Fanny Burney

The Thucydides of court gossip? Steady on...


Sir Brian Unwin leads off with some decidedly questionable assertions. He wonders why the first of his two subjects, the Comtesse de Boigne, should have been ‘ignored or un-noticed by most historians’ — curious words to apply to a woman… Read more

‘Harmony and order were what Jane Austen sought in her life and work’. Chawton House, in Hampshire (above), was inherited by Jane’s brother, Edward.

Brains with green fingers


‘Life is bristling with thorns,’ Voltaire observed in 1769, ‘and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden.’ This is the remedy espoused by Candide at the end of Voltaire’s satirical novel, published ten years earlier, and the… Read more

A document relating to the double-agent Garbo - whose messages helped to deceive the Germans about the location and timing of the D-Day landings Photo: PA Images

The one-man spy factory who changed history


With two new biographies of Kim Philby out, an espionage drama by Sir David Hare on BBC2, and the recent revelation that the aristocrat superspy John Bingham was the model for George Smiley, there is little doubt that Britain is… Read more

Main Political Parties Take Heavy Losses In UK Euro Vote

White, blue-collar, grey-haired rebels


In the 2010 general election, Ukip gained nearly a million votes — over 3 per cent — three times as many as the Greens, and nearly twice as many as the SNP. Unlike those parties, it won no seats, but… Read more


Philip Marlowe returns with bark but no bite


With so much Nordic noir around, it’s a relief to return to the granddaddy of them all, the hard-boiled private dick, Philip Marlowe. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Benjamin Black’s reboot of Raymond Chandler’s great creation does not have the bite… Read more

A demonstration in Istanbul against the ban on Twitter, 22 March 2014

How did revolution become Istanbul's new normal?


On a recent weekend I was thinking of taking my sons to downtown Istanbul to do some bazaar browsing. ‘Bad idea’,  a fellow expatriate warned me, ‘revolution on Taxim Square. Again.’ Revolt has become the new normal in Istanbul, a… Read more


Was Roy Jenkins the greatest prime minister we never had?

Books feature

In any list of the-best-prime-ministers-we never-had, the name of Roy Jenkins is likely to be prominent. He was intelligent, moderate, courteous, thoughtful: he was exactly the sort of man whom any civil servant would wish to see installed in No.10.… Read more

George Saunders Photo: Getty

Samuel Beckett walks into a nail bar


It isn’t very often that a writer’s work is so striking that you can remember exactly where and when you were when you first read it. I was in a parked car in a hilly suburb of Cardiff last summer… Read more


Witnesses in the heart of darkness


When presented with a 639-page doorstopper which includes 82 pages of closely-written sources, notes and index, most of us feel a bit like a patient about to swallow a strong dose of antibiotics: ‘This isn’t going to be pleasant, but… Read more

The Vikings arrive in England during the second wave of migration (Scandinavian school, 10th century)

Civilisation’s watery superhighway


The clue is in the title: this is not about the blue-grey-green wet stuff that covers 70 per cent of our planet’s surface. Rather, it’s about how the sea and our use of it have influenced us economically, culturally, religiously… Read more


When posters told us our place


As a sign of the way things have changed, nothing could better this. Hester Vaizey, Cambridge history don and ‘publishing co-ordinator’ at the National Archives, has collated this splendid collection of posters issued by various government agencies in the 30… Read more

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon survive the Blitz in Mrs Miniver (1942).Churchill reckoned it was ‘worth six war divisions’ and Goebbels considered it an ‘exemplary propaganda film’, but to Lillian Hellman it was‘a piece of junk’

When Mussolini came knocking on Hollywood’s door


John Ford was the first of the five famous Hollywood film directors to go to war. He went expecting to get given a sword, which he could then brandish. After all, he knew about swords; they were things that came… Read more

Avraham Stern Photo: PA Images

‘A dandy aesthete with visions of sacrificial violence’


Eschewing the biblical advertising of ‘the promised land’ or indeed ‘a land of milk and honey’, the Conservative colonial secretary William Ormsby-Gore presented a far grislier picture of Palestine on the eve of the second world war when he described… Read more

The actress Bessie Love, whistling while cooking

Whistling is a bloody nuisance


Paul McCartney says he can remember the exact moment he knew the Beatles had made it. Early one morning, getting home from a night on the tiles, he heard the milkman whistling ‘From Me to You’. This incident isn’t recounted… Read more

Orestes consults the oracle at Delphi (Roman, 1st century AD).

