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Jonathan Parry: Harry Goes Rogue, 6 February 2020

... After four years​ in the trenches fighting about Brexit, it’s with palpable relief that we’re finally turning to more engaging topics: the rights and wrongs of Andrew and Harry. Not everyone has succumbed: there are still rationalist anti-monarchists criticising us for trivialising our discourse with unwholesome royal gossip. They’ve been making the same objections for two hundred years; indeed republicans’ arguments as a whole are identical to the ones that were made in the 1820s, and are just as irrelevant ...

Duffers

Jonathan Parry, 21 September 1995

The City of London. Vol. II: Golden Years, 1890-1914 
by David Kynaston.
Chatto, 678 pp., £25, June 1995, 0 7011 3385 6
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... Timothy was the timid Forsyte, the one who retired at 40, anxious that his career as a publisher was sapping his reserves of energy. Energy was the greatest resource of his five incurious, unphilosophical brothers, the tea merchant, the solicitor, the estate agent, the mineowner and the rentier, who turned £30,000 into £1 million in the second half of the 19th century and were Galsworthy’s symbols of the middle-class backbone of Victorian England ...

Holborn at Heart

Jonathan Parry, 23 January 1997

Disraeli: A Brief Life 
by Paul Smith.
Cambridge, 246 pp., £25, September 1996, 0 521 38150 9
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... Fifty or sixty years ago, there were many people for whom Gladstone still mattered. This can hardly be said today. He has become more and more marginal to our preoccupations, partly because those preoccupations have changed, and partly because historical work on him has made him appear more remote: more churchy, more Victorian than the Victorians. This marginalisation has been much less noticeable in the case of Disraeli, who in death has proved even more flexible than in life ...

Dear George

Jonathan Parry, 22 December 1994

Curzon 
by David Gilmour.
Murray, 684 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 7195 4834 9
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... A building inhabited by George Nathaniel Curzon became a building with a history – one written by himself. Envisaging his own presence there as the latest episode in a colourful pageant of stirring deeds and raw emotions, he wanted that pageant to be properly chronicled. Sitting in Government House, Calcutta, he reflected, ‘If these stones could speak, what a tale they might tell’ – and told it for them in a book that he saw as his literary monument, to be read hundreds of years after his death ...

Footing the bill

Jonathan Parry, 9 June 1994

Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain 
by David Cannadine.
Yale, 321 pp., £19.50, April 1994, 0 300 05981 7
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... The eighth Duke of Marlborough was ‘rude, erratic, profligate, irresponsible and lacking in self-control’, his son was ‘a paranoid and anti-semitic reactionary’. Randolph Churchill was ‘rude, spoiled, unstable, headstrong, irresponsible and argumentative’. Ivor Guest was ‘an incorrigible snob and social climber’; his son Freddie was ‘a snob, a playboy and a lightweight ...

Bovril and Biscuits

Jonathan Parry: Mid-Victorian Britain, 13 May 1999

The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-86 
by Theodore Hoppen.
Oxford, 787 pp., £30, March 1998, 0 19 822834 1
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... In 1867, the British Government bought the V&A a cabinet, made by Messrs Wright and Mansfield, which had won the highest award at the Paris Exhibition of that year. It was 12 feet high, and made of satinwood, with an elaborate marquetry of coloured woods, gilt mounts and mouldings and Wedgwood plaques. It was an impressive piece, but more for its enormous size and laborious attention to ornate detail than for its gracefulness ...

Journeys across Blankness

Jonathan Parry: Mapping the Middle East, 19 October 2017

Dislocating the Orient: British Maps and the Making of the Middle East, 1854-1921 
by Daniel Foliard.
Chicago, 336 pp., £45, April 2017, 978 0 226 45133 6
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... On display​ in the Dutch House at Kew Gardens, the nursery of George III’s children, is a map copied by one of the royal infants from the jigsaws used by their governess, Lady Charlotte Finch, to teach them geography. It indicates, with affecting but spurious precision, the territorial boundaries of the 12 tribes of Israel, in what the children, like almost everyone else in the 18th and 19th centuries, called the Holy Land ...

No Gentleman

Jonathan Parry, 23 June 1994

Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics 
by Peter Marsh.
Yale, 725 pp., £30, May 1994, 0 300 05801 2
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... Entrepreneur in politics’: how many aspirants for power – most recently Silvio Berlusconi, Ross Perot and Michael Heseltine – have traded under that description. On the basis of a successful business record, they have claimed to be equipped to perform startling political feats – cutting through red tape, banging heads together, turning the country round, getting us on the move again ...

