20 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 46

Christmas Books I

Books of the Year

The best books of the year, chosen by some of our regular contributors Alan Judd Carcanet's selection of Ford Madox Ford's war writing, War Prose (£14.95), is a wel- come addition. Thoughtfully edited by Max Saunders, it does much to enhance Ford's growing status in the canon of first world war writers, while skilfully delineating that war's influence on the literary techniques of writers fortunate enough to have fought in it. Another writer of the period, an immensely gifted war correspondent and no less gifted as a man of action, was affec- tionately recalled and diligently researched by his granddaughter, Celia Sandys, in Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive (Harper- Collins, £19.99). A thrilling early life and a thrilling read.

The Mitrokhin Archive (Allen Lane, £25) by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, the first of many volumes sum- marising files the KGB never thought we'd see, is a significant contribution to our cen- tury's history. Now that the fuss surround- ing its publication has subsided, it should be possible to gauge its true importance. Lastly, a book that has to be sneaked under the wire because it wasn't published this year: the HarperCollins paperback of David Fraser's biography, Alanbmoke (£9.99). He was Chief of the Imperial Gen- eral Staff during the second world war and,

arguably, the soldier who did more than any other to bring victory to the Allies. It's superb.

Francis King Since it may be ignored by most literary editors and so fail to attract many readers, the work of fiction to which I most want to draw attention is Denys Johnson-Davies's Fate of a Prisoner (Quartet, £8). By a writer totally unknown to me, this collection of short stories, mostly about male expatriates in the Middle East, is a striking one. At first, each story seems simple, even flat; then, gradually complexities reveal them- selves, and one becomes aware that noth- ing is predictable, easily explained or safe. For sheer fun, unadulterated by any seri- ousness of purpose, I also recommend John Haylock's skittishly benign comedy of 1960s Tangier life, Body of Contention (Arcadia, £9.99).

D. J. Taylor has never struck me 3s a nat- ural novelist. In his Thackeray (Chatto, £25), he has triumphantly found his true métier, which is that of biographer. Although I am far more enthusiastic about the novels after Vanity Fair than he is, I was enthralled by this account of an increasing- ly sad but always gallant life.

Despite its tantalising reticence, I also

greatly admired the erudition, charm and humanity of Peter Vansittart's memoir, Survival Tactics (Peter Owen, £17.95).

Philip Glazebrook The most affecting book I have read for years is War in Val d'Orcia (Allison & Busby, £8.99) by Iris, the English wife of the Marchese Origo, who kept this daily journal from January 1943, when the first refugee children were sent to the Origo estate in southern Tuscany, until August 1944, when the Allies liberated it. As hard- ship and need increased, so did the matri- archal arms of the Marchesa extend, comforting, feeding, sharing, as might the princess of a feudal kingdom have cared for her people in the Thirty Years War.

A clever book on a fascinating subject is Pilate by Ann Wroe (Cape, £17.99), who has gathered the evidence used by each era to substantiate the kind of man it suited that era for Pilate to have been.

Rather similar in temperament to the Pilate I have always imagined, a disillu- sioned proconsul among bickering natives, is the subject of Baker Pasha, (Michael Rus- sell, £20), a book which describes the daz- zling social and military climb of a Victorian officer until, like Pilate, with one disastrous act he undid it all. Valentine

Baker lived in a society where any trespass could in time be expiated: the Creed still condemns poor Pilate's lapse of patience one evening long ago.

Paul Johnson

The most sumptuous and desirable volume which has come my way in 1999 is Great Houses of Ireland by Hugh Montgomery- Massingberd and Christopher Simon Sykes (Laurence King, £40). The first did the text, the second the photos, and they make a learned and elegant team. This once shabby-genteel country with its ambitious but crumbling mansions is now 'full of money' as the Irish say, and a lot of it has been used to restore its magnificent country house heritage. So the book is well timed. One of the nice things about Irish houses is that the best and most comfort- able room is often the well-stocked library. I am thinking of Clandeboye and Tully- nally, but there are other prime examples, tellingly presented here.

Another fine volume is Sir Roy Strong's The Spirit of Britain (Hutchinson, £40), which provides a continuous history of the visual arts. The treatment is thorough, bal- anced, judicious and sometimes highly orig- inal, and the illustrations are superb. I particularly enjoyed a sylvan scene by Isaac Oliver, from the 1590s, purportedly to exalt the married state but providing vivid glimpses of orgies among the unmarried. Was Good Queen Bess aware that this kind of thing went on?

