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Dark deeds on the District Line

In 1863, the London underworld was revolutionised — not the crime statistics, but the literal underworld, when the first underground railway opened, with trains running, unimaginably, beneath the surface of the earth. This was, as the Times had pointed out when plans were first mooted, as silly as thinking of machines that could fly through

Outposts of the imagination

This novel, translated from the Afrikaans by André Brink, was offered to me for review with an apologetic note advising me to abandon it at the first onset of boredom. Seven hundred and fifty dense pages later I can report that it is riveting throughout. Based on the first 50 years of Dutch settlement in

A failed kiss of life

For a writer or critic to describe something as ‘interesting’ is, of course, neither revealing nor interesting. Which is a shame, for Peter Ackroyd is rather fond of this sort of information underload: Richard II is ‘perhaps the most interesting and mysterious of English sovereigns’; the putative affair between Chaucer’s wife and John of Gaunt

A roving ambassador for culture

‘The pay was good, you had a nice house and you met some interesting people.’ Thus the late John F. Kennedy on the US presidency. Something of the same could be said of an overseas British Council career a generation ago, it would appear, from these engaging memoirs by Stephen Alexander who held a succession

A tale of suspense

This account of a public execution in Wales is a delightful book. Beautifully designed, it is by that rare bird, an academic who not only can write but also seems to have had in mind what the French historian meant, if I remember the quote, when he mourned, ‘My book is long because I have

A hiding to nothing

The story of Hitler’s last days in his bunker has been told and retold many times, perhaps most famously and certainly first by Hugh Trevor-Roper, an elegant writer and witty satirist but not really much of a historian. No doubt it will continue to be told again and again for many generations to come. The

Rock and soul

If you were a poet returning from war-ravaged Yugoslavia with a marriage on the rocks and credit-card companies after you, where would you go to get away from it all? Christopher Merrill’s choice, several times between 1998 and the millennium’s eve, was Mount Athos. The only women to have entered this thousand-year-old monastic republic in

A voracious collector

‘The only novelist now writing in English whose works are likely to stand as literary classics…who has the power, range, knowledge, and wisdom of a Tolstoy or James.’ Verdicts like this American one on John Fowles were a lot more common in the 1960s and 1970s than they have been since, and in the USA

Poets under surveillance

Without a doubt, Moscow Memoirs is an extraordinary book, one of those literary memoirs that comes along once a decade. Emma Gerstein, in her nineties when she published it, has shed completely new light on some of the most important poets and writers of the 20th century, providing previously unknown biographical details, some of which