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Read all about it: NS Books of the Year 2012

The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their favourite books of 2012.

Each year, in November, we ask regular contributors to the Critics pages of the New Statesman, together with other friends of the magazine, to write about their favourite books of year. There are no constraints on what kinds of books they are able to choose, so the results are often intriguing. Consensus is largely elusive, although this year a couple of titles were chosen by several of the participants - What Money Can't Buy, the political philosopher Michael Sandel's assault on the logic of market fundamentalism (the Labour leader Ed Miliband was among those to nominate Sandel) and John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Rowan Williams

Two books this year have struck me as overwhelming in different ways. Marian Partington’s If You Sit Very Still (Vala, £15.99) is an account of coming to terms with the most appalling sort of bereavement imaginable: Marian’s sister, Lucy, was abused and murdered by Fred and Rosemary West. Her spiritual journey to a place where it is possible to contemplate all this without hatred or despair is as moving as anything I’ve ever read on such a subject.

Alan Garner’s novel Boneland (Fourth Estate, £16.99), an adult continuation of his children’s fantasies of the 1960s, is a distillation of all that makes Garner such a unique genius – written with intense, spare vividness, terrifying psychological subtlety and the kind of visual imagination that makes everything, from stones to stars, strange.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo:Nationaal Historisch Museum via Creative Commons)

A S Byatt

Jenny Uglow’s The Pinecone (Faber & Faber, £20) is about the language of carving, objects containing ideas. It is the story of Sarah Losh, a north country heiress in the early 19th century, forceful, learned, independent, who built a church full of fascinating images. The tale is mysterious because Uglow worked with almost no manuscript remains and scrupulously invented nothing. She has turned this central silence into a kind of force by describing stones, glass, things constructed, so precisely that they become not exactly alive but strangely present on the page. Their world – business, weather, politics, poets, marriages, deaths – becomes a revenant around them. I don’t know another book that feels quite like this one.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Miliband

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Arrow, £7.99) is a great story set in the world of finance about markets being manipulated, how technology has changed financial markets and greed. Entirely fictional, of course. In What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20), Michael Sandel makes a powerful argument that applying market values where they don’t belong – whether in government, education, art or personal relations – can corrode our ideas of right and wrong. The book argues that when we don’t observe the boundaries of markets, we corrupt the values we share. I was proud to have Michael at the Labour party conference this year, encouraging delegates to argue and debate. This is a book that can persuade people that the rules of the economy don’t just reflect our values, they help to determine them – and that is a powerful argument for change.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Ali Smith

I think Peter Hobbs is one of the most fearless, most original and most graceful novelists at work right now. His second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber & Faber, £10.99), came out quietly at the beginning of the year. A story of impossible and dangerous love across class, politics and hierarchy in Pakistan and about the risks, the importance and the unexpected hospitality in the act of storytelling, it’s even more proof, if we needed it after his striking debut, The Short Day Dying, of his ability to do anything he likes with voice and to treat form with the elegance and resonance that delivers both these novels as contemporary classics.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Melvyn Bragg

It’s been a very strong year for fiction with some surprising omissions from the Man Book­er Prize longlist. It’s tempting to discuss at least three of the novels I’ve enjoyed but I’d rather concentrate on one – Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Barker has steadily built up (beginning with Regeneration) what has a fair chance of turning out to be a great and lasting series of fiction based on the First World War. Toby’s Room can be seen as a companion piece to an earlier novel of hers, Life Class. We’re in the world of art students at the Slade and then the furnace of the trenches. The plot unfurls to a devastating conclusion. It is a very fine piece of work.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Margaret Drabble

Two memoirs of our time: Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape, £25), an indispensable text that needs no description, and Martin Bernal’s Geography of a Life (Xlibris, £17.99), which rambles through an extraordinary academic career. Chronologically and stylistically chaotic – he ascribes the polished prose of his controversial book Black Athena to the talents of his then editor – it is a mixture of unworldly self-revelation and intellectual perseverance, with a cast that includes his father, J D Bernal, his formidable mother, Margaret Gardiner, Elias Canetti, W H Auden, Jessica Mitford, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Said and many more. I found it gripping, as I have found his work on Eurocentrism, anti-Semitism and the roots of Greek civilisation. It’s the exemplary tale of a cradle leftist, fighting to the end. Known to students and colleagues as “a pasty-faced Maoist” and “that devil Bernal”, he is at once self-deprecating and utterly confident. Not unlike Salman Rushdie.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Balls

