Sunday 05 January 1997
Letters 1951-1964 by John Betjeman, ed Candida Lycett-Green, Minerva pounds 7.99. Betjeman was a jovial figure, to himself as much as to audiences of the TV films that turned him into a national celebrity (and also did more, incidentally, to heighten our general awareness of old buildings than any other book, film or programme). But at the same time a deep vein of melancholy ran through the poet and this, from time to time, he liked others to glimpse. This sadness and self- doubt is often revealed, like a shy secret, in these letters selected from the latter half of Betjeman's life, when he was writing 30 of them a day. Yet what is most to be seen and enjoyed are his qualities of enthusiasm, kindness, friendship and good-humoured self-deprecation. The editor's notes are suffused with affection for her father: no hint here of a nasty side to the Poet Laureate. It isn't that he was above sly, usually humorous digs at others; more that, unlike his friend Evelyn Waugh, he had neither a talent nor any great enthusiasm for spite and contumely.
African Exodus by Chris Stringer & Robin McKie, Pimlico pounds 12.50. It is generally accepted now, after the "controversial" work of the Leakeys in the 1960s, that the ground-dwelling primates from whom we evolved originated in Africa. But palaeoanthropology is too close to the mental hotspots of religion and racial difference to be a sea of tranquillity. Today, the in-fighting centres on whether these hominids came out of Africa before or after they'd evolved into recognisable humans. This book, by a staffer from the Natural History Museum and the science editor of the Observer, gives a robust defence of the theory that the biped who wafted like a plague through the Middle East, Asia and Europe had already developed intelligence, language and sophisticated tool-use before he left. When he met groups of earlier hominid migrators from Africa, such as the Neanderthals, he was in a position effortlessly to outclass them in the survival stakes.
Days of Good Hope by Paul Wilson, Vintage pounds 5.99. "How do you become a grown up?" is the question haunting this novel about a Lancashire lawyer struggling against pressures that threaten to pull his comfortable life out of shape. A woman asks him to sue the mighty local factory which, she says, caused the death of her son. At the same time, uninvited memories of boyhood, and his wartime friendship with a locally stationed GI, rise up uncontrollably - part mid-life crisis, part nervous breakdown. Wilson's narrative is interlayered, buzzing between past and present, Lancashire and America as unpredictably as a fly in a warm room. The plot's East Lancs colour is mostly confined to the mention of neighbouring places (Padiham, Sabden, Barnoldswick), while the fictional setting of "St Agnes" otherwise resembles a small American town. Even the lawyer-hero seems a relation of Atticus Finch - or, more accurately, a man who would like to be Atticus, if only he were more grown-up.
Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru by Peter Washington, Secker pounds 12.99. There is nothing new about the New Age - it's been around since the 18th century, when Emmanuel Swedenborg developed his theory of correspondences, a complex attempt to redefine experience holistically and develop a "spiritual science". Washington traces the lineage of one influential strand of organised New Age thinking, the one derived from the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky axis, with its attractive amalgam of oriental religion and western occultism. It is a pleasingly sceptical chronicle of those who deluded themselves and those who lived in luxury from exploiting the self-delusions of others. It also sidelights the dependent attitude of guru-culture towards science. Some gurus hijacked science's name or tried with varying degrees of sincerity to prove scientifically their idea of the spirit, while others used it as an indispensable sparring partner.
Our Lady of the Potatoes by Duncan Sprott, Faber pounds 6.99. The lady of the title is Louise Murphy, La Petite Morphise, the pretty daughter of an Irish bootmaker in 18th century Paris who was lusted after by Casanova and painted often by Boucher before becoming, for a few short years, the teenage mistress of Louis XV. As Sprott presents her in this novel, she is a survivor up there in the Moll Flanders league - twice married after the cooling of the King's ardour, then mistress of two finance ministers, a natural suspect of the Citizens once the revolutionary tumbril starts to roll, yet cheating the guillotine and dying peacefully, attended by the nuns. There is perhaps a helping too far of Irish stew and tatties in the tale, and yet it is vividly told and the material is fascinating, particularly in its quasi-documentary attention to the weird, slow-motion rituals of Versailles - the King's egg-eating ceremonies, the protocols of royal mistresshood, the whole, preposterous edifice of the ancien regime that was swept away with such vigour in 1789.
Italy: The Unfinished Revolution by Matt Frei, Mandarin pounds 7.99. Matt Frei of the BBC has written an illuminating book which argues that, far from being the chaotic, anarchic society we imagine, Italy is in fact a nation hedged about by laws, rules and conventions. One can have fun drawing parallels between the French Revolution and what happened in Italy in 1994, when the people finally rose up in electoral revolt and threw out the entire corrupt apparatus of national politics. In their fascination for watching on television the political and industrial aristocracy paraded in handcuffs, locked in gaol, arraigned, the Italians echoed the Parisian sans-culottes who had crowded round to cheer each rolling head. How fitting that this revolution's figurehead should be a former singer and present media baron, Silvio Berlusconi. How equally fitting that he too would go to the media guillotine in short order. With such material at its disposal, Frei's interim report can hardly help being fascinating.
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