Orient Express

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Gideon Rachman’s elegantly written and hugely informed Easternisation is an essential survey of the migration of economic and political power away from the USA and Europe, towards Russia, China and also possibly India in the long term. Will this lead to further examples of the ‘Thucydides trap’, which almost always results in warlike

Paranoid Android

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Across dozens of novels and well over a hundred short stories, Philip K Dick worried away at one theme above all others: the world is not as it seems. He worked through every imaginable scenario: consensus reality was variously a set of implanted memories, a drug-induced hallucination, a time slip, a covert military simulation

Blessed Are the Bacteria

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Halfway through reading Ed Yong’s first book, I found myself in A&E with a son in anaphylactic shock after he unwittingly ate some nuts. According to the book I’m reading, I told the medics gathered round his bed, the surge in allergies over the past fifty years could be due to our obsession with

Ex Utero

Posted on by Tom Fleming

… If I now sound my sackbut and praise Nutshell as a return to form, it’s not because of that queasiness, although the easy acceptance of the morbid side of human relations that once led to McEwan being unkindly dubbed Gollum by critics is more in evidence here than it has been for a while. The book is an inventive reworking of Hamlet, narrated by a nearly full-term foetus

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Going Underground

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Crossrail, which will eventually come to be known as the Elizabeth Line, is currently an accursed presence in central London, the most massive obstruction to traffic in an agglomeration doldrummed by such obstructions. The area around Centre Point is perpetually chaotic. Gillian Tindall’s

Ode Dear

Posted on by Tom Fleming

… An ode to a tampon would once upon a time have been understood as a mock ode, and none but a man would have written it. Olds is evidently in earnest and for that she will not be forgiven. ‘Ode to the Tampon’ is a litany rather than an ode, being no more than a series of epithets that garland the tampon with grandiose attributes. It would be surprising if a seventy-year-old

The Illuminati

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When, in 1963, G I Gurdjieff called the middle volume of his All and Everything trilogy Meetings with Remarkable Men, he must have thought he had come up with a pretty nifty title. He could hardly have imagined that it would one day be followed by the likes of Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees (1996) and the present volume. However, even if this is only the beginning and hundreds of Meetings with… are just around the corner, it seems reasonable to assume that Christopher de Hamel’s remarkable – to fail to coin an alternative adjective – book will effortlessly make it into the top ten. De Hamel singles out a dozen manuscripts for scrutiny, while at the same time alluding to a host of near misses

The Guns of November

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Armistice Day is embedded in popular Western memory of the Great War – the moment in 1918 when the guns stopped firing on the Western Front. Every 11 November, two minutes’ silence is observed across the United Kingdom, perpetuating awareness of that sombre moment. What the armistice actually meant is seldom examined very closely; it […]

Gubbins’s Guerillas

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘This is the most splendid coup I have seen in this war,’ General von Falkenhorst, the German commander in chief in Norway, remarked with a rueful smile in February 1943 after inspecting the ruins of the seemingly impregnable Norsk Hydro plant. Its destruction by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) deprived Hitler of the supply of […]

Thug Nation

Posted on by Tom Fleming

In 1740, Elizabeth Branch, a well-to-do widow, and her daughter Mary were put on trial at Somerset assizes, accused of murdering their maid, Jane Buttersworth. Another of their servants, Henry Butler, testified to the cruelty of the pair, telling the court that he had been so fearful of Elizabeth and Mary’s wrath that, subjected to […]

Behind Every Great Book…

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Boris Pasternak was a larger-than-life character on the Soviet literary scene. Born at the beginning of the 1890s into an artistic, successful family of assimilated Jews, he was much admired by his peers as a poet but clearly fell into the ‘bourgeois’ category disdained by proletarian communists, all the more so since the rest of […]

Scenting an Elephant

Posted on by Tom Fleming

A good biography merely tolerates its subject; a great biography is often a form of reprimand or reproof. To be confronted with the failings and foolishnesses of another often calls forth the moralist in the most circumspect and can produce work of astonishing vehemence. Jonathan Bate’s controversial biography of Ted Hughes is one recent example. But […]

More Money, More Problems

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When Uber recruits drivers, it tells them they can ‘make great money’ while setting their own schedules. When it recruits investors, it lays out plans for doing away with drivers altogether. The whole ‘innovation economy’ works this way. Workers help dig their own vocational graves. Free trade, mass immigration, just-in-time-inventorying, software entrepreneurship, Skype meetings: ‘innovation’ […]

Seven Billion and Counting

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The study of population and the daily socioeconomic realities created by the aggregation of births, marriages and deaths may not sound the most exciting of subjects at first blush. And yet demography, from its origins in 17th-century Europe, has always attracted intense, passionate and sometimes downright hysterical reactions. Malthus, writing in the charged political atmosphere […]

Migrating Monoliths

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This book’s title suggests an admirable aspiration to present a fascinating subject in both a scholarly and an accessible style. Bob Brier is billed as ‘a world-famous Egyptologist’. His books include The Murder of Tutankhamen and Ancient Egyptian Magic, and he has hosted television programmes on ancient Egypt. Unmentioned in the author’s biography is his […]

Current Affairs

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It is the nature of estuaries to be deeply mysterious and very hard to know. Taking from both the river and the sea, they belong to neither. They form their own world in which fresh and salt water are forever churning. The dry land with its human settlements contains the estuary, but its essence is […]

Secrets & Lies

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Maurice Oldfield was chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) from 1973 to 1978. Summoned from retirement by Margaret Thatcher to become security coordinator in Northern Ireland, he served only briefly before retiring once more due to ill health in 1980. He died, aged sixty-five, the following year. Subsequently, in 1987, Thatcher […]

Ballet Good Show

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Anybody with an interest in ballet needs to read this book. Sir Peter Wright is about to turn ninety and is still active in the world of ballet. His varied career as a dancer, choreographer, producer and manager spans the entire postwar era. He’s worked everywhere, he’s known everybody, and although he’s never held any […]

Good Vibrations

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When Richard Feynman was notified in October 1965 that he was to share that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, the telegram stated simply that the award was ‘for fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles’. A reporter asked Feynman to tell him in just two sentences what he […]

Words to the Wise

Posted on by Tom Fleming

A decade ago Tom Wolfe delivered the Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities. His talk was called ‘The Human Beast’ and much of it consisted of an assertion that around 11,000 years ago speech took over from evolution the job of shaping the human future. It was the faculty of speech, Wolfe argued, […]

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