Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Thomas W. Hodgkinson is the author of How to be Cool.

The genius of John Betjeman’s Metro-Land

‘Over the points by electrical traction, out of the chimney pots into the openness, till we come to the suburb that’s thought to be commonplace, home of the gnome and the average citizen.’ Fifty years ago, the BBC documentary Metro-Land aired for the first time. These free-flowing dactyls, which mimic the motion of a train,

Inside the weird world of real tennis

When John Lumley was a baby, his mother placed him in his carrycot at one end of the tennis court in the leafy village of Holyport in Berkshire, and drove balls at him. I should clarify that John was perfectly safe. The tennis in question was real tennis: the old-fashioned version of the game, which

Hampton Court: an architectural symbol of royal lust

The Dowager Countess of Deloraine, who was governess to the children of George II at Hampton Court and other royal homes, was a notorious bore – so much so that her ‘every word’ made one ‘sick’, according to the courtier Lord Hervey. When she naively asked him why everyone was avoiding her, he replied with

The Greek myths are always with us

Once upon a time there was a collection of stories that everybody loved. They involved brave heroes such as Perseus and Theseus defeating fearful monsters like Medusa and the Minotaur. Sometimes they used ingenious gadgets to achieve their goals, a bit like James Bond with his exploding pen. Sometimes they were helped by women who

Film’s most unforgettable scene

The actor never knew they would use a real horse’s head. This was May 1971 and John Marley was preparing to perform in the most infamous scene in The Godfather, playing the corrupt movie producer who wakes up to find a horse’s head in his bed. Reportedly, Marley assumed this would just be a plastic

Gilgamesh, Michael Schmidt’s ‘life’ of a poem

In the mid-19th century, around lunchtime, a pale young man with an enormous beard could be seen in the British Museum reading room poring over piles of books about Mesopotamia. His name was George Smith, and this was his secret passion. Then, one day, a museum attendant remarked that it was a shame no one

From alpha to omega

Mary Norris’s book about her love affair with Greece and the Greek language starts with a terrific chapter about alphabets. That may sound like an oxymoron, but I was fascinated to learn why the Y and the Z come at the end of our alphabet. When the Romans were adapting the Greek alphabet, they ditched

Physician, heal thyself

The journalist Auberon Waugh, in whose time-capsule of a flat I briefly lived in 2000, once summed up what he took to be the primary motivations for writing books. ‘With women, there is this tremendous desire to expose themselves. With men, it is more often an obscure form of revenge.’ In the case of the

Trailing clouds of perfume

In his robust new biography of Alcibiades, David Stuttard describes how the mercurial Greek general shocked his contemporaries by adopting Persian customs: Certainly, he embraced their lifestyle, tying his hair up in a bun, curling his well-oiled beard (a symbol of machismo in the Persian court), dousing himself in the perfumes for which Sardis was

Everything we know is wrong

Reading The Mind is Flat is like watching The Truman Show and realising, while you’re watching it, that you are Truman. For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, this is Peter Weir’s 1998 fable in which Jim Carrey discovers he is unwittingly the star of the most successful reality-TV show on the planet. His world

Demonised by history

Some oleaginous interviewer once suggested to Winston Churchill that he was the greatest Briton who ever lived. The grand old man considered the matter gravely. ‘No,’ he replied at length. ‘That was Alfred the Great.’ In his hefty, hard-to-pick-up History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill expatiated on King Alfred’s foremost quality: it was his ‘sublime

Christianity triumphant – and destructive

In the late years of Empire, and early days of Christianity, there were monks who didn’t wash for fear of being overcome by lust at the sight of their own bodies. Some concealed their nakedness in outfits woven from palm fronds. One designed a leather suit that also covered his head. There were holes for