The Past is Another Country

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The British obsession with the past is nothing new. Even the most self-conscious modernisers evoke it – hence Harold Wilson’s fixation with Churchill and Tony Blair’s cringe-making references to the Sixties. People have often looked back to some lost golden age, though when a historian examines those golden ages, they always turn out to be […]

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Bar the Door!

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

William Waller was born in the last years of the 16th century, at a time when the glories of the earlier decades of Elizabeth I’s rule were beginning to be tarnished by economic problems, religious dissent and the first whisperings of concern about the extent of the royal prerogative. Nearly half a century would pass […]

Illiteracy is No Disqualification

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Standing starkly before his mirror, does Vladimir Putin imagine himself an emperor? The Russian leader’s rambling and pretentious essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, written to justify Russia swallowing Ukraine, certainly evokes tsarist ambitions. The enormous power Putin has amassed over the Russian state is also redolent of the imperial supremacy and […]

Method in the Melancholy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The year 1600, writes Helen Hackett in her ambitious study of the mental world of the Elizabethans, was ‘a moment of the mind’. Around the turn of the 17th century, an unusually rich crop of literary works was published and performed that took as their principal subject the nature of the mind and mental processes, […]

Hitching Skirt and Wagon

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 19th-century America, those who hitched their wagon and headed west did so in the expectation of never making the return journey. Thousands of miles lay before them, full of dangerously fast rivers, parched plains and vertiginous mountains. In the months, sometimes years, it took to go from the safe havens of the east to […]

Go Forth and Proselytise

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As you progress through a typical day in Britain or western Europe, consider how many of the things you take for granted were introduced in the early modern era by the world-travelling members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Tea for a start: it arrived in Europe from Jesuit missions in the Far East. […]

Butcher’s Knives, Treason and Plot

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

On 23 February 1820, a party of soldiers and watchmen swooped on a huddle of men in dingy quarters on Cato Street, near Edgware Road in London. There was a brief but desperate struggle by the light of guttering candles. Constable Smithers was run through with a well-aimed sword thrust by Arthur Thistlewood and died almost immediately, but the twenty or so men present were quickly taken into custody. Within hours, the news

Tripping Down Tin Pan Alley

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘From his earliest years,’ P G Wodehouse wrote of himself in his memoir, ‘America had been – to this pie-faced dreamer – the land of romance.’ And, as soon as he got a chance, Wodehouse booked his passage to the Promised Land, where he drew on his love of W S Gilbert to help shape […]

The Radicalism of a Watercolour

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Kierkegaard’s observation that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards is pertinent to any attempt to understand art history. Artists move uncertainly, experimenting, growing, absorbing, discovering, forgetting, rediscovering. It is the difficult task of the art historian to piece a narrative together – and all art historians have their biases and […]

Build ’em Up, Knock ’em Down

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘That hovel? That’s what you’re planning to write a book about? Absolutely no one will read it! Besides, it’s not normal for a young woman to be so obsessed with death. You shouldn’t be making up books, you should see a psychiatrist.’ This damning assessment was delivered by Giulia, Charlotte Van den Broeck’s host during […]

Castles of Concrete

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Owen Hatherley blithely claims that this massive tour de force is ‘a guide to the place … you’re visiting, or a place you want to visit’. Pull the other one, squire. The notion of Owen Hatherley, Tripadvisor, is sheerly preposterous, though it may appeal to a tremulous publisher figuring out how to market this behemoth. He is really a polemicist, ready to take issue with anyone, including himself. His insistent invitations to look are heavy with allusions, catholic comparisons and quiet asides. The result of his tireless labour is an oblique, partial, lopsided survey of Britain throughout the long modernist century; and no matter what a platoon of celluloid collars and

Where George Eliot Meets Mick Jagger

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1988, we – the Boyds – were looking to move to a bigger house in Fulham, where we were then living. But by haphazard miracle we ended up buying a house in the heart of Chelsea, between the King’s Road and the Thames, and have never moved. It’s impossible to imagine living anywhere else. Chelsea in 1988 was markedly different from Chelsea in 2022. For example, many of the houses

Facebook Knows Your Thoughts

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Whether tracking prey, scoping a deal, scouting a romantic partner or raising our young, humans have always sought to deduce and then to influence the thinking of those about us. We often succeed, sometimes on a large scale: the results of such influence have included cults, theocracies and totalitarian propaganda, as well as populations responsive […]

How Dosh Went Digital

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It was way back in 2013 when Brett Scott first contacted me. He told me he’d written a book called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance, ‘which I actually sell for bitcoin,’ he explained. Buying something with bitcoin? The idea seemed preposterous then; now I wish I’d sold my own book for bitcoin. There are […]

Pirates of the Aegean

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At 3am on 6 July 2011, the USS Philippine Sea, on piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, received a radio distress message: ‘Coalition warship, coalition warship, this is Brillante Virtuoso. We are under attack.’ There were pirates on board and the ship was on fire. After abandoning ship, the tanker’s mainly Filipino crew, along with their packed suitcases, were picked up by the US cruiser from a large lifeboat. The Brillante’s captain explained

Temple of Vespa

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Has anyone ever moped on the back of a moped? I’ve a feeling it wouldn’t be possible. Not that I was feeling in any way mopey about the prospect of an afternoon spent signing hardbacks at various bookshops in London, a thing near unimaginable not so long ago, a kind of dream after the general Covid isolation we’ve all been in. On the contrary, I was lightheaded with delight at the thought. (Lightheaded? A symptom. Better test.) Especially since

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