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‘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 ...

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 ...

‘Just get us out’

Ferdinand Mount, 21 March 2019

... If you​ are able to name the last four leaders of the United Kingdom Independence Party, then you really ought to get out more. And no, none of them was or is Nigel Farage, although of the ten leaders the party has had in the past ten years, he did fill the post three times. Ukip has been the most successful single-issue movement in England since the suffragettes, but it has been spectacularly prone to fallings-out and chuckings-out ...

Lachrymatics

Ferdinand Mount: British Weeping, 17 December 2015

Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears 
by Thomas Dixon.
Oxford, 438 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 0 19 967605 7
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... To weep or not to weep​ : that has always been a question, repeatedly posing itself, and never answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Crying is such a two-faced thing: on the one hand, we think of it as uncontrollable, like a flinch; we burst into tears, we are racked by sobs. But we know that crying can be wilful too, a deliberate demonstration to the world of how we feel, or how we would like others to think we feel ...

Lumpers v. Splitters

Ferdinand Mount: How to Build an Empire, 31 March 2016

British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t 
by Bernard Porter.
I.B. Tauris, 216 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 1 78453 445 5
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Heroic Failure and the British 
by Stephanie Barczewski.
Yale, 267 pp., £20, February 2016, 978 0 300 18006 0
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... Those​ who make many species are the “splitters” and those who make few are the “lumpers”,’ Charles Darwin wrote in 1857 to his friend, the great botanist Joseph Hooker. This first recorded appearance of the handy distinction between those who bundle up the data into one big theory and those who prefer to lay out the exhibits on the table in carefully separated heaps has since spread from scientific classification into literary studies, philosophy, and above all, into historiography, most notably perhaps in J ...

Superman Falls to Earth

Ferdinand Mount: Boris Johnson’s First Year, 2 July 2020

... Precaution​ and continence, as we know, are not qualities that characterise Boris Johnson in any sphere of his life. On 3 February, as a prelude to the Brexit trade talks, he gave a speech in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. It was a hymn to the glories of free trade and the spirit of Adam Smith, almost as baroque as James Thornhill’s enormous ceiling with its allegories of Time Exposing Truth and other desirable outcomes ...

Great Sums of Money

Ferdinand Mount: Swingeing Taxes, 21 October 2021

The Dreadful Monster and Its Poor Relations: Taxing, Spending and the United Kingdom, 1707-2021 
by Julian Hoppit.
Allen Lane, 324 pp., £25, May, 978 0 241 43442 0
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... You  were so generous, you British,’ Hans-Dietrich Genscher, West Germany’s perpetual foreign minister in the 1980s, once remarked: ‘You gave us a decentralised federal structure and a proportional system of election so that never again could we concentrate power at the centre, but you took neither of these for yourselves.’ Canadians and Australians could say much the same: the entrenched powers of their provinces and states remain the lynchpins of the remarkably successful federal systems bequeathed by their former colonial masters (the same is true, to a lesser extent, of the more centralised Indian constitution ...

Easy-Going Procrastinators

Ferdinand Mount: Margot Asquith’s War, 8 January 2015

Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-16: The View from Downing Street 
edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock, selected by Eleanor Brock.
Oxford, 566 pp., £30, June 2014, 978 0 19 822977 3
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Margot at War: Love And Betrayal In Downing Street, 1912-16 
by Anne de Courcy.
Weidenfeld, 376 pp., £20, November 2014, 978 0 297 86983 2
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The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush To War, 1914 
by Douglas Newton.
Verso, 386 pp., £20, July 2014, 978 1 78168 350 7
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... hot to fight for it. Clark demonstrates beyond any doubt that the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was no random outrage, but an operation carefully planned by the higher reaches of the Serbian security service, certainly including its chief, the notorious ‘Apis’, and no doubt with a nod from the elusive, unstoppable prime minister, Nikola ...

