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One of the great Russians

The Priest Who was Never Baptisedby Nikolai Leskov, translated by James MuckleBramcote Press, 81 Rayneham Road, Ilkeston, Derbyshire, DE7 8RJ, £13.95, pp. 216, ISBN 1900405121 In 1936 Stalin walked out of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which for two years had been performing with great success in Moscow and Leningrad. He objected that it

A well-calculated risk

Sir John Keegan’s account of the origins and conduct of the war in Iraq is at once striking for its succinctness. In a comfortable but pacey afternoon and evening’s read we have the long cultural and historical background to the region’s instability, the course and legacy of the 1991 Gulf war, the diplomatic build-up to

A child of Qwertyuiop

Employed by Reuter’s in the early 1930s, the author’s father introduced him at six years old to a typewriter. The empty office that weekend was soon filled with ‘the noise of a he-man at work’. The damage done Patrick Skene Catling in that moment of parental lapse led to ‘a twisted psyche’, moods that ranged

A man of many names and faces

If you’ll excuse the pun, Paul Delany’s biography of the man commonly dubbed ‘the greatest British photographer’ brings one thing sharply into focus. For Bill Brandt was not, as it happens, British at all, but was born in 1904 to German parents of Russian extraction — a fact he denied vehemently all his adult life.

Blood at the root

If you were talking to a group of particle physicists and mentioned the word ‘fundamentalism’, they would assume that you were referring to Isaac Newton (who kept his belief in alchemy a well-guarded secret). To stem-cell researchers fundamentalism would mean going back to Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. Post-Darwinians wouldn’t pass the time

King of the charm offensive

There could scarcely be a more delightful way to remind oneself of the British and French statesmen who created the Entente Cordiale, signed on 8 April 1904, than to read this book. Ian Dunlop’s method of composition is unfashionable. It consists largely of the skilful selection of amusing passages from diplomatic memoirs and other works

At sea with oneself

The Voyage Home is the third book I’ve read about Africa recently. Like the others it captures and distills the unique texture and smell of Africa, the touching sense of being a decade or two out of time. Both The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, so wonderfully tender and funny, and

Home town blues

A preliminary riffle through this novel is not all that encouraging. Three pages of spoof Acknow- ledgments (‘some of them are dead; most of them are strangers; the famous are not friends’) range from Graham Swift to Jonathan Swift and from Stevie Wonder to Ralph Vaughan Williams. There is a spoof Preface and a spoof

A backward Nowhere

There are hundreds of references to Molvania on the Web, and one airline shows passengers a video about the place, but it is not on the maps. Michelin does not mention Molvania. However, this book locates it ‘north of Bulgaria and downwind of Chernobyl’. A new Mittel-Europa republic emergent, Slovakia-like, from the fall of the

The general and the particular

‘Gays are cowardly.’ ‘Capricorns are self-confident.’ Both prop- ositions are (pace astrologers) simply untrue or, as the author puts it, spurious. ‘Gays are more likely to get Aids than non-gays.’ There is plenty of evidence for this, although of course not all gays get Aids. So this is what the author calls a non-universal but

To and from Russia without love

My Ladybird book of The Story of Napoleon had two pages to illustrate 1812. Napoleon sits on a white horse and watches Moscow burn, torched by fleeing Russians. Then the Grande Armée retreats, a column winding into a blurry, white oblivion. ‘With the thermometer seventy degrees below freezing’, read the text, ‘few of those who