Man between vice and virtue in St Augustine’s City of God. French incunabulum from Abbeville, 1486-87

Christianity is the foundation of our freedoms


If there is one underlying source from which all our other societal problems stem, it is surely this: we no longer know who we are or how we got here. Worse, we mistakenly believe our situation to be inevitable, presuming… Read more


First novels: When romance develops from an old photograph


The intensely lyrical Ghost Moth is set in Belfast in 1969, as the Troubles begin and when Katherine, housewife and mother of four, finds herself remembering an old love affair. Michèle Forbes achieves a vivid depiction of family life —… Read more

Faisal’s dark, liquid eyes and distinguished bearing caused a sensation at the Paris Peace Conference

The enlightened king of Iraq

Books feature

‘King of Iraq’ has an odd ring even to those who know that Iraq was called Mesopotamia and was part of the Ottoman empire before falling into and out of the clutches of the British. Many people, including Iraqis, seem… Read more

The Seagram Building, Park Avenue, New York

The man who gave the world (but not London) the glass skyscraper


Modern Architecture, capitalised thus, is now securely and uncontroversially compartmentalised into art history, its bombast muted, its hard-edge revolutions blurred by debased familiarity. You have been to Catford? You have seen a heroic vision compromised. Modern Architecture is no more… Read more

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Photo: Getty

Did Hurricane Katrina have an angel of mercy — or an angel of death? 


On 28 August 2005 — Sheri Fink’s Day One — Hurricane Katrina reached New Orleans. The National Weather Service warned that ‘human suffering will be incrdible by modern standards’. Fink’s enormous book chronicles that suffering as experienced inside the Memorial… Read more

Edmund Burke (left) and Thomas Paine, caricatured by Gillray and Cruickshank respectively

Where did the Right and the Left come from? 


What is the origin of left and right in politics? The traditional answer is that these ideas derive from the French National Assembly after 1789, in which supporters of the King sat on one side and those of the revolution… Read more

A sign common in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1956 Photo: Getty

How to get around South Africa's many boundaries


There are writers whose prose style is so fluid, so easy, the reader feels as though he has been taken by the hand and is being gently led down a path by a guide who can be trusted to point… Read more

Lord Tweedsmuir and President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photo: Time & Life/Getty

The Scot who became more Canadian than the Canadians


When John Buchan was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935, the country was deep in depression, the western provinces a dustbowl and a quarter of a million people on public relief, while the prospect of war in Europe threatened… Read more


The Shock of the Fall is a worthy Costa Book of the Year


About 30 pages in and unable to find my bearings, I flipped to the end of this novel — well, not the actual end, to the acknowledgements (always fascinating) and after them a very handy ‘Q & A with Nathan… Read more


Isabel Allende's Ripper doesn't grab you by the throat


Isabel Allende is not an author one usually associates with the thrillers about serial killers. Ripper, however, lives up to its title. It’s the name of an online game, set in Jack the Ripper’s London. Six players — five teenagers… Read more

America Plains

Has land ownership changed our lives for better or for worse?

Books feature

If the gentle reader has any concerns that a study of land ownership might tend to the dry, they will be dispelled in the very first pages of this book by the spectacular flamboyance of its opening. There is not… Read more

Edward Greenfield with André Previn in front of the Royal Festival Hall, c.1970.

Portrait of a Guardian music critic


We critics seldom write our memoirs, perhaps because we skulk away our lives in dark corners, avoiding the public gaze, plying our shameful trade like streetwalkers or pushers of hard drugs. We might occasionally, in desperation, recycle our ephemera between… Read more


Germaine Greer's mad, passionate quest to heal Australia


Like an old woman in a fairy story, Germaine Greer, now in her late seventies, has taken to lurking in a forest. Always inclined to reinterpret the world through her own changing needs and perceptions, and to instruct the rest… Read more

Snowy Owl

Toowit-towoo! At long last, a Collins book on owls


Owls have more associations for us than perhaps any other family of birds, suggested Jeremy Mynott in Birdscapes, so it is puzzling that it has taken Collins 70 years to add this ‘Natural History of the British and Irish Species’… Read more


