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Patti Smith had a bad year in 2016

In the Chinese zodiac, 2016 was the year of the monkey, a trickster year full of the unhappy and the unexpected for Patti Smith. It starts badly at New Year: ‘Some guy with a greasy ponytail leaned over and puked on my boots.’ Then it gets worse, private tragedies and political shocks drawing Smith into

Betrayal in Berlin – a small but important part of the Cold War story

The Berlin Tunnel was an Anglo-American eavesdropping operation mounted against Russian-controlled East Berlin in 1955–56.  It was a technical and engineering triumph which yielded a vast hoard of intelligence and, crucially, guaranteed early warning of any surprise Russian attack (as was mooted by the Russian military). Yet it was betrayed to the Russians by the

Gilgamesh, Michael Schmidt’s ‘life’ of a poem

In the mid-19th century, around lunchtime, a pale young man with an enormous beard could be seen in the British Museum reading room poring over piles of books about Mesopotamia. His name was George Smith, and this was his secret passion. Then, one day, a museum attendant remarked that it was a shame no one

Living on a nuclear submarine does your head in

Richard Humphreys spent a good part of five years, between the ages of 18 and 23, living inside a nuclear submarine, which he describes variously as ‘sleek, black and athletic looking’, and ‘this fierce black messenger of death’, and ‘this huge, black leviathan’, and ‘a killing machine’, and ‘silent as death’. The first time he

A work of art in more ways than one

Neil Hegarty’s new novel, The Jewel, is a mass of contradictions. It’s about an art heist, but it’s not fun. It’s a love story,  but it’s not romantic. And it features a woman’s wasted life, but it’s not without salvation. The overarching plot follows three characters. John, a ‘seedy’ artist-cum-art-forger-cum-art-thief, has been commissioned to steal