Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Peter Clarke

  • The Pleasures of the Past by David Cannadine
    Collins, 338 pp, £17.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 00 215664 4

Sometimes in the London Review of Books I find the sort of review that grabs me by the throat: a review that bowls me over, staggers and stuns me, dazes and dumbfounds me, astounds and astonishes me – in short, exhausts the thesaurus to impress me no end (do wonders, work miracles, surpass belief, beggar all description and beat everything). Then again, in the New York Review of Books I sometimes discover this same dash and élan, this zest and vim, this fire and mettle, this fizz and verve, this pep and go, this vehemence and violence, this thrust and push and kick and punch. What livewire or quicksilver – dynamo or dynamite – can be responsible for such truly transatlantic triumphs? Is it a bird, is it a plane? Well, as often as not, it turns out to be David Cannadine – easily mistaken for a plane, of course, because, as he confides in this volume of collected reviews, ‘not a few were pondered and drafted in mid-air.’ Now that this brilliant brain has dramatically drained, from Christ’s College, Cambridge to Columbia, and has lingeringly looked on the Last of England from the Heathrow departure lounge, he leaves us with a welcome reminder of what we have lost – and of the fact, too, that this is surely not the last of Cannadine.

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[*] The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, edited by Elizabeth Longford (Oxford, 546 pp., £15, 20 April, 0 19 214153 8), spans the centuries, from Boudicca to the present incumbent. It is a well-presented anthology which contains a few anecdotes which would be worth telling about anybody and many more which are breathlessly dependent on being about Somebody. If one likes this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing one likes.