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The First Hundred Years

James Buchan, 24 August 1995

John BuchanThe Presbyterian Cavalier 
by Andrew Lownie.
Constable, 365 pp., £20, July 1995, 0 09 472500 4
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... with a Cabinet Minister will know that it is not just the labourer who is thus incapable. John Buchan, whose grandson I am, was a late and flesh-and-blood representative of that lost epoch before economic expediency: a writer who not so much rejected the division of labour (Baudelaire and the Romantics do that) as overcame it. He fascinated his age and ...

That sh—te Creech

James Buchan: The Scottish Enlightenment, 5 April 2007

The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in 18th-Century Britain, Ireland and America 
by Richard Sher.
Chicago, 815 pp., £25.50, February 2007, 978 0 226 75252 5
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... In March 1776, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson visited Pembroke College, Oxford and called on the master, William Adams. According to Richard Sher, Boswell wrote in his journal how dismayed he had been to see in the master’s library a copy of the quarto edition of David Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects of 1758, handsomely bound in morocco leather ...

Bangs and Stinks

James Buchan, 22 December 1994

Test of Greatness: Britain’s Struggle for the Atom Bomb 
by Brian Cathcart.
Murray, 301 pp., £19.99, September 1994, 0 7195 5225 7
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... The story of how the secrets of explosive plutonium fission were spirited away from the United States to this country has if anything increased in interest in recent years. Alongside its narrative appeal – the improvisation and mathematics, the bureaucratic squabbles and triumphs, the precision engineering of high explosive – the scientific campaign that ended in the Hurricane test at the Monte Bello islands off Australia’s west coast on 3 October 1952 also dramatises the yearning and anxiety in British self-consciousness after the war ...

Nostalgia for the Vestry

James Buchan: Thatcherism, 30 November 2006

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts 
by Simon Jenkins.
Allen Lane, 375 pp., £20, October 2006, 0 7139 9595 5
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... on the queen and no doubt wrote the words as an aide-memoire on the short drive back through St James Park from Buckingham Palace. It is as if on 18 June 1940 Churchill had had before him in the House of Commons a note saying Battle – France – Over – Battle – Britain – Begin. In her 11 years in power, Thatcher duly gave the public all the ...

Fie On’t!

James Buchan, 23 March 1995

The Oxford Book of Money 
edited by Kevin Jackson.
Oxford, 479 pp., £17.99, February 1995, 0 19 214200 3
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... On 24 January, a Tuesday, Mr Cedric Brown, chief executive of British Gas, testified before the House of Commons Committee on Employment on the subject of his pay, which is £475,000 a year. In the course of a brisk and competitive exchange with MPs, he showed emotion at only one point, when he said this: I started at the bottom. I wielded a pick and shovel and when the board came along three years ago and said they wanted me to be chief executive I was delighted to accept ...

Presto!

James Buchan, 14 December 1995

The Life of Adam Smith 
by Ian Simpson Ross.
Oxford, 495 pp., £25, October 1995, 0 19 828821 2
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... In Book IV of The Wealth of Nations, a vantage at which you have already left the economists shivering and huddled in their sleeping bags a thousand feet below, there is a sentence that lets you peer right into Adam Smith’s world. He is talking about Cameron of Lochiel, whose decision, against his better judgment, to come out for Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 won the clans for the Pretender and doomed the ancient culture of the Highlands to extinction ...

They called her Lady Di

James Buchan, 18 August 1994

Thinking Green! Essays on Environmentalism, Feminism and Non-Violence 
by Petra Kelly.
Parallax, 168 pp., £15, April 1994, 0 938077 62 7
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... On the evening of 19 October 1992, the decomposed bodies of Petra Karin Kelly and Gerd Bastian were found by police in the bedroom of the small house they shared in the village of Tannenbusch on the outskirts of Bonn. They had been dead for about three weeks. Both had been shot in the head with bullets from a little Derringer pistol. On the morning of the 20th, a Tuesday, the police announced they were certain that ‘no third person was responsible for their deaths ...

