Lead book review

The joy of hanging out with artists

Lynn Barber is known as a distinguished journalist, but what she always wanted to do was hang out with artists. This book feels like a marvellous cocktail party, packed with the painters and sculptors Barber has interviewed over the years: Howard Hodgkin, Phyllida Barlow, Grayson Perry, Maggi Hambling. Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin eye one

The identical twins who captivated literary London

The dazzlingly beautiful identical twins Mamaine and Celia Paget were born in 1916 and brought up in rural Suffolk – not the greatest springboard, you would think, for lives at the intellectual heart of the mid-20th century. Yet the list of their friends reads like a roll call of literary notables: Dick Wyndham, Peter Quennell,

We must never lose the treasured Orkneys

When, last summer, a group of Orcadians declared they’d like to leave the UK and join Norway, it became clear just how little most of us in the south understand Orkney. Friends who know I go there often ask me where it is (somewhere near the Hebrides?), how many Orkney islands there are, and whether

In the grip of apocalypse angst

You have to love a book about the end of the world in which the first two references are to Saul Bellow’s Herzog and the HBO series The White Lotus, a high/low combo that preps us for authorial omniscience. In the next few paragraphs we get Marc Maron, Sally Rooney and Frank Kermode. Buckle up,

How country living changed the lives of three remarkable women writers

Very fine hot day. (Bank Holiday). Sound of band in Lewes from the Downs. Guns heard at intervals. Walked up the down at the back. Got plenty of mushrooms. Butterflies in quantities. Ladies Bedstraw, Roundheaded Rampion, Thyme, Marjoram. This isn’t what we expect from Virginia Woolf, known for her caustic investigations of friends and filigree

‘Enough to kill any man’: the trials of serving Queen Victoria

Monarchy was as characteristic of the 19th century as nationalism and revolution. The Almanach de Gotha was a better guide to power than the Communist Manifesto. Constitutional monarchy, in particular, was considered the panacea of the age. On the first morning of her reign, Queen Victoria announced: ‘I have promised to respect and love the

The tyranny of 1970s self-help gurus

As any book about the rise of that most nebulous idea ‘wellness’, should, James Riley’s Well Beings begins with Gwyneth Paltrow, purveyor of ‘This Smells Like My Vagina’ candles, ‘Metabolism-Boosting Super-powder’ and nostrums about mindfulness and ‘self-care’ – for which read self-indulgence. In 2019 Paltrow’s company Goop chartered a luxury liner for a ‘Goop at

Before the Blitz: the dynamism of British architecture

Gavin Stamp was a prolific and unusually level-headed architectural writer and historian. Less emotional than Ian Nairn, pithier and more immediate than Nikolaus Pevsner (he knew both men), Stamp wrote definitive books on grand and humble subjects. These ranged from his hero Edwin Lutyens, to brutalism, to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s scarlet telephone boxes of

A wealth of knowledge salvaged from shipwrecks

The flow of histories of the world, or parts of it, in a bundle of items never ceases, 12 years after Neil MacGregor presented world history through 100 objects from the British Museum. Many of these were of unknown provenance and therefore disconnected from their original context. By contrast, world history built around shipwrecks offers

Have we all become more paranoid since the pandemic?

As anyone who has ever been lucky enough to spend time in a psychiatric hospital knows, you don’t have to be completely mad to be there. A lot of us end up in the care of mental health professionals and jacked up on all sorts of crazy-person meds because something’s just not right: you know

The travails of Britain’s first Labour government

Once the working classes were allowed to vote it was inevitable that sooner or later they would elect a government which reflected their interests. That moment came with the appointment, in January 1924, of the first Labour government.    The circumstances could hardly have been less auspicious. There had been three general elections in as

The freedom fighters who dared to take on a communist superpower

In May 2020, as the planet grappled with the pandemic, China’s state media declared that there were ‘obvious deficiencies’ in Hong Kong law enforcement needing to be addressed. Any delusions this might have referred to intensifying police brutality in response to massive pro-democracy protests, let alone the unleashing of Triad thugs to attack participants, were