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Blame it on the Belgians

Hilary Mantel, 25 June 1992

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe 
by Charles Nicholl.
Cape, 413 pp., £19.99, June 1992, 0 224 03100 7
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... You don’t want to see him,’ said the porter at Corpus, when Charles Nicholl went to Cambridge to look at the portrait that is probably Christopher Marlowe. ‘He died in a tavern brawl.’ Nicholl viewed the putative Marlowe, in his opulent slashed doublet, and wondered how he could afford the outfit ...

Oliver’s Riffs

Charles Nicholl, 25 July 1991

Talking It Over 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 288 pp., £13.99, July 1991, 0 224 03157 0
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... Julian Barnes is a writer of rare intelligence. He catches the detail of contemporary life with an uncanny, forensic skill. His style is a model of cool and precision. He is often very funny, and if his humour tends somewhat to jokiness, then at least the jokes are good ones. At his best – in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters – he uses his skills as a literary entertainer to put across complex, resonant ideas ...

Plague Fiction

Charles Nicholl, 23 July 1987

The Darker Proof 
by Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White.
Faber, 250 pp., £3.95, July 1987, 0 571 15068 3
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... It sounds like it’s something to do with helping, but that is very far from its meaning. I can’t remember when we first started hearing it; no more than five or six years ago, surely. It’s an Eighties word. When they open the decade up, they’ll find it engraved on its heart. When Aids first caught our attention, it seemed comfortingly choosy in its victims ...

‘The Battle of Anghiari’

Charles Nicholl, 26 April 2012

... Leonardo da Vinci is seldom out of the news. The story of 2011 was the Salvator Mundi, a serene and ringletted image of Christ formerly considered the work of a pupil or imitator, but now – after restoration, analysis and a substantial helping of hype – attributed to the brush of the master. No sooner had this excitement died down than the long-running saga of Leonardo’s lost mural The Battle of Anghiari was back in the headlines ...

Diary

Karl Miller: London to Canberra, 25 June 1987

... in foreign parts, risks himself in search of a drug connection. In contrast with the Milgates, Charles Nicholl is a fully-functioning, two-tiered man of letters, whose book The Fruit Palace, † published in 1985 and reissued last year, is a triumphant piece of travel writing which is also a comic extravaganza. A further dual role is evident ...

Great Instructor

Charles Nicholl, 31 August 1989

Ben Jonson: A Life 
by David Riggs.
Harvard, 399 pp., £27.95, April 1989, 0 674 06625 1
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... Ben Jonson is remembered as a master of English comedy, but you would hardly think so from his portrait. The earliest dateable likeness is the engraving by Robert Vaughan, done in the mid 1620s, when Jonson was around fifty. The face is jowly, bearded, dour, heavily lived-in. The shadowed eyes remind me of photos of Tony Hancock. Comedy, they seem to say, is no laughing matter ...

The Literature Man

Charles Nicholl, 25 June 1987

Cuts 
by Malcolm Bradbury.
Hutchinson, 106 pp., £6.95, April 1987, 0 09 168280 0
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No, Not Bloomsbury 
by Malcolm Bradbury.
Deutsch, 373 pp., £17.95, May 1987, 9780233980133
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The Last Romantics 
by Caroline Seebohm.
Weidenfeld, 322 pp., £10.95, May 1987, 0 297 79056 0
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The Magician’s Girl 
by Doris Grumbach.
Hamish Hamilton, 206 pp., £10.95, May 1987, 0 241 12114 0
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... Malcolm Bradbury has what the political image-makers call ‘high definition’. We know who he is, where he’s coming from, what he stands for. As a novelist he belongs to a recognisable literary stable: specifically the ‘university novel’, more generally the humorist-humanist vein of embattled liberalism in post-war British fiction. He is a familiar face on the TV arts circuit, a familiar voice in the literary press ...

Diary

Charles Nicholl: At the Maison Rimbaud in Harar, 16 March 2000

... Little has changed in the old city of Harar, secluded in the hills of south-eastern Ethiopia. The rusting military hardware still sits beside the road from Dire Dawa, as it did when I last passed by six years ago. The waiters still move like somnambulists through the drowsy lobby of the Ras Hotel. The spider’s web of twisting cobbled streets; the tall boys playing table football in a corner of the main square; the recumbent figures browsing on sprigs of khat; the beautiful eyes that flash suddenly out of shadowy interiors – it is all much as I remember it ...

