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Strange Little Woman

Ferdinand Mount: First and Only Empress, 22 November 2018

Empress: Queen Victoria and India 
by Miles Taylor.
Yale, 388 pp., £25, August 2018, 978 0 300 11809 4
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Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent 
by Emily Hannam.
Royal Collections Trust, 256 pp., £45, June 2018, 978 1 909741 45 4
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Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-76 
by Kajal Meghani.
Royal Collections Trust, 216 pp., £29.95, March 2017, 978 1 909741 42 3
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... Fid. Def; Ind. Imp.​ Were there ever two more outrageous inscriptions on our coinage? Henry VIII remained defender of that particular faith for all of nine years, before Pope Leo X revoked the title he had himself conferred and excommunicated the defecting monarch. The claim was rebooted by a Protestant Parliament in 1544, but it was not quite the same, to say the least ...

Nigels against the World

Ferdinand Mount: The EU Referendum, 19 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 ...

Parcelled Out

Ferdinand Mount: The League of Nations, 22 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 ...

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 ...

Superman Falls to Earth

Ferdinand Mount: Boris Johnson’s First Year, 2 July 2020

... Precaution​ and continence, as we know, are not qualities that characterise Boris Johnson in any sphere of his life. On 3 February, as a prelude to the Brexit trade talks, he gave a speech in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. It was a hymn to the glories of free trade and the spirit of Adam Smith, almost as baroque as James Thornhill’s enormous ceiling with its allegories of Time Exposing Truth and other desirable outcomes ...

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 ...

Easy-Going Procrastinators

Ferdinand Mount: Margot Asquith’s War, 8 January 2015

Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-16: The View from Downing Street 
edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock, selected by Eleanor Brock.
Oxford, 566 pp., £30, June 2014, 978 0 19 822977 3
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Margot at War: Love And Betrayal In Downing Street, 1912-16 
by Anne de Courcy.
Weidenfeld, 376 pp., £20, November 2014, 978 0 297 86983 2
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The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush To War, 1914 
by Douglas Newton.
Verso, 386 pp., £20, July 2014, 978 1 78168 350 7
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... hot to fight for it. Clark demonstrates beyond any doubt that the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was no random outrage, but an operation carefully planned by the higher reaches of the Serbian security service, certainly including its chief, the notorious ‘Apis’, and no doubt with a nod from the elusive, unstoppable prime minister, Nikola ...

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 ...

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 ...

The Doctrine of Unripe Time

Ferdinand Mount: The Fifties, 16 November 2006

Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties 
by Peter Hennessy.
Allen Lane, 740 pp., £30, October 2006, 0 7139 9571 8
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... When did decaditis first strike? When did people begin to think that slicing the past up into periods of ten years was a useful thing to do? Historians used to deal in reigns and centuries, and it had long been agreed that these might have their own distinctive flavour, including the one that you happened to be living in – Tennyson in 1846 referred, ironically, to ‘a noble 19th-centuryism ...

Double-Barrelled Dolts

Ferdinand Mount: Mosley’s Lost Deposit, 6 July 2006

Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism 
by Stephen Dorril.
Viking, 717 pp., £30, April 2006, 0 670 86999 6
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Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism between the Wars 
by Martin Pugh.
Pimlico, 387 pp., £8.99, March 2006, 1 84413 087 8
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... It is 26 years since Oswald Mosley breathed his last at the Temple de la Gloire, the athletic frame which he had once so proudly flexed now sadly bloated, his piercing eyes shrunk to peepholes, the sinister moustache long shaven. It is 66 years since Churchill brought his serious political career to an abrupt end by interning him in Brixton jail. Yet Mosley never quite stops haunting us ...

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 ...

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 ...

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