Surviving Midnight

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly,’ wrote Marcus Aurelius in Meditations. I suspect the subtitle of Salman Rushdie’s Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder is an invitation to call to mind the last great Stoic philosopher. These words popped into my head while […]

Bestseller Ho!

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Harold Macmillan, the most lordly of postwar prime ministers, was proud of the fact that his great-grandfather Duncan Macmillan was a dirt-poor Isle of Arran crofter, and that his family had risen from absolute poverty to wealth, success and high status through their own efforts. Specifically, the family owed its rise to the efforts of […]

Paranoid Humanoid

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When Franz Kafka died on 3 June 1924, he had published just a few collections of short prose, none of them to much acclaim. The majority of the writing for which he is now known and celebrated, such as the novels The Trial and The Castle, were left unfinished and published posthumously thanks to Kafka’s […]

Debs’ Disgust

Posted on by Tom Fleming

If the 1920s society journals had the Ruthven twins, Margaret and Alison, to amuse their readers, then their 1930s equivalents had the Pagets, Celia and Mamaine. The Quality of Love reproduces an extraordinary press photo of the pair from March 1935, shortly before they were presented at court, their natural resemblance only emphasised by identical […]

A Visit from the Editor

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Is there anyone quite so sentimental as an old newspaper hack? In his memoir, David Robson conjures up a lost world of hot metal type, endless lunches and larger-than-life characters. And, of course, legendary editors. The Sunday Times’s Harold Evans and The Independent’s Andreas Whittam Smith are recalled with warmth and admiration, Andrew Neil and […]

Starving Elephants and Supermodels

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

He was an American wildlife photographer who has been described as ‘half Byron, half Tarzan’. His friend and biographer Graham Boynton writes that he was a ‘Byronic figure with a mean streak that occasionally manifested itself in violence’. A known risk-taker who was also rebellious and unpredictable, he had major retrospectives at museums of photography […]

Sage of Calcutta

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The organisers of the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago, had intended the event to be a showcase of American Christianity. Representatives of other faiths were expected to sit wide-eyed in wonder at the achievements of rational Protestantism mixed with American material prowess. This is not what happened. Attention focused instead on […]

Iron Man of Israel

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

From a purely literary point of view, this is without doubt the best autobiography written by an Israeli prime minister. In Bibi, Benjamin Netanyahu, who in separate stints has served as Israel’s prime minister for fifteen years and is also expected to form the next government following November’s general election, recounts his life story in […]

Terror of Not Being Heard

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

By any standard, Primo Levi’s works must be ranked among the finest autobiographical writing of our age. Philip Roth’s claim that lf This Is a Man is ‘one of the century’s truly necessary books’ is more than just promotional hyperbole. It is the recognition that Levi’s exploration of the dark universe that was Auschwitz should […]

Mad as a Hatter

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Mathematicians – the really, really good ones – are not like other people. One of the (true) stories recounted by Paul Hoffman concerns the mathematician who slept with his wife only on those days of the month that were prime numbers – the second, third, fifth, seventh, and so on. Not so bad early in […]

A Love Letter from the Friends He Left Behind

Posted on by David Gelber

A year or two before Peter Cook died, I arranged a meeting between him and my editor at Century, Mark Booth. Mark wanted him to write an autobiography. They met at Rules. Peter arrived announcing that he had just finished his autobiography, and that he had it with him. ‘I’d love to see it,’ said […]

Lack of Money Poisoned his Soul at First

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

For a writer, failure can be as slippery a notion to define as success. Everybody knows about the millionaire authors with seven–digit sales whose low self–esteem causes them to bristle at bad reviews in Denmark. Less visible are the legion of fledgling scribblers who see their stories published in little magazines as placing them on […]

Beyond the Stink Bomb Stage

Posted on by Tom Fleming

There are few writers more beguiling than Oliver Sacks, although I have known some people who found him just a little too beguiling, as if he were more of a magician or salesman than a mere searcher after and recorder of the truth. There is something in us – could it be envy? – that […]

Case History of a Literary Groupie

Posted on by Tom Fleming

For all his assiduity and weighty pronouncements on literary matters, Stephen Spender all too often comes across as a slightly ludicrous figure. Evelyn Waugh loved to mock him as a ‘semi-literate socialist’; James Lees-Milne recalled the poet in his wartime fireman’s uniform, draped across a hospital bed bearing the gorgeous form of ‘the Sergeant’, a […]

Out of the Snake Pit

Posted on by Tom Fleming

What does John Richardson think he is doing? He is half-way through his monumental Life of Picasso, with two volumes down and at least two more to go – you would think that, at seventy-five, he would feel some urgency to finish it. But he has taken time out to write this fluffy memoir. Of […]

He Relished the Burdens of High Office

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Theodore Roosevelt was a phenomenon. Reading this absorbing account of his eight years in the White House, I’m reminded of the days when it was not exceptional for half a dozen qualified men to fight it out for the presidency. Consider the line-up in 1968. On the right, Richard Nixon, who was to win, and […]

She Liked to Dance Naked on Beaches

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Before reading this compelling study, I knew little of the details of Isadora Duncan’s extraordinary life. I was familiar with the goddess image, of course, and someone who had seen her dance in Paris in the early 1900s had given me a first-hand account, expressing surprise at the audience’s ecstatic response. Furthermore, I had battled […]

It had to be Coaxed Out of him

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It features wizards and magic, it sells in millions worldwide, and now a lavish movie version of it is adding hordes of new fans to the already spectacular total. No, I’m not talking about Harry Potter. Since the mid-1950s – approximately forty years before J K Rowling dreamt up Hogwarts – J R R Tolkien’s […]

Even So, He Had No Right to Beat Up Bibbles

Posted on by David Gelber

One man lived D H Lawrence’s life; it has taken three to write it. John Worthen covered D H Lawrence: The Early Years 1885–1912; Mark Kinkead-Weekes was responsible for the middle stretch, D H Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912–1922. Now David Ellis, to whom the home straight was assigned, has carried the story to the […]

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Shades of Grey

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Effie Gray’s story is extraordinary and Cooper feasts upon it with appetite. ‘Her life reads like a novel, full of colour, sensation, despair and romance.’ So does Cooper’s biography. We engage with Effie immediately. Cooper starts her story on the day Effie left her husband, the art critic and social reformer John Ruskin, to return […]

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