The hell of the antebellum South: Let Us Descend, by Jesmyn Ward, reviewed

Jesmyn Ward, America’s only female two-time National Book Award winner, has had more than her share of hellish experiences to fuel her literary life. Her Mississippi-based family endured Hurricane Katrina. Salvage the Bones (2011), set during the catastrophe, was Ward’s response. Her memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), tackled her grief at losing five men close to her, including her brother, who was killed, aged 19, by a drunk driver. In January 2020, Ward’s husband died of acute respiratory distress syndrome. Ward recreates the hell of the antebellum South for the ‘stolen’ people forced into chattel slavery Hell is very much the context for her fourth novel, Let Us Descend. In

Wallowing in misery: Tremor, by Teju Cole, reviewed

Tunde can’t explain why he grows addicted to screen depictions of ‘inexhaustible brutality’ The protagonist of Teju Cole’s latest novel is a composite of his earlier creations, which in their turn are partial self-portraits. An artist roaming around with his camera, Tunde photographs hedges and trinkets, contemplates colour and listens to Malian music. Having left his native Nigeria three decades earlier, aged 17, by 2020 he is settled in New England. Meanwhile, Lagos has become ‘a reality of his life so large and at the same time so intimate, so intense and so various’, a feeling that increases whenever he returns to the city in person or in his imagination.

A tale of cruelty and imposture: The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, reviewed

‘Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?’ So asks the bewildered author of Old St Paul’s, The Lancashire Witches, The Tower of London and three dozen other forgotten blockbusters stacked with costumed folderol. In Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, William Harrison Ainsworth disapproves, in 1871, of hiscousin-housekeeper, Eliza Touchet, reading a nameless story of dull village folk with ‘no adventure, no drama, no murder’. It can only be George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The Fraud alights briefly on this quarrel, as it does on many Victorian topics. Yet Smith’s triple-pronged tale of imposture and masquerade, public lies and secret truths, often reverts to fiction’s role either as

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

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

Black Britons betrayed

In this frustrating book, Tomiwa Owolade sets out to establish that American attempts to identify and deal with issues of race are irrelevant to those of Britain. His basic case is that even if it might exist in America, structural racism based on colour is not found in Britain, and he criticises a significant number of people of colour, on both sides of the Atlantic, who’ve argued that it is. He believes that looking at the lived experience of people should be the starting point; and that the lived experience of black Britons is determined by nationality (and class) more than it is by race. That’s fair. The sons and

Heritable guilt is in vogue

I made a poor excuse for a Presbyterian even as a kid. I resented religious indoctrination every precious school-free Sunday. Yet despite my apostatic nature, any number of biblical tenets with broad secular application have become touchstones. Of particular value during our post-Floydian festival of flagellation is Ezekiel 18: ‘The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.’ Ergo, while we can’t take credit for our forebears’ virtues and achievements, at least whatever horrors our ancestors got up to is

Stop tearing down controversial statues, says British-Guyanan artist Hew Locke

When Hew Locke was growing up in Guyana, he would pass by the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Georgetown’s law courts. Henry Richard Hope-Pinker’s 1894 statue had been commissioned to mark the monarch’s golden jubilee, but not long after Guyana became independent from British rule in 1970, the statue was beheaded and the remains thrown into bushes in the botanical gardens. ‘I remember being shocked that such a sacrilegious thing could happen,’ says the Edinburgh-born, Guyana-raised, London-based 62-year-old artist. ‘It set me thinking about what public statues are for. Who are these people? How come we pass by them without noticing every day?’ Half a century later and

It’s a miracle this exhibition even exists: Audubon’s Birds of America reviewed

In 2014, an exhibition of watercolours by the renowned avian artist, John James Audubon, opened in New York. The reviews, from the New York Times to the Guardian, were unambiguously enthusiastic, celebrating the painter as a legendary genius who ‘exceeded the limits of his era’. Fast forward eight years, and a rather different vibe hangs over the latest outing of his bird portraits, one that reflects both the limits of that era and the limits of the man. Visitors to the National Museum of Scotland’s Audubon’s Birds of America are welcomed with an acknowledgment that the artist was ‘full of contradiction and controversy’. His charge sheet is substantial. It’s not

Edinburgh’s slavery review is strangely superficial

A couple of days ago a colleague alerted me to the opening of an online public consultation regarding proposals made by the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, a scheme launched by Edinburgh City Council in 2020 to look at ways the city can acknowledge its historical connections with slavery and colonialism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. The public consultation will close in January, and aims to find ‘constructive ways’ that the people of Edinburgh can address the city’s involvement in the slave trade. The Review Group list numerous sites in Edinburgh with various, and for the most part undeniable, associations with the reprehensible history

