John Preston

Behind the scenes at the Brighton bombing

Sadly, I can’t see it catching on, but one of the notable things about Jonathan Lee’s new novel is that it features a fleeting appearance by John Redwood. The late Geoffrey Howe is there too, distractedly eating fishcakes as he holds forth on the difference between humans and animals. Redwood, Howe and the rest of

The Etonian peer who became an assistant to a Mexican commie

The lefty hereditary peer has few equals as a figure of fun, in life or literature. The late Tony Benn comes inevitably to mind here, as does the Earl of Warminster — ‘Erry’ — in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. As his name would suggest, Francis John Clarence Westenra Plantagenet ‘Jack’

Hillary, Obama, Osama — and a hapless Bill

The actor David Niven was once badgered by the American columnist William F. Buckley to introduce him to Marc Chagall, a neighbour of Niven’s in Switzerland. Buckley, a keen amateur painter, wanted to know what Chagall thought of his work. With grave misgivings, Niven agreed to set up a meeting. Chagall in silence gazed at

Simon Winchester slides off the map

This book begins with Simon Winchester becoming a US citizen two years ago: ‘I swore a solemn oath before a federal judge on the afterdeck of the warship USS Constitution in Boston Harbor.’ On several occasions during the 450-plus pages that follow, I wondered if becoming a US citizen had driven him a bit mad.

Queen Victoria, by Matthew Dennison – review

When Prince Albert died in 1861, aged 42, Queen Victoria, after briefly losing the use of her legs, ordered that every room and corridor in Windsor Castle should be draped in black crepe. As a result, the country’s entire stock of black crepe was exhausted in a single week. One of the key factors of

Move Along, Please, by Mark Mason – review

Mrs Thatcher was widely believed to have said that ‘any man over the age of 26 who finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure in life’. In fact there’s no evidence Thatcher ever said it — the most likely culprit is the Duchess of Westminster. Mark Mason loves buses, and doesn’t much

Magic, by Ricky Jay – review

People, they say, want different things from a book over the summer than they do the rest of the year. If, by chance, you are looking for a book that will both give you a hernia and teach you how to make a bridge disappear, this could be just the thing for you. The motorbike

Dear Lumpy, by Roger Mortimer – review

After the success of Dear Lupin, Roger Mortimer finds himself facing something not normally experienced by former Guards officers who have been dead for more than 20 years — namely Difficult Second Album Syndrome. Lupin, a collection of letters written by Mortimer to his extremely errant son Charles (‘Lupin’) took everyone by surprise when it

‘Kurt Vonnegut Letters’, by Dan Wakefield – review

In the early 1950s Kurt Vonnegut became the manager of a Saab dealership in Cape Cod, a job which often involved him taking prospective clients out on test drives. Keen to demonstrate the Saab’s front-wheel drive, Vonnegut would take corners at a tremendous lick, leaving his often elderly passengers ‘sickly and green’ afterwards. Vonnegut’s early

Away with the fairies

There have been plenty of books in recent years in which apparently sane hacks go off in search of loonies to poke fun at. While The Heretics looks at first as if it fits neatly into the genre, there turns out to be rather more to it than that. Not that the book doesn’t come

Beautiful and damned

According to his mother, Neville Heath was ‘prone to be excitable’. He was that all right — and then some. In the space of two weeks in the summer of 1946, Heath murdered two women with such brutality that, as Sean O’Connor puts it with shuddering relish, ‘war-hardened police officers vomited on seeing them’. The

The further tragedy of unknowing

Margaret Evison spent Easter 2009 with her 26-year-old son Mark, who was about to go to Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. They walked around her garden talking about death in a general sort of way; Mark was worried that he might make a mistake which would lead to someone else dying. ‘He

Torn between ideology and compassion

On 1 September 1978, the then prime minister Jim Callaghan invited six leading trade unionists to dinner at his Elizabethan farmhouse in Sussex. By all accounts it was a very jolly affair with Callaghan’s wife Audrey doing the cooking and their granddaughter Tamsin Jay handing round the dishes. The trade union grandees went away convinced

Divided loyalties

On his first day at boarding school in Kenya in the early 1950s, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o stood to attention as the Union Jack was raised on the school flagpole. Afterwards the boys sang Psalm 51 which contains the line, ‘Wash me Redeemer and I shall be whiter than snow.’ Then came a tour of the