Management consultancy! Sculpture park! Sports stadium! The many faces of the Delphic Oracle

Books feature

‘In ancient times … hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people … the Druids. No one knows who they were … or what they were doing. But their legacy remains … hewn into… Read more

Chapman Pincher tests for uranium Photo: Getty

‘A public urinal where ministers and officials queued up to leak’


Anyone brought up as I was in a Daily Express household in the 1950s — there were approaching 11 million of us readers — knew the writings of Chapman Pincher. His frequent scoops, mostly defence- or intelligence-related, sometimes political, scientific… Read more

Fleet Street, 1970 Photo: Getty

Fleet Street’s ‘wild Irish girl’


In her early days on Fleet Street, Mary Kenny, as she herself admits, was cast as ‘the wild Irish girl’, and did her best to live up to it. She held her own with the drinkers at El Vino’s, gave… Read more

Vita Sackville-West gardening at Sissinghurst

Recycling Sackville-West style


Here’s a book co-authored by one dead woman and one living one. Sarah Raven is the second wife of Adam Nicolson, grandson of Vita Sackville-West. In 1930 Vita bought Sissinghurst, the ruins of a great 16th-century house, and with her… Read more


The thrill of cutting into a human brain


In the first sentence of the first chapter of this book, Henry Marsh, a consultant brain surgeon, says, ‘I often cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing.’ What a compelling start! Marsh takes us through an… Read more

American novelist Siri Hustvedt Photo: Getty

Caught between a New Age rock and a theory junkie hard place


Siri Hustvedt’s new novel isn’t exactly an easy read — but the casual bookshop browser should be reassured that it’s nowhere near as punishing as the opening pages might suggest. In the ‘editor’s introduction’ we’re told that what follows is… Read more

Professor John Carey  Photo: Ian West//PA Image

Memoirs of an academic brawler  


It’s a misleading title, because there is nothing unexpected about Professor Carey, in any sense. He doesn’t turn up to parties uninvited, like some of his less organised colleagues. As for his appointment, he was tailor-made for the job. Right… Read more


The making of a novelist


Karl Ove Knausgaard was eight months old when his family moved to the island of Tromøya; he left it aged 13, because of his father’s higher-grade teaching appointment on the mainland. As they drove over the bridge linking the island… Read more

'Marcia painting her self-portrait’; detail from Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (1402)

The selfie from Akhenaten to Tracey Emin


If ever there was a time to write a book about self-portraits, this must be it.  ‘Past interest in the genre,’ James Hall tells us in his introduction to this cultural history, ‘is overshadowed by the obsession with self-portraiture during… Read more


The talent and tragedy of Richard Pryor


The troubles of Richard Pryor’s life are well known — from his childhood in a brothel to his self-immolation via crack pipe — but arranged in a biography their impact is renewed. So grotesque was his upbringing that an early… Read more

A dreadful warning: a fisherman paddles through a tide of toxic waste on the Yamuna river, against a backdrop of smog and high-rise construction

Lawlessness, corruption, poverty and pollution: the city where we're all headed

Books feature

Rana Dasgupta, who was born and brought up in Britain, moved to Delhi at the end of 2000, principally to pursue a love affair and to write his first novel. He soon found himself mixing in bohemian circles, spending his… Read more

Sweden’s warrior king Gustavus Adolphus inspired the English far more than their own effete, self-righteous Stuart monarchs

Can anyone make a good case for the Stuart kings?


Historians have generally not been kind in their assessment of Britain’s first two Stuart kings. Their political skills are regarded as meagre; their objectives malign; their one undisputed talent an unerring ability to alienate their subjects — with rebellion and… 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


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, sixty-nining, cruising, blowjobs, fisting, rimming and three-ways. Of course, Proust-inspired… Read more

Military personnel remove bags containing bodies of members of the Jim Jones' sect "Temple of people". More than 900 people died Photo: Getty

Madness and massacre in the jungle


In his new novel, Children of Paradise, Fred D’Aguiar, a British-Guyanese writer, returns to the Jonestown massacre, previously the subject of his 1998 narrative poem, ‘Bill of Rights’. D’Aguiar often examines brutal historical episodes from the perspective of a survivor… Read more