Perspective Recommends

Book and audio reviews

Doomed and Famous
By Adrian Dannatt
Illustrations by Hugo Guinness
(320pp, Sequence Press, £24, hb)

What makes a great obituarist as opposed to a successful biographer? If it is an instinct for obscure but telling detail, a sense of joie de vivre against all odds and a propensity for laughter in the dark, then the Nabokovian figure of Adrian Dannatt fits the bill. He has a lepidopterist’s eye for flair and aesthetics combined with unfaltering, nineteenth-century levels of stamina for stalking his prey through the cafes and cemeteries of Paris, the nightclubs of London and Manhattan and the mysterious towers of Zembla. However, instead of killing his victims and mounting them on a wall he immortalises them for ever, beautifully, in print.

Doomed and Famous is a rare pleasure. A collection of obituaries mainly (but not always) of men, whose unusual lives Dannatt documents with a zealous commitment to the brief, the suicidal, the addicted, the long-lived, the extraordinarily rich, the flamboyant, the insouciantly poor, the innately glamorous and the artistic. We may only dimly recognise some of the names included but all of them will have had some sort of indirect influence or impact on our lives.

There is Rockets Redglare, born to a heroin-addicted fifteen-year-old, who supposedly delivered drugs to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen on the night she died, and also appeared in movies such as Big, After Hours and Trees Lounge. Then there’s Stuart Sherman, whose five-minute performance of Faust became a legend in avant-garde circles; he locked himself in Carson McCullers’ shuttered house in upstate New York and read to her – Gone with the Wind, Le Rouge et le Noir and A Handful of Dust – in the last year of her life. Or what about Alexander Iolas, dancer turned “the most famous art dealer in the world who no one knows,” who magically emerged from “a rich Eastern Mediterranean stew of merchants and story-tellers.” They all demand our attention.

These lives will amuse and captivate you by turns, long into the dark night. Surprisingly, given that everybody is journeying in one direction, and, as the late, great Bette Davies said, “growing old ain’t for cissies”, it’s all done with compassion and an enviable zest for life. Charmingly too, the private passions and secret griefs of our author are movingly illuminated in the refractory light of his subjects.

Even Dorothea Tanning’s last, haunting cris de coeur to Dannatt – “I’m too old to talk to anyone. I have to die. It’s been going on far too long” – doesn’t put one off. In fact, I briefly pondered taking up Dannatt’s invitation at the end of the book to commission him to write my own zinging obituary, before accepting that while I am doomed, I am not famous and there would be little of interest to say. (Reader, if you are interested:- welcome to the future of your past, and log on to livingobit.com/adrian-dannatt.

But the greatest happiness of all was to discover my friend Simon Lane in these pages. For a brief, glorious few minutes I once more revelled in his flaring, brilliant company. The dead can live again, and not just in dreams. Surely, a great literary alchemist is at work here? CC 

The Worm in the Apple 2022:
A History of the Conservative Party
and Europe from Churchill to Cameron
By Christopher Tugendhat
(208pp, Haus Publishing, £20.00, hb)

On the afternoon of 24 June 2016, I arrived in lavender-scented, sun-drenched Provence to attend a wedding. As we gathered for drinks by the pool, the previous day’s Brexit referendum result was sinking in. Many of us were perplexed by why we’d surrendered our right to live, work, and holiday in 27 countries, and cut ourselves out of the single market. I remember thinking how my father – a World War II aviator – always saw a unified Europe, including Britain, as the best guarantor of peace on the Continent. So, how did we come to leave?

The answer to that question for Christopher Tugendhat lies in the history of the Conservative and Unionist Party, which he represented as an MP, and which has governed Britain for most of the 77 years since the war ended. The Tories’ grip on power has meant that their internal divisions over Europe, from Sir Winston Churchill’s decision not to join the European Coal and Steel Community to David Cameron’s ill-advised and ill-fated referendum, have often been writ large on the international stage, trashing our continental relationships while simultaneously eating away at the Conservative party itself – the titular worm in the apple.

Having been born in Austria in 1939, Tugendhat is himself a deeply committed European, and served as a member of the European Commission for nine years. He is also an archetypal Tory and Establishment insider, having served as chairman of Chatham House and of the Civil Aviation Authority, and been ennobled by former prime minister John Major. But Tugendhat’s analysis remains determinedly impartial throughout, and – as Simon Jenkins has written – this book offers some “sanity” to an argument that has only become more polarised since 2016. 