One of my earliest childhood memories is reading a sensory storybook with my mum. You could scratch it like a chicken in the yard and smell the lavender as you turned the page. It worked every time! Nigel Slater writes adult versions of those childhood books. And he does it not with texture, potions or even many pictures but simply with words. As you read his descriptive prose – “mild, elusive, savoury yet sweet” – you can just smell that aroma of bay and garlic as the pork shoulder cooks in milk, Italian style. It works every time. This year, I have loved reading Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, £30). The recipes work. The seasonal chapters are fun. And the writing is just fabulous and so, so aromatic.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: MidnightLounge via Creative Commons)

Tracey Thorn

I loved Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) but it is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) – a brilliant psychological thriller of unreliable narrators and shifting sympathies – that has been my book of the year. A married couple, Nick and Amy, take turns to tell their story through diary entries and first-person narrative, after she has mysteriously disappeared. One of them is an idiot, the other a psychopath; it’s up to you to guess which. When it becomes clear, you then have to decide who you’re rooting for and it’s not as clear cut as you might imagine. Among the page-turning plot twists, Flynn makes room for outbursts of feminist invective that will have you punching the air in solidarity, then remembering whose side you’re on. Exhilarating and creepy, it has sent me rushing off to her other novels.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Colm Tóibín

The value of the new edition of The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, £60) is not merely in the quality of the illustrations but the lu­cidity of the explanatory texts by Bernard Meehan. Although my ancestors came to Ireland some centuries after its creation and thus I cannot claim credit for it, I bask in pride that we did not destroy this masterpiece of European art. Another key book that helps to explain Ireland, this time in all its dark tragedy, is Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy (Cork University Press, £55) – an enormous tome that sets out the scope of contemporary scholarship on the famine. Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic (Vintage, £3.99) is a very short book compared to the other two but is invaluable because of his wisdom and the passionate nature of his engagement and his sane effort to find the outlines of an agreement in the Middle East.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Jesse Norman

My book of 2012 is The New Few: or Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) by Ferdinand Mount. It’s short, ironic, beautifully written and infused with a slow-burning anger at how the fat cats have taken over – in finance, in business, in officialdom, in politics. Starting with the parable of William F Aldinger (who was paid £35m over three years by HSBC for selling them a business on which it lost £40bn), the book elegantly dissects the failures of shareholder capitalism, oligarchy and the centralisation and resistance to change of the Whitehall (and euro-) blob. The result is a formidable and distinctively conservative critique of crony capitalism and its political and economic growth factors. Much to agree with, yet more to admire.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Richard J Evans

My book of the year is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30). It’s an enormously engrossing study of the personalities and politics of the many different European states that plunged into the disastrous conflict of the First World War. Clark makes the decision-makers come alive, exposes their personal foibles and ambitions and puts them in the context of an increasingly polarised European states system. He has used almost every national archive in Europe and brings some startling new facts to light. And he focuses far more than most historians do on the violent and unstable political maelstrom of the Balkans, where the fuse that led to August 1914 was lit. Clark has got in early for the centenary commemorations and delivered an original and startlingly revisionist work that all the other studies of the war’s origins that will doubtless appear over the next two years will have to take into account.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Alain de Botton

This year, I was touched by Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (Faber & Faber, £12.99). As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Syniq via Creative Commons)

Laura Kuenssberg

To anyone who is fond of a good snooze, the title alone of Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (Penguin, £7.99) is ample reason to pick it up. Yet the reward is far more than the pleasure of pondering months cocooned in your duvet. The decision of the improbably named Eva Beaver, a middle-aged librarian from Leicester, to take to her bed for many months gives the creator of suburban teen anti-hero Adrian Mole plenty of scope for gags. Yet it stands out not for those (or the tips on how to avoid bed sores) but for the way it explores the entirely terrifying prospect that if you stop and comprehensively examine your life, you might not like what you see. Unexpectedly memorable and enticingly tough.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Alexander

Old friends know you well enough to know the books you’ll love. In September, while at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, David Miliband urged me to read Our Divided Political Heart by the Washington Post columnist E J Dionne Jr (Bloomsbury, £19.99). It was good advice. Dionne argues that the US was forged by both individualistic and communitarian impulses and that today’s polarised disagreements about the country’s future reflect fundamentally different and contradictory accounts of America’s history. Its lucid and insightful plea for a new and more balanced public discourse is one that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to consider. With its broad historical sweep, Dionne’s book reminds us that today’s politics reflects yesterday’s history. Yet in contemporary America, historical accuracy has too often been the victim of partisan passion. If the public realm is filled simply with shouting, the public will simply retreat further from it. Instead, we need politicians brave enough to level with the public, to be honest about the past and candid about the future. What Our Divided Political Heart expresses eloquently is the simple truth that politics as usual just doesn’t cut it.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jenny Diski

