CHRISTMAS BOOKS I
Books of the Year
The best and most overrated books of the year, chosen by some of The Spectator's regular contributors
My first choice is undoubtedly John Gross's Shylock (Chatto & Windus, £18), a humane and scholarly look at a character who has been a problem for actors and audiences alike. My second choice is Victoria Glendinning's biography of Trollope (Hutchinson, £20), an extremely compan- ionable study which manages not to smell of the lamp. Both of these books are re- assuring evidence that the profession of man or woman of letters is very much alive.
The novels, I thought, showed effort rather than merit. Best of those I read was Ian McEwan's Black Dogs (Cape, £13.99), which I admired for its tautness. Colin Dexter's The Way through the Woods (Macmillan, £14.99) is beguiling enough to make one forget a high temperature, as it did in my case, and other winter ailments.
Best Books: Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma by George MacDonald Fraser (Harvill, £16). The author served in the Border Regiment in Burma in the second world war. What gives this memoir its great attraction for me is his descriptions of the Cumbrians he served with (one of whom is actually called Forster and is cunning and dour enough to remind me of several of my relatives). Half of the memoir is hilarious, with much of it written in local dialect, and the other half is quite solemnly impressive. The author was only 19, a callow youth among these rough, tough Cumbrian soldiers, but grew up rapidly in the face of war. It is his tracing of his own maturing process that impresses most.
An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (Hutchinson, £16.99). Could I bear to read this? Could I bear not to, having tortured myself with thoughts of the horror the hostages were enduring while they were still held captive? So I read it. The surprise is to find that, even though the cruelty and terror experienced are all in this amazingly fluent book, reading it is not a matter of recoiling. Brian Keenan wants to concen- trate not on what was done to him but on what he made of what was done to him. In the process he gives us the most eloquent, moving and illuminating testimony to how man can triumph over senseless suffering. Not since I read Primo Levi's If This is a Man have I been so humbled and yet uplifted by the bravery of one man's spirit.
Most overrated: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Poetic? Certainly. Full of arresting images? True. Written elegantly? No question. But a novel? Not for me. A series of fragments, however beautifully presented, does not make a novel. They need some kind of syn- thesis, some subtle direction, to make them into a whole. Nothing as crude and old- fashioned as narrative drive, but a binding together totally lacking here.
Best books: The Collected Poems of Derek Walcott, 1948-1984 (Faber, £9.99). The Col- lected Short Stories of John McGahern (Faber, £14.99). Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Literary Life by Norman White (OUP, £35).
I much admired The Children of Men by P.D. James (Faber, £14.99) for its com- mand of narrative, for the exactness of its observation of people and places, and for the power and courage with which she has been able to confront and use the deepest terrors of old. I enjoyed Cabal by Michael Dibdin (Faber, £14.99), as I have enjoyed the ingenuity and readability of all his novels. And I commend Theatre Criticism by Irving Wardle (Routledge, £25, £7.99). Mr Wardle is that rare animal, a theatre critic with common sense: the zoo should breed from him.
The book I, most enjoyed in the course of the year was William L. Barcham's Giam- battista Tiepolo (OUP, £65). It contains coloured, full-page plates of all that great painter's best known pictures, each accom- panied by a page of excellent descriptive criticism. The lesser pictures are also illus- trated in the text, but it is Barcham's lively, matter-of-fact style that raises the volume from the routine of art books. The other collection of interest that came my way was Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (Faber, £20). Larkin, never famed for his cheerfulness either in life or verse, turns out, even so, to have been unexpectedly venomous about everybody in his letters, more especially his oldest friends. Some of his literary judg- ments are revealed as unashamedly middle- brow. The selection contains much to ponder.
Employing that useful tense the future per- fect, I shall have enjoyed, surely, Larkin's Selected Letters (Faber, £20). It will no doubt come as a horrid shock to the groupies to learn that the pussy-cat of Hull was mostly teeth and didn't at all like being stroked. Kingsley Amis's Memoirs (Hutchinson, £16.99) were, amongst other things, a splendid florilegium of richly deserved come-uppances. It was a pleasure to see the definitive exposure of so many people who had always hitherto got publicly away with being privately nasty. I (perfect conditional) should have enjoyed A. S. Byatt's Possession (Viking, £6.99) if I could have got to the end of it. Although published in 1990, I include it here because it takes at least two years to read it.
