The making of a poet: Wilfred Owen’s ‘autobiography’ in letters

Here is the opening of a sonnet written by Wilfred Owen in the spring of 1911: ‘Three colours have I known the Deep to wear;/ ’Tis well today that Purple grandeurs gloom.’ Owen was 18 and had just been on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in Devon, where his hero John Keats had once stayed. The kindest thing to say about this poem is that it is heavy with the influence of Keats. Six years later, in a seaside hotel requisitioned by the army and waiting to be sent back to the Western Front, he begins a poem like this: ‘Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.’ This

How the Kindle lost its spark

With the recent news that Kindle and other e-readers are automatically updating Roald Dahl’s books to sanitised versions, an entire era has come to an end for readers like me. Who in future will feel safe buying an electronic copy of anything? Publishers’ plans here may be modest, but the point about the puritan is that their work is never done. Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, George Orwell, Charles Dickens – any one of them feels vulnerable now. If in copyright, the author and their estate can be strong-armed by the publishers; if out of copyright, laying your hands on the right edition will be a minefield. Nor does

The rewriting of Roald Dahl is an act of cultural vandalism

The vandals have come for Roald Dahl. His books for children are to be cleansed of their ‘offensive’ content. Sensitivity readers – what we used to call censors – have been employed to pore over his works and expurgate any word or passage that might hurt a kid’s feelings. If you weren’t worried about cancel culture before, surely this egregious assault on some of the best-known children’s books of the modern era, this posthumous purging of an author’s output, will change your mind. Dahl is being well and truly Ministry of Truthed. Puffin essentially tasked the sensitivity readers with morally improving his stories so that no child will ever feel

Is Russell Brand really so dangerous?

Once the dust has settled over the government’s mini-Budget, another big political battle looms: the Online Safety Bill. This is the legislation that will make Ofcom responsible for regulating the internet so Britain becomes ‘the safest place in the world to go online’ – at least, that’s how the last government tried to sell it. It was due to go the House of Lords for a second reading in July, but was put on hold because of the Tory leadership contest and I was hoping it would never be resuscitated. Liz Truss and her lieutenants are currently going through the last administration’s legislative programme, seeing what they can ditch to

Guston is treated with contempt: Philip Guston Now reviewed

Philip Guston is hard to dislike. The most damning critique levied against the canonical mid-century American painter is that he is too uncontroversial, his appeal too broad, his approach altogether too winsome. None of that stopped the team behind Philip Guston Now – a travelling mega-survey of his work, which will reach Tate Modern in 2023 – from announcing otherwise. In 2020, the year the show was due to open, the curators announced that in light of the ‘racial justice movement’, the artist’s works might now legitimately be read as racist, and the show could not go forward as planned. This was and is quite obviously nonsense. The works in

The closing of the Chinese mind

I was born in Nanjing five years after the Tiananmen Square protests. By then, records of the demonstrations and the Communist party’s brutal suppression had been scrubbed clean. So Tiananmen was not part of the national conversation when I was growing up. I only fully grasped what had happened when I visited Hong Kong in my early twenties (that would be harder now under the city’s new national security law). Tiananmen isn’t just absent from history books; the Chinese authorities keep an eye on literature and film, so anything that’s politically subversive is censored or driven underground and abroad. One film that fell victim to this regime is Lan Yu,

Fascinating exhibitions – clunky editorialising: Breaking the News at the British Library reviewed

In The Spectator office’s toilets there are framed front covers of the events that didn’t happen: Corbyn beats Boris; ‘Here’s Hillary’; Jeremy Hunt wins the Tory leadership contest. The British Library has something similar at its Breaking the News exhibition. The difference is that these ones actually made it to the newsstand. It’s enough to make any passing journalist break into a sweat. ‘Titanic sinks, no lives lost’, reported the Westminster Gazette in April 1912; ‘King Louis XVI dodges the guillotine’, we are told in the 1793 issue of the London Packet. The Sunday Times’s 1983 Hitler diaries hoax appears in this hall of infamy. So does ‘The Truth’, the

Sleepwalking into censorship: a reply to Nadine Dorries

In this week’s magazine I look at the threats posed by the so-called Online Safety Bill now making its way through the House of Commons. It gives sweeping censorship powers by creating a new category of speech that must be censored: ‘legal but harmful’. The government will ask social media companies to do the censoring – and threaten them if they do not. The idea is for the UK to fine them up to 10 per cent of global revenue (ie: billions) if they publish ‘harmful’ content – but harmful is not really defined. So censorship potential is wide open. Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, has suggested that the jokes of the

Are cancel-culture activists aware of their sinister bedfellows?

Is there a woke case to be made for freedom of expression? Jacob Mchangama certainly seems to think so. This 500-page door-stopper, which combines a history of free speech with a persuasive case for its defence, is aimed squarely at snowflakes and social justice warriors. Mchangama deals patiently and methodically with all the objections they might make to ‘the first freedom’ and then tries to convince them it’s in their interests to defend it. Take the assumption that untrammelled free speech perpetuates current inequalities, favouring the privileged and penalising the disadvantaged. That view often underpins the efforts of student activists to cancel controversial speakers, believing as they do that anyone

Boris is about to give Silicon Valley censors more power than ever

Four years in the making, the Online Safety Bill has now been sent to senior ministers for review — a process that allows them to protest, to shout if anything obvious that has been missed. In this case, the process is invaluable because something huge has been missed. The Bill, if passed, would empower the Silicon Valley firms it’s designed to suborn. It would formalise and usher in a new era of censorship of UK news — run from San Francisco. This Bill would backfire in a way that its Tory advocates have so far proven unable to understand let alone address. That’s why it needs to be halted, and a rethink

