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No Place for Journalists

Hilary Mantel, 1 October 1987

The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom 
by Sandra Mackey.
Harrap, 433 pp., £12.95, August 1987, 0 245 54592 1
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Behind the Wall: A Journey through China 
by Colin Thubron.
Heinemann, 308 pp., £10.95, September 1987, 0 434 77988 1
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... Foreign news organisations are not invited to operate in Saudi Arabia. The journalists who are permitted into the Kingdom by the Ministry of Information operate under severe constraints. It’s not that the Saudis mind you saying bad things about them: it’s that they mind you saying anything at all. Internally, the Kingdom has no passion for freedom of information; the idea of open government is meaningless, or perhaps slightly obscene, to the Saudi mind ...

Plain girl’s revenge made flesh

Hilary Mantel, 23 April 1992

Madonna Unauthorised 
by Christopher Andersen.
Joseph, 279 pp., £14.99, December 1991, 0 7181 3536 9
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... Christopher Andersen’s book begins, as it should, with the prodigal, the violent, the gross. But what do you expect? Madonna’s wedding was different from other people’s. The plans were made in secrecy, and backed by armed force. ‘Even the caterer ... was kept in the dark until the last minute.’ You also, you may protest, have been to weddings where the caterer has seemed to be taken by surprise ...


Hilary Mantel, 4 April 1996

Behind the Scenes at the Museum 
by Kate Atkinson.
Black Swan, 382 pp., £6.99, January 1996, 0 552 99618 1
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... On the day after Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian’s headline read: ‘Rushdie makes it a losing double.’ Thus Rushdie is reminded of his disappointments, Atkinson gets no credit, and the uninformed reader assumes that this year’s Whitbread is a damp squib. But read on. ‘A 44-year-old chambermaid won one of Britain’s leading literary awards last night ...


Hilary Mantel: In the Waiting Room, 14 August 2008

... At 6 p.m. on a damp late June evening, I look up from my book and see my husband across the room, faint and grey with pain. What to do? It’s Sunday, and whereas until recent years you couldn’t on a British Sunday buy a pound of carrots or see a play, these days you can’t be taken ill, unless you’re prepared for a long and uncertain wait for your GP’s deputising service ...

Story: ‘Offences against the Person’

Hilary Mantel, 20 March 2008

... Her name was Nicolette Bland, and she was my father’s mistress. I’m going back to the early 1970s. It’s a long time now since he was subject to urges of the flesh. She looked like a Nicolette: dainty, poised, hair short and artfully curling: dark, liquid, slightly slanting eyes. She was honey-coloured, as if she’d had a package holiday, and she looked rested, and seldom not-smiling ...

Boxes of Tissues

Hilary Mantel, 6 March 1997

As If 
by Blake Morrison.
Granta, 245 pp., £14.99, February 1997, 1 86207 003 2
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... Blake Morrison begins his account of the murder of James Bulger with a delicate diversion into the story of the Children’s Crusade. The year 1212: at Saint-Denis, a boy of 12 begins to preach. He has received word from God that it is the mission of Christian children to free the Holy Land from the infidel. He draws crowds, draws followers: boys and girls swarm from street and field ...

Rescued by Marat

Hilary Mantel, 28 May 1992

Théroigne de Méricourt: A Melancholic Woman during the French Revolution 
by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Martin Thom.
Verso, 284 pp., £34.95, July 1991, 0 86091 324 4
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Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution 
by Olwen Hufton.
Toronto, 201 pp., £23, May 1992, 0 8020 6837 5
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... In 1817, at the asylum of La Salpêtrière in Paris, a long-term inhabitant died of pneumonia. Her malnourished, oedematous body was taken away for autopsy. For some years before her death she had been intractably and violently psychotic. She had crawled on the floor like an animal, eaten straw. She stripped off her clothes in freezing weather, and did not mind (her keepers noted) if men saw her naked ...

