Lead book review

War is good for us

At the heart of this work is a startling and improbable statistic and the equally surprising and counterintuitive thesis that flows out of it. We are used to looking back on the 20th century as comfortably the most violent in all human history — the silver medal usually goes to the 14th — but if

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Spring again   But from where no telling     Sweet as the spring       That went before         Same old story     But still compelling   Blossom reminding What blossom is for   Question the trees   But they’re not telling     How they obey    

The one-man spy factory who changed history

With two new biographies of Kim Philby out, an espionage drama by Sir David Hare on BBC2, and the recent revelation that the aristocrat superspy John Bingham was the model for George Smiley, there is little doubt that Britain is currently going through one of its fitful bouts of spy fever, and this book can

White, blue-collar, grey-haired rebels

In the 2010 general election, Ukip gained nearly a million votes — over 3 per cent — three times as many as the Greens, and nearly twice as many as the SNP. Unlike those parties, it won no seats, but its intervention almost certainly cost the Conservatives an overall majority at Westminster. The paradoxical consequence

Brains with green fingers

‘Life is bristling with thorns,’ Voltaire observed in 1769, ‘and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden.’ This is the remedy espoused by Candide at the end of Voltaire’s satirical novel, published ten years earlier, and the literal and metaphorical cultivating of gardens is the subject of Damon Young’s sprightly and stimulating

Philip Marlowe returns with bark but no bite

With so much Nordic noir around, it’s a relief to return to the granddaddy of them all, the hard-boiled private dick, Philip Marlowe. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Benjamin Black’s reboot of Raymond Chandler’s great creation does not have the bite of Chandler in an age when the casual racism, sexism and downright class snobbery of

The Thucydides of court gossip? Steady on…

Sir Brian Unwin leads off with some decidedly questionable assertions. He wonders why the first of his two subjects, the Comtesse de Boigne, should have been ‘ignored or un-noticed by most historians’ — curious words to apply to a woman whose words are quoted in virtually every biography or history of her period. As to

How did revolution become Istanbul’s new normal?

On a recent weekend I was thinking of taking my sons to downtown Istanbul to do some bazaar browsing. ‘Bad idea’,  a fellow expatriate warned me, ‘revolution on Taxim Square. Again.’ Revolt has become the new normal in Istanbul, a constant of urban life to be followed like the weather. Every few months the ritual

Sex and squalor in San Francisco

Frog Music begins with a crime against a young mother, committed in a tiny space. Unlike Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room, however, the setting is not present-day America but that of 1876. Blanche is travelling on a train with her new friend Jenny. She hears several loud cracks and feels something hot and wet fall