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Valuable second opinions

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edited by William Roger Louis

Harry Ransome Humanities Research Center, pp. 390, £

Professor Roger Louis's own expertise is in British imperial history; he edited the three-volume Oxford History of the British Empire. For years past, he has run seminars at the Harry Ransome Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas, which holds ample stores of British literary and historical manuscripts; he invites leading dons and critics from Great Britain to discuss their current work, and has secured some unusually fine papers. This is his third collection of their essays; it covers many aspects of the history of this country during the 20th century.

Old-fashioned, party-centred, parliamentary history hardly appears. David Butler gives an account of how studies of general elections have developed, and produces the origin of the word psephology: coined by Frank Hardie at Pembroke high table in Oxford for R. B. McCallum, the author of the first of the Nuffield studies that Butler has carried on. Great men do not make much of a showing, either; though Peter Marsh discusses acutely the impact of Joseph Chamberlain's business career on his political insights, and Kenneth Morgan looks at the young Lloyd George as a pro-Boer, coupling him in that role with the staider Keir Hardie. Shula Marks presents a view of Smuts, dominated by fears of the black man, a long way from the imperial image on which white historians and sculptors have brought most of us up.

The Great War against the Kaiser's Germany appears only in a deft appraisal by Max Egremont of Siegfried Sassoon; the war against Hitler only in a discussion by Jose Harris of Keith Hancock's series of civil histories of how it was conducted from Whitehall. The Suez debacle is re-examined by Keith Kyle, turned historian after a spell as a foreign correspondent in Washington at the time it happened - a particularly lively cross-cut between history and personal observation. At the time, for example, Eisenhower was thought to have his foreign policy run for him entirely by John Foster Dulles; now that the Eisenhower papers have become available, it has become clear that he made his own, leaving it to Dulles to correct his syntax if need be. Adam Roberts explores the British input into the charter of the United Nations, and finds a claim by Sir Charles Webster to have made thereby 'a greater contribution to history' than he had ever thought he could.

Two of the very cleverest brains of the century are appraised, Maynard Keynes by Noel Annan and Isaiah Berlin by Larry Siedentop; the brilliance of each is acknowledged, even emphasised, while a faint attempt is made to cut each down to normal human size: Keynes had fits of scatology and a sharp temper, Berlin coruscated so wildly that not all his arguments hold firm. Bernard Porter's opening piece, 'Pompous and Circumstantial: Elgar and Empire', looks at the origins of Elgar's imperialism, and finds them in his marriage to Alice Roberts, who had been born in India with a father and brothers who were army officers; he believes also that Elgar was an imperialist of the best, non-boasting type, and throws out the suggestion that many of his contemporaries may also simply have had an imperialist veneer.

In 'When Caliban crossed the Atlantic' Gerald Moore revisits Sidney Lee's exposition, as far back as 1907, of Caliban as an Amerindian, and explores several later discussions of the same theme; Shakespeare could be relied on to provide some of the substance of any survey of British life. Roland Oliver goes into the origins of African history as an accepted academic subject in British and American universities, a remarkable piece of insight into how dons develop; while Jeffrey Cox expounds the fate of missionaries in British India, regarded as marginal by the Raj authorities. Many of them decided that Christ's work could best be done by abjuring the Raj.

In a riveting concluding essay, Ferdinand Mount examines Britain's recent 'eruption into tranquillity', the vanishing of the stiff upper lip and the emergence of a much more tolerant, easy-going, multi-racial, agnostic, open-minded nation. He compares it to the emergence of early 18th- century Britain from the bellicose tumults of the century before, and perceives, in his own lifetime, a notable change for the better from the rigidities of Attlee's England in which he grew up.

The early 18th century was a great age for the English essay. This collection shows that, as a literary form, it still carries charm as well as conviction; though as Louis explains in his introduction, the lecture form and the published essay do not always precisely coincide. He explains also what the Harry Ransome Center is, and how the talks came to be delivered. He prints at the back of the book a 40-page list of them all, dating from 1975 to the present year: a solid backing to the understanding of the recent British past.