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Trouble down there

Ferdinand Mount: Tea with Sassoon, 7 August 2003

Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet 1886-1918 
by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.
Duckworth, 600 pp., £9.99, September 2002, 0 7156 2894 1
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Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches 1918-67 
by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.
Duckworth, 526 pp., £30, April 2003, 0 7156 2971 9
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Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil 
by Peter Stansky.
Yale, 295 pp., £25, April 2003, 0 300 09547 3
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... My father had no gun, or any land to shoot over. So when he decided that it was time for me, then aged 15 or 16, to learn how to shoot, he had to cadge. We borrowed an old 12-bore from a local farmer, a rickety weapon the lock, stock and barrel of which were barely connected, and my father then asked his neighbour, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived in the next village, whether we could loose off a few cartridges in his woods ...

All the Sad Sages

Ferdinand Mount: Bagehot, 6 February 2014

Memoirs of Walter Bagehot 
by Frank Prochaska.
Yale, 207 pp., £18.99, August 2013, 978 0 300 19554 5
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... There used to be a room in the National Portrait Gallery devoted to portraits of late Victorian sages by G.F. Watts. Inspissated in that painter’s incurably muddy tones, they peered out from behind straggly beards and whiskers with sad, rheumy eyes – Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Swinburne, William Morris, Leslie Stephen, Tennyson – giving off a steamy despair ...

Living with Monsters

Ferdinand Mount: PMs v. the Media, 22 April 2010

Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v. the Media 
by Lance Price.
Simon & Schuster, 498 pp., £20, February 2010, 978 1 84737 253 6
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... One of the odder political books I have read is The Abuse of Power, by James Margach, the veteran lobby correspondent of the Sunday Times. Published in 1978, the book was subtitled with a flourish: ‘The war between Downing Street and the media from Lloyd George to Callaghan’. For 40 years and more, Margach had enjoyed the confidence of prime ministers ...

Back to Runnymede

Ferdinand Mount: Magna Carta, 23 April 2015

Magna Carta 
by David Carpenter.
Penguin, 594 pp., £10.99, January 2015, 978 0 241 95337 2
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Magna Carta Uncovered 
by Anthony Arlidge and Igor Judge.
Hart, 222 pp., £25, October 2014, 978 1 84946 556 4
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Magna Carta 
by J.C. Holt.
Cambridge, 488 pp., £21.99, May 2015, 978 1 107 47157 3
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Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015 
by Nicholas Vincent.
Third Millennium, 192 pp., £44.95, January 2015, 978 1 908990 28 0
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Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter 
by Dan Jones.
Head of Zeus, 192 pp., £14.99, December 2014, 978 1 78185 885 1
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... George Cony​ , a London merchant, had once been a friend of Oliver Cromwell. But when the Lord Protector slapped a tax on silk imports without the consent of Parliament, Mr Cony protested that this was the sort of arbitrary behaviour for which Cromwell had lambasted the late king, and demanded that the unjust tax be repaid to him. Cromwell first tried to browbeat Cony into submission, then threw him in prison ...

They would have laughed

Ferdinand Mount: The Massacre at Amritsar, 4 April 2019

Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre 
by Kim A. Wagner.
Yale, 325 pp., £20, February 2019, 978 0 300 20035 5
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... Thirty seconds​ after he first entered the Jallianwala Bagh, he ordered his men to open fire. There was no word of warning to the crowd, not a gesture. ‘My mind was made up as I came along in my motor car. If my orders were not obeyed, I would open fire immediately.’ After a bit, Sergeant Anderson, General Dyer’s personal bodyguard, ‘noticed that Captain Briggs was drawing up his face as if in pain, and was plucking at the general’s elbow ...

Wedded to the Absolute

Ferdinand Mount: Enoch Powell, 26 September 2019

Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain 
by Paul Corthorn.
Oxford, 233 pp., £20, August 2019, 978 0 19 874714 7
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... C of E as a hallowed component of Englishness than because of any sympathy with the Sermon on the Mount. Reviewing Douglas-Home’s memoirs, he could not help sneering at the Scottish squire’s naive acceptance of ‘the simple message of Christ’. Nietzsche, I fancy, would have felt the same about Sir Alec. Heffer argues plausibly that, later still, Powell ...

That Disturbing Devil

Ferdinand Mount: Land Ownership, 8 May 2014

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership 
by Andro Linklater.
Bloomsbury, 482 pp., £20, January 2014, 978 1 4088 1574 8
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... In this case,​ the elephant is the room. There can be few enormous subjects more often dodged than the space we occupy on the surface of the earth. Land ownership – its many modes, its distribution, its history – is the great ignored in politics today, gingerly taken up if at all and quickly put down again in favour of more fashionable topics: capitalism, urbanisation, democracy, industrialisation, the role of the state ...

