described as “the feisty nicotine nun”. Her life, the author tells us unhelpfully, proves that “unlikely nuns are not just figures of the fervid and lusty male imagination”. This book is Butler-Gallie’s follow-up to the well-received A Field Guide to the English Clergy. Those who read that will recognise the jaunty joviality of this volume dedicated to “loose canons”. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But occasional lapses in tone and a certain Boy’s Own quality to some of the prose (one priest’s resistance tale is described as “a story of daring escapes from stormtroopers, of late-night rendezvous and of cross-dressing clergy”) are forgivable in a book bursting with such generosity of spirit. Butler-Gallie necessarily races through the biographies in what is a slim paperback. But he achieves an inspiring effect through the sheer cumulative impact of so many brave decisions taken when it would have been easier to do otherwise. From the searing indictments of Nazism delivered from the pulpit by Clemens von Galen, the bishop of Munster, in wartime Germany, to the safe networks established by St Maximilian Kolbe, which successfully hid nearly 2,000 Polish Jews, individual acts of courage confounded Hitler’s expectation that he would one day “have the Church on the ropes”. Wisely, Butler-Gallie explicitly excludes the complex and sometimes dark relationship between the institutional churches and fascism from his remit. This is a book about Christian individuals and their Pauline determination to protect fellow human beings from persecution, whatever their faith or race. When, at Pentecost in 1940, Salkaházi took lifelong orders with the Sisters of Social Service in Budapest, she adopted as a personal motto a line from the prophecy of Isaiah: “Here I am! Send me.” She and the other remarkable figures in this book were sent in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances. They did not hesitate to go. . Priests de la Resistance: The Loose Canons Who Fought Fascism in the Twentieth Century by The Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie is published by Oneworld (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Stratford Circus Arts Centre, LondonFilskit’s theatre show for young audiences features clowning, aerial tricks and an engaging tale of friendship. Here’s a set that little hands would love to explore. A tower of scaffolding, decorated with colourful lightbulbs, looms above a super-soft bed. And is that a moon or a hula hoop suspended over the stage? Both, it turns out, in Filskit theatre’s irresistible lunar encounter, which uses aerial circus and clowning to spin a beguiling story for children aged three to eight. Stella (Hannah Thompson), who dangles like the bulbs from the metal bars, lives on the moon. When children wish upon her stars, the lights flicker and crackle. In the city below, Ivy (Rachel Fullegar) fills her cosy home with lamps and lanterns as she’s scared of the dark. The pair are equally quirky, curious and nervous – likely as lonely too – but their lives are a mystery to each other when Stella crash-lands in Ivy’s flat. The resulting comic confusion echoes the odd-couple setup of Filskit’s earlier productions Breaking the Ice (husky meets polar bear) and Huddle (penguin raises chick). There’s a touch, too, of Oliver Jeffers’ series of Boy picture books in this tale of a friendship that, like Amelia Bird’s clever set, bridges a mundane domestic world and the great unknown. In a nice touch, those bulb-stars glow like traffic lights for the city scenes. Pleasingly for this age group, the show – co-devised by Thompson and Fullegar, and co-directed by Katy Costigan and Sarah Shephard – isn’t limited by a single easy moral or message. It touches on light pollution, the environment and the turbulence of modern life, as well as suggesting how bravery can brighten your horizons and sharing your hopes can enable communal change. Both performances are engaging, though the projections, usually key to the Filskit style, feel a tad underpowered. Still, there is striking use of silhouettes for the woman-in-the-moon whose telescope is an apparent homage to Georges Méliès. Older children may crave a few more of Ivy’s science facts but younger ones are likely to delight in the tickling and cartwheeling with which this pair get to know each other – and the way they bound into the audience on their night-time adventure. When the hour is up, my six-year-old, Hilda, sighs: “I wish I was in that play.” At ArtsDepot, London, on 17 November.