The book I enjoyed most was Barry Humphries's autobiography, More Please (Viking, £16.99). It is mostly about his Aus- tralian milieu. Milieu is what I happen to like best: what kind of wallpaper and what they do on Sunday afternoons. Dame Edna is really about milieu too, but here you get it hardly sent up at all. The author comes out multi-talented, inscrutable and just a bit creepy.
The two outstanding novels of the year were Julia O'Faolain's The Judas Cloth (Sinclair-Stevenson, £14.99) and Dacia Maraini's The Silent Duchess (Peter Owen, £14.95). Both are set in Italy; and in both grandeur of theme is matched by boldness of execution to thrilling effect. The subject of O'Faolain's huge and complex book is the increasingly authoritarian reign of Pope Pius IX, who eventually had a Vatican Council declare him infallible. Dacia Maraini's is also a historical novel, which survives comparison with Lampedusa's The Leopard in its evocation of the stifling lives of the Sicilian aristocracy.
The most overrated book to come my way was Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Good, certainly, but not that good.
The paperback Paradise News by David Lodge (Penguin, £4.99) gave me immense enjoyment. The story is centred around a package tour to Hawaii. Its members include Bernard Walsh, an agnostic theolo- gian, and his cantankerous father. They are seeking the latter's sister, now on her deathbed. The poignant personal relations and the Hawaiian way of life are recorded with the sardonic perception of a latter-day Evelyn Waugh. My Secret Planet by Denis Healey (Michael Joseph, £16.99) takes us back to politics, but with a difference. Healey's charming anthology of prose and verse illustrates his many-sided career. Westmin- ster's ace bruiser is confirmed as a power- ful intellect and revealed as a self- contained, if not self-effacing, politician.
Former cabinet ministers are falling over themselves to put straight the Thatcher years. Cecil Parkinson does this loyally in Right at the Centre (Weidenfeld, £18.99) without lapsing into sycophancy.
Patrick Skene Catling
I admired, rather than enjoyed, A.N. Wilson's biography, Jesus (Sinclair- Stevenson, £15), a masterly work of de- mystifying iconoclasm. I envy people who are able to resist his thesis with apparent confidence, not to say smugness. The Faber Book of Church and Clergy (Faber, £17.50) is an excellent, entertaining anthology of prose and poetry relating to Christianity, more or less. Edited by the prolific Mr Wilson, this collection helped to convince me that I, like him, am as fond of contem- plating theological riddles as my tongue is of wiggling an abscessed molar. The mind keeps returning, again and again, to what hurts.
Those two books sent me into a monastic library. While in the monastery, I also read Cock and Bull (Bloomsbury, £9.99), two excruciatingly witty novellas by brainy Will Self. About freakish trans-sexual develop- ments (a woman's penis, a man's vagina), they nudged me, cackling guiltily, beyond mere apostasy.
Earlier in the year I greatly enjoyed (and reviewed in The Spectator) John Updike's collected essays, Odd Jobs (Deutsch, £20). I am at present absorbed by the second volume of Martin Stannard's biography of Evelyn Waugh, No Abiding City (Dent, £25). But the work I consulted most often during the year, and repeatedly returned to, was Dr D. G. Hessayon's Vegetable Jotter (PBI Publications, and excellent value at £1.75). Particularly sound on the cultivation of asparagus. Even better on parsnips.
'I know we've had our differences.'
A Sultry Month: Scenes from London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter (Robin Clark, £6.95). This wonderful account of the suicide of the painter Benjamin Haydon is a miniature history of London in June 1846, the sultry month of the title. Superb portraits of the Carlyles, Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Samuel Rogers et al. First published in the Sixties and now at last available in a handsome paperback, I have enjoyed it more than any book this year.
My favourite new novel of the year was Sue Townsend's The Queen and I (Methuen, £9.99). It conveys the oddity of the Queen's character and also celebrates what is so admirable about her. It is very far from being a 'satire'. It also conveys what it is like to be working-class in Major's Britain; and not many novelists have been in a position to do that. It also made me laugh on almost every page.
