The fall of Paris

Paris used to be the most self-confident city in the world. Brash, assertive, boastful: Manhattan claimed to be the best. Cool, elegant, sophisticated, supercilious: Paris knew that it was the best. This is no longer true. Paris has lost its élan, and that has created a love-hate relationship with the UK. Everyone seems to know someone who is working in London. The ones left in Paris cannot decide whether to punish us or join us: to hope that Brexit fails — or to fear that Brexit might fail, and keep able young Frenchmen from job opportunities in London. Flics everywhere, tattiness, tension: one is reluctant to acknowledge the successes of

Tail-end Terry

It is often said that Terence Rattigan’s ‘thing’ was his homosexuality and that his disguising of it coloured everything he wrote. But he had, I think, another secret up his sleeve that is still little known. He was a tailgunner in the RAF. Indeed the service was his family and a thread of blue serge runs through his career. He died in 1977, aged 66. After Harrow and Oxford, the war rudely interrupted his dazzling entrée as a dashing young Thirties playwright. After basic training, Rattigan was assigned as a wireless operator and airgunner to a squadron of Sunderlands, hunting enemy submarines in the Atlantic. One moment he was banking

Fatal attraction | 16 February 2017

Recently on holiday I did a very bad thing. I nearly left the Fawn to die on a precipitous mountain path in the Canary Islands because she was having a terrible attack of vertigo that was threatening to spoil my fun. No, worse: it actually did spoil my fun. Now that I’m old and boring I desperately need little jabs of adrenaline to remind me I’m still alive, and this particular route was doing the job quite nicely. Although it’s actually so undangerous that even my eightysomething dad can do it, it’s reasonably steep, it’s gobsmackingly picturesque, and it does now and then give you at least the illusion of

Knowing the score

When I come home from work and stick my key in the door, there is a pitter-patter of tiny feet as my eight-year-old twin boys run up to me and shout: ‘Paris St-Germain won 3-1! First he scored, then he missed, then…’ They are suffering from a harmless case of sports geekery. I had it myself as a child, and have gone on to hold down a job, albeit in the dying industry of journalism. The only difference is that as a child I wasn’t encouraged to bore my dad with my findings, because helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented yet. A complicating factor in our family is that we live

Serious concerns

It’s funny, isn’t it, how a dust jacket on a book can draw you to it from the other end of a room — always supposing the illustration is by Edward Ardizzone. In fact, is there anything more suggestive of delight than a book illustrated by him? It’s the Midas touch even for unprepossessing authors. The exhibition of his work at the House of Illustration finishes off with a wall lined with them: The Little Grey Men, Jim at the Corner, Italian Peepshow, Johnny’s Bad Day, Eleanor Farjeon’s Book… you’ll recognise lots. And there’s something utterly distinctive about every one: the boy’s upturned nose, the rounded line of a motherly

Contours of the mind

In Australia, I have been told, the female pubic area is sometimes known as a ‘mapatasi’ because its triangular shape resembles a map of Tasmania. And since we are discussing cartography and the nether regions, it is wonderful to find in the British Library’s new exhibition, Maps and the 20th Century, that Countess Mountbatten wore knickers made out of second world war airmen’s silk escape maps. Maps certainly colonise our imaginations in many different ways. The allies in Iraq had a ‘road map’ rather than a strategy. So much of personal value can be lost in the creases and folds of our own ‘mental maps’. And couples who often travel

Romantic modern

In 1932 Paul Nash posed the question, is it possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British?’ — a conundrum that still perplexes the national consciousness more than 80 years later. It is true that the artist himself answered that query with an emphatic ‘yes’. But, as the fine exhibition at Tate Britain makes clear, his modernism was deeply traditional. The truth is that Nash (1889–1946) was what the author Alexandra Harris has termed a ‘romantic modern’. In other words, his art was a characteristic Anglo-Saxon attempt to have things both ways. Equally typically, he managed to do so — but only some of the time. Nash’s early drawings and

Japan Notebook | 20 October 2016

Tokyo is visual chaos everywhere, the antithesis of the Japanese interior. It is a multilevel jumble of overpasses, neon signs, electric pylons, railway lines and traffic lights. The pavements are empty, not a pedestrian human in sight. And the leader of North Korea is still lobbing ballistic missiles right over Japan and cackling away about his collection of nuclear warheads. Drinking beer in a sushi bar in Ginza on our first night, I ask my neighbour whether people are worried by the behaviour of the lunatic child across the water. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I am far more frightened by our prime minister. He really is dangerous.’ Shinzo Abe is proposing to repeal

A bit player in the great drama

There’s a glorious scene in Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking book in which her fearless, freckled heroine strides to the centre of a circus ring and briskly lays out the World’s Strongest Man. Like most of the adults who expect to control her, he quickly learns that his inflated size, age and title are no match for the child’s bold pin-wielding attitude. As a little fan myself in the early 1980s I probably giggled as the strongman toppled. But reading it to my own children this summer I also felt a deep lurch of sadness. The strongman’s name was Adolf, and the book (published in 1945) was written as an

Twists and turns of the Italian campaign

When Rome fell to the Allies on 5 June 1944 General Harold Alexander, commander of the 15th Army, calculated that he would need just 12 weeks to reach the river Po and liberate Italy from the Germans. It took him nearly a year. Christian Jennings’s new book chronicles the months of heavy fighting, the advances and retreats and the enormous losses on both sides as the Allied forces stalled, and the enemy attacked. It was never going to be easy. Once the Italians signed the armistice with the Allies on 8 September 1943, turning their backs on their former Axis partners, the Germans moved quickly to occupy the whole of

A familiar life (revisited)

A Life Revisited, as the modest, almost nervous, title suggests, mainly concerns Evelyn Waugh’s life with comments on but no analysis of his books. There have been at least three major biographies already, as well as large volumes of diaries, letters and journalism and many slighter volumes. There is more to come. Waugh’s grandson, Alexander, who has defied current trends by writing a fine book on the males of the family, is editor-in-chief of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, with the first of 43 volumes coming out next year. He has also collected an unrivalled archive containing unpublished notes, letters and interviews, and commissioned this book for the 50th

What did you do in the last war, Maman?

