A free spirit: Clairmont, by Lesley McDowell, reviewed

Commentary on the young Romantics can be curiously puritanical. Not on saintly John Keats, who died too young to cause any trouble. But Byron and Shelley? Beastly to women, negligent as parents, destructive as friends, oblivious to their own privilege. Feminist observers tend to resemble the English visitors to Geneva in 1816 who borrowed telescopes to spy on the renegade inhabitants of the Villa Diodati across the lake, hoping to be scandalised. A central character in the summer that saw the birth of Frankenstein was the only non-writer of the villa’s gathering, Byron’s young lover and Mary Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont. Fortunately, Lesley McDowell doesn’t let her impeccable feminist credentials

Lord Byron had many faults, but writing dull letters wasn’t one of them

In 1814, at the height of his fame, the poet, libertine and freedom fighter Lord Byron had his head examined. Not by a proto-psychiatrist but by the German phrenologist and physician Johann Spurzheim, who, after making a detailed study of the no doubt amused Byron’s cranium, pronounced the brain to be ‘very antithetical’ and said that it was an organ in which ‘good and evil are at perpetual war’. Two centuries after Byron’s death, this dichotomy is as pronounced as ever when it comes to analyses of the poet. His defenders point to his wit, his poetic genius, his heroic efforts in defence of Greek liberty and his personal flair;

Love and loathing at Harold Wilson’s No. 10

If Marcia Williams is thought of at all today, it is in terms of hysterical outbursts, a mysterious hold over the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson and, above all, the ‘Lavender List’ – Wilson’s 1976 Resignation Honours List in which Marcia is believed to have played a significant part. Linda McDougall, the widow of the Labour MP Austin Mitchell, gives an infinitely more nuanced and sympathetic picture of this extraordinary woman. I found her biography gripping, with its insider knowledge of government, its picture of the emotional dynamics of Downing Street and its sensational claim that Marcia may have been drugged by Wilson’s own doctor.  She took Purple Hearts to

The complex character of Tricky Dick

In this Age of Trump, as we cast about for some moment in American history that might help us make sense of the present, the name Richard M. Nixon keeps resurfacing. Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 after being swept up in investigations into the crimes and cover-ups known collectively as Watergate, offers easy comparisons with Donald J. Trump: two corrupt American presidents who left office in disgrace; who considered the press their enemy; who accused the previous administration of surveilling them; who weaponised racism as a way to win elections; who employed the politics of division as a way of keeping power; who possessed and indulged an outsized

An interest in the bizarre helps keep melancholy at bay

If you crush the right testicle of a wolf and administer it in oil or rose water it will induce a loathing for sex. The Turks have a drink called coffee (for they use no wine). The Chinese have no nobility, or only those philosophers and doctors who have raised themselves by their worth. If you allowed a human being 25 square feet each, the Earth could bear 148,456,800,000,000 people. The Persian kings trained sparrows to hunt butterflies, inspired by hunting with hawks. Speaking of sparrows, the reason they are so short-lived is because of their salacity, which is very frequent. Once a nun ate a lettuce without saying grace

Return to LA Confidential: Widespread Panic, by James Ellroy, reviewed

Even by James Ellroy’s standards, the narrator of his latest novel is not a man much given to the quiet life. Freddy Otash breaks legs for Frank Sinatra. He gets Dean Martin’s pregnant Latina maid deported. He sticks the hand of someone blackmailing Liberace into a deep-fat fryer. He sleeps with the 21-year-old Elizabeth Taylor while she’s only on her second marriage. And all that’s in the first 20 pages, while Otash is still an LA cop. Once he goes freelance as a private eye, things turn rather more lurid. Widespread Panic is a rare stand-alone novel among Ellroy’s assorted trilogies and quartets. But, as you can maybe tell already,

Hancock has made a mockery of his own rules

How much trouble is Matt Hancock in? The Sun splashes this morning on the Health Secretary’s affair with aide Gina Coladangelo. The paper has obtained screen grabs from leaked Whitehall CCTV footage showing very little the way of social distancing. The images are from the start of May, when laws were still in place to enforce social distancing. Hancock has issued a brief statement this morning, apologising for breaking the rules: ‘I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance. I have let people down and am very sorry. I remain focused on working to get the country out of this pandemic and would be grateful for privacy for my

Ross Clark

Will Hancock resign?

