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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 CharlesNicholl 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. He looked at his buttery bills too, and noted when the shoemaker’s son had money to spend ...

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. If you were gay, you had cause to ...

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 ...
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 ...

Diary

Karl Miller: London to Canberra

25 June 1987
... and Devon? This is not the only book I have been reading in which the vulnerable Anglo-Saxon, landed in foreign parts, risks himself in search of a drug connection. In contrast with the Milgates, CharlesNicholl 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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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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... windowpane; no mention of the blood, which must have been everywhere; no description of the smell in 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 ...

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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... to produce a Great Britain through the legal union of England and Scotland, they note, made the English chronicle play look obsolete (goodbye Richards and Henrys, hello Lear and Cymbeline). For CharlesNicholl, 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 ...

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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... received a lot of attention lately, retold vindictively by V.S.Naipaul, operatically by Simon Schama. In this celebration of a possible Good Imperialist (good beyond the inherent virtues of failure), CharlesNicholl 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 ...
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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... lives by publicly and materially repaying their trust, and it is an index of the great sensitivity and honesty with which he recounts his experiences that he is able to admit as much. In Borderlines CharlesNicholl 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 ...

Venus in Blue Jeans

Charles Nicholl: The Mona Lisa

4 April 2002
Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting 
by Donald Sassoon.
HarperCollins, 350 pp., £16.99, September 2001, 0 00 710614 9
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... Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may be ‘the world’s most famous painting’ but almost everything about it is obscure. We don’t know precisely when it was painted, we don’t know for certain who she is, and as we stare at her puzzling features for the umpteenth time we are inclined to ask ourselves: what is it about her? It is that question, in all its historical and cultural ramifications ...

Getting high

Charles Nicholl

19 March 1987
The Global Connection: The Crisis of Drug Addiction 
by Ben Whitaker.
Cape, 384 pp., £15, March 1987, 0 224 02224 5
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... You don’t frequent crack-houses. You don’t shoot smack, drop acid, skin-pop speed or blow dope. You have nothing to do with the 1.8 billion tranquillisers prescribed in Britain every year, or with the two thousand tons of pain-killers purchased over the counter. You don’t even smoke or drink. Okay, but the chances are still pretty high that you take drugs. Afternoon tea, for instance. The average ...

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 ...

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. It was one of Jonson’s ...

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