Order for £16.19 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Eminent Elizabethans, By Piers Brendon. Jonathan Cape £17.99
Tuesday 06 November 2012
Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) pioneered a revolution in modern biography. In four short satirical essays he knocked some revered monuments of the previous generation – Cardinal Manning, Thomas Arnold, Florence Nightingale, General Gordon – off their pedestals, making it impossible for historians ever again to treat national heroes with fawning discretion. In 1979, Piers Brendon published a sort of sequel, Eminent Edwardians, in which he gave the same deflating treatment to another four icons.
The problem for Brendon in trying to pull the same trick again is that nowadays we have no heroes, so are not shocked to be told they have feet of clay. His four new subjects – Rupert Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles and Mick Jagger – are all still alive and have all been the subject of innumerable hostile and dignity-shredding books. By trawling these to assemble a catalogue of unflattering anecdotes, he has written a very entertaining book. But it is all a bit too easy.
The best is the piece on Mrs Thatcher, as it alone has some new material. As a former keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge, Brendon has been able to draw fruitfully not only on the Thatcher papers but those of Neil Kinnock, Lord Hailsham and several others for striking contemporary impressions. These lend this chapter some respectability as history as opposed to gossip-mongering.
The same cannot be said of the other three. Murdoch is portrayed simply as a cynical Aussie whose sole purpose has been to debase journalistic standards to expand his global empire; Prince Charles as a self-deluding hypocrite; and Jagger as a posturing womaniser interested only in making money. All three characterisations may be correct. But Murdoch's devotion to newsprint has saved a lot of failing newspapers; and it is surely only Jagger's business sense – as well as his music, which barely gets a mention – which has kept the Rolling Stones on the road for 50 years. Demolishing reputations is pointless if you do not recognise achievements. The most sympathetic of Brendon's portraits is poor Prince Charles, who has no major achievements to disparage.
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Howard Jacobson: Let's see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is
- 2 Instagram of US airport security chiefs: Lipstick knives and IED training kits among items seized
- 3 Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014: In defence of Mesut Ozil - the Arsenal midfielder works magic in the shadows
- 4 PornHub begs users to stop uploading video clips of Brazil getting beaten 7-1
- 5 Tony Abbott embarrasses Australia by praising Japanese WWII military, ‘getting on the sake’ and posing for ‘crotch-shot’ photo opportunity
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
Australia facing international condemnation after turning around Sri Lankans at sea
7/7 memorial defaced on anniversary of 2005 attacks with ‘Blair lied thousands died’ graffiti
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
There’s a nasty smell in the political air – and it’s coming from the Tories
Vanessa Feltz criticises 'vile' reaction to Rolf Harris allegations