Books in brief: what to read this March

From a history of the first Labour government to the origins of the multiverse, here are this month’s short reviews from the magazine

February 28, 2024
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The Wild Men: The Remarkable Story of Britain’s First Labour Government
by David Torrance (Bloomsbury, £20)

When you consider how close we are, in all probability, to the first Labour government in 14 years, it is remarkable how little intellectual bandwidth is presently devoted to what life might be like after the Tories. Here, then, is a fine historical prompt, in the form of David Torrance’s account of the party’s first ever administration, which was formed by Ramsay MacDonald in January 1924 and lasted only nine months.

In the spirit of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals or Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Torrance—a constitutional specialist at the House of Commons Library—frames his inquiry as a series of pen portraits; exploring the personalities and achievements of MacDonald, Arthur Henderson (home secretary), John Wheatley (minister of health), Philip Snowden (chancellor), Jimmy Thomas (secretary of state for the colonies) and others.

These so-called “wild men” were mostly autodidacts of humble origins and, as such, intrinsically threatening to the establishment, which was gripped by fear of contagious Bolshevism. “Is this the beginning of the end?” asked the snobbish diarist Chips Channon. “Will our heads fall off?”

In practice, MacDonald’s minority government, reliant upon only 191 Labour MPs, was too precarious to endure. It was beset by scandal, too: the forged Zinoviev letter and the grant of a baronetcy to Alexander Grant, the managing director of McVitie’s, who gave MacDonald a car and shares in the company. “Biscuits, biscuits, biscuits!” surely ranks as one of the most bizarre protest slogans in British political history.

Yet, as Torrance notes, this administration’s “most significant achievement was in taking office at all”, proving that “Labour were fit to govern” and, in time, replacing the Liberals as the principal opposition to the Conservatives. A century on, as Starmer seeks to become the party’s seventh prime minister, there is much that he—and we—can learn from its first.

Matthew d’Ancona 

The Future of Wales
by Rhys Thomas (Melville House, £8.99)

Whither Wales? The most overlooked nation of the union deserves more attention, especially this year. Its first minister, Welsh Labour’s Mark Drakeford, is standing down on 16th March, after the party concludes its vote to decide on a successor. That successor—most likely Jeremy Miles—will have to steer both his party and Wales itself, which has never really looked forwards since the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s, into a general election.  

So it’s heartening that in its first wave of a new series of short reads—which also includes books about songwriting, trust and justice for war crimes—publisher Melville House have included a book called (and sometimes even about) The Future of Wales, by the journalist Rhys Thomas.

As with other similar series, this book is mostly a sort of primer—on where Wales currently is, how it got there, and where it might be going—infused with the opinions and politics of its author. Where it distinguishes itself is in its unpretentious, demotic style, which helps to make it an even quicker read than it might otherwise be—though also an occasionally irritating one. (The boxer Joe Calzaghe is described as “as Welsh as a leek shagging a daffodil behind a rugby stadium while listening to a male voice choir.” Ugh.)

It can also veer into the sloppy. An early statistical aside suggests that South Wales “ranked fifth” for electricity prices—without saying how many other regions are in the same rankings. It gives the source as “an article in the Independent in August 2022”—despite the fact that these Ofgem numbers have been updated a number of times since.

Still, the major emphases of Thomas’s tract—a Welsh future rooted in energy and food production, improved public transport, cultural and sporting prowess—are hard to argue against, even if the details are sometimes less persuasive. In a politics that mostly ignores Wales, here at least is a book—and a series—that doesn’t.

Peter Hoskin

We Are Free to Change the World 
by Lyndsey Stonebridge (Jonathan Cape, £22)

“The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of someone else,” Hannah Arendt observed of Adolf Eichmann while he stood trial for his role in the Holocaust. Her book on that trial, in particular her analysis of the “banality of evil”, made the philosopher and political theorist a pariah in some liberal circles. Many felt she was downplaying Eichmann’s crimes by presenting him as a “mindless bureaucrat who was only following orders,” as Lyndsey Stonebridge writes in her fascinating new biography of Arendt.

