Paperbacks: Bloody Foreigners<br/>Medieval Lives<br/>Design in the USA<br/>Trafalgar<br/>In the Ruins of the Reich<br/>Croatian Nights<br/>The Finishing School

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The Independent Culture

As enjoyable as it is laudable, this wholly successful book is a splendid antidote to the Tory Party's hopeless attempt to make immigration an issue in the election.

Bloody Foreigners, by Robert Winder (ABACUS £8.99 (545pp))

As enjoyable as it is laudable, this wholly successful book is a splendid antidote to the Tory Party's hopeless attempt to make immigration an issue in the election. In the introduction, Winder notes that Britons have always been great emigrants themselves - over 100,000 of us currently reside on the French Riviera. He gives a cheer for those who are "British by choice, not by birth... Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery." Yet newcomers many centuries apart have encountered remarkably similar barriers. Though a tiny handful of black people achieved modest eminence in the 18th century, most "looked in vain for a helping hand". In the Fifties, the Guyana-born writer and ex-RAF fighter pilot E R Braithwaite took a degree in physics at Cambridge but found all doors wedged shut. Winder reveals that Huguenot weavers were subject to illiterate attack when they took refuge here in the late 17th century ("The nation it is almost quit undone"), but there were 65 MPs of Huguenot descent between 1743 and 1832. In conclusion, Winder demolishes our national stereotypes: "If anything defines modern Britain, it is variety." Future historians will "look in wonder that we could have expended so much spirit... over a few variations in skin pigmentation". CH

Medieval Lives, by Terry Jones & Alan Ereira (BBC £7.99 (224pp))

Though packed with detail about quotidian medieval existence - French wine flasks have been found in a Welsh peasant community, the diet of ordinary people was close to the five portions of vegetables recommended today - this book, with its colloquial style, appears to be aimed at nine-year-olds. Still, it is gratifying to know that French knights in armour costing "the equivalent of a Ferrari" were brought down by English bowmen on 6d a day and intriguing to learn that anyone forced to "abjure the realm" had to wade in the sea every day until he found a ship. Punishment by paddling. CH

Design in the USA, by Jeffrey L Meikle (OXFORD £13.99 (256pp))

Considering how visually impoverished and makeshift the American heartland often appears to the visitor, this book is a valuable reminder of the nation's distinctive stylishness, particularly in the Thirties. The glories of streamlining were applied by Raymond Loewy to a Pennsylvania Railroad loco (which made it very hard to service) and a pencil sharpener. But why this book includes furniture by the Italian designers Sebastiano Matta and Ettore Sottsass is a mystery. And does the Eames recliner really convey "exquisite taste"? Surely, it was a comfy luxury for dad's den. CH

Trafalgar, by Roy Adkins (ABACUS £8.99 (392pp))

Talk about grace under pressure - these guys had style by the bucketful. When one French officer stepped behind another during the battle, the latter gently remarked: "Do you think I am sheathed in metal?" A British sailor called Jack Spratt refused to have a wounded leg amputated. Pointing to his good leg, he said: "Where shall I find a match for this?" (Spratt was right - he lived to the age of 81.) We learn that the pressure wave from a cannonball could kill without inflicting a mark, while flying splinters were deadly as musket balls. Vivid, scrupulous, immensely moving, this is a terrific yarn. CH

In the Ruins of the Reich, by Douglas Botting (METHUEN £8.99 (419pp))

Revelatory, horrifying, absorbing, Botting's panorama of Germany in the first days of the Allied victory is one of the great war books. It's the surreal detail that brings this chaotic maelstrom to life. Looters fight in a Hanover doorknob warehouse, though scarcely a door remains. The body of Eva Braun rises up "in an equestrian posture" as Hitler's Chancellery burns. German girls infected with virulent syphilis when raped by brutalised Russians depended on black market penicillin supplied by real-life Harry Limes. Roosevelt demanded "total defeat", but the result was a total shambles. CH

Croatian Nights, Ed. Matt Thorne et al (SERPENT'S TAIL £8.99 (202p))

The fruit of meetings between UK and Croatian writers, this "festival of alternative literature" mixes 18 voices (nine young Brits and nine Croats, translated by Celia Hawkesworth) into a high-energy, in-your-face anthology of stories. The Brits dramatise their time in Croatia, with a lot of hip dislocation but (as in Anna Davis's tale) some neat ironies too. Several of the Croats are a revelation, edgy, wild and fearless: check out Goran Tribusan, Zoran Feric and Jelena Carija. Beat writing seems to be alive and well and living in Zagreb. BT

The Finishing School, by Muriel Spark (PENGUIN £6.99 (156pp))

Oh to write like this! It makes your blood boil. That, in fact, is the theme of this mini-masterpiece in which, yet again, Muriel Spark demonstrates her unwavering talent for wry wit and brevity. Rowland Mahler, teacher at College Sunrise, is currently clean-shaven, "feeling more like a brilliant young novelist under this appearance". He is also consumed with envy for one of his students - an obsession which makes him ill, and proves riveting. CP