Highsmith in My Head

Terry Castle

In the 1950s and 1960s, Alfred Hitch­cock was her only rival at capturing such vertiginous changes of state: the lightning­ quick slippage from normal to horrific and back again. Back, that is, to a now night­marish perversion of normal life from which you, the killer, realise you’ll never escape, even should the outrage you’ve just committed go undiscovered. (In classic Highsmith – witness the supremely twisty Ripley novels – even the most frenzied murders sometimes go unrecognised as such.) You’re not dead yet, but you’re un­ questionably in hell: for ever. Also indisputable is the fact that High­smith was able to dramatise the loss of con­trol so shockingly because she knew how it felt. Though not herself a homicidal maniac (as far as one knows), she could imagine what it was like to be one. Her brain had been arranged for it: she had blown out her own frontal lobes early on.

 

The View from Piccadilly

Rosemary Hill

Above Primark, at Nos. 14­-28, is the handsome faience frontage of the former Lyons Oxford Corner House. At No. 8, above McDonalds, there is the ‘robust brick front with crowning gablet in the Waterhouse-­Romanesque manner, per­ haps of c.1880’ that was once a tailor’s or clothier’s shop. These are the traces of the changing retail patterns of the 19th century: from small to big, from individual stalls, bazaars and arcades to giant specialised emporia and department stores.

 

Eeek!

Rupert Beale

Biologists​ love abbreviations, but we often use them clumsily. What may sound like catchy acronyms to one group of researchers are tiresome jargon to colleagues in related fields. Fruit fly geneticists have taken whimsy to absurdity: MAD stands for ‘Mothers Against Decapentaplegic’. The ‘decapentaplegic’ bit comes from a mutant fly that doesn’t correctly...

 

Open in a Scream

Colm Tóibín

Since Bacon was known for his tangled personal life, his gambling, his drinking and the chaos of his studio, with the stories of his sexual habits and ghastly Irish childhood in circulation, something needed to be done to explain that his paintings were not just garish expressions of his own neuroses. David Sylvester and Michel Leiris, who both wrote perceptively about his work, emerged as friends and champions. As early as 1951, Sylvester asserted that Bacon was ‘the major English artist of his time’. He soon had access to Bacon’s studio and saw paintings before anyone else did. Sylvester was practised at making eloquent, high-toned, oracular statements and, spurred on by John Berger’s contrary judgments, applied this skill to Bacon: ‘In these claustrophobic curtained settings, there loom up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these are creatures faced with their tragic destiny.’

 

Space Forces

Tom Stevenson

Unlike planets, asteroids have no atmosphere and much less energy is needed to lift materials off their surfaces. In December, a Japanese mission returned to Earth with the first samples taken from below an asteroid’s surface. Nations have fought plenty of wars over shitty little islands. Fighting over shitty little asteroids is not implausible.

 

Thirsting for the Vote

Susan Pedersen

On​ 18 June 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was released from Holloway prison. She was in bad shape. A year earlier the Liberal government had passed the so-called Cat and Mouse Act as a response to the hunger strikes undertaken by militant suffragettes in prison. Under its terms, women could be released when they became dangerously weak (not just from hunger, but also from the travails of...

 

The Science of Man

Francis Gooding

Franz Boas wasn’t in the least woolly-minded or anti-scientific. On the contrary, he was committed to the scientific meth­ods in which he had been trained, and dedicated to the clear-eyed analysis of data. But what he had found was that the rigorous application of these principles to anthropological material proved, again and again, that history and culture were the final, critical variable when it came to human behaviour.

 

On Bill Gates

Thomas Jones

On​ 17 February, Bloomberg reported that perhaps as many as fifteen million people in Texas had lost electricity, in ‘undoubtedly the largest forced blackout in US history’. There had been 21 confirmed deaths – some from carbon monoxide poisoning, as families tried to use their cars to warm their houses – and the final toll is likely to be higher. ‘I don’t...

Talking Politics: History of Ideas PLUS

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