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Thinking about Death

Michael Wood: Why does the world exist?, 21 March 2013

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story 
by Jim Holt.
Profile, 307 pp., £12.99, June 2012, 978 1 84668 244 5
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... Adolf Grünbaum in Pittsburgh, to Richard Swinburne in Oxford, to David Deutsch in Headington, to John Leslie in Canada, to Derek Parfit, again in Oxford. He meets Roger Penrose in New York, has phone conversations with Steven Weinberg and John Updike. These conversations become a way of evoking possibilities as much as ...

Lost Empire

D.J. Enright, 16 October 1980

Earthly Powers 
by Anthony Burgess.
Hutchinson, 650 pp., £6.95, October 1980, 0 09 143910 8
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... But now we must face the horrors, the other horrors. Early in the 1960s Toomey gives his nephew John Campanati, a young anthropologist interested in language structure, money to go, with his wife, to research in a new African state – money earned from writing ‘sedative fiction’ and film scripts. By now the reader is likely to guess what will ...

Whose Body?

Charles Glass: ‘Operation Mincemeat’, 22 July 2010

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War Two 
by Ben Macintyre.
Bloomsbury, 400 pp., £16.99, January 2010, 978 0 7475 9868 8
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... a stormy night with the discovery of a dead man in a barn, carrying papers that identify him as “John Whitaker”,’ Macintyre writes. ‘By dint of some distinctly plodding detective work, Inspector Richardson discovers that every document in the pockets of the dead man has been ingeniously forged: his visiting cards, his bills, and even his passport, on ...

Rub gently out with stale bread

Adam Smyth: The Print Craze, 2 November 2017

The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking 1550-1820 
by Antony Griffiths.
British Museum, 560 pp., £60, August 2016, 978 0 7141 2695 1
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... needed prints of their works to spread their fame and standing. From 1829 until his death in 1837, John Constable grew increasingly preoccupied with printmaking and collaborated with the young engraver David Lucas to translate his oil sketches and paintings into 22 mezzotints, part of what would become known as English Landscape Scenery. Proofs survive, and ...

The New Lloyd’s

Peter Campbell, 24 July 1986

Richard Rogers 
by Bryan Appleyard.
Faber, 271 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 571 13976 0
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A Concrete Atlantis 
by Reyner Banham.
MIT, 265 pp., £16.50, June 1986, 0 262 02244 3
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William Richard Lethaby 
by Godfrey Rubens.
Architectural Press, 320 pp., £30, April 1986, 0 85139 350 0
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... them and nothing in the future, with Rogers thinking about living in the USA and his partner John Young looking into minicab driving, the RIBA asked them to submit material for consideration by an unnamed client. Lloyd’s were looking for an architect. They needed, not just space, but a plan which would allow business to go on while building ...

The Undesired Result

Gillian Darley: Betjeman’s bêtes noires, 31 March 2005

Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 744 pp., £25, October 2004, 0 7195 6495 6
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... The dust jacket of the final volume of Bevis Hillier’s epic life of John Betjeman shows the poet laureate seized by giggles. In this lengthy coda to Hillier’s authorised biography Betjeman appears in many lights, but he’s rarely carefree. ‘Nothing frightens me more than the thought of dying,’ he told a friend in 1958 ...


Christopher Harvie: Cars and Cuckoo Clocks, 26 January 1995

... of a displaced society in which few of the traditional myths – Red Clydeside on one hand and John Buchanite Tory collectivism on the other – have still got any clout. Piecing together a history in which one has been involved, one tends to isolate symbols or epiphanies which offer metaphors of change: Yeats’s ‘monstrous familiar images’. Another ...


