Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on the latest books by Orlando Figes, Colm Tóibín and P D James.

Crimea: the Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

Angus Macqueen in the Observer praises "Figes's lucid account of three years of bloodletting in the Black Sea", whose chief merit resides in "attempting to place the Crimean war as the fulcrum of 19th-century Europe between Waterloo and the First World War". "With his deep understanding of Russia and its uncomfortable position in the world, Figes elegantly underlines how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century."

For Mark Bostridge, writing in the FT, "The book's true originality lies in its unravelling of the Crimean war's religious origins." The rivalry between the Catholics and the Greeks, backed by France and Orthodox Russia respectively, "is represented as the vital spark igniting the conflagration that followed". The author of Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend (Penguin) finds less convincing other aspects of Figes's book, including his characterisation of Florence Nightingale, which "relies on tired old sexist taunts".

Oliver Bullough in the Independent acknowledges that he is not unbiased: Bullough's book Let Our Fame Be Great was the only one to be reviewed positively by Figes, who savaged all other rival accounts of the Russian Revolution in comments "unwisely" posted on Amazon. While recognising that "it is not a perfect book, and his sourcing can be erratic", he concludes that Figes's "lucid, well-written" account is "the only book on the Crimean war anyone could need".

"Crimea: the Last Crusade" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín

For Hermione Lee in the Guardian, the "stories in The Empty Family – like the painful stories of family conflicts in his last collection, Mothers and Sons – are threaded through with regret and need". A few "soggy moments" set aside, Tóibín's "scenes of longing for lost family homes or missed landscapes" are admirable in their "dramatic economy". Lee sees the depiction of "women's interior lives" in particular as "one of Tóibín's great strengths".

Keith Miller in the Telegraph comments on "a certain autobiographical element: in the characters' age, sexuality, nationality and profession". "But from the particular crucible of his own life," she writes, "Tóibín has forged something of wider, if not quite general, interest: a schedule of the principal torments available to the educated, left-leaning, upwardly mobile, male baby boomer in middle age."

David Mattin in the Independent notes the "deep-running concern for modernity, and the spiritual deformations that it visits on us", underpinning the nine short stories in Tóibín's collection. "Running deep beneath the stories is a concern for our new, modern rootlessness, and the collapse of old certainties."

Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

Edmund Gordon in the Observer, thinks that, "As a personal (and gleefully partial) survey of the highlights of English detective fiction over the past 200 years, her book offers much that will enlighten and entertain." He is less convinced by her claim that "the genre has been unfairly stigmatised by critics, and is as worthy of academic attention as any other kind of writing". But her "modesty", combined with "intellectual vigour . . . make it impossible not to take [her views] seriously".

For Amanda Craig in the Independent it is "P D James's longevity, as well as her serene intelligence, that makes this book especially noteworthy and enjoyable, for at 89 she has grown up with the Golden Age of detective fiction as well as made a substantial contribution to it".

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain