Hilary mantel

My Negroni-soaked lunch with Laurence Olivier

Breakfast is my preferred meal, in case you’re interested. I broke my fast this week with my walking laser-light of a friend, William Shawcross, at Fischer’s in Marylebone, which serves an egg rosti to rival that of Café Sacher in Vienna. Fischer’s consists of a small entrance area, a bar to the left, and at the rear a faux Austrian dining room with wall-to-wall antlers (synthetic, but that’s how the strudel crumbles these days). The main room forms a St Helena to which second class patrons are exiled. Preferred clients, selected with unerring snobisme, are placed at the front. Novelising to Mantel was as solemn a business as trimming a

Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie are cut down to size

It is very possible that Peter Kemp is the best-read man in Britain. Certainly, as the Sunday Times’s chief literary critic for goodness knows how many years, he has read and opined upon more works of new fiction than most. His is either a dream job or an absolute nightmare, depending on how you feel about the state of the novel. A Sisphyean task? A Herculean labour? Or just a colossal waste of time? All those keen debuts, all that second-rate dross, all those egos demanding attention: Kemp has bravely buckled up, knuckled down and dutifully banged out 800-plus words, week in, week out, for longer than most of us

Trump tried to bribe my daughter-in-law

You have to give it to Donald Trump: he never stops trying. In a letter dated 25 September, he wrote to our daughter-in-law, who is an American citizen living in Britain (‘United Kingdom Englan’, it said on the envelope) to tell her he was giving her $1,700 under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act ‘which I proudly signed into law’. It is a pretty impressive bribe, and it pays out, I believe, to every American who earns less than $50,000 a year. In Hannah’s case, however, it might not work for the President at the coming poll. In the National Trust’s recent interim report, ‘Addressing our histories of

How to go clubbing without leaving your living room

To my surprise, what I miss most about life before the lockdown are parties. As others pine for restaurants and theatres, I am longing for sticky floors and 4 a.m. Ubers. Give me plastic cups and music so loud you feel it in your kidneys. Sylvia Plath wrote disparagingly of the ‘shrill tinsel gaiety of parties with no purpose’. It’s precisely that shrillness and pointlessness that I’m yearning for: drunk young bodies cramming together for no reason other than to be close to one another. At the weekend, my longing finally spilled over and I decided to make do online. I put on a nice top and loaded my lashes

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

Perhaps we are all communists now

‘I am a columnist for the Daily Telegraph,’ I began a text message to an NHS executive last week. Due to predictive text, the word ‘columnist’ was replaced by ‘communist’. Luckily, I spotted it just in time to delete. But perhaps the error was accurate. Some say we have all come to see the virtue of massive state control. Perhaps we are all communists now, even on the Daily Telegraph, accepting Jeremy Corbyn’s self-assessment that he has been proved right. For a heady moment, it might seem to be the case, but the more one ponders Mr Corbyn’s claim, the odder it sounds. He seems to think that the policies

The ugliness of zero-carbon

The government is trying to get onshore windfarms going again, defying the damage they do to unique environments. I am perplexed by how its zero-carbon policies can be reconciled with its wider economic aims of ‘levelling up’ or of fostering a beautiful environment. It is an odd fact that Greens can be extremely hostile to the natural world when it gets in their way. Announcing the above story, the BBC’s environment analyst, Roger Harrabin, informed listeners that the wind turbines could go on ‘empty moorland’ in Scotland and Ireland. Empty? A friend points out that such moors contain ‘snipe, golden plover, red grouse, merlin, pippits, skylarks, short-eared owls, wheatears, stonechat,

What have you changed your mind about? A Spectator Christmas survey

Grayson Perry In 1992 I created a graphic novel called Cycle of Violence. Reading it now, the initially striking thing is that it predicts the rise of cycling culture in the UK and a working-class boy called Bradley winning the Tour de France. But it mainly reflected the state of my mind at the time — it contained a lot of perverted sex, dysfunctional parenting and mercilessly mocked the process of psychotherapy. In 1992 our daughter Flo had just been born and my wife Philippa seemed to have read every parenting book under the sun. Our house was full of the jargon and ideas associated with psychotherapy. Words and phrases

The man who invented modernity Marcus Nevitt

The final moments of Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall see its central protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, trying to banish ghosts. Assailed by memories of his orchestration of the execution of his rival Thomas More, the sight of his head on a block, the ‘sickening sound of the axe on flesh’, Cromwell turns to two sources of solace to improve his mood: the welfare of his household and — oddly, but characteristically —admin. In order to give us a Cromwell who is so much more than an insanely ambitious judicial murderer, Mantel leaves her readers with her protagonist fretting over the future happiness of his recently married secretary Ralph Sadler at the

Thank goodness for Plug

Such was the perceived low standard of the 62 books recently submitted for the 2018 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, that the organisers withheld the award, saying that not a single title prompted the ‘unanimous, abundant laughter’ required. Like the lottery it rolls over to next year instead. Thank goodness then for the return of Francis Plug, sociopathic stalker of literary celebrities and creation of London-based New Zealander Paul Ewen. Plug first appeared as the unhinged narrator of 2014’s How to Be a Public Author, which skewered both the absurdity of the public aspect of a writerly life and the publishing industry at large, and was inhabited by real-life authors,

The Spectator’s notes | 20 July 2017

We went to the first night of the Proms last week. Thinking it was all over, we left the auditorium just before Igor Levit came back on for a delayed encore in which he played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (transcribed by Liszt) as an anti-Brexit gesture. We loved Levit’s earlier rendering of a Beethoven piano concerto, but were spared his political views, so it was a perfect evening. Two nights later, Daniel Barenboim took advantage of the Proms conductor’s podium to make an unscheduled speech in which he deplored ‘isolation tendencies’. All good Brexiteers deplore isolation tendencies, which is one of the reasons we don’t like a European Union with

Can these bones live?

