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Minnesota Fates

Ferdinand Mount

12 October 1989
We Are Still Married 
by Garrison Keillor.
Faber, 330 pp., £11.99, September 1989, 0 571 14140 4
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... Modern American writers have taken to heart Thomas Wolfe’s warning that ‘you can’t go home again.’ These days, being American or being modern or both seems to demand recognition of exile. The writer has to say goodbye to his folks at the earliest opportunity. That is only the first stage in his education in the estrangements of our times. Indeed, such farewells are best got over with in his first book; if successful, the account of how he grew up and out of his small-town, small-minded origins will launch him into the literary world where, after majoring in alienation and/or anomie, he can set about facing the real challenges of a writer’s life: alcohol and alimony ...

A Life without a Jolt

Ferdinand Mount: M.R. James

26 January 2012
Collected Ghost Stories 
by M.R. James.
Oxford, 468 pp., £14.99, October 2011, 978 0 19 956884 0
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... He always comes on his own, this bachelor of antiquarian tastes. Sometimes he is a book dealer, more often an academic. He is a dry, crotchety character, not particularly sympathetic. He is usually on holiday, in East Anglia or an old town in France or Denmark. He is staying in an inn or a hotel, an uncongenial sort of place far from his familiar institutional comforts ...

When the Jaw-Jaw Failed

Miles Taylor: Company Rule in India

3 March 2016
The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 
by Ferdinand Mount.
Simon & Schuster, 784 pp., £12.99, January 2016, 978 1 4711 2946 9
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... of Low’s other descendants – and another of Cameron’s relatives – was ready to respond. Ferdinand Mount is the great-great-grandchild of John Low (and a cousin of the prime minister’s mother). In The Tears of the Rajas, he doesn’t try to set the family record straight, but blends the history of British India with the story of the Lows and ...

Masses and Classes

Ferdinand Mount: Gladstone

17 February 2005
The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer and Politics 
by David Bebbington.
Oxford, 331 pp., £55, March 2004, 0 19 926765 0
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... terms, his claims to have discovered the origins of the Christian narrative in the fables of Mount Olympus may have been ‘nonsense’, to quote Jowett. Anthropologists joined with orthodox clergymen in an unusual alliance against Gladstone’s thesis and his picturesque illustrations of it. It was absurd to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity had ...

Truffles for Potatoes

Ferdinand Mount: Little Rosebery

22 September 2005
Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil 
by Leo McKinstry.
Murray, 626 pp., £25, May 2005, 0 7195 5879 4
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... The schoolmaster William Johnson is remembered for three things, although not under that name. He wrote the most famous of all translations from Greek lyric verse, ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’; he wrote the words of the ‘Eton Boating Song’; and in a letter to Francis Warre-Cornish, another Eton schoolmaster, he wrote of his pupil, the future Lord Rosebery: ‘I would give you a piece of plate if you would get that lad to work; he is one of those who like the palm without the dust ...

Fraud Squad

Ferdinand Mount: Imposters

2 August 2007
The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation 
by Rohan McWilliam.
Continuum, 363 pp., £25, March 2007, 978 1 85285 478 2
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A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson 
by Frances Welch.
Short Books, 327 pp., £14.99, February 2007, 978 1 904977 71 1
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The Lost Prince: The Survival of Richard of York 
by David Baldwin.
Sutton, 220 pp., £20, July 2007, 978 0 7509 4335 2
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... Sir Roger Tichborne is my name, I’m seeking now for wealth and fame, They say that I was lost at sea, But I tell them ‘Oh dear, no, not me.’ This ballad, sung in procession when the Tichborne Claimant appeared at the Grand Amalgamated Demonstration of Foresters at Loughborough in August 1872, neatly compresses the story of the most celebrated of all late Victorian causes ...

‘Derek, please, not so fast’

Ferdinand Mount: Derek Jackson

7 February 2008
As I Was Going to St Ives: A Life of Derek Jackson 
by Simon Courtauld.
Michael Russell, 192 pp., £17.50, October 2007, 978 0 85955 311 7
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... In all the history of second-guessing in warfare, the Window affair is one of the most extraordinary. As early as 1934, Post Office engineers reported that passing aircraft could interfere with radio reception. Less than a year later, Robert Watson-Watt demonstrated by a simple experiment in a field outside Daventry that aircraft could be detected by radio ...