Anakana Schofield’s Malarky (Biblioasis, $19.95) and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (Faber & Faber, £7.99) are quite different novels, each with their own notable style and imaginative power. Good new novels are rare and here are two of them. Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill (Quercus, £18.99) is a brilliantly formulated and well-written account of a tawdry murder that shines a bright light on postwar austerity England.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jon Snow

We continue to live through more than challenging economic times – times in which we begin to wonder if anyone in the financial world actually understands anything at all. Hence my resort to the exceptional Lords of Finance: 1929, the Great Depression and the Bankers Who Broke the World (Windmill Books, £9.99). At times, Liaquat Ahamed’s account of the great crash of the 1920s reads like fiction. More than anything else, he reminds us eloquently how, particularly in banking, history repeats itself. No one, its seems, ever learns.

The death of Eric Hobsbawm provoked me to pick up his wonderful autobiography, Interesting Times: a Twentieth-Century Life (Abacus, £12.99). It is an unexpectedly eclectic, beautifully observed journey through a complex century in which Hobsbawm renders the idea of a great intellectual remaining a communist for 50 years to have been nothing less than normal. Reading this touchingly human book, I learned so much about the history that simply dried up when we were at school.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Julie Myerson

By far the most intense experience I had as a reader this year was with David Vann’s Dirt (Heinemann, £12.99). Words and ideas seem almost dangerous in his hands and yet his work is full of heart. For me that’s probably the definition of perfection in fiction. Emily Perkins also did something brilliantly and differently boundary-smashing with The Forrests (Bloomsbury, £12.99), an ambitious and unerringly feminine family saga flooded with light and life. Her description of how it feels to get a small child dressed after swimming is still with me months after reading.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Simon Heffer

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30) is the best book I have read this year, or indeed for several years. His depth of scholarship, his power of analysis and his ease of style make me pity other lesser historians who will be traversing this ground before the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014. In the same league, and almost as good, is Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (Allen Lane, £25), which tells how Hitler’s evil was supplanted by Stalin’s, and details the murder, theft and destruction advanced in the name of Stalin’s ideology. All those minded to excuse the late Eric Hobsbawm’s offensive views on this question should read this book. I also learned much from Reflections: the Piano Music of Maurice Ravel by Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press, £22.95), which illuminates some of the most important work of this great composer.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

James Wood

Karl Ove Knausgård’s extraordinary book, A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker, £17.99), the first volume of My Struggle, didn’t get the attention in English translation that it deserved. Not quite a memoir but not really a novel either, this account of the Norwegian writer’s struggle to become a writer, and his struggle to remain one while dealing with the blows and joys of life (marriage, children, the death of a distant and alcoholic father) is something more like a long dramatic essay, full of description, philosophy, self-examination and pitiless honesty. It creates room for both the lyrical and the prosaic, the shocking and the banal; there are reflections on experiences as diverse as playing in a rock band, looking at Constable’s drawings, reading Adorno, the passage of time, the disappearance of death from our everyday experience and the grim business of clearing up a deceased father’s empty vodka bottles.

Two novels also stood out: Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) may have an interrupted and sometimes peripatetic form but there are passages of writing about London (long ones: sections and scenes) more vital and achieved than anything else she has written. Like Knausgård, she is a risk-taker, restless with old forms. Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days (Seren, £8.99) was published last year but I only got to it this year. It’s a brilliant first novel set in 1989, in the writhing demise of communist Bucharest – dark, immaculately written, bitterly lucid and very gripping.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Joan Bakewell

Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane, £30) is an enthralling account of turbulent times with detail that is both surprising (the degree of Harold Wilson’s paranoia) and beguiling (punk’s greatest legacy was today’s close-cropped hair). This will stand as the definitive history for a good long time.

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, £8.99) is a jaw-dropping read charting the way a global media giant infiltrated and influenced our political culture and debased our values. And the story probably isn’t over yet.

In From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet (Quercus, £10.99), John Naughton’s easy journalistic style gives me all the information I sort of knew and facts I hadn’t joined up. He also looks ahead to what might come and offers a timely warning.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mark Damazer

Michael Sandel’s jargon-free and witty What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) corrals examples of how we have allowed the language of difficult moral choice to be crowded out by the apparently neutral mechanism of money. Sandel recognises that markets are often the best way to allocate resources but points to areas where the creation of new markets has had unpalatable consequences for fairness and solidarity. His case studies touch on queuing, health care, insurance, advertising and much else. They are often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes disturbing and always thought-provoking.