BBC Radio 4  – The Reith lectures A few years back, before I began writing novels about the Tudors, my partner and I bought a new-build house in Surrey. We bought it off-plan, and watched it grow out of an open field. The site looked like a battlefield from the Great War. It was a churned-up wasteland filled with shattering noise, and if you visited it after working hours, you felt as if you had arrived in the middle of a temporary truce, and the ground beneath your feet was still shaking. There was a sea of mud in which stood pipes and half-built walls and shrouded piles of bricks,

Making history | 15 June 2017

‘History is not the past,’ says the writer Hilary Mantel in the first of her Reith Lectures on Radio 4 (produced by Jim Frank, Tuesday). ‘It’s the method we’ve evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.’ In Resurrection: The Art and Craft, her series of five talks, Mantel shows her mettle as a novelist (most notably of the award-winning Wolf Hall and its sequel) and as a historian, too, arguing the case for historical fiction, once much-maligned as a literary genre precisely because it twists the facts to create a narrative, usually of a highly romanticised flavour. But facts are not truths, Mantel asserts provocatively. ‘The moment we are

Diary – 1 June 2017

In such gorgeous weather the best part of Scotland to visit is not (as so many seem to think) the West Highlands but my native north-east. Moray, a region of whisky and white beaches, has long been the country’s best-kept secret, but it has become rather spoiled of late by its new status as a battleground seat. Plenty of its SNP supporters voted for Brexit, leading to a conflict of loyalties that seems to have been resolved in favour of the Tories. They almost won the council last month and if they take the constituency they’ll depose Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP in Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon is worried enough

Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down

Two 16-year-old schoolgirls from a sink estate in Bradford find fun and happiness by shacking up with a middle-aged married man — if you’ve never seen it, it sounds like the worst movie ever made. Yet Rita, Sue and Bob Too was a delight, one of the best British films of the 1980s, and this month it’s being rereleased in a new restoration by the BFI. I saw it when it first came out, in 1987, and fell head over heels in love with it. At last, here was a film about working-class life that wasn’t glum. Watching it again, 30 years on, it still feels just as fresh and

The puppet queen

It is easy to see why the bare century of the Tudor dynasty’s rule has drawn so much attention from contemporary women historians. Without breaking sweat, I can think of at least ten — four of whom garland this book with advance praise — who have written biographies or studies of the Welsh upstarts, leaving aside the acclaimed fictional efforts of Hilary Mantel. For of the six Tudor monarchs who steered England’s destinies through the tumultuous 16th century, three were female. The half-sisters Elizabeth and Mary — who both loom large in Nicola Tallis’s stunning debut — need no introduction, but the third, Lady Jane Grey, the subject of her

Words on the street

A white van pulls up outside St Giles in the Fields, an imposing 18th century church in central London, around the corner from Tottenham Court Road station, for a couple of hours every Saturday afternoon. St Giles is known as ‘The Poets’ Church’ because it has memorials to Andrew Marvell and George Chapman, but this humble van makes the nickname more fitting. It’s a library. To be homeless is to have no fixed address, which means you can’t borrow books from a public library — but it doesn’t mean you’ve no desire to read. Quaker Homeless Action set up this mobile library in 1999, making runs into London twice a

When novels kill

[audioplayer src=”http://feeds.soundcloud.com/stream/261189280-the-spectator-podcast-the-wrong-right.mp3″ title=”Emily Rhodes and Lara Prendergast discuss the danger of books” startat=1095] Listen [/audioplayer] Who can forget the terrible climax of Howards End, when Leonard Bast is killed by a deluge of books? Death by books holds a horrible irony for poor Bast, as he had thought they were his salvation, seeking to escape ‘the abyss’ of poverty by reading Ruskin in the evening and trying to impress the middle-class Schlegel sisters by listing his favourite titles. Try as he might, he can only fail, as E.M. Forster shows books to be extremely treacherous: they don’t save Leonard Bast, they kill him. The power of books is all too

Terry’s all gold

For once, the superlatives that have greeted Terry Wogan’s death from cancer have been entirely in keeping with the man. He did truly touch the lives of millions, understanding that the essence of radio, what makes it so individual among technologies, is the way it connects us, person to person, in a single moment of time. Wogan had the knack of making us believe that we were having a private conversation with him in that moment. In his own way he was also an artist, of language, of the music of words, of radio itself, constantly surprised by the strangeness of strangers, the oddities of everyday life, the idiocy that

Wolf Hall gets an American makeover

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall documents the rise of Thomas Cromwell, one of history’s most famous anti-heroes. Chronicling Henry VIII’s ill-fated marriage to Anne Boleyn, it is just one of many accounts of life in Tudor times under Henry VIII. However as well known as the story may be, Mr S hears that there are fears it could be lost on Americans when the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall transfers from the West End to Broadway next month. The New York Post reports that producers have made some changes to the play in an attempt to make it more palatable to American audiences. Due to fears that the Tudor tale would be lost on Americans, the play has been shortened to make