Here is how, in his memoir, Hitch-22, the late Christopher Hitchens describes his introduction to Ian McEwan in the Bohemian London of the late Seventies:
“It was Martin [Amis] who brought us together (Ian having succeeded him as winner of the Somerset Maugham Award). By then, ‘everyone’ had been mesmerized by Ian’s early collections of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, and In Between the Sheets. Met in person, he seemed at first to possess some of the same vaguely unsettling qualities as his tales. He never raised his voice, surveyed the world in a very level and almost affectless fashion through moon-shaped granny glasses, wore his hair in a fringe, was rail-thin, showed an interest in what Martin used to call “hippyish” pursuits, and when I met him was choosing to live on the fringes of the then weed-infested ‘front-line’ black ghetto in Brixton.”
More than three decades later, McEwan was to spend much time with Hitchens, debating the meaning of Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings and the significance of G.K. Chesterton, as his beloved friend lay dying of cancer in Houston, Texas (an experience beautifully recounted in this tribute).
Now, in 2022, the “granny glasses” remain, as does the meticulous politeness; but his life “on the fringes” has been replaced by a contented existence split between the Cotswolds and Bloomsbury. At 74, the one time guerrilla of the literary avant garde has become an undisputed elder statesman of the republic of letters.
Which is absolutely not to say that his work has become bland, or that he has lapsed into a style designed to make the reader comfortable. Quite the opposite, in fact. His 18th novel, Lessons (Jonathan Cape, 13 September), is, I think, his masterpiece: an unsettling, profoundly nuanced and uncompromisingly honest account of one man’s life in eight decades of historical turbulence.
Roland Baines is a talented student of the piano, who, aged 11, is disturbed and psychologically capsized by the physical attentions of his teacher, Miriam Cornell (“Her fingers found his inside leg, just at the hem of his grey shorts, and pinched him hard”). Three years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roland is terrified of dying a virgin (“before you had it? It.”), and embarks upon an affair with Miriam – not realising until much later that he is the victim of abuse.
The power of psychosexual trauma is a theme that runs through McEwan’s work like a fizzing mains cable, from the incest, castration and pedophilia of the early short stories, via the rape in Atonement (2001) and the sexual fiasco at the heart of On Chesil Beach (2007), to the ruining of Roland in Lessons.
Blessed with the ability to become a concert pianist, Roland ends up playing crowd-pleasing numbers in a hotel lounge. Those familiar with McEwan’s passion for music will know how symbolic this painful diminution is: nothing less than the vandalism of a creative soul.
In The Child in Time, (1987) a bereaved mother finds hope in Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. In On Chesil Beach, it is Mozart’s String Quartet in D major that courses through the story as a reminder of the sublime. As he told me in an interview in 2007: “My sons [by his first marriage] have no interest in classical music, and I have laid it on them at various times. How can they go through life not knowing the things that we might take for granted? I suppose the pleasure is so intense that it does make one, whether one is a believer or not, thrilled to be alive. Music is the one area where I feel there is something almost inhuman about the genius. I feel this especially about Bach, but Mozart as well.”
The violation of the young Roland is brutal blemish on the vast canvas of Lessons, which traces his passage through a series of relationships – his first wife, Alissa, deserts him and their young son to pursue her literary career – and mostly directionless attempts to give fresh meaning and structure to his life. (For further analysis of McEwan’s work, try The Cambridge Companion to Ian McEwan, ed. Dominic Head, and Ian McEwan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Sebastian Groes).
At the heart of the novel is a contemplation of the interaction between pulverising historical forces and the experience of the individual. When Libya is bombed in 1986, Roland’s primary school – which he attended when his father, an army officer, was stationed in North Africa – is destroyed. When the Chernobyl disaster causes panic, he finds that local pharmacies have run out of potassium iodide.
The Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall help, albeit obliquely, to shape the course of Roland’s life. From time to time, and often bathetically, a thread that connects him to history twitches: he observes and thinks deeply about the rise of Blair, 9/11, Brexit, and Covid.
