The Penguin History of Europe by J M Roberts, Penguin pounds 11.99. I have a friend who thinks herself a thickie because she has never been able to read a proper history book. I tell her she's been reading the wrong sort and I shall buy this brilliant synthesis for her right away. "Human beings make history and sometimes do so consciously. They can only do so, nevertheless, with materials they find to hand": thus the story starts with climate and topography, in the neolithic age. "Including that of the Russian empire, the population of Europe more than doubled in the 19th century": at bottom, wealth is made by populations. That's why Europe ruled the early-modern era, and one reason it is failing to rule the world today. Questions are certainly begged by Roberts's analysis of why European culture started its slow modern disintegration, but they are all interesting ones. Like France's Braudel and Britain's Eric Hobsbawm, Roberts collages a vast array of sources and methods with the inspired hand of an artist. The result is a lucid, dramatic, utterly engaging read.
Travels with Virginia Woolf ed Jan Morris, Pimlico pounds 10. What was it about Virginia and turnips? "Not a turnip grows in the Highlands" (from a letter to Vanessa Bell, 1938). "Between the acts, one goes and sits in a field, and watches a man growing turnips ... I think earnest people only go - Germans for the most part, in sacks" (bored out of her mind during Parsifal at Bayreuth, 1909. Her dislike deepened to horror the next time she visited Germany, with the Jewish Leonard, in 1935). As Jan Morris says in her introduction, no one was ever less of a travel writer than La Woolf. This book is accordingly collated from scrappy, personal sources, with Morris's own impressions of hotels visited stuck in to fill the gaps. "I cannot pretend," writes Morris, "that I was one of VW's greatest admirers. In the course of the task, however, I found ... a personality I grew truly fond of." I cannot pretend that I am not getting fed up of VW books, and the Bloomsbury industry in general. And yet, Morris's lively, unusually hands-on selection almost made me change my mind.
Darkest England by Christopher Hope, Picador pounds 6.99. The Karoo nomads of southern Africa are in trouble. The blacks and whites between them have stolen all their land. But they have a promissory note from Queen Victoria, or, as they call her, "the Old Auntie with Diamonds in her Hair". And so, young David Mungo Booi is sent to present-day Britain to claim what is rightfully his. He dons a polyester suit with a Man About Town label on its sleeve. On arrival at the mighty Heathrow aerodrome he is escorted to await Her Majesty's pleasure by black-helmeted officers of the Queen's Peace, delighted to be acknowledged by the Brits as a "seeker". Except that he's only allowed to seek "asylum", and eventually, it is to an "asylum" he will go. Hope's satirical fury is unmistakable, and he has a cleverly Martian eye for the racism and illogic of British institutions - but there is something about the pathos with which he renders his doughty noble savage which is both sentimental and cold. The joke ends long before the book does.
One of the Boys: though he began and ended his life in Yorkshire, the inventive watercolourist Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913) is most associated with the "Glasgow Boys", artists who were active at the end of the last century in and around that city. They reacted against fashionable high- gloss anecdotal pictures and aimed for a looser and lighter approach, with considerable success: in 1928 a Crawhall gouache was sold for pounds 750, a Degas pastel for pounds 400. Vivien Hamilton's book Joseph Crawhall (John Murray pounds 20) displays the scope of his work, much of it based on nature, animals and the outdoors, as well as his travels to Tangier. Above: Lady with trap, c1886Reuse content