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Opera Mundi

Michael Neve

1 December 1983
Out of Order 
by Frank Johnson.
Robson, 256 pp., £7.95, October 1982, 0 86051 190 1
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Frank Johnson’s Election Year 
by Frank Johnson.
Robson, 192 pp., £6.95, October 1983, 0 86051 254 1
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Enthusiasms 
by Bernard Levin.
Cape, 264 pp., £8.95, November 1983, 0 224 02114 1
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Poem of the Year 
by Clive James.
Cape, 79 pp., £4.95, November 1983, 0 224 02961 4
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The Original Michael Frayn 
by Michael Frayn.
Salamander, 203 pp., £8.50, October 1983, 0 907540 32 5
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... as opera. The social history of opera is instructive in other ways – above all, in the way people talk and write about it. There seem to be two positions: a modest one, a way of liking opera, as FrankJohnson does, on the quiet, without shouting about it, and an orgiastic one, where one is cosmically-life-affirmingly-overwhelmed by it, as Bernard Levin is. What we are talking about when we talk ...

Let us breakfast in splendour

Charles Nicholl: Francis Barber

15 July 2015
The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir 
by Michael Bundock.
Yale, 282 pp., £20, May 2015, 978 0 300 20710 1
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... called A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s shows nine men seated around a table convivially cluttered with decanters and after-dinner debris. From left to right they are James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasquale Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton and Oliver Goldsmith. Their names appear below the image, cursively engraved, appositely placed: one might ...
5 September 1985
The Randlords: The Men who made South Africa 
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.
Weidenfeld, 314 pp., £12.95, July 1985, 0 297 78437 4
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... take an example not generally known: when Rhodes was negotiating with Lobengula, king of the Matabele, for a mining concession and the king was proving intractable, Rhodes drew up a contract with one FrankJohnson (an adventurer who was to lead the pioneer column to found Rhodesia) for the killing of Lobengula. Johnson revealed this in his autobiography, Great Days, and reproduced the contract. But the ...

Retripotent

Frank​ Kermode: B. S. Johnson

5 August 2004
Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson 
by Jonathan Coe.
Picador, 486 pp., £20, June 2004, 9780330350488
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‘Trawl’, ‘Albert Angelo’ and ‘House Mother Normal’ 
by B.S. Johnson.
Picador, 472 pp., £14.99, June 2004, 0 330 35332 2
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... B.S. Johnson died by his own hand in 1973. He was 40, and the author of seven novels, all of them rather odd in ways that put publishers off because their oddities made them expensive to produce and hard to sell ...

What’s the big idea?

Jonathan Parry: The Origins of Our Decline

30 November 2017
The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 
by Simon Heffer.
Random House, 912 pp., £30, September 2017, 978 1 84794 742 0
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... though he doesn’t have much to say about it. The middle classes were left free to ape materialist aristocratic values, typified by Mr Pooter, and schoolboys lapped up the snobbish school stories of Frank Richards. They also demanded new sporting heroes: many cricketers became celebrities, particularly if they cultivated swagger. W.G. Grace maintained his stardom because few knew he had a squeaky ...

Short Cuts

Tariq Ali: So much for England

13 January 2020
... There’s​ no point being tribal now. Let’s face it: Johnson won the election because the Tories pledged to implement the result of the 2016 referendum without any more shilly-shallying. Democracy matters. Labour’s rejection of the referendum outcome at its ...

Absent Authors

John Lanchester

15 October 1987
Criticism in Society 
by Imre Salusinszky.
Methuen, 244 pp., £15, May 1987, 0 416 92270 8
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Mensonge 
by Malcolm Bradbury.
Deutsch, 104 pp., £5.95, September 1987, 0 233 98020 2
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... Those who have much leisure to think,’ Dr Johnson wrote, ‘will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or imagined, will produce new words or combinations of words.’ The words that aren’t in a ...

Boswell’s Bowels

Neal Ascherson

20 December 1984
James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1795 
by Frank​ Brady.
Heinemann, 609 pp., £20, November 1984, 0 434 08530 8
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... James Boswell created the ‘Age of Johnson’, rescuing the late 18th century, above all, for the Victorians. The Boswell industry at Yale University has given an ‘Age of Boswell’ to the 20th century. This second volume of the grand ...

