On the road with Danny Lyon

A Google search for ‘Danny Lyon’ produces more than eight million results in 0.30 seconds, yet the celebrated American photojournalist and filmmaker is little known in the UK. This superb, quixotic, bare-all memoir ought to change that. Starting in 1962, Lyon not only photographed the heroes of the US civil rights movement as staff photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced ‘snick’), but in a way was one of the heroes himself, risking jail, beatings and abuse. He’s had prizes galore and two solo shows at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2016 he had a major retrospective in San Francisco and at the Whitney; and also a

How ever did the inbred Habsburgs control their vast empire?

In 1960, Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Manuel Lucena Giraldo tell us, Lucian Freud went to the Goya Museum in Castres in search of a particular painting. He wanted to create portraits that were character studies and ‘not mere likenesses’, and Goya’s collective portrait ‘La Real Compañía de Filipinas’,a study in human nullity that represented ‘absolutely nothing’, was just what he was looking for. Fernández-Armesto explains: The work belongs in the tradition of what might be called Spanish ‘anti-portraiture’, from Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ to Goya’s own devastatingly candid royal family group, ‘Familia de Carlos IV’, moral as well as physical delineations of regal vacuity. King Ferdinand VII appears amid the company’s directors,

The problem with trying to resuscitate dying languages

Books about endangered languages tend to be laments, full of shocking statistics and portraits of impossibly frail, ancient last speakers in faraway places. Ross Perlin’s exuberant, radical book blasts that away, exploring, instead, New York, now ‘the most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world’, home to more than 700 languages (of approximately 7,000 on the planet), and a ‘last improbable refuge’ for many speakers of ‘embattled and endangered’ tongues. ‘Far from being confined to remote islands, towering mountains or impenetrable jungles, they are now right next door.’ So one block of flats in Brooklyn is a ‘vertical village’, home to 100 of the world’s 700 speakers of

Fast and furious: America Fantastica, by Tim O’Brien, reviewed

It’s been said again and again but rarely so plainly illustrated: American life is now too berserk for fiction to keep up. Tim O’Brien’s wild, rollercoaster satire America Fantastica is as wacky as its title suggests; but it can’t compete with the daily trainwreck that calls itself the land of the free and the home of the brave. O’Brien tracks with furious contempt the spread of a highly contagious illness: mythomania and delusional conspiracy theories infecting the body politic and poisoning a defenceless citizenry in the dark pre-Covid days of 2019. The name ‘Trump’ is never mentioned in the novel, but the ‘avalanche of oratorical whoppers’ issuing from the White

There’s no place like Roma

Roma is the latest film from Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity,Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and you’ll probably already have heard that it’s wonderful, a masterpiece, magnificent, Oscar-worthy. But as I know you won’t believe it until you hear it from me (sigh, the responsibility is too much sometimes) I can confirm all of the above. At this point I should note that many cinephiles have complained that it deserves to be seen at the cinema, on a full-sized screen with full-sized sound, but as it’s a Netflix film (sneer, sneer) most won’t be able to watch it this way. I did see it at the

Bags of charm and a gripping plot: Netflix’s The Chosen One reviewed

Some years ago, Mark Millar (the creator of Kick-Ass, Kingsman, etc.) hit on yet another brilliant conceit for one of his comic-book stories: a three-part series based on the premise that Bible-believing Christians are right, that the Antichrist walks among us and that only the second coming will save us – eventually – from the horrors depicted in Revelation. Since the late 1960s, screenwriters have tended to give the devil all the best tunes ‘I have nothing but happy memories of growing up as a Catholic, and I wanted to do a book about faith that was both intelligent and respectful,’ said Millar. ‘If we can do a thoughtful take

The ‘historic’ national dishes which turn out to be artful PR exercises

In 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the owner of a pizzeria on the edge of Naples’s Spanish Quarter, delivered three pizzas to Queen Margherita, including one of his own invention with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, their colours taken together resembling the Tricolore. The Italian queen loved the pizza, and Esposito duly named it after her. In that restaurant today hangs a document from the royal household, dated 1889, declaring the pizzas made by Esposito to be found excellent by the queen. And so was born the Pizza Margherita, a dish now synonymous with Naples. The queen’s seal of approval in the wake of Italian unification, which had proved difficult for Naples, came

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

Over the rainbow: D.H. Lawrence’s search for a new way of life

When it comes to biography, some authors draw the punters, and others leave the mob cold. D.H. Lawrence has been written about a lot, from the moment he died. At least ten memoirs were published in the five years after his death by authors ranging from his sister and his wife to patrons such as Mabel Dodge Luhan. More followed, and only professional Lawrence scholars will have read all of them. There must be dozens of them, and some, such as the Cambridge three-volume effort by different authors, are immensely long. By comparison, there are only a handful of full-scale lives of James Joyce, and poor old Arnold Bennett has

Playing devil’s advocate: a Mexican historian defends the Conquistadors

Many books claim to describe junctures that changed the world but few examine ones as consequential as Conquistadores: A New History. Hailed by the Romantics as courageous explorers, the Spanish conquerors are increasingly seen as violent and rapacious exploiters. That, says Fernando Cervantes, oversimplifies the complexities of the early modern period. Cervantes, a Mexican historian, places the conquest of the Americas in Spain’s political context. In 1492, at great cost to the royal purse, Spain recovered Andalucía from the Moors. So when a charismatic Genoese navigator proposed to sail southwest in search of a new trade route to Asia, Ferdinand and Isabella approved. Columbus’s voyage was the first step to

