No worries: John Updike in his late fifties, on the beach at Swampscott, Mass

Up close and personal

Books feature

What should a writer write about? The question, so conducive to writer’s block, is made more acute when the writer is evidently well-balanced, free of trauma and historically secure. It is made still more urgent when that writer is solipsistic… Read more

The Long Library at Blenheim Palace, converted into a dormitory for the boys of Malvern school in 1940

What most imperilled country houses in the 20th century was taxes and death duties, not requisition


Servicemen used paintings as dartboards.   Schoolchildren dismantled banisters and paneling for firewood. Architects from the Ministry of Works acted like pocket Stalins. Sarcophagi were dumped in gardens beside beheaded statues. And overhead, Luftwaffe Dorniers droned with menace. Such hazards ravaged… Read more


Recent crime fiction

Secondary Feature

Louise Welsh rarely repeats herself, a quality to celebrate in a crime novelist. Her latest novel, A Lovely Way to Burn (John Murray, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £10.99) is a dystopian thriller set in an all-too-plausible version of contemporary London. Three… Read more

Campbell’s Platform, a private unstaffed halt on the Welsh narrow guage Ffestiniog railway

The train stations that don’t really exist


In 1964, as part of his railway cuts, Dr Beeching ordered the closure of Duncraig, a small, little-used station in the Scottish Highlands. The train drivers working the line simply ignored him. They continued to stop there, and the station… Read more


An escape from New South Wales


Thomas Keneally has constructed his latest novel around a framework of true events: the mass break-out of Japanese PoWs from a camp in New South Wales. This intrinsically thrilling incident, triggered by a fascinating clash between mutually uncomprehending cultures, is… Read more


The gambler’s daily grind


Lord Doyle is a shrivelled English gambler frittering away his money and destroying his liver in the casinos of Macau. Aptly, since he is in a place filled with mock-Venetian canals and poor reproduction paintings, he himself is a fake:… Read more

‘At the Cottage Door’, by Myles Birket Foster (1825–99)

Beauty in beastly surroundings


The vast majority of books written about British gardens and their histories are concerned with large ones, made and maintained, sometimes over several centuries, by people with money. ’Twas ever thus. In this country, recognisable gardens began in monasteries, as… Read more

Churchill reading in his library at Chartwell

Churchill was as mad as a badger. We should all be thankful

Books feature

Land sakes! Another book about Winston Churchill? Really? Give us a break, the average reader may think. Actually though, as title and subtitle suggest, this isn’t just another biographical study. It’s at once odder and more conventional than that. More… Read more

Edgar Degas - Dancer slipping on her shoe (1874)

Ladies' hats were his waterlillies - the obsessive brilliance of Edgar Degas


Lucian Freud once said that ‘being able to draw well is the hardest thing — far harder than painting, as one can easily see from the fact that there are so few great draughtsmen compared to the number of great… Read more

(Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty)

A Mughal Disneyland and a ripping yarn


Mysore, once the capital of a princely kingdom in South India, has lost its lustre. In Mahesh Rao’s darkly comic novel, grandiose futuristic visions are being floated: in a city desperate to reinvent itself for today’s brave new world, ancient… Read more

Coco Chanel (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)

From Göring to Hemingway, via Coco Chanel – the dark glamour of the Paris Ritz at war


In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen did a good job of showing how foolish it is to be obsessed by previous generations who’ve passed through Paris. Going back through the years, each group of geniuses turns out to be just… Read more

English explorers on expedition in the Sudan, 1860-63

Sudan was always an invented country. Maybe we should invent it again


Sudan — a country that ceased to exist in 2011 — is or was one of the last untouristed wildernesses on earth. And for good reason: while it still existed it was the biggest country in Africa, a mainly flat… Read more

Marcus Berkmann

Roger Mortimer writes again


After Dear Lupin and Dear Lumpy, here’s a slightly more prosaically titled collection of letters from Roger Mortimer, longtime racing correspondent of the Sunday Times and frequent purchaser of stamps. Who would have thought that one man could write so… Read more

