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Sam Leith

Were we any better than the Nazis?

In July 1940, Hitler issued what Nicholson Baker calls ‘a final appeal to reason’. ‘The continuation of this war,’ he said in a speech, ‘will only end with the complete destruction of one of the two warring parties . . . I see no reason that should compel us to continue this war.’ ‘It’s too

A masterpiece of boyhood recalled

In his take on the Caledonian antisyzygy — that preference of Scots writers for the sweet/sour conjunction of incompatible ingredients — Hugh MacDiarmid declared himself ‘For harsh, positive masculinity, /The creative treatment of actuality, — /And to blazes with all the sweetie-wives /And colourful confectionery.’ Until his latest novel, you could have said that this

Wilful destruction of a world wonder

This is the ‘Compleat History of the Amazon’: everything you ever wanted to know about the biggest and most important environment left on earth, and it’s a rattling good yarn at the same time. The spread of subjects and themes is as wide and diverse as the geographical area itself. It ranges from ethical issues

Growing up in no man’s land

People who say, ‘Why don’t Asians try to integrate?’ ought to have known Yasmin Hai’s father. A Marxist Anglophile from Pakistan, Mr Hai imposed ‘true Englishness’ on his bewildered English-born children. He forbade them to speak Urdu. Western clothes were favoured instead of the traditional salwar kameezes and his girls’ beautiful ebony locks were cropped

More mayoral election fever

Once Upon a Time in the North is not to be confused with The Book of Dust, the big book which Philip Pullman has been promising for some time in interviews about His Dark Materials trilogy and what happens next. It is, instead, a short, elegant, simple story about what happened between two of his

A working-class villain

Leo McKinstry on Andrew Hosken’s biography of Ken Livingstone One of Margaret Thatcher’s more bizarre achievements during her premiership was to have transformed Ken Livingstone from municipal hate figure into popular folk hero. When she embarked on her campaign in the mid-Eighties to abolish the Greater London Council because of its perceived inefficiencies, Ken Livingtone, the

What we lost last summer

It’s startling to read about extremely recent news events in a book presented as a novel. In Born Yesterday, Gordon Burn uses the McCanns, the floods, the foiled terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, Blair’s farewell and Brown’s hello as the meat of his narrative. Although this isn’t a conventional novel, in that the narrator

Children of a genius

The subtitle is ‘The Erika and Klaus Mann Story’, and the shadow is that cast by their father, Thomas Mann, the greatest German novelist of the 20th century. Erika and Klaus were the oldest two of his six children, and, while it is fair to say they lived in his shadow, they were not obscured

Blood on their hands

The first 100 or so pages of this book almost made me give up, so saccharine is the description of the childhoods of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with even a reference to the latter’s ‘dear diary’. I am glad I persisted. Mills and Boon duly evolves into Kraft-Ebbing. Carole Seymour-Jones may assert that

Between deference and insolence

In reviewing this book about the social, political and intellectual indispensability of disrespect, I should perhaps declare an interest: I am several times disrespected in it. I hope the author will not conclude, if I fail to take my revenge on this occasion, that I am suffering from the wrong kind of niceness. All my