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Minimalism

David Pears, 19 February 1987

A.J. Ayer 
by John Foster.
Routledge, 307 pp., £12, October 1985, 9780710206022
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Voltaire 
by A.J. Ayer.
Weidenfeld, 182 pp., £14.95, September 1986, 0 297 78880 9
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Fact, Science and Morality: Essays on A.J. Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ 
edited by Graham Macdonald and Crispin Wright.
Blackwell, 314 pp., £27.50, January 1987, 0 631 14555 9
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... Philosophy’s critics have a variety of criteria from which to choose. The first question to ask about any philosopher’s claims is whether they are true. But there are other questions which sometimes crowd this one out. Is his work accessible and persuasive? Does it touch our lives? Will it last? With so many options there is no pretending that it is obvious what counts as success ...

Uncle Vester’s Nephew

Graham Coster, 27 February 1992

Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession 
by Greil Marcus.
Viking, 256 pp., £17.99, February 1992, 0 670 83846 2
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Rythm Oil: A Journey through the Music of the American South 
by Stanley Booth.
Cape, 254 pp., £16.99, October 1991, 0 224 02779 4
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... Richard’s benefaction of ‘Mistletoe and Wine’: the bottom of Elvis’s barrel meant ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’. He could be a rock’n’roll singer, a gospel singer, a Christmas carol singer (frequently), a balladeer, a crooner – but he wasn’t any of them. He was brilliant at turning his hand. Give him a good set of songs, as on the thumping ...

Staggering on

Stephen Howe, 23 May 1996

The ‘New Statesman’: Portrait of a Political Weekly, 1913-31 
by Adrian Smith.
Cass, 340 pp., £30, February 1996, 0 7146 4645 8
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... a harsh judge of its first manifestation, and does not seem to be a great admirer of either Ramsay MacDonald or Tony Blair. Few of the major personalities involved in founding the paper emerge with unmixed credit from Smith’s account, least of all Clifford Sharp. Sharp’s political judgment is subjected to repeated censure, but his personal qualities leave ...

Bevan’s Boy

R.W. Johnson, 24 March 1994

Michael Foot 
by Mervyn Jones.
Gollancz, 570 pp., £20, March 1994, 0 575 05197 3
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... century, and with it will go the memory of Foot as the most disastrous Labour leader since Ramsay MacDonald. All of which is a considerable pity, for Foot is undoubtedly one of the nicest and most decent men to sit in Parliament. The trouble perhaps – or part of it – is that it has always been rather too easy for him to mistake myth for reality. His ...

Taking the hint

David Craig, 5 January 1989

The King’s Jaunt: George IV in Scotland, 1822 
by John Prebble.
Collins, 399 pp., £15, November 1988, 0 00 215404 8
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... way up the twin river valleys from Aberdeen, I might well have run away screaming, tearing off my Graham of Montrose kilt and matching trews (tartan underpants), the blue-green Harris-tweed jacket and waistcoat with staghorn buttons, the bottle-green Balmoral stockings and tooled black brogues and seal-fur sporran, had I been able (aged nine) to find out from ...

But this is fateful!

Theo Tait: Jonathan Lethem, 16 March 2017

The Blot: A Novel 
by Jonathan Lethem.
Cape, 289 pp., £16.99, February 2017, 978 0 224 10148 6
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The Blot 
by Jonathan Lethem and Laurence Rickels.
Anti-Oedipus, 88 pp., £6.99, September 2016, 978 0 9905733 7 1
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... hometown’. Stolarsky had idolised Bruno at school – he still calls him Flashman, after George MacDonald Fraser’s dashing anti-hero – and he and Tira seem immensely tickled to have run into him. Bruno suspects that they are swingers, and both hint repeatedly that there might be room in their open relationship for him. In his hour of need, they become ...