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. He looked at his buttery bills too, and noted when the shoemaker’s son had money to spend; noted when (unless he was starving himself) he was absent from college ...

Fatal Non-Readers

Hilary Mantel: Marie-Antoinette, 30 September 1999

The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette 
by Chantal Thomas, translated by Julie Rose.
Zone, 255 pp., £17.95, June 1999, 0 942299 39 6
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... In June this year the BBC showed a documentary called Diana’s Dresses. It was about the auction which took place at Christie’s in New York two months before the Princess’s descent into the Paris underpass. The purchasers spoke reverentially of Diana when she was alive, but her death turned glad rags into relics. ‘I wanted to have a part of royalty,’ one explained ...

What He Could Bear

Hilary Mantel: A Brutal Childhood, 9 March 2006

A Lie about My Father 
by John Burnside.
Cape, 324 pp., £12.99, March 2006, 0 224 07487 3
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... The lie is told to a man he meets on the road; it is America, fall, the mid-1990s, when he stops to pick up a hitch-hiker in Upper New York State. It is almost the day of the dead, and he is tired, tired of himself and his history, wishing on himself a sort of disembodiment, or perhaps the kind of paper mask that, as he mentions in one of his poems, he used to make at Halloween as a child in school ...

The Present Tense

Hilary Mantel: ‘The Present Tense’, 7 January 2016

... Today​ we are going to have a nice lesson,’ I say. Twenty-nine faces, upturned: all dubious. I think, you don’t know how nice it will be, compared to the nasty lessons ahead. Next year is Cambridge Certificate, and we will have The Mill on the Floss till our brains bleed. I look around the classroom. ‘Today my question is – what makes a good story? Have you any ideas?’ If this were another country, and I were someone else, a luckier kind of teacher, they might say, ‘Suspense ...

In a Right State

Hilary Mantel: ‘In a Right State’, 18 February 2016

... We sit there, slowly doing the quick crossword, noting as so often in institutions the presence of characters who seem habitués, knowing the procedures, familiar with the staff, A&E their scene.Alan Bennett, LRB, 7 JanuaryIn the days​ when I had a reading lamp, I’d sit down with the papers at the weekend and make up answers to celebrity quizzes ...

Is the particle there?

Hilary Mantel: Schrödinger in Clontarf, 7 July 2005

A Game with Sharpened Knives 
by Neil Belton.
Weidenfeld, 328 pp., £12.99, May 2005, 0 297 64359 2
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... There is whiskey but no cocoa, Guinness but no tea; or only a sort of bitter dust which, when brewed, does nothing to pep up the mornings. Fog enshrouds bicycles in Merrion Square, a squally rain drives along the promenade at Clontarf; by night, bombs drop ‘by mistake’ on Dublin. It is the time of the Emergency, as Ireland calls what others call World War Two ...

That Wilting Flower

Hilary Mantel: The Lure of the Unexplained, 24 January 2008

Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained 
edited by Una McGovern.
Chambers, 760 pp., £35, October 2007, 978 0 550 10215 7
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... What an enticing prospect: A-Z elucidation, or at least the admission in print that most of life’s pressing questions are never answered. But won’t all the entries begin with ‘W’? Where has youth gone? Why dost thou lash that whore? Why are you looking at me like that? And of course the question that trails us from playgroup to dementia ward: well, if you will go on like that, what else did you expect? But of course we’re not dealing with that kind of unexplained ...

What did her neighbours say when Gabriel had gone?

Hilary Mantel: The Virgin and I, 9 April 2009

Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary 
by Miri Rubin.
Allen Lane, 533 pp., £30, February 2009, 978 0 7139 9818 4
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... In my Catholic girlhood she was everywhere, perched up on ledges and in niches like a CCTV camera, with her painted mouth and her painted eyes of policeman blue. She was, her litany stated, Mirror of Justice, Cause of Our Joy, Spiritual Vessel, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven and Morning Star. Not a woman I liked, on the whole ...

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