Christopher Howse Two books much better than their titles are Reigning Cats and Dogs by Katharine Mac- Donogh (Fourth Estate, £15) and Christen- dom Awake by Aidan Nichols (T&T Clark, £12,95).

The doggy book (not many cats) is an agreeable ramble through the post-Renais- sance royal pet-thronged courts of Europe (and China, for Pekes), with contemporary pictures illustrating the typical or odd. It is all prodigiously learned, with digressions on dwarfs and doctors thrown in for fun. I wish I had written it.

Aidan Nichols is Prior of Blackfriars, Cambridge, and an unusual intellectual in having cut through the thickets of modern churchy thought. Christendom Awake; which sounds like a bad hymn, is in fact an anthropological survey of the possibility of re-Christianising everything from architecture to the Church's own banalised liturgy.

A book that is selling in mountains, deservedly, is Century, a fat collection of photographs put together by Bruce Bernard (Phaidon, £29.95). Its hundreds of images reflect the 20th century with the intelligent-eyed, tough-minded, inquisitive, humane integrity that we might expect from its compiler. The least worthily hyped tome must be the Encarta World English Dictionary (Bloomsbury, £30). Utterly use- less, littered with mistakes and preachy.

Peregrine Worsthorne Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (Seeker & War- burg, £14.99). If Black Africans have not yet produced a great masterpiece of their own, they have been the inspiration of two great masterpieces, the first being Conrad's Heart of Darkness about the evils of colonialism, and the second being J. M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning Dis- grace about the evils of post-colonialism. There is a dreadful symmetry about these two works, for while Conrad's described the depths of depravity into which the whites could be sucked by having too much power over black Africans, Coetzee's describes the equal depths of depravity into which they are now being sucked in South Africa by having too little. Before reading Disgrace I had rather assumed that fears about the fates of whites under black majority rule were proving unfounded. Press reportage suggested much was wrong — crime and corruption — but nothing that time could not cure. Coetzee's terrify- ing novel, however, paints a much darker and more despairing picture. At least no end of history there, I am almost relieved to learn.

A Life: A. J. Ayer by Ben Rogers (Chatto, £20). More satyr than sage, Freddie Ayer provided his skilful biographer with a fruity tale to tell. The philosophy is not skimped but it is the love life that holds centre stage, as it is right, if improper, that it should.

The Highroad to England.• an Autobiogra- phy by Ian Fraser (Michael Russell, £20). Well worth reading, particularly for the author's account of his battle experiences which deserves to be included in any anthology of second-world-war literature — preferably one edited by John Keegan.

Anita Brookner

I preferred non-fiction to fiction this year, particularly Stacy Shift's Vera (about Mrs Vladimir Nabokov, Picador, £25) and Colin Thubron's In Siberia (Chatto £14.99): two excellent examples of how to live danger- ously, nomadically and obstinately. Few would emulate Nabokov allowing his wife to give his lectures, or Thubron alighting from a bus in a strange town, in the middle of the night, with no directions and no con- tacts. Such insouciance is clearly a recipe for success. Novels fared less well, and although I enjoyed them I remember few of them. To compensate I reread two favourites: Belchamber by Howard Sturges (Oxford Paperback, long overdue for reissue) and Shirley Hazzard's love story, The Transit of Venus (Virago, £6.99). Howard Sturges was a friend of both Henry James and Edith Wharton; his story of a gilded but unsuccessful life is written with a tender dignity of which neither of his emi- nent contemporaries was capable. Shirley Hazzard, a marvellous Australian writer, is reputed to be working on a new novel. I can't wait. And the supreme contribution to art history, Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama (Allen Lane, £30), will continue to be savoured slowly up to and throughout Christmas and the New Year.

David Caute

The most absorbing book of the year has been Lavinia Graecan's J. G. Farrell (Bloomsbury, £25). Not only friends and contemporaries of the gifted author of Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973 Booker Prize), and The Singapore Grip will be fascinated by the transition of a rugby- playing public schoolboy, via the horror of polio and an iron lung, into the sardonic slayer and layer now revealed by Graecan's indefatigable sexual excavations. The great History War of the Cold War between the lone-wolf fellow-traveller E. H. Carr (What is History?) and Isaiah Berlin's liberal bat- talions is described with rigorous objectivi- ty in Jonathan Haslam's The Vices of Integrity: E. H. Carr 1892-1982 (Verso, £25). The publishers are to be congratulat- ed on bravely reintroducing references at the foot of the page; it's time to end the tyranny of book designers. Frances Stonor Saunders's Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, £20) combines hard-hitting journalism and hard- grafting research to expose — and vastly exaggerate — the role of the CIA in guid- ing and subsidising the Western cultural offensive. The lively narrative is marred by elementary errors: for example, Senator Joseph McCarthy was never a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Oleg Gordievsky