One of the most darkly comic passages in the book involves him in an inglorious fight with a pro-Brexit government minister, on the banks of a Cumbrian river, for control of a ceramic pot full of cremated ashes (trust me, it makes sense in context). For the most part, however, Roland is at the mercy of deeper dynamics; not culpably passive, or even Pooterish, but conscious that any form of contentment must involve acceptance that “[w]e are all one with history now, subject to its whims.”
More profoundly, he reviews his life and grasp that things inevitably disaggregate: “Just as heat bled out into cold and not the reverse, so order bled out into chaos and never in reverse… Entropy was a troubling and beautiful concept that lay at the heart of much human toil and sorrow. Everything, especially life, fell apart. Order was a boulder to be rolled uphill. The kitchen would not tidy itself.”
In this acceptance, however, lies a form of calm that does not submit to rational analysis but is no less vivid for that: “[H]e experienced happiness that could not be dispelled, even by rehearsing every looming disaster in the world. It made no sense.”
McEwan has toyed with autobiography before: by his own admission, the academic and novelist Tom Haley in his Seventies spy novel Sweet Tooth (2012) bears more than a passing resemblance to his younger self. But Lessons raids his own life far more liberally – especially in its depiction of Roland’s discovery that he has a brother, given away by his parents as a newborn (in 2007, McEwan learned that he had an older sibling, Dave Sharp, who had been found a new home with a newspaper ad).
Like McEwan, who is married to the author Annalena McAfee, Roland finds true love with his second wife and a deep fulfillment in the growth of his extended family across three generations. But it would be a grave mistake to see the fictional protagonist as a simple proxy for McEwan; rather, Roland represents a different life that the novelist might have led. As Roland reflects, as he absorbs the discovery of his lost brother, Robert: “It was the Multiple Worlds theory made real, a privileged glimpse into one of the infinite possibilities of himself that were fancifully supposed to exist in parallel and inaccessible domains.”
Unlike Roland, McEwan was not subjected to the predatory attentions of a piano teacher. He is also one of the true literary stars of his generation, and, at least in part, the product of two distinct engines of authorial creativity that did much to define writing in this country (and beyond) in the late twentieth century.
First, like Kazuo Ishiguro, he was a pupil of Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, who taught him, as he did so many others, that fiction “was the highest calling. I continued to fulfill the academic requirements, but I only cared about the stories. Malcolm was my reading public. I wrote in the certainty that I would receive a close reading – and this was an extraordinary privilege”.
Second, he was a key protagonist in the stellar group of writers that found their hive in Anthony Howard’s New Statesman and the legendary “Friday lunch”: Amis, Hitchens, James Fenton, Julian Barnes, Craig Raine, and Clive James (the “chief whip of the lunch”, according to Hitchens). In his memoir Experience (2000), Amis remembers the group debating the respective merits of the Leavis school and the Bloomsbury Group. Hitchens, in contrast, recalls the drawing up of a First XI of “Fucking Fools”, with John Berger being unanimously selected as captain.
To this gang was soon added Salman Rushdie, and McEwan is a frequent and highly sympathetic presence in Joseph Anton, the former’s 2012 account of life in the shadow of the fatwa. For a sense of this group’s intellectual firepower, wit and camaraderie, check out this remarkable roundtable discussion between Amis, Fenton, Rushdie and McEwan, about Hitchens, a year after his death.
When it comes to his own work, McEwan has dwelt tentatively but publicly upon the matter of his legacy; and there is little doubt that – though he recoils from the categorisation – posterity will (or should) celebrate him as a novelist of ideas.
In addition to their twisty, often macabre narratives, his fictions embrace the cactus of intellectual challenge without fear or deference: witness, for instance, The Child in Time (childhood and the New Physics); Enduring Love (the battle between reason and emotion); Atonement (a reflection on the nature of fiction, hiding in a country house and wartime novel); Solar (climate change); The Children Act (family law and the tension between faith and secular jurisprudence); Machines Like Me (artificial intelligence and robotics); and his Swift-meets Kafka satire The Cockroach (Brexit).
