Dine Hard

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There’s a widespread tendency to mistake actors for interesting people. In reality, of course, they are often no more interesting than someone with a knack for mimickry, like the old friend who insists on doing pitch-perfect Alan Partridge impersonations. It seems funny, but is it really? One exception to the general rule is the late Alan Rickman. True, his diaries have been handicapped by a slightly dubious title

Daily Mail Man

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Salisbury, Napoleon, Churchill: Andrew Roberts has an excellent eye for ‘great men’ who were not merely great but also colourful and helped shape their eras. His latest subject certainly helped shape his era, but he was not a ruler. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, was a press baron – Britain’s greatest, as Roberts accurately says. Northcliffe […]

Fascism in the Family

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Family and politics: it is quite a topic. How far should the branches of royal families spread? What about the influence of brothers, partners or children in contemporary democratic politics, as with the Johnsons and Kinnocks, the Bushes, Kennedys, Clintons and Trumps? Should a family ‘brand’ lure us to the polling booths? What of that modern ersatz variety of monarchy called dictatorship, which, in the curious

Kim Kardashian of Westminster

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Chips Channon was lucky. He was born rich and became even richer through his marriage into the Guinness family (and the family’s continuing generosity after his acrimonious separation from his wife, Honor). He moved from his native America to Britain in 1920 and was elected to Parliament. This meant that he had a ringside seat […]

He’s Probably Not Going to Be Your Pal

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Who is Peter Thiel and why does he matter? The answer, according to this book’s blurb, is that he’s a US-based technology investor and political-campaign funder who wields behind-the-scenes influence on ‘countless aspects of contemporary life’. While some American readers may know what Thiel looks like and even think of him as a role model, […]

1921: A Space Odyssey

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

John von Neumann is widely regarded by scientists as the greatest genius born in the 20th century. A combination of his intellect and his Hungarian origins (he started life, in 1903, as Neumann János Lajos) led colleagues jokingly to refer to him as a Martian or a time traveller from the future. He made seminal […]

Fashion & Fascism

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Miss Dior is a follow-up to Justine Picardie’s fine biography of the celebrated French couturier, Coco Chanel. Near the beginning of the book, Picardie, a former editor of Harper’s Bazaar UK, explains that she was invited to write a life of Christian Dior (a designer once memorably described by Cecil Beaton as resembling a bashful […]

Unquiet American

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The release of Chips Channon’s unexpurgated diaries is one of the great joys of 2021. They are diffuse, sometimes repetitive, with moments of banality. Passages of fine writing are juxtaposed with occasional drunken scrawls. Yet their editor, Simon Heffer, is right to reproduce the text in near-entirety. This is an unmatched source for mid-20th-century Westminster […]

Now We Can Know

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘Is Lees-Milne a homosexualist?’ This was the first question put to me by the Editor-in-Chief of the Literary Review when I met him back in the 1970s, at a Private Eye lunch. Disconcerted at hearing one of my special heroes – whom I revered for his architectural writings, his acutely observed diaries and his enchanting […]

A Familiar Tale Well Told Again

Posted on by Tom Fleming

If you know about Queen Victoria’s life, this book will confirm the details; if you do not, it is a good introduction. But even first-time readers are bound to have a package of familiar mental images. Highlights of Victoria’s life and times have appeared in countless movies and novels, beginning with the famous scene when […]

Did he Introduce the Grey Squirrel?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Not since Giles St Aubyn snatched the papers of Edward VII ‘s private secretary, Francis Knollys, from under the nose of the Royal Archives more than twenty years ago has any biographer added appreciably to the story of Edward’s long apprenticeship and shorter reign. Professor Stanley Weintraub has nevertheless been bold enough to write yet […]

Fish out of Water

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

At the age of two years and eleven months, Frank Buckland encountered a live crocodile – or possibly two crocodiles – obtained by his father, the eminent divine Dr William Buckland. When he was not yet four, he identified some fossils shown to his father as ‘the vertebrae of an ichthyosaurus’. Aged seven, he was […]

Hitting the Jackpot

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

When Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ was published in the New Yorker in June 1948, some of its readers, incredibly, believed it to be fact. Set in a village of three hundred people, it tells, in Jackson’s simple, economical style, of a ritual sacrifice in which one villager is chosen by lot to be […]

One Shift in the Life of…

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Few of the millions of gulag prisoners who returned from the penal colony spoke of their experiences; very few wrote about them. Almost none of the million men who guarded, beat, starved and killed those prisoners wrote of their careers. The major exception is Sergei Dovlatov, who as a child in the Second World War […]

To the Bitter End

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

When Clara Petacci, known as Claretta, first met Mussolini in April 1932, she was a gushing, busty young Fascist of twenty, with dark hair, a prominent nose and good legs; he was forty-nine, shaven-headed, with a jutting chin, a fleshy mouth and burning eyes, and he had been dictator of Italy for the past eight years

Essays in Nobility

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

One of the greatest game-changers in French literature was the Essais of Michel de Montaigne, which first appeared in 1580. The title itself was a linguistic innovation, announcing the birth of a new literary form in which serious topics would be dealt with in a style that was tentative, ironic and anecdotal

Dark Arts & Coronets

Posted on by David Gelber

There are many reasons to keep a diary: to mitigate loneliness; for introspective self-abasement; as an aide-mémoire; as a historical record of interesting times or places; as a safety valve when exasperated; as a repository of doubtful gossip; to drop names; as a money-spinner in old age; and as a way to perfect an artful […]

Making Waves

Posted on by David Gelber

As a boy I made little wireless sets out of tin cigarette boxes with a receiving coil wound in such a way that it was on the right wavelength for Radio Luxembourg. The ethereal sound of 1950s pop music in the earpiece was spellbinding. How that signal got to me, I did not bother to […]

A Line in the Sand

Posted on by David Gelber

We learn from this splendid and rather moving book that the original flag of what was to be Saudi Arabia was designed by none other than the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes. Its four colours – red, white, green and black – now appear on the flags of the Arab states with whose creation he […]

No Arthur

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The main facts of Charlemagne’s life are, by early medieval standards, well documented. He was born in around 742, crowned as Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 and died on 28 January 814. A life of him was written fifteen or twenty years later by a monk called Einhard, […]

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