The author now sees his ‘lost’ book Westwind as pacey and prescient. It is an unusual promotional gambit before a book launch. Ian Rankin has revealed that he once disowned his novel, Westwind, and hoped it would “never … see the light of day again”. When he first produced the manuscript, 30 years ago, he was told to change it so many times that he started “to lose belief in my abilities” and began “doubting my future as a publishable writer”, he has said. Only 1,000 hardbacks were printed when it was first published in 1990. “Every time my agent or editor had asked me to rework it, I had acquiesced, until it felt like it wasn’t really my book at all – certainly not the one I’d set out to write,” admits Rankin in an introduction to the new edition. “So I decided it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” The Scottish writer, most famous for creating the Edinburgh police detective John Rebus, says his decision to revisit Westwind was prompted by praise from a fan. After re-reading his “lost” book, which tells of life in a fictional contemporary Britain, the writer decided to bring it out again with a few minor changes. “The characters came to life, the plot was pacey, the villains were scary and the heroes believable,” he said. Orion, the publisher, is to re-release the novel in hardback on 14 November, billed as a tale of spies, satellites and a global conspiracy of sinister surveillance that is “strikingly relevant in today’s political climate”. Rankin agrees that its concerns about the dangers of political isolationism now seem “prescient”. The novel is set against a backdrop of rising international tensions, as American troops are being pulled out of Europe. Above, in the skies, satellites circle the Earth and are “potentially being used to spy on everyone and everything”.
This detailed account of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder exposes the dark heart of the Saudi regime. There are two kinds of dissidents – those whose starting point is in opposition to power, and those turned protester by circumstance. Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was murdered and dismembered by a hit squad in his country’s consulate in Istanbul last year, was one of the latter. I met him just once, about 15 years ago, when I was foreign editor of the Observer and he was a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in London. A big bear of a man, Khashoggi was still in favour then with those in power in Riyadh, despite having been fired from several media posts as he trod a fine line between loyalist and critic. As Jonathan Rugman documents in his powerful account of the Washington Post columnist’s grisly killing, Khashoggi was aware of the boundaries he was testing. But with the ascent of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ( blamed by many for the murder) as the country’s vindictive new power behind the throne, all the rules changed. Khashoggi was butchered, in Rugman’s telling, not because he posed a particular threat, but because he wouldn’t kiss the ring. “Perhaps the best way of explaining [Khashoggi’s] murder,” he writes, “is to put it down to the paranoia of one man [Bin Salman], who could not tolerate direct criticism from a fellow Saudi he regarded as a traitor residing far too close to the heart of American power.” The Killing in the Consulate is a chilling book, not least in its account of those in the Saudi regime blandly plotting Kashoggi’s assassination. The story may be familiar, but Rugman, foreign correspondent at Channel 4 News, supplies telling new detail and context, transforming it into a dark fable of unaccountable power. Skilfully weaving together the story of Khashoggi’s mounting disillusionment with Saudi Arabia under the new crown prince, it is also an indictment of the sordid realpolitik of the response to his murder, led by the cowardly President Trump. Khashoggi emerges as a complicated figure, both in his professional and personal life. Attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man, he later became well known in the Arab media for his early interviews with Osama bin Laden. His friends and contacts included princes, intellectuals, businessmen and Islamists, leading some to distrust him as a court insider or even a spy, a suggestion he denied. Simply, when confronted with Bin Salman’s campaign of repression, Khashoggi wanted the freedom to criticise as well as encourage. Despite initially being feted as a bold young reformer – for allowing women to drive and opening up cinemas – the new crown prince’s vision was about “privileges, not rights”. No one could be seen to eclipse him. Rival royals were rounded up, imprisoned and stripped of billions of dollars. Women’s rights activists, who