Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Culture
The Hidden Wiring by Peter Hennessy (Indigo, pounds 7.99) Britain in hugely fortunate in having the assiduous and witty Hennessy to probe our ``back of an envelope constitution''. Sometimes it seems barely to exist - witness Michael Heseltine's aggressive empire building, though his post is ``unknown to the constitution''. Yet Hennessy insists on the importance of this ``curious compound ... concealed beneath layers of opacity and mystery''. His study ranges far and wide, but is most incisive on the monarchy. Its powers are substantial - if mostly in abeyance - and it is here to stay. A ``defunct politican'' as head of state just won't do.

H G The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot (Black Swan, pounds 7.99) It is hard to imagine many of today's 21-year-olds having to ration their reading of Tono-Bungay while on a first visit to Paris. Foot's youthful enthusiasm has continued unabated, despite the decline in HG's stock. From its ringing opening, ``He was born in Kent, where Socialism was born'', this is mainly a political life. In particular, HG's defence of a woman's right to choose is valid as ever. Of his subject`s sexual athleticism, Foot defensively notes, ``his love affairs were long-lasting'' though in a fictional self-portrait, Wells italicises his own behaviour as disgraceful. Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan (Thames & Hudson, pounds 9.95) MacMillan`s hugely enjoyable history of the memsahib commences with the traumatic acclimatisation of the newcomer. One guide recommended flannel underwear, net corset, petticoat, camisole and woollen tea-gown as the minimum acceptable wear. But there were compensations. A French visitor noted ``the enormous quantity of beer and wine absorbed by young Englishwoman''. Everyone remarked on the unexpected ``playfulness'' of the Raj. One regiment was known as the ``Fornicating Fifth'', while two memsahibs were dubbed ``Treacle Tart'` and ``Bed and Breakfast Betty''.

The Way We Live Now by Richard Hoggart (Pimlico, pounds 7.99) An epigraph from Alberto Moravia sums up this stimulating, if dour study: ``The ratio of literacy to illiteracy is constant but nowadays the illiterates can read and write.'' Though disappointed with a culture dominated by soundbites (``the semantic equivalent of chicken nuggets''), Hoggart is not bereft of hope. Curiously for a writer with such a keen eye for detail, his arguments are vitiated by weak research. Categorizing pop songs, he merely produces a list of titles ``put down as they come to mind''. Hoggart's deficiency in humour may be a factor in his distaste for mass culture.

Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene (Minerva, pounds 7.99) In McIntosh County in 1971 the civil rights movement was little more than a fabulous rumour. Too busy sweeping the sidewalks, cleaning motels and preparing catfish, the black population of this isolated Georgia backwater had little time for organised protest. But, as the book's author is at pains to point out, history happened here too. Combining oral testimony with her own narrative recreation of events, this toothsome social history resurrects the key players in a local drama every bit as gripping as that played out in the streets of Montgomery and Little Rock.

Snakebite Sonnet by Max Phillips (Abacus, pounds 9.99) Since the age of ten Nicholas Joseph Wertheim has been obsessed by Julia and her auburn armpits. Nine years older than himself, she's flaky, beautiful and bohemian, and not above giving him the eye in Melody's Ice Cream Parlour. Destined to float in and out of his life for the next 20 years, Julia prefers men who treat her bad and take her to Paris. In the meantime Nick has to make do fantasising about high school girls and their ``marshy'' regions in the privacy of his suburban bedroom. A sweet and sexy memoir of American adolescence in the Seventies but really as superfluous as the above mentioned hair.

Winter Journey by Isabel Colgate (Penguin, pounds 6.99) Colgate's latest aga saga about two ageing siblings hacking out their last days, lollops along with the good intentions of a labrador pup. Returning to her family pile in the Mendips, Edith Ashby is kept awake by memories of the past (hunt balls and failed marriages) and Mrs Weeks's shepherd's pie. But being a practical sort she's determined to whip herself, and batchelor brother Alfred, into shape before old age really hits. A novel in which nothing happens - apart from long chilly walks and chats with the neighbours about the collapse of Lloyds - and too much is explained. English life at its most claustrophobic.

Cafe Europa by Slavenka Drakulic (Abacus, pounds 6.99) According to Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, at the heart of every Eastern European city there's a Cafe Europa. It's a name that promises all the goodies of the West - creamy cappuccinos, rich chocolate cake and reams of loo roll - and cocks a snook at established values. In a series of sparkling personal essays (including reflections on why she`s never worn her Kenzo suit and a bad experience at the Cheltenham Literary Festival), Drakulic examines the continuing East West divide, and her own ambivalent feelings to her communist past. A book that will catch you out in prejudices you never knew you had.

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