New yorker

Joan Didion deserves better 

This book is an example of a regrettable new trend – the solipsistic biography. I mean lives of famous people written by unfamous people (usually women) who want to tell you a LOT about themselves. This one is about the writer Joan Didion by an academic called Evelyn McDonnell who never met Didion but believes that they had much in common. Here is her evidence. ‘She was born within one year of my mother; I was born within two years of her daughter. We are both native daughters of California. We lived in New York at the same time, though she was an Upper East Side celebrity and I was

Feeding frenzy: memories of a gourmand in Paris

‘Bald, overweight and gluttonous’ is how the American journalist and food writer A.J. Liebling described himself. Born in Manhattan in 1904, he wrote extensively about boxing and horse racing and was a war correspondent during the second world war, taking part in the Normandy landings in that capacity. He also recounted his gastronomic adventures in Paris before the war in Between Meals, a collection of essays largely derived from a four-part series, ‘Memoirs of a Feeder in France’, which ran in the New Yorker in 1959. The sign of a good restaurantmight be seeing two priests or two ‘sporting girls’ eating together As a gourmand (rather than a gourmet, a

The joylessness of Joan Didion

Gstaad   Joan Didion, who died last December, took herself extremely seriously. American writers tend to do that, especially those whose books are unreadable, the kind who win prizes and get reviewed by the Bagel Times. Pretension aside, however, Didion was a hell of a writer, a stylist who modelled her prose on Papa Hemingway’s. We never met, but I knew enough to stay away because of a joke I played on her. Didion was godmother to David Mortimer’s and Shelley Wanger’s daughter, a young lady I have never met. Shelley is an editor at Knopf, and is the daughter of that beautiful and elegant actress of the 1940s Joan

You’ll tire of the wackiness and the whimsy: The French Dispatch reviewed

The American filmmaker Wes Anderson has an apartment in Paris and has always yearned to make a French movie but also he has always yearned to make a film about the New Yorker, the magazine with subscribers all round the world, some of whom actually get round to reading it before binning it, and some of whom don’t. (She says, guiltily.) So The French Dispatch is, he has said, the ‘smooching’ of these two ideas, and it is, alas, a ‘smooch’ of a film. That is, not one thing or the other. I would further add it’s as if all the cast had been instructed to act wackily and off-kilter

The Literary Disco podcast made me want to throw my laptop at the wall

One of the stranger things that happened in the period just before lockdown was the sudden disappearance of audiences from TV and radio shows. Late-night hosts told jokes to silent rooms in front of a white background, dutifully pausing for a laugh that never came; panel shows were broadcast without so much as the sound of tumbleweed. Punchlines flopped, charisma evaporated. It was as if Earth’s comedians had been banished to some purgatorial realm, where they would be forced to tell jokes to no one as a form of penance. Comedy needs an audience. It’s not clear that the same is true of short stories. In Selected Shorts, well-known actors

From alpha to omega

Mary Norris’s book about her love affair with Greece and the Greek language starts with a terrific chapter about alphabets. That may sound like an oxymoron, but I was fascinated to learn why the Y and the Z come at the end of our alphabet. When the Romans were adapting the Greek alphabet, they ditched these letters because they didn’t need them. Later, when they started using Greek words, they wanted them back, so they tacked them on at the end. Equally, it’s nice to know how it comes about that, in England, we pronounce the letter Z as Zed — unlike in America, where Zed’s dead (and they say

High life | 4 October 2018

To London for much too brief a visit: a marriage, lunch with Commodore Tim Hoare, and a look-see for a house. Yes, I am returning to live in London, but under one condition. It’s called Corbyn, and if he comes in, I’ll stay away. It’s rather cowardly, I know, but I did live in London during the closed shops of the early 1970s. I experienced the joys of the three-day week, the uncollected rubbish, the hospitals without electricity, and the unions exercising power over the government until a certain Margaret Thatcher put a stop to it. I find it hard to understand how people can root for Labour when the

The pointlessness of banning Bannon | 4 September 2018

Under David Remnick’s editorship, the New Yorker has become stronger than ever during a period where many titles have collapsed. So you’d think he might be able to fend off the kind of nonsense he’s just experienced. The New Yorker has branched out to publish unmissable podcasts, regular emails, blogs and events which combine to push the magazine sales up 10pc. Remnick hasn’t torn it up and started again. He managed to keep everything the same, by changing everything: projecting and protecting the magazine’s identity, on and off the page. So when he decided to conduct an interview with Steve Bannon live on stage, as part of the New Yorker Festival, it was

Bring back Girl Power

The recent news of a Spice Girls reunion will, I suspect, be greeted by some former fans with nostalgic longing and others with an embarrassed cringe. But whether you’re a fan or foe, I think it’s worth remembering that golden decade of Girl Power — the 1990s — when it was bliss to be young and female. With our present preoccupation with the abuses of male power, we’ve forgotten about Girl Power. It was a fun-fuelled feminism for the mainstream; a materialistic and hedonistic celebration of female assertiveness, ambition and self-reliance. Girl Power was Thatcherism in sexy underwear. OK, so maybe Girl Power didn’t produce much in the way of

Miscellaneous Notebook

I have, for utterly explicable reasons, not been asked to guest-edit Radio 4’s Today this Christmas. Had I, though, I would have revived an idea first suggested, I think, by Tony Benn. Everyone loves the Shipping Forecast. But the weather forecast? That’s a different kettle of Michael Fish. The weather is rarely read, it’s emoted. ‘I’m sorry to say it’s been a rainy old day!’ Or, ‘Brrrr, bit of a frost, do wrap up!’ So why not replace emotion with detachment? First we carve up the country into meteorologically logical areas — since it’s Radio 4, let’s use Roman names — and then apply maritime thinking inland. ‘And here is the weather