‘Speechless,’ was Matt Hancock’s reaction when told about Professor Neil Ferguson’s lockdown breaching liaisons on 6 May last year. The Health Secretary added that he thought Ferguson was right to resign from Sage — and that it was a matter for the police whether or not to prosecute the professor.  Will Hancock now be following Ferguson’s example and resigning? It is perhaps just as well that Hancock didn’t come up with any more quotable remarks as they would now certainly be quoted back at him following the publication of photographs of him embracing aide Gina Coladangelo — apparently on 6 May this year. It raises two questions: does 6 May have any significance

Cardinal sins

The publication of In the Closet of the Vatican by the French gay polemicist Frédéric Martel has been meticulously timed to coincide with Pope Francis’s ‘global summit’ of bishops to discuss the sexual abuse of minors. The book appeared in eight languages on Thursday morning, just as the gathering began. It is being hyped as a ‘bombshell’ that will ‘blow apart’ the summit. We shall see. Certainly many Catholic priests are more interested in Martel’s exposé than in Francis’s initiative. The author spent four years researching the subject of high-ranking gays in the Catholic church. Forty-one cardinals spoke to him. That seems brave, given that Martel is an LGBT campaigner

A dangerous silence

Whenever a Hollywood actress complains about some lecherous man, there’s blanket coverage. Even our MPs feel the need to tut. So why, when there are allegations involving 1,000 underage girls abused by child-grooming gangs in this country, does no one turn a hair? For the most part, the paedophile scandal in Telford was ignored by the people who should care most. The BBC, which has devoted hour upon hour to the #MeToo movement since the allegations over Harvey Weinstein broke last year, initially did not even think it worth covering the Telford abuse story on the section of its website devoted to news from Shropshire, let alone the national news.

An unprincipled Principal

‘Dreaming spires’? Yes, but sometimes there are nightmares. Brian Martin, awarded the MBE for services to English literature, is at home in Oxford, where he spent most of his career teaching, and seems to know all about the professional and psychological complexities of the university. Holt College, his fourth novel, written with dedicated probity and Baedeker thoroughness, is a suspenseful tragedy without a hero — just a few men and women who mean well. Concerned with the administrative deliberations and manoeuvrings of the fellows of a respected, ancient college, the story serves analogically to show how an unscrupulous individual of obsessive ambition and manipulative cunning can turn even the most

The end of brotherly love

You can never completely leave a religious cult, as this strange and touching memoir demonstrates. Patterns of thinking, turns of mind, will linger with and haunt former members long after they escape. Rebecca Stott was born in 1964 into the Brethren, a low-church sect that had broken away from the Anglican church in the early 19th century and then broken away from itself, bifurcating into factions as movements set on purity and unity usually do. Cult is a strong word, but Stott’s branch of the Brethren really earned it. Her great grandfather, a sail-maker, joined the Brethren in Eyemouth, a fishing village not far from where I grew up in

The sting of betrayal

This may seem an odd thing to say about a writer who’s been officially declared a National Living Treasure in his native Australia, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times before winning it with Schindler’s Ark — but I sometimes think Thomas Keneally is badly underrated. After all, Schindler’s Ark won that Booker Prize 35 years — and 19 Keneally novels — ago, and since then his reputation appears to have settled down into that of a solid craftsman: the sort of novelist who rarely lets you down, but who never quite hits the literary heights either. As to how this wildly unjust verdict has come about, my

