On Form

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Les Murray vies with John Ashbery and Geoffrey Hill for the title of most prominent living poet passed over for a Nobel Prize. Readers who come to Murray hoping for an Antipodean Seamus Heaney will find a more ornery figure, endlessly bountiful but lacking the Irishman’s diplomatic gene. A vein of outspoken anger runs through […]

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Heir to Heine

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Modern German poetry can plausibly be divided into two main lines of descent. At the head of one tradition stands Friedrich Hölderlin, initiating, at the turn of the 19th century, a poetry of subjective inwardness, metaphysical intensity and syntactical compression that finds its most important 20th-century expression in the work of Rainer Maria Rilke and […]

‘The Most Intelligent Entity on the Island’

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A rich body of legend has gathered around the figure of J H Prynne. In Iain Sinclair’s novel Radon Daughters (1994) he becomes Simon Undark, ‘hermit and scribe, the conscience of England’, ‘famous for his goldfish tie’, ‘the most intelligent entity on the island’: ‘At England’s darkest hour, initiates muttered Undark’s name like a password.’ In […]

Pushing the Boundaries

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The day after W G Grace’s funeral, a writer placed an advertisement in The Sportsman announcing that he had been commissioned to produce a biography of the great man, asking all those who had known him to come forward. And they did, in droves. Since then, there has been a steady stream of books on […]

Prudential Man

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

For years, David Hume was seen as a traitor to philosophy. When his masterpiece of 1739, A Treatise of Human Nature, merely boggled or terrified its readers, he is said to have retreated into mercenary journalism and history writing. The brief autobiography Hume wrote a few months before his death in 1776, My Own Life, […]

Both Sides of the Lens

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Lee Miller is best remembered nowadays as a war photographer, a chronicler of the misery of defeat and destruction that was Europe in 1944 and 1945, its inhabitants wretched, its roads clogged with refugees searching for their homes. ‘Germany is a beautiful landscape’, Miller wrote in one of her reportages for Vogue, ‘dotted with jewel-like […]

First among Equals

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Augustus’s victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC left him in control of the Roman world after a period of civil war that stretched back to Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49. Augustus’s unrivalled military power base and personal prestige gave him a supremacy that he was unwilling […]

Conqueror of Chimborazo

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In July 1799, the 29-year-old Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt finally reached South America. When he docked in New Andalusia (present-day Venezuela), he plunged his thermometer into the sand, logging a temperature of 37.7ºC. It would be the first of the many thousands of recordings he would make during his journey across the Americas, from testing the charge of electric eels on his own arm to measuring earthquake tremors in Caracas and taking periodic altitude readings on his precious barometers that smashed one by one as the voyage progressed

Guilty Parties

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Any book with this title must detail how Germany fought the Second World War and the effect that fighting had on its people. Nicholas Stargardt does that rigorously and with wide-ranging scholarship that embraces numerous primary and secondary sources. But such a book also has to consider the moral character of a nation and people […]

Seeds of Discord

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘What if?’ is the great question of history, all the more so for being unanswerable. What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver had not taken a wrong turn and stalled the engine in June 1914 in Sarajevo, thus denying Gavrilo Princip the opportunity to open fire and kill the Habsburg heir? What if Hitler had been […]

The Right Stuff

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Ronald Reagan was a canny old thing. In the 1966 primary to select the Republican candidate for governor of California, his opponent complained that he always stole the show at photo calls: ‘They would put us in line for a photograph … as soon as the photographer was about to snap the picture, Reagan would […]

What’s It To Do with the Price of Bread?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Dark Ages did not become dark, or the Middle Ages medieval, until the 19th century, when it turned out that the Nuova Scienza, the ‘New Learning’ of the Italians, had really been the Renaissance, a rebirth of old learning. But the Enlightenment named itself as it was happening: l’Illuminisme, Aufklärung, Haskalah. As Vincenzo Ferrone […]

Power to the People

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Mary Beard keeps coming back to the same name: Catiline. Who was he and what did he want? When he conspired to overthrow the Roman Republic in 63 BC, was he acting as a ‘far-sighted radical or an unprincipled terrorist’? Was he a glory-hunting idealist or the victim of senators’ paranoia? And when today’s protesters […]

Cafe Culture

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘It’s not so easy writing about nothing’, states Patti Smith at the beginning of M Train. She just makes it look easy. M Train is essentially a companion piece to her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, which was a record of her life in New York in the early 1970s with her friend the photographer Robert […]

Love among the Paperbacks

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘Must we document everything?’ exclaims Greta Gerwig, heroine of Noah Baumbach’s recent film Mistress America, when someone takes a casual snap of her on a mobile phone. Tweets, emails and instant photography allow us to keep constant track of our lives and to bombard the outside world with the details. But one wonders what effect […]

Crossing the Yalu

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Here are three chilling but revealing books about North Korea and the perils of escaping from it. Lucia Jang surprised me by making plain that even after decades of brainwashing by the ruling Kim dynasty, ordinary Koreans remain traditional and superstitious in their habits and beliefs. But the cruelty of the North Korean regime is […]

Diminishing Powers

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In the 1997 movie Wag the Dog – cowritten by David Mamet and released just a month before the eruption of the Monica Lewinsky scandal – a Washington spin doctor played by Robert De Niro seeks to distract the public’s attention from a sexual scandal involving the president by inventing a war in Albania. The […]

Rainbow’s End

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

If you are looking for a celebration of the failure of the South African dream following the end of apartheid, this is the book for you. ‘What is now clear, just 20-odd years later and beyond any reasonable doubt,’ R W Johnson triumphantly asserts towards the book’s end, ‘is that “liberation” has failed, that the […]

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