Ian Thomson rss

James Rhodes (Photo: Getty)

Sound and fury — the pianist James Rhodes is very angry indeed

20 June 2015
Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music James Rhodes

Canongate, pp.275, £16.99, ISBN: 9781782113379

Ours is the era of everybody’s autobiography. Bookshops groan with misery-lit memoirs — Never Let Me Go, Dysfunction Without Tears — which dilate on anorexia, alcoholism, cruel bereavement. When is… Read more

San Domenico church, Palermo

Palermo: city of jasmine and dark secrets

6 June 2015
Sicily: A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to Cosa Nostra John Julius Norwich

John Murray, pp.366, £25, ISBN: 9780140152128

Palermo, City of Kings: The Heart of Sicily Jeremy Dummett

I.B. Tauris, pp.258, £18.99, ISBN: 9781784530839

The Arabs invaded Sicily in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Arab rule was generally tolerant, its dolce far niente evocative… Read more

Italy’s highest-paid heart-throb, Mastroianni as Guido Anselmi, a film director in ‘creative limbo’

How Fellini made his modernist masterpiece

11 April 2015

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was a box-office triumph in Italy in 1960. It made $1.5 million at the box office in three months — more than Gone With the… Read more

Bus Conductor

'I will call the police!': My close encounter with 'revenue protection'

4 April 2015

‘Make yourself a happy bunny this Easter with cheap tickets and egg-cellent deals!’ chirped the Abellio train company advert. I use Abellio’s Greater Anglia service regularly from London and was… Read more

Shots Fired At Santa Monica College

Black-on-black murder was ignored by the LAPD as ‘no human involved’ — until one of their number decided to get involved

21 March 2015
Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic Jill Leovy

Bodley Head, pp.266, £16.99, ISBN: 9781847923622

Los Angeles ghetto life — thrashed, twisted and black — is not a world that most Americans care to visit. Black Angelinos can be — and for a period in… Read more

Self confessed mass murderer Anders Breivik Photo: Getty

Anders Breivik: a moronic knight is called to arms

14 March 2015
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway Åsne Seierstad (translated by Sarah Death)

Virago, pp.528, £16.99, ISBN: 9781844089192

In 2011, Anders Breivik murdered 69 teenagers in a socialist summer camp outside the Norwegian capital of Oslo, and eight adults with a bomb attack. His hatred was directed at… Read more

Chico, Harpo and Groucho Marx (left to right) enjoy a day at the races

What unites Churchill, Dali and T.S. Eliot? They all worshipped the Marx Brothers

10 January 2015

‘I had no idea you were so handsome,’ Groucho Marx wrote to T.S. Eliot in 1961 on receiving from him a signed studio portrait. The Missouri-born Eliot was the Marx… Read more

Bob Marley Performs On Stage

Bob Marley: from reggae icon to Marlboro Man of marijuana

29 November 2014

A kind of political correctness dictates that one should not be too hard on Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 aged 36. His loping, mid-tempo reggae sounds slightly… Read more

Drummers at a graveside wear white, based on Ethiopian orthodox funeral traditions

Death wears bling: the glory of London’s Caribbean funerals

29 November 2014
How Great Thou Art: Fifty Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London Charlie Phillips

King/Otchere Productions, pp.130, £25+£5 postage, ISBN: 9780992711719

Death is big business in parts of the Caribbean. In the Jamaican capital of Kingston, funeral homes with their plastic white Doric columns and gold-encrusted ‘caskets’ are like a poor… Read more

Italian partisans who helped South African troops entering Pistoia in Italy to ferret out German snipers Photo: Getty

The woman who invented the Italian resistance

8 November 2014
Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance Ada Gobetti (translated and edited by Jomarie Alano)

OUP, pp.357, £22.99, ISBN: 9780199380541

Italo Calvino, the Italian arch-fabulist, wrote a foreword to this celebrated wartime diary when it appeared in Italy in 1956. (The author displays an ‘ironic modesty’ and ‘simplicity’ in the… Read more


Wave goodbye to the weight-gaining, drunk-driving Inspector Wallander

11 October 2014
An Event in Autumn Henning Mankell

Harvill Secker, pp.176, £9.99, ISBN: 9781846558078

Some years ago I met the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell at the Savoy Hotel in London, where he was staying. A waitress came up to our table. ‘I think,… Read more

A member of the London Home Guard demonstrates the use of old wallpaper as camouflage (1942)

The real Dad’s Army was no joke

30 August 2014
Operation Sealion Leo McKinstry

John Murray, pp.486, £25, ISBN: 9781848546981

Dad’s Army, the sitcom to end all sitcoms, portrayed the Home Guard as often doddery veterans. In one episode, Private Godfrey’s genteel sisters are seen to prepare their Regency cottage… Read more


I proposed to my wife in Haiti. Soon I won't be able to recognise it

16 August 2014

This summer, I returned to Haiti for the first time in ten years. I was itching to see how the Caribbean republic had changed after the terrible earthquake of 12… Read more