As Michael LeMahieu has observed, McEwan writes books “that are never simply novels of ideas. To the contrary, his works feature intrigue, suspense and even knives.” Which, of course, helps to account for their tremendous commercial success – Atonement has sold more than two million copies – and the loyalty of the author’s fanbase.
Weighed down by the history that he has experienced, Roland feels tremendous frustration as he gets older: “[T]he world was wobbling badly on its axis, ruled in too many places by shameless ignorant men, while freedom of expression was in retreat and digital public spaces resounded with the shouts of delirious masses…Roland’s bad dream was of freedom of expression, a shrinking privilege, vanishing for a thousand years.”
What, one wonders, would he have to say about the horrific assassination attempt on Rushdie that took place on 12 August in Chautauqua, New York?
Like McEwan himself, though, Roland refuses to yield to despair; and takes profound comfort from the love of his granddaughter, even as he worries that “he was passing on to her a damaged world.” A core conclusion that the character draws in later life is that literature is not straightforwardly didactic; it is simply a wonderful part of the human response to the chaos of existence; a bid to draw beauty, excitement, passion and perhaps hope, from what appears to be a losing battle.
Well into his eighth decade, Ian McEwan is at the height of his formidable powers. I don’t think he is losing at all.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Frozen Planet II (BBC One, 11 September)
Eleven years since its first season, the extraordinary documentary survey of the fifth of the planet that is frozen returns with David Attenborough at the helm. And this time, the programme makers are not confining themselves to the poles of the Earth.
In six hour-long episodes, produced by BBC Studios’ acclaimed Natural History Unit, Frozen Planet II takes the viewer on a tour of the world’s coldest, most remote locations to marvel at the species that survive there – and, inescapably, to fret over the terrible damage that is being done to this landscape and to the creatures that dwell there by climate change. “Our frozen wilderness,” says Attenborough, “is disappearing faster than ever before. Never has it been more important to understand what is going on in these icy territories.”
The use of technology – especially time-lapse photography and drone cameras – is sensational; the series involved 102 shoots, 31 of them remotely operated. In ultra-high definition, we get to see the Pallas’s Cat preying on voles and gerbils in the Great Steppe in Mongolia; grizzly bears emerging from hibernation in the northernmost Canadian reaches of Nunavut; and the mating habits of the hooded seal of West Ice, Greenland (the male courts the female with his inflatable nose, and, if this fails, follows up with an expandable sac in its left nostril). As so often with the work with which Attenborough is associated, awe is the only appropriate response (an emotion powerfully encouraged by the music of Hans Zimmer, Adam Lukas, James Everingham and Aurora).
Yet it is awe laced with dread. Only the most purblind could watch this series and not be struck by alarm at the damage that anthropogenic climate change is inflicting upon the icelands of the planet, upon the fauna that livethere (for now) and upon the predictability of ocean levels. I hope that Jacob Rees-Mogg – who is newly in charge of the UK’s net zero commitment and has denounced “climate alarmism” – finds the time to tune in.
Bodies Bodies Bodies (general release, 9 September)
Halina Reijn’s English-language debut is a real popcorn treat: a genre mash-up of teen slasher and detective movies, with strong affinities to the original Scream (1996) and the more recent Knives Out (2019).
Based on an original spec script by Kristen Roupenian – author of the celebrated 2017 New Yorker short story “Cat Person” – Bodies Bodies Bodies has as its setting a luxurious house party, where a group of Gen-Z friends have gathered to indulge their vices, complain about their lives and spread poison about one another.
David, deftly played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Pete Davidson (who endured two hours of make up daily to cover his tattoos), is the edgy and resentful host, only at ease, it appears, with his longtime friend, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) who is fresh out of rehab and showing off her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova). He especially dislikes the older Greg, boyfriend of podcaster Alice (Rachel Sennott).
As a hurricane blows out the electricity, a game of Bodies, Bodies, Bodies – something like Murder in the Dark – soon goes horribly wrong. Who is slaughtering the house guests? And why?