No Theatricks

Ferdinand Mount: Burke, 21 August 2014

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: from the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence 
by David Bromwich.
Harvard, 500 pp., £25, May 2014, 978 0 674 72970 4
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Moral Imagination: Essays 
by David Bromwich.
Princeton, 350 pp., £19.95, March 2014, 978 0 691 16141 9
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... You could not​ stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.’ Dr Johnson’s remark on Edmund Burke, related in one of Hester Thrale’s anecdotes, is unforgettable. The greatest Tory of the 18th century takes off his hat and makes the lowest possible bow to the much younger Irish Whig (Burke’s dates are 1729-97, Johnson’s 1709-84 ...

Umbrageousness

Ferdinand Mount: Staffing the Raj, 7 September 2017

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India 
by Shashi Tharoor.
Hurst, 295 pp., £20, March 2017, 978 1 84904 808 8
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The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise 
by Kartar Lalvani.
Bloomsbury, 433 pp., £25, March 2016, 978 1 4729 2482 7
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India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire 
by Jon Wilson.
Simon & Schuster, 564 pp., £12.99, August 2017, 978 1 4711 0126 7
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... I believe as strongly as I believe anything that you oughtn’t to go. Have you thought enough of the horror of the solitude and the wretchedness of every single creature out there and the degrading influences of those years away from civilisation? I’ve had experience – I’ve seen my brothers and what’s happened to them, and it’s sickening to think of ...

Après Brexit

Ferdinand Mount, 20 February 2020

... For​ Leavers at least, the morning of 1 February ought to have been like ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’ (though, come to think of it, that didn’t go so well the first time). For Remainers, it was always going to be a case of ‘ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain,/On the bald street breaks the blank day.’ What was surprising, then, was that some Leavers too were a little fractious ...

You are a milksop

Ferdinand Mount, 7 May 2020

Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate 
by Paul Lay.
Head of Zeus, 352 pp., £30, January 2020, 978 1 78185 256 9
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... Come, come, I will put an end to your prating.’ Then, walking up and down the House of Commons like a madman, and kicking the ground with his feet, he cries out, ‘You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament, I will put an end to your sitting. Call them in, call them in.’ The Serjeant opens the doors and two files of musketeers tramp into the House ...

The Seducer

Ferdinand Mount: De Gaulle, 2 August 2018

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle 
by Julian Jackson.
Allen Lane, 887 pp., £35, June 2018, 978 1 84614 351 9
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... We went down​ to the beach quite early. The other families staying at St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the summer of 1951 were mostly French. Several of them had those early portable radios, chunky wooden boxes covered in rexine (I had just been given a dark-green one for my 12th birthday but had left it at home). We had not been on the beach long before the radios seemed to be squawking louder than usual, and there was a strange commotion around us ...

Too Obviously Cleverer

Ferdinand Mount: Harold Macmillan, 8 September 2011

Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan 
by D.R. Thorpe.
Pimlico, 887 pp., £16.99, September 2011, 978 1 84413 541 7
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The Macmillan Diaries Vol. II: Prime Minister and After 1957-66 
edited by Peter Catterall.
Macmillan, 758 pp., £40, May 2011, 978 1 4050 4721 0
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... The first thing about Harold Macmillan was his bravery, and it was the last thing too. In the Great War he was wounded five times, at the Battle of Loos and at the Somme. At Delville Wood he was hit in the thigh and pelvis and rolled down into a large shell-hole, where he lay for the next ten hours, alternately dosing himself with morphine and reading Aeschylus ...

Ruthless and Truthless

Ferdinand Mount: Rotten Government, 6 May 2021

The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism 
by Peter Oborne.
Simon and Schuster, 192 pp., £12.99, February 2021, 978 1 3985 0100 3
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Political Advice: Past, Present and Future 
edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose.
I.B. Tauris, 240 pp., £21.99, February 2021, 978 1 83860 120 1
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... There was​ always something a little weird about the scene: the heavy lectern hurriedly dragged out into the street from behind the famous front door, as though the premises were suddenly out of action because of flood damage or a bomb threat; on the other side of the road, the hacks and the pap pack awkwardly mustered and jostling for position. And the statement itself, all too obviously scrabbled together by some sleep-deprived spad, failing to match the historic significance of the occasion – an election lost or won, a leader toppled or triumphant ...

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