The War of the Rainbow

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Most readers of the Literary Review will know that milk comes from cows and that dyes once came from plants. But do they realise that scarlet and crimson came only from insects – from the crushed bodies of millions of bean-sized bugs? They were scale insects, relatives of the pests that devour their way through […]

What The Dark Is For

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘This book’, A Roger Ekirch declares straight away, ‘sets out to explore the history of nighttime in Western society before the advent of the Industrial Revolution.’ Night-time, he observes, ‘embodied a distinct culture with many of its own customs and rituals, very different from daily reality – a chance for men and women to express […]

The Wealth of the Nation

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Suspicion of capitalism is woven into the fabric of the modern British media. This negative, carping instinct shines through consumer programmes like Watchdog on BBC One or You and Yours on Radio 4, which constantly attack big business but refrain from any criticism of the much less efficient, more expensive public sector. I recently watched […]

Pandora’s Paintbox

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Art-historical scholarship is usually dry and forbidding, so it is a treat to come across a densely learned book which also provides fascinating details about the lives and tastes of people who lived in the past. Malcolm Bull, who is the head of art history at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing, has brought together all […]

Slumming It

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When I was a smug teenager, idly choosing whether Oxford or Cambridge would be lucky enough to educate me, an even smugger banker said to me, ‘Oh Oxford. To get there, you go through lovely Notting Hill, Holland Park, Chiswick… To get to Cambridge you have to go through the East End!’ Horrid as the […]

Proud To Be Huns

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It looked like an Armenian spoof for April Fool’s Day released too early, but it had been emailed to me by a reliable source and read like a typical BBC report. It said that the Turkish Ministry of the Environment had changed the scientific names of three animals found in the eastern region of the […]

A Ruff-Diamond in the Kush

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Early in his splendid book, Jules Stewart points out that while the world at large may be familiar with the Khyber Pass as a geopolitical flashpoint – a blood-soaked gateway between Asia and the subcontinent – it is not so well aware of the Khyber Rifles, one of the tribal regiments raised by the British […]

The Actress, the King, and Squintabella

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Charles II has come down in history as a swashbuckling gallant who bedded every pretty lady who caught his fancy. According to this revealing and entertaining biography, by one of Nell Gwyn’s direct descendants, there was a set of back stairs in the Palace of Whitehall used specifically for the king’s assignations with women, ‘both […]

An Unrepentant Englishman: The Life of S P B Mais, Ambassador of the Countryside

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In researching material for my book on the Waughs, Fathers and Sons, I came across the obscure name of S P B Mais many times, for over a long lifespan S P B had, at various junctures, earned his keep as novelist, broadcaster, gossip columnist and schoolteacher, and it was in connection with three of […]

The Traitor’s Tale

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

You wait twenty years for a new Lord Haw-Haw biography, then three come along at once. Mary Kenny kicked off last year with Germany Calling; now we have Nigel Farndale’s book; and I’m told that the mammoth work which Professor Colin Holmes has been gestating for more than a decade is at last on the […]

Fan of the Fuhrer

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

To an extent, it was bad luck for Richard Wagner that he should have become, half a century after his death, the house composer for National Socialism in Germany. One says ‘to an extent’ because with his rampant German nationalism, and his well-documented belief that the Jews posed a mortal threat to German culture, Wagner […]

Bodyguard of Lies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Political mendacity – especially in wartime – did not begin with Tony Blair. Churchill himself was honest enough to admit: ‘Truth is so precious that sometimes it has to be protected by a bodyguard of lies.’ One awful occasion when the great man deployed that bodyguard in force is the subject of this excellent and […]

A City Surprised

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The fall of Singapore – like those of Rome, Constantinople and Berlin – has long been familiar as an epic, pivotal point in history. In its familiarity lies the power of this 600-page narrative, in which we meet the participants, first as they drink gin slings, dance to ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ and watch The Wizard […]

The Child’s View

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

We are all familiar with the gambit ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ The question is suggestive of much, particularly the silence that many returning men adopted in 1945 when unable to share the horrors they had experienced with a family now grown distant from long absence. But it ought to suggest another […]

‘Practising Science in Hell Itself’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When the 11th Armoured Brigade of the British Army entered Bergen-Belsen, on the morning of 15 April 1945, they found mounds of unburied corpses and 60,000 survivors – Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Belgians and Russians (most though not all of them Jews) – all reduced to little more than skeletons and covered in […]

His English Elements

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1957, when he was twenty-seven, Harold Pinter sat among the audience for his very first play. It was ‘a remarkable experience’, he tells an interviewer here. How? ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I wanted to piss very badly throughout the whole thing, and at the end I dashed out behind the bicycle shed.’ That is vintage […]

Natural Born Protestor

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There’s a Marx Brothers film in which Groucho sings a song with the refrain, ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’ William Cobbett was like that. He was a one-man protest movement, but not a single-issue one. The things he was against included economists, enclosures, military officers (for their sadism and peculation), the Establishment (which he […]

Manunkind

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is something of a surprise to see the name of the subject of this book printed in a conventional way: for most of his appearances in print it was resolutely ‘e e cummings’, all of a piece with the lack of capitalisation, the experimental layout and the visual idiosyncrasy of his writings. Despite the […]

Reassembling The Jigsaw

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Quicksand is Sybille Bedford’s long-awaited autobiography. As with many of her generation (she is ninety-four), hers is a disturbing and moving story. Bedford has written relatively little, and most of what she has written is the same story shown from different points of view. The story is her own. She writes slowly, painstakingly, and finds […]

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