Allan Massie

Was there no end to his talents?

John Buchan was a novelist, historian, poet, biographer and journalist (assistant editor of The Spectator indeed); a barrister and publisher; one of Lord Milner’s ‘young men’, charged with the reconstruction of South Africa after the second Boer war; director of propaganda 1917–18, a Member of Parliament; lord high commissioner (i.e. the king’s representative) to the

They’re all doomed

Night of Fire is Colin Thubron’s first novel for 14 years. For most of us he is better known as a travel writer, perhaps the finest of our time. But between journeys there have been seven previous novels, and this new one draws on his travelling. Ostensibly confined to a house converted into single apartments,

Clumber spaniels

For the first time in more than 30 years we have no Clumber spaniel. We have had five: Henry, Judith, Laurie, Persephone and Wattie. The last of them, Wattie the gentlest and sweetest of dogs, died a few months ago. We feel bereft. Clumbers are special: beautiful, affectionate, wilful, sometimes difficult, never dull. They take

London’s burning

Spectator readers know Andrew Taylor from his reviews of crime fiction. Many will also know him as an admirable writer of the stuff. In a recent issue, however, he remarked that there are fewer murders now, and added that this made things difficult for crime novelists. Detection has been taken over by the scientists, DNA

Life & Letters: A PM’s summer reading

One of the weaknesses of many political biographies is that they are so often all about politics. The authors either forget that politicians are people, and sometimes interesting people, or they assume that their private life is of neither interest nor importance. So the book becomes a record of what the politician did rather than


Say ‘Pisa’ and everyone thinks of the Leaning Tower. Fair enough; it’s a curiosity, and the tourist board must be pleased that Mussolini’s plan to straighten it came to nothing. It stands, or leans, next to the cathedral in the Piazza dei Miracoli, and beyond the cathedral is the Baptistry, one of the most beautiful

Another near run thing

Charles VI of France died on 21 October 1422. He had been intermittently mad for most of his long reign, ‘a pathetic figure’ flitting, often witless, around his palaces. He left a ruined and divided kingdom. There was no French prince to follow his funeral. ‘Tradition was maintained by a solitary figure in a black

Just sign here…

This being the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, it is not surprising that there should be two new biographies of King John; not surprising either that one should be billed as ‘The Making of a Tyrant’, the other as a story of ‘Treachery’ and ‘Tyranny’. King John has long been regarded as

Scotland’s miraculous century (it started with the Union)

In 1707 Scotland surrendered what it had of its independence by the Treaty of Union with England. That independence had been limited since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and arguably for at least half a century before that. But the treaty was, as Lord Seafield, Chancellor of Scotland, said ‘the end of an

Business books aren’t meant to cheer you up. But this one will

Economics is known as ‘the dismal science’, and certainly there have been — and indeed are — economists whose day seems to have been wasted if they have left their readers with a smile on their face. Happily such puckered-brow, down-turned-lips fellows are rarely admitted through the doors of The Spectator. For more than half

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney – review

Laidlaw was first published in 1977, 36 years back from now, 38 on from The Big Sleep. Like Chandler’s classic it has survived the passage of time. William McIlvanney did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles, giving the city its fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out

About to cop it?

Rebus is back, in a novel long, meaty and persuasive enough to make up for the years of absence. Actually, he is only part-way back — on a civilian attachment to the Edinburgh & Lothian Police, and working on cold cases. However, the retiring age has been raised, and he has applied for re-instatement. He

Life and letters | 28 July 2012

With few exceptions, literary journalists moulder in the grave and are soon forgotten. They may get some sort of posthumous life if they are made the subject of other books. John Gross rescued a few from oblivion in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Otherwise it is usually only those who were

Give me excess of it

There is a joke about a retired colonel whose aberrant behaviour had him referred to a psychoanalyst. He emerged from the session fuming. ‘Damn fool says I’m in love with my umbrella. Bloody nonsense.’ Long pause, then: ‘I’m fond of it of course.’ Quite so, and likewise while people may not actually fall in love

Storm in a wastepaper basket

‘It’s the revenge of Dreyfus,’ came the cry from the dock. The speaker was the veteran right-wing ideologue, Charles Maurras, found guilty of treason in 1945 for his support of the collaborationist Vichy regime. It wasn’t of course that, and yet there is a sense in which Maurras spoke the truth. The Dreyfus case had

Life & Letters: The Creative Writing controversy

It came as a bit of a shock to learn from Philip Hensher’s review of Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (31 December) that there are now nearly 100 institutions of higher education in Britain offering a degree in Creative Writing. I suppose for many it’s a merry-go-round. You get the

Allan Massie’s books of the year

Graham Swift is probably still best known for Waterland, published almost 30 years ago. I rather think he is now out of fashion. Certainly Wish You Were Here received less attention that it deserved. Swift has the admirable ability to write literary novels about characters who would never read such books. He presents us with

Life & Letters: Shakespeare’s women

Gordon Bottomley, Georgian poet with an unpoetic name, wrote a play called King Lear’s Wife with which he hoped to inspire a poetic revival in the theatre. It might be interesting to see it revived — though most 19th- and 20th-century verse-dramas proved forgettable. Nevertheless, he surely happened on an interesting subject, though one which

The fascist vote

At the age of 72, I begin to wonder, for the first time in my life, if there might be a future for a fascist party in Britain. The thought has been provoked by the riots, or rather the response of many to them. The riots themselves were horrible, an outburst of callous criminality, doubtless