First Puppet, Now Scapegoat

Inigo Thomas: Ass-Chewing in Washington, 30 November 2006

State of Denial: Bush at War 
by Bob Woodward.
Simon and Schuster, 560 pp., £18.99, October 2006, 0 7432 9566 8
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... problem for the Nixon White House as Watergate itself. The president asked national saviour Billy Graham to intervene and see what he could do to help John to get Martha to shut up. ‘It’s going to create a major national problem,’ Haldeman wrote: Nixon ‘seems more concerned about that than the Watergate caper’. So it was inevitable that John ...

Fs and Bs

Nicholas Hiley, 9 March 1995

Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen 
by Adrian Weale.
Weidenfeld, 230 pp., £18.99, May 1994, 0 297 81488 5
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In from the Cold: National Security and Parliamentary Democracy 
by Laurence Lustgarten and Ian Leigh.
Oxford, 554 pp., £22.50, July 1994, 9780198252344
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... responsibility of Büro S, and at the time of this historic broadcast the announcers were Sergeant MacDonald and Guardsman William Humphrey Griffiths of the British Army, both recruited from German prisoner-of-war camps. While broadcasting for Büro S, they lived in an apartment in Berlin, wore civilian clothes, were provided with supplies of tobacco and ...

Hey, Mister, you want dirty book?

Edward Said: The CIA, 30 September 1999

Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War 
by Frances Stonor Saunders.
Granta, 509 pp., £20, July 1999, 1 86207 029 6
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... events on Morningside Heights: Diana and Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald – all of them brilliant, feisty, friendly and endlessly voluble. Some of their hangers-on were third-rate intellectual goons like Arnold Beichmann (former Communist, rabid anti-Communist, now an aged relic of the Hoover Institution). No one then ...

Family History

Miles Taylor: Tony Benn, 25 September 2003

Free at Last: Diaries 1991-2001 
by Tony Benn.
Hutchinson, 738 pp., £25, October 2002, 0 09 179352 1
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Free Radical: New Century Essays 
by Tony Benn.
Continuum, 246 pp., £9.95, May 2003, 9780826465962
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... Benn’s father led the Liberal defection from Lloyd George in 1924, and stood up in Ramsay MacDonald’s ill-fated Cabinet to argue against dole cuts in 1931. Michael died as the brave new postwar world of the UN and the welfare state was taking shape. The diaries also record Benn’s obsessive love affair with the square mile of Westminster (‘my ...

Little England

Patrick Wright: The view through a bus window, 7 September 2006

Great British Bus Journeys: Travels through Unfamous Places 
by David McKie.
Atlantic, 359 pp., £16.99, March 2006, 1 84354 132 7
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... equivalent of the zigzag walk (first left, first right ad infinitum) that Stephen Graham had earlier recommended, in The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), as a way of manoeuvring the modern city into new patterns of disclosure. Starting at Victoria Coach Station, Goldring boards a bus that is about to depart for Essex, a county he has scarcely ...

I only want the OM

Christopher Tayler: Somerset Maugham, 1 September 2005

Somerset Maugham: A Life 
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Vintage, 411 pp., £12, April 2005, 1 4000 3052 8
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... coast. Maugham, himself the narrator of The Razor’s Edge, refuses to condemn poor Sophie Macdonald, who comes to a bad end through boozing, picking up sailors and frequenting male brothels. ‘That doesn’t mean she’s bad,’ he tells Isabel Bradley, a much less likeable character (married, strong views on interior design). ‘After all,’ he ...

A Whale of a Time

Colm Tóibín, 2 October 1997

Roger Casement’s Diaries. 1910: The Black and the White 
edited by Roger Sawyer.
Pimlico, 288 pp., £10, October 1997, 9780712673754
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The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement 
edited by Angus Mitchell.
Anaconda, 534 pp., £40, October 1997, 9781901990010
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... but, in any case, he did not want to get involved. He wrote to his friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham: He is a Protestant Irishman, pious too. But so was Pizarro. For the rest I can assure you that he is a limpid personality. There is a touch of the conquistador in him too; for I have seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness swinging a ...

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