Beyond Howth Head

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Is Derek Mahon one of the best living poets in English? Years ago, Michael Longley assured me that his generation in Belfast ‘would be the biggest thing since the Thirties’. I was intrigued, being a decade older, and also from the North (though I’m from Tyrone, the forgotten heartland of Ulster). Perhaps his prophecy has […]

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The Shipping News

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Say what you like about the Soviet Union, but they did know how to build machines that would run and run and run. The T-34 tank and its successors were stronger and more robust than anything the Nazis could cook up. The AK-47 is still the weapon of choice across the undeveloped world. And in […]

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Lava Palaver

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This summer, Mount Etna erupted dramatically enough for sunbathers on Sicilian beaches to turn their gaze from each other’s bottoms to the smoking cone, at least for a second or two. Still, though, Etna’s eruption got minimal news coverage. If Vesuvius erupted, the foreign correspondent pack would be booking themselves on the Roma–Napoli express train […]

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The Wild West

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Ireland was born in a fusion of two tectonic plates 440 million years ago. The northern half, and what would become Connemara, lay on the edge of a continent called Laurentia, which is now in North America and Greenland; the rest of Ireland originated in the shores of a continental fragment called Avalonia, which is […]

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Seine & Sensibility

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The Boston socialite and diarist, Thomas Gold Appleton, once said: ‘Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.’ Most try to get there before that. David McCullough’s latest work assembles the nineteenth-century stories of many who did, when Paris was the capital of the Old World and an irresistible magnet for the New. Americans then […]

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The White Leviathan

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Compared to the years of endeavour and death that preceded it, the 1953 conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay was something of a formality. It was a bit like the breaking of the sound barrier six years earlier. Few had doubted that supersonic speeds were technically possible; indeed the sonic boom had […]

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Making a Splash

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Once upon a time – thirty long years ago, even? – icons were images to be worshipped. Today ‘iconic’ is an overused word for the paradigmatically famous. Not just famous, but so famous as to cause intense feelings of love and, more rarely, hate. Prince Charles’s first wife was pretty well-known anyway, but she became […]

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The picture we have come to call the Arnolfini Portrait is one of the best known, best loved, and most reproduced, copied, satirised and speculated upon in the world. Painted in Bruges by Jan van Eyck in 1434 (the inscription on the wall above a central, round mirror is generally agreed to testify to that), […]

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Voice of Authority

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Ian Bostridge must have got distinctly fed up with the label of ‘the thinking man’s tenor’ that has been tied to his career over the last fifteen years. But what can he expect? His branch of the profession is otherwise hardly noted for its exceptional intellectual achievements, and Dr Bostridge used to be a fellow […]

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Clash of the Titans

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Peter Conrad’s book begins and ends at the edge of Venice, beyond the Arsenal, in a public park that boasts statues commemorating Verdi and Wagner. Whether by accident or design, their location makes it impossible to view both simultaneously. However, as they were born in the same year (1813) and were the pre-eminent opera composers […]

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The Egregious Fleming

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In March 1942, while working in wartime London as assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming proposed the creation of a tiny but dedicated front-line unit of commandos with the job of seeking and seizing enemy assets of intelligence value to the Allies. The resultant force came to be known as 30 […]

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Spies Like Us

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The reappearance, almost eighty years after it was banned, of the uncensored version of Greek Memories, Compton Mackenzie’s memoir of his time as MI6 – then MI1(c) – head of station in Athens in the middle of the First World War, is something of a literary event. Its original publication in 1932 led to Mackenzie’s […]

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The Second Coming

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Small talk in prison had him as a con man who got rich people to sit in strange boxes that allowed them to make love better.’ That is not too far off the truth. But in the case of Wilhelm Reich it is difficult to decide where deceit ended and self-deception began. Let it serve […]

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A Scapegoat’s Tale

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1737, in the modest German state of Württemberg, an ambitious young official who, as financial adviser and logistical expert, had grown rich in the service of the suddenly deceased Duke, Carl Alexander, was arrested and accused of ‘detestable abuses on gentlemen and people’. Little evidence was provided of capital crimes, but his Lutheran judges […]

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A Stormin’ Norman

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Behind every great man, so the saying goes, is a great woman – or, in the case of the man known to posterity as William the Conqueror, a diminutive one. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders stood little more than four feet tall, but she loomed large, all the same, in the creation of his newly […]

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Hammer of the French

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Edward III earned the loyalty of his subjects by behaving as kings were supposed to behave. He cut a fine figure. He led his armies in successful wars. He spent money generously. And, until the end of his reign, he surrounded himself by men who conformed to the contemporary stereotypes of leadership, not the parvenus […]

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‘Poster Boy of the Third Reich’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At the start of his biography of Reinhard Heydrich, Robert Gerwarth, professor of modern history at University College Dublin, muses on the challenge of writing about an individual who is ‘repellent’ and ‘strangely distant’. He opts for the strategy of ‘cold empathy’, engaging his subject with ‘critical distance’ while attempting to assess his behaviour in […]

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String Theories

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Kenneth Gross lets us know at the beginning of this intriguing, inquisitive and erudite book that he has no overarching narrative of the evolution and meaning of puppets to unfold, nor any clinching theory to enforce. Where Victoria Nelson, for example, in her The Secret Life of Puppets (Harvard University Press, 2001), which is generously […]

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Made in Heaven

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It’s curious how often a militant commitment to humanity goes with a deep dislike for the human animal. Joseph Conrad wrote that while H G Wells wanted to improve human beings but didn’t care for them, he himself had no hopes for human beings but loved them all the same. Whether Conrad was really so […]

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The Failure of Success

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When asked in Green Hills of Africa about what harms a writer, Hemingway fatalistically replied: ‘Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money and ambition.’ He could have added the children of authors – from Tolstoy and Thomas Mann to himself – who’ve trashed their fathers in memoirs (only mistresses […]

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