Nolanus Nullanus

Charles Nicholl, 12 March 1992

Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair 
by John Bossy.
Yale, 294 pp., £16.95, September 1991, 0 300 04993 5
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The Elizabethan Secret Service 
by Alison Plowden.
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 158 pp., £30, September 1991, 0 7108 1152 7
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The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe 
by Victor Thoren.
Cambridge, 523 pp., £40, May 1991, 0 521 35158 8
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... The files of the Elizabethan intelligence service are a rich and oddly neglected source: rich in historical detail, in the surprising appearance of famous names, in the whole tawdry but fascinating psychology of the spying game. There is in them a curious sense of déjà vu. Under the directorship of Sir Francis Walsingham, the security services featured much the same cast of moles, buggers, double agents and dirty tricksters that has entertained us in more recent spy ‘scandals ...

Trust the Coroner

John Bossy: Why Christopher Marlowe was probably not a spy, 14 December 2006

Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy 
by Park Honan.
Oxford, 421 pp., £25, October 2005, 0 19 818695 9
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... whose doings as a confidential agent for Sir Francis are well documented. Honan, like Riggs and Charles Nicholl in his account of Marlowe’s death, The Reckoning, assumes that Thomas Walsingham was in the same business: Honan supposes that in his time the house in Seething Lane was a kind of MI5 headquarters, full of secret servicemen controlling ...

Who was he?

Charles Nicholl: Joe the Ripper, 7 February 2008

The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath 
by Charles van Onselen.
Cape, 672 pp., £20, April 2007, 978 0 224 07929 7
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... the room. The bare facts are enough to convey the shock of being there, of having this glimpse, as Charles van Onselen puts it, into ‘the Angel of Death’s laboratory’. Van Onselen’s long, disturbing and magnificently dogged book, The Fox and the Flies, takes us through a grim terrain spread across three continents, a world of squalor and violence, of ...

Father-Daughter Problems

Michael Dobson: Shakespeare’s Bad Daughters, 8 May 2008

The Lodger: Shakespeare in Silver Street 
by Charles Nicholl.
Allen Lane, 378 pp., £20, November 2007, 978 0 7139 9890 0
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... English chronicle play look obsolete (goodbye Richards and Henrys, hello Lear and Cymbeline). For Charles Nicholl, however, another simultaneously personal and geopolitical factor has a bearing on the timing of King Lear: Shakespeare’s long-standing interest in France. The country whose king Cordelia marries and whose army she deploys in her attempt to ...

Turning down O’Hanlon

Mark Ford, 7 December 1989

In Trouble Again: A Journey between the Orinoco and the Amazon 
by Redmond O’Hanlon.
Penguin, 368 pp., £3.99, October 1989, 0 14 011900 0
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Our Grandmothers’ Drums: A Portrait of Rural African Life and Culture 
by Mark Hudson.
Secker, 356 pp., £12.95, June 1989, 0 436 20959 4
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Borderlines: A Journey in Thailand and Burma 
by Charles Nicholl.
Secker, 320 pp., £12.95, October 1988, 0 436 30980 7
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... honesty with which he recounts his experiences that he is able to admit as much. In Borderlines Charles Nicholl heads east. In his previous travel book, The Fruit Palace, he explored the ruthless cocaine underworld of Colombia: this time he is hoping to find the sources of spiritual rather than narcotic bliss by enrolling in a Buddhist forest temple in ...

Behind the Waterfall

Lorna Scott Fox, 16 November 1995

The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado 
by Charles Nicholl.
Cape, 396 pp., £18.99, May 1995, 0 224 03333 6
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... In this celebration of a possible Good Imperialist (good beyond the inherent virtues of failure), Charles Nicholl unearths more detail and offers more seductive speculation than any previous writer. With the vigorous Return of the Subject that besets many contemporary historians, he also can’t resist elbowing to the forefront with a Channel 4 ...

Canterbury Tale

Charles Nicholl, 8 December 1988

Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury 
by William Urry, edited by Andrew Butcher.
Faber, 184 pp., £12.95, May 1988, 0 571 14566 3
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John Weever 
by E.A.J. Honigmann.
Manchester, 134 pp., £27.50, April 1987, 0 7190 2217 7
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Rare Sir William Davenant 
by Mary Edmond.
Manchester, 264 pp., £27.50, July 1987, 9780719022869
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... William Urry’s researches on Marlowe have been available in bits and pieces, and his ‘forthcoming book on the Marlowes in Canterbury’ was mentioned by one of Marlowe’s biographers, A.D. Wraight, as long ago as 1965. Here at last it is, seven years after Urry’s death, edited from drafts by his former colleague Andrew Butcher. The text runs to less than a hundred pages, but there are ample appendices and source-notes, and anyway these hundred pages of dense documentary detail are worth a thousand of theorising ...

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