friends contrive to make this our last Christmas, then it's even more important to choose the right presents. Our chief book reviewer Quentin de la Bedoyere has some suggestions Choosing books to give as Christmas presents is not easy. The display in the shops is formidable, but the challenge to find a present which will be greeted with real pleasure, and not with mere polite thanks, is considerable. The following list is inevitably selective, but it aims to give enough information to focus the right book on the right person —even if that right person is you.
Since I am exhorted to love my neighbour as myself, it seems logical to start with myself. What would I like? The last thing a book reviewer needs as a Christmas present is a book. It is rarely possible to read one throughout before preparation for the next review starts, and my bedside table piles higher and higher with part-read volumes which I hope . to have completed before senility descends. It will be a close-run thing. But one kind of book is always acceptable: the reference book.
And so my list to Father Christmas will start with Whitaker's Almanac 2003 (A & C Black £40). It may be expensive, but it is a mine of contemporary facts and figures — including just the very one you need but can't put your finger on elsewhere.
Dipping, almost at random, I find an account and statistics of the main religious faiths in Britain, an exhaustive list of the people who govern us locally and nationally, the organisational structure of the NHS, the alarming fact that percentage of heterosexual infection by HIV has now overtaken homosexual infection, a monthly account of the previous year's events, and the times of the tides around Britain. Being fully up to date for only the current year might be regarded as an advantage, since a succeeding volume will settle a succeeding Christmas too — if Bush, Blair, Saddam and bin Laden have not between them rendered Christmas academic by then.
But the flux of events is continuous, and my wife, who prefers to face it retrospectively, has already asked for The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough ,y Ophelia Field (Hodder £20). This fascinating and manipulative woman had a tremendous influence on Queen Anne in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, although the Queen tired of her in the end. Of relatively humble birth, she married into the Churchill family, and her descendants include Sir Winston and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Posterity has not been kind to the richest woman of her time in Britain, who had a poisonous tongue and the reputation of termagant. Dr Johnson referred to her as a "good hater". Her lifelong propensity for preferring the truth as she saw it over kindness (and often writing it down) is dangerous in those who only have influence but move in the circles of power. Certainly she had her measurable successes, but was her energy rewarded by a substantial contribution to the political scene? Ophelia Field, who uses extensive manuscript sources, wonders, and suggests that Sarah, endlessly frustrated in her quest for power, must have wondered too.
But your taste may lie in more recent history. In which case Alan Clark's The Last Diaries: In and Out of the Wilderness, edited by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld £20), would be a good choice. It covers the period from 1991 to his death in 1999. Like Sarah's, this is a story of disappointment and frustration. Both had a high opinion of themselves, both were habitués of the circles of power, and both lacked the emotional bottom that allowed them to be entrusted with it.
During his last decade, Clark resigned his parliamentary seat, failed to be rewarded with a peerage, and finally returned to Parliament in the Kensington and Chelsea seat, which could have been tailor-made for his social talents. His description of William Hague as a "dreadful little man who has absolutely no sense whatsoever of history, or pageantry or noblesse oblige" gives an idea of the vigour of his writing.
Diaries fascinate the voyeur in us and, from these very personal accounts, we can detect the good intentions deflected by emotional lability, the hypochondria whose shadow took substance in the form of his fatal brain cancer, the infi delittes and the happy restoration of his relationship with his wife, Jane. Indeed, Jane's diary of his last months, appended to this book, is most moving. Did Clark become a Catholic on his deathbed? Trewin thinks not, but it would have been in character with a restless soul unable to find peace until the end.
If a diary like Alan Clark's can give us all the Munediacy of the personal voice, then the recorded voices of the combatants in war are even more direct, and more powerful. Forgotten Voices, edited by Max Arthur (Ted Smart £19.99), is a selection from the sound recordings, made in 1972 by the Imperial War Museum, of participants in the Great War. In my childhood, when the school library reflected its adventures, it seemed uplifting, almost romantic. I value an early copy of the Wipers Times, an informally produced newspaper which conveyed a superficial impression of a sort of public school jaunt.
Only in reading between the lines did one detect that the sanctions were not gating or extra prep but death or horrific wounds or lungs shredded by mustard gas. But Max Arthur's book gives us what was between the lines — spoken by plain men (and sometimes women) who had had a lifetime to reflect, and no axes to grind. I am glad the pieces are short, because they are often intensely painful.
Yet, ironically, they are uplifting in the sheer courage of ordinary men, or the love which grew' between strangers who found themselves neighbours in the line. What do you make of the men who carried a comrade stained by dysentery to a foul latrine only to watch him drown in the filth when he fell in and was too heavy to lift out? Sordid? Perhaps. Noble? Certainly. When the Armistice was declared, there was no rejoicing in the trenches, only the stunned torpor of men who had been through too much. Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the last few days of the war, wrote "My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity." Here is the human anatomy of that poetry and that pity.