Tsunami of piffle: Rockets and Blue Lights at the Dorfman Theatre reviewed

Deep breath. Here goes. Winsome Pinnock’s new play about Turner opens with one of the most confusing and illogical scenes you’re ever likely to see. A teacher on a school trip is showing her pupils a Turner painting displayed in a gallery housed inside a ship donated by the producers of a film starring a famous actress, Lou, who happens to be on board wearing a sumptuous outfit for an awards ceremony, which she plans to avoid for fear that a coveted prize will be handed to a rival. Lou invites the school teacher to an after party that is scheduled to start when the awards ceremony ends. She then

Quietly radiates a wholly justified confidence: BBC 1’s The Pact reviewed

There was certainly no lack of variety among new TV dramas this week, with a standard British thriller up against more glamorous American competition in the shape of some extravagant Victorian sci-fi and an adaption by an Oscar-winning director of a Pulitzer-winning novel. (All three, mind you, did naturally feature a one-dimensional white bloke as the embodiment of sexist and/or racist villainy.) The surprising thing at this stage is that it’s the plucky British show that looks most promising. The Pact began, like many a thriller before it, with a frightened woman running through some dark woods. So far we still don’t know why — unless it was just force

The tragic demise of the National Trust

And so the National Trust’s crazed attack on its own properties goes blazing on. Their latest self-hating wheeze is to get children to write poems attacking Britain’s history. One hundred primary school pupils have been taken around the Trust’s country houses before they compose poems about the former owners’ connections with the British Empire. It’s all part of the Trust’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project, which since 2018 has been highlighting ties between the Trust’s houses and imperialism. And so, at lovely Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, one child wrote this about the jewelled dress sword and scabbard looted from Lucknow during the Indian mutiny of 1857: ‘Stolen by the English; a freedom sword, a

When will the National Trust realise its big mistake?

The National Trust still doesn’t get it. It still doesn’t understand why so many of its members hate the politicisation and catastrophic dumbing-down of an institution they once revered. Hilary McGrady, the Trust’s Director-General, has just defended the Trust’s report on colonialism and slavery. The report, released last September, looked into the colonial or slavery links of its properties, including Winston Churchill’s Chartwell home and William Wordsworth’s house. McGrady said the Trust should ‘make sure we tell all of the stories about all of our properties’. That’s the problem. The Trust isn’t telling all of the stories these days. For the past ten years, it has been on a relentless, one-sided

Exclusive: Haberdashers’ Aske’s could change name over slavery links

In the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, a number of leading British private schools announced plans to decolonise their syllabus. Winchester, Fettes, Ampleforth and St Paul’s Girls were all reported to be ‘formulating new approaches’ to teaching about Britain’s colonial past and whether subject curriculums were inclusive enough. Now Mr S can reveal that the Haberdashers’ Aske’s schools are the latest to join the list. The governing body of the Haberdashers’ Company has written to parents and guardians at its famous boys and girls schools in Elstree and its sister Federation in South London about its benefactor Robert Aske, a London merchant who died in 1689. In a letter seen by Steerpike, chairman Simon Cartmell

The distortion of British history

The British Museum has announced the appointment of a curator to study the history of its own collections. On the face of it, nothing could be more anodyne. The history of collecting has been a fashionable topic in academic circles for decades. What sort of people collected, why, and how, tells us much about their cultural assumptions and their ways of seeing the world. It would be mildly surprising that the BM has been so slow to catch on – except that there seems more to it than scholarly pursuit of knowledge. While the research will indeed cover ‘wider patterns’ of collecting, the Museum announced that it is ‘likely that

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

Italy owes Wales reparations for the wrongs of the Roman Empire

There’s talk of reparations in the air. Lobbyists from around the world are demanding sin-payments from former colonial powers. Let me add my voice to the clamour on behalf of this island’s indigenous Celtic people. My family are from Llanelli in Carmarthenshire and I believe that my compatriots have an excellent case to make against the Roman empire. This is not an extinct claim – the money is still in play. Britain was invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 BC and his visit was followed up a century later by the Emperor Claudius and his mob. The Roman occupation, which involved the military subjection of the Celtic peoples, lasted for

Russell Brand’s brain fog over Edward Colston

Back in the day when celebrities didn’t pontificate on the news but kept their political opinions to themselves, Russell Brand used to be a stand-up comedian. These days, he’s known more for his radical politics (and his former squeeze Katy Perry) than he is for his comedy. Naturally, Brand had plenty to say about last week’s removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. Indeed, so informed was he on the subject that he had to remind himself of Colston’s name in his video lecture. Miss S was rather alarmed to hear that Brand appears to think Hitler and Churchill were as racist as each other and that he considers himself

Liverpool University shouldn’t cancel William Gladstone

After the fall of the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, it was only a matter of time before attention turned, once again, to England’s other great slave-trading city of Empire, and the figures behind it. William Gladstone is one of Liverpool’s most famous sons. One of the great Liberal politicians of the age, he was prime minister on four separate occasions in the mid to late 1800s. There are a few reminders of this dotted across the city today, but the most notable are the halls of residence that bear his name, belonging to the University of Liverpool. The university has now announced that it will rename the