Book review

Photograph courtesy of Tina and Terence dooley

Why did Penelope Fitzgerald start writing so late? 

‘Experiences aren’t given us to be “got over”, otherwise they would hardly be experiences.’ The opening sentence of the first…

Wall-painting in San Isidoro of a shepherd

Christopher Howse takes the slow train in Spain — and writes a classic

This is probably not a book for those whose interest in Spain gravitates towards such contemporary phenomena as the films…


George Orwell's doublethink

The inventor of ‘doublethink’ was consistently inconsistent  in his own political views, says A.N. Wilson. And no fun at all

Pictorially, railways sell: as the 19th century progressed, the station and the coach compartment provided new scope for narrative painting, as in Augustus Egg’s ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862

A is for Artist, D is for Dealers

‘S is for Spoof.’ There it is on page 86, a full-page reproduction of a Nat Tate drawing, sold at…

J.S. Bach: more complex and human than 
the Haussmann portrait suggests

Was Bach as boring as this picture suggests?

What, one wonders, will John Eliot Gardiner be chiefly remembered for? Perhaps, by many who have worked with him, for…

Ernest Hemingway (Picture: Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Does the world need 17 volumes of Hemingway's letters?

‘In the years since 1961 Hemingway’s reputation as “the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare” shrank to the extent…

Death of Sardanapalus, Eugene Delacroix, 1827 (Picture: The Art Archive / DeA Picture Library / J. E. Bulloz)

Italo Calvino's essays, Collection of Sand, is a brainy delight

The Japanese are sometimes said to suffer from ‘outsider person shock’ (gaijin shokku) when travelling abroad. Recently in London we…

The ruins of Hamburg after Allied bombing,  July 1943

Hitler didn't start indiscriminate bombings — Churchill did 

‘I cannot describe to you what a curious note of brutality a bomb has,’ said one woman who lived through…


My dear old thing! Forget the nasty bits

There can be a strong strain of self-parody in even the greatest commentators. When Henry Blofeld describes the progress of…


'If I can barely speak, then I shall surely sing'

A few weeks ago, I was wandering with a friend around West London when our conversation turned to the reliable…

Prince Albert (Photo: John Jabez Edwin Mayall/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Clash of the titans

This is an odd book: interesting, informative, intelligent, but still decidedly odd. It is a history of the Victorian era…


Malala's voice is defiant — but how much can she change Pakistan? 

In 2012 a Taleban gunman, infuriated by Malala Yousafzai’s frequent television appearances insisting that girls had a right to education,…


#Onyourmarks! What is the formal name for the hashtag? 

One day there simply won’t be any strange byways of the English language left to write quirky little books about.…

The Florentine banking aristocracy worship the Christ-child in Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’. 
On either side the scene is stacked with Medici sons, grandsons and associates

How to avoid bankers in your nativity scene

With an eye to the blasphemy underlying some of the loveliest Renaissance painting, Honor Clerk will be choosing her Christmas cards more carefully this year

Detail of Sodoma’s ‘Life of St Benedict’ (1505), showing an unusual example of badgers as pets

A badger eats, squats, thieves. But should we cull them?

Lord Arran was responsible for the bill to legalise homosexuality and a bill to protect badgers from gassing and terrier-baiting.…


How to get old without getting boring

When one notices the first symptoms of senile dementia (forgetting names, trying to remember the purpose of moving from one…

Christopher Isherwood with W. H. Auden  (Photo: John F Stephenson/Getty Images)

The Rothschilds, the Spenders, the Queen...

The novelist David Plante is French-Québécois by ancestry, grew up in a remote Francophone parish in Yankee New England and…

Cat fight: tension mounts between the Great Powers in 1905 as Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, squabble over Morocco

What caused the first world war?

In pre-1914 cosmopolitan society, everyone seemed to be related — ambassadors as well as monarchs. But increased militarisation was fast obliterating old family ties, says Jane Ridley 

Lucian Freud in his bedroom in Notting Hill, May 2011

Breakfast with Lucian, by Geordie Greig - review

According to the medical historian Professor Sonu Shamdasani, Sigmund Freud was not the best, nor actually the most interesting, psychoanalyst…

T E Lawrence (Photo - Getty)

Clumsy and heavy, Goliath never stood a chance

When we think of David and Goliath, we think of a young man, not very big, who has a fight…

Mayonnaise: a key component of Soviet cooking

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen - review

The early 1990s in Russia were hungry years. At the time, I was a student, too idle to barter and…

‘The Goldfinch’ by Carl Fabritius, the theft of which is central to Donna Tartt’s new novel

Donna Tartt can do the thrills but not the trauma

Donna Tartt is an expert practitioner of what David Hare has called ‘the higher hokum’. She publishes a long novel…

Landseer’s portrait of Queen Victoria riding in Windsor Home Park four years after the death of Prince Albert

Queen Victoria, by Matthew Dennison - review

When Prince Albert died in 1861, aged 42, Queen Victoria, after briefly losing the use of her legs, ordered that…

What a coincidence

If you are going to read a novel that plays with literary conventions you want it written with aplomb. In…

A youthful portrait of the Dowager Empress

The Empress Dowager was a moderniser, not a minx. But does China care?

For susceptible Englishmen of a certain inclination — like Sir Edmund Backhouse or George Macdonald Fraser — the Empress Dowager…