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Standing room only

The story of the Black Hole of Calcutta was once as familiar to schoolchildren as the battle of Hastings or the Gunpowder Plot. On 20 June 1756, after a fierce battle lasting several days, in which the British defensive force of 515 men had held out against an Indian army numbering tens of thousands, 146

The forecast is disaster

The oracle bones in Peter Hessler’s book were discovered in the 19th century, near Anyang in the North China Plain. They were the shoulder blades of oxen and deer and the carapaces of turtles. Archaeologists dated them to about 1300 BC in the Bronze Age. The bones had been used for divination. Questions in ancient

As per the American dream

If ever you need to rouse a vineyard owner from vinous slumber, creep up behind him and whisper ‘Parker’. He will leap to his feet, eyes blazing, either with $ signs or with aggrieved Gallic pride. For the name of Robert M. Parker Jr is charged with electricity throughout the world of wine. His is

Her own worst admirer

Audrey Ruston was born in Brussels in May 1929, of a Dutch baroness, Ella van Heemstra, and an English father, Joseph Ruston, some kind of toff, among whose distant ancestors was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Ruston soon abandoned his wife and daughter for a long lifetime

Finding the tools to finish the job

This massive study of Hitler’s war economy runs to half the length of War and Peace, partly for the reason that the author shares with Tolstoy the annoying habit of repeating himself frequently and at length. Although I suspect the book will be cited more often than read and perhaps more often read than understood,

A question of all hanging together

The Royal Academy has had the brilliant and brave idea of asking James Fenton to write its history. Fenton is not only a great poet, but also one of Britain’s most interesting writers on art. In his first collection Terminal Moraine (1972) he published a beautiful poem on the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and

The diary maid

With her poetry collection The World’s Wife (1999), Carol Ann Duffy provided a voice for the women that have been silenced in the course of history. Jane Harris has done something similar with The Observations, a bawdy tale narrated by Bessy Buckley, a (too) young Irish prostitute turned serving maid. Set somewhere dank and dour