On the opening page of Amateur, Thomas Page McBee’s autobiographical exploration of manhood, the reader is thrown directly into the middle of a boxing match in which the author is a combatant. It’s McBee’s first time fighting in an arena. And that arena is no less than Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of American prizefighting. […]
It was a bit disconcerting to discover that an old friend, when I was a correspondent in Moscow back in the dying days of the Soviet Union, had been told by the KGB to spy on me. Some foreign correspondents, Zhanna Suvorova was darkly told, were ‘not what they seem’. They wanted to ‘damage our […]
What it is about a human being’s yearning to fly – the urge to propel our bodies into the sky, to defy gravity and common sense and take to the air? That arm-flapping impulse we have as children to leave the ground? I remember once jumping from a fifteen-foot ha-ha in high winds holding four […]
At the height of his wealth and influence in the late 1890s, the financier – or, as Henry Macrory would have it, swindler – Whitaker Wright enjoyed the sort of opulence that would put a modern banker to shame. Not for him merely excavating a basement in Notting Hill. He had a house in Park […]
‘Rawleigh is a great name in our history, and fills a space in our imagination,’ wrote Isaac D’Israeli in 1841. Walter Ralegh’s various extraordinary careers – colonist in Ireland and the New World, soldier, courtier, unfortunate lover, poet, perhaps the most ambitious English historian before Gibbon – have ensured that he has been lionised as the most brilliant of those thrusting Elizabethans who advanced their fortunes through exploration, military heroics and literary endeavour.
Christian Goeschel’s book is an account of the various occasions when Hitler and Mussolini met. The first encounter took place at Venice in June 1934. Hitler, notoriously, arrived looking ‘like a plumber in a mackintosh’ and nervously fingered his fedora hat. Talks between the still-superb Duce and the German chancellor did not get far. The […]
My favourite story about Armistice Day – reported by A J P Taylor in his English History 1914–45 – is inevitably contained in Guy Cuthbertson’s superbly researched and exhaustive survey of the day the Great War ended. Taylor (who, as Cuthbertson points out, was a schoolboy at the time and in bed with flu in […]
I come from a line of inland-dwelling cow farmers but like to think I belong to a maritime-minded culture. Spanish literature is almost as sea-soaked as England’s. Iberia – though most British map projections obscure the fact – is a seaward-projected salient, close to where trade winds meet, thrust towards an almost inescapable seagoing destiny. Madrid, […]
In the autumn of 1621, fifty-six young women travelled to Jamestown, Virginia, in the hope of finding a husband. These were the forerunners of the better-known ‘fishing fleet’, who later sailed east instead of west, angling for officers of the Indian Civil Service, all knobbly knees and sola topis. The shareholders of the Virginia Company, […]
‘A dragon is no idle fancy,’ wrote Tolkien in 1936, but ‘a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold’. The potency has only increased over the last eighty years. Dragons crowd the pages of modern fantasy; no one needs telling that Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, holds a crucial place in George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones universe. Tolkien nevertheless also declared that ‘dragons, real dragons … are actually rare’, counting ‘only two that are significant’.
Those of us who have dabbled much in the lore of the nosferatu tend to think of them as imaginative creations of the German and English Romantics, and not without reason. Modern vampire literature took off properly in the notorious dark summer of 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and Dr John Polidori, […]
Books on Orwell keep coming. Alex Woloch’s Or Orwell (2016) examined the writing. Thomas Ricks’s Churchill & Orwell (2017) examined what it called ‘The Fight for Freedom’. John Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose (2016) examined, well, Orwell’s nose. In 2014 James Kenworth’s ‘hoodie’ version of Animal Farm played to packed outdoor audiences at Newham City Farm. Now […]
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s most enduring work, continues to have a powerful hold on our imaginations, presenting a compelling image of a rural idyll. Until now, though, there have been only two full-length biographies of Grahame: a doorstopper by the classicist Peter Green, published in 1959, and one by the children’s author […]
Historians used to say that Petrarch was the first post-classical person to do a literary climb of a mountain, toiling up Mont Ventoux in 1350 or so and then writing an elegant epistle about it, though I gather it is now doubted whether he ever really stirred from his chair. In his account, Petrarch states […]
Saul Bellow had what one of his characters in Ravelstein calls ‘a gift for reading reality – the impulse to put your loving face to it and press your hands against it’. Bellow seems to outstrip other novelists in his unembarrassed wish to get as close as possible to the reality of people – their faces, clothes, bodies, speech, gestures. If Bellow’s love for his characters was often contentious and double-edged, well what is love if not the highest form of contention?
Bellow was a personality worthy of his own fictions, a lively, inspired troublemaker, as Zachary Leader shows in the second volume of his magisterial biography. He was ‘a great chain-yanker’ during arguments, his son Daniel said, adding, ‘He liked to dig a pit and cover it with branches so you’d come walking along, whistling away, and fall right in it. Then he would stand at the edge and watch you as you sort of thrashed around. He liked that.’
It’s not often that lipstick saves a life, but in the case of the New York Times Havana correspondent Ruby Hart Phillips, a pause to freshen her make-up meant she arrived at the presidential palace moments after a volley of machine-gun fire killed four people. Such was the life of a foreign correspondent in Havana […]
Few countries have had such an outsize impact on the world as the island city-state of Singapore, once dismissed as a ‘little red dot’ by the president of sprawling, chaotic, gargantuan Indonesia. Singaporeans have taken up the phrase with pride, for it encapsulates their sense of achievement despite the tiny size of their country. It […]
Anyone writing about the subject of narco-trafficking must grapple with what could be called ‘the lie of legality’. It is duplicitous to try to draw a line between ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ drugs when describing the present carnage in Mexico, the ravages of drug abuse and the idea of our upright society waging a war against drugs. Drug cartels are corporations
Before sitting down to wade through Christopher Harding’s chunky volume of contemporary Japanese history, containing over four hundred pages of richly embroidered, well-written text, I asked a young friend staying with me if he might like to attempt a summary of Japan’s recent ‘story’, to try to sum up what Japan meant for him in […]
Few readers of Literary Review, I fear, will have benefited from the remarkable education in life provided by the hit 1980s cartoon series ThunderCats. Those who did will instantly recall the central character, Lion-O, hereditary king of the ThunderCats, possessor of the Sword of Omens and the Claw Shield and leader of those few – […]