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The Independent Culture
The First Man by Albert Camus, trs David Hapgood, Penguin pounds 6.99. Published after 35 years, this is the 144-page fragment found beside Camus's body in the wreckage of his crashed car. It would have been the Nobel Prizewinner's blockbuster - his own life in fiction as well as the history of his native French Algeria. The deeply moving raw pages that have outlived their creator are largely about the childhood of his alter ego Jacques Cormery. Deprived is not a hard enough word for it. His father died at the Marne in 1914. His mother was illiterate and perhaps brain-damaged, his uncle congenitally deaf, his grandmother a crusty tyrant. The family's whole existence was hedged in by oblivion, a condition Camus always feared yet knew to be inescapable. "Remembrance for things past," he writes "is just for the rich. For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death."

Lester by Lester Piggott, Corgi pounds 5.99. If there is any usefulness in the word genius it is where an individual's gifts are too outrageous to be explained by natural laws. Such is Piggott. He overcame congenital disability - deafness and an adult frame that, in a jockey, was way oversize - with ruthless single-mindedness, and went after success in the same spirit. He also questioned whether, since he never spared himself, others should benefit from his indulgence. But ambition is common enough; it is Piggott's ineffable ability to bend a horse to his will that sets him apart. Although his writing style can hardly wave a whip at the majesty of his riding, this is the story of an authentic horse whisperer.

Byzantium: The Decline & Fall by John Julius Norwich, Penguin pounds 9.99. This completes an excellent 3-volume narrative history that has aimed to do justice to the most civilised. of all civilisations. Byzantium's little understood art, that sustained attempt to fill the eyes with pure spirituality, is its greatest legacy, but it was a society of great complexity which lived as much by sport, culture and ceremonial as by politics. Of course Norwich has barbarities to report - eyes put out, massacres committed, children cold-bloodedly murdered - but, unlike for most of Byzantium's enemies, these were exceptions not the rule. Administering the Eastern Roman Empire across its thousand years was a huge regional task, but it was the nucleus of the city itself that counted most. The final years, when the Empire was reduced to little beyond the city's immense walls, are told in fine elegaic style.

Clever Girl by Tania Glyde, Picador pounds 5.99. The title of this first novel refers with only superficial irony to a father's patronising pat on the head. Its protagonist Sarah - clever though she genuinely is - suffers less from men's insincerity than from the abuse they blatantly heap on her. The emotional manure she catches is incessant. In childhood, the boys call her whore and then use her like one. Later, working for a sleazy daily paper, the men do likewise. Clever Girl was shortlisted for the Betty Trask, a prize originally for romantic fiction. But here romance is wholly displaced by the anger that is rubbed hard into your face and scarcely diluted by the author's vinegary humour. The final revenge is murderously reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson's equally angry film If.

The Sound of History: Songs & Social Comment by Roy Palmer, Pimlico pounds 14. The association between folk song and social justice goes way back before Woody Guthrie and Ewan MacColl. As Palmer explains, ballad writing has been a form of journalism since before Elizabethan times and whenever a popular movement or group has been cut off from the more conventional media - slaves in the American south, for instance, or sailors in the Georgian navy or striking mill workers at Preston in Dickens's day - street songs have been a reliable way to get across a point of view. The material is widely scattered, and any commentator needs excellent interpretative skills, but this is clearly a precious seam and very far from being exhausted.

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins, Papermac pounds 10. It does not seem surprising, reading this book, that one of the more memorable pieces of trivia about Gladstone is his insistence on chewing every mouthful of food a certain number of times. The man's phenomenal self-discipline informed everything he did - even to the physical self-discipline he administered with a whip. Gladstone's devotion to self-improvement and public life served the nation well over 60 years in politics. Pacifist, hater of jingoism and plutocracy, befriender of prostitutes and defender of oppressed minorities abroad, lover of literature, tireless public speaker (at a time when "oratory was more popular than football") he set standards for humane government to which we still aspire. Jenkins's profound understanding of Westminster politics, allied to his cleverness, wit and sympathy with Gladstone make this a worthy winner of the Whitbread 1995 Biography Award.

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