Reijn is well versed in the grammar and rhythms of the slasher film, but the real pleasure of her film lies in its (mostly affectionate) wit. Even as they count the corpses, the twentysomethings are arguing about the word “psychopath”: is it “ableist”? They chew Xanax like sweets, bicker about the overuse of terms such as “gaslighting” and “narcissist”, and claim, out of the blue, to have “body dysphoria”. Alice, in particular, is furious that her friends seem not to understand the pressures of being a young podcaster – and there is even talk of “hate-listening”.
The movie has an excellent twist, which I certainly shan’t spoil, and, counter-intuitive as it may seem, its general tone is light, engaging and affectionately ironic.
Kick Out the Jams: The Story of XFM (video on demand)
Taking its title from the legendary MC5 track, this absorbing documentary, co-directed by Ray Burdis and Ian Jefferies, uses the case study of an unexpectedly successful pirate radio station to explore the exhilarating pop culture renaissance of the Nineties.
In 1989, Sammy Jacob founded Q102 in a friend’s house in Walthamstow, moving later to his mother’s home in Clapton. His break came when he collaborated with the Cure’s manager, Chris Parry, to devote a day of the station’s airtime to the band’s new album (the transmitter caught fire, but Jacobs had a spare one). XFM was born in 1992 and acquired its licence to broadcast legitimately in London from 1997.
Disastrously, after half of the station’s money had been sunk in marketing, the launch coincided with the death of Diana – an ugly twist of fate from which, commercially, XFM, as originally conceived, never truly recovered. It was bought out by Capital in 1998.
Its brief shining moment, however, was remarkable. Like Creation Records, XFM was one of the accidental salons of Nineties indie and Britpop, a place where Noel Gallagher or Jarvis Cocker or Alan McGee might just drop in. The station’s Head of Speech, for reasons that even he cannot fathom, was Ricky Gervais, assisted for a short while by Stephen Merchant. Gervais began sketching out The Office while working there and returned with Merchant and Karl Pilkington to present a show that, in effect, invented the modern comedy podcast.
XFM was also inidrectly responsible for BBC Radio 6 FM, as Jacobs asserts, and for a lasting change in pop music radio generally. Its official descendant, Radio X, is unrecognisably different from the DIY greatness of the original station. But, as this fine slice of cultural archaeology demonstrates beyond doubt, it was at the heart of a very special period in British music and creativity.
Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination – Mark Bergen (Penguin Business)
How did a small video-sharing project, founded in 2005 by Jawed Karim, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley, so quickly become one of the dominant cultural and technological forces in the world? This is the question that Mark Bergen, a senior tech reporter at Bloomberg, tackles in this riveting study of YouTube and its brief but spectacular history.
When Google snapped up the company in October 2006 for $1.65 billion, the sale was big news. Today, it looks like the bargain of the century. Last year alone, YouTube drew in $28 billion in revenue; more than five hundred hours of footage are uploaded to the site every minute; over a billion hours of video are consumed on YouTube every day. Though the company certainly cannot afford to be relaxed about TikTok or Instagram Reels, its dominance has yet to be seriously challenged.
But dominance of what? What is it, exactly, that YouTube does? It hosts videos made by content creators, traditional media and music labels, and sells ads in return for eyeballs. Which sounds straightforward, until you grasp the social, psychological and political scale of this control of the videographic space and – more to the point – start to pose serious questions about responsibility, taste and curation.
In its 17 years of existence, YouTube has always emphasised its neutrality and aversion to regulation. But this was always an unsustainable position. Porn, violence, terrorism, conspiracy theories, false information about (for instance) public health policy: it was simply not tenable for the company to wash its hands of the consequences of such content.
For a start, the advertisers were not going to stand for their brands being algorithmically set alongside the most ghastly imagery imaginable: leading to the so-called “Adpocalypse” of 2017, which forced the company to introduce root-and-branch reform of its content moderation and ad-placing coding.