I discovered The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (Granta Books, £9.99) 80 years after its publication. It is a fantastic evocation of the Austro-Hungarian empire heading towards defeat and collapse. It spans three generations of Austrian male officialdom, and both describes and penetrates the traditions and mores of a society in gentle decay. This is a beautiful novel that does not rely on fireworks to achieve its impact. Roth’s portrayal of the buttoned-up Trotta family is unflinching but he leaves you with sympathy for many of his characters – including Emperor Franz Joseph himself.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Gray

Ray Monk’s Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, £30), does what nothing so far written on the enigmatic physicist has attempted: integrating into a seamless whole a profound inquiry into the formative influences on Oppenheimer’s character, a definitive account of his complex role in the development of the atomic bomb and a penetrating analysis of the philosophical implications of the new physics. It is not just a great biography but a powerful work of art.

Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) has been hailed as a brilliant exercise in high modernism, and so it is; but it is also a superbly realised exemplar of an older and rarer genre – a metaphysical novel in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, exploring the evanescence of consciousness in a material world that can never be finally understood.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

David Willetts

I was fortunate to chair the panel for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction this year. The worthy winner was Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (Vintage, £12.99) by the Canadian Wade Davis, which sheds new light on history that we thought we knew. It is meticulously detailed and very readable. During the judging process I was struck by how many excellent English-language writers there are at the moment.

Another book that left a deep impression was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin, £12.99). It is an optimistic take on the human condition that shows we are less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever before.

Donavan Hohn’s Moby-Duck (Union Books, £8.99) had the best title. It is the story of 29,000 rubber ducks that fell off a container ship while making its way from China to the US. By the end, this seemingly narrow story had encompassed geography, science and business.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Ruth Padel

There is no one like the poet Selima Hill. She gets to the heart of a feeling or a thought or a relationship via a symbolism so near the bone, but also so confidingly warm, that you only realise its achievement on second reading. She celebrates the all-too-humanly conflicted unconscious with surrealism and a uniquely lucid, but also lurid, inventiveness. Her tough, chaotic, truthful voice juxtaposes nanoseconds of intimate confidentiality (“having sex with someone when you’re sleepy/is hard enough, as we all know”) with mad zoology (“a tadpole I called Muriel/would look me in the eye as if to say/Give me back my jellied palisades”). Her new book, People Who Like Meatballs (Bloodaxe, £9.95), contains two sequences, one addressed by a woman to a man, one by a woman to her mother, from infant dependence to old age: brilliant, uncompromising, beguiling, painful and very funny. A triumph.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: PalFest via Creative Commons)

Pankaj Mishra

Original novels by Tabish Khair – How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Fourth Estate, £6.99) – and Jerry Pinto – Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company, £24.99) – revitalised Indian writing in English, a genre that has been subjected lately to premature obituaries. In The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard University Press, £25.95), Hamid Dabashi revealed, with his usual brilliance, yet more aspects of a sophisticated culture to an Anglophone readership. Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab (Nation Books, £17.99) is one of the most insightful accounts of the ongoing transformations in west Asia.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Jane Shilling

Seldom can a book have been more recklessly titled than Ian Sansom’s remarkable tour de force, Paper: an Elegy (Fourth Estate, £14.99). “Imagine for a moment,” Sansom urges his readers, “that paper were to disappear. Would anything be lost? Everything would be lost.” In fact, he comes not to bury paper but to praise it, for its many enchantments: its seductive versatility, its fragile power, its pernicious spread, since its origins in China 2,000 years ago, “like alarm and disease and dreams and despondency”. Sansom’s book (the product, he notes, of “one entire tree”) is vastly knowledgeable, beautifully written, very funny and, as you might expect, a remarkably handsome object in its own right. Probably best not to read it on a Kindle.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Norman Lamont

My favourite reading this year was Christopher Tyerman’s history of the Crusades, God’s War (Penguin, £16.99). The Crusades were an astounding phenomenon that lasted centuries and had a profound impact on medieval European society. For much of the European nobility, the world was as international as it is today. The behaviour of the crusaders was at times shocking, yet piety and devotion were also present. Tyerman stitches together a masterly tapestry of crowns, empires, massacres, chivalry and papal realpolitik. These events cast their shadow today and one is left wondering how George W Bush ever dared utter the word “crusade” in his response to 9/11.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: WikiCommons)

Simon Blackburn

In anticipation of a trip to Ecuador, I picked up Edward Whymper’s Travels Amongst the Great Andes of The Equator (BiblioBazaaar, £22.99), first published in 1892. Part ripping yarn, part scientific investigation, part mountaineering epic, part showcase for Whymper’s own illustrations, it is a reminder of just how versatile, curious and many-sided the great mountaineer was. Few modern travellers could imagine facing the difficulties and dangers that he took in his stride. The final illustration, of a “selection” of his bedfellows in Guayaquil, shows 50 horrendous bugs carefully catalogued by their zoological families but with the disarming comment that the larger species have been omitted because of their size. Awesome.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Michael Holroyd

Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is an extraordinary hybrid of a book, with seven brilliant chapters written by Maggie Fergusson, one of our most subtly gifted biographers, and responses from her celebrated subject. Her chapters are skilful orchestrations of truth and tact that offer the Morpurgo family an opportunity of finding relief from their troubles. His replies would have been all the stronger on a CD, allowing us to hear the voice that has entranced innumerable children. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul (MacLehose Press, £12) is a powerful short novel, taking us from Buchenwald and Vietnam to Algeria, and leading to the conclusion that those who suffer most go on to cause most suffering. Anyone who still believes that we should be sending people to American-style jails should read the description of the violent Texas prison in Gary Mulgrew’s Gang of One (Hodder, £8.99).
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Banville

David Thomson is the greatest living writer on the movies – or “movie”, as he prefers – and The Big Screen (Allen Lane, £25) is surely his magnum opus. He starts way back, with the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and ends with the so-called social network – “Facebook already takes our earnest admissions about ourselves and trades them for advertising” – and other latter-day horrors of the large and small screen. A joyful, passionate and worried book. Other ways of looking are proposed in Caspar David Friedrich, by Johannes Grave (Prestel, £80), a magnificent and uniquely detailed overview of the paintings of this dark and daring master of German Romanticism.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Laurie Penny

Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Melville House, £14.99), is the most important theory book I’ve read this year – an essential take on the current crisis by an anarchist anthropologist who combines credentials with readability. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (MIT Press, £12.95) is a lush, lyrical feminist memoir structured around a rereading of the lives of the wives of the great modernist novelists who were locked up in institutions when they tried to write themselves. And by far the most fun I’ve had with fiction this year was Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (Windmill Books, £7.99). Gorgeous prose and a rollicking steampunk spy thriller. Brilliant.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Geoff Dyer

The claims made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, £14.99) at first seem thoroughly implausible: that America’s criminal justice system, especially the launch of the “war on drugs”, has functioned to recreate racial segregation of a kind that the civil rights movement was thought to have brought to an end. And this is not just an accidental side effect (of poverty, rising crime rates, lack of education and so on) but a deliberate policy and goal. One is dragged to the middle of the book kicking and screaming – in the time of Obama, this can’t be! – but by the end, the weight of evidence, the extraordinary statistics (a prison population that has leapt from 350,000 to 2.3 million in 25 years) and the subtle power of Alexander’s analysis of “mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control” prove overwhelming.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Amanda Craig

A novel which stood out for me is Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours (Virago, £14.99), about an eccentric woman who tries to overcome the misery of her own childhood by founding an idyllic nursery for little girls. Like Edward St Aubyn and Henry James, Boyt has an acute sense of how even the rich can live in despair, and the result is an exquisitely written black comedy about innocence, evil and financial ruin. For children of eight and over, Kate Saunders’s The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99), about a poor family who inherit a shabby shop a stone’s throw away from Ed Miliband’s home, is a must-have. With haunted wallpaper, a talking cat and magical chocolate, it is pure joy for any imaginative child with a sense of humour.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Leo Robson

Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present (Bloomsbury, £18.99), which uses a mixed-race marriage to explore South Africa under Mbeki and Zuma, is a masterpiece. Philip Hensher apparently cannot stop writing novels, nor, when they are as rich as Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99), would we want him to; he is becoming the most dependable of English novelists. Michael Anesko’s Monopolising the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship (Stanford University Press, £30.50), about Leon Edel’s manipulation of Henry James’s descendants, is a gripping and groundbreaking book. The essay collection continues to thrive; of the many I came across this year, the best were Jonathan Meades’s Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99), Dwight Macdonald’s Mass­cult and Midcult (New York Review Books Classics, £9.99), Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours (McSweeney’s, £9.99) and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99).

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Sketch: Dan Murrell for the New Statesman)

Tim Soutphommasane

In The Passage of Power (Bodley Head, £35), the fourth volume of his epic study of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro sets the gold standard for modern political biography. And with each instalment of this biography, the complex legend of Johnson grows. Caro, now in the twilight of his life, has said that the final volume of “the years of Lyndon Johnson” is not to be completed by anyone other than himself. We can only hope that we are fortunate enough to see this monumental work reach its long-awaited conclusion. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Allen Lane, £20), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the limits of rationality with flair. The prestige of universal reason dates back to Plato but Haidt sides with David Hume’s contention that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Intuitions and the unconscious ultimately sway us more than reasons – at least that’s the thesis. When it comes to arguments, you have to think about being able to tell a compelling story and pushing the right buttons. It seems obvious enough; yet do we not often fall victim to the hubris of reason?