But for Arendt, it was vital to acknowledge Eichmann’s moral vacuity. “He was not so much the demon behind the bureaucrat as a man so detached from reality that neither role had any real meaning,” continues Stonebridge.

Stonebridge chronicles Arendt’s life—from her youth in Königsberg as the daughter of German-Jewish left-leaning intellectuals, and brief internment in a French camp during the war, to her later years in America. She was not always on history’s right side. She continued to be friends with her former lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite his open support for the Nazis. After provoking huge controversy by opposing desegregation of schools in the US, she eventually backtracked, writing to Ralph Ellison: “I simply didn’t understand the complexities in the situation.”

But for Arendt, to constantly question yourself, to test new perspectives and experiment with new ideas was vital in resisting the creep of totalitarianism. “There are no dangerous thoughts,” as she famously wrote. “Thinking itself is dangerous.”

Emily Lawford

The Allure of the Multiverse: Extra Dimensions, Other Worlds and Parallel Universes
by Paul Halpern (Basic, £25)

Those who thought the “multiverse” was dreamed up by Marvel screenwriters in a bid to be paid for competing drafts of the same script will find both good and bad news in Paul Halpern’s book.

The good news is that there is a surprising amount of science behind the idea. From the “Many Worlds Interpretation” first proposed by Hugh Everett, a young student of Niels Bohr, in the early 1950s to the endless hotel rooms of “Hilbert space”, from the ever-branching universes of superstring theory to the wormhole-hopping of Kip Thorne, the multiverse has, over the past 70 years or so, vaulted from fanciful pseudoscience to a broadly respected speculative theory.

Now the bad news: it’s just an idea. More a theory designed to keep other speculative theories from collapse than an observable fact in the Newtonian sense, the multiverse occupies the lofty realms of cosmology and high-energy physics—so far beyond the measurable as to have near-zero significance for the next Spider-Man movie. To paraphrase one of the book’s examples: no rival Spider-Men, nor slob-like Peter Parkers versus squeaky-clean ones, and so forth. “Rather it might distinguish between near-identical versions of a scientist witnessing one type of blip versus another type of blip,” writes Halpern. Try pitching that to a Hollywood studio executive.

Faced with this slightly dismaying gulf between the pop-culture sales pitch and the actual science, Halpern has written a commendably honest and dense book, pervaded by the nagging sense that here is a talented popular-science writer at war with his own brief.

Tom Shone

Float Up, Sing Down
by Laird Hunt (Riverrun, £18.99)

In Float Up, Sing Down, Hank Dunn, the former sheriff of the fictional town of Bright Creek, is staring out across the Indiana farmland. “God’s country. Or God’s cousin’s country anyway. Maybe God’s nephew. No need to get grandiose,” is how Hank describes the state that has dominated Laird Hunt’s fiction since his first short story was published in 1990.

Hunt adopts a similarly humble philosophy by returning to Indiana for this collection of stories, his 11th book, which completes an informal triptych set in a farming community in Clinton County. The second instalment, Zorrie, a slim, deeply affecting story spanning one woman’s lifetime, was a finalist for the 2021 American National Book Award for Fiction and deserves to be far better known on these shores. Red state Indiana may not be fashionable, but it is home to millions of Americans, including Hunt’s antecedents; he writes to expose the soul of the Midwest.

Set across a single day in the summer of 1982, Float Up, Sing Down weaves together 14 stories, each taking the name of a different Bright Creek resident. Everyone is connected, often via Zorrie. “Zorrie, Zorrie, Zorrie. Always there. Never any fuss,” says Candy Wilson, whose story opens the collection. We watch Candy get ready to host a meeting of the Bright Creek Girls Gaming Club, an occasion for some of the town’s elderly female residents to dress up and play Bingo or “Razzle Dazzle”. She is mourning her friend Irma Ray, who used to teach French. In another chapter, Horace Allen, a D-Day veteran, is cast back to swimming in a Cretan sea by a whiff of oregano.

Hunt’s trilogy is to Indiana what Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge novels are to Maine or Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trio is to Colorado. His stories remind us that everyone has hidden depths, if we would only stop and look.

Susie Mesure