Art and aspiration

When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone who’d once had dinner with the sister of a close friend of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist’. Having sent a tape of his songs over, he settled down to ‘write jokes for comedians. It seemed like a plan for life’. In a way it was. Though Gopnik has yet to hear back from Garfunkel, his oratorio about

Hit and miss | 24 August 2017

Truman Capote should have been called Truman Persons. His father, Archulus, abbreviated his first name and introduced himself as Arch Persons. ‘And that,’ scoffed his son, ‘sounded like a flock of bishops.’ The young scribbler was thrilled when his divorced mother married a rich Cuban, Joseph Capote, whose zippy and eccentric name he gladly adopted. He got a job at the New Yorker and found the magazine’s celebrated wits, including Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, were embittered molluscs who hated each other. Capote’s literary life, as related by Bob Kingdom, is a parade of inspired bitchiness. He had the knack of getting to a character’s core problem. For Gore Vidal

Hyped to death

Hand it to the Americans. They know how to hype a young talent to death. The latest to be asphyxiated by the literary establishment is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. He’s written six off-Broadway plays (one adapted from a script by Boucicault), and won a ton of awards and prize money. Most of the English ‘critics’, if one can call them that, have meekly regurgitated the American propaganda. Gloria, which was nominated for the Pulitzer, now arrives at Hampstead. The setting is a snobbish New York magazine, which is absolutely and emphatically not the New Yorker, according to Jacobs-Jenkins. (Before turning to drama, he worked at the New Yorker for three years.) We’re

Moments of absurdity

The bestselling humourist and New Yorker essayist David Sedaris is renowned for an almost hypnotic deadpan drollery and maybe especially for The Santaland Diaries, his uproarious account of earning part-time cash as a department store Christmas elf. Now he is bringing out an edited version of his personal diaries. It’s the first volume of two, taking us from his days as a broke student, stoner and young gay man in North Carolina and Chicago, through to the years of literary fame and success in New York and Paris as the new century dawns — a distinction worn lightly. Fans, semi-fans and non-fans (I am midway between the first two categories)

The fearful forties

In an early chapter of All Grown Up, the narrator Andrea says to her therapist: ‘Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me? I’m other things, too.’ ‘Tell me who you are, then,’ says the therapist. And so Andrea tells her that she’s a woman, a New Yorker, that she works in advertising as a designer, that she’s a daughter, a sister and an aunt. In her head, she adds: ‘I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.’ We meet Andrea when she’s 39, asking herself,

The Left’s great Russian conspiracy theory

The chattering classes have officially lost it. On both sides of the Atlantic. Of course they’d been teetering on the cliff edge of sanity for a while, following the bruising of their beloved EU by 17m angry Brits and Hillary’s loss to that orange muppet they thought no one except rednecks would vote for. But now they’ve gone over. They’re falling fast. They’re speeding away from the world of logic into a cesspit of conspiracy and fear. It’s tragic. Or hilarious. One or the other. Exhibit A: this week’s New Yorker. It’s mad. It captures wonderfully how the liberal-left has come to be polluted by the paranoid style of McCarthyist thinking

High life | 2 February 2017

When I saw an email from Lucy, the lady who has the unenviable task of editing my copy each week, I knew something was wrong. And sure enough it was. The bad news was that my first editor at my beloved Spectator had died. Forty years, gone in a jiffy. It was back in 1977, and I had gone to Turin to pick up a new car on my way to Paris. Back then one had to drive the first thousand miles slowly, while breaking in the engine. (Yes, I know: a bit like wearing spats and a monocle, but that’s how it was in those prehistoric days.) Driving a

Long life | 26 January 2017

I keep finding myself singing ‘Nellie the elephant’ who, packing her trunk and saying goodbye to the circus, went off ‘with a trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump’. I’m hoping against hope that Donald Trumpety-Trump will also say goodbye to the circus in Washington and return to the jungle whence he came; for irrespective of whatever he does in government, even if some of it proves to be beneficial, he is unworthy to be president. The president is not only the country’s chief executive and commander-in-chief; he is the symbol of national unity and the protector of the American constitution, and he has already failed in both these last two roles. His

Distant voices

One of the weirdest responses when someone close to you dies is the gradual realisation that now at last you know them fully. They become to you complete, rounded, fully themselves, in a way that just does not seem possible while they are still alive. It’s so frustrating. Just when you’re at last ready and able to talk to them in the way you’ve always wanted, in full knowledge of who they are, seeing clearly every aspect of their person, they are no longer present. Radio 4 has come up with a partial antidote to this aspect of death, loss, grief, and so too of life and living, with its

A touch of class | 31 December 2015

The New Yorker, not far off its centenary now, has moved beyond rivalry to a position of supremacy among American magazines. It has attained this not by taking a particular political position, although it certainly has one — it represents, obviously, a metro-politan, liberal, outward-facing attitude to the world. Rather, its pre-eminence is down to its valuing, above all, the quality of writing. Of course, aspects of the New Yorker have always irritated people. It possesses a somewhat supercilious quality — the one-page comic sketch, ‘Shouts and Murmurs’, invariably leaves me straight-faced, and sometimes even a bit depressed. I can never decide whether the restaurant reviews are meant to be