Paper Trail

Posted on by David Gelber

Remarkably, given the turmoil that engulfed the paper throughout his time in office, Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer for eighteen years. His tenure was marked by swiftness of thought and action and great energy, allied with a strong sense of self-preservation. One underestimated Trelford – and many did – at one’s peril.

Diamond in the Rough

Posted on by David Gelber

Anyone who thinks lawyers are boring should read this book. Desmond de Silva has outfought, outwitted, outdined and outdrunk everyone, from warlords, criminal dictators, Hollywood stars and top footballers to major political figures and serial murderers. It reads like a real-life thriller.

Glitz Spirit

Posted on by David Gelber

I have to admit that before reading this book I was one of the anti-Tina Brown brigade who believed that she was all buzz and no balls – an editor infamous for sucking up to the rich and fawning before the famous. Yes, she may have brought Vanity Fair back from the dead and later rescued […]

Ration Book

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Germany’s siege of Leningrad was one of the Second World War’s worst atrocities. Lasting two and a half years, it killed 700,000 to 800,000 people, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the city’s entire civilian population. Atrocities on such a scale are best understood through individual accounts, and this diary, newly emerged from the archives, is

Lifting Weights

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Sunset Boulevard, 1963, and Dr Oliver Sacks is riding his motorcycle along peacefully when a car swerves at him. He thinks it must be a mistake by a drunken driver. But then, a bit further along, the car tries to sideswipe him again. What to do? Sacks was raised in a north London family that […]

Problems of Living

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘For a long time,’ writes the novelist Alain Mabanckou, ‘I let people think my mother was still alive’, a lie that ‘only served to postpone my mourning’. He didn’t go to her funeral, despite his family’s fury. In this memoir, he returns to Pointe-Noire, the city in the Republic of Congo where he grew up, […]

A Decent Sort

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

A few years ago, during what will probably prove to be the beginning of the locust decades of political biography, somebody published a life of Lord Hurd entitled Douglas Hurd: The Public Servant. It would be untrue to say that the work, even with its catchy title, caused intense excitement. But then Hurd is not at […]

Grandees Under Fire

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

A GOOD DIARIST constructs a series of information time bombs, set to detonate long after the events he describes have taken place. And, in a gentle sort of way, that is just what James Lees-Milne has done. There are no smoking guns to bring down a government but there will definitely be a few intakes […]

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

JOHN FOWLES IS now a famous and sometimes controversial novelist; this first volume of his journals deals with his years of decided unsuccess until, already in his late thirties, he published his first novel, The Collector. The temptation is to turn straight away to the details of success, but it should be resisted. This large […]

The Queen’s Missing Head

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Like most boys of the 1950s I collected stamps. For a brief while I joined, at the age of twelve, a stamp club. Even at that early age I could recognise that some of the adult members were rather odd people. They were driven collectors, obsessed with the minutiae of differences and errors in stamps. […]

Canine Comforts

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

An admired critic friend of mine, so tough that he will give even friends’ books savage reviews if he thinks that they deserve them, told me that this memoir of the lives and eventual deaths of two dogs had moved him to tears. When I was living in Japan, I at one time housed no […]

The Triumph of Love

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I am on the verge of feeling hostile towards books about people surviving appalling childhoods, and it seems that I am not alone in feeling like that: I have just read a piece by Libby Brooks in The Guardian in which she remarks that shelves seem to be ‘heaving’ with them nowadays – a suggestive […]

Behind the Wire

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Although its tragic and harrowing subject matter makes it a daunting read, Under Two Dictators is one of the most significant memoirs of the twentieth century, and remains a wake-up call to anyone who might still fall for the totalitarian temptation in the twenty-first. It should be required reading for any serious student of history […]

Operating Underground

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1965 and 1967, when I was in Vietnam, I wondered how the North Vietnamese and the Southern guerrillas could survive, much less defeat, American power. In 1995, twenty years after Hanoi’s victory, and having read three North Vietnamese novels about the long struggle, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao […]

Dadaist Dogtraining

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Truth and memory have a shifting relationship. At a talk about Duff Cooper’s diaries, I asked John Julius Norwich if there was any truth in a Clive James poem about his mother. It asserted, among other things, that Diana Cooper had been escorted into Paris by two dozen Spitfires, and that she carried a phial […]

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‘Life Changes Fast’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘All my life I have harboured a sneaking assurance that God, or whoever is in charge of these things, would not take me in mid-sentence,’ Bernice Rubens wrote, and her confidence was justified. When God, or whoever is in charge of these things, did take a writer in mid-sentence it was not Rubens but John […]

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Confessions of a Chav

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The psycho-slut is back (‘body from Baywatch, face from Crimewatch’), and the latest incarnation of ‘Mad Tracey from Margate’, as she calls herself, comes in the form of literary, rather than visual, confessions. Strangeland appears ten years after Emin hit notoriety with another form of autobiography, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963–1995’, the tent […]

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A First-Class Philanderer

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Duff Cooper (1890–1964) is remembered today as the husband of Lady Diana Cooper. He was a Conservative politician and ambassador to Paris; he was also a writer and biographer, and he wrote an enchanting memoir called Old Men Forget, but he was always overshadowed by his glamorous and successful wife. These diaries are a revelation, […]

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The Rest is Noise

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Acursory glance at their careers would not suggest that Pete Townshend of The Who and Neil Young of Canada via the American West Coast musical community have much in common: Townshend is rooted in the London mod scene; Young is an unreconstructed hippie. Yet their separate autobiographical endeavours – both conducted over many painstaking years […]

Art Attack

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Coming across octogenarian art critic Brian Sewell’s late appeal to Truth in Outsider II, his second volume of autobiography, I thought of Keats’s familiar equation of Truth with Beauty (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’). Sure enough, a paean to Beauty soon follows, in Sewell’s reflections on the flawless skin of the young and the ‘ridiculous’ […]

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