Review – Invisible Romans, by Robert Knapp

It’s tempting to reduce the Roman Empire to a roll call of famous men and their infamous deeds. The Republic toppled with Caesar on the steps of the senate; freedom of speech was curtailed as brutally as Cicero’s tongue; democracy became an act on Octavian assuming his stage name. However Robert Knapp, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, isn’t interested in that version of history. Like Mary Beard, who pottered around Rome deciphering inscriptions for the BBC, he’s concerned with ordinary folk. His Invisible Romans range ‘from fairly wealthy to modestly well-off and downright poor, male and female, slave and free, law-abiding and outlaw’. Between the super wealthy (the

Interview with a writer: Jared Diamond

In his latest book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond analyses the behavioral differences between human beings in tribal stateless-societies and those living in bureaucratic nation states. Diamond says that if states only came into existence 5,400 years ago, and agriculture in the last 11,000, human beings have been wandering nomads for most of history. Therefore, if modern nations are relatively new concepts, we have much to learn from traditional cultures. Drawing on his experience of 50 years of field research in New Guinea, Diamond attempts to prove his thesis with a mixture of personal anecdotes and academic research. He claims the way people in traditional societies raise their children, spend their leisure

The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock

For the last 40 years it’s been impossible to interview Anthony Hopkins without him doing his Tommy Cooper impression. He’s obsessed with the bloke, constantly interrupting Silence of the Lambs anecdotes to do Cooper’s chuckle and hand flicking and patter. He was, therefore, the absolutely perfect choice to play Alfred Hitchcock. Actually, the new film’s not that bad. It tells a good yarn about the director’s wife Alma rescuing both him and Psycho, not to mention the 800 grand of their own money they’d sunk into the movie. The other actors are so good that most of the time you can almost forget Anthony Hopkins is wandering around in the

Roy Lichtenstein: comic genius?

Tate Modern promises that its forthcoming retrospective will showcase ‘the full scope of Roy Lichtenstein’s artistic explorations’, to which Spectator art critic Andrew Lambirth responded acidly: ‘I look forward to being pleasantly surprised.’ And it’s true that once Lichtenstein perfected his dot patterning technique in the mid-Sixties, he stuck with it until his death more than 30 years later. Alastair Sooke’s How Modern Art Was Saved By Donald Duck is available as a Penguin Specials paperback from Tate Modern; elsewhere, it’s in eBook format only. It won’t convince any sceptics of Lichtenstein’s infinite versatility, but it does make a case for him as a supreme examiner of style. ‘Perfected’ is

An unwanted relation

In June 1981, the United States’ Centers  for Disease Control noted in its weekly report that five ‘previously healthy’ young men in Los Angeles had been treated for pneumonia. Two of them had died. On the other side of the country lived soon-to-be third grader Marco Roth, the son of a doctor and musician. Receiving an ‘experiment in nineteenth-century “middle-class” European education’, he was surrounded by classical concerts, classic literature and medicine in Manhattan. Oblivious to the fact that that summer’s bulletin included some of the first officially recognized deaths brought about by the AIDS epidemic, Roth was also unaware that his own father had been infected by the HIV

Interview with a writer: John Gray

In his new book The Silence of Animals, the philosopher John Gray explores why human beings continue to use myth to give purpose to their lives. Drawing from the material of writers such as J.G. Ballard, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and others, Gray looks at how we can reinvent meaning in our lives through a variety of myths and different moments in history. Gray refutes that humanity is marching forward to progress, where utopian ideals of civilisation and enlightenment are the end goals. He sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them

Doing it the French way

‘Where have all the great French writers gone?’ the people cry. Or at least they would if anyone was interested in French books. Translated literature claims just 3 per cent of the UK literary market. This number, according to The Economist, is the lowest in the Western world. It is a sign of Britain’s often parochial literary culture, made even more glaring by statistics from France. The French translate a great deal; indeed, according to The New Yorker, many foreign books come to us in English by way of France. Do these facts imply that France is more outward looking? Is French culture being consumed by the American-led Anglosphere? Or

The battle for credibility: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Hilary Mantel edition

Why can’t politicians resist the temptation to comment? Hilary Mantel’s piece in the LRB is about as political as the pasta I was eating when David Cameron stopped darkening Indian doors for a moment to make what political strategists and pundits term “an intervention” on the matter. What possessed him (and Ed Miliband, who followed him into the mad breach)? The question is best answered, I think, by Peter Oborne in The Rise of Political Lying and much of his other writing. Oborne describes how political reality has changed. There was a time, at least in theory, when politics was determined by arguments over a verifiable truth; but this has

Hilary Mantel’s sympathy for the royals

Hilary Mantel has got into hot-water over a piece she has written about monarchy for the London Review of Books. There has been consternation over Mantel’s statement that the Duchess of Cambridge: ‘appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile… [who] seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.’ She went on to say that Kate used to be ‘a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no

Interview with a writer: Professor Neil Shubin

Following in the footsteps of the great tradition of paleontologists like Stephen Jay Gould, and evolutionary biologists such as Ernst Mayr, Neil Shubin, professor in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, has spent a considerable part of his career discovering fossils around various parts of the world. These have changed the way we think about many of the key transitions in evolution. He famously discovered tiktaalik roseae, a 375 million years old fossil fish, in Canada in 2004. This discovery provided valuable data in helping us understand how fish evolved into land animals.  In his latest book, The Universe Within, Shubin shows how the

