Enfant Terrible

Posted on by David Gelber

It is almost half a century since the last full-length English-language biography of Jean Cocteau was published, and it has taken thirteen years for Claude Arnaud’s work finally to be translated from the French. There are, no doubt, sound financial reasons for this. Although the elderly Cocteau of the 1950s and early 1960s was famous from Germany to Japan and from New York to Lebanon, the only fragments of his large oeuvre much known in the Anglophone world these days are two feature films, Orphée and La belle et la bête, and a brief novel-turned-film, Les enfants terribles. Are we wrong to neglect him? We are.

Guy Walters on Three Wartime Tales

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It has recently become voguish for the relatives of those who lived through the Third Reich to produce books that explore how their family members behaved through those twelve dark years. Most recently, we have seen Martin Davidson’s The Perfect Nazi; Uwe Timm’s In My Brother’s Shadow; and Defying Hitler, Oliver Pretzel’s translation of the […]

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Nation Building

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Of the most iconic figures associated with America’s racial crisis of the 1960s, few lived to see the decade’s end. Like John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Malcolm X had barely entered middle age when, on 21 February 1965, death arrived with a bullet. Memory of these assassinations, popular and scholarly, sags with […]

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Eminent Tsarist Statesman

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Many Russian émigrés – not least Nabokov, in his memoirs – and even some non-Russian historians fancied that imperial Russia would come unscathed through war and revolution to develop into a prosperous and liberal monarchy. This fantasy was inspired by the ministers of genius who held office in the 1890s and 1900s – men like […]

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A Historian’s Heart

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Does language matter? Hugh Trevor-Roper thought that it did. Nowadays it is fashionable to rate self-expression above precision. But Trevor-Roper believed that without clarity of language there can be no clarity of thought. Like Orwell (whom he admired), he knew that freedom is endangered when language becomes corrupt. These journals were written during the Second […]

Frau Führer

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall Juliane Köhler plays Eva Braun as an irrepressibly vivacious blonde, grabbing a cigarette between bombardments in mischievous defiance of Hitler, but standing by her Führer until she courageously shares his end. Like the other women in the bunker, apart from the evil Magda Goebbels, she is portrayed as essentially innocent. […]

He Loathed the Colour Green

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In the pantheon of Irish patriots, there are many men who can only be described as odd. To call them outsiders is merely charitable. Such men turn their backs on their caste or their religion or both. They invite charges of betrayal and their motives are inscrutable. None was odder than Charles Stewart Parnell. Paul […]

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Tying the Windsor Knots

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When the novelist Fanny Burney arrived at Windsor Castle in July 1786 to take up a position in the royal household as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, she found herself the object of envy amongst those at court who had had their own candidates in mind for the job: ‘I see them […]

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Vile Bodies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Poor old Queen Anne. Fat, lame, with an obstetric history that would break the hardest of hearts: seventeen pregnancies in seventeen years, sixteen of them resulting in miscarriages, still births or infant deaths. William, Duke of Gloucester, was the only child to survive its first birthday; the apple of his mother’s eye, hailed as the […]

Return of the Mahdi?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven Saladin features as an exotic male precursor of Goody Two-Shoes. He is shown to be the soul of chivalry, piety and good sense. By contrast, Reginald of Châtillon and most of the other barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the heads of the military […]

Team of His Own

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Arthur Owens, codenamed SNOW by MI5 and JOHNNY by the German Abwehr, was the first of the double agents in the Second World War ‘Double-Cross’ deception, who fed phenomenal amounts of disinformation to their unsuspecting German case officers. Despite SNOW’s important role in the history of espionage, he was not popular with British intelligence. An […]

Taking the Low Road

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, was found guilty of treason and beheaded on Tower Green in 1747, the last aristocrat in Britain to be killed in this manner. He was almost eighty and went to his death cheerfully. He declared that he died ‘a martyr for my country’, though few would have agreed with this claim, […]

Viennese Whirls

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Lucie Rie’s ceramics are often quite small in scale. Yet contained within them is an awareness of the full breadth of world ceramic traditions. She studied Chinese, ancient Roman and Islamic pottery. Her far-reaching interests were combined with an intuitive response to volume, surface, space and decoration, and to the balance between them. Hence the […]


Posted on by Tom Fleming

Sir John Wheeler Wheeler-Bennett (no, don’t ask) is one of those characters whose names crop up regularly in the diplomatic history of the middle years of the twentieth century without anyone knowing exactly why. Victoria Schofield, author of a well-regarded life of Field Marshal Lord Wavell, summons Wheeler-Bennett from the shadows, yet at the end […]

Venice, Tequila, Sunsets…

Posted on by Tom Fleming

I met Susan Sontag just once, at a literary festival, and it was an unsettling experience. I was sitting in the kitchen at Charleston, the house in East Sussex that used to be owned by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, when Sontag swept in. The atmosphere around the table was convivial – tea and cakes had […]

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