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Olivia Laing

Two magnificent books this year: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Vintage, £9.99) and Fire in the Belly by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury, £25). Both illuminate the divisions in American culture; both are elegant, engaged and full of feeling. Pulphead is a collection of essays drawn from Sullivan’s adventures in America’s heartland. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve pressed it on while raving about the portraits of Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, or the one about the blues, or the cave art hidden beneath Carolina. Strictly speaking, Fire in the Belly is a biography of the 1980s New York artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz. Inspiring, angry and meticulously researched, it also serves as a brutally revealing account of the Aids years, among the more shameful periods in American history. Biography of the year, without a shadow of a doubt.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Sam Bradley for the New Statesman)

Ed Smith

Two books about the state we’re in: Antifragile: How To Live in a World We Don’t Understand (Allen Lane, £25) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). Mount’s elegant essay explains how capitalism has been corrupted and corroded, leaving us with disempowered shareholders, confused savers and vastly overpaid executives. Where Mount’s book is controlled, Taleb’s insatiable polymathic curiosity knows no bounds. He is as trenchant and persuasive about diet as he is about debt. Taleb is always provocative (“If you see fraud and do not say fraud you are a fraud”), but he is also wise and emboldening. You finish the book feeling braver and uplifted.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Colin MacCabe

Susan Sontag’s second volume of diaries, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), covering the years 1964-1980, was a continuous delight. It provides a wonderful record of those years both politically and intellectually, including a trip to North Vietnam in 1968. But it is also laced with personal reflections that offer a portrait of one of the most remarkable intellects of our time.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Adam Mars-Jones

I admired a first novel that didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved, I J Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). The book has a strong plot but it’s kept in the background, almost suppressed, so as to fix attention on the narrator-heroine, an extraordinary creation, feral and tender. The writing is highly coloured though carefully controlled, full of pain with a strange backwash of joy. Christopher Reid is the least assertive poet of his generation, but unassertiveness can be a persona like any other and his voice is piercing and memorable. Nonsense (Faber and Faber, £12.99) is a strong collection, continuing his explorations of narrative verse. It’s highly entertaining but very far from throwaway.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

David Marquand

Two books have stood out for me this year. I was bowled over by Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20). Professional historians often look down their noses at historical novels, and I dare say university teachers of literature do so too. But the latest addition to the Mantel canon is superb history as well as magnificent literature. It has pace, excitement, astonishing insight into human psychology (much of it extremely nasty) and a wonderful ability to re-create a savage world, halfway between magic and modernity, in which heretics were burned at the stake and traitors were hanged, drawn and quartered. A must. The second is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, £12.99) – a long overdue part of my education but better late than never. I disagree with almost everything it says, but I have to admit that it is a work of genius, crackling with intellectual passion and barely suppressed rage. Nothing produced by liberals or social democrats in the past 60 years equals it for forensic power. After reading it, it is not difficult to see why the Hayekian New Right found it so easy to step into the breach left by the collapse of postwar Keynesian social democracy in the terrible decade of the 1970s – or why the crisis of our time has not yet produced a comparable counterattack.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Toby Litt

One book amazed me: Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, £10). It would be easy to be cynical and say that this is exactly the book one might have expected Olds to write, given the circumstances (Olds’s husband left her). Yes, this is exactly the great, heartfelt, monumental book – so much better than anything a cynic might write. There’s something of Emily Dickinson’s scour in this summation: “I was not driven/Against the grate of a mortal life, but/just the slowly shut gate/of preference.” The folk poem “Left-Wife Goose” is unlikely to be left out of any future anthology of 21st-century poetry. It even smuggles a Cocteau Twins lyric into its sorrowful clapping song. “Inter, Mitzy, Titzy, Tool,/Ira, Dura, Dominee,/Ocker, Poker, Dominocker,/Out Goes Me.” Stag’s Leap reads as the obverse of Robert Lowell’s auto­biographical wankathons. This is the other, better side.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Adam Gopnik

