A treatise on greed: The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff reviewed

Lauren Groff writes to alleviate her angst about aspects of life she finds hard to confront. Climatic disaster, misogyny, spousal death, flawed utopias and pandemics have all fuelled the plots of books as disparate as Fates and Furies, her 2015 contemporary two-hander about marital verisimilitude, and Matrix, which features a 12th-century feminist abbess based on the little-known poet Marie de France. Yet neither is a bleak read; indeed, Barack Obama selected Fates and Furies as his 2015 pick. Groff’s intoxicating 2018 story collection Florida threw the strains of motherhood into this mix: the mother in ‘Ghosts and Empties’ who laces her running shoes to pace the streets because she has

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

Let’s indulge in some identity politics for a second: I am from Hong Kong, born as a subject of the last major colony of the British Empire, minority-ethnic, descended from Chinese refugees, now living here in exile. This summer, both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain are presenting new displays that are meant to reflect the ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ identities of Britain. Supposedly, I fit nicely among their target audience. In reality, as an immigrant looking to be included in this nation, I am perplexed by my visits. For two publicly funded museums tasked with telling the story of this country through the portraiture of its eminent figures and

Our academics are attacking the whole concept of knowledge

The first problem about decolonisation is the word itself. Colonisation is the process of establishing control over a foreign territory and its indigenous inhabitants, by settlement, conquest or political manipulation. But decolonisation? It has come to mean much more than the reversal of that process. Today, it refers to an altogether wider agenda, whose central objective is to discredit or downgrade the cultural achievements of the West. Objective truth and empirical investigation are mere western constructs. They are optional ideas which need have no weight beyond the western societies which invented them. But the West has imposed them on the rest of the world by a process akin to the

A thoroughly modern 18th-century heroine: The Future Future, by Adam Thirlwell, reviewed

Adam Thirlwell’s latest novel begins in revolutionary France and chronicles the travails of its embattled celebrity heroine, Celine, who is being subjected to a campaign of malicious gossip about her sex life. She resolves to cultivate a coterie of influential writers to wrest back control of the narrative – cue earnest meditations on power, misogyny and the ability of the written word to shape reality. Meanwhile, she finds solace in female company, reflecting: In a society made of words and images and circulating and recirculating, all devoted to disinformation, it was very difficult to find any personal safety, and one minuscule form might just be this intense form of friendship

Shamebridge: why is Cambridge so embarrassed about its past?

Finding Cambridge’s ugly side isn’t easy, but a walking tour of the city promises to show you it. Uncomfortable Cambridge, which bills itself as the ‘perfect introductory tour’ of the city, suggests tourists are wrong to think this is a place of beauty. Rather, Cambridge is a place we should be ashamed of – or at least feel a bit awkward about. The university is at the heart of the one-and-a-half hour tour, which costs £14 per person. Our guide begins by telling us that Cambridge isn’t as guilty as Oxford, which is good news – but it’s mostly downhill from there. St John’s College, where William Wilberforce and Thomas

Not all Americans are so crass

In the face of American snark about the Queen’s death, many a British newspaper reader was disgusted. With bad tidings imminent on Thursday last week, an academic at Carnegie Mellon tweeted: ‘I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.’ An assistant professor in Rhode Island tweeted that she would ‘dance on the graves of every member of the royal family, especially hers’. Once the bleak news was in, a co-host of the popular US television show The View imagined this the ideal time to observe: ‘If you really think about what the monarchy was built on, it was built

The lost world of the Karoo

Julia Blackburn’s Dreaming the Karoo is the diary of a very bad year: from March 2020, when a research trip to South Africa was cut short by the sudden emergence of Covid, to March last year. Blackburn had gone to Cape Town, and then into the dry interior, the Karoo, to explore the lost world she had found in an obscure volume that she had once chanced upon in the London Library. Specimens of Bushman Folklore, by the linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, published in 1911, contains the texts – life stories, origin myths, tales about animals, accounts of murders of women and children by the encroaching colonists –

We let Hong Kong down: Chris Patten on the end of colonial rule

After 13 years in parliament, rising star Chris Patten had the bad luck to be one of the few Tory MPs to lose his seat in 1992. Had he been re-elected he would probably have become chancellor of the exchequer. Instead, he found himself in the wilderness. But not for long. Within months he had been appointed governor of Hong Kong, tasked with the tricky business of presiding over the transfer of the territory to communist China. It was a lucky break. Had he been chancellor, the odds are that his political career would have come to a sticky end the following September, when the pound fell out of the

Travels in time and space: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel, reviewed

It’s a bold writer who confronts a major historical moment such as a pandemic before it’s over, but Emily St. John Mandel has a claim to fictionalised outbreaks. Her 2014 novel Station Eleven presciently envisioned a devastating flu. That book was televised by HBO and became a major hit, and this latest touches on the same ground. As J.G. Ballard proved, revisiting a subject – as a painter might – can be a fertile approach in speculative fiction. Sea of Tranquility initially adopts a time-leaping structure reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which itself sprang from Italo Calvino’s masterpiece If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). In 1912, we meet

Were old children’s history books racist?