uring World War II, Trollope and the Barchester Chronicles became popular reading again. It was a return in the imagination to an old traditional world in which the rows and the wrangles, the successes and failures, were comfortably remote from a sky full of vapour trails and the whistle of a bomb or the rasp of the Doodlebug. Times are troubled again, and so my next choice is Godly and Righteous, Peevish and Perverse compiled by Raymond Chapman (Canterbury Press £20). These accounts, from literature and letters, about the clergy, few more than a page long, would be just right to settle one for sleep. There is plenty of humour, as you might expect, but much that is serious too. One would expect to find Mrs Proudie and Sydney Smith (as one does); but Lytton Strachey on Cardinal Manning, and several accounts of the poverty of many of the clergy, give a balance. • Using chapter headings from the Book of Common Prayer, Chapman collects his pieces under topics such as "Godly, righteous and sober" and "Then shall follow the sermon". A wide range is covered, to include Nonconformists, Catholics and American clergy, but the emphasis is inevitably on the Church of England. Having the good fortune to be related to members of the Anglican clergy, I know and rejoice in the foibles of the older school. I particularly enjoyed the story of a Victorian retired Anglican Archbishop of Dublin who was invited back to dinner by his successor, and remarked absentedmindedly to his wife: "I am afraid, my love, that we must put this cook down among our failures."
By a rough calculation I have now spent 22 years and eight months asleep. Of all the discrete activities of my life, this has taken up by far the most time. An yet I know, or knew, little about it. But now I have read Counting Sheep by Paul Martin (HarperCollins £14.99) which is subtitled "the science and pleasures of sleep and dreams". I learn that we are a sleep-deprived society, often taking pride in how little we need in order to cope with the daily grind.
All mammals sleep, and need to do so for their own preservation, yet humans tolerate a deprivation which reduces our work performance, endangers our personal relationships and is responsible for more traffic accidents than drink or drugs. One might imagine that it would have an important place in medical schools, yet the average doctor is lucky to have received as much as 15 rUinutes training in the subject. Martin has a talent for describing a subject in an entertaining way, while basing his message on a good scientific background. He does not neglect those who experience troubled sleep, and his chapter on the pleasures of dreaming certainly opened my eyes. He could have subtitled his book "Everything you always wanted to know about sleep but didn't know whom to ask". Ask Martin, then lend the book to your GP.
Who was Abraham, and what does he mean for us today? Bruce Feiler, in an impressionistic and readable book, Abraham, in search of the father of civilisation (Piatkus £14.99), starts his quest at the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham so nearly sacrificed his son. Abraham is the father of faith, the progenitor of belief in the one God. He has his foundational place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As Feiler questions representatives of each of these faiths, he discovers that, despite our fragmentary knowledge, Abraham offers something different, and always important, theach of them. There is even, for Feiler, an Abraham of today, pointing always to belief in God and calling for our surrender to him (islam is the Arabic word for surrender) despite the deep chasms between the monotheistic religions. We are enjoined by Pope and Council to reflect on how the Spirit works in the different religious traditions, and this book, in focussing on Abraham as a common point of origin, is a model of how this might be done. Yet it seems to me that Christians must never forget Jesus's words: "Before Abraham was, I am." That has to be our perspective, however much of great value we may learn from others.
If my memory serves me right, it was Chesterton who ridiculed the idea that the pointed spire of a church was a covert phallic symbol, by suggesting that it would have been very difficult to build one with the spire pointing down. But it is certainly true that the architecture in fashion, as Sir Ernst Gombrich taught, expresses the culture and the values of the society which built it.
Even choosing a house to buy (if anyone can afford to) inevitably says something about the buyer. So what can we learn about a whole religious order from its architecture? Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation by Terryl Nancy Kinder (William B Eerdmans £45) is a major study on the relationship between their architecture and Cistercian spirituality. Weighing in, on my kitchen scales, at some 6lbs it is beautifully presented, and fully illustrated. It is not a guide to individual monasteries, but an invitation to contemplate how the forms of Cistercian architecture relate to their spirituality. For the right person this would be a very special present. At £40, Stefan Buczacki's Fauna Britannica (Hamlyn) is not cheap, but is excellent value for money. With a forward by the Prince of Wales, it is a beautifully illustrated account of our fauna which includes the folk tales, superstitions, mythology and traditions associated with them. While I suppose the demeaning description of "coffee table book" applies, this one will often be lifted from the table (by those strong of wrist) to enjoy its delights. I have to admit that I am much more interested by the tales and associations of wildlife than in its taxonomy, although here you get both. If you are giving it away for Christmas, buy it right away so that you have a chance to read it first. Even at the price, you might be tempted to buy another copy for yourself. Being mean, I would probably change my present list and simply retain it for my own pleasure.
Search Press (with whom I have to confess a family connection) has a long established reputation for practi cal books on the arts. A good example of their work is Embroidered Boxes by Jane Edmonds (£8.95). I can't pretend that I am into embroidering boxes myself, being more interested in their contents, but for the right person this would be a delightful present. It takes the beginner from the elementals right through to some fine examples of which anyone might he proud.
o, which of these • books would I add to my shortlist for reading on the eve of my execution (nobly innocent of course)? Whitaker would be irrelevant, and there would be no point in reading the biographies of people I was about to meet, including multitudinous Cistercians. I would have no interest in sleep, and fauna would only remind me of the beauty I was to leave behind. So it would have to be Forgotten Voices, to tell me of the ephemerality of human life and the immortality of sacrifice. But I might just have time, and it would in the circumstances be fitting, to embroider on the long box awaiting me, "He nP v er missed a deadline", as an optimistic epitaph.