War Scare: Russia and America on Nuclear Brink by Peter Vincent Pry (Praeger, $25.95). This book, written by probably the best American expert on Russian nuclear weapons, is a great eye-opener for both political and military establishments of major Western countries. It describes nine recent crises when it came close to a nucle- ar confrontation between the West and the East. One of the first was the Able Archer military exercise in November 1983, and the last was when Russia mistook a Norwe- gian weather rocket for a Nato nuclear mis- sile. Peter Pry also tells the true story about the 'nuclear briefcase' allegedly controlled by President Yeltsin.

The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (Allen Lane, £25). This is probably the most sensational book of the year and is so far the most informed and detailed study of Soviet sub- versive intrigues worldwide. While in Britain the dust caused by this book has settled, in other countries (particularly Italy) the political reverberations are still raging. It was by no means the whole of Mitrokhin's archive; more revelations might appear later.

Till My Tale is Told: Women's Memoirs of the Gulag edited by Simeon Vilensky (Vira- go, £18.99). This book is a collection of tes- timonies by 16 women who have been prisoners of the concentration camps in the Soviet Union. These Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish authors provide vivid access to the 'lost continent' of the Gulag. It is prob- ably the most gripping and detailed addi- tion to the famous fundamental work by Solzhenitsyn. This book should be read by everybody in this country, which was lucky not to experience the horrors of a totalitar- ian regime.

Defending the Realm: MI5 and the Shayler Affair by Mark Hollingsworth and Nick Fielding (Andre Deutsch, £17.99). The more successfully the British intelligence community is fighting terrorism and for- eign espionage, the more bitter the attacks are on it (particularly on MI5). A typical example is the above-mentioned book. As it admits itself, it is 'packed with anecdotes' and is based on the old prejudices that the security service is latently against the left wing. But the fact is that that organisation, being part of the Civil Service, island of socialism, loves the Labour party dearly. The feeling is reciprocated.

D. J. Taylor

The most engrossing work of non-fiction I have read this year was Illusions of Gold (Chatto, £30), the third volume of David Kynaston's monumental history of the City of London, covering the years 1914-45. It was closely followed by Jan Dalley's unex- pectedly welcome Diana Mosley (Faber, £20), which I picked up doubting that any- thing useful could be said about this ghastly old Valkyrie. Happily, what followed turned out to be a fascinating contribution to mid-century social and political history.

As someone who has expended gallons of ink inveighing against people who puff their friends' books, could I also recom- mend Marcus Berkmann's larksome analy- sis of quiz culture, Brain Men (Little, Brown, £14.99) and John Walsh's poignant excavation of his Hibernian roots, The Falling Angels (HarperCollins, £16.99)?

David Gilmour

Ramachandra Guha's Savaging the Civilized (University of Chicago Press, £22.50) is an excellent and entertaining life of Verrier Elwin, the Englishman who was successive- ly a Christian missionary, a disciple of Gandhi and an anthropologist, a remark- able character much distrusted by officials in India for 'going native' and marrying tribal women.

Out of Place (Granta, £25) is an intense and powerful evocation of childhood by Edward Said, a very personal search for identity in a disappearing Levantine world. In Bonar Law (John Murray, £25) R. J. Q. Adams produces an erudite and sagacious defence of 'the unknown prime minister'. And in his fourth volume as editor of The Letters of Rudyard Kipling (Macmillan, £55) Thomas Pinney exhibits once again his brand of precise and enthusiastic scholar- ship.

John Vincent

It is worth remembering that John Kee- gan's The First World War is now in Pimlico paperback (£12.50). No writer is ever likely to be as at home with this subject again. Among biographies, Philip Williamson's Stanley Baldwin (Cambridge, £25) had the heaviest load of prejudice to contend with, but succeeded in being a tour de force. For Englishmen who 'love Wales' without quite knowing why, I commend Janet Davies' A Pocket Guide to the Welsh Lan- guage (University of Wales Press paper- back, £5.99), a delightfully informative introduction to everything one always wanted to know about the history of the language, from the Dark Ages to Welsh television. And for the millennial note, what better than the Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus, edited by Henry C. Roberts (Thorsons, £6.99)? As they contin- ue to the end of the world in 3797 AD, there could be much to learn.

