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Man of mysteries

It was always William Wilkie Collins’s good luck — though in later life something of a humiliation — that he was dragged along on Dickens’s coat-tails — not least in this bicentennial ‘year of Dickens’. In December, the BBC will be showing a dramatisation of The Moonstone. T. S. Eliot (no less) called that tale

Fatal impact theory 

As schools are for education, so universities are for higher education. In a civilised society, children should leave school literate, numerate and with some knowledge of science, history and culture. But society also needs an elite educated to a higher level. Universities are for the preparation of the next generation of doctors, United Nations interpreters,

Resounding successes

The British Library’s ‘Spoken Word’ series, drawing heavily on the BBC archives, has already shown quite a range — from Tennyson’s famously crackly reading of ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ to Scott Fitzgerald declaiming a speech from Othello. Now, it moves on to the short story and, despite the curious decision to include two tales

Portraits of an age

By a fine coincidence, two legendary icons of British art were being feted in London on the same evening last month, and both are primarily famous, to the public at least, for their depiction of the Queen. At the National Portrait Gallery, the director Sandy Nairne hosted a dinner to celebrate the portrait oeuvre of

Epic toy story

In January 1992 a container filled with 7,200 yellow ducks and the same number each of blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs, blow-moulded out of plastic for American children at bathtime, broke loose in a storm on the deck of a container ship on its way from China and fell into the Pacific somewhere

His dark materials

Like the dyslexic Faustus who sold his soul to Santa, the life of John Dee was a black comedy of errors. His vain and vulgar efforts to harness the occult for material ends often rendered him ridiculous. But there is a darker tale in Dee’s work for the Tudor state: a story of dodgy dossiers,

Tragedy of Antigone

Sofka Zinovieff’s absorbing first novel has two narrative voices. Maud is the English widow of Nikitas, whose death in a mysterious accident leads her to contact Antigone, the mother-in-law she has never met. A former Communist freedom fighter, Antigone was forced to leave Greece for the Soviet Union following the Greek civil war. She gave

The view from the top

Halfway through this book, the veil lifted, and I thought: ‘I see! I see what he’s trying to do!’ Pickering gets his characters, and moves them along, and then, after 150 pages, he manages to convey a really powerful sensation of something; you might call it amorality, or nihilism, or the sense of the pointlessness

Man with a mission | 3 March 2012

He was a Persian aristocrat who struggled to make his country a democracy. Given to mood swings and sulks worthy of Achilles, Mohammed Mossadegh was born in June 1882 just a month before Britain bombarded and occupied Egypt. His formidable mother, Najm al-Saltaneh, belonged to the family of Qajar Shahs who ruled Iran from 1794

A choice of recent thrillers

Sam Bourne’s new thriller, Pantheon (HarperCollins, £12.99), is set just after Dunkirk in the darkest days of the second world war. James Zennor, an experimental psychologist, returns to his family’s Oxford home to discover that his biologist wife has disappeared, taking with her their two-year-old son. Zennor, scarred in body and mind by his experiences

Bookends: Wasp without a sting

‘It may be hard to accept that a chaste teenage girl can end up in bed with the President of the United States on her fourth day in the White House.’ In 1962, 19-year-old Mimi Beardsley (pictured above) landed ‘the plummiest of summer jobs’, an internship in the White House press office. On day four,