Veteran English historian Cannadine (Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, 2001, etc.) ranges freely over an eclectic selection of topics, from the design of the palace of Westminster to the differences between the cinematic and literary versions of James Bond—and, yes, the legendary PM and Nobel laureate somehow figures in them all.
Twelve engaging, literate essays, all previously published but heavily revised, provide Cannadine (History/Univ. of London) with an opportunity to display his mobile, well-equipped mind. Generally conventional in form, the pieces vary widely in quality, though the good work predominates. One of the most intriguing pieces is a unique analysis of the similarities among prime ministers Chamberlain, Churchill, and Thatcher. All three, argues Cannadine, raged against the dying of the light of the British Empire. Another wonderful piece, perhaps the volume’s best, deals with Churchill’s prowess—and failures—as a public speaker. Cannadine recognizes and identifies Churchill’s enormous gifts and reminds us how he labored mightily over his every public utterance, but the author also notes that Churchill frequently sent a howitzer to do a flyswatter’s job. Often, Cannadine comments, his pre-WWII speeches sounded “false, flatulent, bombastic, histrionic, overblown.” Other appealing essays deal with Josiah Wedgwood’s long, frustrating effort to bring into print a scholarly history of Parliament (an endeavor ultimately stillborn) and with the long, profitable friendship of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and novelist Francis Brett Young. On a lighter and at times fainter note are assessments of the enduring appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan and the career of Noël Coward; downright deadly and soporific is a piece on the National Trust. Though it’s one of the collection’s longest entries, “Ian Fleming and the Realities of Escapism” offers little of interest or novelty: “Bond’s world is thus very much an action man’s place,” declares Cannadine gravely.
A few stale chocolates in an otherwise luscious sampler.