ON THE run-up to the 1916 centenary, you are going to be hit with a virtual avalanche of books, radio and TV documentaries and magazine articles covering the siege of the iconic building and those magnificent fools who defended it, but few will be as definitive as this. As Wills makes clear, the whole purpose of the insurrection was not just for less than 2,000 men to take on an empire, but to agitate Irish hearts and minds, elsewhere referred to as "demonstration politics". But what a demonstration and what politics; poets and socialists planned an agenda of women's suffrage, reforms in education and language. More immediately, Wills' book concentrates on the spellbinding theatricality of the siege with the General Post Office and Sackville Street (O'Connell St) centre stage. Looters made off with prams full of clothes and shoes, the week was blessed with fine weather which brought hundreds down to O'Connell Street to watch the show until the shells from the gunboat Helga scattered them: "The carnival atmosphere was annoying to the Volunteers," Wills writes, "as it suggested that this was not a serious rebellion." But then it all became very serious indeed, as the leaders were needlessly taken out and shot. A dispassionate scholarly yet effortless read.
AN OLD friend of this reviewer, the late Pat Murphy of Crookhaven who covered the Russian Revolution, once told me that Ransome was a Walter Mitty-ish dreamer. Of course, this was long before classified documents were released in 2005 proving that Ransome had indeed worked as an agent for the British government in Russia from 1917 to 1924. So who exactly was Arthur Ransome? College-educated, comfortably upper-middle class. Early influences and shaper of Ransome the Bolshevist apologist were Hazlitt and William Morris: "No man is good enough to be another man's master." The Double Life of the title refers to Ransome's later life as writer of children's books and his earlier life in Russia where he was on good money at the time from the Manchester Guardian (£20 a week), but not enough to provide him with a huge farm and land in the Lake District. Chambers also asks questions about the Baltic ketch on which Ransome loafed about. But was he a double agent? Why did Lenin refer to him as a " seful idiot"? As far as possible, Chambers answers some of these questions.
IF THERE is any justice, Hall will one day be rewarded with a Booker. Her The Electric Michelangelo was short-listed, while this one was long-listed. Of the two, this one is certainly more enigmatic where a slow reading and concentration will be rewarded. The story unfolds through four narratives across different places and timezones. In contemporary Britain, artist Peter Caldicutt is going through a valley period. His daughter teeters on the verge of an emotional collapse following the killing of her twin brother in a road accident; so close were they that they once "linked fingers in the womb". The narrative then swings back 40 years to Italy, where a painter, who once corresponded with the young Peter Caldicutt, begins his final painting. A subtle and thoughtful read.