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Brocaded

Robert Macfarlane: The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher, 4 April 2002

The Mulberry Empire 
by Philip Hensher.
Flamingo, 560 pp., £17.99, April 2002, 0 00 711226 2
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... pleasure: narcotic, sexual, fiscal – it has not been a particularly auspicious one either. For Robert Louis Stevenson, literary impersonation wasn’t only an essential tutelary tool but also a way for mature authors to widen their range. Out of imitation, Stevenson felt, could spring originality: pastiche was an indispensable way to harness what he called ...

Read it on the autobahn

Robert Macfarlane: Vanishing Victorians, 18 December 2003

The Discovery of Slowness 
by Sten Nadolny, translated by Ralph Freedman.
Canongate, 311 pp., £10.99, September 2003, 1 84195 403 9
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... John Franklin (1786-1847) was the most famous vanisher of the Victorian era. He joined the Navy as a midshipman at the age of 14, and fought in the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. When peace with the French broke out, he turned his attention to Arctic exploration, and in particular to solving the conundrum of the Northwest Passage, the mythical clear-water route which would, if it existed, link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans above the northern coast of the American continent ...

Seven Miles per Hour

Robert Macfarlane: The men who invented flight, 5 February 2004

First to Fly: The Unlikely Triumph of Wilbur and Orville Wright 
by James Tobin.
Murray, 431 pp., £9.99, November 2003, 0 7195 5738 0
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The Wright Brothers: The Aviation Pioneers who Changed the World 
by Ian Mackersey.
Little, Brown, 554 pp., £20, October 2003, 0 316 86144 8
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Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight 
by Paul Hoffman.
Fourth Estate, 369 pp., £18.99, June 2003, 1 84115 368 0
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Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity to the First World War 
by Richard Hallion.
Oxford, 531 pp., £20, September 2003, 0 19 516035 5
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... the Armistice, 15,000 British, French and German airmen had died in combat. Among them was Major Robert Gregory, about whom Yeats wrote ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, a poem more than half in love with the tragic joy of flight (‘I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above’). Wilbur Wright died of typhus in 1912, but ...

Errant Pinkies

Robert Macfarlane, 1 June 2000

Waiting 
by Ha Jin.
Heinemann, 308 pp., £10, May 2000, 0 434 00914 8
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... Ha Jin’s Waiting, a love story set in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, won last year’s US National Book Award for Fiction, and has just received the less munificent, but classier, PEN/Faulkner Award. Dubbed, then, on both shoulders – once by the book-buying public, once by the literati. This is surprising, given that in places the novel is strikingly badly written ...

Mao Badges and Rocket Parts

Robert Macfarlane, 23 August 2001

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress 
by Dai Sijie, translated by Ina Rilke.
Chatto, 208 pp., £10, June 2001, 0 7011 6982 6
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The Drink and Dream Teahouse 
by Justin Hill.
Weidenfeld, 344 pp., £12.99, March 2001, 0 297 64697 4
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... It was said that The Little Red Book had ‘supplied the breath of life to soldiers gasping in the thin air of the Tibetan plateau; enabled workers to raise the sinking city of Shanghai three-quarters of an inch; inspired a million people to subdue a tidal wave in 1969, a group of housewives to reinvent shoe polish, and surgeons to sew back severed fingers and remove a 99 pound tumour as big as a football ...

The Nominated Boy

Robert Macfarlane: The Panchen Lama, 29 November 2001

The Search for the Panchen Lama 
by Isabel Hilton.
Penguin, 336 pp., £7.99, August 2001, 0 14 024670 3
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... The Tibetan Government presently sits in exile in McLeod Ganj, a small town outside Dharamsala separated from Tibet itself by the ramparts of the Himalayas. The Dalai Lama escaped there in 1959, after a major uprising against the Chinese occupation. A microcosm of old Lhasa has formed in the town around the nucleus of the Dalai Lama: schools teach in Tibetan and English, there are various government ministries, a national library, a troupe which preserves and performs Tibetan dances and songs ...

Chucky, Hirple, Clart

David Craig: Robert Macfarlane, 23 September 2015

Landmarks 
by Robert Macfarlane.
Hamish Hamilton, 387 pp., £20, March 2015, 978 0 241 14653 8
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... This book​ is almost parodically characteristic of Robert Macfarlane’s work. He is a scholar of place – of terrain, terroir, the land – and at times references, sources and citations have bulked uncomfortably large in his writing. Certainly he frequents the countryside at close quarters and often strenuously ...

Dykes, Drongs, Sarns, Snickets

David Craig: Walking England, 20 December 2012

The English Lakes: A History 
by Ian Thompson.
Bloomsbury, 343 pp., £16.99, March 2012, 978 1 4088 0958 7
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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot 
by Robert Macfarlane.
Hamish Hamilton, 432 pp., £20, June 2012, 978 0 241 14381 0
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... were resettled in a ‘model’ village along with their forebears’ gravestones. By contrast Robert Macfarlane’s accounts are nothing if not first-hand. He is a literary scholar who has spent many hundreds of hours walking in England and the Scottish Highlands, in Spain, Palestine and Tibet. His aim here is to describe some of his most memorable ...

