A wounded soldier is carried through the mud near Boesinghe during the battle of Passchendaele in Flanders Photo: Getty

When No Man's Land is home


Countless writers and film-makers this year will be trying their hand at forcing us to wake up and smell the first world war.  How do they plant a fresh, haunting, horrifying image into our unwilling and saturated heads? We know… Read more

American abolitionist John Brown believed in armed revolt to end all slavery Photo: Getty

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride - review


James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is set in the mid 19th century, and is based on the real life of John Brown, the one who lies a-mouldering in his grave. Recently it won a National Book Award in the… Read more

A supporter of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds his portrait during a demonstration in Cairo, November 2013

From Nasser to Mubarak — Egypt's modern pharaohs and their phoney myths


Reporting Egypt’s revolution three years ago, I had a sense of history not so much repeating itself as discharging sparks which seemed eerily familiar. Smoke was billowing into my hotel bedroom from the building next door, the headquarters of the… Read more

Do you believe in Elves? Photo: John Anster Fitzgerald

Why are Scandinavians so happy when they should be so sad? 


As I sit here in my Sarah Lund Fair Isle sweater, polishing my boxed sets of Borgen and nibbling on a small piece of herring, it briefly occurs to me that perhaps I too have fallen victim to the prevailing… Read more

‘Returning from Brooks’s’ by James Gillray (1784)

Where the Whigs went


A book about one of the London clubs, published to mark its 250th anniversary, might be regarded as of extremely limited public appeal, designed only for the enjoyment of its members, 800 of whom have subscribed more than 900 copies… Read more

O.Z. Whitehead, Dorris Bowdon, John Carradine and Henry Fonda in the 1940 film, The Grapes of Wrath

The two people who brought us The Grapes of Wrath


John Steinbeck (1902–1968), an ardent propagandist for the exploited underdogs of the Great Depression, had barely enough money for subsistence during the years he spent preparing and writing The Grapes of Wrath, the protest novel regarded as his masterpiece. It… Read more

American soldiers are welcomed to Sicily Photo: Time & Life/ Getty

Write what you know — especially if it's the second world war


Adam Foulds’s latest novel is less successful than its predecessor. In 2009 he reached the Booker shortlist with The Quickening Maze, which saw Victorian poets orbit a lunatic asylum in Epping Forest. Now, with In the Wolf’s Mouth, he has… Read more

Hanif Kureishi Photo: Getty

A cruel novel about an India-born, world-famous, possibly real-life author


It is six years since Hanif Kureishi’s last novel Something to Tell You, a kaleidoscopic meditation on life and death seen through the eyes of a Freudian analyst striving to make sense of middle age. It was regarded as a… Read more

Lord Mountbatten discloses Britain's partition plan for India Photo: Getty

Hope for one of the most turbulent, traumatised regions in the world


John Keay’s excellent new book on the modern history of South Asia plunges the reader head first into some wildly swirling currents. Here are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, not to mention Sri Lanka and Nepal, and a supporting cast of mini-states… Read more

The Wyndham Sisters, 1899, by John Singer Sargent. Left to right: Madeline, Pamela and Mary

My family's better days

Books feature

The Sargent painting reproduced opposite suggests the wealth and comfort that these three sisters, Mary, Madeline and Pamela, were born to. Their father, Percy Wyndham, was the younger son of Lord Leconfield of Petworth, Sussex. He was his father’s favourite,… Read more

Entering Oregon

Butcher's Crossing is not at all like Stoner — but it's just as superbly written


John Williams’s brilliant 1965 novel, Stoner, was republished last year by Vintage to just, if surprisingly widespread, acclaim and went on to sell tens of thousands of copies and appear in many Books of the Year lists. Written with a… Read more

Japanese soldiers salute after filling a channel with coffins during a mass burial of tsunami victims Photo: AFP/Getty

Is there a way to live without economic growth? 


During Japan’s lost decade in the 1990s I found myself handing out rice balls to Tokyo’s homeless on the banks of the Sumida river. The former salary men — it was always men — slept in cardboard boxes the size… Read more

Woman in black: Madeleine St John, due for revival. 
‘Her steadiest relationships were with a series of cats’

Breakdowns, suicide attempts — and four great novels


Among the clever young Australians who came over here in the 1960s to find themselves and make their mark, a number, as we all know, never went back. A few became household names — Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James… Read more

Scarlett O’Hara runs through the streets of burning Atlanta

'Where are the happy fictional spinsters?'