Adored Gazelle

Ferdinand Mount: Cherubino at Number Ten

20 March 2008
Balfour: The Last Grandee 
by R.J.Q. Adams.
Murray, 479 pp., £30, November 2007, 978 0 7195 5424 7
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... On a cycling holiday in Scotland A.C. Benson went to meet Arthur Balfour at Whittingehame. The prime minister was out practising on his private golf course. They saw him ‘approaching across the grass, swinging a golf club – in rough coat and waistcoat, the latter open; a cloth cap, flannel trousers; and large black boots, much too heavy and big for his willowy figure ...
24 September 2009
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome 
by Roland Chambers.
Faber, 390 pp., £20, August 2009, 978 0 571 22261 2
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... Assembly, a spectacle which moved him to write: ‘I tell you I walk these abominable, unswept, mountainously dirt-clogged, snow-clogged streets in exultation. It is like walking on Wetherlam or Dew Crags, with the future of mankind spreading before one like the foothills of the Lake Country.’ As soon as Lenin looked like winning, Ransome abandoned ...

Plonking

Ferdinand Mount: Edward Heath

22 July 2010
Edward Heath 
by Philip Ziegler.
Harper, 654 pp., £25, June 2010, 978 0 00 724740 0
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... At the end of his official biography of Lord Mountbatten 25 years ago, Philip Ziegler wrote: ‘There was a time when I became so enraged by what I began to feel was his determination to hoodwink me that I found it necessary to place on my desk a notice saying: REMEMBER, IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, HE WAS A GREAT MAN ...

Get off your knees

Ferdinand Mount: An Atheist in the House

30 June 2011
Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican 
by Bryan Niblett.
Kramedart, 391 pp., £19.99, January 2011, 978 0 9564743 0 8
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... He was ‘unquestionably a great and good man’. Who could forget ‘his gigantic stature, his warm temperament, his good health and good humour, his bull-necked obstinacy, his generous and open temper? … He had many enemies and fought them all with generosity … In the last glimpse of the enormous “Iconoclast”, he is a priest defending an altar ...

Lachrymatics

Ferdinand Mount: British Weeping

17 December 2015
Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears 
by Thomas Dixon.
Oxford, 438 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 0 19 967605 7
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... To weep or not to weep​ : that has always been a question, repeatedly posing itself, and never answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Crying is such a two-faced thing: on the one hand, we think of it as uncontrollable, like a flinch; we burst into tears, we are racked by sobs. But we know that crying can be wilful too, a deliberate demonstration to the world of how we feel, or how we would like others to think we feel ...

Parcelled Out

Ferdinand Mount: The League of Nations

21 October 2015
The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire 
by Susan Pedersen.
Oxford, 571 pp., £22.99, June 2015, 978 0 19 957048 5
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... I have often thought​ of writing a history of own goals. It would try to identify the factors common to the great boomerangs of the past: the conceit that mistakes itself for cunning, the refusal to consider possible ricochets and reverberations, the baffled indignation when you see the ball hit the back of your own net. A delicious own goal was scored recently by the Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership in the hope that he would draw off left-wing votes from the opponents of the candidate they actually wanted – which he did, and how! The most epoch-making own goal I can think of was scored by the German high command when it conveyed Lenin back to Russia in that sealed train ...

Nigels against the World

Ferdinand Mount: The EU Referendum

18 May 2016
... The Leavers​ don’t seem to have much clue about what is to happen afterwards. Curious, considering so many of them have spent their adult lives agitating for this moment. Their approach appears to be a version of Napoleon’s battle strategy: ‘On se dégage, et puis on voit.’ What exactly is Out supposed to entail? How do they picture Britain’s relationship with the EU, and with the rest of the world, after they’ve secured a vote for Exit on 23 June? That’s far from clear, not least because of the bad blood between the rival Leave organisations ...

Lumpers v. Splitters

Ferdinand Mount: How to Build an Empire

30 March 2016
British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t 
by Bernard Porter.
I.B. Tauris, 216 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 1 78453 445 5
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Heroic Failure and the British 
by Stephanie Barczewski.
Yale, 267 pp., £20, February 2016, 978 0 300 18006 0
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... Those​ who make many species are the “splitters” and those who make few are the “lumpers”,’ Charles Darwin wrote in 1857 to his friend, the great botanist Joseph Hooker. This first recorded appearance of the handy distinction between those who bundle up the data into one big theory and those who prefer to lay out the exhibits on the table in carefully separated heaps has since spread from scientific classification into literary studies, philosophy, and above all, into historiography, most notably perhaps in J ...

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