Books podcast

The Book Club podcast: what do T.S. Eliot’s letters reveal?

In this week’s Book Club podcast, we’re talking about the life and loves of the greatest poet of the twentieth century. Professor John Haffenden joins me to discuss the impact of the opening of an archive of more than 1,000 of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale — his Harvard sweetheart and the woman who for fifteen years he believed to have been the love of his life. Was he really in love with her or, as he later claimed, simply imagining it? What does he mean when he says that marriage to Emily would have killed him as a poet? And what light does it shed on his poetry? John

The Book Club: James Ellroy on God, drugs and his mother’s murder

In this week’s Book Club podcast, I talk to the ‘demon dog’ of American letters, James Ellroy — whose latest book is This Storm. In a wide-ranging and somewhat NSFW conversation, we talk about misquoting Auden, why Ellroy hates Orson Welles, how he maps out the byzantine plots of his novels, why as a recovering addict he fills his books with pill-poppers and juice heads, why he thinks he’s the best crime writer living — and what his dad’s ’20-inch wang’ had to do with Rita Hayworth.

The Book Club podcast: the magic of children’s books

In this week’s Book Club podcast, my guest is the children’s writer Piers Torday, author of the Last Wild trilogy and, most recently, The Frozen Sea. Why is winter such a powerful thing in children’s writing? How come children’s books are such a booming publishing sector when so many people thought that screens would all but kill them off? Why do so many children’s writers have catastrophic personal lives? And how do the stories of today repurpose and live in the stories of the past?

The Book Club: Tom Holland on Christianity’s enduring influence

In this week’s Book Club, my guest is the historian Tom Holland, author of the new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The book, though as Tom remarks, you might not know it from the cover, is essentially a history of Christianity — and an account of the myriad ways, many of them invisible to us, that it has shaped and continues to shape Western culture. It’s a book and an argument that takes us from Ancient Babylon to Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room, draws in the Beatles and the Nazis, and orbits around two giant figures: St Paul and Nietzsche. Is there a single discernible, distinctive Christian way

The Book Club podcast: The Who’s Pete Townshend on his new novel

My guest in this week’s Book Club is the rock musician, writer and sometime Faber editor Pete Townshend. Pete has just published his first novel The Age of Anxiety, an ambitious work jointly conceived as an opera. We talk about madness and creativity, Who lyrics popping up in the fiction, how he settled on an Aristotelian plot, and the unusual way his psychic second wife sends him off to sleep.

Sam Leith

The Book Club podcast: a conversation with Clive James

Clive James is gone. What a great spirit, what a lively and curious mind, what an instinct for laughter we’ve lost. I had the chance to talk to him in 2017 at his home in Cambridge about poetry, fame, late style, discovering Browning, being silly and serious, watching box sets, facing the end, and why he wants to be buried back home in Australia. I found a Clive still curious, still engaged, and fiercely in love with life. If you didn’t hear it first time round – or if you did, and are feeling Clive’s loss – you can listen to our conversation here.

Spectator Book Club: who was the poet Laurie Lee?

I’m joined from beyond the grave on this week’s Spectator Book Club by the late Laurie Lee — to talk about Gloucestershire’s Slad Valley, the landscape that made him as a writer. Acting as medium, so to speak, is David Parker — whose 1990s interviews with Lee before his death provide the material for the new book Down In The Valley: A Writer’s Landscape — and who’s here to talk about the pleasures and difficulties of coaxing reminiscences out of this laureate of English rural life. Essential listening for anyone for whom Cider With Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning formed part of a literary education.

The Book Club: a literary history of 20th century Britain

In this week’s Spectator Book Club, my guest is Christopher Tugendhat, whose new book offers a refreshing and thought-provoking survey of twentieth-century history; not through wars and treaties and policies, but through the pages of the books from his extensive private library. In A History of Britain Through Books: 1900-1964, Christopher argues that we can get a special understanding the temper of a given time through the pivotal works of fiction and nonfiction that expressed it; books written without the historian’s hindsight. Here’s a survey of familiar landmarks — as well as texts that have fallen into undeserving (and sometimes deserving) obscurity.

The Books Podcast: the tragic self-destruction of the House of York

In this week’s Spectator Books, I’m talking to the award-winning historian Thomas Penn about his new book The Brothers York: An English Tragedy — in which he argues that the ‘Wars of the Roses’ weren’t determined by a struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster so much as by the catastrophic white-on-white conflict that cause the House of York to implode. He tells the story of three brothers — Edward IV; George, Duke of Clarence; and Richard III — and their extraordinary and ultimately disastrous relationship. How did Tudor history — including, of course, Shakespeare — distort the real story of those years? Who really drowned the Duke of Clarence in that butt of wine? And did

Spectator Books: Greek myths, reimagined

This week the Books Podcast leaves its dank burrow and hits the road. I travelled to the southern Peloponnese to catch up with the Orange-prize winning novelist Madeline Miller, where she was hosting a reading weekend at the Costa Navarino resort. Madeline’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, retold the Iliad from Patroclus’s point of view. Her second, Circe, takes on the great sorceress of the Odyssey. She talked about how — as a classicist as well as a novelist — she approached reworking these canonical stories; about taking liberties with Circe; and about how the ‘rape culture’ of Ancient Greece speaks to us in the age of #metoo.

