Work, walk, meditate: Practice, by Rosalind Brown, reviewed

Practice is a short novel set in a ‘narrow room’: one day in the life of an Oxford undergraduate writing an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Annabel is trying to ‘perfect her routine, to get more out of each day’. She goes to bed early and rises at 6 a.m. She makes coffee like it’s a ritual and drinks it from the same small, brown mug. She has a plan. She will work, walk, do yoga, meditate, each at their allotted time. The restriction of the novel – a single day, a single character, discrete passages strung together like a sonnet sequence – lends itself to a delicate portrait of Annabel’s

Navalny’s final agony at the Polar Wolf gulag

One winter’s night before the Ukraine war, I was on a train that stopped at a remote station deep in the Russian arctic. It was late November. The mercury stood at 15 degrees below zero – the hard, dry frost of the far north. The train stood silent, wreathed in the coal smoke of the stoves that heated every carriage. The village’s name was Kharp. Though I did not know it at the time, Kharp is home to the FKU IK-3 penal colony, a Soviet-era arctic facility known as Polar Wolf where Alexei Navalny has just died. It was here that the Putin regime, with its rigid deafness to irony,

The pure joy of grandchildren

‘My grandchildren are my world,’ writes a woman on social media, summing up a certain type of grandparent. There are, however, two ways of looking at it and I see many whose worlds revolve around their grandchildren because they have no choice. I used to chat with them at the school gate. If their families were not strictly ‘the rural poor’, they were certainly of the group Theresa May described as ‘just about managing’: both parents had to work and grandparents took up the slack, unless they were still of working age, in which case arrangements were more haphazard. I see many whose worlds revolve around their grandchildren because they

Mystery in everyday objects

‘The surest and quickest way for us to arouse the sense of wonder is to stare unafraid at a single object.’ Cesare Pavese wrote those words in Dialogues with Leucò, one of two quotations that preface Lara Pawson’s deceptively slim third book, Spent Light. When her dog starts killing squirrels, Pawson cooks them, acquiringa Whitby Wild Cat skinning knife Pawson takes the Italian writer at his word, turning to a toaster for inspiration. The electrical appliance, which appears two pages in, is a gift from a neighbour, Reg, after his wife dies. Pawson uses it to launch a deeply empathetic piece of writing exploring the brutality of the world in

The new status symbol of the super rich: headlice

To help out friends, I sometimes collect a boy from his primary school near Sloane Square. This part of London boasts the most expensive homes in Britain and the local families are served by a crop of ultra-pricey schools. The best known, Hill House, was founded in the 1940s by an eccentric army officer, ‘the Colonel’, who replaced the traditional blazers, caps and ties with a uniform of soft shoes, breeches and cravats inspired by George Mallory’s climbing kit. The Colonel’s wife chose the colours – red, brown and saffron – and the pupils became a local landmark as they marched along the King’s Road to play games at the

The heady, hedonistic summer in which I became a life-long foreigner

Rome I have spent almost all my adult life as a foreigner. When I graduated from Oxford I faced a stark choice: work for a living or leave the country. As I did not wish ever to have to get up in the morning, toil in an office or travel on public transport, the path was clear. I moved to Budapest with the intention of opening a bar. I feature in three novels as, respectively, a poseur, a snob and a persistent but inept seducer It was the summer of 1993, and the newly free nations of central Europe had become an irresistible magnet for self-styled bohemians from across the

Grumpiness is a way of life

I used to be a terrible grump who would rant and rage against the 1,001 irritations of modern British life. And then one day I decided life was too short to be permanently enraged by everything and everyone.  ‘These kind people simply want to share their music with me! How thoughtful!’ For grumpy me, the sound of other people’s music in public spaces was agony. I’d seethe at the outrageous selfishness of such people. My quiet walks through the park would be shattered by the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM blast of music from a passing cyclist. And I’d shout: ‘Thanks for sharing your terrible taste in music!’   The new, cool me reacted differently.

The phoney mystics who fooled the West

In recent years when we’ve talked about the relations between India and the West, we’ve gone back to stressing the impossibility of interchange. A hundred years ago, E.M. Forster ended A Passage to India with the certainty that Aziz and Fielding could not be friends. Forster thought things would be different after Indian independence, but the spectres of cultural appropriation and the assertion of ongoing imperialist guilt have discouraged equal exchange.  Meher’s spiritual energy was soon devoted to persuading Hollywood to make a massive movie about his life That may explain why the excellent story Mick Brown tells in The Nirvana Express has hardly been covered in the past. How

What do Beethoven, D.H. Lawrence and George Best have in common?

This is not a book about tennis. Roger Federer appears early on, trailed by the obligatory question ‘When will he retire?’ He figures more prominently in the final 80 pages – still looking, despite the imminence of hanging up his racquet, as if he moves ‘within a different, more accommodating dimension of time’. There are cameos from some of the game’s other stars at various points on the way to the exit: the young Bjorn Borg (‘heir to some non-specific Scandinavian malaise’), the often crocked Andy Murray (‘a mumble-core Hamlet’) and the middle-aged, disgraced Boris Becker (afflicted by a ‘hitherto unseen condition called testicular elbow’). But the title is a

Don’t listen to Johann Hari to help your attention span

In 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche made a complaint about the modern world, writing in The Gay Science: Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives one a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news on the stock market; one lives as if one always ‘might miss out on something’. Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus rehearses this complaint. We fill our lives with distractions, he says, and have no time to think. He adds a few new problems, though they’re also pretty familiar: we are constantly on our phones; social media is bad for