Lead book review

Nostalgic nationalist piety

Parish churches are the sentinels of England’s past. They soar over every town and village, pinning it to the nation’s soil. The nave may be empty, the graveyard unkempt and the roll-call of the faithful soon to cede primacy to the mosque. But the Church of England guards our rituals and speaks for our communities.

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Keeping calm and carrying on

An ordinary woman, rather like yourself.’ These were Peter Fleming’s words when he commissioned Jan Struther to write what became her ‘Mrs Miniver’ columns for the Times. Critics complained then, and have complained ever since, that Mrs Miniver is no ‘ordinary woman’. She rings the bell for tea, takes taxis everywhere, and has a second

The most inscrutable of poets

Where our great Victorian writers are concerned we live in an age of rolling biography and contradictory interpretation. I’ve read half a dozen lives of the poet since picking up, as a schoolboy, the Penguin paperback of Harold Nicolson’s Tennyson: Aspects of his Life, Character and Poetry, with its diagnosis of a crippling case of

Murderous mullah games

Montesquieu observed that popular governments are always more vindictive than monarchies. So it proved in Iran in 1979, where the demise of a 2,000-year-old monarchical tradition made most ‘Arab spring’ revolutions seem like child’s play. More than 30 years on, the descent of Ayatollah Khomeini from a jumbo jet, wearing an American bullet-proof vest, also

Carve their names with pride

On a ridge high above the River Ancre, four miles to the north of the town of Albert, stands the greatest of all Britain’s memorials to its dead. For some curious reason the Thiepval Arch has never touched the imagination in the same way as Blomfield’s Menin Gate, but as an evocation of the pity

The strange potency of things

Building on the success of his acclaimed Radio 4 series and bestselling book A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor has now successfully narrowed down the format. Selecting 20 objects that he suggests formed part of ‘the mental scenery’ of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, he exploits what he calls ‘the strange potency

Too much time in the library

Donna Leon’s The Jewels of Paradise (Heinemann, £17.99)has a promising premise. A young musicologist, Caterina Pelligroni, returns to Venice to trace a legacy left by the 17th-century composer Agostino Steffani, a slippery customer who mixed libretti with realpolitik in the courts of Europe. The bequest turns out to consist mainly of nasty secrets, which seem

About to cop it?

Rebus is back, in a novel long, meaty and persuasive enough to make up for the years of absence. Actually, he is only part-way back — on a civilian attachment to the Edinburgh & Lothian Police, and working on cold cases. However, the retiring age has been raised, and he has applied for re-instatement. He

Crying and laughing about it all

For many biographers of popular musicians, the obvious problem is that the only interesting bit comes when your subjects are in their brief creative pomp. For Sylvie Simmons, the situation is rather different — and not just because Leonard Cohen has been somewhere near his pomp for nearly 50 years. The real trouble is that

Tragically flawed

This is a story of impossible gifts. The Chancellor, George Gideon Oliver Osborne, stands to inherit a 17th-century baronetcy and a large fortune accumulated by his enterprising father. He was also blessed with intelligence, charm, ambition, eloquence and the mysterious ability to seek out power and use it for his own ends. His biographer, Janan