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All the fun of the fair

In this chunky book, Joanna Pitman tells us something we already suspect to be true, and she does it beautifully. We are, she says, obsessed with blonde hair. For instance, even though only one in 20 of us is naturally blonde, a third of women lighten their hair. Why? Because blonde hair gets you more

Failing to face up to Fritz

This is the most old-fashioned new book I’ve read for a long time, something that I think Curtis Cate would regard as a compliment. In the Preface he writes, characteristically: Perhaps, indeed, the day is not too distant when, new post-modern norms having imposed themselves through a process of Nietzschean ‘transvaluation’, marriage (even between ‘heterosexuals’)

An oddball miles from anywhere

Translated by Theodosia Robertson Hot and silent, dusty and deserted, the town of Drohobycz seemed, during the few summer days I spent there some years ago, like a place forgotten in time. The houses had a certain faded, Austro-Hungarian glamour, but seemed to have been built for different people, in a different era. The central

Top dog and dogfights

The big idea behind this little book has been touted as ‘Americans are from Mars; Europeans are from Venus’. That’s not quite right. The real thesis is not that Americans are war-hungry and Europeans peace-loving, but that Americans deal with problems, and Europeans avoid them. If anything, Americans are from the planet Can-do, and Europeans

Famous and forgotten faces

Paperback edition £29.95 I was much attached to Kaled. She stood at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, pert, stylish, mocking the scribes and hacks scurrying round her feet. She was faintly androgenous, a pageboy Tiresias who saw and knew all that passed along that street of shame. She is there today, much

Life on board the pirate ship

When, in 1825, Harriette Wilson began her Memoirs with ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’ an avid readership settled down to revel in what was clearly going to be the work of an old pro. So perhaps it is as

The anatomy of a hero

The first word of Edgar Vincent’s biography of Nelson is not encouraging. It is ‘Jump!’, which is what a sailor is supposed to have shouted to young Horatio as he boarded the boat that was to take him out to his first ship. How does Mr Vincent know that the sailor shouted that? He might

His own worst enemy

My partner wanted to leave the dustwrapper of this book at home. He denied my suggestion that he didn’t want to be seen reading it on the train, claiming it was just his natural care for books. Anyway, he’s been quoting from it ever since, though his choice of quotes and mine are possibly Mars

Where the wild things are

Aldo Leopold once wrote, ‘There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.’ John Lister-Kaye’s Song of the Rolling Earth – his first book for many years and undoubtedly his finest to date – is written by one who cannot live without wild things, but makes essential reading for those who

Where all parties are guilty

Algeria is one of the most pitiful of failed Arab states. For ten years and more, the news has been coming in regularly that people somewhere in that country have been butchered. Qui tue qui? is the question Algerians themselves ask. Here is a civil war, all the more sinister for being undeclared and undefined.

Public relations disaster

Private lives of the rich or celebrated or infamous kinds in New York often resemble one of those inside-out buildings designed by the architect Richard Rogers in the 1970s; like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with its exterior escalators and air-conditioning ducts, or the Lloyd’s building in London, where lifts and pipes are part of

Fruits of empire

Since Henry Hobhouse wrote his story of five plants that changed the world, Seeds of Change, nearly 20 years ago, the history of commodities has become a fashionable literary genre. So he must rate as one of its pioneers. But unlike many of his imitators, he has not been content to make a whole book

Heavy losses on the cultural front

The start of this book is extremely annoying. On page three there is an inept echo of Gibbon, which has the effect of making us observe that Elon’s style is greatly inferior to the high culture which he sets out to describe. On page four there is a patronising remark about Moses Mendelssohn, the first

Intruder in the dust

The Emma of the title was an intrepid young woman who journeyed to the Sudan in search of exotic adventure. Owing to an ill-chosen marriage she found herself at the centre of a bloody civil war. A few years later she met with an early death. One’s loins need to be well girded before embarking

A square peg

In life, it helps to be called Rothschild. Victor Rothschild discovered this well before he became associated in the public mind with think tanks and spycatchers. Visiting the United States as a 29-year-old Cambridge academic in 1939, he was received by President Roosevelt, as well as by the Secretary of State, the Treasury Secretary and