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Books in brief: Made In Britain | The Smallest Kingdom | Strange Magic

Reviews of this week’s book releases

MADE IN BRITAIN

by Adrian Sykes

(Adelphi, £30.00) ****

“Narrative history” has been in the news, second only to phonics, as a shibboleth of conservative education theory. The“master narrative” that they have in mind is a broadly Whiggish one of ever-expanding constitutionalism and enterprise. If our kids spent less time learning to feel bad about the slave trade and the Empire, they’d have more for Alfred burning the cakes and Good Queen Bess. Sykes’ achievement is that, while his account of our island story is rooted in these same concerns, he never shows the irritability that’s the embattled reactionary’s besetting sin. On the contrary, you’d be as hard put to match his account for its good humour as you would for its energy and the colourful characters it assembles: there’s life in the old historiography yet.

THE SMALLEST KINGDOM

by Mike and Liz Fraser

(Kew, £28) ****

“At every step a different plant appeared,” wrote William Burchell in 1810, describing that day’s walk in the shadow of Table Mountain: for botanists, the Cape was a cornucopia. The collection and cataloguing of its riches is an absorbing story in itself: scores of naturalists – many of them Scottish – made their contributions. Examples of their sketches, watercolours and engravings are presented in this sumptuously illustrated book, along with Liz Fraser’s present-day paintings, fresh and modern. A lively history and an artistic treat.

STRANGE MAGIC

by Marina Warner

(Chatto, £28) *****

Eastern promise underlain by ever-present threat gives the 1001 Nights their magic: we can never quite forget Shahrazad, narrating for her life. These tales of fairies and flying carpets reveal to us “the power of stories to forge destinies”. And to spark off further stories; each one generating more “in infinite recession” – all human hopes and fears, desires and dreams are here. And yet, suggests Warner, it took the exoticising imagination of the Occident to invest this vast accumulation of tales with their coherence and unique enchantment: the Arabian Nights as we know them represent an imaginative collaboration between East and West. This beautifully illustrated book, part-retelling, part-analysis, is a wonderful companion to some of the most marvellous stories ever told.

 

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