Ian Jack was the editor of The Independent on Sunday and Granta. He is the author of The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain and he writes regularly for The Guardian. (September 2018)

IN THE REVIEW

Imploding with Cool

The Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper, June 2012

The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City

by Iain Sinclair
The best view of London is to be had from the north. Tourists and natives, elderly dog walkers, young kite-flyers, plump uncles anxious to walk off the effects of roast beef lunches: the people who make their way across Hampstead Heath to the top of Parliament Hill have been much the same mixture for as long as I remember, but the city they have come to look at has been dramatically transformed. Fifty years ago, the London skyline had very few verticals. As you looked south from Parliament Hill you saw the Post Office Tower to the west, Centre Point, a newly completed office block, to the east of it, and then, further east again, the familiar seventeenth-century dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other than those protuberances and a few power station chimneys and new housing blocks, the great city stretched flat and indistinct all the way from the western suburbs to the Essex marshes. Today, towers have sprung up everywhere, many of them oddly shaped and attention-seeking.

Good Old Gib

A British airplane silhouetted by searchlights on the Rock of Gibraltar as it prepared for a flight to the United Kingdom, circa 1943

Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler

by Nicholas Rankin
Nicholas Rankin’s sprawling book Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler spreads itself far and wide in trying to reconcile the details of Gibraltar’s own peculiar history with the world events in which it was frequently caught up. Describing the bloody progress of World War II from the vantage point of a tiny British colony is like trying to watch a battle from a badly placed rabbit hole, and to get closer to the action, Rankin often has to park his local narrative and make long detours to places such as Abyssinia and Berchtesgaden. The book frequently seems out of control. And yet for all its waywardness—not least in its deceitful subtitle—Rankin’s account is rewardingly informative and often delightful in the telling.

How the Scots Are Still Scaring Britain

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (center), British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Cameron’s mother, Mary, at the Wimbledon tennis championships, London, July 2013
Around lunchtime on Friday, September 19, an advocate of a united Britain could have looked at a political map of Scotland and, like the Queen (if David Cameron’s account to Michael Bloomberg can be believed), purred with pleasure that a disaster had been averted and all would now be well.

A Brilliant, Displaced Indian Writer

Sikhs migrating to Indian Punjab after the partition of India and Pakistan, 1947

The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide

by Ayesha Jalal

Bombay Stories

by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
Out of the twentieth century’s great calamities have come some of our most memorable satires: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk from World War I and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from World War II. Their equivalent in the Indian subcontinent is a short story titled “Toba Tek Singh” by the Urdu …

Blood Sport Beneath the City

Three boys from the Annawadi slum, one of whom is portrayed in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, February 2009

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

by Katherine Boo
What do we know of the poor? The question is connected to how we—by which I mean the relatively rich—write about them. Poverty first became a focus for literary investigation in the industrial cities of the nineteenth century, when its sights, sounds, and smells moved too close to middle-class houses …

Ireland: The Rise & the Crash

Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger

by Fintan O'Toole
In his Memoir published in 2005, the year before he died, the writer John McGahern began by describing the physical geography of the Irish county he was born in and to which he eventually returned. “The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep,” is …

Seduced by Trains

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

by Paul Theroux
Sometime during the mid-nineteenth century, writers discovered that traveling could be a lark. Disease might prevail in the tropics, but many of travel’s other hazards had disappeared: reliable marine engines protected ships against currents and capricious winds, railway companies built sanitary hotels, rooms could be booked by wire, banditry was …