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Allen Lane, £12.99) got some ferociously nasty reviews when it came out. It was easy to see why: its argument that violence has diminished, and pretty drastically, over human history in general and over the past few centuries in particular – mostly owing to the spread of Enlightenment doctrines of kindness, tolerance and fair procedure – seemed counterintuitive, even fatuous, in the century after the Gulag and Treblinka. Though already a Pinker fan, I read it with some suspicion, but my doubts were soon dissuaded by the sheer weight, detail and quiet eloquence of the data Pinker marshals in support of his argument. Most of the time, when we read even a very good book with a theory we don’t like we come away unconvinced; only time, friends and many rereadings move us off home base in its direction. With this one, the rarest thing that can happen with a book happened: I began sceptical, sat up halfway through to consider and ended persuaded.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Editorial Intelligence via Creative Commons)

Sarah Churchwell

Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (W W Norton, £20) is the latest in a growing list of books that reconstruct the making of novels – the literary critic’s version of a DVD film commentary, offering behind-the-scenes contexts and insights into a masterpiece, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra’s book contributes to another welcome trend as well, the turn away from turgid, jargon-ridden literary criticism and back towards the belle-lettristic essay. Blending biography, history, travelogue and review essay, Gorra opens up James’s classic novel with elegance, nuance and grace, and reminds us what the master still has to teach us about art, free will, choice and America along the way.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Hurd

After the death of Edward VII in 1910, people began to ask how far he was responsible for the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. In her excellent biography, Bertie (Chatto & Windus, £30), Jane Ridley puts this argument to bed. She concedes that Edward, unlike his father, did not amend official documents but in 1903 he had driven through the streets of Paris and proclaimed that this was a city where he felt at home. In 1914, while the diplomats played their ambiguous games, the French people remembered the king who had been their friend. The king had spoken and for them this was the voice of Britain.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Adam Thirlwell

Of new things, I think I most loved Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Jonathan Cape, £30), where the sadness of the narrative is fractured by the fizziness of its construction: a gorgeous box full of miniature overlapping stories. The best prose was in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (Fourth Estate, £18.99), while I’ve found myself rereading Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home (Granta Books, £12.99), which comes out early next year, trying to work out this short novel’s intricate structure of gaps and holes. As for old things, the new complete version of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (Yale University Press, £15.99) is one jubilant, gruesome, unsparing self-portrait; while another is contained in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America, $35), whose prose is as deadpan good as Warhol’s or Gertrude Stein’s, but funnier than both of them.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Talitha Stevenson

The books that most expanded my soul this year are proof of the power of non-fiction to defamiliarise the ordinary and familiarise the strange. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99), is a Cadillac-on-the-freeway tour of Americana. In my favourite essay, about a Christian rock festival, he combines irreverence with reverence as only the holiest fools know how. Gerald Hughes’s Ted and I: a Brother’s Memoir (The Robson Press, £16.99) is the genesis story of Ted Hughes’s gods. Misty accounts of Ted as a child, keeping little fish in jars, marvelling at Gerald’s mature rat-shooting skills, show the vulnerability of a man whose excess of talent and beauty ensured that one day his failings would be deemed a universal threat.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

John Sutherland

The best thriller of the year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). The plot is as sexually edgy as a potato embedded with razor blades. At the risk of heading Private Eye’s logroller list of shame, the most impressive scholarly work I have read this year is my former colleague Rosemary Ashton’s Victorian Bloomsbury (Yale University Press, £25). There is a library’s worth of research compressed between its covers. The finest memorial volume was Peter Campbell’s Artwork (Profile Books, £30), a rich collection of his watercolours with feeling introductions about their late colleague by Bill Manhire and Jeremy Harding. I miss him too.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Andrew Adonis

My book of the year is Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg (Teachers College Press, $34.95), an inspirational story of social progress that masquerades as a technical account of the Finnish education system. It includes data from Finnish social surveys showing that Finnish men view teaching as the most desirable profession for a spouse, ahead of nursing, medicine or architecture; and that among Finnish women only medical doctors and vets rate higher than teachers in what Sahlberg calls the “Finnish mating markets”. “This clearly documents both the high professional and social status teachers have attained in Finland,” he adds with dry wit. If only the same were true of England. We could make it so, with a collective will.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Christopher Ricks

David Ferry is a transcendent American poet who has not had his due over here, where, until now, only his eloquent translation of Gilgamesh has been published. At last, one of the UK’s best publishers of poetry does right by him, with On This Side of the River: Selected Poems (Waywiser, £12.99), a handsome representation of his life’s work at its best, up to this very year. Ferry’s cadences are firm and touchingly tentative, his phrasing individually turned, his poignancies unsentimental. The true voice, or rather the true voices, of feeling, as clear as a bell, from a great poet, now of a great age. Alive with stoicism’s wit, “Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem”, a recent one-line poem, is no flat line: “It is a breath-taking, near-death, experience.”

