Paperbacks

11th April 1997 at 01:00
For some people, the "privatisation" of morality means we are free to follow our own consciences. "So long as nobody gets hurt, what's the problem?" But such moral relativism is not acceptable to everyone nor to society at large. That, roughly, is the premise of Nigel Biggar's survey of contemporary ethical values, Good Life (SPCK Pounds 12.99).

Once it was easy. There were absolutes. But in our post-colonial society,the good liberal is diffident about "laying down the moral law". So how can we negotiate what is not so much a moral maze as (to use Biggar's phrase) "a moral wasteland"? In successive chapters, he analyses (as a Christian) the virtues and dangers of our modern ideals: self-fulfilment, freedom, work, ecstasy (the emotion, not the drug), tribal loyalty, tolerance and community.

It's not an easy book but he's good on how self-fulfilment need not turn to selfishness and how sexual desire (the desire for ecstasy) need not be simply a loss of self-control. He ends by asking whether morality can be taught; whether intellectuals, theologians and philosophers can simply tell others what is right.

The lost world of "born leaders" is vividly evoked in the extraordinary Bickersteth Diaries 1914-1918 edited by John Bickersteth (Pen and Sword Paperback Pounds 11.95). At first, the book seems Blackadder-ish; then its honesty sweeps you along with its narrative.

The Reverend Sam and Mrs Bickersteth had six sons. By 1914, two were ordained; five joined the Army. Two wrote extensive letters to their mother, who turned them into voluminous family diaries. When another son, Morris, was killed at the Somme, brother Julian (an Army chaplain) described his death in graphic if not tactful detail: "A shrapnel bullet struck him in the back of the head; a second later another bullet passed right through his head, coming out through his forehead." It was, notes Julian, "a splendid death".

Eighteen days later, this stoic, patriotic family ("How all my English blood courses through my veins") celebrated another brother's wedding. It is what Morris "would have wished". It may seem an alien world but it's still a valuable, incredibly vivid, firsthand historical resource.

I was taught history by a man whose preferred method was the unending dictation of notes. The one highlight was when we discovered his laboured jokes were actually written into his hardback exercise book, presumably to emerge on cue, year in year out. He'd have loved Histrionics by Geoffrey Regan (Robson Pounds 8.99).

But this "treasury of 600 historical anecdotes" contains a wealth of genuinely illuminating incidents. When retreating from Moscow, Napoleon asked a ferryman if many deserters had passed that way. "No, you're the first," came the reply. And when a German soldier was searching Picasso's apartment, he found a photograph of the painting "Guernica". "Did you do that?" "No," answered Picasso. "You did."

English teachers might find similarly useful classroom entertainment in Letters Play, an anthology of some 90 word games by Countdown's Richard Whiteley (Robson Pounds 6.99). Some are fatuous but others will raise interest in everything from spelling to puns, portmanteau words (for instance, brunch, cheeseburger) and the QWERTY keyboard layout.

Harry Blamires' Correcting Your English (Bloomsbury Pounds 6.99) is a traditional guide to "good" usage. Since it is arranged by topics such as "Detached Present Participles" and "Transitiveintransitive", it is not one for the office desk or lower school library. He illustrates infelicities with examples from the quality press. Tabloid journalists (says Blamires) adopt "a level of utterance so basic . . . they can scarcely go wrong".

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