Ian Thomson

Ian Thomson is the author of books including Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End.

Thankfully, Tony Blair was nowhere near my Sicilian holiday

Sicily is far removed from the gracious suavities of Tuscany. With the souk-like atmosphere of its markets and obscure exuberance of life in the old Cosa Nostra towns, the Mediterranean island is halfway to Muslim Tunisia. The British Tuscanites who descend on the hills around Florence during the summer holidays as part of their ‘Toujours Tuscany’

A celebration of the music of Jamaica

In Jamaica, music is the vital expression. Night and day, amid the heat and narrow lanes of the capital, Kingston, rap, reggae, ska, dub, rocksteady, gospel and mento-calypso boom from giant loudspeaker cabinets: a joyous musical beat. Deejay-based dancehall – a digitalised reggae that Jamaicans sometimes call ragga or Yardcore – dominates the club scene

Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, was not such a ridiculous figure

In January 1804 the West Indian island of Saint-Domingue became the world’s first black republic after the slaves toiling in the sugar fields rose up against their French masters and, at the end of a 13-year insurgency, proclaimed independence. Saint-Domingue was renamed Haiti (an aboriginal Taino-Arawak Indian word meaning ‘mountainous land’) and the Haitian flag

Violence and beauty combine in Siena

Siena, the jewel of Tuscan cities, was the mercantile and banking centre of medieval Europe. Bankers in Pre-Renaissance Siena preened themselves on their wealth and material possession. Banking (from the Italian banco, ‘counter’) is an Italian invention. Yet Dante consigned money-lenders to the seventh circle of Hell, where they are made to stare for eternity

Naples will never escape the shadow of Vesuvius

Naples, the tatterdemalion capital of the Italian south, is said to be awash with heroin. Chinese-run morphine refineries on its outskirts masquerade as ‘legitimate’ couture operations that transform bolts of Chinese silk into contraband Dolce & Gabbana or Versace. The textile sweatshops are controlled by the Neapolitan mafia, or Camorra. All this was exposed by

Dark days in the Balkans: life under Enver Hoxha and beyond

For many in the West, Albania remains as remote and shadowy as the fictional Syldavia of the Tintin comics. The country came into existence only in 1912, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its first ruler, King Zog, was ousted by Mussolini when he invaded in 1939. Hitler used Albania as a springboard for

Darkness, desolation and disarray in Germany

In Geoffrey Household’s adrenalin-quickening 1939 thriller Rogue Male, a lone English adventurer takes a potshot at Hitler and then runs for cover. Few Germans were brave or reckless enough to resist the Führer. Once Hitler’s lunacy had become manifest, however, the dilemma for German patriots was painful: to love the Fatherland yet desire the downfall

It takes a trained ear fully to appreciate Indian music

At George Harrison’s 1971 concert for Bangladesh, awkwardly, the audience applauded after Ravi Shankar and his musicians had paused to tune their sitars and tablas. ‘If you appreciated the tuning so much,’ Shankar said, half in jest, ‘I hope you’ll enjoy the music even more.’ To the untrained ear, Indian music may sound unmelodious and

My fight to stop the Chinese censors sanitising Dante

My book on Dante Alighieri was due to come out in Chinese translation later this year, but first I had to consent to sizeable cuts. Even by the standards of other authoritarian states the Beijing censors struck me as overzealous. It seems odd that the medieval Italian poet could cause such unease among modern-day totalitarians.

CIA spies lose faith

With its grim John le Carré atmosphere, communist Eastern Europe in the late 1980s was a melancholy, out-at-elbow place. The Estonian capital of Tallinn crawled with Russian money-changers (‘Comrade, we do deal?’). The television in my hotel room was detuned from capitalist Finnish to Soviet channels, but I was able to pick up Miami Vice

Alasdair Gray gives us a vivid new Paradiso

As every Italian schoolchild knows, The Divine Comedy opens in a supernatural dark wood just before sunrise on Good Friday 1300. Dante Alighieri, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and frightened in the darkness. The ghost of the Roman poet Virgil is about to show

City of dazzling mosaics: the golden age of Ravenna

When we refer to someone as ‘Byzantine’ we usually mean guileful or too complicated and labyrinthine in manner or speech. Perhaps the term is ill-applied: Byzantium, the medieval Greek city on the Bosporus which the Roman Emperor Constantine I renamed Constantinople, was not in essence an unfathomable, over-hierarchical or manipulative sort of place. It flourished

Should we all be prepping for the end of days?

In the Covid-19 crisis the calamity-howlers have found a vindication: go back to survival mode and bunker down because nobody believed Noah until it was way too late. Bunker: Building for the End Times, a hybrid of reportage and philosophical musing, considers contemporary survivalist culture in all its manifest craziness, from the doomsday realtors who

Animation lends itself readily to propaganda

Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian major-general blown up by the US over the New Year, will have seen himself arrested by Saudi troops in a computer-animated film of the ‘liberation’ of Iran from Ayatollah rule. Saudi Deterrent Force was a six-minute fantasy released online by anonymous video-makers in Saudi Arabia in 2017. It was viewed over

Franco’s exhumation could help decide the Spanish election

I was no sooner in Madrid than General Franco was exhumed from his mausoleum not far from El Escorial. An air force helicopter ferried his remains from the Valley of the Fallen, where a gigantic stone cross marks the dictator’s grave as well as that of 34,000 Spanish Civil War dead. For four decades the

If only Georges Simenon had been a bit more like Maigret

Georges Simenon, creator of the sombre, pipe-smoking Paris detective Jules Maigret, pursued sex, fame and money relentlessly. By the time he died in 1989, he had written nearly 200 novels, more than 150 novellas, several memoirs and countless short stories. His demonic productivity and the vast sales and fortune it brought him were matched by