Paperbacks

14th April 1995 at 01:00
What sort of person includes among the photographs in her autobiography pictures of herself visiting facially-scarred bomb victims, driving a Challenger tank and wearing a tailored two-piece to talk to decorators in her sitting room? Margaret Thatcher, of course, and the pictures do at least break up these 900 pages of self-justification.

The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins Pounds 9.99) is also remarkable for its absence of self-knowledge and some revealing asides. Leaving Chequers for the last time, she notes her assistant "filled a Range Rover with hats". She writes without embarrassment of "Thatcherites" as though they were not named after herself and happily describes her former Foreign Secretary as "either disloyal or remarkably stupid".

Interesting to read that "John MacGregor's limitations as a public spokesman" were what made him unacceptable (to her) at Education. Her "ideal solution" would have been to give the job to Tebbit. But for all the book's limitations, you would have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy the final chapter in which she gets her come-uppance.

The photographs in Mervyn Jones' biography of Michael Foot (Gollancz Pounds 9.99), on the other hand, show him surrounded by books, slumped in a deck chair and usually with hair askew. It is a generous, affectionate book that reads easily and illustrates (especially in conjunction with the Thatcher volume) how the qualities one might admire in a leader often make him or her unelectable. Michael Foot is simply too nice, too thoughtful, too wise for this rough old game - even if Jeffrey Archer has described him as the best political orator he has ever heard.

It is a relief to turn to literary biography: the subject doesn't "matter" in quite the same way - except that the subject of Jeremy Treglown's Roald Dahl (Faber Pounds 6.99) comes across as being profoundly disturbing. Dahl may have been feted as a likable, forthright anti-hero who told tales that gloriously debunked authority. He is also shown to have been difficult, spoilt, racist and anti-semitic. His support for Salman Rushdie extended to the message "Tell him he's a shit".

Treglown's portrait seems honest and fair; ready to give credit where it is due but never afraid to explode the myths Dahl (and others) spun around himself. It leaves us with the unanswered question: would you let your children loose in the company of this man?

In comparison with whom, Lewis Carroll emerges from Derek Hudson's 1954 biography (now usefully back in print; Constable Pounds 9.95) as having been comparatively normal.

I mean, he did actually write and ask Mrs Chataway if he could photograph her young daughter in the nude. His other hobbies were diverse. He maintained keen interests in buffaloes, fireplaces and thimbles. He used one of the first typewriters and made several excursions on a tricycle called a Velociman.

One would hope to find a whole range of such eccentrics in The Oxford Book of Schooldays edited by Patricia Craig (Oxford Pounds 7.99). One does - but that is all. So far as Ms Craig is concerned, the post-1944 primary school, secondary modern and comprehensive hardly exist. This is the Oxford Book of Public and Prep Schooldays, pre-1960. No surprise to find that her Penguin Book of Modern British Comic Writing (Penguin Pounds 7.99) is stuck in a similar time warp. Despite one or two pieces by Alan Coren and Miles Kington this is Punch circa 1950: whimsical pieces from essayists in their anecdotage.

There is much more fun to be found in The Macmillan Book of Proverbs from Around the World compiled by Norma Gleason (Macmillan Pounds 4.99). "Teachers open the door but you must enter by yourself" (China). "Look the other way when the girl at the teahouse smiles" (Japan). "Don't turn your trousers up before you get to the brook" (Turkey). And finally: "When in doubt, do nothing" (England).

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