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From pirate to policeman

The subtitle of this large history, ‘How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World’, is a generous tribute from the American professor who wrote it. Based on very wide reading of secondary sources, the author has little new to say in a book which opens with Drake and closes with the Falklands campaign. He has,

A day in the life of a surgeon

As a foreword to this excellent novel Ian McEwan quotes a passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, in which the bedevilled protagonist launches a passionate indictment of the moral disorders of his time, extracting from them a small nugget of hope, or rather of value, to set against his justified despair. Bellow or Herzog is explicit:

A continent on a learning curve

Welshmen will know what Le Goff’s name means. To mediaevalists it conveys not only Smith, but all that is gracious, gilt-edged, and grandfatherly among French historians. Or, as one of the blurbs puts it, rather unkindly, ‘He is among France’s “great” historians.’ That means great in the special sense of an institutionally sanctified professor doomed

An endearing underachiever

‘I am beginning to see that brain counts for little but that character counts for everything,’ wrote Harold Nicolson, in one of those flashes of self-perception which from time to time brilliantly illuminated his life. ‘It is not a pleasant thought as my character is weak and easily influenced.’ He was only just 17 when

Self-exiled by bad dreams

About Grace is about David Winkler, a man crippled and made fearful by the accuracy of his dreamed premonitions — a man who foresees future events and who is then constrained to watch them unfold. He dreams of a man killed in an accident and then witnesses that accident. He dreams of meeting his future

A woman of some importance

The writer William Mayne has said, ‘I don’t know why there are supposed to be only two sexes. I can think of at least eight, even before you get to women.’ Mary Wollstonecraft, though no wit, would have been pleased with this. She saw herself as neither male nor female but ‘a new genus’, one

He was the first to blink

This book illuminates Brown and his circle: they appear paranoid and anyone who challenges them has to be done in. Robert Peston acknowledges some of this, and is occasionally critical of Brown but more often laudatory. It is typical of the Brown camp to co-operate on the book and then dismiss its contents as tittle-tattle.

The weedy wanderer

The biographers, like eager heirs round a deathbed, were amassing by Robert Louis Stevenson’s side while he was still breathing. The story, they could tell, was going to be just too good. The age loved a youthful demise, and anyone could see that Stevenson was not going to make old bones. They were quite right,

Life and letters | 29 January 2005

In this week’s Cease and Desist Department, it’s Grange Hill. For many tens of thousands of grown men and women worldwide, the names Tucker, Zammo and Mrs McCluskey are enough to induce an instant rapture of nostalgia: the mind’s ear fills with the sardonic, boingy guitar of the theme tune; the mind’s eye with the