Off the Shelf — December 2014

By Richard Lofthouse

Oxford University Press have moved Andrew Hadfield’s Edmund Spenser: A Life into paperback two years after its widely acclaimed launch. This prize-winning book has been garlanded with praise. In numerous ways Hadfield, a Professor of English at Sussex University, has updated the idea of the literary biography, our understanding of Elizabethan literature and life, and of course our understanding of Spenser. The paperback hints at Christmas and a wider audience, but the book is no chipolata. Of 600 pages of dense typeface of the sort some Oxford Today readers complain about, fully a third comprise scholarly footnotes and appendices. In other words, the scholarly terrain here is so fragmentary, and so pored over, that it takes many words to make even a tentative claim, of which there are many.

The utterly straightforward defense of a new biography of our leading Elizabethan poet is that there has been none for sixty years, plus Richard McCabe’s point, cited by Hadfield, that Spenser ‘was constantly auto-referential but seldom autobiographical’. In other words, to know more about Spenser is to potentially gain a better view of his poetry. But as Hadfield makes clear, we know little about Spenser’s life. Of necessity, then, this grand inquiry remains tantalizing and elusive, like Spenser’s life.

One of the central facts of that life was his employment as a scribe supporting the Tudor suppression of Ireland. He moved to Ireland and made his fortune as a settler, at the expense of the Irish. Hadfield advances the cause for saying that Spenser was ‘normal’ by the standards of his time and not a party to dreadful deeds, but his biography is nonetheless centrally defined by this inconvenient truth.

The broader insight we get into Elizabethan Britain is quite possibly the largest payout of Hadfield’s immense labours. Whether the new paperback edition makes it onto your Christmas book list will depend on whether you already love Spenser’s poetry, because it would help.

Next up is ‘A Comprehensive Handbook’ of Food and Addiction. Goodness me! And in the run up to Christmas? I have to admit I had thought this OUP volume to be a merry jaunt through the uplands and lowlands of chocolate and coffee and booze, and how you have to balance broccoli with Cadbury’s. But no! Absolutely no. This is a 65-chapter compendium that sets us straight in a very sober and scientific manner on everything from the neurobiology of addiction to the genetics of body weight regulation, with a great stack of legal, policy and public health considerations thrown in. So not a Christmas read at all. But if you have grown utterly tired of headlines along the lines of ‘Eat more walnuts, says a study,’ which turns out to be funded by the World Walnut Growers Association, you will readily embrace this book. Indeed, if you had any concern about food, body and mind (and let’s face it who doesn’t these days?) you will want a copy of this book.

Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan (I.B. Tauris, 2014) has the mixed blessing of a foreword by Neil Kinnock, in the sense only that the former Labour party leader remains a divisive figure. In fact Kinnock writes persuasively and with gusto, and is not partisan in a bad way. The author, Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, is a politics lecturer at Teddy Hall. We’ll review this book at greater length in due course. Suffice it to say here that they don’t make politicians like they used to, if Bevan is the measure. Equally, he belonged to a world that is passed, even as the National Health Service, which he ‘launched,’ soldiers on.

Finally this month, a chastening way to enter the season of Advent. The Arab–Israeli conflict is unlikely to end any time soon, says Avi Shlaim in a revised and fully updated edition of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Penguin, 2014). Worse, Israel is the major reason why the conflict won’t go away. When I read this sort of thing I immediately want to know who the author is. Surely it’s just one more partisan shout. But Shlaim is a Professor of International Relations at Oxford, and a fellow at St Antony’s College. Born in Baghdad in 1945, he grew up in Israel and did his national service there. He shows no signs of being anything but a careful scholar here, a matter confirmed by the tremendous reception of the first, 2001 edition of this 900-page narrative.

It locates the roots of Israel’s unilateral, ‘act from military strength’ policy — ‘the Iron Wall’ — to the 1920s, and then demonstrates how it has been ruthlessly deployed ever since. The new edition adds four chapters and a fresh epilogue, all dispiriting. George W. Bush comes out of it dreadfully. By willingly conflating US ‘terror’ and ‘freedom’ rhetoric with Israeli’s own, twisted language of defence, he effectively gave Israel carte blanche to put the boot in so hard with the Palestinians that it undermined everything everywhere. It encouraged the radicalisation of mainstream Muslims, gave licence to jihadism, and of course undermined pro-western Arab states such as Jordan. Obama rescued that narrative to a degree but America remains a huge part of the non-solution. But the actual problem, says Shlaim, is Israel. Even the advent of Hamas doesn’t change this. Shlaim finally, and reluctantly, deploys the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel’s colonial overlordship of Gaza. The author concludes depressingly that he now thinks there will be no two-state solution in his life, even though it is the obvious, and possibly only, solution.

It is possible to link Bevan’s speech against the Suez Crisis in 1956, to Israeli settler farmers in the West Bank, to Spenser’s role in the violent subjugation of Ireland in the 16th century. But I’m not sure how any of them link to food addiction.

Image of Walter Crane’s illustration to Spenser’s Faerie Queen from the Digital Collections at the University of Maryland, via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.