Fascinating Algorithms

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This book may be the only extant publication in which the word ‘electrifying’ and the name C P Snow appear in the same sentence. ‘Tweedy’ maybe, ‘donnish’ certainly, but ‘electrifying’ never. In fairness, Arthur I Miller, a physicist and historian of science, is not referring to Snow the man but to his 1959 lecture ‘The […]

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A Maori in Massachussetts

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Within the pages of this delightful confection of history and memoir the American editor of the Harvard Review describes what it is like being married to a Maori. (Rather agreeable, as it turns out.) By whisking in a study of Maori history and the received ideas of colonisers, Christina Thompson has cooked up an appetising […]

Of Arms and Architecture

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The great architects of the age of Baroque came in threes. There were Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona in Rome; Juvarra, Guarini and Vittone in Turin; Fischer von Erlach, Johann von Hildebrandt and Jakob Prandtauer in Vienna; and, of course, our own Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh in London. The Trinitarian character of these architects […]

Queen of the East

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It was the George Cruikshank cartoon that never appeared and the one meeting in her peripatetic career that the wildly adventurous Lady Hester Stanhope funked. In July 1816, Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of George, Prince of Wales, was paying a supposed pilgrimage to the Holy Land (in reality, a forced long vacation from […]

The Voice of Everywoman

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Fanny Burney’s famous account of having her breast cut off without anaesthetic in 1812 was recently read out on Woman’s Hour, a programme whose unflinching and trustworthy ethos is personified in its presenter, Jenni Murray. Whether listening to harrowing tales of pain and loss and human indomitability, or beadily interrogating devious politicians, or confessing to […]

Woman in Black

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This must have been a hard book to sell. Ettie Desborough is not exactly a household name. If her great friend Arthur Balfour was a whiff of scent on a lady’s pocket handkerchief, Ettie seems even more evanescent. A society hostess, a leading member of the Souls, an Edwardian grande dame – her story seems […]

Late Flowering

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

By the time they reach their sixties, most novelists have produced their best work. But it was not until she was sixty-one that Penelope Fitzgerald began to write, in rapid succession, the novels – each better than its predecessor – that finally culminated, when she was seventy-eight, in her masterpiece, The Blue Flower.  In his […]

Literary Legacies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At first sight, this book might seem to be a vindication of the hereditary principle in its purest form: male primogeniture. It tells the story of John Murray, a powerful publishing house for almost two hundred and fifty years, and until recently controlled by its eponymous head in an unbroken line from father to son. […]

Serious Money

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Philip Delves Broughton chucked in a career as a journalist more than four years ago to go to Harvard Business School. He was in his early thirties and had already been both the New York and the Paris correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. In the first of those posts he had covered the horrors of […]


Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is nothing novel about mercenary soldiering. As a profession it vies with prostitution as the world’s oldest and, for most of the last hundred years or so, it has been no more respectable. Condemned by governments and international organisations such as the UN, mercenaries appeared to be in a slow decline. But the end […]

Pizza Politics

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One morning in the summer of 2004, James Harding, now editor of The Times, found himself on the campaign trail in Troy, Ohio, part of a huge press pack following George W Bush on a whistlestop tour through the American heartland. While the reporters were tucking into a heaving fried chicken buffet, Karl Rove, the […]

Negative Capability

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Most people who get involved in debates about religion assume that having strong beliefs is a Good Thing. For secular humanists, religion is a tissue of errors no reasonable person should entertain for a moment. For at least some believers, religion is a body of received truths one must accept or reject. Both sides take […]

Plastic Fantastic

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The American brain scientist Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his life’s work on a rather unpromising item of marine life – a sea-slug called Aplysia, which possesses unusually large nerve cells (or neurons), visible to the naked eye. Kandel hoped to observe the learning response in a small group of cells […]

For Queen and Country

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As a nation, we love the Tudors. We treasure their culture, poetry and theatre, their palaces, pictures and costumes. We cherish their armour, their castles and, to a certain extent, their prejudices about foreigners. Above all, we delight in their characters – bold, histrionic, tortured, vengeful and flamboyant. For Tudor historians, this is both a […]

A Bellicose Bibliophile

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

He was born Matthias Hunyadi in 1440, or perhaps 1443, in Transylvania, in what is now the Romanian town of Cluj, which has also been Kolozsvár (Hungarian) and Klausenburg (Saxon). The Hunyadi family came originally from Wallachia, and his father János Hunyadi was a notable warrior, his life consisting of one almost unbroken crusade against […]

The Monster Hedgehog

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Yezhov means ‘Hedgehog’, although Stalin called him affectionately Yezhevichka, ‘little bramble’. Despite the implicit prickliness, there was momentary relief in the USSR when, in autumn 1936, Stalin appointed N I Yezhov head of the NKVD, as the secret police was then called. It seemed that at last a series of Polish gentry (Dzierżyński and Menzhinsky) […]

He Drank His Enemies Under the Table

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Whatever one makes of Alexander the Great today – blood-soaked mass-murderer or enlightened advocate of the fellowship of nations – his achievements instantly captured the imagination of peoples from Ireland to Afghanistan, from Iceland to India. Part of the reason is that the ancient world understood military force and thoroughly approved. O, to be as […]

A Sour War

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

July 1950 was one of the worst months in American military history: one long ignominious retreat filled with terrible small battles and occasional moments of great gallantry on the part of American units who were again and again overwhelmed by the sheer force, size and skill of the North Korean assault. Back home the country […]

Brewing Troubles

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Oliver Cromwell’s conduct in Ireland between 1649 and 1650 appals even his admirers. The slaughter of civilians as well as soldiers within the walled towns of Drogheda and Wexford smacked more of the savagery of Continental European warfare than of the British civil wars. A variety of explanations has been used, if not to excuse, […]

A Tale of Two Houses

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Charles II’s Long Parliament – so named because it met within a year of the Restoration, in 1661, and remained intermittently in session for almost eighteen years – was the cockpit for most, if not quite all, of the great political battles of the reign. Would monarchical power grow in England to match that, across […]

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