Patrick Skene Catling

Love informs some of the books I most admired/enjoyed this year. In The Horizon- tal Instrument (Doubleday, £10), Christo- pher Wilkins stylishly performs the feat of combining horological history with a tender romance doomed by presenile dementia.

After the phenomenal success of Longi- tude, Dava Sobel has published an equally fascinating scientific drama in Galileo's Daughter (Fourth Estate, £16.99). Sobel

'Kids today need more pocket money Dad. We've got more pockets.' enriched her account of the 17th-century astronomer's endurance of the Inquisition by quoting his daughter's supportive let- ters, which the author translated from the Italian. Immured since the age of 13 in a convent of the Poor Clares, Maria Celeste, as she called herself in honour of Galileo's special interest in the heavens, addresses her 'Most Illustrious Lord Father' in a moving series of expressions of filial devo- tion that helped to maintain the persecuted scientist's morale.

Nicholas Shakespeare's monumental biography of Bruce Chatwin (Harvill, £20) is a very nicely balanced assessment of the writer's incandescent literary career, immense charm and self-love, which he saw reflected in the eyes of countless lovers, male and female. Shakespeare anatomises the escapist compulsions that brought about Chatwin's frequent long separations from his angelically loyal wife Elizabeth, death by Aids at 48, and a legacy of bril- liantly imaginative books that inspire back- packers of all nations.

A lover of gardens, though not of gardening, I derived voyeuristic pleasure from a champagne-table book on 20 great Irish Gardens (Conran Octopus, £30), by Olda Fitzgerald, with photographs by Stephen Robson. As chatelaine of Glin castle, the author has become an expert horticulturalist and some of her friends are avid gardeners on a grand scale. Her text is informative yet informal. The photographs are gorgeous, gorgeously printed in China.

Petronella Wyatt

Eleanor of Aquitaine had always been my heroine. With flaming red hair, a sensa- tional brain and a sensational temper, she married first the French king and then left him for the younger Henry of Anjou who became Henry II of England. When Eleanor grew tired of Henry she conspired against him and was for a number of years under close arrest. Her favourite child was Richard the Lionheart and her least favourite the future King John. The sources on Eleanor, due to her being from the distaff side, are few. This made Alison Weir's new biography (Cape, £20) all the more impressive. It is very hard to write convincingly of a shadowy figure but, unlike Anne Wroe with Pontius Pilate, Weir mangages to breathe life into her sub- ject without resorting to overt metaphorical trickery and surplus 'background' pieces a sure giveway that the writer is struggling.

Andrew Roberts, the historian, had no such problem, rather the converse. Like Christmas, huge tomes on Victorian states- men come around once a year. Yet his Sal- isbury (Weidenfeld, £25) is in no way dry; it is a delicious plum. Rarely has Victorian politics seemed so relevant, immediate and lubriciously entertaining.

My third book is Geoffrey Owen's chron- icle of postwar British industry, From Empire to Europe (HarperCollins, £19.99). One would have thought that such a sub- ject offered as much excitement as watch- ing car parts dry, but Owen inveigles the reader into a world in which industry is endowed with a strange romance and semi- exotic fascination. Owen is informative, balanced and wise. If you want to read one serious book that will leave you with the feeling you have learnt something impor- tant, then this is it.


1999 was the year of the novel for me. I haven't read fiction in years, not since Salman Rushdie and his ilk became popu- lar. But the Buckleys, father and son, changed all that. William Buckley's The Red Hunter (Little, Brown, $25) is prodi- gious Bill's best novel by far. It is fact-and- fiction at its best, and Buckley sure knows his facts, having written a book on Senator Joe McCarthy long ago. Christopher Buck- ley's Little Green Men (Random House, $24.95, coming in March from Allison & Busby, £9.99) had me laughing out loud, a rarity in the age of Clinton. It's all about a Washington talk-show host abducted by aliens. Chris Buckley is America's top humorist, along with his friend P. J. O'Rourke, whose Eat the Rich (Picador, £16.99, £6.99) is a hilarious way to learn about economics.

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (Dou- bleday, £9.99) is an epic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, and it makes one proud to be Greek, and especially proud to be half-Spartan. A great read, as well as factual.

Pushkin's Button by Serena Vitale (Fourth Estate, £16.99) suffers in transla- tion, but is a wonderful book nevertheless. Everything comes from Pushkin where Russian literature is concerned, and the undercurrent of the decadence of the tsarist court held me spellbound. Last but not least is Blair's Britain by Hal Colebatch, an Australian poet and writer (The Clar- idge Press, £7.99). Colebatch charts the way in which New Labour has targeted every British cultural institution and how it is managing permanently and irrevocably to change it. Read it as a warning of things to come.

