Author Archives: David Gelber

Yours Unfaithfully

Posted on by David Gelber

Isherwood completists will pounce on The Animals, the collected correspondence between the English author and Don Bachardy, his three-decades-younger American artist boyfriend. It follows the publication in four volumes of Isherwood’s unabridged diaries, each carefully edited by Katherine Bucknell and encouraged by Bachardy, now approaching eighty and still working. The most recent volume of the […]

All Beat Up

Posted on by David Gelber

‘I think that William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius’ – Norman Mailer. ‘Burroughs is the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift’ – Jack Kerouac. ‘Burroughs has, principally, two claims on the attention of serious readers: as a moralist, and as an innovator. On both counts, it […]

My Precious

Posted on by David Gelber

Unlike coal, gas or oil, it is relatively easy to quantify how much gold has been accrued to date. In about 1400 the world’s entire supply of mined gold would have fitted into a six-foot cube. Today, if all the coins, bars, fillings and jewellery were converted to bullion bricks, they would cover a tennis […]

False Profits

Posted on by David Gelber

In modern Britain, an exercise in thought association around the phrase ‘management consultant’ is likely to lead to a diatribe about wasted public spending and weak government. Management consultants are those masters of the bullet-point presentation who get rich by selling Whitehall departments the ‘strategies’ that enable ministers to chant

Three Graces

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1913, when Perf Wyndham married the Honorable Diana Lister, an onlooker, observing the remarkable family assembled for the occasion, commented, ‘The Wyndham clan – all so beautiful and so well pleased with each other.’ The remark, while astutely nailing one of the feelings induced by reading about these intensely self-obsessed, largely leisured women for […]

Wit & Whiggery

Posted on by David Gelber

For Hugh Trevor-Roper the writing of a letter was part entertainment, part lecture and part therapy. He was clear that ‘if one never writes real letters one can never acquire the art of expressing one’s self, and at times it is such a relief to do so’. It was a form that allowed people to […]

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Dancing Queen

Posted on by David Gelber

One of the Indian subcontinent’s many paradoxes is that its menfolk still tend to regard the female sex as subservient to them while at the same time idolising women who refuse to play second fiddle. It explains the extraordinary hold that some women politicians have over the popular electorate, from Sonia Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee […]

Stakes of War

Posted on by David Gelber

Even if history is written by the victors, as the cliché goes, the losers usually get to tell their side of the story too. Nowadays, accounts of the First and Second World Wars and other conflicts, including the American Civil War, incorporate the perspectives of both sides to give a more intricate picture of how […]

High Minds, Low Lives

Posted on by David Gelber

The purported motive for Alexander Lee’s spasmodically impressive and frequently pantomimic Ugly Renaissance is his conviction that historians and tour guides are serving up an idealised Apollonian image of the Renaissance, and that the seething Dionysian underbelly has been airbrushed and repressed. It is certainly true that there have been saccharine, soft-focus versions of the […]

What a Beard-Off

Posted on by David Gelber

For one unavoidable reason, the plains of northern France will lie heavy in the public mind this year. In 1914, English and French soldiers repudiated ancient enmities and took to the field together. This union of arms – on territory where each nation had drained so much of the other’s blood – was not, as […]

Scots at the Top

Posted on by David Gelber

When, in 1884, the great Victorian historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner published his pioneering History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War 1603–1642, it took him ten substantial volumes to cover just those 39 years. Tim Harris’s impressive new book manages to survey the same historical terrain rather […]

Narrative Arks

Posted on by David Gelber

Among the British Museum’s prodigious collection of cuneiform tablets and fragments, strangely parallel experiences befell two scholars. First, in the 1870s, George Smith identified two pre-biblical accounts of a hero divinely commissioned to build an ark and so save the denizens of the world from a cosmic flood. Reading The Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time ‘after more than 2,000 years of oblivion’

The Lost Art of Table Talk

Posted on by David Gelber

There was once a vogue for recording the things that writers and other ‘eminent figures’ said while they supped. These books, generally known as ‘table talk’, form a curious and now sadly extinct genre. Part gossip, part biography, they are also a variety of boastful memoir. As Samuel Rogers – poet, banker and echo chamber […]

Snakes in the Jungle

Posted on by David Gelber

The tribulations of Che Guevara, the T-shirt Christ, still continue to fascinate, almost half a century after he was executed in the Bolivian jungle; so, too, continues the hunt for the Judas who betrayed him. A prime suspect has long been the artist Ciro Bustos, who, caught by the CIA-backed Bolivian crack squad sent to […]

Arnold’s Boy

Posted on by David Gelber

Who remembers Dean Stanley now? He is a rather wan figure among the noisy, disputatious, pugnacious clerics who bustle forward whenever 19th-century English Christianity is mentioned: men like his contemporaries Newman, Keble and Pusey, Soapy Sam Wilberforce and George Cornelius Gorham, whose views on baptism so outraged the Bishop of Exeter when he was appointed […]

Tending the White Rose

Posted on by David Gelber

Elizabeth of York was the first Tudor queen consort and played a crucial role in establishing the new dynasty, but she has been strangely overlooked by historians until now. The general impression has always been of a passive beauty who grew plump with child-bearing, was completely dominated by her overbearing mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, and was […]

In Bed with François

Posted on by David Gelber

Few who witnessed it will forget the euphoria that swept France on 10 May 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected president of the republic – it was over a quarter of a century since a left-wing president had held power in France. Yet Mitterrand was not a typical left-wing leader. He had belonged to the […]

Making a Prophet

Posted on by David Gelber

For a historical personage about whom we seem to know even the homeliest and most mundane details – his espousal of the toothpick for good dental hygiene or his passionate love of cats – the Prophet Muhammad remains an oddly elusive figure. Gone are the confident days of the late 19th century when Ernest Renan could state that of all the founders of religions, Muhammad alone ‘stood in the full light of history’. Renan’s assumption was understandable. The sheer quantity of documentation in Arabic, including not only the Koran itself but the sira, the eighth- and ninth-century ‘biographies’ of the Prophet, and the voluminous canonical collections of the hadith, those sacred traditions reporting his words and deeds, is immense. These sources are notable not only for the abundance of information they contain but also for their vivid specificity: they positively swarm with detail.

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