Crawling towards God

Jonathan Parry, 10 November 1994

The Gladstone Diaries, with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence. Vol. XII: 1887-1891 
edited by H.C.G. Matthew.
Oxford, 535 pp., £65, September 1994, 0 19 820463 9
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The Gladstone Diaries, with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence. Vol. XIII: 1892-1896 
edited by H.C.G. Matthew.
Oxford, 486 pp., £65, September 1994, 0 19 820464 7
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The Gladstone Diaries, with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence. Vol. XIV: Index 
edited by H.C.G. Matthew.
Oxford, 862 pp., £65, September 1994, 0 19 820465 5
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... One small but telling difference between the political culture of modern Britain and that of previous centuries lies in our apparently insatiable appetite for self-serving political memoirs. Until this century, the genre was decidedly unfashionable – much less so, for example, than in France. It would have been considered disreputable for any 17th or 18th-century English politician to leave the kind of memoir written by Cardinal de Retz, which was not only a brazenly exaggerated account of his own actions but an open celebration of his ambition, cynicism and lust ...

The Real Founder of the Liberal Party

Jonathan Parry, 2 October 1997

Lord Melbourne 1779-1848 
by L.G. Mitchell.
Oxford, 349 pp., £25, May 1997, 0 19 820592 9
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... Those politicians who know little of academic life tend to assume both that history will take them at their own estimation, and that it will be written by disinterested Solomons, free from prejudice, passion, envy and the desire for fame or money. William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, prime minister in 1834 and 1835-41, had no such illusions. He loved reading history because it pricked the pomposity of vain and foolish ‘great men ...

What’s the big idea?

Jonathan Parry: The Origins of Our Decline, 30 November 2017

The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 
by Simon Heffer.
Random House, 912 pp., £30, September 2017, 978 1 84794 742 0
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... Simon Heffer​ has had an idea. He has had them before, but he has fattened this one up into a book of enormous proportions. Huge quantities of factual narrative have been injected into it, in the hope of beguiling reviewers into acknowledging its historical respectability. For all that, the underlying argument is simple – the title gives it away ...

Educating the Utopians

Jonathan Parry: Parliament’s Hour, 18 April 2019

The Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History, 1800-2000 
edited by David Brown, Robert Crowcroft and Gordon Pentland.
Oxford, 626 pp., £95, April 2018, 978 0 19 871489 7
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... The clue​ is in the name. Parliament is designed for talk – for the expression of opinion and criticism. Pundits, particularly in the 19th century, wrote about ‘parliamentary government’ as the nation’s pride and Britain’s gift to a less fortunate world, but they did not mean that Parliament should actually govern. It would zealously check an overmighty executive, and scrutinise hasty ideas, but was not in itself a decisive body ...

Adrenaline Junkie

Jonathan Parry: John Tyndall’s Ascent, 21 March 2019

The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer and Public Intellectual 
by Roland Jackson.
Oxford, 556 pp., £25, March 2018, 978 0 19 878895 9
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... On 21 December​ 1859 John Tyndall, a professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, set out to measure the structure and movements of the Mer de Glace, a glacier above Chamonix. In previous summers he had collected data on several Alpine glaciers, but no one had ever attempted to do so in winter. He got to Folkestone but bad weather meant crossing the Channel was impossible and he returned to London ...

Policy Failure

Jonathan Parry: The Party Paradox, 21 November 2019

The End Is Nigh: British Politics, Power and the Road to the Second World War 
by Robert Crowcroft.
Oxford, 284 pp., £25, May 2019, 978 0 19 882369 8
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... It​ all seems very familiar. In the aftermath of a global financial shock, politicians found that the way they liked to communicate – expansive, optimistic rhetoric about democratic possibilities – no longer sounded convincing. Belt-tightening was needed. A Labour government which had already boxed itself into the language of prudence was removed as politicians plotted to find a way of combining austerity with authority ...

A Regular Grey

Jonathan Parry, 3 December 2020

Statesman of Europe: a Life of Sir Edward Grey 
by T.G. Otte.
Allen Lane, 858 pp., £35, November, 978 0 241 41336 4
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... To​ have one brother killed by an African animal would be a misfortune. To lose two, at different times, is surely remarkable. Such was the distinction of Sir Edward Grey, who served as foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916. A lion got his brother George, who was hunting in British East Africa in 1911: excited for the kill, he galloped too near his prey, missed and was mauled ...

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