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The frogman who failed

Ian Fleming pretended they were glamorous, John le Carré claimed they were brainy and unscrupulous. Commander Crabb, in real-life 1956, made Britain’s spies into the figures of fun they went on being until the Iraq fiasco showed they could be dangerous, too. He was the middle-aged chap, tripping over his flippers in a baggy wet-suit,

A century of riding high

When banking families fell out in Renaissance Florence, disputes tended not to be settled by the financial regulator. In April 1478 in Florence cathedral, members of the Pazzi family murdered Giuliano Medici and came close to killing Lorenzo the Magnificent himself. Several of the Pazzi conspirators were hanged and left to dangle from the windows

Downhill all the way?

Martin Meredith ended his 1984 book on Africa, The First Dance of Freedom, with a quote from a recent report by the Economic Commission for Africa which looked ahead to the continent’s future over the next 25 years. On existing trends, it predicted, poverty in rural areas would reach ‘unimaginable dimensions’, while the towns would

The last of the vintage wine

When Sybille Bedford was born, in Germany in 1911, it was into a world already vanishing: a world where ‘people were ruled by their servants’, lived in opulent houses (fully staffed by their rulers), ate heavy Edwardian-Germanic cuisine at very frequent intervals, took nothing so vulgar as holidays, but went south for their health, or

Great wheezes of the world

Coleridge was supposed to have been the last person ever to have read everything, and that was in 1834. So Peter Watson, a Cam- bridge archaeology don, is up against it when he tries to squeeze the history of all the clever things that mankind has ever thought into 822 pages. He makes a pretty

Majority rules OK?

It was the second world war Allies, according to John Dunn, who converted ‘democracy’ into a slogan. Their object was innocent enough. They wanted to identify themselves by a word which signified everything that the Axis powers were not. Yet a word that could embrace both Stalin’s Russia and Roosevelt’s United States must have seemed

The revenge of ‘the Thing’

What is the point of William Cobbett? Richard Ingrams claims that Cobbett was one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived, yet his life is largely forgotten. He is remembered, if he is known at all, as the author of Rural Rides, a classic account of his travels around the English countryside in the 1820s.