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The Dwarves and the Onion Domes

Ferdinand Mount: Those Pushy Habsburgs, 24 September 2020

The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power 
by Martyn Rady.
Allen Lane, 397 pp., £30, May, 978 0 241 33262 7
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... handicapped heirs. The Spanish Habsburg line expired on the death of the hermaphrodite Charles II. Ferdinand I of Austria suffered from hydrocephalus and crippling epilepsy, which prevented him from reigning effectively – he was forced to abdicate in the revolution of 1848. If you were a member of this increasingly inbred family, you were lucky to escape ...

Minnesota Fates

Ferdinand Mount, 12 October 1989

We Are Still Married 
by Garrison Keillor.
Faber, 330 pp., £11.99, September 1989, 0 571 14140 4
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... Modern American writers have taken to heart Thomas Wolfe’s warning that ‘you can’t go home again.’ These days, being American or being modern or both seems to demand recognition of exile. The writer has to say goodbye to his folks at the earliest opportunity. That is only the first stage in his education in the estrangements of our times. Indeed, such farewells are best got over with in his first book; if successful, the account of how he grew up and out of his small-town, small-minded origins will launch him into the literary world where, after majoring in alienation and/or anomie, he can set about facing the real challenges of a writer’s life: alcohol and alimony ...

A Life without a Jolt

Ferdinand Mount: M.R. James, 26 January 2012

Collected Ghost Stories 
by M.R. James.
Oxford, 468 pp., £14.99, October 2011, 978 0 19 956884 0
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... He always comes on his own, this bachelor of antiquarian tastes. Sometimes he is a book dealer, more often an academic. He is a dry, crotchety character, not particularly sympathetic. He is usually on holiday, in East Anglia or an old town in France or Denmark. He is staying in an inn or a hotel, an uncongenial sort of place far from his familiar institutional comforts ...

Masses and Classes

Ferdinand Mount: Gladstone, 17 February 2005

The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer and Politics 
by David Bebbington.
Oxford, 331 pp., £55, March 2004, 0 19 926765 0
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... terms, his claims to have discovered the origins of the Christian narrative in the fables of Mount Olympus may have been ‘nonsense’, to quote Jowett. Anthropologists joined with orthodox clergymen in an unusual alliance against Gladstone’s thesis and his picturesque illustrations of it. It was absurd to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity had ...

With What Joy We Write of the New Russian Government

Ferdinand Mount: Arthur Ransome, 24 September 2009

The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome 
by Roland Chambers.
Faber, 390 pp., £20, August 2009, 978 0 571 22261 2
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... Ransome, when he turned up, proved to be an amiable and attractive man, with a luxuriant blond soup-strainer moustache, a rubicund complexion, a large mouth from which more often than not a pipe protruded, and a hearty disposition.’ Malcolm Muggeridge immediately took to Arthur Ransome when he first met him in Cairo in 1929. Most people did. The philosopher R ...

Fraud Squad

Ferdinand Mount: Imposters, 2 August 2007

The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation 
by Rohan McWilliam.
Continuum, 363 pp., £25, March 2007, 978 1 85285 478 2
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A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson 
by Frances Welch.
Short Books, 327 pp., £14.99, February 2007, 978 1 904977 71 1
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The Lost Prince: The Survival of Richard of York 
by David Baldwin.
Sutton, 220 pp., £20, July 2007, 978 0 7509 4335 2
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... Sir Roger Tichborne is my name, I’m seeking now for wealth and fame, They say that I was lost at sea, But I tell them ‘Oh dear, no, not me.’ This ballad, sung in procession when the Tichborne Claimant appeared at the Grand Amalgamated Demonstration of Foresters at Loughborough in August 1872, neatly compresses the story of the most celebrated of all late Victorian causes ...

Plonking

Ferdinand Mount: Edward Heath, 22 July 2010

Edward Heath 
by Philip Ziegler.
Harper, 654 pp., £25, June 2010, 978 0 00 724740 0
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... At the end of his official biography of Lord Mountbatten 25 years ago, Philip Ziegler wrote: ‘There was a time when I became so enraged by what I began to feel was his determination to hoodwink me that I found it necessary to place on my desk a notice saying: REMEMBER, IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, HE WAS A GREAT MAN.’ At the end of his authorised biography of Edward Heath, Ziegler writes: ‘He was a great man, but his blemishes, though far less considerable, were quite as conspicuous as his virtues, and it is too often by his blemishes that he is remembered ...

Lord Cardigan’s Cherry Pants

Ferdinand Mount: The benefits of the Crimean War, 20 May 2004

The Crimean War: The Truth behind the Myth 
by Clive Ponting.
Chatto, 379 pp., £20, March 2004, 0 7011 7390 4
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... In his tactless German way, Prince Albert pulled no punches: ‘We have no general staff or staff corps, no field commissariat, no field army department; no ambulance corps, no baggage train, no corps of drivers, no corps of artisans; no practice or possibility of acquiring it, in the combined use of the three arms, cavalry, infantry and artillery.’ The merest subaltern at the front could see what was wrong ...

