What other job lets you swear in front of your parents?


There aren’t many jobs that allow a nice middle-class Jewish boy to say ‘fuck’ in front of his parents. But Jonathon Green found one: compiling slang dictionaries. This memoir of a life spent exploring the grubby margins of the English… Read more

Large crow feather necklace by Alex Monroe

A master craftsman of the anecdote


One of the many charms of this book is its sheer unexpectedness, which makes it hard to review, for to reveal the brilliancies too fully would spoil their effect. My copy is splattered with exclamation marks. For example, on page… Read more

Queen Victoria writes letters at a table piled with despatch boxes Photo: Getty

Queen Victoria with the naughty bits put back


Queen Victoria was the inventor of official royal biography. It was she who commissioned the monumental five-volume life of Prince Albert, a controversial and revealing work. She wrote most of the personal sections herself. She also published bestselling volumes, such… Read more

The unfortunate Manuel in
Fawlty Towers — portrayed by the similarly accident-prone Andrew Sachs

The harrowing, inspiring life of Andrew Sachs


Comedians always like to claim that they started making jokes after childhoods made harsh by poverty; that at a formative age they were tormented by appalling cruelty and neglect. Griff Rhys Jones had to leave Wales at the age of… Read more


Lost Kerouac that should have stayed lost


In 1944, when he was 22, Jack Kerouac lost a manuscript — in a taxi, as he thought, but probably in Allen Ginsberg’s room at Columbia University — and it stayed lost until 2002, when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s.… Read more

Portrait of George Eliot, aged 30, by François d’Albert-Durade, whose family she lived with while in Switzerland

Middlemarch: the novel that reads you


The genesis of The Road to Middlemarch was a fine article in the New Yorker about  Rebecca Mead’s unsuccessful search for the origin of the remark, sometimes attributed to George Eliot, that ‘it’s never too late to become the person… Read more

Florence Maybrick and husband James Maybrick, once thought to have been Jack the Ripper Photo: Getty

On the trail of a Victorian femme fatale


Kate Colquhoun sets herself a number of significant challenges in her compelling new book, Did She Kill Him? Like Kate Summerscale before her, Colquhoun mines the rich seam of legal archives to give her readers the fascinating tale of a… Read more

Kim Philby at the press conference he called in 1955 to deny being the ‘Third Man’

Kim Philby got away with it because he was posh

Books feature

The story of Kim Philby is, of course, like so many English stories, really one of social class. He was one of the most scandalous traitors in history, and from within the security services sent specific information to the Soviets… Read more


The Edward Snowden scandal viewed from planet Guardian


Last summer a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor called Edward Snowden leaked a vast trove of secret information on the mass data-gathering of his erstwhile employer and Britain’s GCHQ. He was widely lauded on the political left and libertarian right… Read more


The spy who came in from le Carré


The single most terrifying moment of my adult life occurred at 8.55 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday 5 August 2008. I had a written a novel, Typhoon, in which disenfranchised Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province riot against the… Read more

Portrait of T.E. Lawrence by Augustus John

Lawrence of Arabia, meet Curt of Cairo


How do you write a new book about T.E. Lawrence, especially when the man himself described his escapades, or a version of them, with such inimitable genius? Scott Anderson’s answer is to intercut Lawrence’s extraordinary story — the camel raids… Read more

William Vaux, 3rd Baron Vaux of Harrowden, was tried in the Star Chamber in 1581 with his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham for harbouring Edmund Campion and sentenced to imprisonment in the Fleet with a fine of £1,000

Lords, spies and traitors in Elizabeth's England


There are still some sizeable holes in early modern English history and one of them is what we know — or, rather, do not know — about the aristocracy. Of course, peers who held high office under the Crown often… Read more

Danish Jews escaping the Nazi's across the Oresound to neighbouring Sweden Photo: Getty

How Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis


Of all the statistics generated by the Holocaust, perhaps some of the most disturbing in the questions they give rise to are the following. Of the Jews in Hungary, the Netherlands, Greece, Latvia and Poland, between 70 and 90 per… Read more


Sometimes one story is worth buying a whole book for. This is one of those times


Any new book by Lorrie Moore is a cause for rejoicing, but her first collection of short stories for 16 years demands bunting, revelry and tap-dancing. She is one of a handful or two of writers (I’d nominate Anne Tyler,… Read more

