Lead book review

The greatest journeys ever made

Many believed in Australia for 1,000 years before its discovery. There had to be a commensurate weight — somewhere Down Under — to counter the northern land mass; an ‘unknown Southland’ which was crucial to maintaining the balance of the world. To confuse matters, this theoretical continent was dubbed for a while Austrialia del Espiritu

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The eternal visionary

On 3 September 1968, Allen Ginsberg appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Buckley exposed Ginsberg’s politics as fatuous — the blarney, stoned — but Ginsberg stole the aesthetic victory by reading ‘Wales Visitation’, a homage to William Blake. ‘White fog lifting and falling on mountain brow,’ Ginsberg intones, ‘…teeming ferns/ exquisitely swayed/ along a

Reconsider Phlebas

So the Phoenicians never existed. Herodotus, that unreliable old fibber, made it all up in the Histories. Is this really what Josephine Quinn is saying, or is it just a cunning ruse to stir up a fuss and infuriate the dwindling band of Herodoteans out there? Because Quinn, a professor of ancient history at Oxford

A brutal race

More than 25 years ago, Peter Carey co-wrote one of the most audacious road movies ever made, Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World, which circles the globe before concluding with a long interlude in the Australian outback. While the film was in the mode of speculative science fiction and Carey’s captivating A Long

Dangerous living

Here come three novels marketed as debuts but written by authors with some sort of previous, be it in short stories, journalism, theatre, television or a combination of the above. The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee (Granta, £12.99) takes a fable and transplants it into real life — in this case bourgeois

The germ of a revolutionary idea

Every operation starts the same way. Chlorhexidine scrubbed under nails, lathered over wet hands, palm-to-palm, fingers interlaced, thumbs, wrists, forearms. A soothing routine accompanied by the sound of water hitting a steel trough sink. Washing is an act of safety but also humility. It acknowledges a doctor’s capacity to cause disease as well as cure

Father of the nation

Franklin D. Roosevelt isn’t as popular as he once was. When Barack Obama won the 2008 election, he let it be known that he was reading a book about FDR, and tumbleweed blew through the newsrooms. Which is odd because for many decades FDR was every bit the model liberal as Ronald Reagan was the

A girl with green eyes

I loved a man. But our affair was nasty, brutish and short. Copious weeping was my un-tart retort. All that’s left of him is a stained T-shirt. I must rid my mind of him now. That’s long overdue. But how? These three books seem to present three answers. I’ve been wonkily underlining whole paragraphs and

Sunlit days and starry nights

In 1990, the BBC’s adaptation of David Lodge’s culture-clash novel Nice Work won an award at a glitzy soirée in London. At the same time, his debut stage play The Writing Game opened at the Birmingham Rep. Malcolm Bradbury, his old friend and partner on the twin tracks of literary academia and serio-comic fiction, had

Cannon law

Many and various are the things one finds in Kentish pubs (I’m told); but few could top the sepoy’s skull discovered at The Lord Clyde, Walmer, complete with brief biography: Skull of havildar ‘Alum Bheg’, 46th Regt. Bengal N. Infantry… blown away from a gun. From this grisly starting point, Kim Wagner, lecturer in British

Short and sharp

Like A Fiery Elephant, my biography of the experimental novelist B.S. Johnson, contains one particularly careless sentence: the one where I described Johnson as ‘Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s’. It was a silly thing to write, partly because it wasn’t true, but also because it was easily the most quotable line in the