Spectator Books: how fake news took over the world

My guest in this week’s Spectator Books is Peter Pomerantsev. Peter lived in Moscow for a decade as a TV producer, and chronicled the metastasis in that country of ‘post-truth politics’ in his bestselling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. His fascinating and dismaying new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, describes how Russia’s surreal new information politics turned out not to be a weird exception, but the harbinger of a worldwide phenomenon. In this new book, part travelogue, part reportage, part memoir, he travels from the Philippines to Ukraine, from Mexico to Beijing, to investigate how the internet — which we once thought would

Spectator Books: the sisters who founded modern China

In this week’s Spectator Books podcast my guest is Jung Chang — whose latest book is the gripping story of three sisters whose political differences put the Mitford even the Johnson clans in perspective. In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, Jung narrates the lives of the Soong Girls — one of whom was married to Chiang Kai-shek, another of whom became one of the richest women in the world and helped run Chiang’s government; and the other one of whom (the widow of the founding father of modern China, Sun Yatsen) threw her lot in with Chiang’s deadly enemy and eventual usurper, Mao Zedong. Every family has its little ups

Spectator Books: who was Susan Sontag?

My guest in this week’s books podcast is Benjamin Moser, author of an acclaimed new biography of one of America’s most celebrated (and controversial) intellectuals of the twentieth century: Sontag: Her Life. I asked Benjamin how he sorted fact from myth, about tracking down the inventor of that haircut, and about Annie Leibovitz’s take on their stormy love affair. Why could someone as brave as Sontag never come out? Did she have a sense of humour? And what of her will last?

Books Podcast: Israeli short stories with Etgar Keret

This week’s podcast features the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, talking about his new collection of short stories Fly Already. Topics on the agenda: how an Israel writer can address the Holocaust, why one of Etgar’s stories caused a dear friend of his to have to change his name, whether writing stories is a useful thing to do, whether smoking dope is a help or a hindrance to creativity, and why — alas — Brits so far don’t seem to ‘get’ Etgar’s sense of humour.

Spectator Books: Elif Shafak on life after death

My guest in this week’s podcast is the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, whose latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World has just been shortlisted alongside Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Elif talks to me about living in exile, writing in a second language, her relationship with Istanbul, and how the West’s culture war over ‘free speech’ looks to someone from a country where free speech can get you thrown in jail, or worse.

Spectator Books: what makes dictators vulnerable

This week’s books podcast was recorded live at a Spectator event in Central London. My guest is the distinguished historian Frank Dikötter, whose new book – expanding from his award-winning trilogy on Chairman Mao – considers the nature of tyranny. How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century looks at what unites and what divides the regimes of dictators from Mussolini to Mengistu. I asked him about how these dictators were able to exert control, and what made them vulnerable; about how communists differed (or didn’t) from fascists; about whether dictatorship in the age of the internet would be different from the 20th-century sort; about the

Spectator Books: the best and worst of Auden

Eighty years on from the start of the Second World War, my guest in this week’s podcast is Ian Sansom — who’s talking about ‘September 1, 1939’, the Auden poem that marked the beginning of that war. Ian’s new book is a ‘biography’ of the poem, and he talks about how it showcases all that is both best and worst in Auden’s work, how Auden first rewrote and then disowned it, and how Auden’s posthumous reputation has had some unlikely boosters in Richard Curtis and Osama Bin Laden.

Spectator Books: the struggles of the care system

My guest on this week’s Books Podcast is the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay. Lemn’s new memoir My Name Is Why describes his early life — given up for fostering in the late 1960s as the son of an unmarried Ethiopian mother — and his progress, when his foster family gave him up, through the care system and out the other side. It’s a powerfully affecting story, and Lemn joins me to fill in some of the gaps. How does he feel towards his foster parents now? Do the racism and institutional cruelty he experienced belong to a vanished age? And… what did Errol Brown need with an afro comb?

Spectator Books: Mick Herron on how to be a crap spy

The spy writer Mick Herron’s Slough House series of comic thrillers has steadily established him as perhaps the most influential author in the genre since Le Carre. The latest in the series, Joe Country, is out now — and we thought to celebrate its publication with another opportunity to listen to my conversation last year with Mick — when London Rules came out — about Slough House, slow horses and his unkillable, curry-stained antihero Jackson Lamb. Normal post-holiday service will be resumed next week with a box-fresh podcast featuring Lemn Sissay.

Spectator Books: books for the beach

Even books editors have to go on holiday sometimes, so Spectator Books is taking a hiatus for a couple of weeks. But so there’s not a gaping gap in your life where the podcast used to be, we’re bringing out some of our favourite episodes from our archive. This week, I am joined by the critic Alex Clark and Damian Barr — memoirist and host of the Savoy’s Literary Salon — to talk about summer reading. What do you take? What do you regret taking? Kindle, dead-tree or — 19th-century-style — cabin trunk full of books sent on ahead? Our discussion yielded a host of recommendations — from the brand