What are you reading? – 6 June 2019

A weekly look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

June 6, 2019
Stack of books
Source: iStock

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Sunderland, is reading Sam Bourne’s To Kill the Truth (Quercus, 2019). “Under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland is the author of a number of best-selling novels. His latest, To Kill the Truth, begins with the murder of a historian. What follows is the calculated, yet apparently untraceable, destruction of museums and libraries across the world, along with their irreplaceable historical records and artefacts. In parallel, a court case proceeds where the key protagonist argues that slavery in the United States never existed. Are these events connected, and, if so, what motivates the shadowy forces perpetrating such barbarism? In a world without verifiable facts about our past, apparently anything and anyone can be believed. With a great twist at the end, this is a thriller for our times.”

Stephen Halliday, senior member of Pembroke College, Cambridge, is reading Rachel Reeves’ Women of Westminster: The MPs Who Changed Politics (I. B. Tauris, 2019). “Dame Mary Beard’s foreword to this fine book by Labour MP Rachel Reeves describes the fuss when the Speaker, John Bercow, agreed in 2010 to close a single bar in the Palace of Westminster and turn it into a crèche. It seems only a modest step now that 208 MPs are women, many with small children, but it reflects the difficulties they have faced since the first to take her seat, Nancy Astor, was physically obstructed, through occasions when they have been mistaken for cleaners and up to a more enlightened present. The earlier chapters are the most interesting, with accounts of largely forgotten but heroic figures such as Eleanor Rathbone, who first secured family allowances, and Margaret Bondfield, who was reviled for cutting benefits during the recession of the 1930s. Later sections are perhaps a little too beset by lists of people appointed and measures taken.”

Martin Myers, lecturer in education at the University of Portsmouth, is reading Gerald Kaufman’s How To Be a Minister. “Once upon a time, it was de rigueur to present new ministers of state with Kaufman’s gossipy insider’s guide to government. It sets out some golden rules: how to become a minister; how to manage the minutiae of departmental regimes; and, when inevitably it all goes horribly wrong, how to leave gracefully. The gist of much of his advice on delivering policy is: keep it simple, consult widely and reach agreement before asking parliament to pass your legislation. Although such practical advice never goes out of fashion, it’s the kaleidoscope of sometimes generous, but mostly acerbic, name-dropping anecdotes that steal the show. Patrician, high Tory Harold Macmillan’s penchant for prime ministerial cars upholstered in Harris tweed, for example, is ascribed to ‘a memento of his simple crofting antecedents’. Such exemplars of Westminster’s good, bad and ugly often highlight its more human failings.”

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