Amanda Vickery: Vauxhall Gardens, 7 February 2013

Vauxhall Gardens: A History 
by Alan Borg and David Coke.
Yale, 473 pp., £55, June 2011, 978 0 300 17382 6
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... something rather different about the Spring Gardens, as they were originally known, at Vauxhall. John Evelyn, an early visitor, described the site in July 1661 as ‘a pretty contriv’d plantation’. The trees there were said to be a hundred years old in 1661. The gardens offered ‘a universal withdrawing room for the city’, as Borg and Coke put it, the ...

Mastering the Art of Understating Your Wealth

Thomas Keymer: The Tonsons, 5 May 2016

The Literary Correspondences of the Tonsons 
edited by Stephen Bernard.
Oxford, 386 pp., £95, March 2015, 978 0 19 870085 2
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... poet had to be seen. By 1690 he had cornered the rights to Paradise Lost, the book he clutches in Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of 1717, now in the NPG. This was the most lucrative poem, Tonson said, of his publishing career. Yet his luxurious folio edition of Milton was more than just a commodity. Tonson consulted all prior editions as well as Milton’s ...

Whitehall Farces

Patrick Parrinder, 8 October 1992

Now you know 
by Michael Frayn.
Viking, 282 pp., £14.99, September 1992, 9780670845545
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... and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office.’ Lawyers these days doubtless read John Mortimer, and dons read the new university wits like David Lodge and Tom Sharpe. But in any wider competition for the post of English humorist-in-residence, Michael Frayn would surely be a prime contender. Now verging on sixty, his collected plays and ...

Bright Old Thing

D.A.N. Jones, 23 July 1987

Letters of Conrad Russell: 1897-1947 
edited by Georgiana Blakiston.
Murray, 278 pp., £16.95, May 1987, 0 7195 4382 7
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... they seem to fear he might fall over. In his Home Guard uniform Russell resembles the lovable Godfrey of Dad’s Army, so that it is horrid to imagine what a beastly sergeant-major might say to him: ‘Well, well, what have we here? Is it a Womble? Is it Winnie-the-Pooh?’ In fact, Russell was always treated with loving care by the lower ranks, who found ...

Gargoyles have their place

A.N. Wilson, 12 December 1996

Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton 
by Joseph Pearce.
Hodder, 522 pp., £25, November 1996, 0 340 67132 7
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... with the ‘time of old sin’ – whether a fantastical Alma-Tadema-ish Ancient Rome, or a John Addington Symonds Athens, where pederasty was not merely permissible but praiseworthy – drifted, for those who survived their heady youth of Baudelaire and absinthe, into the Aesthetes’ religion, in which chalices and smoke played their part. ...

Into Apathy

Neil McKendrick, 21 August 1980

The Wedgwood Circle, 1730-1897 
by Barbara Wedgwood and Hensleigh Wedgwood.
Studio Vista, 386 pp., £9.95, May 1980, 0 289 70892 3
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... a continuing record of high individual success: Tom, the pioneer in the discovery of photography; John the founder of the Royal Horticultural Society; and Josiah II, the head of a great family firm secure in the knowledge of its acknowledged fame and industrial leadership. All of these claimed achievements have something of a hollow ring when examined more ...

The Men from God Knows Where

Maurice Keen: The Hundred Years War, 27 April 2000

The Hundred Years War. Vol. II: Trial by Fire 
by Jonathan Sumption.
Faber, 680 pp., £30, August 1999, 0 571 13896 9
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... on land at Crécy (1346, followed by the capture of Calais in 1347), at Poitiers (1356, where King John of France was taken prisoner, and which Sumption reconstructs superbly), and the Black Prince’s final ‘disastrous’ victory at Nájera in Spain (1367). The story also has its decisive turning points in politics and diplomacy, starting with the ...

America is back

Alan Brinkley, 1 November 1984

... and confident a vision of America’s role in the world or its responsibilities at home as John Kennedy. The liberal confidence he and, for a time, Lyndon Johnson came to represent produced, in the early Sixties, an impressive array of domestic and foreign initiatives. The liberal agenda was an ambitious one, but at the time few doubted the nation’s ...

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