Lead book review

Suffering a sea change

The oceans cover seven-tenths of our planet, and although it may not seem like it above the surface, they are very busy. Helen Scales and Christian Sardet are marine biologists: Sardet is apparently known as Uncle Plankton, and those multitudes of drifting organisms — ‘plankton’ comes from the Greek planktos, meaning to wander or drift

More from Books

It takes a thief…

In the words of one of his contemporaries ‘a man of down look, lean-faced and full of pock holes’, the 17th-century ne’er-do-well Thomas Blood sounds an unattractive proposition. His latest biographer, Robert Hutchinson, works hard to imbue him with the pantomime glamour of a lovable rogue. Hutchinson roots Blood’s rackety life firmly within the context

Calm after the storm

I hesitate ever to criticise an author for the inappropriateness of a book’s title, since it’s more likely the fault of someone in marketing, who’s had a Bright Idea. But whoever is the culprit, the omission of the dates ‘1650–1800’ from the dust jacket certainly risks annoying the bookshop browser, who may grumpily set the

Cats, curates and cardigans

Anyone who has ever listened to the thump of a rejected manuscript descending cheerlessly on to the mat can take comfort from the roller-coaster career of Barbara Pym. Between 1950 and 1961 Miss Pym (1913–1980) had published six modestly successful novels with the firm of Jonathan Cape. Then, on 24 March 1963 — ‘a sobering

Happy Retirement

Retired persons are not necessarily retiring or withdrawn although we are entitled to feel tired and/or rejuvenated by our superannuated state. In France they are en retraite or they have retreated. In Italy they are pensionati if they are lucky and in Germany Rentner. In Spain they are jubilados and in Portugal simply reformados. Happy

The frog prince

It would not have surprised their friends in the 1930s when Peter Watson had a fling with my grandfather, Robert ‘the Mad Boy’ Heber-Percy. Both gorgeous young men were known for their risky sexual escapades. What did ruffle feathers, however, was when Watson subsequently gave the Mad Boy a car. Cecil Beaton was so jealous

‘What will they do when I am gone?’

Edward Thomas was gloomy as Eeyore. In 1906 he complained to a friend that his writing ‘was suffering more & more from a silly but unavoidable nervous interest in the children’s movement in and out of the house’. The following year, he noted, I have no ‘interests’ at all, and marriage, he said, is ‘continually

Micro-managing the terror

‘Lately, the paradoxical turns of recent Russian history… have given my research more than scholarly relevance,’ remarks Oleg Khlevniuk in his introduction. Indeed, in Putin’s Russia Stalin’s apologists and admirers seem daily to become more vocal. The language of the 1930s is used in televised tirades against ‘internal enemies’ and ‘foreign agents’. Stalin himself is

Demonised Barber of Fleet Street

We know a great deal about Samuel Johnson and virtually nothing about his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber. The few facts of which we can be certain are these: born into slavery, Barber was aged about seven when his owner, Colonel Richard Bathhurst — who may, Michael Bundock suggests here, have been his father — brought

Throw away the Valium and start bragging instead

This is not a book to be read in solitude. Not for the obvious reason that it’s frightening, but because every few lines some fascinating or unexpected fact forces you to exclaim: ‘Blimey! Listen to this …’ The three authors are American psychology professors. As young academics they were much influenced by the work of

God help me shippies!

T.H. White complained that the characters in Walter Scott’s historical novels talked ‘like imitation warming pans’: those in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, of which Flood of Fire is the final volume, talk like a whole Benares brass bazaar. As an avid reader of both Hobson-Jobson (the dictionary of Anglo-Indian slang) and Patrick O’Brian, I thought