had campaigned for an end to the ban on driving, were arrested on the eve of the prohibition being lifted, tortured and put on trial. Other critics arrested included Khashoggi’s friend the economist Essam al-Zamil, a key turning point for the journalist. As became clear after Khashoggi’s murder, a coterie of thugs around Bin Salman, notably his “media adviser” Saud al-Qahtani, played prominent roles in each of the outrages. And Khashoggi, exiled in the US, was also in his sights. An isolated and lonely figure, who had been systematically cut off from friends and family and sources of income, he was an easy target for those plotting to harm him. And when Khashoggi visited the consulate to pick up the divorce papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, he disappeared inside, never to reappear. When called upon to explain, the Saudis repeatedly changed their story, first suggesting he had left the building by a back door; then, that he had been killed during an argument. Finally, it was acknowledged that he had been murdered by officials who had exceeded their authority. Perhaps most shocking is the sense of impunity in Riyadh. “Time heals,” a senior Saudi royal told the Wall Street Journal. “And when the verdict is out, when justice is done, when a few heads get chopped off, [foreign investment] will come back.” . The Killing in the Consulate by Jonathan Rugman is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 383. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
The Observer’s comic-strip artist on her new children’s book, her obsession with invertebrates, and how a prayer for a superior hotel room transformed her life. “Whenever I was between projects,” says Simone Lia – comic-strip cartoonist in the Observer and author of a new children’s book, The Secret Time Machine and the Gherkin Switcheroo , about the unlikely friendship between a bird and a worm – “I couldn’t stop painting worms. I didn’t know why.” As I walk into her house in south London, I notice a huge painting in her hall with a caption in shaky capitals: “WORM HARMONY”. The worms look like demob-happy frankfurters. They have floaty bodies, dazed smiles. She knew enough, she goes on, to know she should pay attention to this obsession. And, with a laugh, she explains she realised how much she admired the character of the worm: “They’re very humble, live in the ground, do good work, get on with it.” These qualities, she says, “I’d like for myself.” If this sounds like a Christian aspiration, it will not surprise Lia’s many fans. In 2011, she beguiled readers with the book that made her name: Please God, Find Me a Husband! The belief in God was no joke. But the book was very funny. In one irresistible sequence, Lia, whose boyfriend had just ended their relationship by email, walks disconsolately across Leicester Square. She hears the lyrics of INXS’s Need You Tonight playing from a bar and believes God is communicating with her. Before long, in her mind’s eye, she is dancing friskily with God – a bearded, bespectacled bloke in a pale blue, calf-length dress. Her story leads her to a religious order in Wales (“I’m so not going to find a husband hanging out with nuns”) and to Australia, where she meets a handsome horseman who, in the way of handsome horsemen, disappears over the horizon. It is eight years since that book was published (it has five worms on one of its opening pages). As we sit down in Lia’s front room, I ask how long it took God to get his act together. “Ten years,” she says. “I thought I’d trick God by doing a book. I felt sure God would give me a happy ending and I’d definitely get a husband. But it doesn’t really work like that. I finished the book and there was no one. I was 33. I didn’t meet my husband until I was 41. We married two years later.” I am looking at her as she speaks, her bright, smiling face always on the edge of wincing at herself. I am thinking how nice it would be to have a black-and-white drawing of her because her clothes would be such fun to colour in: scarlet T-bar shoes, a mustard-yellow cardy, a blue-and-white skirt. The man we’re talking about, Timothy, a graphic designer, is the son of an inspirational Australian artist friend of hers. When his mother came to London to visit her son, they both called in on Lia. One of Lia’s friends had told her it was pointless to wait for a man to come knocking at her door. “But Tim literally did knock on my door. He was really handsome and we had so much in common – it was amazing.” She adds: “We even had a little bit of matching eczema on our foreheads.” This, clearly, was a mark of God, I say. She shrieks with laughter (I can imagine her drawing the matching eczema – it would be the sort of zanily miniaturist