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French with tears

The civilised world has always needed a lingua franca, through which educated people of international outlook can communicate with each other. For centuries that language was Latin, first the language of theology, then of learning — Erasmus, Milton and Thomas More communicated with a wide community of scholars in Latin. Nowadays, the international language of

Malice in the Middle East

What does it take to shock a writer? At the beginning of his study on the shaping of the modern Middle East, the academic James Barr describes his eyes bulging at the sight of new evidence relating to the depths to which the French stooped when trying to outdo their British rivals. The document revealed

Something happens to everyone

Towards the end of Cressida Connolly’s novel, one of the characters says of another, ‘I dare say she didn’t see her life as completely uneventful. Something happens to everyone.’ You could, I suppose, argue that not a huge amount happens to anyone in My Former Heart — there are no multiple pile-ups, cyborg invasions or

Junk, day and night

Travelling the 400 miles from Glasgow to London recently, Theodore Dalrymple noticed that the roadside was littered with food and drink packaging, flapping in the wind like Buddhist prayer flags. Roads didn’t look like that in the boyhood of Dr Dalrymple (b. 1949). Nor are they like that on the Continent. Littering, he concludes, is

England from above

It is a shame that Sir Roy Strong is subjected to the now-obligatory drivel about his being a ‘national treasure’, because this unthinking cliché diminishes his contribution, over more than 50 years, to our cultural life, whether as a curator or, in later times, as a gardener. Sir Roy has also written a number of

Infuriating brilliance

A.L. Kennedy is a very remarkable writer. And her new novel — the first since Day won the Costa prize in 2007 — is a remarkable book. What is really extraordinary about it is that at one level it is a pretty trite love story with dark secrets to be revealed and lots of reflection

Golden corn

Sebastian Barry’s novels, I’m beginning to think, are a bit like that famous illusion of the two faces and a vase. Most of the time you’re reading them, they seem to be wrenchingly powerful and heartfelt depictions of suffering and grief. Yet, it doesn’t take much of a squint for them suddenly to look like

Kim Philby’s library

Kim Philby was the only man in history to have been made both an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and a Hero of the Soviet Union. After his defection to Moscow in 1963, aged 51, he admitted missing some friends, some condiments (Colman’s mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce) and English

Bookends | 6 August 2011

Of all the great cultural shifts of recent years, the rise to respectability of American comics may be the strangest. Once, Superman, Batperson and the like were just lowbrow trash for kids, but while some of us were looking in the opposite direction they acquired legendary status and became the cornerstones of Western civilisation. Now