‘There is nothin’ like a dame’ — nice songs, shame about the lighting: Mitzi Gaynor in ‘South Pacific’, 1958

Why movie musicals matter – to this author anyway

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Do movie musicals matter? Most readers, even those who love them, will embark on Richard Barrios’s short history of the genre with the thought: not much. They’ll very likely, I’m afraid, finish it holding much the same opinion. But not… Read more

British author and socialite Margot Asquith. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

This diary of a prime minister's wife offers a front-row seat to the Great War


A review of Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary, 1914–1916: The View from Downing Street, edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock. As you’d expect, the cast of characters is worthy of a Shakespearian history play


The author’s father didn’t want you to read this book. It’s hard to understand why


A review of A Dog’s Life, by Michael Holroyd. This thinly veiled portrait of Holroyd's family is more an exercise in self-chastisement than vanity


In the empire stakes, the Anglo-Saxons were for long Spain’s inferiors


A review of World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II, by Hugh Thomas. This history of the Spanish Empire seems more interested in the conquerors than the conquered but still makes its argument well

St Enodoc Church overlooking St Enodoc golf course and the sea beyond, Rock, Cornwall. John Betjeman lies buried in the graveyard

The ultimate guide to Cornwall


A review of Cornwall, by Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner. Uniting two classic guides by Pevsner and John Betjeman, Beacham has left no fernbanked lane or secret drive unexplored


From slaves' rectums to porn vids, there are few places people haven't tried to conceal secret messages


A review of Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qa’eda, by Kristie Macrakis. The ancients hid their intel in hares' bellies; today, jihadis use porn

Joining the old rogue on his 80th birthday, from left to right, Bevis Hillier, Antonia Fraser, Hamilton, James Pope-Hennessy, James Reeve, and the Spectator’s current book editor, Mark Amory

The long and disgraceful life of Britain's pre-eminent bounder


A review of The Man Who Was Norris: The life of Gerald Hamilton, by Tom Cullen. The great thing about this book is that Cullen rarely makes the mistake of taking Hamilton (once described as ‘the wickedest man in Europe’) at his own word


The Russian literary celebrity who begged Tolstoy to spare Prince Andrei


A review of Subtly Worded, by Teffi. Her remarkable short stories, full of characters that teeter on the edge of an abyss, deserve to be better known

An anti-Soviet rally in Moscow, February 1991: Gorbachev’s reforms resulted in the rise of his nemesis, Yeltsin

Public joy and private panic: How the world's powers responded when the Soviet empire fell

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Vladimir Putin calls it ‘the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century’, a viewpoint which explains much of his recent behaviour. Few others anywhere in the world, particularly people who live around Russia’s borders, would agree that the collapse of… Read more

From ‘Amateur Gardener’, c. 1890, showing the much sought after suburban garden at its most perfect

A paean to the British passion for our very own ‘castles’


A review of Everyman’s Castle: The story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows, by Philippa Lewis. From inglenooks to top-shops, from boarding houses to bedsits, this compendium covers it all (almost)

Author Graham Swift Photo: Getty

You’ll never look at dried pasta in the same way again


A review of England and Other Stories, by Graham Swift. These masterful tales about loss and absence conspire to bittersweet ends


A guide to marriage, moving and fatherhood – and also not a bad tool with which to beat your solicitor to death


A review of How to be a husband, by Tim Dowling. There’s only one joke in this 300-page book – that Dowling’s a terrible husband – but it’s a corker

Close-up of Genghis towering 40 metres over his home pastures near the Mongol capital, Ulaanbaatar – the world’s biggest equestrian statue

Genghis Khan was tolerant, kind to women – and a record-breaking mass-murderer


A review of The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China, by John Man. The Mongols made China, argues this book, which means it’s unlikely to get a Chinese translation any time soon

Lake Lucerne Photo: Davide Seddo/Getty

The nervous passenger who became one of our great travel writers


A review of Pleasures and Landscapes, by Sybille Bedford. Bedford journeyed through Italy, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Portugal and Yugoslavia and vividly noted the postwar evolution of Europe

Mass Protests Are Held During The G20 World Leaders Summit

A gangster called Capitalism and its vanquisher The Common Good


A review of Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now, by David Marquand. An interesting diagnosis of why the secular Left failed Britain - with a shy attempt at a solution

Portrait Of Elvis Presley

A tribute to the King – or a compendium of journalistic bad habits?


A review of Elvis has Left the Building: The Day the King Died, by Dylan Jones. The GQ editor provides a lot of padding to the basic story, and makes no attempt to disguise it

Illustration, from World War I in Cartoons, Mark Bryant, Grub Street.

The completely ludicrous – and sometimes believable – world of the First World War spook


There can’t have been this many books about the first world war since — just after the first world war. One publishing craze of the 1920s was books about spying, in which retired war spooks gave away their trade secrets… Read more


Doctor Zhivago's long, dark shadow

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For most Russians, Boris Pasternak is one of their four greatest poets of the last century. For most Anglophone readers, he is the man who won the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago. The first four chapters of The Zhivago Affair… Read more

Author, Caitlin Moran Photo: Getty

A coming of age novel? Or an age of coming novel?


A review of How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. Even before she came across a pleasing reference to herself, Julie Burchill loved this hyperactive novel

Lillian Hellman chats with her lover, author Dashiell Hammett Photo: Time & Life/Getty

Lillian Hellman lied her way through life


A review of Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life, by Dorothy Gallagher. This disloyal Stalinist has not been blessed with a biographer who likes her

Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx with Jenny, Eleanor and Laura Marx, 1864

Caught between Marx and a monster


A review of Eleanor Marx, by Rachel Holmes. Forget her shit of a husband and her father Karl and marvel at Eleanor’s own contributions

Gay Pride, London, 1970s

The soundtracked novel that won’t sit still


A review of The Emperor Waltz, by Philip Hensher. An intriguing misstep aside, this is a rich and captivating book


The cruellest present you could give a hated old in-law


A review of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, by Roz Chast. Nothing is sacred in this graphic memoir of the author’s parents

Ursula, photographed by Cecil Beaton on the eve of the second world war

From Edwardian idyll to meetings with Nehru: the life of Lady Ursula D’Asbo


A review of The Girl with the Widow’s Peak, by Lady Ursula d’Abo, with a foreword by John Julius Norwich. A very English tale of 20th-century upper-class comings and goings

China's President Xi Jinping and Zambia's President Michael Sata

What are the Chinese up to in Africa?


A review of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, by Howard French. A revealing and colourful set of first-hand essays that seek to understand the Chinese takeover

Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, with his pet monkey, attributed to Jacob Huysmans

Thug, rapist, poetic visionary: the contradictory Earl of Rochester

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Despite being an earl, Rochester is very nearly a major poet. His poems and letters were torn up by a zealous mother after his death, bent on destroying anything obscene or scandalous. A good deal was lost, but a lot… Read more

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

Only tourists think of the Caribbean as a ‘paradise’


A review of Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day, by Carrie Gibson. A vivid and thought-provoking synthesis of the disparate histories of the islands of the West Indies

A meeting between the Vichy and Nazi chiefs, 1941 Photo: Popperfoto/Getty

The cold, remote plateau of Vichy France where good was done


A review of Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, by Caroline Moorehead. Parallel to the squalid map of Vichy was a map of decency