A Broad Canvas

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World naturally invites comparison with E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art, now in its sixteenth edition and reprinted every year but one since it was first published by Phaidon in 1950. The Story of Art has sold more than seven million copies, but in spite of its continued popularity […]

Coarse and Classy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Like the American actress Tallulah Bankhead, the Australian-born Coral Browne was celebrated not only for her mastery of any role, however feebly written or demanding, but also for her imperious elegance and savage wit. As with Bankhead, the edge of that wit was continually sharpened by the word to which the subtitle of this biography […]

King of Hokum

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

DeMille is not a name that has lived on, like Hitchcock, Welles or Ford. Yet in his time Cecil B DeMille was the most commercially successful showman-autocrat in Hollywood, whose films by 1942 were estimated to have sold 800 million tickets. An unashamed vulgarian, he capitalised on subjects that one is supposed to avoid in […]

Look Back In Wonder

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

To Guardian readers, the premise of State of the Nation will come as no surprise. A history of British theatre since the war, it makes no mention of theatre in its main title, following Michael Billington’s belief that a nation and its theatre are inseparable. I share that belief, though always with relief that I […]

A True Pioneer

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?’ Katharine Whitehorn’s memoir begins with this quotation from what she describes as the most remembered article she ever wrote. We have become so used to confessional lifestyle journalism that it’s difficult to believe how liberating such […]

Venter’s Version

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Many enemies, much honour’, Sigmund Freud thought. It is an opinion that Craig Venter undoubtedly shares, for he quotes with relish a remark once addressed to him by a government functionary: ‘This is Washington, and we judge people by the quality of their enemies, and son, you have some of the best.’ The grand plan […]

From the Marxist’s Mouth

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Like those Japanese soldiers who would occasionally show up in the jungles of East Asia twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, Fidel Castro is a lonely warrior today, lost and thrashing about in the dense foliage of history. While his former communist comrades in Moscow and Beijing are making fortunes for […]

Armpit Pluckers Required

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Ever wondered why ancient prostitutes used to smear vinegar on the organs of prospective clients? Or where Roman generals sourced their underwear? Or what the Praepositus Camelorum did for kicks? Or why the Greeks had a verb for ‘to stick a radish up the fundament’? Chances are, probably not. The study of Classics, as a […]

Julius Through The Ages

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I did warn the Editor that I have, on principle, little time for books like this, but she insisted. This review, therefore, may not be up to LR’s typically cool and Olympian standards of objectivity. Maria Wyke, Professor of Latin at University College London, has written a ‘metabiography’ of Julius Caesar. Using ancient sources to […]

Victory March

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

A few years ago Mary Beard and Keith Hopkins wrote a fascinating book about that most famous monument of imperial Rome, the Colosseum. They asked just what exactly went on there. Now Mary Beard has turned her attention to the most celebrated ritual in Roman life: the Triumph granted to a victorious general. It’s not […]

It Came, It Saw, It Conquered

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At this summer’s Festival del Mondo Antico in Rimini, I was struck by an Italian don from Bologna University reading out Virgil. He wasn’t your normal English don material – thin white blouson jacket, white drainpipe trousers, candy-striped shirt open to navel revealing a wiry chest tanned the colour of brown furniture by the Adriatic […]

Move Over, Aristotle

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

From September to November, no fewer than four major productions of Greek drama have been mounted on London stages: David Greig’s much acclaimed The Bacchae (the highlight of this summer’s Edinburgh Festival) at the Lyric Hammersmith; Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone, The Burial at Thebes at the Barbican (the Nottingham Playhouse production, also touring […]

Life in the Footnotes

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Biographies may be more popular than ever, but finding the right subject is never an easy business. Publishers prefer old favourites, and are reluctant to invest in unfamiliar names; biographers who struggle to earn a living are easily seduced into writing another unnecessary life of Churchill or Conan Doyle. Simon Courtauld has bucked the trend: […]

Tropical Fever

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Sylvia Brooke, the third Ranee of Sarawak, was mad, bad, and dangerous to know: a liar, racist, destructive mother, procurer and vetter of her husband’s women, a cock-tease self-styled as ‘frigid’ – in short, awful. But if anyone deserves posthumous forgiveness, it is Sylvia Brooke. Consider her father, Reggie Brett. Seduced at Eton and himself […]

A Gentleman In Politics

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Arthur Balfour is a daunting prospect for the biographer because of his openly expressed doubts about the whole genre. As he once confided to a friend, he could tolerate criticism and was vain enough to enjoy a little praise from time to time, but he had ‘moments of uneasiness’ when he was ‘explained’. As an […]

Out of the Turmoil

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

So action-packed are the four decades that shaped modern South Africa – from the discovery of the main diamond field in Griqualand in 1871 to the formation of the Union in 1910 – that it is a mystery this book was not written earlier. Perhaps it is just as well, because Martin Meredith, the author […]

Dramatic Divide

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One recent literary trend has been a raft of books that supply a history (or, more archly, a ‘biography’) of such things as foodstuffs and items of manufacture. Patrick Wright operates at the politico-military end of this fashionable field. After publishing a successful book in which he examined the strange history of the Dorset village […]

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