State of Emergency by Dominic Sandbrook

‘For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!’ Home secretary Reginald Maudling (who admittedly did not need much of an excuse) spluttered this after a 1970 visit to Northern Ireland. Such gossipy titbits are a major reason why Dominic Sandbrook’s books on Britain since the 1950s are so entertaining –…

Amazing Grace: The Man Who Was W.G. by Richard Tomlinson

It’s definitely autumn. The cricket season is over. But don’t be downcast, people of England: the Ashes are looming! W.G. Grace loved Australia: he enjoyed insulting Australians. In his biography Amazing Grace, Richard Tomlinson describes the ‘final, hellish’ two weeks of his tour there in 1873-74 as being ‘like an extended Victorian episode of Men Behaving Badly‘.…

Peter Hall’s Diaries edited by John Goodwin

‘I’ve been re-reading Peter Hall’s Diaries. Suddenly they start to make sense. They’re a catalogue of misery.’ Richard Eyre It would be easy to dislike the late Peter Hall. Indeed, many people did. After all, he set up the Royal Shakespeare Company in his twenties, was knighted while running the National Theatre in his forties.…

Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse

Autumn’s here, but don’t despair. There’s this: ‘It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up.’ Yes, the first paragraph sets the tone. You either warm to it or mentally curl up in a peevish ball. If the…

A Very English Scandal by John Preston

…’Then we have been forced to listen to the pitiful whining of Mr. Norma St. John Scott – a scrounger, parasite, pervert…. a worm…! A self-confessed player of the pink oboe; a man – or woman – who by his – or her – own admission chews pillows..!’ So said Peter Cook, playing a judge,…

The Hive by Gill Hornby

In 1714’s The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope wrote about a small (albeit creepy) incident – the appropriation of a piece of someone’s hair without permission – which caused a rift between two families. In his mock-heroic poem, this disagreement becomes a battle worthy of the gods: ‘Then cease, Bright Nymph! to mourn thy…

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The house in Amsterdam is full of secrets. It is 1686 and 18-year old Nella Oortman has arrived from the country on the doorstep of the imposing building on Herengracht. Armed only with a caged parakeet and some naive ideas about what it will mean to be a wife, she is beginning her new life…