Lead book review

Fierce indignation

In an autobiographical note written late in his life, Jonathan Swift set down an astonishing anecdote from his childhood. When he was a baby in Dublin, he was put into the care of an English wet nurse, and one day she heard that one of her relatives back in England was close to death. Hoping

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Tormented genius

Married as I am to an antiquarian book dealer, and living in a house infested with books and manuscripts, I’m constantly having to edit my own little library so as to be able to breathe. But three volumes have survived successive culls — Pax Britannica, Heaven’s Command and Farewell the Trumpets — Jan (or James

A race apart

South African democracy has not, on the whole, been kind to the Afrikaner. During Nelson Mandela’s benign oversight of the Rainbow Nation, liberal Afrikaners persuaded themselves that all would turn out well in the end. But in their hearts, they sensed it would go wrong. And so it has. At the time of writing, President

A tale of two prisons

The Marshalsea was the best and worst place for a debtor to be imprisoned. From 1438 until its closure in 1842, there was dishonour in its name, contagion in its air and cruelty in its very premise: once detained, debtors could take no action to improve their lot. Instead, imprisonment was meant to serve to

A big beast in Hush Puppies

It always used to be said that, if it had been up to Guardian readers, Ken Clarke would certainly have been leader of the Conservative party. It might have gone beyond that. Some politicians are much loved by the general public, who never have to meet them, and loathed by their colleagues and unfortunate underlings

TB or not to be

If you are 70-plus, the shadow of TB will have hung over your childhood and youth, as it did mine, and Linda Grant’s new novel strikes many a chord. My maternal aunt had the disease, and spent months in a sanatorium like the one described in The Dark Circle, but finally had a thoracotomy (removal

Shiver me timbers

Brrrrr, this is a chilly book. Each time a character put on his sealskin kamiks, muskrat hat, wolfskin mittens and otter pelt coat I buttoned another cardigan toggle and shivered. It’s a book that gets you down to the marrow. The compass of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter points north by northnorth. Up and up

The great Soviet gameshow

In the opening chapter of her history of Soviet Central Television, Christine E. Evans observes two Russian televisual displays of 2014. February saw the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics — which sought to depict a millennium of national history using glitter and gameshow grandiosity. April brought the stern, but no less theatrical, Direct

Meaty matters

I’m writing this in the Highlands. Through the window I can see Loch Maree, being ruffled into white-tipped skirls by the westerly wind and a squall of cloud that’s shrouding Slioch, the Place of the Spears. The Munroes are steeples at the end of the water, a bastion reminder of Scotland’s eternal war between the

Highly undesirable

Most of us just live in cities, or travel to see them and take them pretty much as they come, for good or bad, save for moaning about how much better they used to be. Does anyone ever say of their home city how greatly it has improved? But aside from all the travel writers,