First thoughts

Mary Leland on some recent book releases

The Last Knight; A Tribute to Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin

Robert O’Byrne

Lilliput Press €25

Few titled Irishmen have left such a bequest to their nation as that bequeathed by the late Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin and last of his ancestral line. Yet, as Robert O’Byrne points out in this relatively modest but nonetheless searching celebration of FitzGerald, it seems to have been the idea of the end of the line rather than the legacy which attracted most attention at the time of his death in Sept 2011.

An accomplished writer, O’Byrne admits this portrait is not a biography: ‘Rather it is intended to be a celebration of Desmond’s public life and a record of his achievements.’ Approached in that tone of celebration, the book is what it claims to be, a tribute; at the same time it accommodates and draws on significant biographical details which give both context and colour to even a superficial recording of a career which included a crucial involvement with the Irish Georgian Society. And to the degree of loss with its ending. O’Byrne points out that to understand FitzGerald one needs to understand Glin, that village and its castellated mansion on the shore of the Shannon river.

As a personality FitzGerald, once encountered, was unlikely to be forgotten; O’Byrne makes it abundantly clear that as a cultural missionary his influence has left a lasting mark not just on Irish art, but on Irish attitudes.


Philip Ziegler Quercus; £14.99

On the last night of the run of The Party at the National Theatre in London in 1974, Laurence Olivier made an emotional curtain speech and then knelt down and kissed the stage. His leading role in Trevor Griffith’s political play was not the end of his acting career, but he would never act on the stage again.

His previously faultless memory was going — a fact which did not affect his ability to work in television (witness his Lord Marchmain in the 1981 production of Brideshead Revisited) — and he might have been aware that at 81 he was at last entering the twilight not just of his work but of his life.

As his biographer Philip Ziegler explains, his choice for that last theatrical part was a surprise: not the King Lear or The Tempest which had been expected by, for example, Peter Hall, his successor as director of the National Theatre, but a challenging role in a new and challenging play.

Ziegler is an esteemed biographer, and although there are some grammatical lapses in this long biography, he tells the story of this amazing life with a skill which often makes the reader feel they are inside great theatres for marvellous performances in multitudes.

Derek Jacobi As Luck Would Have It: My Seven Ages

As told to Garry O’Connor

HarperCollins, £20

Hamlet, according to Derek Jacobi, ‘is the most knackering show ever’, and this tone of lively reportage from one of Britain’s most admired theatrical knights is characteristic of his approach in these unmediated reminiscences. Jacobi is not a voice from the past, although he certainly has a past and doesn’t mind at all discussing it frankly.

Current television viewers will recognise him from the series Last Tango in Halifax. Older readers will remember his memorable performance in the title role of I, Claudius, such an internationally successful adaptation of the novel by Robert Graves that, as Jacobi remembers, when it was first broadcast in Sweden, it ‘emptied streets’.

Now outlining his life according to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, Jacobi was talking to Garry O’Connor, realising that for him at least all the world is indeed a stage on which one man in his time, in this case himself, plays many parts. It’s all diverting and catches the speaking rather than the reflective voice; this may be unfair to Jacobi, but perhaps he and O’Connor should have attempted more critical editing to give a lifetime of entrances and exits its due.

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