This book arose from an argument. Lifelong bookworm Samantha Ellis and her best friend had gone to Brontë country and were tramping about on the Yorkshire moors when they began bickering: would it be better to be Cathy Earnshaw, or… Read more

Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, 1960 Photo: Getty

Hugh Trevor-Roper, the man who hated uniformity


The arrival of a letter from Hugh Trevor-Roper initiated a whole series of pleasures.  Pleasure began with the very look of the envelope, addressed in his wonderfully clear, elegant hand (writing to Alasdair Palmer in 1986, he advised ‘No, don’t… Read more

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sits with her new Cabinet Photo: Getty

The 'semi-detached' member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet


John Biffen was mentally ill. This is the outstanding revelation of Semi-Detached, a memoir which has been assembled from his diaries and from the autobiographical writings which he completed before his death in 2007. During the mid-1960s he tried psychotherapy,… Read more

‘Grace Higgens in the Kitchen’ by Vanessa Bell

The Angel of Charleston, by Stewart MacKay - review


Above the range in the kitchen at Charleston House is a painted inscription: ‘Grace Higgens worked here for 50 years & more, she was a good friend to all Charlestonians.’ The words are those of the art historian Quentin Bell,… Read more

The young Clarice Lispector was strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes and ‘very, very sexy’, remembered a friend

'She's the most important Jewish writer since Kafka!'

Books feature

The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector was a riddlesome and strange personality. Strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes, she died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 at the age of only 57. Some said she wrote like Virginia Woolf (not necessarily… Read more


This year, discover Michel Déon


In Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, the efforts of an academic claque propel the mysterious German author Benno von Archimboldi onto bestseller lists across the Continent. But ‘in the British Isles, it must be said, Archimboldi remained a decidely marginal writer’.… Read more

Coloured photograph of Princess Louise dating from the early 1880s by the society photographer Alexander Bassano

What was the secret of Queen Victoria's rebel daughter?


Princess Louise (1848–1939), Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, was the prettiest and liveliest of the five princesses, and the only one who broke out of the royal bubble. Artistically talented, she trained as a sculptor, and her marble statue of Queen… Read more

The National Theatre

The National Theatre Story by Daniel Rosenthal - review


In 1976, as the National Theatre moved into its new home on London’s South Bank, its literary manager Kenneth Tynan observed: ‘It’s taken 123 years to get here: 60 of Victorian idealism, half a century of dithering, and a final… Read more

A Soviet soldier buys a ticket for the  performance of the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad in August 1942

Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played


The horrors of the Leningrad siege — the 900 Days of Harrison Salisbury’s classic — have been pretty well picked over by historians; and meanwhile the story of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the improbable circumstances of its composition and first Leningrad… Read more

Arshile Gorky (Photo: Gjon Mili//Time Life/Getty)

Critics can be creative - look at Malcolm Cowley


Even Spectator book reviewers have to concede that their craft is inferior to the creative travail of authors. Henry James railed against the practitioners of literary criticism long ago: So much preaching, advising, rebuking & reviling, & so little doing:… Read more

Portrait of John McEwen by John Bellany

John Bellany: potent, prolific, patchy


When John Bellany died in August last year, an odyssey that had alternately beguiled and infuriated the art world came to an end. Famously, Bellany had nearly died from liver failure in 1988 after years of hard drinking, but an… Read more

Irwin Piper takes his sheep to slaughter

How we lost the seasons

Books feature

So, what are you doing with your Christmas decorations? Still up? Did the tree get put out on 2 January? Maybe you’re holding out until the Twelfth Day, on the basis that it’s bad luck to have the decorations up… Read more

Claire Bloom in Brideshead Revisited (Photo: ITV/REX)

The Roth of tenderness and of rage


In the autumn of 2012, Philip Roth told a French magazine that his latest book, Nemesis, would be his last. The storm of interest this created was surprising, given that he was 78. His creative spurt in his seventies (inexplicable,… Read more

To gaze at Manet’s asparagus and to see a reflection of your struggling long-term relationship might not be the best way to approach a painting

Do Manet's asparagus remind you of your struggling long-term relationship?


In calling their book Art as Therapy Alain de Botton and John Armstrong have taken the direct route. They’re not waiting for us to interpret their motive: their title tells us everything. Art, the theory goes, can help us improve… Read more

The 18-year-old Anjelica Huston, directed by her father, 
makes her screen début in A Walk with Love and Death as the 
14th-century French aristocrat Claudia, fleeing the savagery of the Jacquerie

Finally, a celebrity memoir worth reading


Unlike many celebrity memoirs, Anjelica Huston’s is worth reading. In her Prologue she writes that as a child she modeled herself on Morticia Addams, and where a lesser celebrity memoirist would go on to say that she eventually played Morticia… Read more