detail she relishes). “I now think God meant me to wait in order to appreciate what happened next.” She was nearly 44 when their daughter, Anjès, was born. Anjès is a “really friendly” two-year-old, she says, adding: “Where does that come from? I’m not like that, I’m really withdrawn and a bit weird.” Nonsense, I say. Not only is Lia herself “really friendly” but her focus, in her work, is on the mystery of friendship – human, animal, divine. Her latest children’s book could even be, she suggests, about marriage. The Secret Time Machine and the Gherkin Switcheroo describes the challenge of living with an old bird who does the crossword puzzle and does not want to go out, and a worm who dreams of wriggling back underground. Having said that, the worm overturns Lia’s definition of wormdom by mainly living above ground and by not being humble at all. He swings between feeling he is worthless and believing himself a genius. Like most of us, he is ordinary. “I relate to the worm much more than the bird,” she laughs. Lia’s parents came from Malta – her father was an electronics engineer, her mother a housewife. She grew up in a housing settlement in Haverhill, Suffolk – an alienating, ill-conceived place with few amenities. With her sleek black hair, she was often jeered at, called a “Paki”. She did an art foundation year in Ipswich, studied illustration in Brighton and, while doing an MA at the Royal College of Art, met Tom Gauld, who “got me into comics”, and with whom she collaborated (on Both). I am so diverted by her, I forget to ask where God fits in nowadays and pursue the subject by email. She replies in full. She explains she needs to “come out” as a Catholic because “our culture is not set up for a relationship that takes place in silence and solitude”. In the interests of honesty, she feels she should not leave out “the dark bit” of her life. Raised a Catholic, she lapsed in her teens: “Putting things mildly, there was a lot of fighting at home. I felt very alone and felt even Jesus was not listening to my prayers – it felt like he did not care. That is when I stopped praying, became interested in art. Drawing and painting was an escape. I could enter another world and forget about feeling lonely or afraid.” Throughout her 20s, she was “searching to find myself or to find something I guess. I wasn’t ever quite sure of my place in the world. That might be how Fluffy came about.” Fluffy (2007) was a graphic novel about the relationship between a rabbit and the floundering human being he thinks of as his dad. It looks like a children’s book but isn’t. Fluffy keeps asking his “dad” what Miss Owers (Fluffy’s nursery teacher) is doing spending the night with him, and the book includes irresistibly wacky ideas such as the moment when a dust particle takes over as narrator. It was while researching for Fluffy in Sicily (the rabbit goes on hols there) that Lia rediscovered God. A randomly encountered Mormon asked her whether she still prayed. She went into a baroque church but all she could think of was to ask God for a better hotel room (she feared she had been staying in a brothel). “Despite my rubbishy prayer, I felt something out of the world in that moment. It’s very hard to explain but it was as if my heart opened up and rain was falling on me and the rain was love. I lifted my head and let it drench my being. In my mind’s eye, I could see a golden light falling from above. It sounds loopy if I say it out loud. But from that moment, something shifted inside of me.” She left the church feeling full of joy and, 10 minutes later, found a superior hotel room. “Funnily enough, there was a picture of the sacred heart of Jesus in that room, the same picture I’d poured my heart out to as a child with my woes and worries.” Lia’s gift has always been for identifying the comedy in her woes and worries. Even during a difficult labour, she says that she managed to have a laugh. And often, when writing, she imagines she is “talking to my sister to make her laugh” – which might explain the warmth of her work, the way she makes you feel she is your friend. I tell her I particularly loved a recent column in the Observer’s New Review entitled “How to get a winter body fast!”, sending up potentially harmful articles that tell women who to be/what to eat. “That week I’d eaten a whole packet of custard creams in one sitting,” she exclaims. Trying to sum up her sense of humour, she continues: “I don’t like making jokes about other people. But if somebody laughs at the jokes I make laughing at myself, I really like them.” Every day, she asks herself: “What have I accomplished?” Her aim is to make sure that, even if she has achieved nothing else, she has had a “good old belly laugh”. . The Secret Time Machine and the Gherkin Switcheroo by Simone Lia is published by Walker Books (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