So — for quite different reasons — did Ben Pimlott's biography of Harold Wilson (HarperCollins, £20) and this was an even greater achievement because there were more pages. This will surely go down as one of the great political biographies of the century.
I enjoyed John Carey's investigation, Intel- lectuals and the Masses (Faber, £14.99, £5.99). His is not a new notion, that late- Victorian and early-Edwardian writers were unanimously pitched against what they saw as a burgeoning class of narrow, ignorant Pooters. But it is refreshing to read an intelligent discourse on the clash between popular and highbrow culture: a subject which seems to have become the property of the whining malcontents of the Modern Review.
I read an unprecedented number of old books this year; after all, with such healthi- ly stocked secondhand shops, who needs overpriced new books? Robert Roberts' recollections of life in Salford in the early years of the century, The Classic Slum (Manchester University Press, 1971, Pen- guin, 1973) was the best book I read this year; a reminder of how dignified English life was before poverty came to be seen as an excuse for delinquency. At 80p, com- plete with dog-ears, the book appealed to my recession-struck frame of mind in more ways than one.
As regards overrated books, I feel it would be wrong to select just one. The nation might be in recession, but the book industry has entered something far worse, a result, I believe, of two things: hype and an obsession with hardbacks, which dooms new authors to ruinously low sales. It's time the industry dropped its age-old belief that any publicity is good publicity. Of course the public tends to buy the books it has heard most about, but years of hype have dulled its appetite for books altogether.
I have hugely enjoyed Patrick O'Brian's series of 13 naval historical novels, all avail- able in Fontana paperback, featuring the dashing Captain Jack Aubrey and his uncompromising Irish-Catalan Sancho Panza, Dr Stephen Maturin. Connoisseurs of the genre love them already, but there must be thousands of others like me who never otherwise open novels of this kind who would be delighted by the unique mix- ture of adventure, humour and scholarship, the triumphs and horrors of action, set against a background of unpredictable unfairness. A rich feast awaits them.
I was also much struck by Tyrants and Mountains (John Murray, £19.95), the autobiography of Denis Hills, an athletic rolling stone of immense energy and courage. The style is abrupt and disjointed, but the descriptions of Poland and Rumania just before the war, and Cairo, Italy, Austria and Germany during and after it, are unusually rewarding. He also narrowly escaped a death sentence in the Uganda of Idi Amin.
It was not until January that I caught up with volume one of John Richardson's Life of Picasso (Cape, £25) and Thomas Paken- ham's The Scramble for Africa (Weidenfeld, £20). Hefty works each, as are The World of Charles Addams (Hamish Hamilton, £25), Charles Nicholls's The Reckoning (Cape, £20), Robert Hughes's Barcelona (Harper- Collins, £20), Beaverbrook by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie (Hutchinson, £20), and The Penguin Jazz Guide by Richard Cook and Brian Morton (£15.95) — an unobtrusively erudite compilation complemented by the pugnacious wit of Will Friedwald's Jazz Singing (Quartet, £22.50) and by James Gavin's Intimate Nights: the Golden Age of New York Cabaret (Grove, $24.95).
The editing of Philip Larkin's Selected Letters (Faber, £20) was as unbalanced, and as fascinating, as that of a rather different spirit, Bertrand Russell (Volume 1: The Private Years 1884-1914, Allen Lane, £25). Doubtless somebody will gather those of Gore Vidal and Julian Barnes; in the meanwhile, Screening History (Deutsch, £12.99) and The Porcupine (Cape, £9.99) are two slim volumes which transcend their ostensible subjects.
A dull year for English fiction was at least enlivened by Darryl Pinckney's High Cotton (Faber, £14.99) and The Kinky Friedman Crime Club (Faber, £14.99 who should hurry up with his other work, available in America, and with reprinting the entertaining natural-history volumes of John Crompton, praised in these columns by John Betjeman). It was cheering to hear from several readers that they, too, had sought out the elegant chicanery of the late Kyril Bonfiglioli's The Mortdecai Trilogy (Black Spring, £7.99). Yet to come my way, but eagerly awaited, is The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin (Knopf, $60). This spot last year predicted great success for Charles Sprawson's swimming marathon, Haunts of the Black Masseur (Cape, £14.99); happy to say, American firms bid feverishly for rights to it.