As Bergen puts it, YouTube now runs a “constant war room” when it comes to the question of what content it should or shouldn’t host. Its strategy has been to increase the use of AI to moderate content, using human beings where necessary to instruct the machines on what is and isn’t acceptable. And it believes, touchingly, that all problems can be solved using data. As one employee puts it: “If you can’t figure out how to measure it, you just pretend it doesn’t exist.”
The abiding impression is of a runaway train. Bergen quotes Susan Wojcicki, CEO since 2014, telling Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble that “the site had exploded from a small village into a big city, without the traffic lights, zoning, ooe policing that cities need.” Not so, replied Pritchard: “You went to a large galaxy that was beyond what anyone had ever seen. I don’t think you’ve realized the impact you’ve had.”
He was right. Which is why Bergen is surely right to conclude – alarmingly – that Wojcicki “is a steward of a platform with a life of its own.”
Coffee with Hitler: The British Amateurs Who Tried to Civilise the Nazis – Charles Spicer (Oneworld)
In this terrific debut, historian Charles Spicer genuinely enriches and deepens our understanding of the Thirties – the all-important decade in which the great and the good of these islands, scarred to the depths of their souls by the Great War, struggled to avoid a second global conflict.
We know, of course, that they failed in this endeavour, and that – given the brutality and mania of Hitler personally and Nazism as a totalitarian ideology – they were always doomed to do so. But what Spicer does, in a page-turner that is also founded on meticulous archival scholarship, is to draw an illuminating contrast between appeasement (as described in Tim Bouverie’s magisterial book on the subject) and the more nuanced attempts by a handful of Britons, and three “well-intentioned obscure middle-aged” men in particular, to infiltrate the German high command, encourage its most senior members to see sense, and (crucially) to send back intelligence of the highest calibre.
In the process, Spicer rescues from historical oblivion Philip Conwell-Evans, a Welsh socialist intellectual; Ernest Tennant, an Old Etonian from a very wealthy Scottish family connected to the chemicals industry and the City; and Grahame Christie, a World War I fighter pilot who had served in the Berlin and Washington embassies.
Though some in the notorious Anglo-German Fellowship did sympathise with Hitler, these three – and those like them – were under no illusions about the risk posed by the Third Reich. Which was precisely why they tried so hard to avert war. Their error, naive but made in good faith, was to believe that the barbarism personified by Hitler could be tamed. “However total the failure of their mission to prevent war,” Spicer writes, “theirs had been a significant and whole-hearted enterprise.” A truly illuminating, humane and sophisticated book – and, one hopes, the first of many by an exciting new talent on the historical scene.
The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World – Andrew Doyle (Constable)
It is possible to believe, as I do, that modern identity politics has much to teach traditional liberals – but still be worried by the amount of time and energy that the new social justice movements devote to purity tests, scolding, censorship and driving perceived transgressors from their livelihoods.
In this lucid, important book, the satirist and commentator Andrew Doyle zeroes in on the religiosity of these movements, and the dangerous distance that is growing between them and the principles of critical thinking, due process, rationality and pluralism of thought that were the great cultural yield of the Enlightenment.
Astutely, he heads for guidance to The Crucible, which, as he writes, Arthur Miller wrote “as ‘an act of desperation’ at the height of the McCarthy era”. He is also correct, regrettably, that we are “living through a frenzy of conformity”. Though the new social justice creed has no formal deities, it resembles in almost every other respect a strict religion, with dogma, revelation, blasphemy, inquisition and penance all now firmly embedded in campus life, publishing, the artistic world, the public sector and – especially – digital culture.
Doyle is not an crusty opponent of the young (far from it), nor a rightwing polemicist (again, quite the opposite). He fears for the future of progressivism, and is right to do so. An added bonus is that, holding a doctorate in Renaissance Literature from Oxford, he is supremely erudite and writes beautifully. Anyone with an interest in contemporary culture and politics should read this book.