An almost masochistic docility: E.M. Forster in his youth

What E.M. Forster didn't do


‘On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings whom you think are sadly mistaken,’ said Penelope Fitzgerald in 1987. The South African novelist Damon Galgut has reversed this… Read more


Secrets of Candleford: the real Flora Thompson

Books feature

When Richard Mabey was researching this biography of Flora Thompson, author of Lark Rise to Candleford, he happened to stay at a farmhouse B&B near Bath. Ambling around, he found something very curious … There were two rows of cottages… Read more

A German soldier in the Western Desert in 1942 scans the horizon for enemy movements

A spectacular faller in the Benghazi stakes


What an unedifying affair the war in the North African desert was, at least until November 1942 and the victory at El Alamein. As the author of this brisk study of one of its more admired practitioners writes: In no… Read more


Fairytales of racism


A preview of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird appeared in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists issue in April last year, the decennial list identifying 20 writers under 40 as the names to watch. The previous four novels of the… Read more


Pick of the crime novels


Stuart MacBride’s new novel, A Song for the Dying (HarperCollins, £16.99, Spectator Bookshop, £14.99), is markedly darker in tone than his excellent Logan McRae series. Set in a fictional Scottish city where a miasma of corruption oozes out of the… Read more

Henry Cavill starred in last year’s American blockbuster Man of Steel, based on the DC Comic hero, Superman

Want Hollywood's conventional wisdom? Then read Blockbusters


You can learn a lot from this book. Latin America has a smaller economy than Europe. Big companies can spend more on advertising than small ones. Maria Sharapova is attractive. Given that the book is written in the dullest of… Read more

Stirring the imagination into overdrive: ‘The Sinner’ by John Collier (1904)

Sex, secrets, and self-mortification: the dark side of the confessional


I have a confession to make. I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I admitted something of the sort, and I feel ashamed, because, although it’s smartly, smoothly written, my pleasure was partly based on titillation. I… Read more

George Kennan (right), Moscow, 1952 Photo: Getty

I used to like George Kennan. Then I read his diaries


George Kennan, the career diplomat and historian best known for his sensible suggestion that the United States try to resist the Soviet Union ‘without recourse to any general military conflict’, is much in vogue these days, at least in Washington,… Read more

Lance Sieveking (right) with Colonel G.L. Thompson broadcasting a running commentary on the final bumping race from a tree in Rectory Meadow, Cambridge, June 1927

'One warm night in June 1917 I became the man who nearly killed the Kaiser'


The traditional story told about the first world war is that it changed everything: that it was the end of the old world and the beginning of the modern age, and that art and poetry could never be the same… Read more

Francis King   Photo: Denis Jones/Evening Standard /REX

From frankness to obsession - the novels of Francis King


Gide wrote to Simenon: ‘You are living on a false reputation — just like Baudelaire and Chopin. … You are much more important than is commonly supposed.’ Something of the kind could, I feel, be said about Francis King (1923–2011),… Read more

Self-portrait c.1872

The Artist Formerly Known As Whistler

Books feature

When James Whistler was two years old, he was asked why he’d disappeared from company and hidden under a table. ‘I’s drawrin,’ he replied. He started as he meant to go on. Daniel E. Sutherland’s well-appointed new biography of the… Read more

(FILE) In Profile: 100 Years Of US Secretaries Of State

Hillary, Obama, Osama — and a hapless Bill


The actor David Niven was once badgered by the American columnist William F. Buckley to introduce him to Marc Chagall, a neighbour of Niven’s in Switzerland. Buckley, a keen amateur painter, wanted to know what Chagall thought of his work.… Read more

Theodore Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, 1897

When Israel was but a dream


‘On the night of 15 April 1897, a small, elegant steamer is en route from Egypt’s Port Said to Jaffa.’ ‘At the end of October 1898 the small steamer Rossiya made its way from Alexandria in Egypt, via Port Said,… Read more


A family novel that pulls up the carpet before you're even in the door


I first mistook David Gilbert’s second novel for the sort of corduroy-sleeved family saga at which American writers excel. The main character, Dyer, is an elderly author gathering his sons about him in Manhattan after the funeral of a boyhood… Read more