Lead book review

Books of the year | 10 November 2016

Craig Raine   Philip Hancock’s pamphlet of poems Just Help Yourself (Smiths Knoll, £5): charming, authentic, trim reports from the world of work — City and Guilds, pilfering, how to carry a ladder, sex in a van (‘From the dust-sheet, wood slivers/ and flecks of paint stick to her arse’). One poem is called ‘Knowing

More from Books

Figures in a landscape | 10 November 2016

Timothy Hyman’s remarkable new book makes the case for the relevance of figurative painting in the 20th century, a period effectively dominated by modernist abstraction. He identifies an alternative tradition of potent human-centred painting, coming out of Cubism and Expressionism and tracing its lineage through Chagall and Leger, the Italians Carlo Carra and Mario Sironi,

A very special relationship

You learn startling things about the long entanglement of the British with Spain on every page of Simon Courtauld’s absorbing and enjoyable new book, which is not a travelogue but a collection of historical vignettes arranged geographically. Did you know, for instance, that the first Spanish football team was founded by two Scottish doctors working

Worse than Big Brother

The California novelist T.C. Boyle has often taken true stories and created alternative histories, from John Harvey Kellog and the birth of the breakfast cereal in The Road to Wellville to Alfred Kinsey and the creation of sexology in The Inner Circle. This might draw comparisons with James Ellroy, Boyle’s exact contemporary, except that where

Weird and wonderful

The Un-Discovered Islands could not be more different in substance — though it is similar in style — to Malachy Tallack’s debut, Sixty Degrees North. In that he book he took a revealing pilgrimage around the places which lay, like his home of Shetland, on the 60th parallel, and found a range of concerns about

Between pony club and the altar

If you were to take a large dragnet and scoop up all the shoppers in the haberdashery department of Peter Jones in Sloane Square, your catch would be a group of women of the kind given voice in this marvellous little book. Readers old enough to remember Joyce Grenfell will know the type. Ysenda Maxtone

Soldiers of the Queen

It’s not immediately obvious, but the silhouette on the dust jacket — soldiers advancing in single file, on foot (‘boots on the ground’) isn’t one squad, but five soldiers from different campaigns. From left to right, first comes the British infantryman of the second world war; next is a ‘jock’ from (I think) the Korean

Fine silks and fiery curries

Genial, erudite and companionable over most of its 760 pages, this stout Georgian brick of a neighbourhood history at length flings itself in fury through a toff’s window. Much of Dan Cruickshank’s book has shown with learned charm how, in its tangle of ancient streets just east of the City of London, Spitalfields has always

No one turned a hair

The Benson family was one of the most extraordinary of Victorian England, and they certainly made sure that we have enough evidence to dwell on them. Edward White Benson was a brilliantly clever clerical young man of 23 when he proposed to his 11-year-old cousin Minnie Sidgwick. He had been the effective head of his

The milk of human kindness

One of David Cameron’s choices on Desert Island Discs, this book reminds us, was ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’. The book does not, however, explain why Cameron chose the Benny Hill ditty. Consulting the online archive, I found the then leader of the opposition explaining that ‘when you’re asked to sing a song’,

Surreal parables

There is a common assumption that experimental writing — for want of a better term — is obscure, joyless and arid. Or worse: that it is fake (or ‘pseudy’), a deception practised upon either the deluded or gullible reader. So I wonder what people who hold such assumptions would make of this. It constitutes the