Graham greene

Life is a game of cards: Burning Angel and Other Stories, by Lawrence Osborne, reviewed

This compelling and unnerving collection of stories is Lawrence Osborne’s first, coming in the wake of recent critically acclaimed novels – including The Forgiven, adapted into a film – and earlier works of memoir, essays and travelogue. Born in England, currently residing in Bangkok, Osborne has earned comparisons with Graham Greene for his portraits of flawed white characters in foreign settings, and Patricia Highsmith, thanks to the menacing noir atmosphere. These nine stories, written over the past decade, do not disappoint. Osborne removes his protagonists – English or American, on the young side of middle age – from their native environments and transplants them into exotic, perilous locations. Divorced from

The Index of Prohibited Books makes a fine reading list

In a classic paradox of bureaucracy, the Index of Forbidden Books only really hit its stride when its original task became impossible. By the 17th century, Robin Vose relates in his new history of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – established 1559, venerated and cursed for four centuries as ‘the Index’ – it was broadly accepted that censoring literature, senso stricto, was no longer possible. The ubiquity of printers, the ease of transportation and concealment and the sheer number of new books all made most texts available, most of the time, to those with time and cash to spare. The Index of Forbidden Books couldn’t, practically speaking, forbid. In other words,

The novels that became instant classics

In the world of books, a modern classic is an altogether more slippery thing than a classic: it must walk a line between freshness and durability; reflect the current age but hope to outlast it. For individual publishers, given many 20th-century writers are still in copyright, a modern classics list will necessarily be partial. However, few such partial lists are as complete as Penguin Modern Classics (PMCs), founded in 1961 four years after Penguin’s general editor A.S.B. Glover said: ‘We don’t want — without outstandingly good reasons — to start any new series such as “Modern Classics”.’ The outstandingly good reasons were lots of outstandingly good books that weren’t old

From Middlemarch to Mickey Mouse: a short history of The Spectator’s books and arts pages

The old masters: how well they understood. John Betjeman’s architecture column ran for just over three years in the mid-1950s. Yet during that short run he experienced the moment that comes, sooner or later, to every regular writer in The Spectator’s arts pages. ‘It is maddening the way people corner one and make one discuss politics at the moment,’ he wrote on 23 November 1956, clearly as bored of the Suez crisis as the rest of us were, until recently, by Brexit: Because I write in this paper, people assume that I share its Editor’s views about Suez… But I don’t know what the views of this paper about Suez

Franco’s exhumation could help decide the Spanish election

I was no sooner in Madrid than General Franco was exhumed from his mausoleum not far from El Escorial. An air force helicopter ferried his remains from the Valley of the Fallen, where a gigantic stone cross marks the dictator’s grave as well as that of 34,000 Spanish Civil War dead. For four decades the dictator had lain beneath a 1.5 ton granite slab. No longer. As eight of his descendants shouldered the coffin to the helicopter, shouts went up of ‘Viva España! Viva Franco!’ from Falangist diehards behind a police cordon. Franco was reinterred the same day alongside his wife, Carmen Polo, in a family pantheon 20 miles away.

The way we were

‘The Spectator, having quite recently been a very bad magazine, is at present a very good one.’ Those gratifying words began a full-dress leading article in the Times on 22 September 1978, headed ‘On the Side of Liberty’. Its occasion was this magazine’s sesquicentenary, which we celebrated with a grand ball at the Lyceum Theatre, and much else besides. Although I can’t possibly be objective, I think that the praise was deserved. The revival of The Spectator 40 years ago was wonderful: it assured what had been the very insecure future of the paper, and it was the time of my life. Founded in 1828 by the Dundonian Robert Rintoul

The city of ugly love

Cuba’s gorgeous, crumbling capital has always been a testing ground for writers. That heady combination of revolution, cocktails, sex and unpainted mansions seems somehow to set literary pulses racing. Trollope, Hemingway and Graham Greene all described it with verve, but there’s also plenty of dross. The city certainly charmed me, and, a few years ago, I thought I’d add to the pulp with my own contribution. I started courting London’s Cubans, and even had the ambassador to lunch. But despite some intriguing gossip (e.g. that Che Guevara was no fun at parties, and utterly deadpan), I abandoned the whole idea. It seemed to me that Havana was about to change

Scarred by the past

In Indonesia in 1965–6 half a million communists and supposed communist sympathisers were murdered by a range of civilian and paramilitary organisations under the direction of the army. This is the setting for Louise Doughty’s grim, ambitious novel. John Harper is a young operative in Jakarta, working for a Dutch private intelligence operation, providing information for corporations and doing covert work for various governments, chiefly the American. The title refers to the polluted water of Jakarta’s canals, but also to the water of the country’s paddy fields. To the news-attentive reader there is also the echo of the Blackwater private security operation that got into trouble in Iraq.  Most of

Looking up an old friend

As far as I know, there’s no word in the English language for feeling both terrified and smug at the same time. That’s how I felt when I gave a recent talk to my old school, Westminster, from the pulpit in Westminster Abbey. The talk was about how guilty I felt at taking the Westminster Abbey for granted when I was a boy there in the 1980s — the abbey being the school chapel. I worked out that I’d been to the abbey 400 times when I was at school. Well, to be precise, that’s 400 minus the number of times I bunked abbey — which I began to do