Cricket’s the loser

Cricket glorifies some cheats. W.G. Grace often batted on after being clean bowled; such was the public demand to watch him. Douglas Jardine’s bodyline tactics revolutionised fast bowling: eventually making it acceptable to target the batsman rather than the wicket. Fielders “work” the ball. Batsmen stand their ground when convention asks them to walk. Cheating is part of cricket. But match fixing? The culprits live forever in infamy, and deservedly so. The cricketing authorities (the ICC) believed that match fixing had died ten years ago; but the News of the World’s sting on the Pakistan team in 2010 demolished those hopes. The sting suggested that the problem was deep. Rumours

War is not to be envied

Donald Anderson is a former US Air Force Colonel and current professor of English Literature at the US Air Force Academy. His new book, Gathering Noise from my Life: A Camouflaged Memoir, is a controlled crash, like all landings. It skips and judders, the wheels skidding across the tarmac, until finally the plane is at rest. One line aphorisms such as, ‘William Burroughs was for thieving and against paraphrasing altogether,’ are followed by paragraphs which, every so often, glide into anecdotes mingling observations of war with memories of a small town upbringing in Butte, Montana. Given a setting in which rugged individualism is a generational mantle, it is not surprising

You must read this book

I was delighted to be one of the judges (along with John Rentoul, Heather Brooke and Tony McNulty) who selected Nick Cohen’s You Can’t Read This Book as the polemic of the year at the Political Book Awards in London last night. It is a terrific read from a strong list. I hope that anyone who hasn’t already read it will now take the opportunity. There could hardly be a more appropriate time to do so.

Richard III should be reburied under Leicester council’s car park

Anyone who watched last night’s Channel 4 Documentary Richard III: The King Under the Car Park will need no reminding that members of the Richard III Society tend to be delusional fantasists rather than serious historians. Although we should doubtless be grateful to the Society for funding the dig that discovered the monarch’s bones, that very fact tends to slant the coverage of Richard’s resurrection. There has been much talk about ‘re-writing history’ and countering ‘Tudor propaganda’; but the inconvenient truth (for Ricardians) is that the late king’s spine was indeed twisted by scoliosis and one of his shoulders was noticeably higher than the other. Those particular pieces of Tudor

Childishly scientific

2.30pm, Tuesday, the bookshop of the Natural History Museum. Horrible Science: Blood, Bones and Body Bits is being leafed through by one of its typical readers. In other words he’s 45, six-foot-three and has a full beard. One of the greatest joys of parenthood is the excuse it gives you to abandon ‘proper’, grown-up science books, and get stuck into those aimed at your child. I’m at the museum with my 3-year-old son, who has just shrieked ecstatically at the huge dinosaur in the main hall, and is now eagerly sizing up a T-rex sticker book. One of his Christmas presents was Big Questions from Little People Answered by Some

Reading Richard III

The confirmation that bones found beneath a Leicester car park are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of Richard III has launched a deluge of familiar puns. ‘A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!’ say numerous wags on Twitter. I wonder if Richard III would be remembered so widely today were it not for Shakespeare. The character of the play, who speaks some of the most famous lines in English, is descended from the portrait drawn by Sir Thomas More in an uncompleted history written at various points throughout the 1510s. Many historians argue that More wrote the book to please the Tudors. This is, it is said, why he drew on the work of Polydore Vergil,

Engagement in Libya was and remains the right answer

In 2008, I packed my bags to head off to Tripoli, where I began my current vocation of advocating for Western diplomatic, economic, cultural, and humanitarian engagement in Libya. Ethan Chorin was my inspiration. He was the US Foreign Service Officer who wrote the Department of Commerce’s commercial guide, which helps American companies operate in Libya. He also wrote a chapter in Dirk Vandewalle’s definitive compendium Libya Since 1969: Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, which brilliantly puts forth the case for the inevitable impact that American business presence would have on promoting political freedom in Libya. Freedom has since come to Libya and the role of the internet and foreign diplomatic and commercial engagement

Abraham Lincoln ‘somehow’ became the great redeemer

Abraham Lincoln, in Walt Whitman’s celebrated phrase, contained multitudes. M.E. Synon showed yesterday quite how many there might have been. There is evidence of prejudice, callousness and corruption. Yet there is also the 13th amendment (1865): the basis, whatever the wider context of its adoption, of Lincoln’s right to be called the Great Emancipator. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a film of a book: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a blockbuster that paints a little more of the good Lincoln than the bad, but which accepts Lincoln’s complexity freely by describing a determined politician at work. Daniel Day-Lewis’s often mesmerising, twinkling Lincoln is not wholly

Do we need George Orwell Day?

I doubt that George Orwell needs ‘George Orwell Day’. Aldous Huxley, Henry Green, J.G. Ballard, each of those dead writers might benefit from a bit of sponsorship, and so might we. But Orwell? His spirit pervades our times, and with good reason. Orwell may have recognised some of the ill that our politics and era are producing, a point that Fraser reiterated in a Coffee House post earlier today. The ‘snooping bill’, CCTV, politically correct language – one might see fictional antecedents of those unpleasant realities in the pages of 1984. And perhaps social division caused by polarised wealth and the privations brought by economic decline can be seen in the pages of Down

Do political correctness and the culture wars make us less tolerant?

I have a confession. I saw a report on the Suzanne Moore row, and fled immediately for the safety of the sports pages. A lot of self-important people making a lot of noise, I thought to myself, as a glib heterosexual, while gawping at the latest act in the life and times of Mario Balotelli. But, as time passed, the fury of the Moore row made me revisit Culture of Complaint, the late Robert Hughes’ analysis of the culture wars. It’s sometimes said that we Brits don’t do culture wars; that we are much too sensible to be provoked into believing that trivialities are serious. This view appears to be a hangover from