A whistleblower mystery that illuminates the inner turmoil of the banking sector

What troubled places banks have become, I thought as I listened to two news stories, one concerning a formal reprimand for Barclays chief executive Jes Staley after he tried to uncover the identity of a ‘whistleblower’, the other trailing new revelations about the Libor scandal. But both, I’m afraid, were so badly explained that the majority of listeners must have been none the wiser. The Staley episode is mysterious. Anonymous letters to Barclays directors made allegations about a recently recruited senior executive: Staley felt this was an ‘unfair personal attack’, believed ‘honestly but mistakenly’ that it was permissible for him to identify the author, and tried to do so with

Tesco pays the price for its accounting scandal

Tesco dominates the financial news this morning after the retail giant reached a settlement agreement for shareholders following an accounting scandal two and a half years ago. In addition to a fine of £129 million, Tesco will pay out about £85 million (plus interest) to investors in compensation. The money relates to an admission in 2014 that Tesco had been booking income from suppliers early. Put simply, the supermarket had brought forward payments from commercial suppliers for special deals such as promotions. Although the black hole was initially thought to be £263 million, it later transpired that the total was £326 million. Today’s deal – also known as a Deferred Prosecution Agreement

The Spectator’s Notes | 26 January 2017

The English tradition of dissenting judgments in important civil cases is a good one. They are often better than the majority view, because they tend to be advanced by judges who resist the self-aggrandisement of their profession. In the Miller case on triggering Article 50, before the Supreme Court, Lords Reed, Carnwath and Hughes dissented from the other eight. This is what Lord Reed says: ‘…the argument that withdrawal from the EU would alter domestic law and destroy statutory rights, and therefore cannot be undertaken without a further Act of Parliament, has to be rejected even if one accepts that the 1972 Act creates statutory rights and that withdrawal will alter

The Olympics proves it: we are not all equal

An almost worldwide survey on penis length — the sort of thing I always read with a sense of trepidation and inadequacy — suggested that the countries boasting the largest of these flawed and devious appendages are all located in Africa. Especially West Africa, from the DRC down to the humid and still pristine jungles of Gabon. This suggests to me one of two things — either that the old racist cliché is absolutely true, or that Africans tell bigger lies than anyone else on the planet. Either or both of these explanations are likely to get me into trouble, so I suppose I’d better stop digging. Thing is, I

Why I’ll keep cheering for Caster Semenya

An almost worldwide survey on penis length — the sort of thing I always read with a sense of trepidation and inadequacy — suggested that the countries boasting the largest of these flawed and devious appendages are all located in Africa. Especially West Africa, from the DRC down to the humid and still pristine jungles of Gabon. This suggests to me one of two things — either that the old racist cliché is absolutely true, or that Africans tell bigger lies than anyone else on the planet. Either or both of these explanations are likely to get me into trouble, so I suppose I’d better stop digging. Thing is, I

A five-ring fiasco

The ambitions of the founding father of the modern Olympic Games, the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin — that they should be ‘the free trade of the future’ and provide ‘the cause of peace’ with a ‘new and mighty stay’ — were at once wildly optimistic and strangely prescient. Considering that they were first conceived of as a festival of sporting excellence in a spirit of internationalism, the Olympics have had an enduring habit of stirring up displays of humanity at its worst. To anyone who believes that the excesses of the Games over the past 50 years or so have betrayed a purer original legacy, these two books by

A touch of class | 7 July 2016

Cliveden is a good review for a divided country and I have waited, not too long, for it to feel resonant for Spectator readers; it aches with class-consciousness. It has food pens dependent on your status — whether you are eating in the National Trust grounds, or the swanky (I love this word; it’s so bitter) hotel inside the ‘manor’. And even if you are staying in the swanky manor, famous as the venue where John Profumo exploited the not-recovering child-abuse victim Christine Keeler — don’t call me a sighing Guardianista, I have done my research and she once aborted a child with a pen — in a swimming pool,