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In defence of the Jacobins

The French Revolution ushered in not only a revolution of rolling heads but of talking ones too. ‘Speech-making was a new political instrument,’ writes Eric Hazan. ‘The King of France never gave speeches and neither did his ministers.’ Indeed Louis XVI’s lack of eloquence, or more specifically his egregious line of sentimental claptrap, had fatal

Kafka goes to Dubai

‘X’ is in ‘the Situation’: Joseph O’Neill, author of the clever and superb Netherland, hereby lets us know that his new novel is a riff on Kafka’s The Castle. Kafka’s ‘K’ has become X, struggling for recognition by his lover, by his employer, by the world. The Situation is a residential block in Dubai (desert

In love with the lodger

Champion Hill, Camberwell, 1922. A mother and daughter, stripped of their menfolk by the Great War, struggle to make ends meet in their genteel villa. Servantless, Mrs Wray keeps up appearances while her daughter Frances confronts the reality of hands-and-knees housework. Reluctantly, they advertise for ‘paying guests’, and are rewarded with Leonard and Lilian Barber,

When boxing ruled the world

The early 1970s was a good time for heavyweight boxing. Indeed, it was probably the last truly great age for the sport. Flamboyant fighters contested brutal matches in exotic locations, from the Philippines to the Caribbean. The world watched open-mouthed. The marketing slogans attached to some of those fights remain instantly recognisable: who has not

The real Dad’s Army was no joke

Dad’s Army, the sitcom to end all sitcoms, portrayed the Home Guard as often doddery veterans. In one episode, Private Godfrey’s genteel sisters are seen to prepare their Regency cottage for the feared Hitler invasion. ‘The Germans are coming, Miss Godfrey,’ Lance Corporal Jones warns. ‘Yes I know, so many people to tea,’ she chirrups,

Peter Levi – poet, priest and life-enhancer

Hilaire Belloc was once being discussed on some television programme. One of the panellists was Peter Levi. The other critics expressed their doubts about the old boy. Levi leaned forward in his chair to say, with passionate intensity, ‘But Belloc is worth discussing… because he was… very nearly a poet.’ At the time, I thought

Like a Prayer

The heat in the day-room can put you to sleep there’s a man reciting the days of the week like a prayer he keeps his coat on, but he’s going nowhere the place is a circus of contradictions nurses anonymous as nuns push trays of benedictions in all colours and shapes; on the tongue they