Graham Robb

The pleasures – and perils – of getting on your bike

Jody Rosen lives and cycles in Brooklyn, which makes him what the Mexican essayist Julio Torri calls ‘a suicide apprentice’. He has been ‘rear-ended’ and ‘doored’ several times. He quotes an unnamed cyclist who likens the click of a car door being opened to the sound of a gun being cocked. ‘Get a bicycle,’ said

Journey to ‘the grimmest place in the world’

Suffering from post-traumatic stress and the effects of government austerity measures, Paul Jones resigned as the head of an inner-city secondary school and, ‘an idiot without a job’, decided to cycle from Land’s End to John o’Groats in four stages spread over ten months. He had raced occasionally with professional cyclists but had never ridden

Has Notre-Dame ever been a symbol of unity for the French?

From the kitchen of her apartment on the Quai de la Tournelle in Paris, the journalist and broadcaster Agnès Poirier could see the bright yellow plumes of smoke rising into the sky. Notre-Dame de Paris was on fire, and suddenly, in that tourist-crowded, hyper-expensive ‘cradle of France’, nothing was certain — ‘democracy, peace and fraternity’

Coming out of the class closet

After an absence of 30 years, Didier Eribon, professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, returned to the seedy outskirts of Reims, where he had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s. His ‘stupid and violent’ father, a factory worker who drank, went fishing, shouted at the television and beat his wife, had finally

A heartwarming spectacle of desolation

In 2008, the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie characterised the typical exponent of modern nature writing as ‘the lone enraptured male’. This was a more solemn, grown-up Basil Fotherington-Thomas, the effete schoolboy of the Molesworth books who prances about in puerile pantheistic ecstasy, saying, ‘hullo clouds, hullo sky’. Ten years on, there is barely a British

The martyrdom of Proust

Why would a writer like Marcel Proust, who quivered and wheezed at the slightest sensation, decide to live surrounded by neighbours in one of the busiest parts of Paris? In 1906, at the age of 35, shortly after the death of his mother, he moved to a first-floor apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. ‘I couldn’t

Something in the water

‘It was a shock, and an epiphany,’ says Fiona Sampson, to realise that many of her favourite places were built on and out of limestone: the cosy Cotswold village of Coleshill, the shambolic hamlet of Le Chambon in the Dordogne, the limestone Karst region of western Slovenia, and the honeycombed hills of Jerusalem and the

Intoxicated with ink

One of the charms and shortcomings of biography is that it makes perfectly normal situations sound extraordinary. According to Michel Winock, Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the author of Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, contracted ‘an early and profound aversion to mankind’. To Gustave the schoolboy, man was nothing but a coagulation of ‘mud and shit… equipped

One événement after another

The great conundrum of French history is the French Revolution, or rather, the sequence of revolutions, coups and insurrections during which the nation was repeatedly destroyed and recreated. How is it that a heap of cobblestones, furniture and overturned vehicles — handcarts in 1848, 2CVs in 1968 — erected at particular points on the Left