Post-Apartheid Bling

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The African National Congress (ANC) governs with an infuriating torpor. A scandal over the failure to deliver school books? A crisis in the police? A series of strikes threatening to disillusion much-needed investors once and for all? South Africa’s ruling party obfuscates, splutters and then sets up its umpteenth committee of review. In due course […]

Paribartan Now

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Indian book reviews are not for the faint-hearted. Amit Chaudhuri likens the literary sections of the newspapers to a lawless part of town from whose thuggery the author is lucky to escape with life and dignity intact. My own first book, an inoffensive introduction to the country from a diffident novice, was incinerated in The […]

The Shrinking Drinkers

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In House of Meetings, a novel of the Gulag that takes a percipient interest in Slavic demography, Martin Amis calls the phenomenon the ‘Russian cross’: the steep downward lurch of the country’s birth rate, intersecting with an upward leap in the death rate, which together have caused a population shrinkage more suggestive of war or […]

More Falcon than Lamb

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The best word to describe Rebecca West’s writing, Samuel Hynes suggested in a review for the TLS in 1973, was ‘episcopal’. She wrote, he said, ‘like a fourth-century African bishop, praising the righteous, condemning heretics, explaining doctrine, confident always of the rightness of her judgments and of their firm moral bases’.

Growing Pains

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In this addition to the mass of Plath-related writings, Andrew Wilson’s avowed purpose is to trace the origins of her instability, using primary sources – unpublished letters, journals and the testimony of friends, many of whom are looking back over sixty, even seventy years. His findings are bolstered by cross-references to her work, and he […]

The Road from Carlyle

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James Anthony Froude was an eminent Victorian who has now become a forgotten man. Some students of the 19th century can’t even pronounce his surname correctly (it rhymes with food) and few general readers know more than a couple of stories about him, one of which is apocryphal. The first is that his scandalous novel […]

Bravo Yankee Oscar

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When Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde embarked on his 1882 tour of America at the tender age of 27, he had little to show for his declaration of genius. Self-styled professor of aesthetic and the author of a slender volume of poetry, Wilde was achieving wider notoriety as the incarnation of Reginald Bunthorne, the dreamy sunflower-worshipping aesthete caricatured in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience. When the English theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte was looking to drum up publicity for the American production of Patience, he lit upon the idea of sending aestheticism’s leading exponent across the Atlantic for an extensive lecture tour. But from the moment Wilde arrived in New York on 3 January 1882, where he is supposed to have told American customs agents, ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius,’ the tour developed a momentum of its own: a 12-month, transcontinental odyssey, taking in over 140 cities and towns and nearly as many interviews with reporters clamouring to know Wilde’s views on everything from America to aestheticism.

Lady in Blue

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According to the late Eric Hobsbawm, ‘it is the business of historians to remember what others forget’. But how can anyone who was alive in the 1980s, which must include much of this country’s book-buying population, possibly forget what happened only twenty to thirty years ago? Some of the detail may be a little hazy, […]

Prison Break

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In this detailed and tautly written account, Guy Walters daringly takes a wrecker’s ball to that treasured national icon, the Great Escape. It is a heroic historical endeavour because the myth of the escape is hard-wired into the British consciousness, if only by virtue of the fact that the movie version of the story – […]

Talk of the Town

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One of the many pernicious acts of destruction committed by the Nazis against Britain in the Second World War was the burning of Holland House by incendiary bombs in September 1940. Bits of it remain, and the 52-acre park and gardens are still there, but it takes a strong act of imagination to recreate the physical setting

Altered States

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When Henry Tudor seized the English crown on Bosworth Field in August 1485, few would have predicted a successful future for the peoples of Britain and Ireland. England had emerged from decades of dynastic conflict to be ruled by a king of tenuous claim to the throne. Scotland was stable but economically backward; Ireland was […]

Kill Your Darlings

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John Guy’s short but shocking The Children of Henry VIII delivers on its promise of a story of ‘jealousy, envy and even hatred’. Yet the Tudor siblings seem kindly when compared to their fratricidal, usurping antecedents, the children of Richard, Duke of York. And that, I think, was their mistake. They were horrid to each […]

How the West Won

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Brendan Simms made his name in 2001 with Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, a fiery denunciation that deplored the impotence of Europe and the intellectual cowardice, if not dishonesty, of British politicians such as David Owen and Douglas Hurd, who let the Serbs shed so much blood for so long. As happens […]

Escape to Infamy

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At four o’clock in the morning on 28 October 1944, Private Stephen James Weiss of the 36th US Infantry Division emerged from his foxhole in the foothills of the Vosges mountains, in northeastern France, and walked off. Weiss, a 19-year-old night watchman’s son from Brooklyn, had crossed the Atlantic after his stateside boot camp training […]

Messy Break-Ups

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The twenty years after the end of the Second World War were in their way as terrifying as the conflict itself. They contained a comparable threat to the world order: the defeat of fascism was followed by the ascendancy of communism. The period also saw the shift of global power away from Europe, where it […]

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