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24 September 2023

From Duncan Hamilton to Lydia Kiesling: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Story of Scandinavia by Stein Ringen and Big Meg by Tim and Emma Flannery.

By Jonny Ball, Megan Gibson, Michael Prodger and Pippa Bailey

Answered Prayers: England and the 1966 World Cup by Duncan Hamilton; Riverrun, 480pp, £25

If the past is a foreign country, Duncan Hamilton’s Answered Prayers inhabits another planet. In this nostalgic book, he revisits the England football team’s last and only World Cup win. Even today, these names will be recognisable to younger fans whose closest brush with a men’s trophy victory is losing to Italy on penalties in the final of the 2020 Euros. There is the taciturn manager, Alf Ramsey, whom Hamilton clearly idolises; the Charlton brothers, Nobby Stiles, and Alan Ball; and Geoff Hurst, whose name is immortalised for his hat-trick in the final against West Germany.

What will be less familiar is the story of Hurst selling his competition memorabilia, shirt and winner’s medal, and speaking to half-empty venues in Dudley as the team’s victory faded into folklore. Hamilton writes with pathos and admiration for the men of a “far-off world of yesterday”, with player wage caps and orders to put out cigarettes in the dressing room. Harold Wilson famously noted that “we only win the World Cup under a Labour government”. Many will be hoping that 1966 is soon accompanied by another myth-making victory that will be the basis of new chronicles in half a century’s time.

By Jonathan Ball

Mobility by Lydia Kiesling; Crooked Media Reads, 368pp, £22.59

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. But what sort of stories, and what sort of lives do they enable? When we first meet Bunny Glenn, she is 15 and living in 1990s Azerbaijan, unconvinced that her American diplomat father has anything to do with the scramble for oil happening around her. Teenage Bunny isn’t intellectually curious but has an acute understanding of gender dynamics; her introduction into the shadowy workings of the oil industry is via a flirtatious gonzo journalist disgusted with the enterprise.

Later, adult Bunny has parlayed a temping gig in her mother’s Texan hometown into a marketing role at an “energy” company. Bunny and her friends are “not accustomed to thinking of themselves as people who had responsibilities to be bad or good”, so she doesn’t interrogate her role with much intensity. Instead she sees her job – in the “new technology and renewables” division – as a positive force: she promotes women in Stem subjects, after all. This idea helps her rise. But as Lydia Kiesling’s second novel races towards its sobering conclusion, Bunny’s story collapses in the face of the escalating destruction caused by the climate crisis. 

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By Megan Gibson

[See also: Bernie Taupin: good lyricist, bad writer]

The Story of Scandinavia: From the Vikings to Social Democracy by Stein Ringen; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 480pp, £25

At the beginning of his book, the author reminds us that Scandinavia – for many, a modern nirvana – has “an awful history”. Long before Norway wrapped itself in its sovereign-wealth comfort blanket, or Sweden and Denmark became beacons of social democracy, there was “illness, plague, exploitation, wave after wave of war and war again… much of it was inter-Scandinavian”. In his broad-sweep study, Stein Ringen, an Oxford-based social historian who is Norwegian by birth, tells the story of the region, from the Vikings to its current status as “a special child in the European family”. 

Population, trade and agriculture all came late to the Nordic realms and the enmities that once characterised relations between the different kingdoms have not, says Ringen, gone away. The centuries-long power struggles that saw Norway as a fiefdom of both Denmark and Sweden have left a legacy of resentment and envy. But what holds them together, he believes, is a shared faith in the welfare state, which runs deeper than mere “social generosity”: the maintenance of this welfare state has become the core purpose of Scandinavian politics. It is a long way from the Viking sagas. 

By Michael Prodger

Big Meg: The Story of the Largest, Fiercest and Most Mysterious Shark by Tim Flannery and Emma Flannery; Transworld, 208pp, £16.99

In 1973 a 16-year-old Tim Flannery found a fossilised megaladon tooth unearthed by flooding during one of Australia’s wettest years. The discovery, the palaeontologist writes in Big Meg, changed his life. This short book, co-written with his daughter Emma, is a fun biography of the largest predator that ever existed, Otodus megalodon. It evolved some 40 million years after the last dinosaurs died, meaning it lived at the same time as the first apes were evolving in Africa. The exact circumstances of its extinction are unknown.

Considering how little survives of them (shark skeletons are largely cartilage, so complete fossils are rare), we know a considerable amount about megs: they weighed at least 50 tonnes and measured up to 15 metres long; their bite force is estimated to have been 14 times greater than that of a great white shark. The authors also do a lot of informed theorising on things we don’t know, and are engaging on why such predators fascinate us. “Only evolution through natural selection that favours the less anxious mind,” they write, “could do away with the monsters that haunt our dreams.”

By Pippa Bailey

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This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List