Such diverse pleasures almost obliterate the unhappy memory of Nicholson Baker's Vox (Granta Books, £14.99, £9.99), a work as flaccid as Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury (Secker, £14.99), an author as desperately trendy and as out of touch as Nik Cohn with Heart of the World (Chatto, £15.99).
Giles MacDonogh's Brillat-Savarin (John Murray, £25) is a cascade of freshness and originality; it is deeply researched and bril- liantly written. It is a masterly book and it lingers in the memory like a physical plea- sure.
Rollo Clifford's Royal Gloucestershire Hussars (Allan Sutton, £12.99) is another book that enters deeply under the surface, in this case of the last 200 years, and reveals (admittedly mostly in photographs) a fascinating, conservative, not to say yeo- manly world, to which I take off my hat. Connoisseurs will relish the career of Sir Lionel Darell (the Ratcatcher Baronet). It is a thoughtfully edited and most moving publication.
Thirdly, I was surprised and delighted by White Desert by Jean Ethier-Blais, translat- ed by Jane Brierley (Vehicule Press, Mon- treal) — stories by a Canadian professor and diplomat who writes usually in French and is therefore unknown in England. He is a wonderful, Proust-like writer who deserves to be applauded, and who has many unexpected pleasures to offer. It is high time he was published in this country. He has won the Prix France-Quebec and has published 15 books.
I am glad I persevered with Iris Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Chatto, £20). Much of it was beyond me, some of what I did faintly comprehend seemed rambling and repetitive, but there is real wisdom there, and I found its message very heartening. I was also much taken by Charles Sprawson's oddball history of swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur
The truth is the hunt actally enjoys being sabotaged.'
(Cape, £15.99) and by Tony Harrison's powerful new collection of poetry, The Gaze of the Gorgon (Bloodaxe, £5.95), but the biggest event for me was the long- awaited arrival of The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, edited by John Warrack and Euan West (OUP, £25) — an absolute godsend, chock-full of facts and elegantly presented. Everyone I know raved about Adam Thorpe's first novel, Ulverton (Secker, £14.99), but it completely defeated me — Akenfield was much more fun and much less effort.
For me the two best books of the year were written in verse, by a father and his son. George Barker's posthumous Street Ballads (Faber, £4.99) is a savagely witty collection, full of black humour and memento mori, amazingly ebullient for a man in his 78th year. His son Sebastian Barker's The Dream of Intelligence (Littlewood Arc, £9.95) is likely to prove the most remark- able long poem of the present decade. Written in plain blank verse without pos- turings or pretensions, it purports to be the autobiography of Nietzsche. Immensely readable, it is probably what Coleridge wanted Wordsworth's unwritten 'Recluse' to be — 'the first philosophical poem in the English language'. Finally there is Wendy Cope's Serious Concerns (Faber, £12.99), about which I need say nothing: good wine needs no bush. A good year for English poetry.
My favourite novel of the year was Dunedin by Shena Mackay (Heinemann, £14.99), a par for the coarsely brilliant book by the best living writer in the English language. My other favourites were non-fiction: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (Gollancz, £13.99), a beautiful blend of football and A Boy's Own Story by a wonderful writer, and then, of course, Fenton Bailey's The Junk Bond Revolution (Mandarin, £6.99), a great defence of a great man — Michael Milken, probably the most unjustly persecuted man since Galileo.
To put my cards on the table, Shena, Nick and Fenton are friends of mine — but they only became my friends because I admired their writing so much, and not the other way around. Similarly, if I think someone is a bad writer I dislike them as a person, too. That's why I was so glad to see the new books by Jeanette Winterson, Edna O'Brien and Malcolm Bradbury given such a royal slagging this year. So really I can't claim that I found any book overrated because those which I hated most other people hated too. The excep- tions, I suppose, would be any book by Ben Elton, Stephen Fry or any other Luvvy for Labour, who as well as giving us several massive-selling slabs this year also single- handedly lost the election for Neil Kinnock and saddled us with yet another inept Conservative government.
Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) is the most powerful novel I have read in years. It has everything — narrative drive, structural skill, scenes of outstanding vividness. It is always gripping and frequently harrowing; above all, it is a novel of ideas, a discussion of the nature of evil and of the human potential for good.
I enjoyed In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh (Granta, £14.99) — an odd, maver- ick book which combines an account of the author's experience as a student of social anthropology in an Egyptian village with his scholarly pursuit of an elusive historical figure, a 12th-century slave who survives only as a marginal reference in some letters of the time. A quirky idea, cleverly brought off by this engaging writer.
Margaret Donaldson is one of the only development psychologists who writes in plain English. Her Human Minds (Allen Lane/ Penguin, £20) is a stimulating discus- sion of the way in which we learn how to think and the implications of the relation- ship between thought and emotion. I have struggled with some impenetrable texts on this subject — she is gratifyingly undaunt- ing to the lay reader.
J. G. Links
Rabbit at Rest (Deutsch, £14.99, Penguin, £5.99) introduced me to John Updike, so obviously a master that I put the book aside after a chapter to start at the begin- ning and read aloud A Rabbit Omnibus (Penguin, £8.99), returning to it three books later. Updike's brilliance makes living with the dreadful Harry Angstrom in small-town America an exhilarating rather than a lowering experience.
But all 1992 reading has been misted over by a return to Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy (Penguin, 3 vols, £5.99 each), a miracle of English prose. 'One of the five best novelists in the English lan- guage this century' is one critic's descrip- tion, and I would dearly like to know four others who can hold a candle to him.
Overpraise? The word 'funny' applied to Auberon Waugh's Will This Do? (Arrow, £6.99) rather depressed me, compelling though I found the book, to my shame. One quoted comment, 'as sad and as comic as his father's finest work', must surely be a royal straight flush in the over- praise stakes.
My novel of the year is Adam Thorpe's Ulverton (Secker & Warburg, £13.99). Thorpe has constructed 12 linked episodes in the life of an English village, from Civil War times to the building boom of the Eighties; each episode has its own language and style. The book is an amazing technical feat, but is also warm, funny and very mov- ing. My worry is this: if such extraordinary skill and accomplishment are not rewarded by the Booker judges — at least with a shortlisting — can the Booker Prize be taken seriously?
Donna Tartt's The Secret History (Viking, 15.99, £9.99) is an assured first novel about a murder on an American campus, where a coterie of students have taken to indulging in Dionysian rites. It has its preposterous elements, but Tartt is a very good story- teller; prose, plot construction, timing are immaculate and the suspense is brilliantly maintained.
Ted Hughes's Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (Faber, £18.99) has something new and profoundly interesting to say about some of Shakespeare's most obsessive themes. There's plenty to argue with, of course, but the book's tepid reception by the professoriate was a disgrace, suggesting that the country's intellectual life is in as bad a mess as its economic one. Hughes's even more recent A Dancer to God (Faber, £12.99) contains one of the most searching essays on Eliot I've ever read, pointing out that the high Anglicanism barely papered over a massive spiritual trauma.
The most original novel I caught up with was Basch by Beat Sterchi (Faber, £11.95), a tour de force beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. It's a dense, poetic and occasionally gruesome tale about an immi- grant worker in Switzerland who is far less important than the astonishing fat cows he is hired to look after. Joyce and Marquez are among the influences, but it's finally uncategorisable.
Les Murray's Collected Poems (Carcanet, £18.95) is a delight, especially the second half. Glyn Maxwell's second book of poems Out of the Rain (Bloodaxe, £6.95), is vertig- inously experimental, tiringly so at times but fizzing with energy, ideas, and acrobat- ic syntax. Stephen Romer's Plato's Ladder `Got any spare change, lady?' (OUP, £6.99) and Jo Shapcott's Phrase Book (OUP, £5.99) are also excellent value for the imagination. Never mind all those flabby novels, ignore the twitterings and grindings of the self-important, get some of the real stuff into your veins.
