4th July 1997 at 01:00
Redmond O'Hanlon's No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo (Penguin, Pounds 6.99) is a highly entertaining blend of Boy's Own derring-do and acutely observed natural history.

O'Hanlon - acccompanied, sometimes reluctantly by American scientist Lary Shafer - travelled up the Congo from Brazzaville into one of the most remote regions of Central Africa, his ostensible mission being to investigate reports of a Nessie-like creature in Lake Tele. But like any good traveller, O'Hanlon is as concerned with the journey as the destination, and the book is brought to life with his vivid descriptions of the local fauna. There's humour too, in the clash between O'Hanlon's boyish, can-do view of life and Shafer's world-weary scepticism.

George Steiner's No Passion Spent Essays 1978-1996 (Faber, Pounds 9.99) and David Selbourne's The Principle of Duty: An Essay on the Foundation of the Civic Order (Abacus, Pounds 8.99) are the kind of bad-tempered, opinionated books that can have you snorting with indignation and at the same time compulsively turning the pages. Both perceive a crisis of values at the heart of Western society and advocate - against the monstrous hordes of egalitarians, multiculturalists and the politically correct - a return to the values embodied in the traditional canon of European high art and philosophy.

The essays in No Passion Spent are highly varied, ranging from Homer and the Hebrew bible to Edmund Husserl and Charles Peguy. But it is the more polemical essays that provide the greatest entertainment. The Archives of Eden, with its lofty dismissal of American culture ("American philosophy has been thin stuff"), produced not so much a snort of indignation as a howl of outrage when it was first published. Disappointingly, Steiner appears to backtrack on it in the introduction. "The intuition behind it," he writes in a classic example of Steinerese, "may indeed prove myopic."

There are moments in The Principle of Duty - particularly when David Selbourne gets on to one of his favourite topics, the short-comings of professional academics - when I was reminded of Laurence Sterne's wonderful description, in Tristram Shandy, of the loquacious Uncle Toby riding his hobby horses. Selbourne's main theme is that the "corrupt liberal order" in the West has emphasised the rights of citizens vis a vis the state at the expense of their duties to one another. In order to rectify this, he puts forward a sequence of 338 numbered propositions designed to show that the principle of duty should be at the heart of the civic order. Unfortunately, there is little attempt to relate this to how power actually operates in complex modern societies, with the result that his theory seems academic in the worst sense of the term.

There's no danger of over-abstraction with Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (HarperCollins, Pounds 8.99), a racy account of the events leading up to Indian independence 50 years ago. This is very much history-as-popular novel, with an emphasis on the big personalities. The sense of immediacy owes much to the long interviews that the authors conducted with Mountbatten.


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