The historian’s insightful, revelatory account of Theresa May’s premiership reveals how ill-equipped she was for the role. A Tory prime minister with a stonking lead in the polls engineers an election pledging to get Brexit done and is up against an opposition leader so unpopular that many Labour candidates won’t put his face on their leaflets. What could possibly go wrong? Anthony Seldon chooses The Pivot as the title of his chapter on the 2017 election. Theresa May’s premiership was one of two parts, separated by that disastrous campaign. Before it, she was empress of all she surveyed. The cabinet was cowed; the civil service bowed. Fawning elements of the media drooled that she was Boudicca reborn and Maggie the Second. After the election announcement, she was greeted by a room of Tory MPs chanting: “Five more years!” The dolts. After the humiliating debacle that cost them seats, she was the empress with no clothes. The May premiership became a tortured and doomed quest to get a Brexit deal through a Commons in which she had no majority. The journey ended with her ignominious eviction from No 10 by the same people who had grovelled at her kitten heels when she was in her pomp. Yet Seldon draws a paradox from his absorbing and revelatory account of her time in Downing Street. He concludes that she was a much improved prime minister by the end and even allows himself the speculation that she might have had a premiership the length of Blair or Thatcher had she not screwed up that election. In explaining why she floundered so badly, he makes the excellent point that she was the first prime minister of modern times to become such with no experience as either leader of the opposition or chancellor, the two frontline roles other than prime minister that demand high performative skills and a grasp of policy across the range. Her apprenticeship was six years at the Home Office, a department with onerous responsibilities, but a narrow perspective. It was also a place where she could conceal her pronounced flaws behind the steely mask she wore for the world. When she moved up to No 10, her aides projected her as “strong and stable” not because she was, but because they were trying to prevent her exposure as a highly insecure and often wobbly woman. We learn that her knees were knocking after her first prime minister’s questions. One aide recalls “her hand shaking on her folder” as she agonised over whether or not to call the fateful election. She was a shy and inflexible introvert in a job that requires a supple capacity to develop relationships both with voters and other political actors. Angela Merkel was the only foreign leader with whom she forged any kind of connection and even then she got little return from it in the Brexit negotiations. May’s inability to trust anyone outside her own tight circle meant she was awful at building alliances with senior colleagues. Seldon is told by one official: “She was the least collegiate prime minister I ever worked with, worse even than Gordon Brown because she was not as bright and lacked his intelligence and vision.” She and Philip Hammond, another vinegary character, loathed each other. “Theresa, that’s not how it works,” the chancellor would say patronisingly. It turned sour almost instantly and became the most toxic relationship between prime minister and chancellor in many decades, worse even than that between Blair and Brown, and without any of the compensating successes of that duo. There’s a great anecdote about May and Hammond attending the Davos forum in the Swiss Alps. May is helicoptered off the mountains to the airport for the journey home and finds that her jet has gone missing. “Where’s my plane?” she demands and is told by the RAF officer in charge that the chancellor has taken it. “She went absolutely crazy,” reports one witness. “Her whole body contorted in anger and indignation.” Under pressure, she had a tendency to retreat from everyone except her husband, Philip, into a “bunker of two”. The election campaign started to unravel when her social care policy, quickly tagged a “dementia tax”, came under ferocious attack. She could have mounted a confident defence or conducted an elegant retreat. She did neither, instead disappearing to her home in Maidenhead and going incommunicado as the storm raged around flailing and divided aides. Having signed off on a campaign entirely designed around her, when it started to fall apart she became “surly and miserable” and petulantly complained: “I don’t want it to be about me.” She knew little about Europe when she came to office, but lacked the