‘La France,’ as everyone knows, is female. Perhaps this is due to gendered assumptions about the beauty, cuisine and couture of the French capital, the symbolic revolutionary Marianne, or the patriarchal nature of language. Between 1940 and 1945, however, Paris was more literally female. Most of the capital’s men were serving with the Allied effort overseas, were POWs or forced workers in Germany. The women of Paris had stayed behind to keep the city running, put food on the table and care for their children, parents and in-laws. For some when France fell, Paris felt emasculated in another sense. Suddenly Parisian women found themselves having to decide how they were

Twists, turns and good red herrings

Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist, set in 17th-century Amsterdam, read like a lantern-slide show. Her churches were by Pieter Saenredam, her town-houses those of Vermeer and Gerard ter Borch. Her kitchens and corridors and eaves-dropping maids came from Nicolaes Maes. She proved herself a painterly writer with an eye for the telling detail. The Miniaturist was inspired by a real work of art: Petronella Oortman’s dollshouse in the Rijksmuseum. Burton’s fictional Nella becomes the owner of a dollshouse filled with miniature furniture and family whose movements begin eerily to anticipate — perhaps exert malign influence over — events in the real house. Burton has pulled off a similar trick

A gentleman of Bordeaux

There was a moment during the war when De Gaulle was being more than usually impossible. Roosevelt, furious, asked Churchill to convey his feelings. The PM summoned the Frenchman, who arrived, took off his kepi and sat down. Churchill launched into him. Unfortunately, the tirade was not recorded. By all accounts, few prosecution cases have been expounded more forcefully. It was a masterpiece of eloquence which lasted for 45 minutes. Throughout, de Gaulle was impassive: not a flicker of facial muscle, let alone emotion. Churchill came to a final flourish, then stopped and glared. In response, de Gaulle rose to his feet, put on his kepi, saluted, turned and left.

One of history’s saddest chapters

One afternoon in the early 1990s, an elderly gentleman from Alicante told me of the tragedy that had occurred at his city’s port on the last day of the Spanish Civil War. He pointed towards the docks and in a hurried whisper spoke of the many thousands of desperate Republicans who had gathered there at the end of March 1939, their eyes searching the horizon for the promised ships meant to carry them to safety abroad. The rest of their territory had fallen to Franco, his execution squads busy eliminating remnants of the ‘anti-Spain’; Alicante would be the last corner to fall into the caudillo’s hands. Yet as the hours

Brothers grim

One of the more obscure winners in recent years of the Berlin film festival’s Golden Bear was a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by the esteemed Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio. The film, called Caesar Must Die, consisted of prisoners staging the Roman drama in their own high-security jail in Italy. The most dedicated Shakespearean or, indeed, lover of Italian cinema will have found it quite hard to enjoy. It was a tough, depressing watch. But that’s the Berlinale all over. It favours a certain toughness and prides itself on films that engage politically, that are nakedly ‘art’ rather than obviously mainstream. Often it goes out of its way to

Putting Germany together again

The purpose of Lara Feigel’s book is to describe the ‘political mission of reconciliation and restoration’ in the devastated cities of Germany after 1945 (though no politicians were directly involved). The chief needs of the shattered population at the time were, of course, practical: food, water, sanitation and the reconstruction of buildings. But a vital supplementary effort was made to address what was left of German culture and history after the crimes and falsifications of the Nazis. The idea was that the arts should revive an alternative, peaceful and civilised way of life in the ruins of the country. It is surprising that no mention is made of the reform

Is it any wonder Poles are sensitive about the phrase ‘Polish death camps’?

Poland’s new government, which is described as right-wing and nationalistic, is in the news again. This time it wants to make it a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison, to implicate Poland in the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany on Polish soil. Uproar has ensued: the Law and Justice party is suppressing freedom of speech again. First the courts, then the media, now this! And while I agree that reference to ‘Polish death camps’ should not be made a criminal offence – people should be allowed to say what they want – I do, however, understand what lies at the root of this proposal. It is not, as

It’s doomed!

The TV sitcom Dad’s Army ran on the BBC from 1968 to 1977 (nine series, 80 episodes) with repeats still running to this day (Saturday, BBC2, 8.25 p.m.) and I sometimes watch these repeats with my dad (92) and we laugh like idiots and I sometimes watch with my son (23) and we laugh like idiots and sometimes the three of us watch together (combined age 169, should that be of interest) and we all laugh like idiots but I was not minded to laugh like an idiot during this film, possibly because I was not minded to laugh at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the

Where’s the joy gone?

Have you seen Spectre, the latest Bond film? If not, the opening sequence is terrific. Lots of action and excitement. The whole film is full of stunts and thrills. But after watching it, I realised there was something missing: joy, or joie de vivre. Daniel Craig plays Bond like an android who has spent too much time muscle-building instead of having a good time. Contrast Spectre with From Russia With Love, one of the early Bond films. The first scene in which we see Sean Connery as Bond, he is humorous and amorous as he snogs a beautiful woman in a punt moored at the side of a river. He