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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 ...

Dear George

Jonathan Parry, 22 December 1994

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 ...


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 ...

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 ...

Napping in the Athenaeum

Jonathan Parry: London Clubland, 8 September 2022

Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of London Private Members’ Clubs 
by Seth Alexander Thévoz.
Robinson, 367 pp., £25, July, 978 1 4721 4646 5
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... This year​  marks the sixtieth anniversary of Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain, which gave a pioneering analysis of the ‘anonymous institutions’ that seemed to be running the country, and the relations between them. It was the most famous of several books published in the early 1960s exploring the idea of a British ‘Establishment’, as part of a discussion about failure in economic and social life ...

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 ...

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 ...

Angelic Porcupine

Jonathan Parry: Adams’s Education, 3 June 2021

The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams 
by David S. Brown.
Scribner, 464 pp., £21.20, November 2020, 978 1 9821 2823 4
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... Three​ books made me fall in love with the dynamics of history: The Forsyte Saga, Buddenbrooks and The Education of Henry Adams. I discovered Adams’s autobiography last, when it headed the preparatory reading list, alphabetically organised, that I was sent in advance of arriving at university. (I still haven’t got round to the other autobiography in the As, Saint Augustine’s, which might have led somewhere very different ...

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 ...

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 ...

Thirty-Eight Thousand Bunches of Sweet Peas

Jonathan Parry: Lord Northcliffe’s Empire, 1 December 2022

The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe 
by Andrew Roberts.
Simon & Schuster, 545 pp., £25, August 2022, 978 1 3985 0869 9
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... Do dogs commit suicide?’ ‘Can monkeys smoke?’ ‘An electrical flying machine?’ Those who were intrigued by such matters in 1888 sought enlightenment from a new weekly magazine, Answers to Correspondents, which also explained ‘How to Cure Freckles’, ‘Terrors of Top Hats’, and ‘The Destiny of Lost Luggage’. The magazine’s title wasn’t quite accurate, since the answers were rarely definitive and most of the questions actually derived from the fertile brain of the editor, the 22-year-old Alfred Harmsworth ...

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 ...

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