At the Shore

Inigo Thomas, 30 August 2018

... third, there is an infinite number of gradations.’ The new edition, which has an introduction by Robert Macfarlane, has an illustrated gate-post cover showing a variety of pebbles: a piece of amber from the Suffolk coast, a fragment of jet from the Yorkshire coast near Whitby. Nothing is static about a shoreline. Ancient glaciers made and carried ...

A Lone Enraptured Male

Kathleen Jamie: The Cult of the Wild, 6 March 2008

The Wild Places 
by Robert Macfarlane.
Granta, 340 pp., £18.99, September 2007, 978 1 86207 941 0
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... occasionally dangerous, peopled by ghosts – miners’ wives or the wandering monks who capture Robert Macfarlane’s imagination in the opening pages of his book. Our push and shove with the land is far from over; in fact you might consider the whole present consumerist extravaganza to be rage against the land, the ties that bind.All of this is ...

The Method of Drifting

Ian Patterson: John Craske, 9 September 2015

Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske 
by Julia Blackburn.
Cape, 344 pp., £25, April 2015, 978 0 224 09776 5
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... as well as the subject – an approach she shares with the new breed of nature writers, such as Robert Macfarlane and Helen MacDonald, whose propensity for walking allows plenty of space for associative thinking and oblique connections. It also reflects habits of thought of which hyperlinking and googling are part. Sometimes, as in the work of Iain ...

It took a Scot

Colin Kidd: English Nationalism, 29 July 2015

The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century 
by George Molyneaux.
Oxford, 302 pp., £65, May 2015, 978 0 19 871791 1
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The English and Their History 
by Robert Tombs.
Allen Lane, 1012 pp., £14.99, June 2015, 978 0 14 103165 1
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Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery: Britain and Ireland 1066-1485 
by John Gillingham.
Vintage, 345 pp., £10.99, October 2014, 978 0 09 956324 2
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From Restoration to Reform: The British Isles 1660-1832 
by Jonathan Clark.
Vintage, 364 pp., £10.99, October 2014, 978 0 09 956323 5
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Britain since 1900: A Success Story? 
by Robert Skidelsky.
Vintage, 472 pp., £10.99, October 2014, 978 0 09 957239 8
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... as being in the territory of the English. England has never existed in isolation. According to Robert Tombs, it has existed as itself only for a couple of relatively brief periods in its long history, ‘between Alfred and Cnut, and again (though by then including Wales) under the Tudors’. It has more often existed as part of a larger multinational state ...

Why Mr Fax got it wrong

Roy Porter: Population history, 5 March 1998

English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837 
by E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Davies.
Cambridge, 657 pp., £60, July 1997, 0 521 59015 9
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The Savage Wars of Peace: England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap 
by Alan Macfarlane.
Blackwell, 427 pp., £45, May 1997, 0 631 18117 2
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... two hundred years ago this year, An Essay on the Principle of Population made the Rev. Thomas Robert malthus into the man of the moment. Malthus’s principle – that population inevitably outruns food resources – was heralded by some as the decisive scientific refutation of the mad perfectibilist schemes of the French Revolutionaries and their English ...

Brutish Babies

David Wootton: Witchcraft, 11 November 1999

Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night 
by Wolfgang Behringer, translated by H.C.Erik Midelfort.
Virginia, 203 pp., £14.50, September 1998, 0 8139 1853 7
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Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe 
by Stuart Clark.
Oxford, 845 pp., £25, October 1999, 0 19 820001 3
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Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England 
by Alan Macfarlane.
Routledge, 368 pp., £55, April 1999, 0 415 19611 6
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The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Football, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of England 
by James Sharpe.
Profile, 256 pp., £16.99, November 1999, 9781861970480
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... begins with a series of books published nearly thirty years ago by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Alan Macfarlane, Keith Thomas and Erik Midelfort. Until very recently, however, it was the history of trials on the Continent alone that seemed a lively subject, and in 1996 Diane Purkiss could still properly complain of ‘the torpor of English witchcraft ...

On the imagining of conspiracy

Christopher Hitchens, 7 November 1991

Harlot’s Ghost 
by Norman Mailer.
Joseph, 1122 pp., £15.99, October 1991, 0 7181 2934 2
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A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs 
by Theodore Draper.
Hill and Wang, 690 pp., $27.95, June 1991, 0 8090 9613 7
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... a cake and a Bible to Tehran to discuss an arms-for-hostages trade with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Robert Macnamara went to a briefing on Cuba believing that it was more than likely that he would not live through the weekend. The Central Intelligence Agency was caught, in collusion with the Mafia, plotting to poison Fidel Castro’s cigars. Ronald Reagan’s ...

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