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Rotten, vicious times

A.N. Wilson recalls the worst decade of  recent history and the death throes of Old England There was a distressing news story the other day about a man who did not declare his father’s death because he wanted, like a character in Gogol, to go on claiming his late parent’s benefits. The smell eventually alerted

The lady vanishes

The spy thriller is not the easiest genre for an author to choose. In the first place, it is haunted by the shade of John le Carré, past and present. Secondly, the end of the Cold War destroyed the comfortable framework that has underpinned the majority of espionage fiction for the last 40 years. Undeterred,

Man with a trade mission

About the second part of the title of Nigel Cliff’s excellent book there can be no argument. Vasco da Gama’s voyages do indeed remind one of those of Odysseus and Aeneas — in the range of adventures, mostly disastrous, which befell the tiny ships, and also in the iron will of their leader. His ruthless

Dangerous territory | 14 April 2012

Fifteen years ago Ahmed Rashid wrote an original, groundbreaking and wonderful book about the Taleban, a subject about which few people at the time knew or cared. Then along came 9/11 and Rashid turned overnight from obscure scribbler into global sage. He was courted (as he reminds us from time to time in this book)

An elusive father

In a large upstairs room of the YWCA building behind Tottenham Court Road, a group of actors were nervously waiting for the arrival of the director. There was the powerful whiff of a good cigar, the faint scent of expensive cologne and Orson Welles arrived. He had been in Paris cutting his film of Kafka’s

Ditching Brother Leader

The date that rebel leaders chose for the final assault on Tripoli was auspicious: 20 August 2011 coincided with the 20th day of Ramadan by the Muslim lunar calendar, the date on which Muslim forces led by the Prophet Muhammad conquered the holy city of Mecca for Islamic rule in AD 680. It was also

Serpents in suburbia

Barbara Pym was never just a cosy writer. She could be barbed and sour — and seriously, hilariously funny. Kate Saunders, in her introduction to Pym’s last novel, explains how ‘Rather to my surprise,’ Barbara Pym wrote to her friend Philip Larkin in 1971, ‘I have nearly finished the first draft of another novel about

The picture of health

It must have been hard to settle on a title for this book; but then this is not the book that Richard Cork originally had in mind.  In his introduction to The Healing Presence of Art he describes how he was approached to write on the contemporary role of art in hospitals, but in beginning

Spirit of Roedean

Ursula Graham Bower belonged to the last generation of those well-bred missy-sahibs who came out to India at the start of the cold-weather season in search of genteel adventure and a husband. But unbeknown both to herself and to those about her, the gawky, ‘well-covered’, Roedean-educated Miss Bower was of that stern stuff upon which

Far from close

In 1598, a certain Margaret Browne of Houndsditch gave a graphic description to the court of her neighbour Clement Underhill engaged in an adulterous act with her lover, as observed through a hole in the party wall. Some people have always been very interested in what the neighbours are up to; all of us can

Heroics and mock-heroics

‘Poets don’t count well,’ says Ian Duhig in his contribution to Jubilee Lines — an assertion unexpectedly confirmed by Carol Ann Duffy’s preface. Admittedly, if the book did contain one poem for every year since 1952, there’d be an annoyingly untidy 61. Even so, Duffy’s declaration that the Queen was crowned ‘on 2 June 1953,

A bit of slap and tickle

Hard on the heels of the ecstatically received London revival of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (currently playing at the Novello Theatre) comes this hilarious novel. It’s not easy to pull off farce on the printed page when so many of the laughs of the genre generally depend upon physical comedy. In Noises Off, for example,

Bookends: Disarming but disingenuous

At first glance, Be the Worst You Can Be (Booth-Clibborn Editions, £9.99) by Charles Saatchi (pictured above with his wife, Nigella Lawson) seems a rather distinguished book, with its gilt pages bound in what feels like genuine Gnomitex, and this impression persists until one begins to read it. The title page explains the format —