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The discreet charm of sewers

Public visits to the sewers of Vienna are rare: the clammy atmosphere can cause breathing problems. Nevertheless in 1994 I visited them with a local Graham Greene enthusiast, Brigitte Timmer- mann. Greene’s darkest entertainment, The Third Man, ends with a shoot-out in the Vienna sewers and the death of the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime. With

East and West — when the twain meet

As far as love affairs go, the relationship between British travel writers and Islam has been both intense and long-lasting. From Orientalists such as Richard Burton and Edward Lane installed à la turque in 19th-century Cairo and Damascus to Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter, Bruce Chatwin in Sudan, Colin Thubron in Syria, Jan Morris

A wheelbarrow full of surprises

The people in Rose Tremain’s brisk short stories tend to be hooked on highly symbolic artefacts. Thus the East German border guard of ‘The Beauty of the Dawn Shift’, cycling off to illusory salvation in Russia, takes with him a solitary lemon, ‘a precious possession’ turned up in an otherwise fruit-free grocery store. A middle-aged

Facts and fables of the New World

The Amazon can drive you mad. In Werner Herzog’s cult movie Aguirre: Wrath of God, Klaus Kinski affected a crazed stare that bordered on self-caricature. But the real-life explorer he portrayed was a first-class, unquestionable, copper-bottomed maniac, who systematically murdered his companions, as they drifted downriver in torrid, febrile paranoia in 1560. He recast himself

Blindfolds and mindmists

Without the existence of ‘apparently [my italics] sophisticated circles’, which the great historian and poet Robert Conquest also calls ‘an intellectually semi-educated class’ (soon abbreviated into just ‘cerebral jellies’) his latest book would never have been written. For its express purpose, he avers, is to tease ‘these misinformed strata’ — yet another description — into

The Times it is a-changin’

Because the Times is, or was, a newspaper like no other, it has enjoyed the distinction of successive volumes of official history. The last, written by John Grigg, covered the years 1966 to 1981, when the Times was bought by Rupert Murdoch. Volume seven, entitled ‘The Murdoch Years’, takes us up almost to the present

Cheeps, tweets and warbles

In his old age John Ruskin lamented, ‘I have made a great mistake. I have wasted my life with mineralogy, which has led to nothing. Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something worth doing.’ Here are two bird books which have been eminently worth doing. Both are

The very best of bad verse

In the mid-1930s, the poet Ogden Nash visited a rodeo, where the star attraction was a handsome cowboy parading with his wife and son. ‘This is Monty Montana,’ the announcer declared, ‘who is a great example to American young men and young women. He has never smoked a cigarette, he has never touched liquor.’ Nash’s

Books of the Year | 19 November 2005

A selection of the best and worst books of the year, chosen by some of our regular contributors Jonathan Sumption Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Allen Lane, £25) is a marvel of objective iconoclasm, much better than the associated TV series, which presents one of the world’s great liberal empires without

Surprising literary ventures | 19 November 2005

The Normal and Adventitious Danger Periods for Pulmonary Disease in Children (1913) by William Carlos Williams The great American modernist poet William Carlos Williams was also a full-time paediatrician. He received his MD in 1906 and practised continuously until 1951. The rare booklet above is among his small corpus of medical writings, appearing originally in