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only a prefect; he was also a passionate member of Eton’s sporting teams, and a prominent member of several of its clubs and societies. Why this tension? Because Okwonga is also an Etonian in a deeper sense. ‘Visible effort,’ he writes, ‘is mocked


at my school – the trick is to achieve without seeming to try.’ The instinct for suppressing success and achievement, earned or unearned, is a particularly British sensibility. It is often used, Okwonga suggests, as a mask for vicious competitiveness. When writing about the tension between an apparently coy Britain and the large empire it possessed, he writes: ‘This apparent bashfulness hides a ferociously competitive spirit.’ Although racism certainly still exists in British society, the country has made progress when it comes to representation of, and opportunity for, people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The educational achievements of British Indians, British Chinese and British West Africans are well established. One in 10 MPs now comes from an ethnic minority background. (The ethnic minority population in Britain is 14 per cent, but MPs tend to be of a certain age, and a significant chunk of ethnic minority people are under 30.) Some 46 per cent of doctors are from an ethnic minority background – many of them British Asians. Of course, there is still much more to be done; but progress has clearly been made in terms of education, employment, and greater representation in politics. It’s still not difficult to find a flag-


waving jingoist ready to proclaim the excellence of the British Empire. But many people, Okwonga argues, don’t pay enough attention to its history, perhaps out of embarrassment. This attitude means we can’t properly confront the horrors of the slave trade and colonialism. But it has another consequence. Just like Okwonga, many people demanding measures for greater racial inclusivity exhibit twin tendencies, which are profoundly British: to understate how much has already been achieved, and to loudly express embarrassment at the perceived shortfall. The achievements, however – like the wealth and social capital of many Old Etonians – continue to accumulate. S


Nota bene


Empire of Pain By Patrick Radden Keef (Picador, £20, from 13 May)


Empire of Pain begins with the tale of three brothers who rose from the ashes of the Great Depression to make their fortune marketing Valium. The Sacklers became one of the wealthiest families in the world, famed for lavishing donations on institutions such as MoMA, the Louvre and Oxford University. Their fortune ballooned to $13 billion partly due to their association with the controversial OxyContin – a far more potent drug, which has been said to bear the ‘lion’s share’ of responsibility for the opioid crisis. New Yorker contributor Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of the rise of an empire, and the consequences for those who were left in its wake.


The Art Museum in Modern Times By Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames and Hudson, £30)


There has never a more apposite time to understand how the experience of art is framed by a sense of place. In Charles Saumarez Smith’s reflective book, the former director of the National Gallery and Portrait Gallery (as well as CEO of the Royal Academy of Arts) considers the ways in which art museums have evolved over the past century. His central finding is that while once museums functioned as organs of education for a public interested in art history, people are now more likely to seek a private, aesthetic experience. Saumarez Smith himself undertook an ‘odyssey’ to art museums around the world, visiting galleries everywhere from Tasmania to Naoshima to form his thesis.


Failures of State By Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (HarperCollins, £20)


A shocking exposé of the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic by the editor and deputy editor of the The Sunday Times’ Insight investigative journalism unit. They tell the story of how the British government (mis)handled the crisis, with meticulous research, corroboration by inside sources and leaked data and documents. They paint a picture of both inaction and misconduct, with Boris Johnson, fixated on Brexit and his own political legacy, missing key Cobra meetings during the critical opening months of the pandemic. The book details the government’s dalliance with herd immunity and asks how we allowed a second deadly wave to sweep the country and push the NHS to the brink.


Malice in Wonderland By Hugo Vickers (Hodder & Stoughton, £25)


Just days after commissioning Royal historian Hugo Vickers to write his authorised biography, Cecil Beaton died. The work was completed, and published in 1985, but now Vickers revisits the life and times of the great photographer. The new book includes excerpts from Vickers’ personal diaries, written in the five years he spent searching for the real Cecil Beaton. His notes capture personal moments with members of the photographer’s inner circle, from the Queen Mother to Grace Kelly and Truman Capote. He speaks to some of his enemies too, most notably Hollywood socialite Irene Selznick. It’s also about Vickers’ own journey, during which some of Beaton’s closest friends became his own.


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