Listen with Auntie

The camouflage-painted, smoke-blackened entrance to London’s 1940s Broadcasting House, moated with sandbags and battered by bombs, provided its staff with a refuge from attack. Inside, a gender-segregating blanket divided the employees’ emergency dormitory in two. But such propriety masked the energy, idiosyncrasy and influence that ballooned within the Portland Place walls during the wartime years. From the morning of 3 September 1939, when Neville Chamberlain used the wireless to announce that Britain was at war with Germany, the same day that the Alexandra Palace indefinitely shut down all television broadcasting, radio became the nation’s indispensable source of up-to-the-minute information. Although the Houses of Parliament and London’s poshest clubs had initially

Dark side of the Moomins

Tove Jansson, according to her niece’s husband, was a squirt in size and could rarely be persuaded to eat, preferring instead to smoke fags and drink whisky. And when she did eat, it was usually salted cucumbers — to go with the drink. You know, this late in life, I may have encountered my role model. We were at the launch of an excellent edition of four books in her Moomin series at the Finnish embassy. London is in the grip of a kind of Moomin madness right now, what with the books, a Moomin event at the South Bank and a new exhibition of Tove Jansson’s artwork at the

To hell and back

The Exorcist opened in 1973 accompanied by much hoo-ha in the press. Scenes of panic, nausea and fainting were recorded at every performance. Movie-goers showed up to witness mass hysteria rather than to enjoy a scary movie. This revival, produced by Bill Kenwright, targets the early 1970s demographic. At press night, the stalls were thronged with pensioners eager to relive a lurid evening from their adolescence. As one who dislikes shocks of any kind, I sat through this ordeal with my eyes bent towards the floor and my fingers wedged so firmly in my ears that their tips turned crimson. The show opened with a CRUMP loud enough to shake

Italy’s road to ruin

These days it is fashionable to claim Mussolini as a fundamentally decent fellow led astray by an opportunist alliance with Hitler. Whether this revisionism is the song and dance of a minority, or something more widespread and daft, is hard to say. Italians understandably wish to view themselves as brava gente — good people — so they prefer to blame Hitler for Mussolini’s murderous 1938 racial laws against the Jews. The truth is, Nazi Germany never demanded an anti-Semitic campaign as the price of friendship with Italy. On the contrary, Mussolini resented the imputation that his anti-Jewish legislation was imposed on him from without. By the time Iris Origo’s Italian

Life after death | 2 November 2017

According to the accountants’ ledgers, DVDs are dying. Sales of those shiny discs, along with their shinier sibling the Blu-ray, amounted to £894 million last year, which is almost a fifth lower than in 2015 and less than half of what was achieved a decade ago. And last week we finally said goodbye to the postal DVD service Lovefilm, too. The explanation for this decline is the explanation for many modern declines: digital is taking over. Nowadays, downloads and streaming services make more money than the old physical formats. But accountants don’t know everything. From a different perspective, through the bloodshot eyes of a cinephile, DVDs are thriving — and

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Lord Woolton put it best: ‘Few people have succeeded in obtaining such a public demand for their promotion as the result of the failure of an enterprise.’ By that, the Tory grandee meant that in the spring of 1940 Winston Churchill managed to use Britain’s grotesque military cock-up in Norway, for which he was responsible, to supplant Neville Chamberlain. Churchill sidelined Chamberlain’s most likely successor, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax. He overcame Tory backbench distrust. He even got Labour on side, though its leaders had long considered him the class enemy incarnate. What Churchill pulled off, shifting blame for his Norwegian shambles on to his boss in order to replace

Truth in fiction

The Sunday Times’s literary editor Andrew Holgate recently tweeted the news that Robert Harris’s latest thriller had entered the bestseller list at No. 2: ‘Pipped to the post by Ken Follett.’ Harris retweeted it: ‘Well done Ken. You bastard.’ Pipped to the post only by Follett. That’s the level Harris is at now. Even before it hit the shops, his novel was being chased for film rights by two studios. Harris is one of that small and enviable group of journalists who became novelists — and made it big instantly. His first book, the alternative history story Fatherland, set in a Germany in which Hitler won the war, was bought on