Memories of Frank​ Kermode

Stefan Collini, Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood and Wynne Godley

23 September 2010
... Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this ...

Knucklehead Truman

Douglas Johnson

2 June 1983
The Eisenhower Diaries 
edited by Robert Ferrell.
Norton, 445 pp., £15.25, April 1983, 0 393 01432 0
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The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography 
by Thomas Reeves.
Blond and Briggs, 819 pp., £11.95, June 1983, 0 85634 131 2
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The past has another pattern 
by George Ball.
Norton, 544 pp., £14.95, September 1982, 0 393 01481 9
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Torn Lace Curtain 
by Frank​ Saunders and James Southwood.
Sidgwick, 361 pp., £7.95, March 1983, 0 283 98946 7
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The Years of Lyndon JohnsonThe Path to Power 
by Robert Caro.
Collins, 882 pp., £15, February 1983, 0 00 217062 0
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The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson 
by Ronnie Dugger.
Norton, 514 pp., £13.25, September 1982, 9780393015980
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Years of Upheaval 
by Henry Kissinger.
Weidenfeld/Joseph, 1312 pp., £15.95, March 1982, 0 7181 2115 5
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Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character 
by Fawn Brodie.
Norton, 574 pp., £14.95, October 1982, 0 393 01467 3
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Haig: The General’s Progress 
by Roger Morris.
Robson, 458 pp., £8.95, October 1982, 9780860511885
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Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President 
by Jimmy Carter.
Collins, 622 pp., £15, November 1982, 0 00 216648 8
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Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency 
by Hamilton Jordan.
Joseph, 431 pp., £12.95, November 1982, 0 7181 2248 8
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Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser 1977-81 
by Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Weidenfeld, 587 pp., £15, April 1983, 0 297 78220 7
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... romanticism that has surrounded him and his court, was disorganised and unsettled, a showman rather than a statesman, who owned his position to the ambition and wealth of a determined father. Lyndon Johnson was a corrupt politician who neither cared about nor understood the implications of his own rhetoric. Nixon was notorious for his deviousness and dishonesty, remarkable for his complex and psychotic ...

The Darth Vader Option

Colin Kidd: The Tories

24 January 2013
The Conservatives since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change 
by Tim Bale.
Oxford, 372 pp., £55, September 2012, 978 0 19 923437 0
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The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron 
by Tim Bale.
Polity, 471 pp., £14.99, January 2011, 978 0 7456 4858 3
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Reconstructing Conservatism? The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997-2010 
by Richard Hayton.
Manchester, 166 pp., £60, September 2012, 978 0 7190 8316 7
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... drives and tennis parties. The only essential requirement for a member, it seems, was a lack of interest in politics. Not that the Young Conservatives were aimless sybarites. To the Tory journalist FrankJohnson they were just as zealous in their own way as Maoists – ‘a ruthless organisation dedicated to one fanatical aim: marriage’. Tim Bale’s latest book, The Conservatives since 1945 ...

To Kill All Day

Frank​ Kermode: Amis’s Terrible News

17 October 2002
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million 
by Martin Amis.
Cape, 306 pp., £16.99, September 2002, 0 224 06303 0
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... of all humanity as the virtually unresisting prey of the powerful, mad or sane – of men who enjoy, day in and day out, the infliction, on an enormous scale, of pain, misery and death. In 1757 Dr Johnson wrote his imperishable review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Looking afresh at this masterpiece, I see that Jenyns would have made a deft Leninist apologist. As ...

Sterling and Strings

Peter Davies: Harold Wilson and Vietnam

20 November 2008
... however, to voice his opposition to any extension of the Vietnam conflict and in March 1964, and again in June, pressed the Conservative prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, to advise President Johnson against extending the war into the North. Following his election victory in October that year, Wilson was advised by the Foreign Office that, with regard to Vietnam, ‘ministers should agree to ...

Gangsters in Hats

Richard Mayne

17 May 1984
Essays on Detective Fiction 
edited by Bernard Benstock.
Macmillan, 218 pp., £20, February 1984, 0 333 32195 2
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Dashiell Hammett: A Life at the Edge 
by William Nolan.
Arthur Barker, 276 pp., £9.95, September 1983, 0 213 16886 3
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The Life of Dashiell Hammett 
by Diane Johnson.
Chatto, 344 pp., £12.95, January 1984, 9780701127664
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Hellman in Hollywood 
by Bernard Dick.
Associated University Presses, 183 pp., £14.95, September 1983, 0 8386 3140 1
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... something, the interest it arouses need not be aesthetic. George Orwell saw propaganda in boys’ weeklies and ‘the worm’s-eye view of life’ in seaside postcards. He was hardly concerned with Frank Richards as a novelist or (despite his essay’s title) the art of Donald McGill. A better reason for paying attention to humble work is to identify its virtues. At worst, this can become highbrow ...

Incandescences

Richard Poirier

20 December 1979
The Powers that Be 
by David Halberstam.
Chatto, 771 pp., £9.95
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... had a patrician disdain for it), President Kennedy (who won the election of 1960 thanks in part to the disastrous appearance of Nixon in the first of the televised debates), and finally Presidents Johnson and Nixon, both of whom were severely damaged, as was Senator Joe McCarthy, by the dramatisations on TV of such horror shows as Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the Army-McCarthy hearings. Truman ...

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