The End

James Buchan, 28 April 1994

The City of London. Vol. I: A World of Its Own, 1815-1890 
by David Kynaston.
Chatto, 497 pp., £25, February 1994, 0 7011 6094 2
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... This book found me in the midst of a prolonged, if not necessarily profound, contemplation of the market for insurance and reinsurance known as Lloyd’s of London. What interests me about Lloyd’s is not the misfortunes it suffered in the late Eighties or its spectacular losses, the evident incompetence of its professionals and functionaries or its silly building, but the conduct of the passive investors in the market known as the External Names, about thirty thousand families of the English and Scots high middle class ...

Only a Hop and a Skip to Money

James Buchan: Gold, 16 November 2000

The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession 
by Peter Bernstein.
Wiley, 432 pp., £17.99, October 2000, 0 471 25210 7
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... Gold is the most metaphysical of the metals. A couple of layers of gilding, and items of everyday experience attain perfection: golden calf, golden section, golden goal. In the form of money, gold was always the currency more of heaven than of earth. As late as 1965, President de Gaulle told a press conference at the Elysée Palace that gold was ‘eternally and universally accepted as the unalterable fiduciary value par excellence ...

Still Smoking

James Buchan: An Iranian Revolutionary, 15 October 1998

An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati 
by Ali Rahnema.
Tauris, 418 pp., £39.50, August 1998, 1 86064 118 0
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... Some time in the middle of the Seventies in Iran, a Marxist revolutionary named Bizhan Jazani warned from prison against an appeal to religion in the struggle against the Shah. ‘This attempt to revive religion,’ he wrote, ‘is highly dangerous for it could play into the hands of the reactionary clergy.’ Jazani suffered the fate of Cassandra. For that, approximately, is what happened in Iran ...

Death to Potatoes!

James Buchan: Sarah Palin in Tehran, 17 March 2011

The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future 
edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel.
Melville House, 439 pp., £12.99, March 2011, 978 1 935554 38 7
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The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge 
by Hooman Majd.
Allen Lane, 282 pp., £20, January 2011, 978 1 84614 319 9
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... The tumult that followed the Iranian presidential election of June 2009 revealed to an inattentive world an Iranian public that bore little resemblance to its idiosyncratic and touchy rulers. It helped that many of the protesters were young and fashionable, adept in modern forms of communication, and decked out in green. The Islamic Republic’s self-image, virtuous and united against relentless foreign conspiracies, was shattered under the force of mass demonstrations, street violence, the ill-treatment and murder of young men and women, squabbling factions, incivility, seminarians at loggerheads, and show trials of the kind that Iranians had stopped watching a quarter of a century ago ...

Diary

James Buchan: My Hogs, 18 October 2001

... Sometimes,​ standing in the small wood that shields my house from the north, I whisper the word ‘Pigs!’ Within a second, bursting from the laurels, alert and obedient as no dog could be, comes a pair of Gloucester Old Spot gilts to nuzzle my hand. Or sometimes, if I am late with their afternoon bucket of scraps, they break out of their enclosure and hurtle across to bang their rumps against the kitchen door ...

A Matter of War and Peace

James Buchan, 31 July 1997

... If, as a consequence, the objects of desire, for which all sense has been extinguished, are displaced by the abstract representative of all such objects, Money, ... then the Will ... has barricaded itself into its last bastion where only Death can besiege it. Schopenhauer To say that the European continent has gone mad over money would be quite correct and yet miss the special character of its mental state ...

Good Things

Michael Hofmann, 20 April 1995

Heart’s Journey in Winter 
by James Buchan.
Harvill, 201 pp., £14.99, April 1995, 9780002730099
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... I don’t believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan. I can’t think of anyone who concedes so much of his own intelligence to his protagonists – doesn’t mock or belittle them – and gives them so much world to do battle with. I see no particular limitation to his scope or style: his stunningly curt dialogues and ravishing recitatives are equally persuasive ...

Back to Isfahan

Richard Lloyd Parry, 27 April 2000

A Good Place to Die 
by James Buchan.
Harvill, 343 pp., £10.99, September 1999, 1 86046 648 6
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... Early on in his new novel, James Buchan employs an image of which he is evidently fond: that of two mirrors placed face to face, and the unique and disconcerting effect which they produce, of reflections endlessly reflected in reflections. The same mirrors turned up in Frozen Desire, Buchan’s autobiographical meditation on the meaning of money, where they served as a symbol of financial investment and the silent accumulation of compound interest ...

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