The joy of hanging out with artists

Lynn Barber is known as a distinguished journalist, but what she always wanted to do was hang out with artists. This book feels like a marvellous cocktail party, packed with the painters and sculptors Barber has interviewed over the years: Howard Hodgkin, Phyllida Barlow, Grayson Perry, Maggi Hambling. Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin eye one another warily from opposite sides of the room; Salvador Dali’s ocelot weaves between the guests; everyone, naturally, is smoking. Lucian Freud is a no-show – though having refused Barber’s many interview requests, he did send a scrawled note explaining he had no wish to ‘be shat upon by a stranger’. Feuds and gossip are the

There are three sides to every story

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who died last month aged 90, was perhaps most famous for his dictum that: ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.’ This is often known as the focusing illusion. The theory explains, say, why a recent Lottery winner with bad toothache may, in the moment, be little happier than a skint person with bad toothache, since in both cases their attention is focused on the pain, not their financial situation. When Trump rails about ‘fake news’, I suspect this resonates with voters much more than journalists actually realise It is an important bias to understand, not

A mother-daughter love story

In Splinters, the American novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison leaves behind the issue of her addiction and recovery – the subject of her previous memoir, The Recovering (2018) – and takes us through her pregnancy, experience of childbirth, marriage, divorce and post-separation dating life. Each stage of her journey is related with the author’s trademark love of the telling detail: On the postpartum ward my window ledge filled up with snacks from friends: graham crackers, cashews, cheddar cheese, coconut water, oranges with tiny green leaves. Someone hands her a form to fill out. ‘Did I want bone broth?’ We can assume she does, as bone broth appears later on. Much

The Spectator film critic who transformed cinema

‘Going to the pictures is nothing to be ashamed of,’ insisted the film writer Iris Barry in 1926. But it certainly wasn’t something to be proud of, either. To the cultural cognoscenti of the 1920s, Barry admitted, the cinema was barely an art at all – about as aesthetically significant as ‘passport photography’. And for much of polite society, seeing a film was done in secret, if at all. So it was a considerable boost for the fledgling medium when, 100 years ago, the word ‘cinema’ began to appear for the first time in this country above its own regular column, with its own dedicated critic, in the arts pages

Fun and games at the TLS

‘When everyone appears to be of one accord in thinking the right thing, go the other way.’ This was, broadly speaking, the maxim by which J.C. wrote his weekly N.B. column for the Times Literary Supplement, after inheriting it from David Sexton in 1997. Tonally different to the rest of the paper, N.B. under J.C. became a place where a contrary spirit found its expression in a series of ongoing, in-joking set pieces. From updates on the latest grammatical or linguistic dicta in the (mythical) TLS Reviewer’s Handbook, ‘perambulations’ among bookshops in search of forgotten or out-of-print works, and a set of satirical prizes, such as the Jean Paul Sartre

Read all about it: 12 of the best novels about journalism

A recently published novel, Becky by Sarah May, is the latest in a long tradition of fiction based on journalism – and a good excuse to think again about the great books from that sub-genre. May’s is a curious hybrid of the life story of News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks and a repurposing of Vanity Fair. George Cochrane, reviewing it for The Spectator, called Becky ‘a good novel dwarfed by a great one’.  He was referring to the Thackeray, but he might just as easily have been talking about another classic English novel: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. That comic masterpiece from 1938 is the book against which all other fictional evocations of journalists and journalism are judged

Jan Morris’s ‘national treasure’ status is misleading

Almost two years after the death of Jan Morris, the jaunty travel writer and pioneer of modern gender transition, her first post-humous biography has arrived. (I follow Paul Clements in using the feminine pronoun throughout.) It is lively and well written, but it’s not the finished product. It lacks access to the private papers of its subject and her wife Elizabeth. That extra layer of insight into a fascinating but elusive personality must doubtless await the authorised life by Sara Wheeler. In the meantime, Clements deserves plaudits. He has worked his personal knowledge and existing sources well. We learn more than before about Morris’s modest if comfortable upbringing, with Welshness

Fraser Nelson

Wanted: an assistant online editor for The Spectator

The Spectator is growing fast. In the last few years, our sales have doubled and are now over 100,000. Most of our readers now turn to our website regularly, some several times a day, for analysis of the day’s events. What started out as a blog has now become a seven-day live digital comment operation and we’re recruiting accordingly. We have come far with a three-person digital team. We’re now looking for a fourth, full-time assistant online editor (to work with us here in 22 Old Queen Street) and also experienced journalists who may be available for shift work, either in the office or remotely. This is a brand new position

A.N. Wilson has many regrets

‘Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.’ A.N. Wilson seems, on the surface, to have taken to heart the wise words of the Anglican general confession. Aged 71, he looks back on his life and career and records his regrets and failures both private and professional. His major concern is the failure of his marriage, at the age of 20, to Katherine Duncan-Jones, the Renaissance scholar. Katherine, ten years his senior, was a distinctive Oxford figure, recognisable by her sideways limp and for riding a wicker-basketed sit-up-and-beg bicycle. In later years they reconciled and met weekly for lunch. Wilson records Katherine’s sad, slow descent into dementia, which mimics

Do ‘ordinary Russians’ support the war?