Kate Clanchy and the new censorship in publishing

‘There’s more than one way to burn a book’, wrote Ray Bradbury, in a coda to the 1979 edition of his anti-censorship classic, Fahrenheit 451. The case of Kate Clanchy, the Orwell Prize-winning author, currently rewriting her book after a particularly strange fit of identitarian pique, shows us just how true that is. The story of Clanchy’s sudden fall from grace in the publishing world is utterly mad, even by today’s standards. She is an author, poet and teacher. In 2019, she published Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a memoir reflecting on her time teaching in an Oxford comprehensive, to critical acclaim. But in the two years

Salman Rushdie’s self-importance is entirely forgivable

I have the habit, when reading a collection of essays, of not reading them in order. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. So, as it happened, I had read nearly all of Languages of Truth before I arrived at the second piece in the book, ‘Proteus’, and came across the Salman Rushdie I had been looking forward to: the worst Rushdie, the infuriating, humble-bragging, know-all, preposterous and tone-deaf Rushdie. Up until then I had been going through the book, pencilling marginal notes which were saying, essentially, ‘oh, this is rather good’, ‘excellent point’, or ‘very well put’. It was all getting a bit too chummy between Salman and

Lisa Keogh and the myth of campus censorship

The next time someone tells you campus censorship is a myth, made up by right-wing tabloids and leapt upon by a Tory government keen to wage a ‘culture war’ against the left, tell them to Google ‘Lisa Keogh’. Keogh is a 29-year-old law student at Abertay University in Dundee. She is currently being investigated by the university for the crime of saying that women have vaginas and men are stronger than women. For all the naysaying on the left, campus censorship is now apparently so extensive that stating widely accepted facts is a risky business. Campus censorship is now apparently so extensive that stating widely accepted facts is a risky

Covid has emboldened our modern censors

The past year has accelerated all kinds of trends that were already moving through our societies. Social atomisation, the decline of the high street and communities, the rise of the nanny state — Covid and lockdown have brought all of these to the fore. Among the most concerning is the rise of Big Tech censorship, and the way in which a handful of Silicon Valley oligarchs have come to set the terms of debate and even rule on what is true. This week representatives from Facebook and Twitter were brought before parliament to discuss their firms’ censorship of discussion around Covid. Two particularly pertinent cases were raised — though there

My fight to stop the Chinese censors sanitising Dante

My book on Dante Alighieri was due to come out in Chinese translation later this year, but first I had to consent to sizeable cuts. Even by the standards of other authoritarian states the Beijing censors struck me as overzealous. It seems odd that the medieval Italian poet could cause such unease among modern-day totalitarians. A sanitised Chinese communist version of my book did not sit well with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321, and in the end I withheld permission. The cuts were the work of Beijing’s blandly named Institute for World Religions. The institute undertakes ‘book cleansing’ operations on behalf of the state. No book can

‘Fairytale of New York’ is under attack

Truly great songs that are as emotionally powerful as ‘Fairytale of New York’ are very rare indeed. ‘Fairytale’ is a lyrical high-wire act of dizzying scope and potency, and it rightly takes its place as the greatest Christmas song ever written. It stands shoulder to shoulder with any great song, from any time, not just for its sheer audacity, or its deep empathy, but for its astonishing technical brilliance. One of the many reasons this song is so loved is that, beyond almost any other song I can think of, it speaks with such profound compassion to the marginalised and the dispossessed. With one of the greatest opening lines ever

Why AI will never write a great song

Two years ago, the songwriter Nick Cave told his fans that he’d speak to them directly — not through an interviewer. ‘This will be between you and me,’ he wrote. The letters he has received and the answers he has given are collected online in The Red Hand Files. Here is a selection of the best. Considering human imagination the last piece of wilderness, do you think AI will ever be able to write a good song?Peter, Ljubljana, Slovenia Dear Peter, In Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes that Artificial Intelligence, with its limitless potential and connectedness, will ultimately render many humans redundant

Was what I said on Facebook really ‘hate speech’?

Facebook has been accused of failing to combat extremism and hate-speech among its users. But as I found out this week, sometimes it does far too much to take down controversial opinions. Coffee House recently published an article by me with the headline ‘Michael Parkinson is right: men are funnier than women’. In the piece, I argued that men are more adapted to and adept at humour because they are less grounded in reality and more at home with incongruence. I said that because humour is often based on cruelty and schadenfreude it is also suited to the typically more aggressive male mindset. In short, I said that men and women were

How to fight back against ‘cancel culture’

‘Cancel culture’ is a horrible term because outside of a dictatorship nobody can actually be ‘canceled’ or otherwise ‘disappeared’. All that can happen is that people can be found to have trodden across one of the orthodoxies of the age. A small number of bullies then come for them. And a larger number of otherwise decent people then fail to stand up for them. It is this last part of the matter that is worth focusing on. It is the only part that is fixable. All ages have their orthodoxies. And if writers, artists, thinkers and comedians do not occasionally tread on them, then they are not doing their jobs.

Liam Fox falls foul of the climate change cult

A question has come to me from a test paper in the A-level for 21st century ethics. Read the following statement and explain what is wrong with it: ‘It’s important that we take climate issues seriously. Whether or not individuals accept the current scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, it is sensible for everyone to use finite resources in a responsible way.’ The correct answer, it turns out, is that the statement allows for the possibility that failing to accept the scientific consensus on climate change is somehow a legitimate position for an individual to hold, when of course it is not. The person making the statement should