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August in Arizona

Helen Simpson is not a prolific writer; six slim collections of short stories in 25 years, each timed quinquennially with what seems, at least retrospectively, like impeccable forward planning. In fact, time, we shall see, is what her career so far has been about. She has also heroically resisted the pressure —and there must have

A stunning blend of simplicity and complexity

Reading Tintin when I was a child, in Britain in the 1970s, I always assumed Georges Remi’s creation was just a harmless bit of fun. However, when I went to Belgium I discovered, to my amazement, that over there they take him very seriously indeed (this year, a single Tintin picture sold for €2.5 million

Curiosities for Christmas

There is not, sadly, a dedicated Trivia Books section in your local Waterstones, although at this time of year there really should be. But what would we call it? Trivia sounds too trivial. Loo Books sounds too lavatorial. Books for the Man or Woman who Has Everything, Except this Book is probably closest, but might

The atheist delusion

Dan Rhodes apparently had trouble finding a publisher for this short novel, and it’s possible to envisage a certain amount of sorrowful head-shaking in legal departments at its theme. In the dead of winter, accompanied by his long-suffering ‘male secretary’ Smee, a ‘thrice-married evolutionary biologist’ named Richard Dawkins gets stranded in rural England while en


I am not ready for the temple but neither am I ready for the market. Leave me, I pray, a little longer amongst my icy candles that light my bitter lonely rooms. When spring comes (and the seasons follow no order) you’ll find me heading all queues of worldly bravery. Just give me a few

In the grip of yellow fever

In late Victorian south London a ‘lower-middle-class’ boy, Arthur Ward, is lingering over his copy of The Arabian Nights. The book falls open at a colour illustration of Scheherazade, mysteriously pictured with a white peacock. Twenty years later, she materialises as Kâramanèh, the dazzling female sidekick of Fu Manchu. Young Arthur, who by now had

Shock and awe in Coventry, 14 November 1940

On 14 November 1940, at seven in the evening, the Luftwaffe began to bomb Coventry. The skyline turned red like an eclipse of the sun as clouds of cinders, lit red by the blaze, floated down over the great West Midlands city. Coventry seemed to have been hit by a meteorite. The mile-high roar of

Samuel Palmer: from long-haired mystic to High Church Tory

In his youth, Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) painted like a Romantic poet. The moonlit field of ‘The Harvest Moon’ (1831–32) glows with uncanny significance; for Palmer, as for Tolstoy’s Lieven, the bowed forms of the peasants at the harvest are shadows of divinity. Palmer aged like a Romantic poet too. The long-haired mystic became a High

The deeper secrets of Britain’s submarines

The Silent Deep is a compelling and fascinating exposé of a service that for too long has had to remain in the shadows. Peter Hennessy and James Jinks are to be congratulated on producing what must be the definitive work on the Royal Naval Submarine Service from 1945 to the present day. In his inimitable