No One Thinks of Him

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Erik Satie wrote a short piano piece called Vexations, which concludes with the direction ‘Repeat 472 times’. John Cage, who has written an open letter to Ornella Volta, by way of preface to this volume, once hired a theatre in New York to follow Satie’s instructions. A relay of pianists played the piece for sixteen […]

Not Such a Bad Fellow

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Soon after I arrived in Japan in the early Sixties, I read in one of the English-language newspapers the headline: ‘Emperor Gives Woman Professor Crabs.’ Beneath the headline there was a blurred photograph of the diminutive emperor handing over two crabs, apparently of a rare species, to a bulky fellow marine biologist from England. I […]

Peter Pan Laid Bare

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Bernard Shaw had a passion for publicity; it was a means of concealing himself from the public. (Where do you hide a leaf? In a tree.) Yet it was also a means of self-affirmation, which enabled him to hide from himself. In this he differed from Wilde, his Dublin contemporary, who used publicity to encourage […]

November 1989

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The height of the literary prize season, when everybody – or nearly everybody – is talking about books, might, perhaps, be a good time to talk about politics instead. In six years as a political correspondent – first for Spectator, then for Private Eye – the only useful thing I learned was that even fewer […]

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Getting to Know the Neighbours

Posted on by Tom Fleming

East Asia is a graveyard for the sort of visionary diplomatic ambition that gave birth to the European Union. As in Europe, there are well-established states linked by a common cultural heritage – in this case the great Confucian tradition – and a history of many cruel wars. As in Europe, too, commerce has forged […]

Tolkien at the Crossroads

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The archives of Oxford University, held at the Bodleian Library, date from the 13th century and are a treasure trove for historians. From this hoard I recently unearthed a document which has escaped attention for a hundred years and which sheds new light on the early career choices of J R R Tolkien. A small […]

Mohammed Hanif

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

On 6 January this year, agents claiming to be from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) raided the Maktaba-e-Danyal publishing house in Karachi and confiscated some 250 copies of Mohammed Hanif’s acclaimed satirical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The following day, they demanded a list of bookshops that stocked the work. Originally published in the […]

A Spoonful of Elmore

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The pain began, quite abruptly, at about eight o’clock last Wednesday night. It ascended in a barely credible way, and at around eleven I phoned the NHS Direct line. Something in what I said to the operator must have struck a chord, as eighteen minutes later an ambulance was there. By eight o’clock the next […]

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Summer of ’59

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

English novelists have always found some eras to be more equal than others. The last years of the 1950s, like 1912 or 1913, are often used as settings because they represent a final act: they are rich in potential for dramatic irony, with the characters being unaware of something to which we are privy, namely […]

Surprise in the Post

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Set in the not too distant future, Marc-Uwe Kling’s new novel unravels the world of QualityLand, where every aspect of society has been optimised by the use of androids and formidable algorithms. It is a place that trades exclusively in superlatives: the latest blockbuster film is ‘The Fastest and the Most Furious Ever’. Since hackers […]

Going Underground

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In his 2014 essay ‘The Case for Reparations’, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that compensating black Americans for the injustices of slavery ‘would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history’. In his debut novel, The Water Dancer, the kind of national awakening […]

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Whose Life is It Anyway?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Biography remains the least theorised of the major genres. Readers gobble biographies up like candy and bookstores would feel impoverished without a fresh stack of them on display each season. For all of this, biographers – as opposed to novelists or writers of popular nonfiction in other categories – often remain in the shadows. It’s […]

O Ye of Little Faith

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Writing about atheism and its long-term history is hard. The evidence is scarce: even in the case of elites, there is often great uncertainty over what someone really believed in times (in other words most of Western history) when unbelief could land you in very hot water, or something even hotter. When it comes to […]

Street-fighting Men

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This is a timely book. It reminds us of a particularly shameful moment in our modern history, when fascism, despite having just been defeated in a war in which millions lost their lives, once more became a force in British politics. Anti-Semitism was at the heart of the fascist revival in postwar Britain. Loathing for

Yours, Unfaithfully

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In April 1970, Robert Lowell moved into All Souls College, Oxford, where he was to spend all of Trinity term as a beneficiary of its visiting fellowship scheme (he was replaced by Philip Larkin the following term). Within days of his arrival he went to a party in London thrown by his publisher, Faber & Faber, and met Caroline Blackwood. They spent the night together in a large corner house in Redcliffe Square, Kensington, with which she had been provided by the Guinness family trustees (her mother was a member of the brewing family). Within two months Lowell told his wife

Off the Money

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The great financial crisis of 2007–9 was no end of a lesson for the economics profession. Prior to it, hardly any economist drew attention to the global imbalances that had built up in the early 2000s and are now seen as a crucial element in the meltdown. Nor, with a few notable exceptions, did economists […]

Beyond a Joke

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

If Daniel Kehlmann has a speciality, it’s artful portraits of fraudsters, hypocrites and con artists. His debut, Beerholms Vorstellung (1997), published when he was twenty-two, tells the story of a theologian turned magician with a knack for cheating at poker. The postmodern short-story cycle Fame (2010) teems with mistaken identities and pathological impostors. And the […]

It’s a Murder to Solve

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

How on earth do you read a hundred-page novel when those pages have been published in no particular order and numbered seemingly at random? That’s the first conundrum for anyone approaching Cain’s Jawbone. The book is a much-anticipated reissue of an obscure, cult literary object that originally appeared over eighty years ago. It was the […]

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What Goes Up

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Low starts high – aboard an aircraft, from whose windows Dominic Ullis, the Indian-born poet protagonist, can glimpse the ‘gleaming’ slum quarter of the city he still calls Bombay – and lurches pointedly between high and low thereafter. Ullis is a former addict, a chaser of highs. With him on the plane are the ashes […]

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