William Waldegrave

How troll stories blighted the life of Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian, born Richard Patrick Russ, never wanted his life written, and this passionate wish presents the first hurdle to someone as fond of him as was Nikolai Tolstoy, the son of O’Brian’s second wife, Mary, by her first husband. Why pry further? Why deploy papers and diaries which O’Brian expressly instructed should be destroyed?

Courting the Iron Lady

This is a strange book. Peter Stothard, the editor of the TLS, is packing up his office. It is a year after Margaret Thatcher’s death, and Murdoch’s Wapping site is being destroyed to make way for new, expensive flats. As the national memory of Thatcher fades, and transmutes into myth and caricature, so the physical

Man with a trade mission

About the second part of the title of Nigel Cliff’s excellent book there can be no argument. Vasco da Gama’s voyages do indeed remind one of those of Odysseus and Aeneas — in the range of adventures, mostly disastrous, which befell the tiny ships, and also in the iron will of their leader. His ruthless

Almost a great man

Of those prime ministers whom the old grammar schools escalator propelled from the bottom to the top of British society since the second world war, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher were in many ways the most alike. Wilson, that classic greasy-pole climber, tactically brilliant, strategically trivial; Major, decent, straightforward, a good man lifted to power

Beyond the call of duty

David Crane’s latest book is much more interesting than its title would lead you to believe. If you buy it hoping for a collection of stories of derring-do and British pluck, you won’t be wholly disappointed: you will indeed learn how Frank Abney Hastings, having got himself sacked from the Royal Navy for behaving like

The tricky world of faction

There is something odd about a roman à clef which has the key attached. Justin Cartwright’s latest novel tells the story of ‘legendary Oxford professor’ Elya Mendel of All Souls and his relationship with German Rhodes Scholar Axel von Gottberg, who is hanged in Plotzensee on 26 August 1944 after the failure of the July

The Senior Service to the rescue

There is something unedifying in politicians apologising, without cost to themselves, for the sins of their predecessors while deploying all the black arts of their trade to suppress criticism of their own performance. The same goes for society at large. It would be more admirable for 21st-century Britain to be trying to imagine what our

Before the mast was rigged

There are three possible reasons for republishing forgotten books by writers who have achieved subsequent fame. The first and best is that they may have been unjustly forgotten. The second is that they are of interest to fans looking for hints of the future. The third is that early novels in particular often contain autobiography,