Shaggy Elephant Story

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Early on in How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro warns the reader against making emotional decisions over whether extinct species should be brought back to life. Informed evaluations are critical when considering de-extinction. I’ve never understood why reason and emotion should be mutually exclusive and I suspect that deep down Shapiro doesn’t either, because […]

Born to Rule

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

William Waldegrave’s memoir is a textbook example of how the upper-middle-class Englishman should review his life: with candour, honesty and humour. A personal secretary to Ted Heath and minister in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, he writes that the purpose of his book is to explain ‘what it felt like’ to be […]

Top to Toe

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Not so long ago doctors rarely wrote anything longer than a prescription. Now, it seems, medics are queuing up to put pen to paper, apparently compelled to press upon us their memoirs, confessions and philosophical dilemmas. Normally, most of us ordinary mortals are lucky if we are given seven minutes in a doctor’s company. But […]

‘Parasite in Wolf’s Clothing’

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

From 1839 until 1940, the letters pages of The Times bore traditional witness to the cuckoo’s first call of spring. In his synoptic survey of all things avian, Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker records that on 6 February 1913, one correspondent, R Lydekker, FRS, proudly announced: ‘While gardening this afternoon I heard a faint note which […]

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There’s Treasure Everywhere

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Kevin Jackson – critic of literature, art and cinema, biographer, filmmaker, anthologist, conversationalist and connoisseur of the genus Alces (his nickname, Moose, has inspired a fascination with those animals) – is a Renaissance man. His affinity, though, is not so much with the traditional, suave exemplars (Erasmus, Raphael or Leon Battista Alberti, say) as with […]

Digesting the Facts

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

I must admit to finding aspects of Joanna Blythman’s investigation into the processed food industry hard to swallow. With so much cod science floating around the media at the moment on the subject of detoxes and so-called ‘clean eating’, sentences such as ‘natural ingredients in their least processed forms have an inbuilt, effortless integrity that makes […]

Getting out of Jail

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Monopoly doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in people. It can be excessively competitive. To avoid bloodshed, or at least a pitched battle using little wooden houses, families have been known to outlaw it. Yet it remains one of the most widely loved board games ever produced. What may come as a surprise – or […]

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Making it Pay

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

For this book Joanna Biggs carried out thirty-one studies of workplaces in Britain in 2013 and 2014. Some of her subjects are acquaintances, others are activists; some are transients, others are British born and bred; some are capable of speaking for themselves (and Biggs lets them), others less so. Just to get the feel of […]

Corrode to Hell

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The earliest documented reference to rust is by a Roman general fighting on the Blue Nile two thousand years ago. He complained that corroded parts were making his catapults more dangerous to his own men than to the enemy. The natural philosopher Pliny the Elder called rust ferrum corrumpitur, or ‘spoiled iron’, describing it as […]

Peak Greek

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Lists about ancient history – ‘Twelve Habits of Effective Emperors’, ‘Attila’s Eight Steps to Success’ – abound in popular culture. Historical biographies seek to psychoanalyse their long-dead subjects. Meanwhile social scientists devise questionnaires to check the validity of regional personality stereotypes, finding, for example, Londoners ‘less agreeable’ than Scots and ‘neurotic tendencies’ in Wales. There […]

Sage Government

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Michael Schuman, Time magazine’s correspondent for Asia, has done a difficult thing. He has produced a book introducing new readers to a great subject in plainly written English, while explaining with considerable force the ideas related to that subject, which happens to be one on which academics and politicians hold strongly differing opinions. Confucius was […]

Forever Young

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Near the end of Tender Is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald writes that 28-year-old Nicole Diver ‘was enough ridden by the current youth worship, the moving pictures with their myriad faces of girl-children, blandly represented as carrying on the work and wisdom of the world, to feel a jealousy of youth’. Although Robert Harrison does […]

Painting the Void

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Eric Ravilious loved the edgelands. He would stake them out beforehand on his bike, plan his trip, often get up before dawn and take himself to where nobody else had cause to be – deserted yards of old Sussex buses, empty harbours, Brecon waterwheels. Then he would sit there for hours. He would take his […]

Minimal Efforts

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It wasn’t Philip Glass’s first time in Europe, but it was his first European tour. In fact, he was really just tagging along. The sculptor Richard Serra had a show at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam and Glass, who was then Serra’s assistant, thought he’d make something of the trip. It was 1969. Glass got […]

Scrapes with Success

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

While exhibition catalogues of his work abound, there are only two books on Frank Auerbach: the first, by Robert Hughes, was published in 1990; the second, by William Feaver, came out in 2009. Thus, as the artist enters his eighty-fifth year, a new book about him and his painting is particularly welcome. Its author, Catherine […]

With Evil Intent

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Had he not murdered seventy-seven people, Anders Behring Breivik would have been an unremarkably horrible nerd. This is the gloomiest conclusion to draw from Asne Seierstad’s exhaustive study of his life. In the kindergarten phase, he did not play well with others. As a child, every gang and every game he tried to join rejected […]


Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Porcelain Thief is based on Huan Hsu’s meandering quest through his ancestral homeland in search of a hoard of precious porcelain that had been buried by his great-great-grandfather Liu Feng Shu as the Japanese advanced on their home town of Xingang, near the trading port Jiujiang on the Yangtze River, in 1938. The stars […]

Grain Store of Empires

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In his preface, John Julius Norwich, author of two fine histories of the Normans in Sicily, writes: ‘The Strait of Messina is only a couple of miles across and the island is politically part of Italy; yet somehow one feels one has entered a different world.’ This is a fair comment, even though one might […]

Machiavellian Queen?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A year never seems to go by when new books on Elizabeth I do not hit the bookshelves. These two works both seek to bring something new to this well-worn field of scholarship by offering Elizabeth from a different perspective. Lisa Hilton presents Elizabeth as a Machiavellian ‘Renaissance Prince’ who self-consciously fashioned herself as ‘male’, while […]

‘They’ll eat that girlie for breakfast’

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The funeral of Soviet aviator Marina Rashkova in January 1943 was carried out with all the pomp that Stalin’s regime could muster. As the urn containing her ashes made its final journey to Red Square, leading figures in the government formed a solemn guard of honour. The roar of aircraft engines could be heard from […]

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