Soulcraft as Leechcraft

The photographs on the jacket of Our Times provide a pointed reminder that the British past is not just another country but another continent.

The newly crowned Queen looks self-conscious yet confident in Cecil Beaton’s celebrated photograph of 1953, holding the scepter and orb of state in steady hands, her slender frame enveloped in ermine and brocade, on her head the crown of the monarchs of England, set there by the Archbishop of Canterbury during a rite harking back to King Edgar.  Behind her is a receding prospect of fanes and flags, numinous light pouring through the medieval tracery to pick out the arches of Westminster Abbey studded with the banners of Britain’s hereditary peerage.

The photograph beneath shows the Queen in her 80’s—still elegant and dignified but wrinkled, weary, and wary-looking, haunted, perhaps, by what Britain has become while she looked on, nominally in charge but actually almost helpless.

Our Times is the concluding part of a trilogy, following The Victorians (2002) and After the Victorians (2005).  It is an entertaining, evenhanded, unsentimental, usually compelling popular history that combines solid research and skillful storytelling with apropos anecdotes, catty animadversions, and some audacious assertions.

The Coronation, with its near-mystical mélange of young woman and redolent racial symbols, inspired polemics about...

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