Culture

Culture

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

Jam-packed with treasures: the eccentric Sir John Soane’s Museum

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Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s most eccentric buildings, containing a riot of classical fragments, paintings, architectural models and plaster casts jammed in to overflowing narrow galleries packed into a Georgian town house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane viewed it as a reflection of his busy intellect, ‘studies for my own mind’, he

The sheer drudgery of professional tennis

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Wimbledon’s starched whites, manicured flower beds and hushed silence enable tennis to present itself as a genteel sport. But Wimbledon only represents tennis in the way that an Olympic 100m final represents athletics. It is the best players in the best setting for a brief period. Actual tennis, the day-to-day life of a regular player

The costly legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism

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Post-war British economic history is littered with failed policy panaceas. Keynesian demand management would solve the unemployment problem; the Exchange Rate Mechanism would provide an anchor for stability and end sterling’s perennial weakness; the Barber and Kwarteng budgets – separated by 50 years – would throw off the shackles of Treasury orthodoxy and put the

A long goodbye to Berlin

Lead book review

Christopher Isherwood pioneered what is now known as ‘autofiction’ long before it acquired that label. His best known work, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which later inspired the musical Cabaret, was based on the diaries he kept while living in the Weimar Republic in his twenties. He’d already used the material before in Mr Norris Changes

Those magnificent men and their stargazing machines

Lead book review

Where is science bred? Is it where the physical circumstances are right – clear skies for astronomy, for example? Where raw materials are abundant – coal for organic chemistry? Where minds freely meet? Where the enlightened patron rules? Violet Moller’s first book, The Map of Knowledge, examined the spread through the centuries of the ideas

Second life: Playboy, by Constance Debré, reviewed

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Playboy is part one of a trilogy that draws on the life of its author, Constance Debré. Part two, Love Me Tender, was published in Britain last year. The trilogy was inspired by Debré’s experience of leaving her husband, abandoning her career as a lawyer, and then losing custody of her child when she re-emerged

The ordeal of sitting for my father Lucian Freud

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The frontispiece of this book is Lucian Freud’s portrait of his daughter Rose naked on a bed. Rose says that when her father asked her to sit, which she had long hoped he would do, she naturally assumed he would want her naked, but asked him not to paint her hairy legs. He, in turn,

Did the Duchess of Windsor fake the theft of her own jewels?

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On 16 October 1946, the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII, and his wife Wallis were visiting England for a short period. They were staying with their friends the Dudleys at Ednam Lodge in Surrey, and felt sufficiently comfortable not to store Wallis’s impressive collection of jewellery in the house’s safe room, but instead

When Stalin was the lesser of two evils

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‘We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime… Any man or state who fights against Nazism will have our aid.’ These words were spoken by Winston Churchill in a BBC radio broadcast to the nation from Chequers on the evening of 22 June 1941. Churchill detested Stalin – but he

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