Lead book review

Blind into battle

Early every morning through the spring of 2002, US troops at Bagram airfield on the Shomali plains north of Kabul assembled on a makeshift parade ground. After the daily briefing, an officer announced the number of days since 9/11, read a short obituary of a victim of the attack and reminded the troops of their

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Return of the infamous five

It has become fashionable since the fall of the Soviet Union to diagnose communist fellow travelling as a form of Freudian neurosis. Where class resentment exists it is said to emanate less from angry young proletarians than from well-spoken youths intent on garrotting their dividend-drawing fathers. Most contemporary accounts of the Cambridge spy ring, which

Short and bitter-sweet

The death of Denis Johnson last May marked the loss of a great original who catalogued the lives of junkies, social misfits and minor criminals from an insider’s perspective — which is not surprising, considering his own history of drug and alcohol abuse. Certainly his most celebrated work, the hilarious yet profoundly moving story collection,

Reeling and spinning

It was approximately 4.50 a.m. in Ibiza: peak time on the dance floor. I was on the decks in one of the many sumptuous rooms of the superclub Pacha, spinning breakbeat on vinyl (early Noughties) and warming up for a live broadcast back to the UK. Without warning, a Pacha henchman burst into the DJ

Coffee and Kalashnikovs

‘This guy’s crazy,’ says a taxi driver, listening to a BBC interview with a man who has decided to become the first exporter of coffee from Mokha, Yemen, in 80 years. The man being interviewed, we have learned, has risked his life quite a few times over, in the most hair-raising ways imaginable it would

The way to dusty death | 1 February 2018

In the words of Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer: ‘We’re all doomed.’ Life remains a dangerous business whose outcome is always fatal. Despite all kinds of medical progress, the death rate is stubbornly fixed at 100 per cent, while the ways in which we die remain unchanged. At the same time, in a magnificent demonstration of

No stone left unturned | 1 February 2018

Alan Bennett once defined a classic as ‘a book everyone is assumed to have read and forgets if they have or not’. The Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies 1848–1887 is in the peculiarly unfortunate position of having produced a whole library that falls pretty much into this category. His novels such as Bevis (1882) or

Half-heard truths

If you’ve ever had a text or email thread spiral wildly and unexpectedly out of control or clocked a couple having a blank-faced argument in Tesco or a mother remonstrating with her toddler even though you couldn’t hear the words exchanged, then you understand the importance of the human voice. Command of tone, timbre, pitch

Crime and puzzlement

Tony White’s latest novel begins for all the world like a police procedural, following the delightfully named sleuth Rex King as he investigates the grisly murder of man in a Covent Garden theatre. Rex, who has a penchant for fish and chips, laments the tedium of police bureaucracy and frets over a cover-up relating to

Boxing not so clever

For Horace Hopper, the half-breed protagonist of Willy Vlautin’s bleak new novel, essential truths come slowly, and usually too late to do him any good. Abandoned by his Native American mother and Irish American father, he has exiled himself from the only people who love him, an elderly couple on a sheep ranch in deepest

Has the bubble burst?

I always suspected I disliked Jeff Koons, until I saw one of his monumental pieces at Frieze London a few years ago. Then it was confirmed. Cynicism seemed to ooze out of every millimetre of his vast, shiny sculpture. It was vividly apparent that this artwork wasn’t about beauty or transcendence or emotion. It was