intellectual self-confidence to seek out advice beyond her tiny troupe of trusties, a fatal handicap when it came to formulating a workable strategy for Brexit. She was increasingly ridiculed for the robotic nature of her public performances. Behind closed doors, fists were banged on desks, rows became expletive-laden and there were tears, quite a lot of tears. Then again, there was quite a lot to cry about. Seldon, a fair-minded man who always strives to find some virtues in every prime minister that he studies, argues that May did advance parts of her domestic agenda, dealt with Donald Trump as well as anyone could, and “might well have become a reasonably good, if unspectacular, prime minister” had it not been for Brexit. He acquits her of some of the worst charges that have been levelled against her. The maladroit response to the Grenfell inferno, when she initially failed to meet any of its victims, was not an example of cold indifference to the suffering of others. Her security told her she couldn’t visit the site of the disaster because it would trigger a riot. She later spent considerable time with Grenfell survivors and kept drawings by the Grenfell children in her office to the end of her days at No 10. Had she been able to display more empathy and emotional intelligence in public, she might have been a more successful prime minister. Then again, probably not. She had a tireless work ethic, a keen eye for detail and was driven by duty as well as ambition, but she was woefully short of many of the other skills required to prosper at the very top. Authoritative and insightful, this work adds to the already formidable canon of the prolific Seldon, author of more than 40 books. He and his battalion of researchers had just six months to produce this account of a complex premiership and yet the clear prose never reads as if written in a slapdash hurry. Though there doesn’t seem to have been much, if any, cooperation from May herself, the book draws on interviews with many of the key players. It also exploits to excellent effect Seldon’s contacts within the civil service and his capacity to get senior officials to talk frankly. If you want to know who did what when and why, this book will tell you. Seldon excels at piecing together how critical decisions came to be made before coming to well-reasoned judgments about their wisdom and impact. A very different character, a man that May thought “morally unfit” to be prime minister, is now hoping to succeed where she failed. I look forward to Johnson at 10, though it is impossible at this moment to know whether that will be another big book or a very short one. . Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer . May at 10 by Anthony Seldon is published by Biteback (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
New Wolsey theatre, IpswichNewcomers Jim Barne and Kit Buchan have written a classic Christmas romance enhanced by confident production. “Even impossible dreams come true,” sings the wonderstruck Dougal in this new musical that is itself a seemingly impossible dream. Its tyro writers, childhood friends Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, deploy the bare basics of a single set, a cast of two and a three-strong band to create a classic, New York Christmas Day romcom, with scenes set in JFK airport, Brooklyn, Central Park, Macy’s, Chinatown... also subway rides, street dancing, ice-skating and a high-kicking, pre-interval walk-down number. Hubris threatens, but chutzpah wins through. The emotional objective of the action takes a double focus. On Christmas Eve, young Brit Dougal (tiggerish Alex Cardall) arrives in the Big Apple for the first time, invited to the wedding of the father he has never met. His over-enthusiasm for the city he recognises from its film incarnations grates on native New Yorker and Grinch-like sister-of-the-bride Robin (Tori Allen-Martin, hard-boiled, soft-centred), sent to collect him. Two relationships appear possible, father-son; boy-girl: will one or both work out? And there’s a time pressure: Dougal has only 36 hours before his return flight. Barne and Buchan were winners of the 2018 Stiles and Drewe mentorship award, and the benefits show. A naive quality to the overall feel is achieved through sophisticated means: solid structuring (a touch too mechanical at times) and clever musicality (a pastiche duet of Christmas songs signals possible connections; a drum beat builds the anger of an argument). The writing (one crass, unnecessary plot twist excepted) is witty and well-served by the production. Amy Jane Cook’s spare design offers multiple surprises. Tim Jackson’s direction is sure-footed and, in Allen-Martin and Cardall, he has young performers who are surely stars in the making. On only its fourth performance, the show is yet to fully play in – it’s still a little over-frenetic at times, not quite relaxing into its strengths – but, even so, this particular Grinch was won over by a promising blend of audacity, charm and talent. . The Season is at the New Wolsey theatre, Ipswich, until 16 November; then at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 19-30 November