If Brighton and Hove Council has its way, children as young as seven are to be taught about the ‘white privilege’ supposedly derived from 500 years of colonialism. But is it true that the history we have been learning from childhood has been infused with the great isms of our day – colonialism, imperialism and racism? I thought I would test this on a small scale by going back to the first history books I read. H.E. Marshall, who wrote Our Island Story, was also the author of the knockabout book Kings and Things. She knew all about trigger warnings: ‘The story of England,’ she proclaimed, ‘is thought to be

Kemi Badenoch is right about colonialism

Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister (and, now, for Levelling Up) has come under attack for an off-hand remark she made on colonialism some years ago. In a leaked WhatsApp exchange, according to VICE World News, Badenoch wrote, ‘I don’t care about colonialism because [I] know what we were doing before colonialism got there. They came in and just made a different bunch of winners.’ What did she mean? The reporter from VICE offers an interpretation:, ‘The British Empire and its European counterparts believed in the superiority of white people, and indigenous groups experienced extreme exclusion, displacement and violence in order for the British to take control.’ And the source of the leak, Funmi Adebayo,

The crisis at the heart of the National Trust

When Tim Parker announced his resignation as chairman of the National Trust last week, it was a first. Since it was founded in 1895, the Trust has endured many controversies, but until now the shared acceptance of its founding purposes has seen it through. The very first meeting proposed a body ‘for the holding of lands of natural beauty and sites and houses of historic interest to be preserved intact for the nation’s use and enjoyment’. The National Trust continued thus ever since, enforced by Acts of Parliament. This unity of purpose as a conservation organisation enabled it to become the owner of more than 600,000 acres of land and

The race report critics are guilty of gaslighting

The Sewell Report on race and ethnic disparities is courageous, thoughtful and measured. Its relative optimism has triggered a torrent of bile from those personally or professionally wedded to the idea that Britain is a systemically racist society. They accuse the report of disregarding what is fashionably called ‘lived experience’ — in other words, anecdotal evidence and subjective impression. Its use of carefully considered objective data, the critics allege, devalues the lived experience of ethnic minorities. Lived experience has validity, but — by definition — only for those who have lived it. It proves nothing beyond itself, and certainly nothing systemic. If we wish to be rational creatures, we check

Who volunteers to be lectured by children?

The screenwriter Russell T. Davies has said that only gay actors should be cast in gay parts, believing this leads to greater authenticity. The obvious question here is how would Russell know who is gay and who is not gay when he comes to casting? It is not always obvious, surely. Do all gay actors who attend casting sessions enter the room humming hits from Mamma Mia! before enthusing over the decor? Perhaps Russell just guesses, like I do when I’m watching the BBC weathermen flouncing around. The other obvious question is that if it’s authenticity you’re after, surely gay men must never be cast in straight roles? For reasons

The trouble with a ‘decolonised’ curriculum

I always felt sorry for my father, then president of a chronically strapped educational institution, for having ceaselessly to approach wealthy prospective donors with a begging bowl. How much more delicious, I imagined during his tenure, to instead be the widely welcomed party that doles out the dosh. But as the administrators of Australia’s Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation have discovered since 2017, it isn’t always easy to give money away. Funded by a $3 billion bequest from the late healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay, the centre was established in order to revive the flagging humanities at Australian universities. It aspires to found and finance equivalents of the ‘great books’ courses

The National Trust’s shameful manifesto

The National Trust has brought out its ‘Interim Report’, with the clumsy title ‘Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery’. Such use of the word ‘histories’, as opposed to ‘history’, is an alert that a woke view is coming your way. Like ‘diversity’ and ‘multiple narratives’ (also deployed in the report), it suggests plurality but imposes uniformity. The aim is to be ‘historically accurate and academically robust’. According to John Orna-Ornstein, the Trust’s director of culture and engagement, ‘We’re not here to pass judgment on the past’. It is not true, as the BBC reported, that the Trust has ‘revealed’ that 93 of its properties are linked to slavery

A meditation on history

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a serious novel must be in want of a theme. Paris Echo soon makes it clear that it has several. It’s about the shifting nature of history and the mysterious footprints of the past in the present. It’s also concerned with the myriad and biased interpretations that we place on past events. Another preoccupation is the ambiguities of spoken and written French. Modern Paris, the novel’s main setting, allows Sebastian Faulks to explore his themes through two main viewpoints. There’s Tariq, a precociously self-aware 18-year-old Moroccan from a middle-class family in Tangier, who comes to Paris in search of himself, his mother’s French

Time to lighten up

In parts of Africa and the West Indies women are so anxious to ‘whiten up’ that they use skin-lightening creams. The British writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch sees this as a regrettable consequence of the aristocracy of skin colour as instituted by British merchant-capitalists during slavery. (Skin must first be bleached before it can be considered beautiful.) Of mixed Jewish-African parentage, the 36-year-old Hirsch is proud to call herself black. In this much-hyped book she sets out to question lingering obeisance to the idea of colonial Britain and to that ghost of the British Empire, the Commonwealth. Why does it persist so? Affection for Britain remains surprisingly strong in Commonwealth

Playing it safe | 5 October 2017

BBC1’s latest Sunday-night drama The Last Post, about a British military base in Aden in 1965, feels like a programme on a mission: that mission being to avoid getting shouted at by either the Guardian or the Daily Mail. To this (possibly doomed) end, it goes about its business very gingerly, with an almost pathological devotion to balance, and a safety-first reliance on the trusty methods of the well-made play, where each scene makes a single discrete point and the characters are as carefully differentiated as the members of a boy band. The first episode opened with the base’s new captain landing at Aden airport with his wife. ‘It must

Hit and miss | 24 August 2017

Truman Capote should have been called Truman Persons. His father, Archulus, abbreviated his first name and introduced himself as Arch Persons. ‘And that,’ scoffed his son, ‘sounded like a flock of bishops.’ The young scribbler was thrilled when his divorced mother married a rich Cuban, Joseph Capote, whose zippy and eccentric name he gladly adopted. He got a job at the New Yorker and found the magazine’s celebrated wits, including Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, were embittered molluscs who hated each other. Capote’s literary life, as related by Bob Kingdom, is a parade of inspired bitchiness. He had the knack of getting to a character’s core problem. For Gore Vidal