Art Writing as Gossip or Sociology?

Posted on by David Gelber

James Fenton is a poet and a hack – not just any hack; he was one of the valiant few who stayed on in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon – so you can be sure he will never be boring. In Borneo, he recalls, he and his party had to join their guides in […]

Nowhere to Go

Posted on by David Gelber

On most computers there is a button called ‘reset’ that clears the screen and starts all over again, wiping out whatever is in the memory at the time. You can start afresh, unburdened by the clutter of the recent past. (Desks should have reset buttons.) The planet earth has a reset button, called mass extinction. […]

Very Strict Lady

Posted on by David Gelber

During Luftwaffe-enforced periods of evacuation to Wales, I recall warbling at the local Methodist chapel a horrible little song about the heathen. The verse went: Draw draw yn China a thiroedd Japan Plant bach melynion sy’n byw, Dim ond eilunod o’r cylch yn mhob man, Neb i son am Dduw (Faraway in China and the […]

A Brave, Cat-Like Woman But No Good at Dancing

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna papered over the hole in the heart of Europe left by Napoleon with a patchwork of postage-stamp countries. The smaller the country, the longer its name; the more insignificant its ruler, the grander his title. Amongst the Ernestine duchies of Thuringia was Reuss-Lobenstein-Ebersdorf, a principality of some twenty thousand […]

There is Not Very Much to Choose Between Them

Posted on by David Gelber

I remember once sitting cross-legged on the floor of a terraced house in North London and staring into the impassive features of a fashionable oriental guru. I was trying to interview the man, but he insisted on treating me like a disciple, responding to every question with a finely-honed aphorism and a benign smirk. I […]

Is This Our Quentin or Is it Dame Edith Evans?

Posted on by David Gelber

When he was seventy Quentin Crisp grasped that America was the place for his special kind of celebrity and decamped to Manhattan, there to live in a rooming house on the Lower East Side. That was fifteen years ago and the old boy reports in his New York diaries that the move has been a […]

Why Did Anyone Wish to Discover the Poles?

Posted on by David Gelber

This remarkable book is difficult to classify exactly. Ostensibly it is a study of the exploration of the polar regions, the history of which is rich enough in drama, suffering and pathos to fill a hundred books. But to describe it as just that would not convey its quality. As Francis Spufford remarks, when people […]

Discovery that God is Not as Nice as He Seems

Posted on by David Gelber

The Lord moves in mysterious ways, but He is rarely so mean to His creation as in Mr lves’ Christmas, the new novel by Oscar Hijuelos. This is a tale of death, destruction and unfairness in the face of selfless piety. Hijuelos is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of […]

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Did He Jump or Was He Pushed?

Posted on by David Gelber

Primo Levi was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in 1987, having presumably thrown himself from the landing of his fourth-floor flat. The New Yorker announced that Levi’s act had ‘cancelled’ the value of his writing. The novelist William Styron claimed that antidepressants (to which he has attributed the salvation of his own […]

Filling in the Blanks

Posted on by David Gelber

The strange case of the Reverend Ansel Bourne was described by William James in The Principles of Psychology. One morning in 1887, Bourne went to his bank and drew out the curious sum of $551; then he disappeared. His family were afraid he had been murdered. Two months later, in a town two hundred miles […]

Progress of a Master

Posted on by David Gelber

Robert Nye has been much praised, even adulated, for his novels. I can also recommend his poems: ‘a heron stands/like a sickle dipped in feathers’. This luckily occurs twice in the collection – it’s the best description I know of that strange bird. But I also recommend his poems because of their extreme sensitivity to […]

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Moral Grandeur

Posted on by David Gelber

There is a story that Donald Ogden Stewart, one of the Algonquin set, visited London in the mid-Thirties, and had an urge to learn what Communism was. As one does, he asked the doorman at Claridge’s to recommend a book. He read it diligently on board ship. By the time he reached New York he […]

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Whole Societies are in Mourning for their Lives

Posted on by David Gelber

It’s the claim of some books that they will change your life. Men in Black makes no such claim, yet it undoubtedly will if you read it. At its simplest – and the book’s apparently simple title proves to be the doorway to a brilliantly sustained, illuminating and subtle disquisition on the malaise of nineteenth- […]

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National Trust View Not Needed

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1928 George Bernard Shaw’s sister-in-law modestly asked him for ‘a few ideas on socialism’. History does not relate how pleased she was with Shaw’s immodest response, the 200,000-word Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. And that, as it happens, is John Vincent’s principal argument in a nutshell, for he believes that history depends […]

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In the Court of King Arawn

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Pedeir Ceinc y Mabinogi is a set of four loosely connected prose tales preserved in a couple of late medieval Welsh manuscripts, though they must have reached their present form by about 1200. The conventional title translates as ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, mabinogi being a word meaning very roughly ‘youthful exploits’, or the early achievements of a hero. But this title tells us almost nothing

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Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This single volume represents all the surviving 31,000 lines of Old English poetry in translation. It’s a big book, but this is a virtue, and it will be very handy for scholars and students. Although an academic book, it will also be a useful addition to the library of anyone curious about English literature in […]

Goodbye to All That

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In November 1989, five Oxford students boarded a ferry from Dover to Zeebrugge. The Berlain Wall had been breached and they were heading east. Eighteen hours later, remembers the Financial Times columnist Edward Luce, they were ‘driving at high speed to Berlin’, suffused with idealism and excitement. Soon they were chipping at the wall alongside […]

The Eagle & the Dragon

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Here are two ambitious books by US journalists who cover China, and a lesser effort by Harvard academic Graham Allison that does not match its portentous billing, though it will receive plenty of coverage. John Pomfret has reported on China for decades for the Washington Post and spends part of the year with his wife, […]

Road to Abbottabad

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

I suspect that most of us who are old enough to do so remember where we were on 11 September 2001. I was sitting at my desk in London, wrestling with a book proposal, when a member of a military history email discussion list (do such things still exist?) mentioned that, from his office in New […]

Rebels with a Cause

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Many of the individuals who feature in Jamie Bartlett’s Radicals appear to be in search of a spiritual home. They are, broadly speaking, men and women who live in liberal democracies that have satisfied the basic conditions of life. Yet collectively they find themselves staring into the void that might once have been filled by […]

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