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Selected highlights from the July 2014 issue:
Jane Ridley on Margot Asquith's First World War diary
OUR WOMAN IN NUMBER 10
This book has been over thirty years in the making. Back in 1982 Michael Brock and his wife Eleanor published an important edition of the letters Herbert Asquith wrote to Venetia Stanley while prime minister. Mark Bonham Carter, who owned Margot Asquith's papers, then asked the Brocks to prepare an edition of Margot's diaries. They fill twenty-two large volumes and provide an incredibly rich seam of society gossip and political intelligence from the inside. For decades people have been waiting for the Brocks to finish their work. Michael Brock died in April this year. Weeks after his ninety-fourth birthday he was still correcting the proofs of this book. Out of the mountain of Margot's papers there has appeared a mouse: one volume covering the two wartime years of Asquith's premiership. Read more.
Jonathan Meades on the cult of the 'modern'
The subtitular 'modern' demands qualification. This book does not address such peculiarly modern phenomena as the revival of religion and of justification by faith, the resurgence of regional accents, the idolisation of dull chefs and their fatuous foams, the triumph of halfwitted populism. Deyan Sudjic is, rather, in accord with the scurrying courtier Hugh Casson, one of his predecessors as a panjandrum of the architectural and design establishment, who talked of the modern 'in our specialised sense' - which means, very broadly, related to or derived from the modern movement, which is a century old (so not actually modern in a more mundane sense). In the milieu which Sudjic inhabits (and has partially created), a flat-roofed orthogonal white villa on stilts built in 1934 is modern in our specialised sense while an 'executive home' with leaded lights and fibreglass 'beams' built eighty years later is not. It is merely modern, sans quotes. This can be confusing. It is sufficient to propose that if Sudjic anoints an object or a design it is very likely to be modern in our specialised sense, thus very likely fit to figure in an exhibition at the Design Museum, of which he is the Director, cap D. Part of the appeal of this book resides in much of it feeling like a series of missives from an apostle of some hieratic cult - the Covenant of the Matt Black Gizmo, say. Each missive ends with a little homily. Read more.
Jonathan Rose on Victorian popular science
DIFFUSERS OF USEFUL KNOWLEDGE
For a moment in time, just before Victoria became queen, popular science seemed to offer answers to everything. Around 1830, revolutionary information technology - steam-powered presses and paper-making machines - made possible the dissemination of 'useful knowledge' to a mass public. At that point professional scientists scarcely existed as a class, but there were genteel amateur researchers who, with literary panache, wrote for a fascinated lay audience. Read more.
Karen Armstrong on Buddha across time and space
'What's so great about this guy?' an enraged woman demanded while I was promoting my biography of the Buddha in the United States. 'He's just some other lousy skunk who left his wife and kids.' It was a reasonable question and showed the importance of critical interpretation while reflecting on any narrative. In the earliest accounts of his decision to leave home and seek enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, does not seem to have a wife. He simply dons the yellow robe of the renouncer and bids farewell to his distraught parents. It is only in a later version that the Buddha takes a last, lingering look at his sleeping wife and newborn son. Read more.
John Gray on the unconventional philosopher Michael Oakeshott
LAST OF THE IDEALISTS
Michael Oakeshott was what in his youth would have been called a card. He was also one of the most original philosophers of his time. Throughout his long life - he died in 1990 in his ninetieth year - his tastes veered in directions not nowadays commonly associated with philosophy: he had an enduring preoccupation with religion and liked betting on horses. Unlike many academics he did not crave respectability, intellectual or otherwise; even by today's standards, his private life might be thought a bit rackety. But the life Oakeshott lived was not an unexamined one; it expressed an idea of individuality he found in the philosophers he most admired. As Luke O'Sullivan writes in his introduction to this immensely rich and superbly edited volume of the philosopher's notebooks, 'Oakeshott certainly seems to have done his best to live a life of radical moral individualism himself, though not, it must be said, without imposing considerable costs on some of those around him, particularly the women in his life.' Read more.