The lives of the artists — and other mysteries

Benjamin Wood’s first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, was published in 2012, picked up good reviews, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize and has become a bestseller in France — a promising start to a literary career, in other words. Wood’s new novel The Ecliptic is both an attempt to consolidate the success of his debut and also a meditation, among other things, on how to sustain such a career over decades while producing original and important art. On an island off the coast of Istanbul lies Portmantle, a remote community for painters, writers and musicians. The settlement provides a respite from the burden

Michael Arditti is the Graham Greene of our time

Duncan Neville is an unlikely hero for a novel. Approaching 50, divorced and the butt of his teenage son Jamie’s utter contempt, Duncan is also the eloquent yet mild-mannered editor of the Francombe Mercury, a local newspaper on its last legs. Francombe too has seen better days, not least since its pier burnt down in 2013 (an event covered fulsomely in the Mercury). While Duncan negotiates a good take-over deal for Mercury staff and their pensions, he’s also trying to prevent the ruined pier from being developed into a sex theme park by his schoolboy nemesis Geoffrey Weedon. The fact that Duncan’s ex-wife Linda is married to Geoffrey’s brother doesn’t

My addiction to literary pilgrimage is akin to masturbation

The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one. In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quivering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows. Recognise it? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. First page. Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt and her mentoring mother take ground-floor rooms at a quiet beachside Antibes hotel. Rosemary wanders out and on to the aforementioned beach, takes off her bathing robe, wades into a ‘blue as laundry water’ sea, then ‘laid her face

The best children’s books of 2014

If it’s all right with you, I’d like to launch a campaign please. Right here. You may be wanting me to cut to the chase and just recommend some children’s books, but bear with me. I’m on the case. My campaign is to have pictures in books again. Adult books too, but obviously books for children. There are some wonderful illustrators out there, contemporary ones, for all ages, and the scandalous thing is, they are usually limited to the age range, 0–7. If you want to remind yourself what we’re missing, make for the House of Illustration in London’s King’s Cross; that should do it. Or try Chris Beetles’s annual,

Ten years and an earthquake: the changing face of Haiti

This summer, I returned to Haiti for the first time in ten years. I was itching to see how the Caribbean republic had changed after the terrible earthquake of 12 January 2010. This time, I would not be travelling by jitney, lorry or fishing boat, but in taxis and air-conditioned tourist coaches. Port-au-Prince, the capital, was as exhilarating and exhausting as I remembered it. The streets, thronged with pack animals and porters were a human ant heap. The smells I knew so well from earlier visits — sewage, burning rubbish — hit me forcefully and it was as though I had never been away. I made a bee-line for the Hotel Oloffson,

Was Graham Greene right about Shirley Temple? 

Shirley Temple, who died last week at the age of 85, was the most successful child film star in history. During the second half of the 1930s, a decade in which she made 23 films and earned $3 million before puberty, she was America’s most popular film star of any kind; Clark Gable came only a distant second. What was the secret of her enormous popularity? According to Temple’s own oft-repeated explanation, ‘People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl.’ This surely has truth in it, for the precocious, confident, sparkling little actress

Graham Greene, Penguin and an old spelling mistake – Spectator blogs

Mistakes will sometimes happen even in the best-run places. Pictured with this post, by way of proof, is a 1947 Penguin paperback of Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, with the author’s name misspelt on the spine. It’s still common to talk of ‘typographical errors’, or typos, but back in 1947 there really was such a thing: it meant a mistake made by compositors at the printer, rather than by editors or designers. Probably this was one; certainly that is what someone will have tried to tell Allen Lane. These days any mistakes are definitely our fault – in the case of the printed Spectator, indeed, they are usually my fault,

In a Greene shade | 26 May 2012

One of the unanticipated benefits of British rule in India is the body of distinguished writing in the English language coming from the Indian diaspora — Naipaul, Seth, Rushdie, Mistry, Mishra and Pico Iyer. Iyer, however, is atypical in that he was born in Oxford, lived in California, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. Thus he is less an Indian than a global author. He is coy about having been to Eton, which he does not name: it is the ‘high school near London’, ‘somewhere between the grey towns of Slough and Windsor’, which was founded by a king, has the oldest classroom in the world, and has provided

In a Greene shade

Some travel writers, in an attempt to simulate the hardship of Victorian journeys, like to impose artificial difficulties on themselves. A glut of memorably foolish yarns with titles like Hang-Gliding to Borneo or To Bognor on a Rhinoceros discredited the genre in the 1980s. In every case it would have been quicker for the authors to take the train. Why wind-surf across the Mojave when there’s a serviceable coach service? Tim Butcher, formerly a Telegraph war correspondent, is biased towards old- fashioned travellers in the Redmond O’Hanlon mould who, with their bushy side-whiskers and squire-naturalist curiosity, continue a tradition of Victorian exploration. His best-selling Africa adventure, Blood River, followed in