Lead book review

The riddle of Chapel Sands

At first glance, Laura Cumming’s memoir On Chapel Sands begins with what appears to be a happy ending. On an autumn evening in 1929, a small child is snatched from a Lincolnshire beach. Her name is Betty Elston and she is three years old. The girl’s mother, Veda, is happy to let Betty play on

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Binding love

In the spring of 1998, Rolling Stones fans in Germany were disappointed to hear that the band had been forced to cancel a string of gigs. Keith Richards, the ne plus ultra of rock’s wild men, had damaged a rib in a tumble from a ladder while trying to retrieve a book from one of

Ideas are history

Wallace Stevens called it ‘the necessary angel’. Ted Hughes thought it ‘the most essential bit of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings’. Coleridge described its role a little more vigorously: ‘The living Power and prime Agent of all human perception… a repetition in the finite mind of

Born to be wild

It was high time we had a proper look at the four beautiful, original Olivier sisters. Hitherto, with one exception, they have been seen in glimpses, playing marginal parts on the Bloomsbury stage after about 1910. The exception was the youngest, Noel, who all her life and since has been stuck with her invidious role

Mastering rocket science

Now that we are stupidly rendering Earth almost entirely uninhabitable by many species including our own (through overcrowding, failing political systems, chemical pollution and climate disorder), a few humans of means are looking forward to migrating soon to other planets, even though, as yet, there are no good hotels and restaurants there. Scientists, stimulated by

On a wing and a prayer | 27 June 2019

In 1979, despite the best efforts of scientists for more than a century, a butterfly called the British Large Blue became extinct. There is widespread concern about the more recent decline in butterfly populations, but the American ecologist Nick Haddad writes that the collective weight of the known populations of the five rarest butterflies he

A Kan-do attitude

The defining feature of Chinese millennials is not Instagram, avocado on toast or propertylessness. Born in the early years of China’s growth miracle, my generation idled away days on dusty village roads that would be paved as we grew up. Our adolescence coincided with the arrival of the smartphone; and now, with our jet-setting cosmopolitan

Return of the iceman

It is more than a generation since the appearance of Barry Lopez’s classic Arctic Dreams. That book’s effortless integration of history, anthropology and ecology, mediated through its author’s radiant prose, introduced a global audience to the frozen north. It freed the frigid ice world from much historical polar literature, conjuring instead landscapes of delicate beauty

Mothers meeting

Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set in the demi-monde of the New York vogue ball. This is an organised, charged battle of display, a peacocking, glitter-fuelled extravaganza, in which transvestites and transsexuals compete against each other for kudos and cash prizes. Eyelashes lengthen, hair is piled up for hours, dresses shimmer and heels clack,

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Death by water haunts the stories of Africans in Europe that flow through this fourth novel by Helon Habila. From the drowning of Milton’s swain Lycidas (a sort of tidal refrain for the book) to the capsized boat in the closing pages that offers victims in their hundreds to the ‘enraged leviathan’ of the sea,

Going bats

When it was recently announced that Robert Pattinson, who played the vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight films, had secured the role of Batman, a Twitter user wrote: ‘Worst vampire ever. Took him 11 years to turn into a bat.’ This is  probably Twitter’s second greatest bat joke, beaten only by @LRBbookshop’s ‘I reckon Nagel