Of his time

Great novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they all share is a status of half-belonging. If they had no foot in the world at all, they could hardly understand it; if they completely belonged, they could hardly understand what was distinctive. One of the pleasures of this excellent biography is fully appreciating the peculiar, liminal, not-quite-successful position Powell wrote from, and described with great exactness. In half a dozen social and professional milieux, he was a tolerated, perhaps useful minor presence, like a spare man at dinner. From the standpoint of a rather failed editor, screenwriter, soldier, socialite, he stood by and watched the world. In

Holidays with Hitler

We don’t usually think of Hitler’s hated henchman Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust of European Jewry, as a comic turn, but the diary of Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, a former chief of British Naval Intelligence and fanatical admirer of Nazi Germany, proves otherwise. Domvile’s description of his visit to Himmler’s ‘hunting box’ high in the Bavarian Alps in 1935, reproduced in Julia Boyd’s fascinating book, is a treasury of thigh-slapping humour, including hearing Himmler wake him at 3.20 a.m. with his rendition of ‘God Save the King’; complaints about the Reichsführer’s primitive ‘bog’ — a deep hole in the ground; and finishing with a ‘regular Bavarian evening… much leaping,

Heroines of the Soviet Union

Klara Goncharova, a Soviet anti-aircraft gunner, wondered at the end of the second world war how anyone could stand to give birth after learning about Auschwitz and Dachau. But as it turned out, she was already pregnant. Anastasia Voropaeva, a corporal and searchlight operator, recalled a pretty Russian girl in liberated territory who had been raped and impregnated by her German ‘boss’ and had hanged herself after victory rather than give birth to a ‘little Fritz’. Albina Gantimurova remembered nearly shooting an adolescent member of the German Volkssturm in Berlin before he burst into tears and took her hand. Svetlana Alexievich finished The Unwomanly Face of War, the first of

The evil that men do | 3 August 2017

The first thing to say about Claudio Magris’s new novel is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable. There is no possibility of turning page after page engaged in finding out what comes next, of being lost in the characters’ stories. The usual pleasures of fiction are so thoroughly absent that the reader emerges at the other end blinking into the light, struggling to remember what all the fuss about books is anyway. This is apt, perhaps, for a novel about historic suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. The conceit is that an unnamed collector has amassed a hangar-sized museum of war, full of weaponry and the historical accoutrements

Balkan brass

When brass instruments with button-operated valves were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, music-making changed. Once requiring a semi-professional approach, it could now be quickly mastered by large groups of working people. A noisy result were Britain’s colliery bands: but a more spirited upshot was Serbia’s trumpet tradition. Like the colliery bands, Serbian brass music had a political imperative — re-weaving national identity after 500 years of Turkish occupation. The leader who first hit on trumpets as a vehicle for this joie-de-liberté was Prince Milos Obrenovic, who created the first Serbian brass ensembles in 1831. They took swift hold, providing an outlet for everyday south Slav exuberance. The

Visual, visceral, confusing

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has already been described as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘a glorious, breathtakingly vivid triumph’, but we need to be cautious. Look at all the fuss about Baby Driver and what an average film that turned out to be. This certainly isn’t your regular war film — no one, for example, says ‘it’s quiet’ and is then told: ‘yes, too damned quiet…’ — but in wanting to deliver a visceral, visual experience, without the hindrance of exposition or back stories, the narrative is often confusing and doesn’t add up to much emotionally. I suppose I should also add that, aside from the odd glimpse of a nurse, there are

