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A small, bespectacled hero

United Italy was reluctant to honour authentic heroes of its national struggle. Apart from Garibaldi, its squares and street-names — as well as its bronze statues and marble plaques — commemorate incompetent generals, duplicitous statesmen, serial conspirators, an oafish monarch (Victor Emmanuel) and a number of crazy young patriots who dashed off to Calabria (or

Holding the East in fee

Never a great fan of the British Raj, the maverick ex-ICS historian Sir Penderel Moon judged nevertheless that its establishment was ‘an achievement that ought to excite wonder’. At the heart of that achievement was a paradox: how was it that so few were able to subdue so many, of whom large numbers were warriors

Peace under the Iron Mountain

When he was little, John McGahern’s mother took him with her to the school where she taught, through the lanes with flowering hedges linking the small reedy lakes of Co Leitrim, in the lee of the Iron Mountains. This physical and emotional geography is in his bones, and the source of ‘an extraordinary sense of

Trapped in a shaming role

Racial shame looms large in this ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the life of Bert Williams, the black American entertainer. Williams only began to achieve notable success after deciding, in 1895, to smear his face with burnt cork and widen his lips with make-up, in order to ‘play the coon’. He would shuffle his feet and boggle

The distaff side of death

The reason one heads straight for the obituary column when one is confronted by the Daily Telegraph is the abundance of rarefied mischievousness one finds therein. If it is grovelling hero-worship you crave, then Telegraph obituaries will disappoint. In Chin Up, Girls! we delight in a portrait of Dame Barbara Cartland: ‘In her later years,

The everlasting guessing game

On the very first page of Peter Ackroyd’s biography, you learn something strange and interesting about the first few moments of Shake- speare’s life: ‘A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly.’ Who