Culture

Culture

The good, the bad and the ugly in books, exhibitions, cinema, TV, dance, music, podcasts and theatre.

The wry humour of Franz Kafka

Lead book review

How do you see Franz Kafka? That is, how do you picture him in your mind’s eye? If you are Nicolas Mahler, the writer and illustrator of a short but engaging graphic biography of the man, you’d see him as a sort of blob of hair and eyebrows on a stick. The illustrations of Completely

China’s role in Soviet policy-making

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Why should we want to read yet another thumping great book about the collapse of the Soviet empire? Sergey Radchenko attempts an answer in his well-constructed new work. Based on recently opened Soviet archives and on extensive work in the Chinese archives, it places particular weight on China’s role in Soviet policy-making. The details are

A tragedy waiting to happen: Tiananmen Square, by Lai Wen, reviewed

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Lai Wen’s captivating book about growing up in China and witnessing the horrific massacre in Tiananmen Square reads like a memoir. The protagonist’s name is Lai, and her description of her parents is utterly convincing – the pretty, bitter housewife mother, jealous of the opportunities her daughter has; the father permanently cowed after being briefly

The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown

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Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace on 24 March 1603 at the age of 69 after a reign of 45 years. Her health had been poor from the early 1590s onwards: arthritis, gastric disorders, chronic insomnia and migraines were just some of the ailments which plagued her. Yet, uniquely among English monarchs, she refused to

My brilliant friend and betrayer, Inigo Philbrick

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‘Inigo has never asked me not to write this book, but I had come to wonder whether I would have had the courage to write it were he not imprisoned,’ confesses Orlando Whitfield in his coruscating memoir of his friendship with Inigo Philbrick. He was the art dealer whose meteoric career exploded in spectacular style

The glamour of grime: revisionist westerns of the 1970s

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In 1967, the unexpected worldwide success of Bonnie and Clyde blindsided the Hollywood film industry, which then spent the next half decade attempting to adapt to the changing tastes of the new youth audience it had apparently captured. No matter that the picture took a pair of vicious, sociopathic thrill-killers who in real life were

What’s really behind the Tories’ present woes?

Lead book review

The problem is, we really need a Tory party. Whether we have one at the moment is another question. Political debate requires a significant and trustworthy proponent of personal freedom, of the limits of government, of personal responsibility, of strict limitations of government expenditure, of independent enterprise which may succeed through a lack of intrusive

How Margaret Thatcher could have saved London’s skyline

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Looking around London on the eve of the millennium, it would have been difficult to think that the UK government had an adviser on architectural design. The 1990s had been a dismal decade. Yet such a body existed in the quaintly named Royal Fine Art Commission, refounded in 1924. The original Commission had been created

Was the flapper style of the 1920s so liberating?

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I had held Beauty’s sceptre, and had seen men slaves beneath it. I knew the isolation, the penalty of this greatness. Yet I owned it was an empire for which it might be well worth paying. —Olivia Shakespear, Beauty’s Hour (1896) All the Rage is a perfect title for a book about terrible beauty. The

A walled garden in Suffolk yields up its secrets

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In the hot summer of 2020, during the Covid pandemic, Olivia Laing and her husband Ian moved from Cambridge to a beautiful Georgian house in a Suffolk village and began work on restoring the neglected, extensive walled garden behind it. She was vaguely aware that the garden had been owned and loved by the well-known

A haunting mystery: Enlightenment, by Sarah Perry, reviewed

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As ghosts go, Maria Vaduva, who haunts Enlightenment, is not a patch on the wild, tormented figure who stalks the pages of Sarah Perry’s previous novel, Melmoth. Where Melmoth, in rage and despair, haunts everyone complicit in history’s horrors, Maria is crossly plaintive. The disappearance of this unrecognised 19th-century Romanian astronomer from Lowlands House, a

Learning the art lingo: the people, periods and -isms

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When she first starts working as a security guard at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Bianca Bosker is so bored that she prays someone will touch the art. ‘Do it, I urged silently from my spot by the wall. Do it so I can tell you not to.’ She’s to stand for hours on

The recklessness of George Mallory

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George Mallory bookended the 20th century history of Everest with his pioneering attempts in the 1920s to climb the mountain – and with the spectacular discovery, in 1999, of his body high up on the North Face, preserved by the ice for 75 years after he had failed to do so. His flip remark to

Reading pulp fiction taught me how to write, said S.J. Perelman

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This volume of short essays – originally written for the New Yorker in the 1940s and 1950s but never before assembled – provides ample evidence that the great S.J. Perelman could misspend his youth with the best of them. It’s also the closest thing to an autobiography he ever completed: a series of comic reflections

Fools rush in: Mania, by Lionel Shriver, reviewed

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Pearson Converse teaches literature at Verlaine University, Pennsylvania. She exists in an alternative universe to our own in which the Mental Parity Movement holds sway.  There is intellectual levelling, and no ‘cognitive discrimination’. This is high satire, exaggerated, crude, inviting ridicule of the social system portrayed, close to the great satirists of the 18th century

More Mr Pooter than Joe Orton: George Lucas’s gay life in London

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In January 1948, George Lucas, an unremarkable 21-year-old Roman Catholic who had just been demobbed from the Pay Corps, was living unhappily in Romford with his ill-matched parents, who relentlessly taunted him about his homosexuality. He would shortly get a job at the War Office and so embark on a lifetime’s career as a civil

Agent Zo: the Polish blonde with nerves of steel

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In recent years, far from diminishing, the number of books on the Nazis, Occupied Europe and the Holocaust – events that now lie three quarters of a century in the past – seem only to grow. New archives are opened and attics are raided for forgotten diaries and letters. One historian who has mined them

Home to mother: Long Island, by Colm Toibín, reviewed

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Colm Toibin’s new novel starts with a bang – or rather, the results of one. It is only on the second page that an Irishman arrives at Eilis Fiorello’s house and threatens to leave his wife’s love child on her doorstep, it being also the doorstep of the father, Tony. ‘If anyone thinks I am