Changes of Mind

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

How did we get where we are, we human freaks of nature? Language, rational thought, art, science and technology set us apart from other species. Add to that list (more curse than accomplishment) an acute awareness of our own mortality. Other animals show faint glimmerings of innovation – crude tool use, for example – but no other species has

Baroque Star

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Certain artists contrive not simply to be their own era’s perfect imagemakers but to embody its essence within their private lives. Such a one was Gian Lorenzo Bernini. To the crisis-ridden Italy of the 17th century, with its wars, famines, plagues and rebellions, his sculpture, in works like Apollo and Daphne or The Ecstasy of […]

Artist of the Night

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Joseph Wright was born in Derby in 1734 and died there in 1797. His father, a lawyer, was prosperous enough to send this singular child, who would draw, make models and build contraptions for play, to train in London with the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson. Wright worked and exhibited in the capital, as well […]

The Complete Composer

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This book comes garlanded with praise. It certainly is impressive in several ways. The amount of reading that Ross has done for it, often summarising at length a wide variety of texts, is prodigious. But note the subtitle. Don’t expect it to be about music, whether Wagner’s or that of the innumerable composers who have […]

George & His Wagon

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In this book Carmen Callil attempts to write the history of her dirt-poor English family during the 19th century based on almost nothing in the way of direct evidence. Lacking personal information such as letters or diaries, she relies on census data, parish registers, workhouse and criminal records, snippets from local newspapers and scraps of […]

Who Did She Think She Was?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Kiss Myself Goodbye is a work of beauty. The simple truthfulness of Ferdinand Mount’s storytelling is irresistible. There is nothing artful about it; there are no loud shouts for attention or coarse revelations designed to shock. Instead, he offers a calm, lucid, humane approach, and the prizing of justice. Mount’s recounting of the life of […]

Crisis? What Crisis?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Tom Bower is an assassin among political biographers. When children hear that daddy has come to Mr Bower’s attention, they weep all the way to school and fail their exams. Wives change the locks or hire a divorce lawyer. Bower’s books hiss with menace and attract writs. Yet this one gives ‘unauthorised biography’ a bad […]

The Unauthorised Version

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

For more than seventy-five years, the British have been spinning myths about the Second World War. This was the conflict, we say, that made us who we are today. In 1939 we were a nation of country squires, slow to anger but steadfast in our defence of fair play and common decency. When Hitler attacked […]

Norse Code

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It is hard to begin any study of the Viking Age without confronting the fact that, as Neil Price notes in his opening pages, the ‘actual people have almost disappeared under the cumulative freight they have been made to bear’ over the centuries. In a couple of paragraphs, he swiftly dispatches historical appropriations and clichés, […]

Muddying the Waters

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In the late 18th century, Thomas Forrest, a British sea captain and trader with decades of experience in the Indian Ocean, Malaysia and Indonesia, published accounts of some of his voyages to raise awareness of their economic potential. He incorporated Malay navigational information in his charts, but the crucial contribution he received from indigenous intermediaries […]

Stars in Their Eyes

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In central France in the 11th century, a young monk looked up at the dark sky. His job was to ring the monastery bells at set hours through the night. He could tell the time by the movement of the stars, which he recorded in a small notebook. On Christmas Day, he had to ring […]

Three Cheers for Reason

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In many ways, we live enmeshed in Enlightenment values: societies can be asked to alter their behaviours on the basis of science to alleviate the spread of a virus, the consequences of which many will not have seen at first hand; complex protocols can be agreed to mitigate climate change, the science behind which has […]

Is He Mad or Just Pretending?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Donald Trump may or may not have made America great again but he has certainly done a lot for the publishing industry in the United States. The sheer volume of books about him printed since he took office is staggering. Indeed, I’m informed – though this might be fake news – that close to one […]

Caught Between Allah & America

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It has long been a commonplace among observers of Pakistan to point to a toxic trio of forces beginning with the letter A – Allah, army and America – as the ultimate arbiters of the country’s destiny. While far-reaching social and economic changes may have rendered Pakistan’s future less predictable in recent years, the power of this triumvirate to dictate political outcomes is still not in question. This is strongly

Best of Enemies

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This book provides a fairly damning indictment of American policy towards Iran from at least the time of the CIA-backed coup of 1953, which saw the overthrow of the Iranian nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. The coup shattered the hopes Iranians had placed in the United States that it would not behave like Britain and […]

True to Type

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

One day in the summer of 1705, a woman in a black velvet mask knocked on the door of a printer’s shop off London’s Fetter Lane. She brought with her a manuscript entitled The Memorial of the Church of England, Humbly Offer’d to the Consideration of all True Lovers of our Church and Constitution, and […]

Sex, Drugs & Poetry

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A newcomer wanting the lowdown on John Cooper Clarke’s five decades under the spotlight might usefully begin by calling up the YouTube clip of our man’s appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. Here, accompanied by a hotshot backing band, an elongated figure with a teased-out birds’-nest hairdo can be found hunched over a […]

Carrot Top Speaks

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It puzzles me that in my forty years of toiling in the vineyard of French literature, I should have managed to sidestep, until now, the work of Jules Renard. To be sure, I had seen copies of his Journal frequently in bookshops, and in various battered Pléiade editions at the bouquinistes stalls along the Seine, […]

A Romantic Jigsaw

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Within the pages of this biography, I discovered that Sybille Bedford had an affair with the sister of my father’s first wife and another with the stepfather of my mother’s stepsister. You are likely to find the same, for in matters of the heart Bedford did not stint. ‘I wish I’d written more books and spent less time

Masters of None?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Academics like few things more than to complain about the state of their profession. A recurrent gripe is that their fields have descended into hyper-specialisation, with an overload of knowledge – books, articles and now various forms of digital material – leading to the death of the great generalists of yesteryear, who were able to leap bravely

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