Wynn Wheldon

Alone and defenceless: the tragic death of Captain Cook

The principal purpose of Captain James Cook’s last voyage, which began in Plymouth on 12 July 1776, was to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. Attempts had been made before, in vain, from the Atlantic, but this time it would be from the west, from the Pacific.  On the way, Cook was to return an Anglicised

A tribute to Alf Ramsey, football’s forgotten hero

No better book about England’s victory in the football World Cup of 1966 and what followed it has ever been written. Duncan Hamilton’s Answered Prayers has the authority of a work of history and pulses with the narrative power of fiction. Its unlikely hero is Alf Ramsey. He emerges as a curiously complicated character through

Why is the barleycorn still the basis for shoe measurement?

This is not really a history book – and even if it were, its particular charm would be better expressed by the use of an indefinite article in the title. Or perhaps ‘Histories’ might have been more appropriate. Calling things what they are, being precise, is one of the difficulties it so enjoyably demonstrates.  Some

More stirring stories of little ships

‘I found this story by accident,’ begins Julia Jones’s Uncommon Courage, referring to documents belonging to her late father that she discovered in a far corner of her attic. True, but also false. This is not one story: it is a tsunami of stories. Sometimes it’s hard going, as you try to shelve the curiosity

The Georgians feel closer to us now than the Victorians

‘The two most fascinating subjects in the universe are sex and the 18th century,’ declared the novelist Brigid Brophy when the ban on Fanny Hill was lifted in 1963. Penelope Corfield’s big, handsome, enjoyable book goes a good way to illustrating Brophy’s assertion. Part source book, part interpretive history of the long 18th century (1688-1837),

The Great War was enough to make grown men weep

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo it took a mere six weeks for the diplomats of Europe’s Great Powers to plunge the continent into cataclysmic war. Austria-Hungary wanted Serbia, which was protected by Russia, which was in an entente cordiale with Great Britain and France. Germany was the ally of Austria-Hungary. For

Shaggy dog stories

What is it that distinguishes humans from other animals? The default answer nowadays is tediously misanthropic, but a more interesting distinction is that humans keep pets. Why this should be is the subject of this book. Jacky Colliss Harvey investigates the men and women who have owned, doted on, and in some cases mistreated their

Curiosity – and cats

To Jan Morris, I am anathema. That goes, too, for David Attenborough. It is a word that this unarguably great writer likes: ‘It rolls well off the tongue.’ Why are your reviewer and the great broadcaster anathema, you ask. Well, we have been to the zoo. In this almost entirely enjoyable book no-one comes in

High stakes and chips

According to the subtitle, this is a collection of ‘short stories of long nights at the poker table’. Were that the case, this would be a more enjoyable book, but there are too many stories here that stray from the baize. As a game, poker is relatively simple. The deal gives you your ‘hole’ cards,

Pets in the Blitz

War Horse, by way of book and play and film, has brought the role of horses in war into the public consciousness. Even before it, there was the erection of an Animals in War Memorial on Park Lane, paid for by an impressive list of aristocrats under the leadership of commoner Jilly Cooper. But what

An apologia for adultery

What to make of this unexpectedly startling novel? Though you may be lured into a false sense of familiarity by mentions in the blurb of Trollopes J and A, and the comfortable middle-class settings (Sussex, Notting Hill), it turns out to be a diatribe against male selfishness, a meditation on approaching death, and an apologia

My mother, my self

To tell this story of his search for a mother lost to mystery in early infancy, its author uses the techniques of documentary drama. He describes past scenes and conversations in extreme, atmospheric detail: a particular dream on a particular night in the 1940s, a conversation in the 1950s. Perhaps his work as a screenwriter

Scarred by the past

In Indonesia in 1965–6 half a million communists and supposed communist sympathisers were murdered by a range of civilian and paramilitary organisations under the direction of the army. This is the setting for Louise Doughty’s grim, ambitious novel. John Harper is a young operative in Jakarta, working for a Dutch private intelligence operation, providing information

A disarming heroine

The name Freya is derived from the old Norse word for ‘spouse’, perhaps Odin’s. As a goddess she is variously responsible for birth, death, war and beauty, which seems to cover a fairly wide range of human endeavour. It is a name befitting the ardent heroine of this old-fashioned novel with a distinctly contemporary bearing.

To the ends of the earth

What’s in a name? The identity of the author offers a clue to one of the themes of this intriguing novel: Naomi, a good Hebrew name; Williams, a stout Welsh name; born in Japan; lives in California. The earth is spanned. Landfalls charts the voyage of two French frigates exploring the world at the end

‘It’s always wrong to starve’

‘My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.’ So begins, with bitter Jewish humour, this involving book set largely in the Warsaw ghetto. There is a hint of unnerving

A ghost story without the scary bits

Two men walk into an ice cream parlour in Austin, Texas, order the three teenage girls working there to undress, then tie them up and gag them with their own underwear, and set fire to the place. However, See How Small is not interested in the why or the who, but rather in the lives

A big literary beast’s descent into incoherence

Something odd happened between the advance publicity for this book and its printed appearance. Trailed as addressing the troubled history of Australia’s relationship with the USA, it is actually about the troubled relationships between a cat’s cradle of everyday radical folk and set almost entirely in the suburbs of Melbourne. A washed-up old left-wing journalist,