Roma is being celebrated for all the wrong reasons, writes Slavoj Žižek

My first viewing of Roma left me with a bitter taste: yes, the majority of critics are right in celebrating it as an instant classic, but I couldn’t get rid of the idea that this predominant perception is sustained by a terrifying, almost obscene, misreading, and that the movie is celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Roma is read as a tribute to Cleo, a maid from the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City working in the middle-class household of Sofia, her husband Antonio, their four young children, Sofia’s mother Teresa, and another maid, Adela. It take place in 1970, the time of large student protests and social unrest. As already

Everyone’s a victim

From the very first pages of Among the Lost, we’re engaged, and compromised. Estela and Epitafio are our main anchors, their experiences and relationship driving the story’s developments, but these magnetic central characters are people-traffickers and kidnappers, capable of startling violence and dehumanising cruelty. And truly, they’re very much in love. For most of the novel, Estela and Epitafio are apart, having left the jungle clearing where the book opens to drive their respective consignments of human cargo to their destinations. Theirs is a single story — what happens to one has consequences for the other — told along parallel tracks. Much time is spent fretting about getting a signal

Why won’t the BBC call ‘Mexico’s Corbyn’ a populist?

The career of the new President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (‘Amlo’), suggests he is a populist. He jumps from party to party and ends up founding his own. He advocates price ceilings for tortillas. Disputing his defeat in the presidential election of 2006, he proclaims himself ‘legitimate President’, wearing a presidential sash. Yet the BBC — with the honourable exception of Justin Webb on Today — avoids calling Amlo a populist, attributing the word only to his enemies (‘His critics call him a cheap populist’). This contrasts with its ready application of the word to Trump, Orban and Salvini. Amlo, of course, is left-wing, and the three just mentioned are

A self examined

In 2004 Mexican art historians made a sensational discovery in Frida Kahlo’s bathroom. Inside this space, sealed since the 1950s, was an enormous archive of documents, photographs and personal possessions. This hoard forms the basis of Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, an exhibition at the V&A. Oscar Wilde once remarked that ‘one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art’. Kahlo opted for both, and she didn’t stop there. Though she was a Marxist who numbered Trotsky among her many lovers, she also channelled the role of saint and martyr. She was neater than Francis Bacon, whose studio-floor detritus has also been subjected to zealous

The return of walls

What kind of a president would build a wall to keep out families dreaming of a better life? It’s a question that has been asked world over, especially after the outrage last week over migrant children at the American border. Donald Trump’s argument, one which his supporters agree with, is that the need to split parents from children at the border strengthens his case for a hardline immigration policy. Failure to patrol the border, he says, encourages tens of thousands to cross it illegally — with heartbreaking results. His opponents think he is guilty, and that his wall is a symbol of America closing in on itself. In fact, building

They shall not pass

Francisco Cantú’s mother is surprised when he announces he’s joining the Border Patrol and going to work in the Arizona desert. He has just received a college degree, studying international relations. His response to her bafflement — and concern — is that he wants to see the reality, what it’s like ‘in the field’. This will help him better understand the issues, so he can later use the power that this understanding gives him… for what? To attend law school? Become a policy maker? But first: to write this book. More than half of this memoir comprises brief, suggestive episodes from Cantú’s experience on the line, where he would eventually

A true original

Leonora Carrington was strikingly beautiful with ‘the personality of a headstrong and hypersensitive horse’ (according to her friend and patron Edward James); and she fled from her family, renouncing a life of privilege and ease to pursue her calling as an artist. Joanna Moorhead deplores the fact that she is ‘not much more than a footnote in art history’. But she has long been a legendary figure (among recent devotees, apparently, Madonna and Björk); in Mexico, where she lived and worked for most of her life, she is a national treasure; and for the feminist she is a heroine and her art ‘a modern woman’s codex’. She painted some marvellous

Wall eyed

Any impressively long wall is bound to cause us to recall the midfield dynamo and philosopher John Trewick. In 1978 Big Ron Atkinson took his bubble-permed West Bromwich Albion team to China on some sort of goodwill tour. The lads’ diplomacy evidently rested in their feet, for when Trewick was asked by the BBC crew documenting the tour what he thought of the Great Wall, he replied: ‘When you’ve seen one wall you’ve seen them all.’ Good try, John, but not quite accurate. He would, however, have been on the money had he alluded to the common state of mind among men who commission immense walls (paranoiac) and to the

Is Trump rowing back on his threat to make Mexico pay for the wall?

When Donald Trump began his run for the White House, he put building a wall with Mexico at the heart of his campaign. ‘I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words’, he cried after gliding down his golden escalator way back in June 2015. Mark his words indeed. For while the wall is still very much the backbone of his plans for government all the indications are that he will use a rather more prosaic form of funding to achieve it, using the standard Congressional appropriations procedures rather than a brazen cross-border raid. House Republicans have

Writing on the fly

Bogotá airport, immigration form in hand. Tourist, migrant, businessman? Andrés Neuman ponders the descriptors, unsure which to tick. He opts for the second. ‘I’d like to be a migrant.’ The decision is telling, and frames much of what follows in this curious, delightful, if disjointed book. Neuman is hot property in contemporary Latin American literary circles. A former winner of Spain’s prestigious Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize, he is tipped (by Roberto Bolaño, no less) to be one of a select ‘handful’ to take up where the ‘boom’ generation of Márquez, Cortázar, Fuentes and Borges left off. His widely acclaimed novel Traveller of the Century (his fourth book,