Kingston Crowds Wait For Haile Selassie I

Why I’m now scared of book clubs

12 July 2014

‘Hi Ian!’ the email began. ‘We are a group of mostly females who meet regularly in London to review really good reads. We are currently reading The Dead Yard, and… Read more

Slaves planting cane cuttings in Antigua, 1823, by William Clark

Only tourists think of the Caribbean as a ‘paradise’

28 June 2014
Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day Carrie Gibson

Macmillan, pp.447, £25, ISBN: 9780230766174

A couple of years ago in Jamaica, I met Errol Flynn’s former wife, the screen actress Patrice Wymore. Reportedly a difficult and withdrawn woman, her life in the Caribbean (apart… Read more

Viv Albertine (left) on stage with The Slits Photo: Redferns

The punk who inspired a generation of British woman to pick up a guitar

21 June 2014
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys Viv Albertine

Faber, pp.421, £14.99, ISBN: 9780571297757

Viv Albertine is deservedly famous as the guitarist of the tumultuous, all-female English punk band The Slits. Their debut album, Cut, released in 1979, combined jangly Captain Beefheart-style guitarwork with… Read more

Saris in 'Little India', Southall

Narcotically-induced mischief in an urban wasteland

7 June 2014
Music Night at the Apollo: A Memoir of Drifting Lilian Pizzichini

Bloomsbury, pp.214, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408815991

Fifteen minutes by rail from Paddington, Southall is a ‘Little India’ in the borough of Ealing. An ornate Hindu temple there, the Shree Ram, is set back from the beep… Read more

Jonathan Meades Photo: Getty

Exclamation marks, no; aertex shirts, yes!

10 May 2014
A Curious Career Lynn Barber

Bloomsbury, pp.211, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408837191

An Encyclopaedia of Myself Jonathan Meades

Fourth Estate, pp.341, £18.99, ISBN: 9781857028492

Jonathan Meades, the architectural, food and cultural commentator, appears on television in a pair of retro shades and a trademark Blues Brother suit. He looks like a poseur, and indeed… Read more

The sober-suited Georgie with Elsa . ‘She wore fur coats fashioned from brown river rat’

Jorge Luis Borges and his ‘bitch’

3 May 2014
Georgie & Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and his Wife: The Untold Story Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Friday Project, pp.259, £16.99, ISBN: 9780007524389

When Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986, at the age of 87, he left behind 100-odd slender fictions and as many poems, but no novels. Compared with the blockbusting authors… Read more

Edmund White says that the first time he met Bruce Chatwin (pictured), they had sex immediately Photo: Getty

Gay Paree: food, feuds and phalluses – I mean, fallacies

15 March 2014
Inside a Pearl Edmund White

Bloomsbury, pp.261, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408820452

In his preface to The Joy of Gay Sex (revised and expanded third edition), Edmund White praises the ‘kinkier’ aspects of homo-erotic life. Practical advice is given on frottage, spanking,… Read more

Flann O'Brien (on right) in the Palace Bar in Dublin (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)

Was Flann O'Brien at his best when writing about drink? (Answers on a damp stressed envelope, please)

1 February 2014
The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper (eds)

Dalkey Archive, pp.435, £9.50, ISBN: 9781564788894

On his deathbed in Dublin in the spring of 1966, Flann O’Brien must have been squiffy from tots of Paddy. A bottle of the amber distillate was smuggled in to… Read more

The young Clarice Lispector was strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes and ‘very, very sexy’, remembered a friend

'She's the most important Jewish writer since Kafka!'

11 January 2014
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector Benjamin Moser

Penguin Books, pp.479, £12.99, ISBN: 9781846147814

The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector was a riddlesome and strange personality. Strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes, she died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 at the age of only… Read more


The many attempts to assassinate Trotsky

4 January 2014
The Man Who Loved Dogs Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner

Bitter Lemon Press, pp.576, £20, ISBN: 9781908524102

Leon Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov, is a retired chemist in his early eighties. I met him not long ago in the house in Mexico City where his grandfather was murdered… Read more


Carlos Acosta, the great dancer, should be a full-time novelist

2 November 2013
Pig’s Foot Carlos Acosta, translated by Frank Wynne

Bloomsbury, pp.333, £12.99, ISBN: 9781408833704

Carlos Acosta, the greatest dancer of his generation, grew up in Havana as the youngest of 11 black children. Money was tight, but Carlos won a place at ballet school,… Read more

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

26 October 2013
Collection of Sand: Essays Italo Calvino translated by Martin McLaughlin

Penguin Modern Classics, pp.240, £9.99, ISBN: 9780141193748

The Japanese are sometimes said to suffer from ‘outsider person shock’ (gaijin shokku) when travelling abroad. Recently in London we had a lodger from Hiroshima who wanted to practise his… Read more