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The composer and his phoenix

One of the most memorable images in the much-disputed film of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus shows Mozart retreating from an ugly family quarrel in Vienna. Leaving his demanding father and new wife to bicker, Mozart retreats into his room; with manuscript paper scattered across the billiard table, he knocks a few balls around and writes

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Most of this powerful book was written nearly 60 years ago. It was then rejected by two London publishers as too anti-Soviet in tone, and a few years later by two more as too anti-German. It consists of the war recollections of a Polish countess of notable ancestry and equally notable courage, who describes exactly

All gas and gaiters

It’s irrelevant, I know, but I can’t help wondering what it was like living with D. J. Taylor while he was writing this opus. It’s so steeped in Victoriana and (as Taylor acknowledges) in the fictional worlds of Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and co. and it’s so big that I picture him emerging into

All roots and branches

This book covers all the trees that now live or have ever lived: what they are, how they function, how they grow, their relation to environment, plants, animals, and the human species. It is full of curious information, traditional and recent: there are fascinating new developments in long-familiar stories, such as the part played by

Progressive up to a point

Henry Cockburn (1779-1854) was a Scots advocate, Solicitor-General in the reforming Whig government of 1832-41, later a judge, contributor to the Edinburgh Review and author of delightful, posthumously published memoirs and journals. A considerable figure in the Edinburgh of his time, he is commemorated in the Cockburn Association, one of the earliest conservation societies, founded

Coping with the Van Gogh syndrome

In the context of the visual arts, the notion of misunderstood genius is a comparatively recent one, and seems to be a by-product of Romanticism. In spite of such exceptions as Vermeer, whose current reputation stands so much higher than it did in his own day, in the main the Old Master canon remains startlingly

The Thirty Years Slaughter

Of the many obscure conflicts of the ancient world, the Pelo- ponnesian war is perhaps the least obscure to us, thanks to Thucydides’ carefully written, if unfinished, account of it. Despite the enormous influence it grew to have on the practice of history itself, Thucydides’ achievement did not prevent future historians from tackling the same

Change and decay

The prizewinning novelist Sarah Waters enjoys subverting our expectations, telling tales of the illicit, stripping away our veneers of polite respectability. In Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet she laid bare a Victorian world of lesbian love, titillating her readers with the scurrilous idea that women could have had a good time without those bewhiskered men

What should not be known

This elegantly argued, amusing and acute book has been put together, in the end, for a single overdue purpose: to piss all over Edward W. Said’s ludicrous 1978 polemical work, Orientalism. It may look, for most of the journey, like a scrupulous history of the academic study of Arabic cultures, and the steady growth in