There was a whiteboard in the BBC Baghdad bureau for noting down phrases we hoped to ban from the airwaves. It had nothing to do with political correctness or self-censorship. This was all about self-improvement. The list of words was titled ‘Not Martha Gellhorn’, in honour of the veteran war reporter who wrote so well – especially when compared with us. We were perfectly aware of our shortcomings, though, and strove to do better, with the whiteboard serving as an aide memoire. It helped keep the prose fresh when deadlines were hectic, and when the temptation was to reach for the cliché closest to hand. We were keen not to put

The price of courage: On Java Road, by Lawrence Osborne, reviewed

Lawrence Osborne’s novels are easy to admire. They tend to deal with characters trapped in morally questionable situations and their backdrops, from Macau to Greece, are often glamorous and exotic. Like any British novelist who deals with morality in foreign places, he gets compared with Graham Greene, but On Java Road, his sixth novel, owes much to Patricia Highsmith too. At its heart is a crime – the disappearance of a young woman in contemporary Hong Kong – but this, as much as anything, is a structural device on which to hang an examination of moral courage. What, Osborne asks, is required to protect democracy when doing so comes with

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

In praise of amateurs

Two weeks ago in St Moritz I ran into both Nicolas Niarchos and Nikolai von Bismarck, two talented young men and Old Harrovians whose parents are friends of mine. This week I was proud to read the former’s byline and to see the latter’s pictures from the warzone in Ukraine. Good on them, the Fourth Estate could do with talented amateurs rather than world-weary pros. But don’t get me wrong. By amateurs I mean those who write and photograph for the love of their craft, not because it’s their job. I’ve always insisted that the amateur is superior to the pro because he or she glories in the execution of

Mexico is no country for journalists

I’m writing this on my last day in Mexico City, having accompanied my 18-year-old daughter here for the first week of a six-month stay. She’s hoping to become fluent in Spanish before embarking on a degree in languages in September. My mission was to help her find a flat in a nice part of town and a job so she can support herself, and between us we just about managed it, thanks to the help of the local expat community. Mexico City reminded me of being in New York in the mid-1990s, where being British and having the modern-day equivalent of letters of introduction meant an entire social network opened

Why we still need the BBC

My first posting as a BBC foreign correspondent was Belgrade in the mid-1990s. Serbia was led by Slobodan Milosevic, practically the only Communist ruler in eastern Europe not to have been overthrown. He survived by reinventing himself as a nationalist, though he kept the Communists’ secret police. Our secretary was accosted one day by a couple of them, nasty-looking thugs in black leather jackets. ‘State Security,’ said one, pushing her into a doorway. They wanted her to inform on me. If she didn’t, they would see to it that her elderly father stopped getting his pension. She told them to get lost, a brave thing to do. To Serbian State

Anthony Holden is nostalgic for journalism’s good old bad old days

After a career spanning 50 years, 40 books and about a million parties, Anthony Holden has written a memoir. Based on a True Story is bookended by touching accounts of his childhood and old age. Born in 1947, Holden grew up in Southport. His adored grandfather, Ivan Sharpe, played football for England, winning gold at the 1912 Olympics. In later life he was a sports writer, and would take the young Holden to the press box at Liverpool or Everton, tasking him with noting down the game’s statistics. Holden dates his journalistic ambitions to the early thrill of ‘seeing my numbers in print in the very next day’s edition of

The stories that are too good to check

Last weekend, Rolling Stone ran a story about an interview an emergency room doctor had given to a local news station in which, according to the TV reporter, he’d said hospitals in his state were so swamped with patients who’d overdosed on ivermectin that gunshot victims were struggling to be seen. For context, ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug used for deworming horses that has been touted by vaccine sceptics as an effective prophylactic against Covid-19. For boosters of the Covid vaccines, this story was manna from heaven. Here were a bunch of hicks so dumb they were stuffing themselves with horse pills rather than getting jabbed, with predictably disastrous results.

A brief history of harlots

I write this as a follow-up to last week’s essay on muzzling after making whoopee. I’m on my way to Patmos, an island so difficult to get to, it has kept the great unwashed away. From now it is the only island I will grace with my presence, until the next time, that is. It was Kipling who quipped about journalists having ‘power without responsibility’. He then added the phrase ‘the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’, which was repeated by Stanley Baldwin, not Stanley Johnson. Comparing hacks to harlots is, of course, unfair to the girls. Some of them have risen to the highest offices in the past

How I missed the Matt Hancock story

I want to apologise: I have let myself down. I let others down too, and I’m sorry. Not because, Matt Hancock-style, I breached social distancing guidelines with a steamy office affair — but because I missed the scoop. I was sent a compromising picture of the then health secretary and his mistress almost a week before the Sun newspaper sensationally revealed their relationship — and I did not believe it was him. Having never knowingly undersold my ability to break big stories, this is embarrassing to say the least. Over the years, my scoops have led variously to the jailing of a cabinet minister (Chris Huhne); the resignation of the

What would ‘sensitivity readers’ have made of my student scoops?

‘Whatever you do, don’t call them snowflakes,’ Caroline said the last time I spoke to Oxford students. ‘That’s not a grown-up way of conducting a political debate. It’s like calling you a gammon.’ She’s right, of course, but by God they make it hard. This week we learned that the Oxford University students’ union is planning to elect a ‘consultancy’ of ‘sensitivity readers’ to scrutinise articles in student newspapers before publication to make sure they won’t offend anyone. If the union has its way, the editor of Cherwell, one of Oxford’s oldest student publications, won’t have final say over what’s published in the weekly paper. Once he’s signed off on