After Polonium

‘It is too early to say whether those responsible for Alexander Litvinenko’s end intended its cause to be discovered,’ I wrote in the LRB nine years ago. ‘A lingering death caused by a painful poison unknown to science sends out a powerful message.’ The evidence presented to Sir Robert Owen’s Public Inquiry Report, published on 21 January, is clear. The plotters of Litvinenko’s death intended its cause to remain a mystery. More »

Houses Built on Sand

In their report to Parliament last June, the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned that ‘a substantial proportion of local authorities have reduced effort on adaptation.’ For local government, preparing for the long term effects of climate change was a ‘low political priority’ at a time of historic budget cuts. More »

Mechanical Doping

Waiting for a train? Maurice Garin after winning the first Tour de France in 1903.

Waiting for a train? Maurice Garin after winning the first Tour de France in 1903.

Professional cycling has always been populated by cheats, and in the early years of the sport some of their methods were almost comically baroque. The winner of the 1904 Tour de France, Maurice Garin (who’d won the year before, too), was later disqualified for taking a train between stages. Several other riders were caught being towed along by cars, holding corks in their teeth attached to long wires (they could spit them out when they passed potential witnesses). More »

Los Niños de Guernica

habana plaque

In Southampton last week, a city I am completely unfamiliar with, I noticed at the entrance to the City Art Gallery an attractive blue roundel. Bearing the date 2007 it commemorated, seventy years after the event, the arrival of almost 4000 refugee children, with a small support team of teachers, priests and volunteers, from Guernica. More »

Young Americans

Hillary Clinton may have been the Democratic victor in Iowa last Monday, but the scale of Bernie Sanders’s achievement there was as significant as his win in New Hampshire last night. Clinton is not only a former secretary of state and first lady, but has vast resources at her disposal. Before Christmas, George Soros donated $6 million to her Super PAC, Priorities USA. That’s the equivalent of 228,000 Sanders supporters each donating $26.28, the average contribution his campaign has received so far. More »

Jeremy Hunt’s Way with Statistics

‘Around 6000 people lose their lives every year because we do not have a proper seven-day service in hospitals,’ Jeremy Hunt said on 16 July 2015. ‘You are 15 per cent more likely to die if you are admitted on a Sunday compared to being admitted on a Wednesday.’ A Department of Health statement later clarified that the figures came from an analysis ‘soon to be published in the BMJ’. Nick Freemantle, a professor of epidemiology at UCL, had been invited by Bruce Keogh, the chief medical officer, to update a 2012 analysis of hospital data, apparently on the suggestion of Simon Stevens, the new chief executive of NHS England. The resulting paper wasn’t accepted by the BMJ until 29 July, after Hunt’s speech. When it appeared in September, it contained no reference to the 6000 figure. More »

Reacher v. Parker

A couple of years ago, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers were statistically certified, by Forbes magazine, as the most addictive novels in commercial fiction. The key finding was that ‘Child carries more readers with him from book to book than any other bestselling author.’ Perhaps I’m too weak-kneed to be a proper Reacher fan: the ones I’ve read I found hard to put down, but I didn’t feel compelled to go out and buy the lot. The airport-thriller page counts and twitchy plotting sometimes left me feeling jangled and strung out, as though I’d been bingeing on espressos and Haribo Tangfastics while playing a frenetic computer game. That wasn’t the case with another series about a laconic tough guy with a name ending in ‘-er’, a series that’s put together with more artistry than you’d expect and which has, for me, greater addictive properties: the Parker novels by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake (1933-2008). More »

In Paris

A poster outside the Bataclan

A poster outside the Bataclan

The controlled explosion at the Gare du Nord just after noon on Saturday was loud enough to sound as if it wasn’t controlled, but when nothing happened – shards of glass from the roof of the train shed did not fall on our heads, the station was for a few seconds absolutely and reassuringly silent – everyone carried on as if nothing had happened.

I was on my way to lunch with friends before the rugby at the Stade de France – France v. Italy. The explosion was mentioned briefly at our table, then swiftly forgotten. More »

Earth, Wind, Fire and Fathers

Maurice White’s death on Thursday brought back memories of his brilliant music and put ‘September’ on repeat on millions of stereos. It also conjured, for me, some odd family history. In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal. Keitel is ordered by his music biz bosses, who answer to mob heavies, to concentrate his formidable knob-turning prowess on some Carpenters rip-offs. More »

Goodbye, Circumflex

Hungary stamp

The diacritical mark, that puzzling addition to a recognisable letter, arrived in my life at about the age of six, like an insect lighting on the page of a school textbook. Only it happened out of school, in the world of foreign stamps, where I first encountered ‘accents’. My arbitrary collection included a stamp from Hungary commemorating the ‘technical and transport museum’ – Közlekedési Múzeum – and another from Yugoslavia commemorating what I think is a children’s day: ‘Decja Nedelja’ (1957), with a wingless creature fixed to the lid of the ‘c’. French stamps were easy to obtain: on these you could see your first cedilla, even if you didn’t know it. All these marks were mysterious, but mystery gets irritating before long, and mostly I wanted to swat them away. More »

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    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

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  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

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