England in infra-red

Nightwalking – Four Journeys Into Britain After Dark John Lewis-Stempel, Doubleday, 2022, hb, 104pps, £9.99 John Lewis-Stempel is nearly as prolific as the natural world about which he writes so famously, and so well. His voice is welcomely distinctive – a traditional agriculturist of lyrical articulacy, an observant ecologist who finds mythopoeic magic in everyday… Continue reading

The goodness of King George

George III – The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch Andrew Roberts, London: Allen Lane, 2021, 758pps, £35 Andrew Roberts is renowned for Winston Churchill scholarship, starting with the lacerating Eminent Churchillians of 1994 and culminating in 2018 with his exemplary Churchill: Walking with Destiny. But he has always had other interests, as… Continue reading

Fernando Pessoa’s many persons

Pessoa: An Experimental Life Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 2021, 1,088pp, £40 For a small country, Portugal has many major claims to fame – medieval navigations, rich imperial history, the Lisbon Earthquake, sweetly-melancholic fado folk-music, and, of course, port-wine. We hear less about Portuguese poetry, despite practitioners ranging from Lusiads author Luis Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580)… Continue reading

The index, linked

Index, A History of the, Dennis Duncan, Penguin, 2021, 340 pps., £20 All readers of non-fiction take for granted the ability to find whatever they’re looking for quickly by recourse to an index at the end. In this playful but profound work, literary historian Dennis Duncan shows that this apparent afterthought has an intriguing history… Continue reading

Territorial waters

The Ship Asunder – A Maritime History in Eleven Vessels Tom Nancollas, Particular Books, 2022, hb.. 336 pages, £20 An ocean of clichés surrounds Britain’s maritime history – from Chaucer’s Shipman to Drake, and Nelson to the ‘little ships’ at Dunkirk. Tom Nancollas, whose 2018 Seashaken Houses treated lambently of lighthouses, now navigates debris-strewn territorial… Continue reading

Book learning

The Madman’s Library The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History Edward Brooke-Hitching, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 255 pages, £25 Books are, Edward Brooke-Hitching notes, ‘the emblem of civilization.’  The earliest books were used to establish and uphold authority – administrative, legal and taxation powers, dynastic legitimacy, moral, political and religious order. Great… Continue reading

Crises of a confidence-man

THE MAN WHO CONNED THE WORLD: VICTOR LUSTIG CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD, THE HISTORY PRESS, 2021, 300pp, £20 Christopher Sandford is an acknowledged expert on the cultural history of the twentieth century, who has written to scintillating effect on subjects from the Rolling Stones to Arthur Conan Doyle, and cricket to Roman Polanski. But Victor Lustig may… Continue reading

From hobbits to H-bombs

Britain at Bay – The Epic Story of the Second World War: 1938-1941 Alan Allport, Profile Books, 2020, £25                            ‘The Second World War,’ says Britain at Bay’s flyleaf, ‘was the defining experience of modern British history. It is our founding myth, our Iliad.’ It is the inspiration for an ongoing outpouring of national (often justifiable)… Continue reading

Monumental follies

Iconoclasm – Identity Politics and the Erasure of History Alexander Adams, Imprint Academic, 2020, 154 pages, £19 The ill-starred year of Covid also saw another, more localised, virus – an outbreak of attacks on public monuments in several countries, particularly the United States and Britain. While this sickness presents as a skin-disease, only scarring symbols,… Continue reading

The enigmas of islands

Phantom Islands – In Search of Mythical Lands Dirk Liesemer, trans. by Peter Lewis, London: Haus Publishing, 2019, £14.99 Dirk Liesemer is a writing Wandervögel, an epistolary inheritor of the romantically- imagined movement that flourished in Germany between the late nineteenth century and 1933. The ‘wandering birds’ took their inspiration from medieval myths, and made… Continue reading