YUNGBLUD – YUNGBLUD
Yet another Disney alumnus turned pop-punk performer, Yungblud (AKA Dom Harrison) already has a devoted fanbase – the Black Hearts Club – and stands on the verge of global superstardom. His third album is unabashedly commercial, clearly written with a view to anthemic singalongs in arenas around the world – and, it must be said, all the more exciting for it.
True to his emo ethos, Yungblud has plenty to say about the plight of the extremely successful 25-year-old and it is tempting to write off his catalogue of insecurities as purely performative. But the bracing dynamism of opener ‘The Funeral’ (“I hate myself but that’s all right”) suggest that, while there is clearly much self-dramatisation in these 12 tracks, there is also a hinterland of authentic confusion, introspection and anxiety. Slower, but no less compelling is ‘Die For a Night’ (“Can you show signs of weakness asymptomatically?”), while ‘Don’t Feel Like Feeling Sad Today’ is irresistibly catchy ( ‘Don’t wanna go out today/ Wanna lie in my bed so that I run away/ From what the internet says, all the playground games/ Don’t feel like feelin’ sad today’).
Imagine Billy Idol genetically spliced with The Cure and you’ll understand why Yungblud is a definitely an artist to watch. Check out his tour dates here.
Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances – Sarah Willis and the Havana Lyceum Orchestra
The second collaboration between French-born horn virtuoso Sarah Willis and the orchestra founded by José Antonio Méndez Padrón in 2007 to promote exceptional young musicians is a joy from start to finish.
At first blush, the pairing of a Latin American dance genre with the compositions of the greatest genius of 18th century classical music may seem arbitrary and forced. But this is to forget the hungry eclecticism that is shared by Cuban artists and Mozart: were he alive today, he would surely be at the cutting edge of world music, drawing on traditions and innovations from all over the planet, pushing the new technologies of the studio to their very limits.
It is much to the credit of Willis and Padrón (AKA Pepe) that they grasped this creative possibility. This album brings together recordings of the Horn Concerto No 1 in D and No 2 in E flat with, for instance, the seven-strong ensemble Sarahbanda performing ‘Pa Pa Pa’ by Edgar Olivero, inspired by the Papageno-Papagena duet from The Magic Flute.
The sheer energy and excellence of the performances is infectious and acts as a reminder of the longstanding connections between the classical world and Cuba’s music (Stravinsky, Karajan and Kleiber, for example, are among those who have conducted the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra). It is good to know, too, that a percentage of the proceeds will go to assisting young Cuban musicians with the purchase of their instruments.
Kris Kristofferson Live at Gilley’s – Pasadena, TX: September 15, 1981
It’s high time there was a Kris Kristofferson revival. Now 86, and officially retired, the great Texan songwriter and screen actor has one of the most fascinating résumés in contemporary culture. Having launched himself as a contributor to the Atlantic, he won a Rhodes scholarship to study history at Oxford (where he was awarded a Blue for boxing).
But music and movie stardom beckoned. In 1971, he broke through commercially as a singer-songwriter with his second album The Silver Tongued Devil and I and won credibility in the new Hollywood with his performance in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.
This recording has taken four decades to be officially released – and shows, in its gritty, honky tonk intensity, just why Kristofferson was such a phenomenon. Kicking off with the number that Janis Joplin made famous – ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ – he and his band jam through a 15-song set of stone-cold classics; not least ‘The Pilgrim” (which Cybil Shepherd references over coffee in her first date with Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver) and ‘Casey’s Last Ride’ (which will be familiar to those who love Season One of True Detective)
With a line-up that featured expert players such as Billy Swan, Stephen Bruton, Donnie Fritts, Glen Clark, Tommy McClure, and Sammy Creason, Kristofferson was in his element, master of his craft and effortlessly charismatic. Along with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, one of the true greats of outlaw country, captured in this album at his absolute peak.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Lydia Goldblatt/Guardian/eyevine, Christopher Hitchens / Atlantic Books, Shutterstock, Mick Gold/Getty Images, Xfm, Working Title Films, Netflix, Amazon Prime,