Jonathan Rée on Galileo's dangerous mathematical theories
THE NUMBER HERESY
Towards the end of 1609, Galileo Galilei got hold of a newfangled optical device and started pointing it at the night sky above Padua. The following year he published a book describing some of the discoveries he had made with the help of his wonderful telescope: that there are mountains on the moon, that Jupiter has four satellites, and that the Milky Way is not a formless cloud but a vast collection of separate stars. He also expressed sympathy for the idea, recently advocated by Copernicus, that the sun is the centre of the world and that the planets move in regular circles round it. The Catholic hierarchy was at first prepared to tolerate Galileo's claims, even though they were hard to reconcile with classical astronomy, scholastic philosophy and various passages in the Bible. But Galileo had a taste for controversy and, over the years, proclaimed his support for Copernicus with increasing fervour, taking pleasure in baiting the Jesuit teachers who had appointed themselves guardians of intellectual propriety in the Roman Church. He met his match in 1633, when he was put on trial in Rome, found guilty of heresy, and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Read more.
Philip Hoare on the Anthropocene - the deadly 'age of Man'
WHAT HAVE WE DONE?
The Anthropocene is perceived as a new geological era, succeeding the Holocene, a discrete age in which human beings have affected the world. Some scientists suggest it dates from the beginning of agriculture and human management of the land; some from the inception of the Industrial Revolution, which began to pump exponentially greater quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. And some source it to the middle of the last century: the dawn of a new nuclear age and the start of the 'Great Acceleration', which has witnessed an exponential increase in the exploitation of resources and extinction of species. Indeed, in her recent book, The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert notes that the legacy of our own species's brief reign on the planet will be a stratum the thickness of a cigarette paper. Read more.
Patricia Duncker on forgotten novels rediscovered
What happens to works that find their first audiences long after they were written? Writing in English is filled with Sleeping Beauties awakened hundreds of years after their creation to roars of eulogy. A century after her death, Emily Dickinson emerged as a heroine of queer studies, her ambiguous sexuality and radical texts treasured, admired and deciphered. Would Dickinson have been regarded as queer in her own circles? Was it perfectly acceptable in the 1860s to express excessive, passionate sentiments for another woman? And to send her flowers, accompanied by suggestive poems? Dickinson represented a radical intellectual challenge to conventional literary tastes in her lifetime; her writing waited for other readers, who read her work through the prism of their own concerns. Lost writing may sometimes disappear because the writers, or the language they use, do not fit the template of their age; and sometimes the literary works vanish because they were too much of their time to last into the future. Read more.
D J Taylor on The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher
It is a reviewer's cliché to say that you felt sorry for the blurb-writer. Nonetheless, having waded through the 200,000 or so words of Philip Hensher's new novel, attended gamely to its sprawling digressions, smiled at its neat ventriloquist's touch and puzzled over its exact significance, my heart went out to whichever harassed employee of Fourth Estate came up with 'a magnificent story of eccentricity, its struggle, its triumph, its influence'. It is not that this description isn't broadly accurate - in the same way that Tono-Bungay is a novel about patent medicines or A Question of Upbringing a book about going to Eton - merely that no twenty-word summary can quite do justice to the spectacle of Hensher in full, uninhibited flight: preening himself, indulging himself, patting himself on the back, meandering all over the place and yet, against very considerable odds, managing to emerge with the punter whole-heartedly on his side. Read more.
Jake Kerridge on In Love and War by Alex Preston
In Alex Preston's novels the vast, impersonal forces of history tend not to get much of a look-in: his interest is in showing us the human factor in the great disasters of our times. This Bleeding City, the debut in 2010 with which this bond-trader-turned-author made his name, skewered and dissected the City wide boys who were ultimately responsible for the recent financial unpleasantness. In Love and War, his third novel, sheds some light on the causes of the Second World War by asking what might have made certain intelligent English people of the 1930s become fascists. Read more.