Blown Away

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

If Leo McKinstry were a Hollywood biographer rather than a political journalist turned popular historian, Hurricane would be the equivalent of following up a biography of Marilyn Monroe with a life of Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis. McKinstry’s last book, Spitfire, told the story of the glamorous star of the Battle of Britain, the fighter […]

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Who’s Listening In?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

We are familiar with MI5 and MI6 (otherwise known as the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service) and their carefully demarcated duties of domestic surveillance and clandestine operations abroad. But we know much less about the largest and most covert of this country’s intelligence bodies, GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters. This is disturbing because it […]

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Band of Brothers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Sebastian Junger makes no secret of the ambitious scope of this book. Written over a year when he was embedded with an American Airborne Infantry Company in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, its title is simply War. His subject is not merely the current conflict, but the nature of conflict itself. Junger bravely confronts one of the […]

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Why Are You Telling Me This?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the distant past, autobiographies concerned themselves largely with the public life of their protagonists. In the last century a looser form came into fashion, detailing the travails of the writer’s childhood and his or her emotional entanglements. In our generation, memoirs have progressed to baring family secrets and intimate acts. We’ve gone from evening […]

Eminent Vaudevillian

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Among the Hitch’s various roles are those of professional polemicist, Vanity Fair columnist, Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School in New York, evangelical atheist, and haunter of television studios. More than any other public figure, he deserves the accolade of eminent vaudevillian.

Following The Netsuke

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Edmund de Waal first saw the 264 ‘netsuke’ in the Japanese house of his great-uncle Iggy (Ignace Ephrussi). This collection of tiny carvings, made to dangle from the sashes of Japanese gentlemen, came to him later, fifteen years after Iggy’s death, from Jiro, who had loved Iggy and lived with him. Edmund already knew that […]

European Son

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Few major historical figures have been so despised as Philip II of Spain. In his own day his greatest opponents became revered national icons – Elizabeth of England, Henry IV of France and William of Orange – and the early historians of their countries damned Philip for daring to oppose them. Posterity was even less […]

The Broken Shore

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Frank Westerman’s English-language publishers describe this book as ‘a brilliant fusion of travel-writing and Soviet history’. The travel part is evident from the outset, and culminates in a hard-won and hard-living pilgrimage to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. The history is prominent, too, dispensed with confidence and narrative control. It would have taken […]

A People Apart

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The people of Kashmir have generally suffered from a bad press. For the British sahibs who once flocked to the Himalayan valley to picnic beneath its glaciers, haul trout from its streams and slosh custard on the steamed puddings served aboard their rented houseboats, it was a mystery how Providence could have awarded such a […]

Bathroom Safari

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The first book I ever reviewed for Auberon Waugh (late of this parish) was entitled A Dictionary of Disgusting Facts, and he was thrilled because it coincided with his policy of getting the words ‘Sex’ and ‘Filth’ onto the cover whenever possible. At that time I was working on a (still unfinished) cacademic treatise called […]

Happy Now?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Paul Bloom’s subject is well chosen. One of the huge problems facing any cognitive scientist is that none of us really has a clue why we like what we like. Most of us can’t really distinguish – certainly not in advance – pleasure from relief. Advertising men and branding specialists know this all too well. […]

The Lycanthorpe

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Jack London did not enjoy his one trip to England, but it helped make him famous. Arriving in London in 1902, the as yet unknown American writer was immediately struck by the abject poverty of the East End. ‘I never conceived such a mass of misery in the world before,’ he confessed. Disguising himself as […]

Coarser Connections

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Jane Austen went to the grave a virgin, leaving six full-length novels behind her. Would those novels have been better had Miss Austen had as lively a sex life as, say, slutty Lydia Bennet? E M Forster was a virgin until the age of thirty-nine, when he had his first ‘full’ sexual experience (a ‘hurried […]

Caging The Minute

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

MacNeice was as prolific in correspondence as in verse, critical prose and radio work. He was one of those people who write all the time and at length – a dying breed in the email era. He preceded the email era of course. The first letters here, to his fathers and sister, are dated 1914, […]

No Mere Pageant

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Diarmaid MacCulloch recently made an impish speech about Lord Mandelson’s proposals to wreck history as a university subject. ‘Good history’, he declared, ‘makes people sane. Bad history makes people mad.’ The sanity of the best history writing is exemplified in History and the Enlightenment, a posthumous collection of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essays in which Burckhardt – […]

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View from the Rowing Bench

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In June 1993, to mark the notional 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy, a reconstruction of an ancient Athenian warship paid a symbolic visit to the Palace of Westminster: the Mother of Democracies meets the Mother of Parliaments. Possibly. At any rate, those of us who stood that day upon Westminster Bridge could feast […]

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Riding Into The Sky

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The parallels are uncanny. Though continents apart, only two and a half years separated George Armstrong Custer’s calamity at the Little Big Horn in June 1876 and Lord Chelmsford’s disaster at Isandhlwana in January 1879. The terrains were similar: vast, rolling grasslands crisscrossed by deep, interlacing ravines, which easily deceived the eye and concealed the […]

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Four Musketeers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It would take the combined talents of a Zola, a Dostoevsky and a Céline, according to Frank McLynn, to tell the epic story of William Slim’s 14th Army in Burma during the Second World War. His aim is a more modest ‘history from above’, to tell the story of the ‘Forgotten Army’ through the biography […]

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‘Deutschland Über Allah’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The First World War was a contest of empires. It was an extension of the global scramble for colonies and resources that had begun in the 1880s. The victorious powers kept what they had conquered, stripped the losers of whatever territories they had managed to hold, and shared out the spoils. This hunger for land […]

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Insistent Reasonableness

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Comparing presidents is an old game. It is often played as soon as the new one sets foot inside the Oval Office or does almost anything. One venerable Washington pundit, even before the dust had settled on the Twin Towers in New York, put George W Bush in the same league as Abraham Lincoln, which […]

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