Heart of the island nation

A Man of Heart Liam Guilar, Swindon: Shearsman Books, 2023, pb., 197pps. The state of modern poetry can be a cause of acrimonious arguments, with critics reprehending poets’ loss of interest in craft, opacity of meaning, and the burgeoning of often McGonagallesque political verse. Liam Guilar demonstrates that at least some modern poets reverence their… Continue reading

The prices of freedom

Obedience is Freedom Jacob Phillips, London: Polity, 2022, pb., 172 pages, £13.55 Johannes Brahms had a personal motto, frei aber froh (‘free but happy’), which features famously as the note sequence F-A♭-F in the first movement of his Third Symphony. He adopted this cheerful philosophy as a jovial riposte to his friend, the violinist Joseph… Continue reading

The imperial imperative

In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History Dominic Lieven, London: Allen Lane, 2022, 500 pps. hb., illus., £35 In the battle for precedence between the ‘great man’ and more ‘inclusive’ views of history, an account of emperors across centuries and cultures feels like a defiant assertion of the older school. Cambridge… Continue reading

A poet’s pole position

Arctic Elegies Peter Davidson, Carcanet, 2022, pb., 72pps. £11.99 There are poets associated with particular places, or special states of mind, but Peter Davidson has made a genre of his own, as celebrant of a cardinal point. His interests are wide-ranging, but magnetized in one compass direction – towards ‘Norths’ geographical and conceptual, Norths as… Continue reading

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