Wedded to the Absolute

Ferdinand Mount: Enoch Powell, 26 September 2019

Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain 
by Paul Corthorn.
Oxford, 233 pp., £20, August 2019, 978 0 19 874714 7
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... C of E as a hallowed component of Englishness than because of any sympathy with the Sermon on the Mount. Reviewing Douglas-Home’s memoirs, he could not help sneering at the Scottish squire’s naive acceptance of ‘the simple message of Christ’. Nietzsche, I fancy, would have felt the same about Sir Alec. Heffer argues plausibly that, later still, Powell ...

Back to Runnymede

Ferdinand Mount: Magna Carta, 23 April 2015

Magna Carta 
by David Carpenter.
Penguin, 594 pp., £10.99, January 2015, 978 0 241 95337 2
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Magna Carta Uncovered 
by Anthony Arlidge and Igor Judge.
Hart, 222 pp., £25, October 2014, 978 1 84946 556 4
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Magna Carta 
by J.C. Holt.
Cambridge, 488 pp., £21.99, May 2015, 978 1 107 47157 3
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Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015 
by Nicholas Vincent.
Third Millennium, 192 pp., £44.95, January 2015, 978 1 908990 28 0
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Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter 
by Dan Jones.
Head of Zeus, 192 pp., £14.99, December 2014, 978 1 78185 885 1
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... George Cony​ , a London merchant, had once been a friend of Oliver Cromwell. But when the Lord Protector slapped a tax on silk imports without the consent of Parliament, Mr Cony protested that this was the sort of arbitrary behaviour for which Cromwell had lambasted the late king, and demanded that the unjust tax be repaid to him. Cromwell first tried to browbeat Cony into submission, then threw him in prison ...

No Theatricks

Ferdinand Mount: Burke, 21 August 2014

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: from the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence 
by David Bromwich.
Harvard, 500 pp., £25, May 2014, 978 0 674 72970 4
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Moral Imagination: Essays 
by David Bromwich.
Princeton, 350 pp., £19.95, March 2014, 978 0 691 16141 9
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... You could not​ stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.’ Dr Johnson’s remark on Edmund Burke, related in one of Hester Thrale’s anecdotes, is unforgettable. The greatest Tory of the 18th century takes off his hat and makes the lowest possible bow to the much younger Irish Whig (Burke’s dates are 1729-97, Johnson’s 1709-84 ...

All the Sad Sages

Ferdinand Mount: Bagehot, 6 February 2014

Memoirs of Walter Bagehot 
by Frank Prochaska.
Yale, 207 pp., £18.99, August 2013, 978 0 300 19554 5
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... There used to be a room in the National Portrait Gallery devoted to portraits of late Victorian sages by G.F. Watts. Inspissated in that painter’s incurably muddy tones, they peered out from behind straggly beards and whiskers with sad, rheumy eyes – Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Swinburne, William Morris, Leslie Stephen, Tennyson – giving off a steamy despair ...

That Disturbing Devil

Ferdinand Mount: Land Ownership, 8 May 2014

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership 
by Andro Linklater.
Bloomsbury, 482 pp., £20, January 2014, 978 1 4088 1574 8
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... In this case,​ the elephant is the room. There can be few enormous subjects more often dodged than the space we occupy on the surface of the earth. Land ownership – its many modes, its distribution, its history – is the great ignored in politics today, gingerly taken up if at all and quickly put down again in favour of more fashionable topics: capitalism, urbanisation, democracy, industrialisation, the role of the state ...

Living with Monsters

Ferdinand Mount: PMs v. the Media, 22 April 2010

Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v. the Media 
by Lance Price.
Simon & Schuster, 498 pp., £20, February 2010, 978 1 84737 253 6
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... One of the odder political books I have read is The Abuse of Power, by James Margach, the veteran lobby correspondent of the Sunday Times. Published in 1978, the book was subtitled with a flourish: ‘The war between Downing Street and the media from Lloyd George to Callaghan’. For 40 years and more, Margach had enjoyed the confidence of prime ministers ...

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