Damn you all, I told you so

Posted on by David Gelber

The American author of this latest biography of H G Wells dedicates his book to his grandson Joshua ‘in the heartfelt hope and desire that his world might turn out to be a Wellsian one.’ Yet Professor Smith’s researches show that Wells imagined my futures, some not fit for human habitation, and late in life […]

Complex Critic

Posted on by David Gelber

Faces of Philip – the title suggests someone shadowy, enigmatic. And to many readers Philip Toynbee must be just that, an Observer reviewer who occasionally appeared on the back of a book jacket, exhorting us to read the contents immediately. He would probably have appreciated the anonymity, happy to live in Monmouthshire working at his […]

Prickly Porcupine

Posted on by David Gelber

It is refreshing to turn from a newspaper full of the bickerings of today’s rancid Left to this new biography of a great journalist, a much loved and much detested radical who started his career some two centuries ago. Cobbett with all his splendid idiosyncrasies has left behind him the impression of having been great […]

‘A Born Loser’

Posted on by David Gelber

Incredulity and the weary snapping open of card-indexes often greet the appearance of yet another weighty book about an already much scrutinised writer – can there really be so much new to say? With Swift, it is different: about his opinions and personality, genuine disagreement has persisted since his own lifetime, and he remains an […]

I Ate All the Chocolates

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

James Watson, co-discoverer of the secret of life, tries hard before selecting a final title for his books. The story of his and Francis Crick’s race for the double helix of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, if you must) was variously titled ‘Honest Jim’ and ‘Base Pairs’ before Watson settled on The Double Helix, published in 1968 […]

Eric Blair: Grocer

Posted on by David Gelber

Busy researching a biography of Cyril Connolly, I was surprised to come across a note from George Orwell to his old school friend suggesting that they should review each other’s most recent books on the familiar grounds of ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ Whereas Connolly – idle, greedy, pin-striped, racked with self-pity – […]

The Swan of Odense Had a Taste for the Quality

Posted on by David Gelber

As it turns out, Hans Christian Andersen did look a bit like Danny Kaye, the Hollywood comic prince who portrayed him in the schmaltzy biopic of 1952. Lanky, clown-footed and with eager, mobile features, Andersen grew handsome only in middle age, when accomplishment and celebrity settled a kind of self-confidence upon him. Until then, he […]

Prince of Polemicists

Posted on by David Gelber

The main thesis of this well-written, robust, sympathetic study of Hazlitt and his age is that he was a man both representative of and seriously at odds with the prevailing literary, political and social currents. In particular, he was the greatest quarreller of the early years of the nineteenth century. The characteristic Romantic mode of […]

Fallen from the Trees

Posted on by David Gelber

Calling any collection ‘complete’ tempts fate. As Dr Tom Staley of the Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas, says, ‘As soon as any collection of letters is published, more fall out of the trees.’ In the case of Oscar Wilde, however, the editors of these 1,500 or so letters have enjoyed a commanding position. Merlin […]

No Hiding Place

Posted on by David Gelber

The first Western philosophers that we know of were Ancient Greeks living on and off the coast of western Turkey in the sixth century BC. They earn the title because they tried to explain how the world worked by appeal to logos – let us translate it as ‘reason’ – and not to divine diktat. […]

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A Vital Debate

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When C P Snow famously lamented the division between the Two Cultures of science and the humanities, it was the scientific ignorance of those who studied the latter – and went on to be decision makers in politics, the civil service and the universities – that troubled him. Their inability to understand the nature and […]

Off His Pedestal

Posted on by Tom Fleming

There are elements to the tragedy of Mozart’s life that touch us even if we are in that taxing minority who remain unmoved by his music. Here was a man of prodigious talent, dead at thirty-five, worn out by the effort of constantly performing -and constantly exercising his genius. He had the strain of supporting […]

She Preferred to Drink with the Fellahs

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Mo Mowlam will go down in history for two things. She was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when the Good Friday Agreement, that benighted province’s best chance for peace, was signed, and probably had much to do with persuading the Republicans to engage in serious negotiation. That did not endear her to the Unionist […]

Plucky Couple Stuck on the African Railways

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This is the story of an enterprising and resilient former antique-lace restorer and minicab driver with an obsession for trains in Africa. It is not a book about Africa, much less ‘a full account of modern Africa’, as Miles Bredin’s publishers claim. Anyone who reads the first page of abbreviations and acronyms and finds ‘ANC […]

How They Saved the XIVth Army

Posted on by Tom Fleming

In the spring of 1944 the last great attack by the Axis powers in the Second World War was launched, when 100,000 Japanese came west over the Chindwin river to lay siege to the British stronghold of Imphal. Their aim was to destroy General Slim’s XIVth Army, which had been forced back through Burma to […]

Living On Mail Order

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Katie Hickman starts ahead of the game so far as I am concerned, since A Trip to the Light Fantastic with a Mexican Circus, published in 1993, is one of the most bizarrely enjoyable books about Mexico that I have ever read – and it is, after all, a country that lends itself to such. […]

I Would Prefer to Adopt the German Constitution

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Given that the new Labour Government is forever going on about its bold reforming agenda for the British constitution, Peter Riddell’s guide to this whole package of issues is a concise and salutary expose of how timid the government’s proposals are. Riddell looks in depth at how the power has shifted from Parliament to Europe, […]

‘John’ Thomas Unmasked

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It seemed, at the time, like the most surreal of fictions: US Senators quoting The Exorcist, debating pubic hairs in Coke cans and discussing the exploits of Long Dong Silver. Unfortunately, it was all too real, and its consequences no less than disastrous: a lifetime Supreme Court appointment for Clarence Thomas after the most tumultuous […]

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