Survival of the Kindest

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This is an important book and should be read widely. Colin Tudge is a polymath, though a specialist in biology, who lives in Oxford but is not part of an academic establishment. He thus has no qualms about challenging current conventional wisdom in the university world, which frightens the donnish rank-and-file into conformity and inhibits […]

Fishy BISness

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The title of this book is a giveaway: no one who picks it up could reasonably expect to find a measured, judicious history of the Bank for International Settlements, universally known as the BIS. On the other hand, without such a title, relatively few would pick up the book at all. It is a polemic, […]

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Questions for Cash

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Money, according to a leading City investor of my acquaintance, should be ‘a unit of account … a medium of exchange which avoids the inconvenience of barter … and a store of value’. On that basis, my friend swears by the special virtues of gold, while decrying as dishonest the quantitative easings and other market […]

That’s Saul, Folks

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In a self-interview published in 1975, Saul Bellow approvingly quoted John Ruskin’s remark that, ‘No reading is possible for a people with its mind in this state. No sentence of any great writer is intelligible to them.’ What Bellow was lamenting was in part the decline of the literary world in America, the dominance of […]

Fleeing the Nest

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Poverty loomed large in all the childhoods under review: ‘grinding’ in the case of Alan Johnson, the postman-turned-Cabinet minister, who grew up in condemned slum houses in North Kensington; imminent for museum curator Roy Strong, whose parents had escaped to a neat suburban house in north London only to discover that in the postwar world […]

Slaves to Fortune

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Eighteenth-century writers were agreed that William Beckford was quite a chap, even if they could not agree on what sort of chap he was. One asserted: ‘There was a singularity in the whole of this man’s life which would justify ample speculation. The different characters he affected to possess, to reconcile with each other, and […]

Into the Deep

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

No one who saw the pictures will ever forget the tsunami breaking over the shores of the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004, uprooting trees, toppling buildings and pounding to death those caught in its wake. One of the survivors was a young economist called Sonali Deraniyagala, whose entire family was among the almost quarter […]

Dancing with the Tsars

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

You probably won’t have heard of Frederick Bruce Thomas. He doesn’t feature in history books and failed to make the cut for the American National Biography. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry but that may be about to change. Vladimir Alexandrov’s new book, The Black Russian, tells Frederick Thomas’s life story, and – hold […]

Politician, Know Thyself

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Of all the political thinkers of the Renaissance, Machiavelli is our contemporary. Historians, doing their job, insist on situating his ideas within mental and political frameworks remote from our own. They relate them to the convulsions of his native Florence in the decades following the French invasion of Italy in 1494. They explore the connections […]

The Man Who Wouldn’t Shut Up

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A child prodigy and a man of genius, Thomas Babington Macaulay was, after Gibbon, our greatest historian. The son of Zachary Macaulay, anti-slavery crusader and pillar of the Evangelical Clapham Sect, he was born in 1800 and within three years was, dressed in his nankeen frock, expounding to the parlourmaid from a book almost as big […]

Summer of ’79

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

On 10 September 2001 – the eve of 9/11, by horrid coincidence – my publisher and I were discussing turning points in history. She hoped to commission a series of short books on the subject. ‘Can I do 1979?’ I asked. This took her by surprise. What on earth happened in 1979? Plenty, actually. In […]

Raiders of the Lost Art

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Hitler’s principal object in sending his legions into Italy in 1943 was to stem an Allied advance aimed at penetrating Germany’s southern frontiers and launching air strikes on the precious Balkan oil fields. The incursion presented an ideal opportunity, however, for the Führer and others, the insatiably acquisitive Hermann Göring foremost among them, to snap […]

The Quiet Englishman

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1940, shortly after the publication of Henry Buckley’s enormously enjoyable and revealing eyewitness account of the Spanish Republic of 1931–9, German incendiary bombs destroyed the warehouse containing all remaining unsold copies of the book. Though always acknowledged by historians as one of the best works ever written on the Spanish Civil War, it is […]

Kabuki Nights

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1609, a scandal broke out that shook the imperial court in the Japanese capital, Kyoto. Emperor GoYōzei had little temporal power. He spent his days in cultural pursuits such as hosting poetry parties in the imperial palace, a sprawling complex of buildings occupying an enormous compound. At the back was the women’s palace, home […]

Protesting Too Much?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The French Protestant, even more than the English Catholic, sounds an unlikely proposition. Today, one is generally surprised, and interested, to meet such a person. But France represents the single greatest might-have-been of the European Reformation. French Protestants – known as Huguenots – comprised at their peak, around 1570, some 1.8 million people, more than […]

Singing in the Temple of Jupiter

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘It was at Rome’, Edward Gibbon tells us, ‘on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.’ Quite when […]

And Now for News of Fresh Disaster

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The report that the 17th was a difficult century is hardly news. As early as 1954 Eric Hobsbawm mooted that Europe in the 17th century experienced a major economic crisis. Five years later Hugh Trevor-Roper expanded this observation to include politics and society as well, as small monarchies struggled to organise themselves into larger public […]

Web of Words

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This collection of essays by W G Sebald has waited 15 years to be translated into English. Apart from Rousseau, its subjects are relatively unknown to English readers, so that may seem reasonable. But anyone interested in Sebald and his work will regret that it has taken so long. For with Sebaldian irony, these critical […]

Pen & Sword

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It has become a cliché that Byron was the first literary celebrity. And certainly there are parallels with the modern variety. Byron – or, rather, ‘Byron’ – was an early example of a carefully managed cult of personality, with staged portraits, spin and mystification, groupies, and so on. Less often remembered was what Byron experienced […]

Lost in Transformation

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Someone must have been telling lies about K., for the popular image of him as the great Gloomy Gus of 20th-century letters (close rivals: Beckett, Cioran, maybe Céline) does not bear very much scrutiny. Consider this incident, which took place as he was dying of tuberculosis, and knew it. One day, when he was walking […]

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