In Churchill's Shadow by David Cannadine (Penguin, £8.99, 386pp)
Is there a more readable historian of modern Britain than David Cannadine? His latest clutch of essays are as entertaining as they are revealing. He opens with a dazzling illumination of the Palace of Westminster, noting how this Victorian structure "asserted the prestige of the monarch" through its 300 statues of kings and queens. This prestige continues to be burnished by the "Gilbert-and-Sullivan grandeur" of the state opening, "at best unconvincing, at worst ridiculous". The key essay links the two most revered entities of 20th-century Britain: Churchill and the royal family. Though describing himself as "Monarchical No.1", Churchill had a far more complex relationship with royalty. He suggested that Edward VII had "gone mad" and George V spoke "cheap and silly drivel". These feelings were reciprocated. During his premiership, a courtier complained: "The king and queen feel Winston puts them in the shade." Two of Cannadine's finest pieces concern figures other historians wouldn't touch with a cattle prod, yet acute studies of Noel Coward and Ian Fleming throw a penetrating light on Britain in transition. Though Coward loathed the permissive society, ironically this very change in mood prompted a revival for his theatrical work and decriminalised homosexuality. Cannadine argues that Fleming's "Tory imagination" continued the tradition of John Buchan. The "cute flippancy" of the films has kept Bond alive, but the world that created him has "long since vanished".
A Very English Deceit by Malcolm Balen (Fourth Estate, £7.99, 260pp)
Describing an event that took place 300 years ago, this brief, highly readable history of the South Sea Bubble is so pertinent to our times that the author heads each chapter with clippings from the newspapers of 1999-2001. Initiated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, pumped up by a fat-cat tycoon, milked by the Prime Minister, the South Sea Company was worth £300m at its zenith (add a nought for today's equivalent). When the bubble burst, investors received £1 for every two they put in. That's more than dotcom punters managed, but reading this book is still like looking in a mirror.
1939: The Last Season by Anne de Courcy (Phoenix, £7.99, 255pp)
Peering at the social gavotte of the prewar upper classes is more like looking at a different species than a different era. Trained in the bob, the informal curtsey and the deep Court curtsey, the gels of the gentry were presented at court before being thrust into the starchy agony of "coming out". One duchess recommended "ghosts and the royal family" as useful conversation topics. De Courcy's fascinating narrative switches between domestic concerns, ranging from country-house fare to patent medicines, and the approach of would-be gatecrashers across the Channel.
Injury Time by D J Enright (Pimlico, £12.50, 183pp)
As the title suggests, this commonplace book was completed in the poet's final days. Don't be put off - it is packed with pleasure and intelligence. Enright had a famously beady eye for bloomers, such as the advert for Brittany Ferries: "Bistros and brassieres welcome you". Several examples involve his own name. In a letter to The Oldie criticising Harry Enfield's father, the name Enfield mysteriously transmuted: "Enright comes across as a very unpleasant man indeed." How Enright would have relished the cover note accompanying this review copy. It was headed "Injury Time by D J Taylor".
Gloriana by Roy Strong (Pimlico, £15, 180pp)
First published in 1987, this enjoyable study chronicles how Elizabeth I was established as a national icon through a series of lush portraits. The queen was variously portrayed holding a sieve (symbol of chastity) and straddling southern England. The last of the long series of paintings was not remarkable because she was portrayed grasping a rainbow (symbol of peace), but because she looked 50 years younger than she actually was. When two artists painted the woman they saw before them - "with tightly drawn, mean lips" - her image rapidly reverted to the "Mask of Youth" perfected by Hilliard.Reuse content