Sadler’s Wells; Linbury theatre, LondonRambert’s young dancers pulse with pure horsepower while Northern Ballet celebrates Mozart’s overlooked sister. Last year, Rambert’s new junior troupe stormed the London stage in a body-pumping debut. The high-throttle energy continues in Rambert2’s latest mixed bill, a trio of contemporary pieces serving up taut, edgy bursts of muscle. The company turns over each year, so it’s a fresh cohort on show for 2019/20 – young, hustling newcomers who make a hell of an impression, even when the choreography ebbs. Terms and Conditions is the first choreographic foray from Baltimore-born Jermaine Spivey, a longstanding performer with Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot. It’s a fitful offering, tethering upbeat grooving to a woolly script about the paradoxes of human behaviour. Boosted by Spivey’s keen eye for theatrics, phrases often evolve into something arresting, but take a while to arrive, weighed down by competing ideas and some futzing about with microphones and mirrors. It’s a relief when the dance alone takes centre stage: this group makes elegant work of pulsing street moves. Sin, extracted from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s 2010 production Babel(words), spotlights Minouche Van de Ven and Prince Lyons, who brawl in a rough-and-ready duet that’s equal parts lust and brutality. Steamy tangles elicit raw, sensual postures, while gymnastic lifts reveal serious horsepower. In an already gifted group, these two rise to the top. There’s more carnality in Sama from Andrea Miller, founder of New York City’s Gallim. Threads of eastern spirituality shoot to the fore – some sharp, some glib – as the stage fills with supple, thrusting bodies. Miller’s choreography, a comment on what she calls the “apocalypse of the body” in the digital age, revels in the grotesque, drawing in creaturely convulsions and freakish warped frames. Glimpsed through a blood-red haze, the effect is staggering, heightened by the pounding score and the dancers’ self-possession. But much like Spivey’s piece, it’s a question of enthusiastic dance jostling against distracting flourishes (in this case stilts, smoke and a bizarre musical epilogue). Another triple bill opened in London last week, this one from Northern Ballet, looking sharp and distinctive in three short works. It’s a format that suits the company’s wide touring schedule, as well as its diverse audiences, and has prompted some memorable additions to the repertoire over the years, including David Nixon’s Powerhouse Rhumba. With its charming, revelatory portrait of Mozart’s sister Nannerl, Morgann Runacre-Temple’s The Kingdom of Back underscores the resonance of female storytelling on the male-dominated stage. The work considers Nannerl’s predicament as a talented musician screwed by the patriarchy and left trailing in the wake of her prodigious brother. Antoinette Brooks-Daw brings a compelling buoyancy to the lead role, bobbing her head as she deploys elastic extensions and voluptuous port de bras. Runacre-Temple’s choreography is playful, but tension thrives, first in a wistful solo that illuminates Nannerl’s haut-monde station in life (Marie Antoinette beehive included) and, later, in sweeping group numbers that lay bare the imperious influence of her father ( Javier Torres, sporting a chilly glare). Frank Moon’s characteristically quirky soundtrack is a joy. In Mamela, from company member Mlindi Kulashe, narrative takes a back seat to emotion – fear and hope in particular. There are intriguing shapes at work here, the dancers finessing the ever-blurring line between ballet and contemporary dance. It’s possibly overlong, but standout performances abound, including a long-limbed solo from Sean Bates, his torso tugged into contractions by invisible threads. Choreographer in residence Kenneth Tindall brings further abstract artistry with his latest work, The Shape of Sound, an ode to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The ballet is alight with friskiness, helped along by the postmodern twangs of Max Richter’s 2012 recomposition. A coltish prance in the upstage lights is a definite highlight, as is the fizzing grand allegro of the finale. The ensemble phrases shine brightest, delivering the flamboyant glamour for which these baroque compositions scream out.