Charlotte Moore 2

Start with a torpedo, and see where you go from there


Sebastian Barry’s new novel opens with a bang, as a German torpedo hits a supply ship bound for the Gold Coast. We experience everything through the senses of ‘temporary gentleman’ Jack McNulty — an Irish officer in the British army… Read more

Andrew Taylor

A thriller that breaks down the publishing office door


Like teenage children and their parents, authors and publishers have a symbiotic relationship characterised by well-justified irritation on both sides. Judith Flanders’s career bridges this divide. She is now best known as an author of innovatory and formidably detailed books… Read more

Detail of St Christopher, 15th century, Church of St Botolph, Slapton, Northants

Wonders written on the wall


‘Take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines … pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass windows…’. These were the instructions handed… Read more

Joan Fontaine at home

Tea with Greta Garbo's decorator


Many people write, or at least used to write, fan letters to their film favourites. Usually all they received in acknowledgement was a 10 x 8 glossy with a mimeographed signature. A little persistence sometimes resulted in another, with a… Read more

Walking tall: a Covent Garden market porter, London, c. 1922

Our leaders have betrayed the noble worker. Oh really?

Books feature

In his essay on the ‘Peculiarities of the English’, E.P. Thompson gave his theoretical definition of class: When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of… Read more

‘The Kitchen Table, Charleston’ by Vanessa Bell

If you think Virginia Woolf’s novels are good, you should try her bread


I have to declare an interest: as a scion of the Bloomsbury Group, I was naturally brought up on their cooking. During the course of her research for this book I met, got to know and became friends with Jan… Read more

Lydia Davis (Photo: David Levenson)

Don't let creative writing students read this book


One of these is by Lydia Davis, acclaimed American writer. One is not. They are whole pieces, by the way, not extracts. This morning I went into the park I often pass on my journeys to somewhere else. I can… Read more


Go east – the people get nicer, even if their dogs get nastier


When Nick Hunt first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his youthful trudge across Europe in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, he knew ‘with absolute certainty’ that one day he would make that journey… Read more

(Photo: LSE)

Why don't we have statues of Michael Oakeshott?


Who or what was Michael Oakeshott? How many of our fellow citizens — how many even of the readers of this journal — could confidently answer the question? I guess, not many. One of the paradoxes of Britain’s intellectual history… Read more

Wall painting of a female head, Pompeii, 1st century AD

Pompeii’s greatest gifts are not all archeological


The first visitor to take a break on the Bay of Naples was Hercules. He had just defeated some rebellious giants and buried them beneath Mount Vesuvius. To celebrate, he staged a procession across the mountain’s slope — in Greek,… Read more

Silvia Pinal in Buñuel’s Viridiana

There was good art under Franco


Everyone knows about the Spanish civil war, first battlefield in the struggle that broke out in 1936 and ended nine years later in the ruins of Berlin. It has been immortalised in the work of Hemingway, Orwell and Koestler and… Read more

‘Less political satire than back-handed homage:Charlie Chaplin in a scene from The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin, monster


No actual birth certificate for Charles Spencer Chaplin has ever been found. The actor himself drew a blank when he went on a rummage in Somerset House. The latest research suggests that he was born ‘in a gypsy caravan in… Read more

Arianna Huffington (Photo: Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Arianna Huffington meets Madame de Menopause


A-Huff’s career has been remarkable for the contrast between hard-headed social advancement (‘the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus’) and addle-pated spiritual questing. In this she resembles an older, colder Gwyneth Paltrow, who coincidentally came out with her ‘consciously uncoupling’… Read more

John Borrell (Photo: Peter Jordan//Time Life Pictures/Getty)

An escape to the country that became a struggle for Poland's soul


In 1993, John Borrell, a longtime foreign correspondent with no permanent home, decided to abandon journalism. Tired of writing about wars and violence — he had been in Beirut, Rwanda and Nicaragua — he determined to throw himself into European… Read more

Samuel Beckett in Paris in the 1970s

A Beckett fagend rescued from a bin


Spectator readers of my vintage will remember their first encounter with Beckett as vividly as their first lover’s kiss. For me they happened around the same time, aged 18. The dramatic initiation was a Colchester rep performance of Waiting for… Read more