Bevis Hillier

'I think they're crazy,' A. J. P. Taylor said to me 40 years ago, when he was my history tutor at Magdalen, Oxford. He was refer- ring to those of his colleagues who were mediaevalists. He could not fathom the appeal of a subject for which the surviving sources were so limited and in which so much had to be done by guesswork. Influ- enced by him, I used to think that if I were a historian I would make the 18th century my province — a period before the sources become so prolific as to drown you (as in the Victorian age) and well after the Middle Ages, in which you have to peck around for scraps.

Two books this year have quite changed my thinking on mediaeval history. The first is Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (Cape, £20). This is the biography of an heiress who married first a king of France (Louis VII) and then a king of England (Henry II). At times she was effectively ruler of England; and she was the mother of two more English kings, Richard the Lionheart and John, and grandmother of a Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV. This was not a queen you messed with. 'Eleanor was outraged. She ordered that Anjou be laid waste as a punishment for its support of the usurper.'

All but four years of her long life were lived in the 12th century (1122-1204), so you might expect her biographer to be con- stantly speculating from slim pickings. On the contrary, Alison Weir is able to pin down the events of her life with chapter and verse, year by year, sometimes day by day; and when she writes, 'On .23 March, Richard [I], with Eleanor riding by his side, made a state entry into London', you don't have to flick back 15 maddening pages to find out that we are in 1194.

The only passage of protracted specula- tion is about a mural uncovered in 1964 at the chapel of Sainte-Radegonde at Chinon. Scything through the theories of earlier his- torians, Weir makes a convincing case that the painting shows Eleanor with Richard I. When you finish the book you feel you have been put painlessly (but not necessari- ly without tears) in possession of the facts about this extraordinary, indefatigable woman, her sufferings and triumphs, and with no special pleading or whiff of 'Women's Studies'. You could also draw up a calendar of the 12th century, filling in all the main developments on French and English soil.

The other excursion into mediaeval his- tory which has been a treat is Shakespeare's Kings by John Julius Norwich (Viking, £25). It was K. B. McFarlane — one of the Magdalen dons Taylor thought crazy who in his Ford Lectures commented on the (flawed)' excellence of Shakespeare as a historian. What Norwich does, with his usual skill, is first to record for us what actually happened to the kings who figure in Shakespeare's plays and then to show how Shakespeare transformed that materi- al into drama. Sometimes the playwright deliberately manipulates the facts for dra- matic effect (and here Norwich really seems to make Shakespeare's mind a pied- h-terre for chapters at a time); occasionally, of course, Shakespeare gets things wrong. The book is a fascinating exercise. It will be of value not just to people interested in mediaeval history but also to anybody thinking of writing a play on a historical subject.

Weir's book ends in the 13th century; Norwich's begins in the 14th; and in the 15th century began the Tudor period which was A. L. Rowse's speciality. My third choice this year is Richard 011ard's A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A. L. Rowse (Allen Lane, £20). It would have been easy to write about this cantankerous man the kind of book that J. T. Smith wrote about the sculptor Nollekens, Richard Aldington about T. E. Lawrence, or Sir William Emrys Williams about Allen Lane himself, emphasising the bad side — warts and little else. Sometimes, when opening one of the letters to me in Rowse's beautiful, clear hand, I thought, 'How can somebody so nearly mad have handwriting so sane?' Some of his flights of egocentricity were pure barminess, such as his trumpeting insistence on having identified, once for all, what Private Eye called 'the Dark Laddie of the Sonnets'. (011ard delightfully recalls how, virtually on his deathbed, Rowse said

to a nurse who smoothed his pillow, 'Thank you, Valerie.' It's not Valerie, it's Shirley.'

'Don't contradict ME.') But to my mind the author strikes a perfect balance between the Jekyll Rowse and the Hyde Rowse - the historian who could show the acutest empathy with Tudor figures and the cur- mudgeon who could blast colleagues with his black tantrums.

My only reservation is that, though 011ard repeats Rowse's opinion that his true life is revealed in his poems, he quotes hardly any of them; but still he gets to the buried sweetness of the man. Now we await with avidity (some of us with mild anxiety) the publication of the Rowse diaries, years hence. Not a Pepys, perhaps; but maybe a Henry Crabb Robinson — with the empha- sis on the crab?