Sinclair McKay

What progressives get wrong about Winston Churchill

Please be advised that the following article contains outdated racial representations and views some readers may find distressing. Only joking! Yet that always seems to be the unspoken line running through modern academia’s head whenever the subject of Winston Churchill is raised. This year sees the 150th anniversary of Churchill’s birth; it will also see

The World at War is the greatest documentary series ever made

To present a TV history documentary these days, one must first have access to the full Angels and Bermans dressing-up box – everything from britches to bonnets. The past must be experienced as pantalooned immersion: throw in some CGI cavalry charges or naval battles, plus artfully dressed period locations, back-alley washing-lines fluttering with greying rags,

The real Dick Whittington and the folklore legend

In that dark world the air pulsed with the melancholy clangour of bells. If, as legend has it, the chimes of St Mary-le-Bow told Dick Whittington to turn again, then what were they saying to all the other medieval Londoners, dwelling in houses so crowded on fouled streets that the sun could not break through?

Sex and politics in the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral

In the tight dark maze of alleys that wind between the Thames and St Paul’s the pleasures of the living are intertwined with those of the distant dead. Try it for yourself on a late Saturday afternoon. Start by immersing yourself in the eerie darkness of the Temple of Mithras (ancient stones, reconstructed Roman voices

City of gold: Peter Ackroyd on the undimmed spirit of London

The silenced city has been, for some, uncanny. Deserted evening streets, darkened pubs, shut shops and the absence of fellow footsteps might suggest that some essential spirit has fled. Yet this is exactly the wrong way to look at it, says the novelist, historian and biographer Peter Ackroyd. For him, both lockdown and winter provide

Behind the veil of secrecy: GCHQ emerges from the shadows

Is it ever possible to truly see inside the heart of another? To divine hidden intentions and the darkest of thoughts? For a long time — before we all became sourly aware of our own computers spying on us like HAL 9000, and flashing ads for haemorrhoid ointments — this godlike omniscience was ascribed to

Did Britain commit a war crime in Dresden? A conversation

  In February 1945, the Allies, led by Sir Arthur Harris and Bomber Command, destroyed the historic city of Dresden, killing 25,000, most of them civilians. For the 75th anniversary, Sinclair McKay, author of a recent book on the bombing raid, and A.N. Wilson discuss whether it should be regarded as a ‘war crime’.  

Crime of passion

No matter how exquisitely English —gobbets of blood amid the fireplace ornaments — murder annihilates meaning. Even when the motive is clear and strong, even when the progression to the fatal blow can be analysed step by step, all that is left amid the eviscerated lives of loved ones is an emptiness around the violence

The tug of the tide

We ought to cherish the haunted landscape of the Thames Estuary while we can. The grey hulks of old power stations, the white domes of oil refineries, the sternly rectilinear factories, all of which once seemed oppressive, are now instead poetic because of their near extinction. Caroline Crampton’s atmospheric and movingly written exploration of the

Britain, their Britain

Here’s a bracing lesson from Victorian history that might possibly help to slice some impossible Brexit knots. In the 19th century, there was complete freedom of movement of people from Europe to Britain. And that was all anyone needed. Europhiles might find it difficult to conceive of a time when the folk of continental Europe

Into the heart of Bow

Cockney feet mark the beat of history, sang Noël Coward, as if he had ever been east of Holborn. Yet the sugary wartime sentiment finds a moving and resonant echo in Melanie McGrath’s new work of social excavation. The past casts an unusually deep shadow over Bow. And, cleverly, she has found a fresh means

The best television ever made

Now, if someone were to spray stun gas through the keyhole of my front door, and I were to collapse on my sofa only to regain consciousness in a slightly kitsch 1960s serviced apartment, outside which lay an exquisite Italianate village, a stretch of sparkling coast, a startlingly cheery populace all speaking in RP accents

Finally tired of London

Iain Sinclair is leaving London — like the croakiest of the ravens taking flight from the Tower. It is a proper blow: across five decades, he has been prowling the streets, part poet, part satirist, part prophet. Very few authors have fashioned a London more real than the one we see: Dickens, Conan Doyle, Patrick

Golden opportunities

Tudor merchants — shivering in furs in tiny creaking ships, sailing through the ice of unknown winter seas — knew something that today’s careworn EU and civil service officials might be irritated to hear: that despite all travails, trade deals can sometimes be sexy, thrilling and epic. In 16th-century London, plans to open up fresh

Hack of the century

To all those computer hackers exulting in pizza-encrusted bedrooms across central Europe — the US presidential election was influenced! The CIA said so! — I would say this: yes, yes, perhaps. But listen: when it comes to altering the course of history through hacking, Britain is waaaay ahead. Indeed, if you want to hear about

Ghosts of the past

You find it in the vistas of skeletal metal gangways, the abandoned 18th-century forts, the squat oil holders and rusted pipelines, the pale reeds of the marshes, the barbed wire, the peeling housing estates, the lonely river paths. You hear it in the thick silence by the water, broken only by the wide river slurping

Through the eyes of spies

Spying is a branch of philosophy, although you would never guess it from that expression on Daniel Craig’s face. Its adepts interrogate the surface of reality — people, landscapes, texts — knowing that they will discover extraordinary hermetic meanings. They study fragments of documents, whispers of messages, and from these, they summon entire worlds. Possibly

Turing’s long shadow

As a young student, the atheist Alan Turing — disorientated with grief over the death of his first love Christopher Morcom — wrote to Morcom’s mother with an atomic theory of how one’s spirit might transmigrate. Years later, he brought the modern computer age into being by positing machines imbued with consciousness. You can’t help

Alan Turing’s last victory

‘So were you levitating with rage by the end?’ I asked her. She — a veteran of Bletchley Park — and I were discussing The Imitation Game, the new film about the mathematician and code–breaker Alan Turing, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and a host of historical inaccuracies. But she remained sanguine: ‘Not at all, I really