I took two stiff antidotes to the Bring Back Gower Campaign — By His Own Hand by David Frith (Stanley Paul, £16.99) and Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (Gollancz, £13.99). Then Penelope Fitzgerald's Gate of Angels (Flamingo, £4.99) — how lucky we are to have an immediate successor to E.M. Forster. And I greatly enjoyed han- dling and reading Simon Lawrence's Fleece Press's Dearest Sydney, Joan Hassall's let- ters from Italy to Sydney Cockerell (edited by Brian North-Lee), The Tern Press's John Purvey's 1380 Translation of St Mark's Gospel and Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War (Folio Society, £23.75).
And, as ever, I went back to Anthony Powell — this time, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant.
The best book I read in 1992 was undoubt- edly Conor Cruise O'Brien's masterly study of Edmund Burke (The Great Melody, Sinclair-Stevenson, £22.50), which is part biography, part analysis, part commentary and part anthology. It has the rare virtue of being both idiosyncratic and authoritative. There are important modern lessons to be learned from it, especially about the continuing mythology of the French Revolution, so I hope it is read by politi- cians, especially Conservative ones.
The most overrated book I came across was the Penguin edition of Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (£7.99), a splendid subject ruined by left-wing academic constipation.
The best book I have read this year — and indeed for many a year — is Arthur Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America (W. W. Norton, £10.95). It is a courageous onslaught by a committed liberal on the craven surrender by educators to current ethnic fads, and shows how in so doing they cross the fatal line between a legitimate cultural pluralism and a divisive ethnocen- trism, committing the historical absurdity of denying America's European heritage.
The most overestimated book I have read in 1992 is Kirkpatrick Sale's The Conquest of Paradise (Papermac, £12.99). We have all had our noses rubbed in the enormities committed by Europeans in 1492. Ecologists like Kirkpatrick Sale turn a legitimate guilt about the conquerors, lack of respect for Indian culture and con- cern for our failures to solve the conflicts between conservation and development into a wholesale attack on western civilisa- tion.
Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) may be rather dour for some tastes but it is a fine novel and worthy of its share of the Booker Prize. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's biography of Gerald Brenan, The Interior Castle (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), is excep- tionally entertaining and informative, not only about this most complex character but about the society in which he lived and the Spain about which he wrote.
It would be invidious to choose among the many overrated books. The bookselling trade has to roll along somehow.
Aubrey Singer's The Lion and the Dragon (Barrie & Jenkins, £18.99) is a lucid and instructive account of Lord Macartney's embassy to China in 1792. Europe's enquiring rationalists come up against the adamantine face of Manchu China. The protagonists and their attitudes on both sides are trenchantly depicted, and every nuance of the confrontation is shown to us.
A not so new book, Crosby Stevens' Ran- som and Murder in Greece (Lutterworth Press, £14.95) was a lucky find. It concerns `the Dilessi murders', the kidnap and killing by Greek gangsters in 1870 of Lord Muncaster's party visiting Marathon, and the story is told through Muncaster's jour- nals. Besides being a penetrating study of the event itself, and of its significance in the field of Greek politics and nationalism, this book (like the one above) shows us the best and bravest of England baffled and angered in its confrontation with a foreign government's different notions of probity.
John Gross's Shylock (Chatto, £18) is one of the most fascinating and entertaining books published for years, learned and highly readable. Apart from dealing admirably with the serious subjects of Shakespeare, 'the Jew' and Jew-hatred, Mr Gross provides a wonderful rag-bag of miscellaneous information, and manages to be droll on a subject which isn't obviously mirthful.
Although rather untidy, Beaverbrook by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie (Hutchinson, £20) is a haunting study in corruption. Beaverbrook was a great newspaperman, and the Davies might have dwelt more on this. He was obviously also captivating company, but he corrupted those whom he captivated. No reviewer has pointed out two hair-raising episodes. In 1919, Beaverbrook secretly guaranteed an overdraft of £7,000 — say £280, 000 now to one cabinet minister, Edwin Montagu (whose wife was Beaverbrook's mistress), and in 1938-9 he secretly lent another, Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, £6,000 (say £240,000). Perhaps one is innocent to be surprised by this. It certainly makes the odd ice-cream for Mr Mellor's poor children look a bit cheap.
