California Dreamin’

Posted on by David Gelber

The ellipsis in the title of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood says it all. It confides a doubt or hesitation, or introduces a rupture that we have to wishfully leap across. Yes, Quentin Tarantino’s glorious and warmly generous film is a fairy tale – or at least it ends like one, with a confected […]

This Isn’t Working Anymore

Posted on by David Gelber

This is a book written for the times – indeed for this particular moment. A certain kind of Englishness, incoherent and by no means shared by all the English, is driving the United Kingdom out of the European Union, regardless of the consequences, while a certain kind of Scottishness, by no means shared by all […]

Me, My Shelf & I

Posted on by David Gelber

A friend who plies his trade as a bookseller in Cornwall tells me that the only person who can compete with his level of physical grunt work, humping boxes into his van and armfuls of dusty books onto his shelves, is the local dry-stone waller. In Wigtown, Scotland, where Shaun Bythell scrapes a living in his draughty second-hand bookshop

Better Than Staying at Home

Posted on by David Gelber

The Venetian Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto never married. After decades of scrabbling for commissions in northern Italy, he died an oblate, reflecting mournfully in his will that he had earned less through his art than he had spent. His pictures are full of the things he was unable to enjoy for himself: jewels, silks, ermine, […]

Freedom Regained

Posted on by David Gelber

Until recently, few readers would have been familiar with the painter, cultural ambassador and memoirist Józef Czapski. Born in 1896 into a noble Polish family, Czapski was sucked early in his life into the maelstrom of events that would rock the Slavic world for decades to come. He was in St Petersburg studying law at […]

An Old-fashioned Kind of Spy

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1939 and for at least the next fifteen years, Peter Fleming was much more successful and famous than his younger brother Ian. He was known as an explorer and adventurer, wrote bestselling books and was an engaging columnist for The Times and The Spectator. He was married to Celia Johnson, a star of both […]

She Wasn’t Just in It for the Dresses

Posted on by David Gelber

After Napoleon, Marie Antoinette is probably the most famous French historical figure in Britain, even though she was originally Austrian and he was Corsican. At an early age, however, both left home for France (Marie Antoinette at fifteen, Napoleon at nine), and both were defined by the most extraordinary event in its modern history, the […]

Victoria’s Angel

Posted on by David Gelber

Prince Albert has been the subject of numerous biographies, beginning with Sir Theodore Martin’s five-volume ‘Albertiad’ (as A N Wilson describes it) of 1875 to 1880. Martin was, however, hampered by having the ever-critical eye of Queen Victoria hovering over his work. The resulting exhaustive hagiography

From Beijing with Love

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, a drama played out thousands of miles away in Beijing. Two court officials were arguing about how Italian Jesuits in China should be treated. One of these, Shen Que, was convinced that they were spreading seditious views and should be expelled forthwith. The other, Xu Guangqi, argued that […]

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Born to Supremacy

Posted on by David Gelber

This is a book with two subtitles. The cover promises an account of the ‘Secret Rise and Rule’ of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The title page promises a treatise on the ‘Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un’. The first intimates an ambition to provide a highbrow contribution to our knowledge […]

One Day in September

Posted on by David Gelber

We know the big picture: how nineteen men hijacked four aircraft on 11 September 2001 and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, DC and, not by design, into a field in Pennsylvania, with the immediate loss of 2,977 lives (not counting those of the hijackers). Much

Roads to Somewhere

Posted on by David Gelber

In the winter of 2000, I went to Lapland to visit a family of southern Sudanese who had been resettled in Finland as part of a new and generous initiative to find homes for some of the thousands of people uprooted in Sudan’s civil wars. I met them in a language class in a nursery […]

For Whom the Handbell Tolls

Posted on by David Gelber

Peter Hennessy begins the third volume of his splendid history of postwar Britain with a vivid description of the secret bunker complex, created in the late 1950s and early 1960s near his boyhood home in the Cotswolds. Code-named STOCKWELL, it occupied 240 acres and included 60 miles of tunnels dug 90 feet below ground. This […]

On Firm Ground

Posted on by David Gelber

Such was the size of the East India Company that writing a history of it raises the question of what to leave out. During its 250-year existence, the Company acquired a maritime dominion that extended from the South Atlantic to the North Pacific, an army that grew to eclipse those of most nation-states, a commercial […]

It Began in a Manger…

Posted on by David Gelber

Do you know what happened in Lyon in AD 177? Or in Milan in 1300? Or in Baroda in 1825? You probably don’t, but you shouldn’t worry: few do. Whatever happened, it was, by ordinary standards, something quite humble. In Dominion, Tom Holland explores such happenings for precisely that reason. Yet in his telling, the […]

Portraits in Tyranny

Posted on by David Gelber

In December 1949, the Soviet regime celebrated Joseph Stalin’s seventieth birthday with great fanfare. Among the visitors who came to Moscow were fellow communist leaders, including those of two recently established dictatorships: Walter Ulbricht, the bespectacled chairman of the East German Socialist Unity Party, and Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao was […]

Political Animals

Posted on by David Gelber

Among innumerable hair-raising stories in David Runciman’s book about the individuals who have dominated Anglo-American politics since the 1960s, perhaps the most memorable concerns a man who never held high office at all. At the beginning of 2008, North Carolina’s Democratic senator John Edwards looked like a decent bet to become the next American president. […]

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Writer

Posted on by Tom Fleming

At the height of the Cold War, the CIA came up with a scheme to balloon-drop thousands of copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Soviet-controlled Poland. Printed in a compact, user-friendly format and translated into Polish, Orwell’s work, banned by the Soviet authorities following its publication in 1945, was mobilised by the Americans and […]

Trouble on the Horizon

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It was in December 1939 that Cyril Connolly set up the literary magazine Horizon, which was published monthly throughout the war and its immediate aftermath, the final issue appearing in December 1949. Connolly became the magazine’s editor, a position that was to earn him considerable prestige, although office life at Horizon was far from conventional, […]

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