The Spectator

The week in books | 19 July 2013

The week in books | 19 July 2013
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The best way to weather the heat wave is to head for the shade with a copy of the new issue of the Spectator, in which you will you find some diverting book reviews to while away an hour or two. Here is a selection:

Philip Hensher treads carefully around Winston Churchill’s imperialism, the subject of Lawrence James’ Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist. Hensher writes:

‘It is important for historians to make an effort to understand individuals by the standards of their own day, and not ours. There is a dismal school that finds it rewarding to debate whether Napoleon was homophobic or not, but for the most part we have to try to understand where a figure’s standards of judgment and thought stood in relation to the spectrum of opinion of his own day. Churchill’s attitudes to the empire, and in particular to the races that the empire ruled, performed an interesting trajectory while not actually changing very much at all in the course of a long life.’

Stuart Maconie is one of the finest writers in the genre of pop music as social history; but his latest book, The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records, leaves James Walton a little flat:

‘I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this book is anything like a complete washout. There are plenty of arresting, pub-friendly facts and moments of genuine critical insight, including the idea that the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ has elements of real, if disappointed patriotism. Maconie is also good at drawing out unexpected links — quoting, for instance, Keith Emerson on the crucial influence of Winifred Atwell on his keyboard work.

In the end, though, such pickings are just not fat enough for a book of this length by a writer of this quality. The People’s Songs would certainly serve as a solid introduction for someone who knows little about pop music. People who know more will have a pleasant enough time dipping in. Even so, we’re surely within our rights to expect something a lot more from Stuart Maconie — and to hope that one day he might still write it.’

Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy posits that American soldiers saved Italy’s renaissance art treasures from the Nazis. Andro Linklater contests this view very strongly:

‘…by presenting Americans as the real saviours of Italy’s cultural heritage, Edsel seriously distorts reality. One of his examples is the recovery of the paintings and sculptures from the Uffizi gallery and Pitti palace in Florence. Almost 250 of these masterpieces, including Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ had been stored in Osbert Sitwell’s villa of Montegufoni where they were discovered in July 1944 by Wynford Vaughan Thomas, a BBC war correspondent, and my father, Eric Linklater. It was the most remarkable event in my father’s experience of the campaign in Italy, of which he was the official historian. He never ceased to tell of his excitement as he and Vaughan Thomas explored the gloomy galleries of Montegufoni and came upon what at first they thought must be copies, then gradually realised that stacked against the walls were the original works that constitute the foundation of Renaissance art. They hurried through the gloom of the shuttered rooms shouting out to each other ‘Uccello’, ‘Giotto’ and ‘Botticelli’.’

The Long Shadow is a departure for Mark Mills, the famous historical and literary crime novelist, but Joanna Kavenna is very, very impressed:

‘Mills writes superb naturalistic dialogue and much of the comedy of the book derives from the gap between what characters think and what they say. He is also very good at telling anomalies: the sideways glance, the hint, the shadows lurking at the edge of vision. He carefully warps various heritage set pieces, as if they are being viewed through a distorting lens — picnics, boating parties, cricket matches. Even as Ben [the protagonist] desperately tries to believe in the idyll, Mills torments him with further incongruities.

Underneath there is a lovely, poignant strand about how hope sustains us even as we are progressively wasted by the years, and how middle age is harsh in its revelations, as some are raised to greatness, and others are mocked and deflated. This is a taut, gripping psychodrama and a wonderful, twisted take on the ‘wild divergences’ of contemporary Britain.’

In addition to that, William Leith is charmed by Ruby Wax’s touching account of managing depression, but is left wondering if we need more strength of character these days. James McConnachie reads Christopher Seaman’s Inside Conducting in search of an answer to the question: what do conductors do? Thirza Wakefield recommends Nicholas Roeg’s beautifully written memoir, The World Is Ever Changing. Rachel Radford has mixed feelings about Granta’s latest batch of 20 Young British Novelists. And Marcus Berkmann enjoys Terry Eagleton’s singular account of life in America.

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