Andrew Roberts, visiting professor at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The ObserverAndrew Roberts is a historian and journalist. He is a visiting professor at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and also has positions at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Lehrman Institute at the New York Historical Society. His latest book, Leadership in War, looks at nine leaders from Napoleon to Margaret Thatcher, examining how they performed in conditions of war.What were your selection criteria for your nine subjects? They were highly subjective. I was giving a series of speeches to the New York Historical Society, so I didn’t choose FDR or Lincoln or Washington, despite their being great war leaders, simply because I didn’t think there was anything I could teach the Americans about any of those people. I’m not pretending the nine I’ve chosen are the nine top leaders in war, by any means. They’re just the people who interested me in, really, an incredibly self-indulgent act of serendipity.History is written by the victors, but can someone lose a war and remain a great leader? Napoleon is the key exception to the rule. I think Adolf Hitler was a successful war leader up till June 1941, but then he fell off a little [laughs], so I have included him because there are lessons to be learned about the errors. But, yes, I think it’s possible. Even though it was for a bad cause, Robert E Lee can’t be considered anything other than a great war leader.There is a tendency to see truly great leaders as men and women of destiny. Is there any value in that belief? No, I think it’s a form of psychological disorder to think you are specially destined. Napoleon did. Hitler also did. He believed his survival from the assassination plotters on 20 July 1944 was providence. But to believe you’re specially chosen – apart from Jesus – it’s pretty much a prima facie case of psychological disorder. Having said that, we’re very lucky that Winston Churchill did have that extremely egotistical disorder, because it kept him fighting, even when all seemed lost.What does leadership in war teach us about leadership in peace? I think this is where the great leadership-studies industry, especially in America, pretty much breaks down. Because they are very different things. We see that again in Churchill’s career: he wasn’t a very good peacetime leader, frankly, but a great wartime one. Which is why when people say that Boris Johnson thinks he’s Winston Churchill, I think he’s clever enough to spot that the wartime and peacetime prime minister are entirely different things.Napoleon from Corsica, Hitler from Austria and Stalin from Georgia. Why did they come to embody French, German and Russian nationalism with such conviction? You can go further. Wellington was from Ireland, Alexander the Great from Macedonia. You can also consider Margaret Thatcher a social outsider, coming from Grantham, yet leading a party ruled by social insiders. I think it’s a driving force in people, the sense of being outside and wanting to prove to the world that you’re just as good as anyone born inside.Who has achieved a reputation as a great wartime leader that they don’t deserve? I think [Paul von] Hindenburg and [Erich] Ludendorff. The more we read about the Battle of Tannenberg, especially of course in Norman Stone’s wonderful book The Eastern Front, the more you realise there was a good deal of pure luck in that victory. So I think their reputation was largely undeserved.Of the nine you’ve selected, which leader do you most admire for their actions in war? I come back to Napoleon every time really, even though he was not a great orator, and personally his morality was not the best. But when it comes to the broad appreciation of leadership as an art – even though he lost, of course – again and again, he’s the prime exemplar of war leadership.What’s the last great book you read? I am quite lucky because I am chairman of the Lehrman Institute military history book prize, so I get to give a cheque for $50,000 to the winner. Every year, I read four or five really good military history books. I gave the cheque last week to Andrew Lambert, a don at King’s College London. He has written a book called Seapower States. It’s utterly brilliant. It goes back to the Phoenicians, the Venetians, Carthaginians and all the way up to the British and Dutch. Beautifully written, a lifetime’s research.Which authors living today do you most admire? This is a golden age of history writing. I will read everything written by Antony Beevor, Max Hastings, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Niall Ferguson, Antonia Fraser, Flora Fraser.Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read? Anna Karenina. I’m waiting until I’ve broken my leg and I’m laid up in hospital. I can have a nice time and get down to reading it.Who is your favourite literary hero or heroine or villain? I read all the Palliser novels [by Anthony Trollope] when I was in my late 20s. I know you’re not supposed to admire him, but I wound up loving the Duke of Omnium. He put up with so much with that wife of his, and he was trying to run the country.Which book would you give to a young person? Always My Early Life, Winston Churchill’s autobiography – his life up to the age of 25. It’s an adventure with endless amounts of good advice to young people. It’s beautifully written and it very obviously comes from the heart.Do you have a guilty reading pleasure? Yes, Robert Goddard. He’s a thriller writer of the sort of whodunnit you buy in airports. If I go off on a summer holiday, I pretty much always kick off with the latest Goddard. I read it with a pen and write the names of all the characters who could be the murderer on the inside cover, and cross them out as they get murdered.Which book do you feel is most overrated? Eric Hobsbawm’s book The Age of Extremes, which was glorified by everybody as being the great history of the 20th century. The more I read it, the more I thought it was just an apology from an aged extremist.What books are on your bedside table? I don’t have a bedside table. After I’ve been working in the evening, I just go straight to bed. The only time I read for pleasure is on aeroplanes. But I’m on aeroplanes all the time. The one I’m reading at the moment is a very funny, interesting book called How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. It’s by an American don called Russ Roberts and it’s a total delight.• Leadership in War by Andrew Roberts is published by Penguin (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99