Iver B Neumann
The Fridtjof Nansen Institute
The gift is a blessing as well as a curse. It ties the receiver to the giver by demanding reciprocity, which can be a damned nuisance. It also presents a practical challenge, for finding the right counter-gift and planning the timing of its presentation may be a tall order. And yet, any society has its gift economy. So does every known bilateral diplomatic relationship. Paul Brummell, a British ambassador, has taken it upon himself to give us an overview of all this from relations amongst Bronze Age kingdoms to Barack Obama's 2014 gifting of a lithograph to his Australian counterpart. Brummell wrote the book while he was the Head of Soft Power and External Affairs Department at the Foreign Office, so we may safely say that it is the work of a practitioner and a bit of a manual. First and foremost, though, this sprightly book is a labour of love. The fifty examples are very well chosen, not only in their temporal spread, but also where the range of cultures and items are concerned. Old chestnuts like Charlemagne's elephant, the Statue of Liberty and pandas appear alongside less known but equally illuminating presents such as live human beings, a desk and a crate of mangoes that serendipitously came to set off an entire Mao sub-cult in 1970s China. The author's erudition and range are impressive, but the form takes the biscuit. This is a scholarly book, with each essay well contextualised and fully referenced. It is also a very good read. Hurst, a small publishing house located next to the British Museum, has outdone itself in design. The result is an absolute joy of a read.