If there is a weakness, it’s the over-importance, and overly UK-centric perspective he places on how Margaret Thatcher’s perceived snubbing by French and West German leaders impacted the trajectory that led to Brexit. That aside, this is a fine history book that goes a long way to answering the question of why Britain voted Leave.  PP

Supercharge Me: Net Zero Faster
By Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers
(221pp, Agenda Publishing, £12.99, pb)

Last November, in between our daily news diet of covid and corruption, and long before warnings about Putin’s designs on Ukraine, headlines briefly fixated on COP26, the most recent gathering to address the climate crisis, and the quest to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5°C. The phrase on everyone’s lips, “net zero”; the elephant in the room, how to pay for it. It’s a question that goes to the heart of government policy, and which threatens to split the Conservative party between those who believe it’s worth trying, and those who don’t. For all the talk, there’ve been few realistic-sounding proposals, beyond high-tech carbon capture and extending complex tax and carbon trading arrangements – all of which have so far failed to set us on the right trajectory. Supercharge Me is perhaps the first book, for the lay reader at least, that seeks to set out a coherent framework for how net zero might be achieved in the real world, without the need for us to all to adopt a hairshirt existence. It takes the form of a conversation between the two authors, neither of them your typical radical environmentalist.  Eric Lonergan is an economist with over twenty years’ experience of working in the City, and Corinne Sawers worked at the UN on climate change before becoming an adviser to corporations and governments on sustainability and climate issues. The supercharge thesis is that we should stop focusing on targets and start amplifying the rapid shift towards renewables already happening in some parts of the world. It shows how renewable electricity is the key to collapsing emissions, sets out the “simple, effective and non-partisan” measures policymakers should implement through public borrowing and investment, and what big business and banks can do. My favourite of the supercharge shortcuts was that banks should stop lending to polluting businesses. If you think that couldn’t happen, consider the global financial sanctions applied to Russia in February. The realism extends to the behaviour of individuals, the need for targeted efforts to rapidly reshape social and cultural norms, and the importance of activism. If you care, buy this book – but do so quickly! PP

Celine’s Soho Salon:
The Anthology, Volume I
Edited by Lucy Tertia George
(108 pp, Wordville, £10.00, pb)

Celine’s Soho Salon is less of a traditional anthology and more of a literary-arts cabaret. Indeed, its Parisian born curator cites the French entertainment format as the inspiration for her events, which showcase new and established artists across spoken word, songs, poetry and performing arts. The eponymous Celine Hispiche is herself a writer/performer, something of an all-singing, all-dancing, one-woman variety show. Now based in London’s Soho, where she has a monthly programme on Soho Radio that celebrates diverse writing and performance, she’s previously performed stand-up comedy – including three years on the tough New York circuit – and developed musicals and other performances at events and festivals across the UK.  As the title of this slim book suggests, the salon is based in London’s Soho, but has been known to take to the road and even to cross the Irish Sea. The idea is that by performing experimental or nascent material to a live audience, both emerging and experienced artists can receive instant feedback in a supportive and inclusive atmosphere. This first volume is a written record of some of those performances, and is thematically laid out, arranged in acts and includes an interval, emulating a real performance. This gives the reader an immediate sense of being there and allows time for each piece to be taken in before continuing. Celine’s own A Lady of Soho, opens the set. It wittily renames Bloomsbury’s literary in-crowd the “Doomsbury Set” as it calls us to walk Soho’s streets “In the steps of bohemian ghosts”. This is an invitation to enter into that night’s theme by honouring the creative ghosts of salons past, the mistresses and masters of craft to who writers must pay homage even as they forge the new. Other pieces, also explore the idea of connections between the past, present and future, such as the “sacred spaces in time” that “[promise] Another new dawn” in Amina Jindani’s kite-shaped poem Wau Bulan. My personal favourite was Matt Harvey’s wonderfully absurd love story, Say it with Flowers. These are a tiny selection from a dazzling variety of ideas, themes and talent. Celine hopes that more volumes follow, and so do I. PP

By Eloghosa Osunde
(304pp, HarperCollins, £14.99, hb)

I emerged blinking into the light from Osunde’s debut novel, feeling I’d been spun head over heels through a wild dream of the Nigerian underworld, full of “shapeshifters, actors, invisibles, ghosts, magicians, outcasts, outsiders.” 

Narrated by Tatafo, sardonic sidekick to Èkó, the spirit of Lagos, these interlinked same-sex love stories are a fictional flowering in defiance of Nigeria’s 2014 bill of criminalisation against gay love, which effectively gave police open licence to harass, torture and imprison.

As Tatafo explains: “I’m sure you must know that even as you speak, breathe, eat, live, love, there are people who since that date have been outsided, disblooded, unveined for daring to exist… People who are now alone in madhouses, behind bars, under the ground.”

Yet out of this repressive world, Osunde weaves transcendent moments of human connection. Although homosexual men and women are forced to be “unseen” to survive, she finds magic in their secret encounters.  “When Daisy freed Divine’s hands,” she writes, “they unhinged the world from its axes, touch by touch.”

But nowhere is safe – internalised homophobia corrodes even an underground lesbian club, where rich women luxuriate in the live performances and the available sex, yet behave badly to the workers.

