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The Dwarves and the Onion Domes

Ferdinand Mount: Those Pushy Habsburgs, 24 September 2020

The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power 
by Martyn Rady.
Allen Lane, 397 pp., £30, May, 978 0 241 33262 7
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... handicapped heirs. The Spanish Habsburg line expired on the death of the hermaphrodite Charles II. Ferdinand I of Austria suffered from hydrocephalus and crippling epilepsy, which prevented him from reigning effectively – he was forced to abdicate in the revolution of 1848. If you were a member of this increasingly inbred family, you were lucky to escape ...

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 ...

Short Cuts

Ferdinand Mount: Untilled Fields, 1 July 2021

... This is certain – for I have noted it several times – some parts of England are becoming almost as lonesome as the African veld.’ This was Rider Haggard’s conclusion after two years’ gruelling travel across the farming counties of England in 1901 and 1902. Only the odd Irish tinker trudged the dusty roads. Thistles and rushes invaded the untilled fields ...

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 ...

To the End of the Line

Ferdinand Mount: The Red Dean, 26 April 2012

The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson 
by John Butler.
Scala, 292 pp., £16.95, September 2011, 978 1 85759 736 3
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... In his prime, Dr Hewlett Johnson was one of the most famous men in the world. Almost from the moment he was made dean of Canterbury in 1931, he became instantly recognisable everywhere as the Red Dean. His faith in the Communist Party, and in Stalin in particular, was unshakeable. Purges and famines, executions and persecutions passed him by. Though he never saw the need actually to join the Party, he remained a tankie to the last, until he was finally winkled out of the deanery in 1963, when he was pushing ninety ...

‘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 ...

The Importance of Being Ernie

Ferdinand Mount, 5 November 2020

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill 
by Andrew Adonis.
Biteback, 352 pp., £20, July, 978 1 78590 598 8
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... Sir​ Nicholas Henderson was British ambassador almost everywhere that mattered – Bonn, Paris, Washington. He met all the great personalities of the second half of the 20th century. Yet in conversation he reverted, time and again, to the few years he spent in his twenties as assistant private secretary to Ernest Bevin. It wasn’t simply the stories that Bevin told and the stories he provoked, with his famous dropped aitches, his heroic drinking and his apparently naive malapropisms: ‘If you open that Pandora’s Box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out ...

Great Sums of Money

Ferdinand Mount: Swingeing Taxes, 21 October 2021

The Dreadful Monster and Its Poor Relations: Taxing, Spending and the United Kingdom, 1707-2021 
by Julian Hoppit.
Allen Lane, 324 pp., £25, May, 978 0 241 43442 0
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... You  were so generous, you British,’ Hans-Dietrich Genscher, West Germany’s perpetual foreign minister in the 1980s, once remarked: ‘You gave us a decentralised federal structure and a proportional system of election so that never again could we concentrate power at the centre, but you took neither of these for yourselves.’ Canadians and Australians could say much the same: the entrenched powers of their provinces and states remain the lynchpins of the remarkably successful federal systems bequeathed by their former colonial masters (the same is true, to a lesser extent, of the more centralised Indian constitution ...

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 ...

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 ...

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.’ At the end of his authorised biography of Edward Heath, Ziegler writes: ‘He was a great man, but his blemishes, though far less considerable, were quite as conspicuous as his virtues, and it is too often by his blemishes that he is remembered ...

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 ...

Lumpers v. Splitters

Ferdinand Mount: How to Build an Empire, 31 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 ...

Lord Cardigan’s Cherry Pants

Ferdinand Mount: The benefits of the Crimean War, 20 May 2004

The Crimean War: The Truth behind the Myth 
by Clive Ponting.
Chatto, 379 pp., £20, March 2004, 0 7011 7390 4
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... In his tactless German way, Prince Albert pulled no punches: ‘We have no general staff or staff corps, no field commissariat, no field army department; no ambulance corps, no baggage train, no corps of drivers, no corps of artisans; no practice or possibility of acquiring it, in the combined use of the three arms, cavalry, infantry and artillery.’ The merest subaltern at the front could see what was wrong ...

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