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The Independent Culture
! Fisher's Face by Jan Morris, Penguin pounds 7.50. Lord Jacky Fisher (1841-1920) has lost his place in popular mythology. Yet not only did this handsome man have a remarkable and engaging personality, he rose to become First Sea Lord, the most powerful man in the Royal Navy at a time when Britannia's ironclad ships were instruments of global rule. Jan Morris's book is less a biography than a series of sketches, by a self-confessed infatuate, of a mercurial neo-Nelson who longed for his own Trafalgar yet had, in the end, to settle for a less glorious professional demise. In 1914 Churchill called the retired Fisher back to the quarterdeck but, at the height of the Dardanelles disaster, Jacky broke down, going AWOL from his First Sea Lord's office before resigning altogether. A fascinating portrait.

! The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr, Abacus pounds 5.99. This novel about an Afrikaner boy growing up in the Seventies as the son of a South African General is effective and moving. Young Marnus's family attitudes - Nazi sympathies and all - are about as hairyback as you can get, yet the novel has the courage of its characters' own convictions, however bizarre. These include: "The rest of the world is against South Africa because we've got all the gold and diamonds", "All the best blacks were taken away by the slave merchants" and "At least we're honest and don't hide our laws like the rest of the world". At the same time, unacknowledged and in silence, the boy grows aware of his society's distorted morality and hypocrisy, all cloaked in the great, collective self-deception of apartheid. As Marnus's schoolteacher says, ticking him off in front of the class: "Since when can two people have exactly the same wrong answers to exactly the same sums?" For Marnus, growing up means knowing how to answer that question.

! Angus Wilson: A Biography by Margaret Drabble, Minerva pounds 9.99. His life was a journey from impoverished and obscure gentility - rented flats, dim boarding houses - up through work at the British Museum Reading Room, codebreaking at Bletchley Park, successful novel writing, a professorship at the University of East Anglia, semi-official status as Greatest Living Novelist, a knighthood. If it had ended in 1979, this would be the curve of a satisfying, if curtailed, career. But the '80s brought a sad decline, as Wilson felt himself increasingly blocked, ignored and forgotten. He became hypersensitive about what he thought was prejudice against his open homosexuality and his leftish politics - some of the paranoia being justified - and he died in 1991, after a long physical and mental decline, beleaguered by money worries and the sense of failure. Drabble writes with authority and great sympathy, though at times one doubts the need to detail every distinguished hand Wilson shook in a lifetime of travel.

! The Last of the Duchess by Caroline Blackwood, Picador pounds 5.99. For years after the Duke's death in 1972, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor was kept alone, enfeebled and incommunicado at the Windsors' Paris mansion by Maitre Blum, her Paris lawyer, and by Georges, her gun-toting butler. Caroline Blackwood's inconclusive but wonderfully entertaining pursuit of the truth about the duchess's last days led her to undertake two daunting interviews with the ferocious old lawyer, whose worship of the duchess had long ago left rationality behind. "If you do not write a favourable article about the duchess," she was told, "I will not sue you, I will kill you." A brilliant piece of neo-gothic reporting.

! Motel Nirvana by Melanie McGrath, Flamingo pounds 6.99. The Southwestern States of America - Arizona, New Mexico - are the nearest you can get to extra-terrestrial landscape without calling NASA. And they would be thinly populated indeed were it not for the Deadheads, Flakes, Kooks and Phreaks who go there to play at being aliens. McGrath, in her late twenties no mean flake herself (prozac, therapy, a suicide attempt), travels from England to drive around the region more or less aimlessly, sampling the New Age fare on offer: alien abduction, immortality, the secrets of Atlantis, reptile invasion from outer space, you just have to name it. Clearly the trip was beneficial, since her wildly funny journey also arrives at some level-headed conclusions. These cults of unreason, she argues, are a new Puritanism for a society glutted on consumerism and wearied by the tyranny of economics. We can laugh, she implies, but we'd be unwise to ignore what these drop-outs represent.

! London At War, 1939-1945 by Philip Ziegler, Mandarin pounds 6.99. Bombing was the key experience of London in WW2: the Blitz of 1940-1 and the V- 1s and V-2s after 1944. You can talk about evacuation, rationing and the black market, but in the end you always come back to incendiaries, landmines, thousand-pounders, sirens, doodlebugs, shelters, blackouts. Was there a "myth" of the Blitz? Of course there was. No event so traumatic, destructive and dramatic could pass without becoming bricked into the national myth. The surprise is that it so often coincides with truth. With so many books on the subject, it may be questionable whether we needed another one, but this is a thoroughly researched and readable piece of work, alert to irony as well as tragedy, and if you haven't read a Blitz book before you'll be all right starting here.

The subject of this anonymous 18th-century portrait is Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave and overseer of slaves who came to London, married an Englishwoman and became prominent in the campaign to abolish slavery. When he died in 1797, he was wealthy enough to leave a will, "probably the only Afro-Briton in the 18th century in this position", as Vincent Carretta notes in his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of Olaudah Equiano's memoir The Interesting Narrative (pounds 6.99)

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