 “Women can flay you, fray you to unrecognition, turn you outside-in so quickly you’ll forget to remember why you exist,” writes Osunde. “Women will hand you a bottomless well of pain with tears in their eyes. We can do anything; we can make mistakes; we are not immaculate just because we’ve been taught to be docile.”

While it seems as though only determined “life-grabbers” and “love-hunters” can survive this brutal environment, the most touching love stories are full of grace and vulnerability. 

“I remember this often,” writes Wura’s lover. “You stripping off your shame in front of me the day I told you I loved you but was afraid. I remember watching you slide it off your shoulders as easily as a silk robe, even though between me and you, we know that shame is a tougher fabric than damask.”

In such moments, Osunde’s resonant, sensual writing conjures hope.  BB

Remarkable Creatures
By Tracy Chevalier
(Audiobook read by Hattie Morahan, 9hr 15, £16.20)

Gently prompted to observe that International Women’s Day occurs this month, I was pleased (not to say “relieved”, or indeed “suffused with virtue”) to find I had recently purchased Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, a quadruple-whammy of womaninity in that it is written by a woman, read by a woman, and about a woman – and one, what’s more, roughly excised from early (and male-dominated) palaeontological history.

In the first years of the nineteenth century, Mary Anning, daughter of a not-particularly-good Lyme Regis carpenter, spends her days scouring Dorset’s 200-million-year-old Blue Lias cliffs for odd-looking rocks, and selling the resulting “curies” from a table outside the family woodwork shop. Thunderbolts, sea lilies, devil’s toenails and snakestones (what schoolkids would now recognise as ammonites), she doesn’t know the scientific names for such things – but then, neither did anybody else. Her local friends believe these “pebbles” bring good luck from fairies.

Our bold Dissenting heroine soon strikes up a socially-improbable friendship with middle-class young spinster Elizabeth Philpot, Miss Philpot teaching Mary to read and write (and then label her finds), and in turn learning several “unladylike” skills, such as how to better scan the beaches, clean the curies, and watch out for the incoming tides.

Fearful of both bailiff and workhouse, however, the Annings have no conception of fossils as things to be collected, but rather monetised as fast and ruthlessly as possible. Richard Anning had always hoped to find a “monster” that would clear all their debts, and in 1811-1812 his daughter does just that – an eighteen-foot ichthyosaur (the first complete example) that makes her name and gives her a future.

The discovery, however, did not fit with prevailing “scholarship”, in which many of the scientists were (also) conflicted churchmen, and the chronological certainties of Bishop Usher still held sway. The concept of extinction remained dangerously new: “they would rather call this animal a crocodile than consider the alternative.”

Then there are the envious neighbours, proprietorial landowners, accusations of forgery, and smarmy colonels from the Life Guards. Mary starts to receive distinguished – and occasionally dashing – visitors, and her mind turns to things besides their scholarly credentials. The “crocodile”, meanwhile, is sold to Henry Hoste Henley, and when they next see it is in Bullock’s Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly, wearing a waistcoat and a monocle – the find attributed to Henley.

The two women go on to form – predictably enough – a feisty duo in the fight for rightful recognition. But the novel benefits enormously from Chevalier’s exploration of various frictions between women (the hard-bitten mother Molly, the disapproving maid Bessie) as well as class and even (relatedly) inter-denominational religious issues. Nor does she shy away from the fact that it was actually Mary’s brother, Joseph, who found the ichthyosaur… 

Did Lord Henley really ever refer to Mary Anning – qua woman – as “a spare part”? I’ve not looked into it. Besides, we know very well that women of this and every other historical period couldn’t catch a break, and that the dreadful greybeards were forever out to silence them and to suppress all their achievements, right? 

So I was not displeased to find that during her lifetime Mary Anning was written about with fondness and respect by science writers, debated with in person by Oxford professors, and her find(ing)s discussed in lectures – with her own illustrations – at the Geological Society. Men military, academic and artistic raised considerable funds for her (including from the British Association for the Advancement of Science), and when she died she was honoured with a stained glass window “in commemoration of her usefulness to furthering the science of geology.” 

After her death her story was promptly incorporated in Dorset tourist guides and written up in Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round, and has continued to be celebrated by writers as diverse as John Fowles and Sri Lankan children’s writer Deshan Tennekoon. It is often suggested Anning was the subject of the Victorian tongue-twister “She sells seashells…”; and a lezzed-up, star-studded biopic, Ammonite, was made of her only last year. 

In 1844 the King of Saxony visited the new-and-improved Anning’s Fossil Depot, and when asked for her details Mary Anning wrote her name, and then informed her visitors, “I am well-known throughout the whole of Europe.” Not bad, for the unlettered daughter of a carpenter. ASH

Reviewers: Clare Conville, Belinda Bamber, Peter Phelps, ASH Smyth

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