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A very errant knight

Nicholas Shakespeare is one of the few contemporary British novelists who successfully integrate the political with the personal in the lives of his characters. Like Graham Greene, he has an eye for a dramatic historical backdrop: in The Dancer Upstairs, it was the Shining Path insurgency in Peru; in his new novel, Snowleg, it is

Plumbing the depths

The sea frightens me. It seems so cold and cruel, even when it looks warm and inviting. It was with some wariness, therefore, that I approached David Austin’s first novel, in which the sea, or the Sea, as it is sometimes called in this book, is a major player. Robert Radnor has returned from India

An innocent at large in dystopia

Turgenev wrote, ‘Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: “Great God, grant that twice two be not four.”’ Pete Dexter starts from the other end. His characters know that, whatever they pray for, twice two will always be four — and it will always be held

Pioneer in a peculiar science

The first distinguished person I ever met told me that he preferred funerals to weddings. ‘Weddings,’ he said, ‘are so final.’ It is true that many changes take place to the human body after death, practically all of them of surpassing unpleasantness. Perhaps that is why no one before Professor Bass had the idea of

Forward to the past

If time travel were possible, surely there’d be people from the future causing mischief in the present? Well, not necessarily: perhaps when you travel back in time you visit a parallel universe and therefore can’t muck about with history, even if you try to. Alternatively there might already be time travellers dotted about, but when

Moving swiftly on . . .

Titles that begin with the phrase A Brief History of … are no doubt written that way to connote a certain sense of humility, as if the author has been engaged in a casual endeavour and can offer no guarantee that the results will be definitive. The roots of this trend go a few decades

A smile, a figure, a flair

It’s hard to find an exciting biographical subject who has not been done and on whom sufficient unpublished papers and records exist (not to mention alluring photographs). By good fortune, persistence and enthusiasm, Miranda Seymour has done just that with Hélène Delangle. Who she? Well, she was born in 1900 (her preferred date was 1905)

Quite the most delightful clergyman

Simon Phipps, says the cover of this slim but engaging volume, was ‘the last of his breed of Bishop’. One hopes not. Does Eton, the Guards and Cambridge now preclude preferment in the Anglican episcopacy? This aside, what is the edification or entertainment in recollections by the great and the good of the varied life

Hide and seek

The constant command in the works of Alberto Manguel is ‘look closer’. From his terrifying novel, News from a Foreign Country Came to his A History of Reading and Reading Pictures, A History of Love and Hate and Into the Looking Glass Wood and his book of notes that analyse the film The Bride of

The sleep of reason

Like Francis Wheen’s other books, this one ends in a deliriously funny index, which is worth the cover price on its own. One entry: Blair, Tony; claims descent from Abraham; defends secondary picketing; defends teaching of creationism; displays coathangers; emotional guy; explores Third Way; likes chocolate-cake recipe; sneers at market forces; takes mud-bath in Mexico;