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Muddling through

It so happened that in 1961 I was part of a little group — three of us — which welcomed ‘Mr Jazzman’ to London. That was the code name for Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer, who had that day jetéed over the barrier in Paris and defected to London. He had very little English but he

Bookends: The Queen’s message

It is a sad fact that most ‘self-help’ books end up helping no one, other than the people who wrote them, who pay off all their debts and move to California. Mary Killen’s How The Queen Can You Make You Happy (Elliott & Thompson, £8.99) could be the exception. For Mary has noticed that, at

Women on their mettle

Edwardian Park Lane was lined with grand houses. The occupants, conspicuous consumers and domestic servants, acted out layers of deception. Gamblers ruined Victorian fortunes. Gaiety and social graces masked the insecurities of the new rich and their struggles for acceptance in London. Upstairs, married women, harnessed by corsets and discretion, embodied compliant game. Downstairs, actually

All the world’s a stage

In Translations, Brian Friel’s play about English military and cultural imperialism, the frustrated teacher Manus explains how he uses ‘the wrong gesture in the wrong language’ to insult in Gaelic an English soldier. In Shakespeare in Kabul, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar’s account of the first production of Shakespeare in Afghanistan since before the

Monarchy’s golden future

In a recent issue of The Spectator Freddy Gray warned that some royal press officers now resemble celebrity publicists, spoon-feeding whole narratives to lapdog hacks, ultimately to the detriment of the monarchy. Gray traced the poisonous origins of the current glossy operation. In the late Nineties senior St James’s Palace courtiers fell for political-style PR

What did he see in her?

When King George I came over from Hanover in 1714 to claim the crown he had inherited from his distant cousin Queen Anne, he was accompanied by his mistress of more than 20 years, Melusine von der Schulenberg. George’s wife Sophia Dorothea was left behind in Germany. She had made the mistake of taking a

Love conquers all

Anyone who has ever written a history book will feel a twinge of envy on reading the preface to Just Send Me Word: We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and

And thereby hangs a tale

The heart sinks when news breaks that an already distinguished novelist is trying his or her hand at the Irish revolution. The track record is uninspiring. Anthony Trollope lived many years in Ireland and knew senior nationalist leaders like Isaac Butt; even so, The Land Leaguers (1882) is very disappointing. Iris Murdoch had deep roots

High society

One evening in 1923, Edward, Prince of Wales, pretty as paint in his white tie and a cutaway-coat, went to the theatre to see a new Gershwin musical. It was called Stop Flirting. Always one to ignore instructions, the Prince returned to enjoy this froth no less than nine times more. Obsessed by anything and

The world in arms

The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 — the vigil of Hitler’s assault on Poland and the subsequent Phoney War — gave little hint of the storm to come. As German troops engulfed Poland, however, Britain at last declared war on Hitler. Infamously, the Nazi science

A date with death

On 8 January 1937, an old man was taking his prize songbird for an early morning walk in the eastern section of Peking when he came across a woman’s body lying in a ditch. The face had been disfigured, the ribs hacked apart and the heart removed. Pathologists who examined the corpse thought it was

Good queen, bad subject

There is a paradox at the heart of all books about the Queen. The very thing which makes her such a successful constitutional monarch is what makes her an impossible subject for biography. We do not know anything about her. The only book which brings her to life as a person is Marion Crawford’s The

Rus in urbe

One of the pleasures of my week is walking across St James’s Square. The slightly furtive sense of trespassing as one opens the ironwork gates; the decision as to whether or not to follow the circuit of gravel paths or go straight across the grass; the equestrian statue of William III and readers from the

The pen was mightier than the brush

Of the making of books about the Pre-Raphaelites, it appears, there is no end. Like the Bloomsberries, most of the PRB are more interesting to read about than the study of their work would suggest: a few towering talents stalk the mountaintops, while many lesser ones lurk in valleys and foothills. George Boyce was one

The dirty dozen

I have this fantasy in which I’m the Emperor Nero. I’m relaxing in my toga, and there are these slave girls dancing for me, and one of them has the most incredible … Like all the best fantasies, it’s a little unrealistic, let us say, but I didn’t know how unrealistic until I read this

Girls and boys come out to play

‘You are in the polymorphous-perverse stage,’ the school psychiatrist tells the assembled boys of Favorite River Academy in Vermont in the late 1950s. Just how polymorphously perverse his audience turns out to be would have surprised even Dr Grau, had he not fallen over drunk one evening and frozen to death. It is no accident

Hero or villein?

‘Not one word’, exclaimed Turgenev of Tolstoy, ‘not one movement of his is natural! He is eternally posing before us!’ The recurrent underlying theme of A.N. Wilson’s prize-winning biography of Tolstoy, now re-issued after a quarter of a century, is the novelist as grand impersonator. Wilson (a prolific novelist himself) believes that there is a

The courage of countless generations

The most stirring sermon I ever heard was delivered by a company sergeant-major in the Black Watch to a cadre of young lance-corporals, barely 19 years old, who were about to experience their first deployment to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Like an old-fashioned Presbyterian minister, he warned them of the dangers of the world,