Lead book review

Books of the year | 22 November 2012

Byron Rogers When TV presenters write history books it is the mistakes you treasure most, as when David Dimbleby blithely pronounced that Augustine had introduced Christianity to Britain (Christianity being over 200 years old in Britain, with Welsh bishops, before Augustine came). But Andrew Marr’s A History of the World (Macmillan, £25) is different. It

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The effects of rain

Rain keeps us indoors, so we live by constraint and denial. No walk on the beach, no sea-swimming, no bicycle ride, no watching the peep-and-vanish of lizards. Instead, the clock ticks and one page of the book turns to another. Our fingertips now and again touch as if to suggest the inside and outside of

Truth and beauty

Almost 20 years ago, Alice Munro, the Canadian genius of the short story, was interviewed by the Paris Review. She recalled a time when she was having trouble with her writing, and found herself looking round the ‘great literature’ on the shelves of the bookshop she was then running with her first husband as if

Such fun!

Nearly all the pages in this book are filled with thank-you letters. As a child, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was writing to thank for presents of sweets and chocolates. As the Duke of York’s betrothed, she was writing ‘Dear Prince Bertie, Thank you ten million times for sending me all those gramophone records, which arrived in

Length and quality

The final volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, released at the end of last month, is a landmark in audio publishing. The seven volumes — over twice the length of War and Peace — are narrated unabridged by the actor Neville Jason: at a staggering 150 hours, it is the longest audiobook in existence.

Little boxes, all the same

This book purports to be a history not of London but of its suburbs. In the end this amounts to much the same thing, because the author is referring not to the present suburbs but to all the suburbs of London that have ever been, from Southwark onwards.  After Boadicea sacked their original wooden settlement,

The ‘ism’ that ruined the West

In 1974, as editor of the Connoisseur magazine, I ran an ‘1874’ issue to mark the centenary of Winston Churchill’s birth, to which John Betjeman, Asa Briggs and Lady Spencer-Churchill all contributed. So I know the virtues of selecting a single year and ‘sinking a shaft into history’. Effective use has often been made of

Dreams that fade and die

The Dutch writer, Cees Nooteboom, was living in West Berlin in 1989 when the gates opened and the Wall finally came down. At the time he wrote a series of essays about what was happening around him, which were published to great acclaim in Germany and form the first part of Roads to Berlin. He

A duty to protest

A few years ago, in West Africa, a woman came up to me and said, ‘You know what’s wrong with our men? They go crazy once they get power. Crazy and bad.’ Chinua Achebe’s saving has been the fact that he never sought power, at least not of the kind that leads to conflict and

Shameful home truths

One of our more cherished national myths is that we British do not torture prisoners of war and criminal suspects. We support decency and fair play. Ian Cobain’s book proves beyond doubt that we do indeed make use of torture, and sometimes with relish. It shows that the British state has long practised a secret

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Had the artist Rex Whistler not been killed in Normandy in 1944 at the age of 39, in what direction would his great talent have gone? It is futile to speculate, write Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, the authors of this sumptuously illustrated new biography. But many did. Cecil Beaton thought he would have become another

Business as usual | 22 November 2012

Dear old Pesto, we all make jokes about him but we all secretly admire him. The BBC business editor’s strangulated elocution and stream-of-consciousness style were never going to make him a natural broadcaster — ‘He won’t last six months,’ one of his household-name colleagues whispered to me in the early days. But six years on

The one who got away with it

The first track on Neil Young’s latest album lasts nearly 28 minutes, for while he usually has no problem starting, he sometimes struggles to finish. Some of the same prolixity characterises his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace (Viking, £14.75). No ghost writer has been allowed near this: it’s Young in all his ragged glory. The narrative