Ian Thomson

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

Rewriting holy writ

Jesuits, the leading apologists for Rome and Catholic revival in Elizabethan England, cast a long shadow over the paranoid post-Armada years. For one thing, they set much store by Romish ‘persuasion’ (sophistical reasoning) and were often superb linguists. Among the languages codified by Jesuits were Guaraní in Paraguay and Sri Lankan Tamil. Jesuit attempts to

Filming the Final Solution

In July 1986, nine months before he died, I met the Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin. He was in shirtsleeves for the interview and the concentration camp tattoo 174517 was visible on his left forearm. (‘A typical German talent for classification,’ he tartly observed.) If This is a

Diced heart and a full-bodied red

Valerio Varesi, the Turin-born crime writer, displays a typically Italian interest (I would say) in conspiracy theory. The Italian term dietrologia, which translates, not very happily, as ‘behindology’, presumes that shadowy consortia are everywhere manipulating political scandals. A Woman Much Missed, the fourth of the excellent Commissario Soneri thrillers to be translated into English, unfolds

Wild man of the woods

The other day I visited a psychic medium in Croydon, south-east London. Mavis Grimstick (not quite her real name) boasted an ability to hear the dead — ‘clairaudience’. Her front room, hung with plastic foliate Green Man gargoyle motifs and photographs of Stonehenge, was grimly inimical to mediumship and made me want to make a

The joy of physics

Physics is said to go deeper than other sciences into the riddle of existence. The laws of physics — gravity, energy, motion, time — underpin those of chemistry, astrophysics and meteorology combined. So an understanding of the world requires a basic understanding of physics; something which has just become a little easier thanks to a

Here’s to Bill

Often, Christmas is a time for moaning after the night before, when the seasonal drinking is remembered (if remembered at all) with bewilderment and a degree of guilt. The illusion of drink-fuelled happiness — what James Joyce called ‘tighteousness’ — is familiar to most of us, even if the hangover seems a cruel price. The

Why I’m in love with Róisín Murphy

Róisín Murphy, the Irish singer-songwriter, is currently touring Europe with her Mercury Prize-shortlisted new album, Hairless Toys. The album, with its odd disco-grooves, dub rhythms and dark, loopy synth sounds, combines pop futurism with a retrospective 1970s edge. The album is tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of an older woman looking

The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour usually culminated with Naples, ragamuffin capital of the Italian south, where Vesuvius offered a visual education in the grand style. Some Grand Tourists, among them Lord Byron, got as far as Greece; but Italy was coveted as the glittering birthplace of the Renaissance — a haven of art on the Arno. In

Shock and awe in Coventry, 14 November 1940

On 14 November 1940, at seven in the evening, the Luftwaffe began to bomb Coventry. The skyline turned red like an eclipse of the sun as clouds of cinders, lit red by the blaze, floated down over the great West Midlands city. Coventry seemed to have been hit by a meteorite. The mile-high roar of

Cats, whisky and modernity: the J.G. Ballard I knew

That cinema is having another Ballardian moment will surprise few fans. J.G. Ballard, who died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 78, was one of the darkest, most unsettling of post-war British novelists. In a career that spanned half a century from his debut as a science-fiction writer in the mid-1950s, his surreal


By the end of my ten-day Atlantic crossing to New York, a new wellbeing seemed to radiate from me. Lulled by the motion and murmurings of the rocking sea, I slept like a baby. I was never bored. Queen Mary 2, the Cunard Line’s flagship, has everything from a ballroom, planetarium and library to an

The trip of a lifetime

Aldous Huxley reported his first psychedelic experience in The Doors of Perception (1954), a bewitching little volume that soon became the Newest Testament among the happening people. One spring morning in 1953 the 58-year-old Englishman ingested four-tenths of a gram of mescalin in his Hollywood garden and waited for the visionary moment. When he opened

Salvation through music

Ours is the era of everybody’s autobiography. Bookshops groan with misery-lit memoirs — Never Let Me Go, Dysfunction Without Tears — which dilate on anorexia, alcoholism, cruel bereavement. When is a life worth telling? B.S. Johnson, the London-born novelist (and tireless chronicler of himself), put the most revealing sexual details into his autobiographical novels of

Beautiful, bedevilled island

The Arabs invaded Sicily in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Arab rule was generally tolerant, its dolce far niente evocative of sultans, minarets, concubines and other jasmine-scented delights. Walking round Palermo today, however, one is assailed by less lovely smells. Parts of the city remain

The dreamer

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was a box-office triumph in Italy in 1960. It made $1.5 million at the box office in three months — more than Gone With the Wind had. ‘It was the making of me,’ said Fellini. It was also the making of Marcello Mastroianni as the screen idol with a curiously

Anders Brievik: lonely computer-gamer on a killing spree

In 2011, Anders Breivik murdered 69 teenagers in a socialist summer camp outside the Norwegian capital of Oslo, and eight adults with a bomb attack. His hatred was directed at the children of Norwegian politicians who had allowed immigration to contaminate the sturdy bond (as he saw it) of Nordic race and nationhood. ‘You will

Bob Marley: from reggae icon to Marlboro Man of marijuana

A kind of political correctness dictates that one should not be too hard on Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 aged 36. His loping, mid-tempo reggae sounds slightly vapid to my ears, but for many non-Jamaicans, Bob Marley is reggae; he remains an international Rasta celebrity, honoured with a waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s