THE PLEASURES OF THE PAST by David Cannadine (W. W. Norton: $10.95, illustrated). Intelligent and scrupulously researched but never dry or pedantic, these urbane book reviews explore various aspects of British history and historiography. The author's delight in word play gives his prose a vivacity scholarly writing generally lacks: He describes Prince Albert as a man who "discovered the impotence of being earnest," while Neville Chamberlin "had greatness thrust upon him--and, in trying to prove he could bear it, collapsed under its weight." Cannadine never allows hype or media imagery to blunt his cutting analyses of social and political history. He muses on the nostalgic cult surrounding the great English country houses, which leads American philanthropists and British taxpayers to underwrite a way of life they would never have been allowed to enjoy, and dismantles a worshipful biography of the Duke of Windsor, deftly citing the weaknesses that made him a singularly uninspiring man and monarch. Reflecting on the current fascination with the "irresistibly irrelevant" British monarchy, he comments, "Compared with the personality cults of Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Gadaffi and Reagan, the British royal family offers more decency, greater glamor, and is mercifully free from the risk that its actions will bring about another world war."