What are you reading? – 30 March 2017

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

March 30, 2017
Pile of books
Source: iStock

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor, University of Reading, is reading John Bew’s Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (Riverrun, 2016). “It is indisputable that the Labour governments of 1945-51 transformed the country in the immediate post-war era. Even 70 years on, we live with much of that legacy. Yet the role of Clement Attlee, prime minister for six years and party leader for 20 years, has remained curiously under-appreciated. Now, his true political genius and unflinching moral purpose are brilliantly reappraised in John Bew’s Citizen Clem. Although public school-educated, modest, unassuming and painfully shy, Attlee’s social purpose was always to create ‘the New Jerusalem’. Bew also reminds us that Attlee was a true patriot who made a hugely significant contribution to the defeat of Nazism. This book is a rare beast – political biography at its finest, yet one that is deeply moving.”

Sarah Cox, senior media relations officer, Brunel University London, is reading Mollie Gillen’s Assassination of the Prime Minister: ‘The Shocking Death of Spencer Perceval’ (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1972). “Two years ago I started writing a play about John Bellingham, the only man to successfully (for want of a better word) kill a British prime minister. I’m finally returning to the project, and rereading all the books and other research that I’d collected on the subject. Mollie Gillen’s book is by far my favourite. She doesn’t delve too much into wild conspiracy theories and argue that Bellingham was a tool of more powerful forces, as others have claimed. Nor does she suggest that he was insane. Bellingham simply believed that he was a ‘wronged man’. I imagine that the civil servant who told him to ‘take whatever measures he thought proper’ to right those wrongs came to deeply regret this choice of words.”

Stephen Halliday, senior member of Pembroke College, Cambridge, is reading Philip Hook’s Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers (Profile Books, 2017). “This is essential reading for those who, like your reviewer, formerly worried that they were unable to distinguish between good and bad, genuine and fake, in the world of art. It seems that many connoisseurs and wealthy buyers were (and perhaps are) similarly handicapped, to the advantage of dealers and ‘experts’ whose judgements were strongly influenced by the prospect of gain. Fortunes and reputations were made on the back of invitations to authenticate works of doubtful provenance in a milieu that appears to belong to the world of Don Corleone rather than to that of the late Kenneth Clark. The relationship between the dealer Joseph Duveen and the arch-authenticator Bernard Berenson involved dodgy attributions, smuggling and riches for both. A reassuring read for those who enjoy looking at works of art without knowing why they prefer some to others. It really doesn’t matter.”

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