Lead book review

Words to rally and inspire

It was a surprise, on reading Speeches of Note, to find myself laughing and chuckling at the speech of a Kentucky congressman of whom I’d never heard on a subject of little interest to the rest of the world. Yet it is such a gem of effective persuasion, brilliant construction and escalating hilarity that I

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No Rose without a thorn

Kenneth Rose was gossip columnist by appointment to the aristocracy and gentry. He was, of course, a snob — nobody could write a social column in the Sunday Telegraph for more than 50 years without some snobbish instincts — but he was an intelligent one, singularly well-informed, and capable from time to time of administering

Sins of the fathers | 13 December 2018

‘To have a father is always big news,’ according to the narrator of Sebastian Barry’s early novel, The Engine of Owl-Light. Stephen Dedalus puts it differently in Ulysses: ‘A father is a necessary evil.’ But later, he qualifies this: ‘Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

I like a book where you don’t think you’re going to be interested in the subject, but then find it’s so vigorously and engagingly written that you’re enchanted. This is one of those. I’m not a skier —I’m quickly bored when coffee-drinking mothers start recounting their children’s latest achievements on the piste — so I

Invasion of the bread-snatchers

Little Toller Books, in Dorset, aims to publish old and new writing on nature by the very best writers and artists, in books of the highest quality at affordable prices. This offering, neat enough to fit an overcoat pocket, ticks every box. Its author, Tim Dee, co-editor of The Poetry of Birds, has been a

Could they have tried harder?

Awareness of German opposition to Hitler is usually limited to Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to blow up the wretched man on 20 July 1944. Hitler was at a briefing in his Wolf’s Lair, a secret forested redoubt, when Stauffenberg entered the room with his briefcase bomb (containing British plastic explosive), placing it beneath the

A definition of glamour

‘Dark Star’ is a suitable enough title in itself, but the definition makes it a brilliant one: ‘A Dark Star’, we are told in this book, ‘is shadowed, often detectable by its gravitational effect on other bodies. It is often a component of a binary star and can cause the brightness of its visible partner

Another tale of star-crossed lovers

It’s hard, in Britain, to imagine a popular museum devoted to a single poem. The Polish city of Wrocław hosts just such a shrine. It celebrates Pan Tadeusz, the verse novel written in his Parisian exile by the poet, dramatist and freedom fighter Adam Mickiewicz in the early 1830s, and now taught as a keystone

Love your enmities

Grudges make the world go around, according to Sophie Hannah. They are ‘an important and fascinating part of human experience’, which ought to be ‘protective, life-enhancing and fun’. I think this overstates the case somewhat, as I can’t see any pleasurableness, though I am aware that my own ability to harbour resentments is possibly pathological

A short step from cradle to grave

Between 1300 and 1900 few things were more dangerous than giving birth. For poor and rich, the mortality rate was high. If the birth itself didn’t kill you, then puerperal fever very well might. Privacy was non-existent. If you were Marie de Medici, there was such a press of people in the lying-in chamber that

Duplicity of the first order

Around 1970 I was labelled ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ by white South Africa’s newspapers for leading militant anti-apartheid protests which stopped all-white sports tours to Britain. And a year ago when, under parliamentary privilege in the House of Lords, I exposed looting, corruption and money-laundering by former President Zuma and his cronies the Gupta brothers,

Black and white and read all over

In 1956, after Penguin Classics had published 60 titles, the editor-in-chief of Penguin Books, William Emrys Williams, wondered: ‘How many more titles in the classical literature of the world are there?’ As a case study in heroic shortsightedness, this measures up to Bobby Charlton’s question to his brother Jack after England’s World Cup victory in

The ice was all around

‘We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.’ Ernest Shackleton’s lines unscroll through both these complementary books. David Grann’s The White Darkness is all-man, the gripping story of mighty but quite straightforward struggles. The Library of Ice, brimming with men, women, ships,

The spirit of Christmas past

This book, an excellent history of Christmas, made me think of a Christmas cartoon strip I once saw in Viz magazine. There’s a couple. It’s Christmas Eve. The man goes out to buy the woman a present. On the way, he steps into a pub for a few drinks. Much later, drunk, having missed the

Divinely reticent

Earlier this year The Spectator published an article in celebration of Evensong — the nightly sung service of the Anglican Church. Attendance, it seems, is not just up but dramatically so. While church visitor figures across the UK have fallen steadily and substantially since the 1960s, congregations at sung services have swollen up to ten

Poet, novelist and arms-dealer

When H.H. Asquith, as prime minister, visited Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, during the first world war, he found a vast noisy factory churning out the most sophisticated means of destroying human life. The firm, Armstrong Whitworth, would, during that war, supply Britain with 12 armoured ships, 11 cruisers, 11 submarines, eight sloops, two floating power

Beyond words | 13 December 2018

You may have read about this during the Iraq war. A group of local people approach an American position. A US soldier holds out his hand at arm’s length, palm outwards, in the traditional gesture of ‘halt’. The locals keep on coming. He repeats the gesture. They keep advancing. So he opens fire. The locals

A sleep and a forgetting

Ma Jian’s novels have been banned in his native China for 30 years and he has been hailed as ‘China’s Solzhenitsyn’. His latest book, China Dream, also contains some of the zip and vigour found in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian visions. This must be one of the liveliest novels about brainwashing ever written. Ma Daode, the