Perhaps it was all because of his name. John Donne: for a poet this must have felt a little like destiny, and even in the most unlikely of moments he couldn’t resist making puns. He sat down to write a letter to the enraged father of the teenage girl he had just married in secret. A lesser man might have chosen to play this fairly straight, but not JD. ‘It is irremediably done,’ he wrote to his new father- in-law, and of course he spells it ‘donne’.
In September 1890 a Frenchman called Louis Le Prince left his brother in Dijon and boarded a train to Paris, with the intention of connecting to London and then to Leeds, before finally joining his wife Lizzie and family in New York. But the weeks turned into months, and to his wife’s astonishment and dismay he never arrived or saw his family again. He had disappeared.
A mere eight months later Thomas Edison would unveil the ‘Kinetograph’ to the world, claiming his apparatus to be the birth of the moving image, featuring ‘pure motion recorded and reproduced’ for the first time.
Just as one is inclined to believe Carlyle’s point that the history of the world is but the biography of great men, so Christopher Tugendhat, in this level-headed account, is right to conclude that the history of the Conservative party in the past 60 or 70 years has been deeply affected by the biography of the movement for the European Union. And it would have shocked Carlyle that a great woman – Margaret Thatcher – played a central part and, according to Tugendhat, altered the course of the party’s relationship with Europe.
What particularly excites Silvia Ferrara, the author of The Greatest Invention, is not language per se but writing – that is, the specific tool created for recording and conveying language visually. Sound made visible, tangible. The impulse to communicate might be innate, but writing is cultural, and in no way inevitable. It’s a bit of tech, which needed to be developed, and which needs to be learned. Writing has many obvious benefits – allowing communication to survive across time, thus enabling cultural traditions and posterity – unlike purely synchronous conversation, face-to-face, stuck in the present.
First the bad news: Nina Stibbe’s new novel does not feature Lizzie Vogel, the engaging narrator of the trilogy that made her name as a comic novelist after she’d first published some extremely funny letters written during her stint as a nanny in a north London household in the 1980s. Man at the Helm (2015) is the novel Dickens lacked the generosity to write, in which tribute is paid to the creative value of a chaotic childhood presided over by what the conventional world calls an unfit parent.
One thing that Covid lockdown made us appreciate was the importance of being outdoors. When we were finally allowed into them, national and local parks became chockfull and many people rediscovered that being in the open had health benefits.
How timely, then, that Matthew Kelly has written an account of four redoubtable rural activists: Octavia Hill, Beatrix Potter, Sylvia Sayer and Pauline Dower. He describes them as ‘the women who saved the English countryside’ – which is perhaps a bit of a stretch, though it’s true that individually they fought tooth and nail to preserve vast tracts of it.
Publishers love books with ambitious subtitles such as ‘How Bubblegum Made the Modern World’, and this one’s, about American wheat remaking the world, was no doubt devised to appeal to readers in the United States. It is not really appropriate: for ‘American’, read ‘Ukrainian’. The focal point of Oceans of Grain lies very far from the vast wheat fields of North America. This is mainly a book about Ukraine and the Black Sea, and the importance of Ukrainian grain in world history.
In his 2005 book What The Dormouse Said John Markoff traced the roots of the personal computer industry to the counterculture of the 1960s – a tale that owed as much to Jefferson Airplane as Jeffersonian ingenuity. Constantly popping up in that narrative is the adopted Californian Stewart Brand. Markoff wrote of his ‘Zelig-like penchant’ for being present at turning points in the story. Whole Earth, viewed one way, is an extended apology for that epithet.
For as long as we have been human we have looked for some way of telling when we are being told the truth. We tried dunking witches, only to find that buoyancy is not connected to the supernatural. We tried torture, but discovered that people will eventually say just about anything to make it stop. We experimented with scopolamine and sodium pentathol, to learn that ‘truth serums’ do little more than make their targets susceptible to suggestion.
Virginia Woolf admitted to her journal: ‘I haven’t that reality gift.’ Her contemporary Arnold Bennett had it in spades. He was a great novelist, as anyone who has read Riceyman’s Steps or the Clayhanger trilogy would attest. Being also the contemporary of Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence – you might say this was one of the reasons his reputation became obscured since those glory days of English fiction – he had fierce competition.
In this arresting debut novel we follow 26-year-old Eve as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her best friend Grace. Flashbacks punctuate the present day of Eve’s London life, gradually revealing her role in the grim circumstances of Grace’s death.
Eve lives in a flatshare with a patronisingly well-meaning couple who give her cheap rent in exchange for cleaning. The awkward dynamic is made worse by Eve’s casual kleptomania (helping herself to Karina’s lipstick, necklace, gloves and dressing gown) and by the inappropriate leers of Bill ‘who likes to start conversations when I’m wrapped in a towel’.