Grain of truth

We routinely feel emotional about materials — often subliminally. Which is why new substances and techniques for manufacturing have provoked vivid writing, particularly during the design-reform debates of the 19th century. Think of John Ruskin on the evils of cut as opposed to blown glass or his views on wrought iron as opposed to cast iron — the latter emblematic in his view of a ‘sophisticated, unkind, uncomfortable, unprincipled society’. For the designer Gottfried Semper man’s very inventiveness was a loss. We were losing our understanding of discrete materials. Then there was, and is, our perfectly justified anxieties about the plastics family, beautifully chronicled in Jeffrey Meikle’s American Plastic: A

Northern exposure | 6 July 2017

Amid the shambles that was the Anglo-French campaign in Norway in April and May 1940, a French officer observed that ‘the British have planned this campaign on the lines of a punitive expedition against the Zulus, but unhappily we and the British are in the position of the Zulus’. A month later, many British officers would be pronouncing on French generalship equally tartly during the shambles that was the Fall of France. On the whole it doesn’t do to criticise allies, but soldiers have got to be able to grumble about somebody, and it’s best (at the time, at least) to lay the blame elsewhere than one’s own high command.

1944 and all that

The star of this film is the music, composed by Lorne Balfe. I really liked it, which was just as well, because it plays for about half the 98 minutes, while a superannuated Churchill, played by Brian Cox, moons about on beaches, deeply penitent for his catastrophic authorisation of the Gallipoli disaster in which a quarter of a million Allied troops lost their lives on the beaches of Turkey. It is the summer of 1944, and an apparently almost pacifist Churchill is timidly begging Eisenhower and Montgomery not to go ahead with the Normandy landings. He dreads the loss of life, you see. Not being a Churchill scholar, indeed being,

Nazis and the dark arts

When he came to power Hitler had a dowser scour the Reich Chancellery for cancerous ‘death rays’. Before flying to Scotland Rudolf Hess had his horoscope drawn up by a personal astrologer. Himmler backed research on the Holy Grail and medieval devil worship (‘Luciferism’) and sent an SS expedition by the explorer Dr Ernst Schafer to Tibet in 1938 to investigate the ancient Indo-German ‘Aryan’ origins of Buddhism. Himmler also founded the SS Witches Division, which collected evidence in eastern Europe in the second world war that Teutonic ‘wise women’ had been persecuted and burnt in a Jewish-Catholic Inquisition plot against volkisch German culture and blood. In 1939 Goebbles sat

Building block | 8 June 2017

Liverpool is the New York of Europe. The business district looks like old Wall Street: a miniature Lower Manhattan on the Mersey. It’s a city of scale, drama, melodrama, tragedy and comedy. Not to mention rich and poor. And often all these effects are simultaneous. No other British city has a similarly contrary architectural character: superb, shabby, romantic, melancholy, proud and mean. You cannot be in Liverpool and not be affected by its buildings. I grew up there and long before I knew what ‘design’ meant, Liverpool had taught me to see — as well as to feel the deadly weight of history. It’s an architectural education. But Liverpool has

Acting up | 20 April 2017

Gemma Arterton’s new film, Their Finest, is about second world war propaganda. Her character, who is bookish and sensitive, is allowed — because of war — to write film scripts. She discovers two girls — two ordinary, pale, unhappy girls — who steal their father’s boat and sail to Dunkirk for the rescue. She thinks this story will swell hearts: and so she, and her collaborator (Sam Claflin), make a British Casablanca about Dunkirk. They know there must be loss, or nothing has value. I marvelled over two things in Their Finest, even as I dislike the title. First, how the pale, unhappy girls are transformed, for the film inside

Home is where the art is

The house in which I lived in Tokyo was built by my landlady, a former geisha. It stood on a plot of land given to her by her last lover. It was small, full of light and positioned to enjoy the large ginkgo tree in the garden next door. It was easily the best designed house I have ever lived in. Nostalgia for that house and my former life in Tokyo overwhelmed me as I wandered through the new exhibition at the Barbican — The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. Exhibitions on architecture are notoriously hard to pull off but this succeeds triumphantly. Japanese domestic architecture has consistently