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Bookends: Laughing by the book

Comedy is a serious business. The number of young people who seek to make a living making other people laugh seems to grow every year. Jonathan Lynn starts Comedy Rules (Faber & Faber, £14.99) by insisting that it is not a primer for would-be writers, but of course it is, and much more. Lynn was

Heroes of the Ice Age

In the early 20th century, explorers were goaded and galvanised by the blanks on the maps — the North and South Poles, and the mist-draped floes and glaciers around them. Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen set off with one prevailing purpose: to reach the extremities of the earth. Hardy, maniacal, even

The scandal that inspired La Dolce Vita

At about 5.15 p.m. on 9 April 1953, Wilma Montesi, a 21-year-old woman of no account, leaves the three-room apartment in a northern suburb of Rome that she shares with her father, a carpenter, and five other members of the family and never returns. Thirty-six hours later her body is found by the edge of

A well-told lie

Autobiography provides a sound foundation for a work mainly of fiction. A voyage in an ocean liner provides a sound framework of time and place. Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon in 1943 and migrated to Canada at the age of 19. The Cat’s Table is an entirely believable, warmly empathetic novel about an 11-year-old

The country of criticism

Karl Miller wrote a book called Doubles, exploring the duality of human nature, Jekyll and Hyde, and such like. Duality fascinates him. Another book was Cockburn’s Millennium, a study of the Scottish judge and autobiographer, an Edinburgh Reviewer, a figure so prominent in Edinburgh’s Golden Age that the society which sets out, not always successfully,

Low life and high style

In 1977, Roy Kerridge was a lavatory cleaner; in 1979 he was a well-known contributor to The Spectator. Yet this was no rags-to-riches discovery of a literary talent. Apart from anything else Kerridge had perfected a line in second-hand clothes — a short sheepskin coat, a brown Dunn’s suit, pastel shirts — that fitted his

Deeper into Mervyn Peake

The first two volumes of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy were published in 1946 and 1950, but by 1954, when I was first alerted to them by a school-friend, Peake had entered what his first biographer John Watney called ‘a doldrum period’. Overtaken by a wave of younger writers — Kingsley Amis, John Osborne et al

Delightfully not cricket

Even brilliantly accurate satirists can become boring unless they have something to say. That is the triumph of CrickiLeaks. Purporting to be a series of spoof Ashes diaries that reveal the innermost thoughts of famous English and Australian cricketers, CrickiLeaks doesn’t just superbly capture the players’ voices and vocabularies, it also makes them say surprising,

The short life of Tara Browne

I received a call from the Irish writer Paul Howard, who, as Ross O’Carro-Kelly (‘Rock’) has written a number of popular satires about Ross and the Celtic Tiger, a series now necessarily discontinued. Howard is presently embarked on a new project — a biography of Tara Browne, who famously ‘blew his mind out in a

What is it about Stieg Larsson?

Stieg Larsson was a rather unsuccessful left-wing Swedish journalist who lived off coffee, cigarettes, junk food and booze, and died aged 50 after climbing seven flights of stairs, having recently sold to a publisher the series of crime novels now called The Millennium Trilogy. It was originally called The Men Who Hate Women, and in