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Fetch the Chopping Knife

Charles Nicholl: Murder on Bankside, 4 November 2021

... Men – they put on The Tragedy of Gowrie, a dramatisation of the attempted assassination of King James by John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie, in 1600. It was doubtless based on the official account, The Earle of Gowries conspiracie against the Kings Maiestie of Scotland. James encouraged frequent reprints of this pamphlet, and ...

Quiet Sinners

Bernard Porter: Imperial Spooks, 21 March 2013

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire 
by Calder Walton.
Harper, 411 pp., £25, February 2013, 978 0 00 745796 0
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... Cohen, governor of Uganda in the 1950s.) Wright got all this from the notorious CIA molehunter James Jesus Angleton. Clearly, there were divisions in MI5 about how far to go along with the Americans. The problem was worsened by the temptation to pander to the US in order to get its support for essentially colonial undertakings – like safeguarding British ...

Boudoir Politics

Bee Wilson: Lola Montez, 7 June 2007

Lola Montez: Her Life and Conquests 
by James Morton.
Portrait, 390 pp., £20, January 2007, 978 0 7499 5115 3
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... depending on ‘both the quality or otherwise of the audience and Lola’s mood each night’, as James Morton writes in his entertaining biography. And sometimes ‘it depended on what money was thrown on stage.’ More or fewer parts of Lola’s body might be exposed during the dance, which was in two parts. In the first, she played the spider, spinning its ...


Ian Sansom, 11 December 1997

The Bounty 
by Derek Walcott.
Faber, 78 pp., £14.99, July 1997, 0 571 19130 4
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... extravagance of poetic diction and tendency to verbosity off-putting in the past’ (Peter Porter); ‘I feel that the fuss and the language are not quite justified by the donné’ (Roy Fuller). Derek Walcott has suffered, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet writing in English, from accusations that his work is too showy. Some of the ...

Skating Charm

James Wolcott: Kenneth Tynan, 13 December 2001

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan 
edited by John Lahr.
Bloomsbury, 439 pp., £25, October 2001, 0 7475 5418 8
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... names faded once their work slid out of print, once-prominent tastemakers such as Stark Young and James Gibbons Huneker. Tynan’s review collections have joined theirs in the second-hand stores, but he himself stays hot copy. Words aren’t enough to sustain a journalistic legend; neither are looks, photogenic as he was. ‘What makes a figure is the ...


Bernard Porter: The Falklands War, 20 October 2005

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. I: The Origins of the Falklands War 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Routledge, 253 pp., £35, June 2005, 0 7146 5206 7
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The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. II: War and Diplomacy 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Routledge, 849 pp., £49.95, June 2005, 0 7146 5207 5
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... probably the best one can say for Britain’s foot-dragging. It was the way to get shot of what James Callaghan called this ‘poisoned chalice’ with least fuss. It depended, however, on Argentina’s patience. In 1982 that finally snapped. Confused, perhaps, by the FCO’s subtle diplomacy; sharing the British military’s assessment of the difficulty of ...

Manly Voices

Bernard Porter: Macaulay & Son, 22 November 2012

Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain 
by Catherine Hall.
Yale, 389 pp., £35, October 2012, 978 0 300 16023 9
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... history, his father’s view of his own kind as an ‘elect’, and his reading of, for example, James Mill’s History of British India (1818), which laid the foundation for his disparaging view of Indian culture – and meant he didn’t need to study it himself. I don’t think we can blame the empire for his views – but in the year 3000 they may prefer ...


Ian Hamilton: New New Grub Street, 3 February 1983

... A Sunday supper they gave in 1957, for example, was attended by Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter and William Styron.’ The authors call people who want to know this kind of thing ‘literary travellers’ and they plead that such travellers have in the past been handicapped by the lack of a guidebook that covered the whole of the United ...

Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk, 24 September 1992

Language, Self and Society: A Social History of Language 
edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter.
Polity, 358 pp., £45, December 1991, 0 7456 0765 9
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Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language 
by Richard Bailey.
Cambridge, 329 pp., £16.95, March 1992, 0 521 41572 1
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The Oxford Companion to the English Language 
edited by Tom McArthur and Feri McArthur.
Oxford, 1184 pp., £25, September 1992, 9780192141835
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The History of the English Language: A Source Book 
by David Burnley.
Longman, 373 pp., £25, January 1992, 0 582 02522 2
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The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. I: Beginnings to 1066 
edited by Richard Hogg and Norman Blake.
Cambridge, 609 pp., £60, August 1992, 9780521264747
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... English linguistic history. For example, the collection of papers edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter, Language, Self and Society. This, you’d think (I thought), is just what is needed to excite a fresh interest in the history of English. Well, I thought wrong. The volume is too miscellaneous in topic and treatment to fulfil the claims of its ...

Booze and Fags

Christopher Hitchens, 12 March 1992

Tobacco: A History 
by V.G. Kiernan.
Radius, 249 pp., £18.99, December 1991, 0 09 174216 1
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The Faber Book of Drink, Drinkers and Drinking 
edited by Simon Rae.
Faber, 554 pp., £15.99, November 1991, 0 571 16229 0
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... The population is praised for puffing its way stoically through the shrieking pieties of King James I, whose pamphlet on the matter warned loyal subjects that it was ‘a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs’. The tendency of those in authority to show who’s in charge by issuing no-smoking ...
By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in 18th-Century Russia 
by Anthony Cross.
Cambridge, 496 pp., £60, November 1996, 0 521 55293 1
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... of the popularity of Burton ale, a visiting cleric claims he has ‘never tasted English beer and porter in greater abundance’. We even hear about the subscription ball, where Country Boamkin, as they call Country Bumkin, is a very favourite dance, tho’ they make it quite different from the dance so called in England. The supper is very elegant, but so ...

The Road to Sligo

Tom Paulin, 17 May 1984

Poetry and Metamorphosis 
by Charles Tomlinson.
Cambridge, 97 pp., £9.95, March 1983, 0 521 24848 5
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by Charles Tomlinson.
Oxford, 120 pp., £7.95, October 1983, 0 19 211958 3
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Conversation with the Prince 
by Tadeusz Rozewicz, translated by Adam Czerniawski.
Anvil, 206 pp., £4.95, March 1982, 0 85646 079 6
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Passions and Impressions 
by Pablo Neruda, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden.
Farrar, Straus/Faber, 396 pp., £16.50, October 1983, 0 571 12054 7
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An Empty Room 
by Leopold Staff, translated by Adam Czerniawski.
Bloodaxe, 64 pp., £3.25, March 1983, 0 906427 52 5
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... form and essence of culture. He is end and beginning, both cedar tree and ‘A per se’. And as James Kinsley suggests, Virgil’s best translators acquire something of his luminous stature: ‘the ancient author becomes culturally effective, and the translator a “noble collateral” with him.’ Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, relied heavily on Douglas’s ...

Possessed by the Idols

Steven Shapin: Does Medicine Work?, 30 November 2006

Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates 
by David Wootton.
Oxford, 304 pp., £16.99, June 2006, 0 19 280355 7
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... to ignore that progress or been duped into denying it. Wootton’s target of choice is Roy Porter, who wrote that ‘only the most dyed-in-the-wool Whig history still polarises the past in terms of confrontations between saints and sinners, heroes and villains.’ Wootton is happy to acknowledge that his book ‘is written against the grain of ...

Up from Under

John Bayley, 18 February 1988

The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories 
edited by Murray Bail.
Faber, 413 pp., £12.95, January 1988, 0 571 15083 7
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... A famous passage in Henry James’s Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne laments the absence for the writer in America of every relation and institution which made writing socially viable – an army and a navy and a church and a court, and classes and village squires and evening parties. James’s view of the materials available to the writer may strike us today as somewhat old-fashioned and unenterprising, but there is a basic shrewdness in what he says ...

Did he puff his crimes to please a bloodthirsty readership?

Bernard Porter: How bad was Stanley?, 5 April 2007

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer 
by Tim Jeal.
Faber, 570 pp., £25, March 2007, 978 0 571 22102 8
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... stranded along the way under the command of two British officers – Major Edmund Barttelot and James Sligo Jameson (of the Irish whiskey family) – whom he knew to be rotters, and who were found later to have inflicted appalling atrocities on the Africans in their care (a young girl was apparently sold to cannibals so that Jameson could observe her being ...

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