Lead book review

Is there anything safe left to eat?

The chapter headings alone are enough to induce a panic attack: ‘Disrepair – how modern diets harm brain health in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood’; ‘How ultra-processed food hacks our brains’; ‘How solving the last crisis in the food system caused the current one’. It’s not a new thing for books examining our food system

The attraction of freethinking humanism

One rather surprising fact emerges from a history of humanism: most humanists were nice people. This might, on the surface, appear a totally fatuous observation. There is not much value in debating whether, say, architects, chancellors of the exchequer, engineers, surgeons or gardeners have been obviously nice people, and we would roll our eyes if

The Spanish Civil War still dominates our perception of modern Spain

Nigel Townson’s history of modern Spain begins with disaster – or, more specifically, with the Disaster. When an ignominious defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American war lost the country its last major colonies, a crisis of confidence followed, and the ‘Generation of 1898’ set about trying to diagnose Spain’s problem. Since the scope of Townson’s book

The remarkable prescience of Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) produced what his biographer Hugh Brogan called ‘the greatest book ever written on the United States’. Among the most remarkable things about this work – Brogan was referring to the first volume of Democracy in America, not the more abstract second volume – is that Tocqueville’s journey to the United States

The biography Noël Coward deserves

‘In the prison of his days,’ W.H. Auden wrote, ‘teach the free man how to praise.’ Noël Coward’s last performance, possessing, like so much of his work, a scene-stealing quality, was in the 1969 film The Italian Job. He plays the gangster Mr Bridger, masterminding a gold robbery in Turin from his prison cell. In

Is this the end of travel writing?

Thirty years ago, in the days when friendships were sustained not by email but by air mail, a friend of mine was spending time in some exotic faraway place. He would send me beautiful, florid accounts of his travels and I would read out the most hilarious passages to the flatmates I was living with

What, if anything, unites Asia as a continent?

‘Asia is one’, wrote Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese art historian, at the start of his The Ideals of the East in 1901. Nile Green disagrees in this sparky and impressive book. There is no reason why ‘Buddhism, Confucianism or Shinto should be more intelligible to a “fellow Asian” from the Middle East or India than

The Cultural Revolution is still a part of China today

This year is the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. The spring festival began on 22 January, and in Chinese culture the rabbit represents the moon. Some say it is because the shadows in the moon resemble the animal, but it also reflects its characteristics. The rabbit’s quiet personality hides its confidence and strength: it is

Has Salman Rushdie become his own pastiche?

If there were ever a Spectator competition for the best pastiche of the opening words of a Salman Rushdie novel, a pretty good entry might be: ‘On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative

Here be dragons, dog-headed men and women growing on trees

I have to confess that this book sat on my desk for several months. The words ‘Harvard University Press’ cast a strange and unsettling spell which prevented me from even opening it. Let’s be honest: academic presses are not always synonymous with rollicking reads, nor indeed are academics. They can ask an awful lot of

Spare reviewed: Harry is completely disingenuous – or an idiot

A surprising number of royal personages have published books under their own names, and sometimes they have even been written by the purported authors. The first, I think, was the Eikon Basilike, published shortly after Charles I’s execution and presented as his account of himself and of events. The authorship of this highly effective piece

The imaginative energy of Katherine Mansfield

A hundred years ago, in a former Carmelite monastery 60 kilometres south of Paris, Katherine Mansfield ran up a flight of stairs to her bedroom and died of a haemorrhage.  She was 34 years old. She had known for five years that she had tuberculosis. After joining the spiritualist therapeutic community at Fontainebleau-Avon in October