Why you shouldn't keep elephants


On 15 September 1885, the world’s most famous elephant, Jumbo, was killed by a train. Jumbo, the star attraction at P.T. Barnum’s travelling circus, was crossing the track at a station in Ontario, Canada. His handler, Matthew Scott, saw the… Read more

Sting, William Burroughs and Andy Summers Photo: Getty

William S. Burroughs was a writer – not a painter, prophet, philosopher


William S. Burroughs lived his life in the grand transgressive tradition of Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde and, like all dandies, he had a nose for hedonistic hot spots which he could mythologise along with himself. On the occasion of… Read more

Virgin Australia Unveil Regional Airline In Perth

Richard Branson deserves (some) respect


Tom Bower’s first biography of Sir Richard Branson, in 2000, was memorable for its hilarious account of the Virgin tycoon’s accident-prone ballooning exploits — and for its trenchant thesis that he had ‘toppled from his perch onto a slippery, downward… Read more

Hotel Chelsea

Where artists went to drink and die


Once below a time (to quote the man himself) the bloated poet Dylan Thomas slouched back to New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the dead of night and informed his mistress that he had just drunk 18 straight whiskies, which he… Read more

The great Ascension Day pageant of the Doge performing the marriage of the sea — already a tourist attraction in 17th-century Venice.

What Englishmen learnt from Europe

Books feature

The pattern of foreign travel by wealthy young Englishmen that became known as the Grand Tour began in the Renaissance and matured in the 17th century. In its origins it was a training for statesmanship. The state’s takeover of the… Read more

A WWI memorial in New York (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty)

When intellectuals are clueless about the first world war


No one alive now has any adult experience of the first world war, but still it shows no sign of respectable ossification; no armistice of opposing historians seems in prospect. It maintains a terrible, vivid, constantly mutable life. Like the… Read more


How miserable a marriage can be


In Never Mind Miss Fox, Olivia Glazebrook’s second novel, the revelation of a long buried secret releases a Pandora’s Box of disasters. At the heart of the book is a disturbing sex scene between a 16-year-old girl and an older,… Read more

Stephen Ward (Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty)

Fiction embroiled in the Profumo affair


Sex, spies, aristocrats and atom bombs — the Profumo affair is in the news again, thanks to the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Stephen Ward. William Nicholson has chosen to hang his seventh novel around it in Reckless, which… Read more

Portrait of Sheila by Cecil Beaton

Australia's entrancing Sheila


The ‘dollar princesses’, those American heiresses who crossed the Atlantic in search of a titled husband, are familiar figures from the 19th and early 20th century. Less well known are the young ladies who made the much longer journey from… Read more

The Edith Maersk in the Suez Canal, October 2012

What seamen fear more than Somali pirates


If a time traveller were to arrive in our world from, say, 1514 — a neat half-millennium away — what single feature would strike them most? What could they use on their return to try and explain the sheer weirdness… 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)


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 the hospital on April Fool’s Day by a couple of… Read more

Arming for conquest (Picture: John Bostock)

A creepy father, a lustful music teacher, four virgins — and one genuine love affair


London, 1794. It’s a different world from that portrayed by the Mrs Radcliffes and Anons of the time: rich young women are not all naïve and swoony in Katharine Grant’s first novel for adults. In Sedition, five girls (two of… Read more


William Dalrymple's notebook: How I lured Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Franzen to Jaipur


In 2004, ten days after I moved my family to a new life in India, I gave a reading at a small palace on the edge of the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur. Fourteen people turned up, of whom ten were… Read more

From left to right: Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and H.G. Wells

Reviewing reviews of reviews — where will it all end? 

Books feature

About halfway through reading this collection of essays I had one of those hall-of-mirrors moments. These are mostly book reviews, you see: high-toned, long-form New York Review of Books-type review-essays, given — but book reviews nevertheless. There I was, dutifully… Read more