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jonathan Derbyshire

John Jeremiah Sullivan pulls off quite a trick in the essays collected in Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99) – he mines the residual weirdnesses and oddities of the “other side of America” without ever condescending to his subjects. His piece on Michael Jackson, in particular, is a miracle of imaginative sympathy, as well as being the best bit of writing about music I’ve read in years. Sullivan’s big subject is the search for self-definition. It’s Ben Lerner’s, too. In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Granta Books, £14.99), Lerner makes a kind of refined comedy out of his grad student narrator’s gnawing sense of his own inauthenticity.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: WikiCommons)

John Burnside

David Gilbert may have spent the past 30 years in jail for his part in an attempted appropriation of funds by the Black Liberation Army in 1981 but his analytical powers, compassion and imagination are as keen as ever. In Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (PM Press, £15.99), he offers more of the urgent yet cool-headed political analysis that made his No Surrender (2004) vital reading for a new generation of activists. This time, it is more personal on the surface but don’t mistake this for yet another memoir of the 1960s – it’s a masterclass in political analysis and activism from someone whose integrity and lack of ego have allowed him to learn crucial lessons from the failures of his time in the Weather Underground and from the continuing struggles for justice and dignity in the various prisons where he has been incarcerated for far too long.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

One of the most informative and also entertaining books I have read this year is Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke (Bloomsbury, £20), an account of Churchill’s career as journalist and author. It was a remarkably highly paid career: he made the modern equivalent of £10,000 a month as a 25-year-old correspondent in the Boer war, then, 30 years later, the same for frankly lightweight pieces in the News of the World and he dealt with his publishers in a way that was sometimes barely honest.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Craig Raine

Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (Penguin, £12.99) is about Japanese women who came to America to marry Japanese husbands in 1900 – perhaps the first mail-order brides. This very short, entirely original novel, narrated in the first-person plural, an incantatory “we”, adumbrates lives, traumas, years with poetic brevity. A paragraph of only three or four sentences, for example, will tell you about a mother who has left an illegitimate daughter behind – the daughter she will dream about for the rest of her life, at always the same age, mesmerised by a dead bee in a puddle of dirty water. Here, a sentence, a swift, exact brushstroke, can capture pain with the paint still wet. A masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Peter Wilby

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) is the most effective demolition of the neoliberal project I have read, all the better because it prefers cool analysis to passionate denunciation. Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Allen Lane, £8.99) is a lucid, riveting and sometimes frightening account of the hacking scandal. I enjoyed reading Ed Smith’s Luck (Bloomsbury, £16.99) far more than I enjoyed watching him bat. The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Richard Pring (Routledge, £24.99) is a salutary reminder from Oxford’s professor of education of how much damage successive education ministers have done.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Benjamin Kunkel

Part of the nature of contemporary life seems to be to take for granted and project into the future conditions that are in fact rare and fleeting. Two recent books struck me as especially welcome corrections to this habit. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, £16.99) examines the simultaneous rise of fossil-fuelled capitalism and mass democracy, and asks very intelligent questions about the fate of democracy when oil production declines. And From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Allen Lane, £20) by Pankaj Mishra, is a reminder, by way of an intellectual history of Asian responses to imperialism, that European intellectual and political predominance was a freak of history unlikely to be sustained. Whatever else may distinguish this century from the last one, the geographies of thought, politics, and energy are all being remade.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jason Cowley

No book has absorbed me more this year than D T Max’s biography of the American writer David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (Granta Books, £20). Wallace was a novelist, essayist and teenage tennis champion. He was also clinically depressed for much of his life. His fiction is exuberantly experimental – cerebral, hilarious, sad, slightly bonkers – and his magazine essays and narrative reports are tremendously good. He collected pathologies. One Californian summer day in 2008 he hanged himself in the house he shared with his wife. He was 46. Another strange, tormented man of remarkable gifts is Tiger Woods, the greatest and most self-demanding player ever to strike a golf ball. In The Big Miss (Crown Archetype, £17.99), Hank Haney breaks all confidences as he tells the story of the years he spent as Woods’s coach. The end of their time together coincided with the golfer’s public disgrace and catastrophic loss of form. Woods is revealed to be an unfathomably remote narcissist who yearned to be not just the best player of his generation – he’s certainly that – but a champion for all the ages and a moral example to all men.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Writers Centre Norwich via Creative Commons)

Alex Preston

Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (Duckworth, £9.99) is a dystopian novel about scientists speculating for gems in the fictional Riphean Mountains. There are breathtaking, baroque descriptions of the natural world, a love story set against a desolate cityscape, exquisite touches of magic realism and science fiction. It is one of the most bizarre, beautiful books I’ve read in years.

 

 

 

 

 

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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“I teach dirty tricks”: the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.