In a year when I have read shamefully few new novels, my best buy has to be Robert Harris's Fatherland (Hutchinson, £14.99), a very clever and ingenious mix- ture of Orwell and Simenon and a deserved bestseller. And one other, very different novel: Janet Hobhouse's posthumous The Furies (Bloomsbury, £15.99), fascinating even if you didn't know the author, deeply poignant if you did.
I hope it is not cheating to name a newly published book which I am only half way through, Robert Skidelsky's John Maynard Keynes, Volume II (Macmillan, £20). Already the long wait since Volume I seems worthwhile. Here, surely, is one of the great biographies of modern times Even readers who question the bolder claims of David Cannadine's G.M. Trevelyan (HarperCollins, £18), an attempt to rehabilitate the last of the Whig histori- ans, can admire a sensitive and eloquent feat of imaginative reconstruction.
And hats off to David Daniell (the editor) and to Yale University Press (that most enterprising of publishers), who complete the handsome and reasonably priced publication of the Tyndale Bible the foundation of the Authorised Version —with Tyndale's Old Testament (£25).
Smug, pi, maddeningly efficient and almost always right, Professor Wasserstein has chosen in Herbert Samuel (A Political Life, OUP, £45) a difficult subject. The success- ful proponent of the Jewish, and the pre- cursor of the Welfare, State, the man was significant enough to be entitled to a major biography which I believe this to be. The professor has not tried to make him endearing — he couldn't — but when, after decades of high office, he scrabbles for the job of Minister of Works under Churchill in 1940, and is turned down after a glance at Who's Who, because he is too old at 71, one's heart bleeds.
Simon Vickers is a young man who does what other young men dream of doing. He has ridden through Latin America on a horse and across what was the Soviet Union on a bicycle. I liked his book Between the Hammer and the Sickle (Sin- clair-Stevenson £16.95) because it felt so truthful about the boring, pinched, under- nourished, grubby lives of ordinary people in that unpalatable country. It made me feel good to be an unsuccessful capitalist. The cleverest and, surprisingly, the kindest American I know is Gore Vidal, but apart from the odd lethal, languid aside his Live from Golgotha (Deutsch, £14.99) is pretty silly.
1. The lugubrious Graham Gooch, in Captaincy (Stanley Paul, £15.99), achieved two things: despite the prose Ca major run- out position'), he genuinely illuminated for cricket fans what he calls the 'thought processes' of captaincy and, more difficult, made them look with sympathy on his much criticised (notably by David Gower) obsession with the 'work ethic'.
2. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur (OUP, £25). Even Anthony Burgess (who has his own entry on p. 167) would surely learn something from this peculiar, all- embracing, giant plum-pudding of a reference book, with its 1,184 pages and 4,000 articles, all by experts. Samples: 'The first speaker of English to visit India may have been an ambassador of Alfred the Great'. What is an uvular plosive? Who was the Miss Belinda Blurb who gave her name to a 'usually brief and excited promo- tional description on the jacket, cover, or wrapper of a newly published book or simi- lar item'?
3. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro, new in paperback (vol. 1, The Path to Power, and vol. 2, Means of Ascent; Pimlico, £13 and £15), is a useful prepara- tion for the years of Bill Clinton. Caro is an indefatigible guide to the bloody innards of US politics, though you feel you have fought LBJ's election campaigns yourself by the end of these hefty volumes.
You sent me Wagon, Chariot and Carriage by Stuart Piggott (Thames & Hudson, £18.95), and I failed to review it. Now I can at least recommend it as the most interest- ing new book out of the very few I have read this year. It is about what it says it is about, and argues that where wheeled transport is concerned efficiency has always been less important than status-value. The author has managed to put much of a life- time's work into a benign and conversa- tional form.
You have also sent me Norman Cantor's book on mediaevalists (Inventing the Middle Ages: Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Mediaevalists of the Twentieth Century, Lutterworth, £17.95). It was published last year in America and reviewed almost ad nauseam by all the lads of the village. If this 'English' edition is a publisher's dodge to raise the wind in a flat calm, I hope they get away with it, and I regret that I cannot be of assistance to them.