David Crane

The history of the world in bloodshed and megalomania

It is hard to imagine why anyone should want to write one, but if there has to be a history of the whole world then Simon Sebag-Montefiore must be as good a candidate to write it as anyone. He would seem to have read pretty well everything that has ever been written, visited everywhere of

Straight lines and grandiose schemes — Napoleon the gardener

On 1 January 1806, a little over one year after his coronation, the Emperor Napoleon ordered the abolition of France’s new republican calendar and a return to the old Gregorian model. Over the past seven years republicans had grown used to ‘empire creep’, but even for those who had been forced to watch the principles

Up close and personal: voices from the Great War, week by week

In the summer of 2014, David Hargreaves was invited by Robert Cottrell, the editor of The Browser, to write a series of articles shadowing, week by week, the course of the first world war. Over the next four years Hargreaves and his researcher and co-author, Margaret-Louise O’Keeffe, brought these out online, and they have now

Is Indian cricket no longer cricket?

There is nothing in world sport, ‘nothing in the history of the human race’, Ramachandra Guha modestly reckons, that can remotely match the passions that surround Indian cricket. I have no idea how many listeners or viewers hung on every ball of Ben Stokes’s Headingley heroics last year, but it is a safe bet that

Is there no field in which the Jewish mindset doesn’t excel?

More than 20 years ago, George Steiner, meditating on 2,000 years of persecution and suffering, posed the ‘taboo’ question that no one dared ask: ‘Has the survival of the Jew been worth the appalling cost?’  It was not just the horrors of the pogroms or of Auschwitz that ‘enforced’ the question for Steiner, nor the

The man and the legend

It is not often that a book’s blurb gives any idea of what’s inside, but Helen Castor’s endorsement — ‘a masterclass in the practice of history’ — is as good a description of this brilliant new biography of Charlemagne as we are likely to get. The broader contours of the life will be familiar to

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV

I was flicking through an old copy of The Spectator the other day, one of the issues containing contributors’ ‘Christmas Books’, and there was a comment of Jonathan Sumption’s that ‘as a general rule, biography is a poor way to learn history’. It is primarily a matter of approach rather than simply subject of course,

The Elder, the better

I couldn’t help thinking, as I read this book, of an old story, vaguely recalled from English A-level classes, about the poet and verse dramatist Gordon Bottomley. I can’t remember now which of his plays it concerns, but it must have been just after the notorious MP and swindler Horatio Bottomley had been imprisoned for

Europe’s front line

In 1919, only months after the end of the Great War, a French airman called Jacques Trolley de Prevaux, accompanied by a cameraman, piloted an airship down the line of the old Western Front that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. The result is a haunting piece of film in many ways,

An age of paradox

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us … in short,’ as Charles Dickens famously told the

A date with Venus

There is something about the Transit of Venus that touches the imagination in ways that are not all to do with astronomy. The last Transit occurred in 2012, and if nobody who watched it will ever see another, the sight of that small black dot, making its almost imperceptible progress across the disc of the

Change and decay | 5 July 2018

It seems somehow symptomatic of David Edgerton’s style as a historian, of a certain wilful singularity, that even his book’s title requires explanation. On the face of it ‘the rise and fall of the British nation’ seems a comforting enough notion, but when Edgerton deploys the term British nation he is not talking about any

Riding for a fall | 8 March 2018

On 20 July 1805, just three months before the battle of Trafalgar destroyed a combined French and Spanish fleet, the Emperor Napoleon ordered his chief-of-staff to ‘embark everything’ for the invasion of England that he had been dreaming of for two years. ‘My intention is to land at four different points,’ he explained to Berthier,

Mother of the nation

It can sometimes seem — unfairly but irresistibly — as if the sole function of the myriad Lilliputian German statelets of the Holy Roman Empire was to provide the royal families of Europe with some of their most dismal consorts. In the century and a half after George I came to the throne in 1714

Raising Cain

It is a pretty safe bet that for every 1,000 people who know of William Wilberforce, no more than the odd one might have heard of Benjamin Lay. In many ways this is understandable enough, but if anyone deserves to muscle in on the mildly self-congratulatory and largely middle-class pantheon of Abolitionist Saints, it is