Reviews round-up | 7 January

The critics' verdicts on Linda Colley's book on the union, David Gilbert's "& Sons" and Mark Bostridge's history of England at the outset of the First World War.

Acts of Union: Acts of Disunion Linda Colley

With the referendum on Scottish independence looming on the horizon, Linda Colley’s Acts of Union: Acts of Disunion could be seen as a timely addition to the literary canon. The book focuses on what its title suggests – the disjointed way in which modern Britain has been created. However, having been adapted from a series of short talks that Colley did for BBC Radio 4, critics have not been universally pleased with the depth of the book.

David Robinson of The Scotsman appears disappointed by the fact that although it is worth getting Colley’s "historical perspective on what kind of country Scots ought to aim at living in […] the fact that Scotland only takes up one out of her 15 short chapters means that we won’t get too many answers." Although obviously impressed with the argument that "Britain was forged together through war, Francophobia, Protestantism and commercial prosperity" and the idea of Britain being an unstable "state-nation" with no common identity, his criticism of what the book is lacking in content and form seems to outweigh his reflection on its merits.

On the other hand, the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is hugely appreciative of Colley. Noting that she initially took issue with the length and depth of Acts of Union, feeling "the book was rushed, sparse and unsatisfactory", she states that on her second reading she began to fully understand "Colley's alchemic genius". Believing that the book’s pinpoint accuracy and demolition of "unreconstructed patriotisms, tight certainties, received notions and political manipulations" renders it a text to be admired, Alibhai-Brown is generous in her praise. Although she too has her own criticisms – specifically in the way in which the "monarchy is waved through and kneeled before" and a lack of recognition of historic ethnic diversity – like Robinson she is ultimately swayed by Colley’s depiction of an "unsettled nation".

The Economist takes a similarly appreciative line on Colley’s book. Stating that "the themes it explores are universal: how national identities react to globalisation and migration", the paper focuses on the awareness brought to specific, yet generally unrecognised, aspects of British history. This includes Britain’s "mythical" history as a liberal country, its "islandhood" and subsequent colonialism, and the fact that its unions were "forged in a time of conflict with Europe". Despite their praises, the Economist does note, as Robinson seems to imply, that Colley is not necessarily as neutral a writer on the topic of union as she claims, "for the prescriptions she offers are designed to maintain some kind of union".

& Sons, David Gilbert

Although published back in July, David Gilbert’s & Sons has just started to take off in UK literary circles. Telling the story of aging novelist Andrew Newbold (A. N.) Dyer’s attempt to reunite his estranged family in the wake of a close friend’s funeral. The book is narrated by the deceased’s son – who manages to get caught up Dyer’s messy life as he brings his three sons into the embrace of New York City’s Upper East Side for a life-affirming reunion. Gilbert’s second published novel, & Sons has received mainly positive reviews.

The Guardian’s Emma Brockes is particularly taken by the "charm" of "the unreliable narrator, Philip Topping," whom she insinuates is an interesting character. Her largest criticism of the novel is Gilbert’s tendency to focus on "surface details", stating that "Gilbert has to watch himself; he has been known to disappear, Alice-like, down rabbit holes of meaning." Equating this to his OCD, this flaw is forgiven however, with Brockes recognising Gilbert’s authentic knowledge of his hometown, New York City, and commenting on "a great scene in the Metropolitan Museum, where he spent a lot of his childhood".

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, amplifies the relationships Gilbert creates between his characters in relation to the novel that A. N. Dyer is famous for, Ampersand. Noting that the title of & Sons reflects Ampersand’s looming presence over the lives of AN Dyer’s sons, who are "struggling to establish a viable independence", Wood appears to admire Gilbert’s skill in weaving the metaphorical idea of the ampersand throughout the novel. He writes that one the novel’s "funniest and most biting scenes" is when Dyer’s oldest son thinks he has achieved success with a new script, but that soon it is revealed that the director's "real interest is in making a movie of Ampersand". Wood goes on to praise Gilbert’s "rich theme", stating that he "has a wonderfully sharp eye for the emotional reticence of the men of A. N. Dyer’s generation and class".

In The Financial Times, Erica Wagner is similarly complimentary. The novel makes overt references to the similarities between A. N. Dyer and JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. Wagner believes that Gilbert has been successful in creating this comparison, calling the novel "much more than a satire on the New York literary and social world". As with Brockes, she too finds the character of Philip Topping praiseworthy, describing him as "engaging company and a fine storyteller". Wagner concludes by applauding the "reminder that all of us transform our lives into stories – and that every narrative comes at a cost."

The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge

It has been 100 years since the beginning of WWI, and as can be seen with the skein of books being published this year by authors such as Adam Tooze, Frank Furedi and Neil Astley, the Great War is still very much part of the national consciousness. In his new book, The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge tells the story of England at the beginning of the war in a unique way – focusing on the small, yet important, initial details of a disastrous conflict.

In The Times, Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s descriptive review presents a positive recommendation of the book. She believes Bostridge’s main aim of the book is showing that "pre-war England was not as idyllic as popular tradition suggests", and approves of this message. However, Hallet also enjoys the "modest" and "humane" elements of the book. Stating that "Bostridge has a pleasantly off-hand way of introducing his major themes", Hallet is particularly pleased with what she deems an unromanticised depiction of the beginning of WWI.

Lucy Lethbridge of the Financial Times also likes the way in which Bostridge "takes us through" 1914, using "details found in a range of diaries, letters, newspapers and memoirs". She comments that the way in which Bostridge "digs out stories behind the stories" and in effect personalises the world of 1914, makes it easier for the reader engage with the past. For Lethbridge, the book harnesses the tragedy of the war through showing the way it was foreshadowed, noting that the book is "a truly gripping chronicle of the mood of a nation moving unwittingly towards catastrophe."

The NS's TV critic, Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, finds The Fateful Year to be a refreshingly "idiosyncratic diary", commending Bostridge’s rich details, and attention to the "shadows and portents," of 1914. Like Lethbridge, Cooke is affected by the foreshadowing of the devastation of war, commenting on the "descriptions of paintings, music and poems that seem to predict the coming carnage" as "unnerving". However, Cooke goes on to offer her criticism of the book, stating that some "episodes feel misplaced" within the narrative, and suggests that "its primary engine was a desire to honour an important anniversary", rather than offer a genuinely new idea about WWI.

Gilbert is praised for his depiction of New York. Photograph: Getty Images.
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge