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Well, no, yes, ah

So Meby Graham NortonHodder, £18.99, pp. 342, ISBN 0340833483 Frankie Howerd’s career was a series of comebacks. In the early Fifties he was a radio star with listening figures of 16 million; he topped the bill at the Palladium and appeared in a Royal Variety Performance eight times. He flopped on live television, however, and

Is your journey really necessary?

Pen Hadow goes to the North Pole quite often. For a price he’ll take you there too. When not under- taking one of his private expeditions he acts as a guide for his own travel company. For those with the time and cash and courage he can organise an arduous months-long trek. If you have

Just mad about horses

A Year at the Races, the title of this extraordinary book by Jane Smiley, is the peg on which to hang the author’s remarkable insights into the horse and all his workings. It is indeed about racing and her experiences with her various horses at the Californian tracks, but that is almost a sideline. This

Playing the marriage market

Although the publishers assure us that this study of three sisters is ‘one of glamour, money and love in equal measure’, Fortune’s Daughters should not be confused with the new novel by The Spectator’s most decorative diarist, Joan Collins, entitled Misfortune’s Daughters. Elisabeth Kehoe’s book is non-fiction and covers, as the sub-title puts it, ‘The

Past, present and future at odds

There are eerie parallels between the career of the author of this all too brief masterpiece and that of Nicolai Erdman, whose play The Mandate recently opened at the National Theatre. Novelist and playwright both achieved acclaim for pugnaciously satirical works produced in the mid-Twenties, a period of extravagant experiment in the Soviet Union. Then,

Worth a mass of detail

No one wants to write a history of Paris from Caesar to Sarkozy. Histories that are largely political, which tell the story of the city’s expanding boundaries, endless wars and growing importance within France as a whole tend to be tedious. Most authors try to show that the history of Paris is special, involving a

A conservative convict

At the moment, a whole room of the Sainsbury wing in the Nation- al Gallery is devoted to Carlo Crivelli (c. 1430-95), but even the author of this monumental, learned, and absorbing monograph would not claim that he is a household name. Perhaps he is too much of a one-off to merit that double-edged accolade,

The end of the pied piper

At the age of 13, William Norton, the son of a police sergeant and a Post Office worker, wrote to John Betjeman warning him of the impending destruction of Lewisham’s Victorian Gothic town hall. In no time Betjeman put William on to the recently founded Victorian Society, urged him to organise a petition, wrote him

Finding and losing a voice

What does it take to turn artistic talent into its full creative expression? Then, once you’ve found your authentic artistic voice, how can you stop critics and followers over-defining it until you feel penned-in to the point of paralysis? And if you finally lose your voice altogether, how do you find it again? Bob Dylan’s

Cooking the books

Churchill conceded that the ultimate verdict on his conduct of the second world war would have to be left to the judgment of history. But, as a precaution he resolved to write that history himself. The result was the six volumes and nearly two million words of The Second World War published between 1948 and

Trenchant but tendentious

R. W. Johnson’s book purports to be a history of South Africa, from the emergence of humankind to the last nation (whatever that may mean). The pace is necessarily brisk and only seldom falls over its feet in the process, as in the movement of numerous ethnic entities provided with little more than their names.

Private pain and public glory

How a timid, subdued, frustrated man from Buenos Aires, with failing eyesight and blind for the last part of his creative years, turned out to be one of the major, if not the major writer of the 20th century, is the central mystery this book preserves, untouched, at its centre. Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges

Copses and corpses

What a welcome change from the energetic staccato style of many modern thrillers is this, Rennie Airth’s second book. No short thudding sentences for him, no relentless brutality and spattered swear-words, more a leisurely, gentlemanly unfurling of a story which yet is as bloody and grim as any. The rape and murder of a Surrey

New technology, component costs and product placement

The fashion for novelty is scarcely, well, novel. In the 18th century Dr Johnson warned that the frenzy for the new had reached such a pitch that men would even look to ‘be hanged in a new way’. New fashions, new fabrics, new furniture, new decorations and ornaments, all cascaded out of workshops and factories.