PAPERBACKS

Londoner John Russell packs in the literary anecdotes in his racy, historical survey of London (Thames & Hudson pounds 19.95). Mary Ann Evans (soon to become George Eliot) lived in "the very archetype of the bad bed-sitter", while Hunt represents Londoners' qualities of friendship and optimism. Artists include Tissot, Hogarth, Sickert and Zoffany. Above: John Henry Henshall's "Behind the Bar", 1882

Blake by Peter Ackroyd, Minerva pounds 7.99. There's an air of distinct authority about Ackroyd's biography of William Blake. Above all, it is the life of a Londoner: brusque, intellectually self-sufficient and frequently paranoid, Blake was also the greatest visionary who ever played hopscotch in those chartered streets. Not mad, Ackroyd thinks, in any clinical sense, Blake was certainly an oddball, combining combative individualism with a passionate inner belief in human community. As an artist he hated the ruling academicism of his time and looked beyond to less bourgeois models. As a writer he was led by his own enormous, if always contrary, ambition. Not content just to be a seed stuck between the teeth of his age he aimed at no less a target than, as Ackroyd puts it, to "change the entire nature of human perception".

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, Penguin pounds 6.99. The winner of the inaugural Orange Prize deals with Edwardian land-owning folk, whose era was set to suffer summary abridgement by the Great War. Such stories come with ready-made impending generational doom, but Dunmore is more interested in the personal tragedy of the narrator, whose mother has long fled a fully-certified psychotic husband, leaving little Cathy and brother Rob in the care of a grandfather and a clutch of servants. Cathy's painful journey to womanhood takes in a sinister governess, incest, an abortion and the on-off friendship of a rich neighbour, George Bullivant, Cathy's very own Mr Knightley. But in its expressionistic use of deviance, madness, climate and season it is as close to the tradition of the Brontes as to Austen.

In the Public Interest by Gerald James, Warner Books pounds 8.99. James is the former Chairman of Astra Holdings, a fireworks company that grew in a few years in the 1980s into Britain's second largest arms manufacturer. Astra came not only to encapsulate the culture of British industry in those years, it was implicated in most of the Thatcher government's more sordid imbroglios - Westland, Matrix-Churchill, the Supergun, Ordtech, the Aitken-"Singapore" affair. Arms exports are of course so deeply tainted by secrecy, corruption and double-dealing that nothing written about them is to be taken entirely on trust. James eventually lost his investment, his job and all pension entitlements, so he is certainly no disinterested observer. Yet this dignified and detailed apologia amounts also to a compelling prosecution of Thatcher and her ministers which demands to be taken seriously.

The Insult by Rupert Thomson, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. Shot in the head and struck blind, Martin Blom lies in his bed convinced he really can see - but only in the dark. He believes doctors have secretly implanted an experimental microchip in his brain stem and, though it's explained to him that sudden blindness can induce delusions, his paranoia sends him fleeing into the world with his white stick. Meeting and falling in love with Nina, naturally both beautiful and enigmatic, he regards her sudden disappearance as confirming his fears. Theme and setting - a vague Mittel- Europa of dingy rooms, threatening officials and clipped Teutonic nomenclature - lend a distinct whiff of Kafka to this poetically written, obsessive tale in which love and anxiety dissolve into nightmare.

In Bed With an Elephant by Ludovic Kennedy, Corgi pounds 6.99. Sir Ludo is still one of our most effective communicators. Politically Liberal, in America he'd long ago have been demonised as a communist, for he has never shrunk from espousing unpopular libertarian causes. But this is also a patriotic Scot, no full-scale nationalist but a Home Ruler, and his book is a highly personal statement of the case for a Scots culture distinct from that of the Albion elephant to the south. In an idiosyncratic but effective order of business he ponders aspects of Scottish history (Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots, Boswell and Johnson, the Stone of Scone and more) to see what lessons they hold for the future.

Nazi Germany: A New History by Klaus P Fischer, Constable pounds 14.95. There is nothing startlingly new here, but Fischer's book functions as an excellent synoptic account, well written, offering material and resources aplenty for further study, if one is so inclined. Fischer's reading of the Nazi state and of Hitler's personality are conventional - the Reich, in intention totalitarian, was rather less all-pervasive than it wanted to be, and Hitler was a fascinating showman on top and a sick bastard underneath. His three-page diagnosis of the Fuhrer's personality sticks it with just about every psychological disorder in the book. Fischer ends with a useful discussion of the historiography of Nazism, pointing out that it still seems to us a "moral wilderness". Historians' maps can only lead uncertainly towards the guilty parties.

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