Get off your knees

Ferdinand Mount: An Atheist in the House, 30 June 2011

Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican 
by Bryan Niblett.
Kramedart, 391 pp., £19.99, January 2011, 978 0 9564743 0 8
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... He was ‘unquestionably a great and good man’. Who could forget ‘his gigantic stature, his warm temperament, his good health and good humour, his bull-necked obstinacy, his generous and open temper? … He had many enemies and fought them all with generosity … In the last glimpse of the enormous “Iconoclast”, he is a priest defending an altar ...

To the End of the Line

Ferdinand Mount: The Red Dean, 26 April 2012

The Red Dean of Canterbury: The Public and Private Faces of Hewlett Johnson 
by John Butler.
Scala, 292 pp., £16.95, September 2011, 978 1 85759 736 3
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... In his prime, Dr Hewlett Johnson was one of the most famous men in the world. Almost from the moment he was made dean of Canterbury in 1931, he became instantly recognisable everywhere as the Red Dean. His faith in the Communist Party, and in Stalin in particular, was unshakeable. Purges and famines, executions and persecutions passed him by. Though he never saw the need actually to join the Party, he remained a tankie to the last, until he was finally winkled out of the deanery in 1963, when he was pushing ninety ...

Adored Gazelle

Ferdinand Mount: Cherubino at Number Ten, 20 March 2008

Balfour: The Last Grandee 
by R.J.Q. Adams.
Murray, 479 pp., £30, November 2007, 978 0 7195 5424 7
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... On a cycling holiday in Scotland A.C. Benson went to meet Arthur Balfour at Whittingehame. The prime minister was out practising on his private golf course. They saw him ‘approaching across the grass, swinging a golf club – in rough coat and waistcoat, the latter open; a cloth cap, flannel trousers; and large black boots, much too heavy and big for his willowy figure ...

‘Derek, please, not so fast’

Ferdinand Mount: Derek Jackson, 7 February 2008

As I Was Going to St Ives: A Life of Derek Jackson 
by Simon Courtauld.
Michael Russell, 192 pp., £17.50, October 2007, 978 0 85955 311 7
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... In all the history of second-guessing in warfare, the Window affair is one of the most extraordinary. As early as 1934, Post Office engineers reported that passing aircraft could interfere with radio reception. Less than a year later, Robert Watson-Watt demonstrated by a simple experiment in a field outside Daventry that aircraft could be detected by radio ...

Truffles for Potatoes

Ferdinand Mount: Little Rosebery, 22 September 2005

Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil 
by Leo McKinstry.
Murray, 626 pp., £25, May 2005, 0 7195 5879 4
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... The schoolmaster William Johnson is remembered for three things, although not under that name. He wrote the most famous of all translations from Greek lyric verse, ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’; he wrote the words of the ‘Eton Boating Song’; and in a letter to Francis Warre-Cornish, another Eton schoolmaster, he wrote of his pupil, the future Lord Rosebery: ‘I would give you a piece of plate if you would get that lad to work; he is one of those who like the palm without the dust ...

Strange Little Woman

Ferdinand Mount: First and Only Empress, 22 November 2018

Empress: Queen Victoria and India 
by Miles Taylor.
Yale, 388 pp., £25, August 2018, 978 0 300 11809 4
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Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent 
by Emily Hannam.
Royal Collections Trust, 256 pp., £45, June 2018, 978 1 909741 45 4
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Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-76 
by Kajal Meghani.
Royal Collections Trust, 216 pp., £29.95, March 2017, 978 1 909741 42 3
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... Fid. Def; Ind. Imp.​ Were there ever two more outrageous inscriptions on our coinage? Henry VIII remained defender of that particular faith for all of nine years, before Pope Leo X revoked the title he had himself conferred and excommunicated the defecting monarch. The claim was rebooted by a Protestant Parliament in 1544, but it was not quite the same, to say the least ...

Parcelled Out

Ferdinand Mount: The League of Nations, 22 October 2015

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire 
by Susan Pedersen.
Oxford, 571 pp., £22.99, June 2015, 978 0 19 957048 5
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... I have often thought​ of writing a history of own goals. It would try to identify the factors common to the great boomerangs of the past: the conceit that mistakes itself for cunning, the refusal to consider possible ricochets and reverberations, the baffled indignation when you see the ball hit the back of your own net. A delicious own goal was scored recently by the Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership in the hope that he would draw off left-wing votes from the opponents of the candidate they actually wanted – which he did, and how! The most epoch-making own goal I can think of was scored by the German high command when it conveyed Lenin back to Russia in that sealed train ...

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