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Diary

Neal Ascherson: Among the icebergs, 18 October 2007

... what is happening. It is just that we, the humans, may have to adjust our own way of life.’ ...

On Jonathan Miller

Neal Ascherson: Jonathan Miller, 2 January 2020

... Ifirst met​ Jonathan’s knees. This was because Cambridge sofas in the 1950s had broken springs. Once they had buoyed up culture heroes like Rupert Brooke, John Cornford or Guy Burgess. Now, as we trudged across the great Gromboolian plain of the 1950s, they had given up the struggle. Modish undergraduates perched on the arms. Jonathan, new to the place, tried to sit down and slid backwards into the depths ...

At the Ashmolean

Neal Ascherson: ‘The Lost World of Old Europe’, 5 August 2010

... Poor Europa! The competition to give her an ancestry has been raging for generations. Now the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – the new, gorgeously refashioned Ashmolean, which reopened last November with 39 new galleries – has joined in.* The Lost World of Old Europe reveals a brilliant, imaginative, precocious culture that arose in south-eastern Europe in the late Neolithic period, the Copper Age, but after flourishing for several thousand years, failed and was forgotten ...

In Delville Wood

Neal Ascherson: Shrapnel balls and green acorns, 7 November 2013

... Albert wrote to his sister Mabel from the trenches. That Mary he’d danced with, could she find out if Mary ever thought about him? Mabel considered he was too young for all that, it wasn’t proper. So she didn’t ask. But then he wrote again, so she did. ‘My insides go all jumbly when I think about Albert,’ said Mary to Mabel. So Mabel put that in her next letter to Albert ...

Nairn is best

Neal Ascherson, 21 May 1987

Nairn: In Darkness and Light 
by David Thomson.
Hutchinson, 303 pp., £12.95, April 1987, 0 09 168360 2
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... Some sixty years ago, when David Thomson was a boy, he suffered from a condition that badly affected his eyesight. He could see, but poorly. He read Braille and, though this was forbidden, the printed page. On two occasions, when the condition grew worse, he was condemned to spend six weeks at a time lying on his back in a darkened room. In general, all heavy physical exertion was banned ...

At the British Museum

Neal Ascherson: Celts, 22 October 2015

... Splendid​ specimens of the untrousered, strong-legged Celt’. That was what John Stuart Blackie, the founder of Scotland’s first chair of Celtic studies in 1882, liked to see about him in the Highlands. In Celts: Art and Identity (at the British Museum until 31 January, then at the National Museum of Scotland from 30 March until 25 September) he would have met several untrousered, strong-legged giants ...

Heartlessness

Neal Ascherson, 19 December 1991

Judge on Trial 
by Ivan Klima, translated by A.G. Brain.
Chatto, 547 pp., £14.99, November 1991, 9780701133498
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... The war was finished – and so was the regime of occupation. Its most hated representatives had either fled or wound up in prison while their victims had been proclaimed martyrs. But all that concerned just a tiny section of the population: most of the people had not died, fled or gone to gaol, but merely gone on with their lives. Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday’s laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday’s crimes to be acts of heroism ...

Red Souls

Neal Ascherson, 22 May 1980

Russian Hide and Seek 
by Kingsley Amis.
Hutchinson, 240 pp., £5.95, May 1980, 0 09 142050 4
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... We have come out of a long tunnel, and the view has changed. War is now quite clearly visible, not all that far off. That is not inevitably where we are going, the terminus. But most of us never expected to get so close, so suddenly. The Russians are in Afghanistan, aggrieved and astonished at the world’s reaction. Nato is buying itself a new armoury it does not need, deliberately presenting what is really a crisis of confidence within the Alliance as a response to a Soviet threat ...

Making history

Neal Ascherson, 21 August 1980

The Oak and the Calf 
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Collins Harvill, 568 pp., £8.95, July 1980, 0 06 014014 3
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... I was beginning to see revealed the higher and hidden meaning of that suffering for which I had been unable to find a justification …’ (1967). ‘It makes me happier, more secure, to think that I do not have to plan and manage everything for myself, that I am only a sword made sharp to strike the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them ...

Marseille, 1940-43

Neal Ascherson, 18 July 2013

... Say this city has ten million souls, Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes: Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us. ‘Refugee Blues’, W.H. Auden Marseille is an old-fashioned town. ‘You still have a queen,’ the lady checking museum tickets remarked. ‘So why don’t you cut her throat? Kings and queens are pointless, cost a fortune ...

Diary

Neal Ascherson: In Gdansk, 19 October 2017

... In Gdansk​ , the walk to the museum takes me past the Patriotic Clothing Store. Two blonde, blue-eyed dolls stand in the window, wearing little T-shirts saying: ‘My parents are 100% Polish.’ They have their wee fists raised in what a visiting journalist from Warsaw suggested, a bit unfairly, was a fascist ‘Heil’. Inside, the shop is small and dour ...

Beyond Discussion

Neal Ascherson, 3 April 1980

The Last Word: An Eye-Witness Account of the Thorpe Trial 
by Auberon Waugh.
Joseph, 240 pp., £6.50, February 1980, 0 7181 1799 9
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... Heh, heh!’ went the judge in the Thorpe trial, Mr Justice Cantley. According to Auberon Waugh, who sat in the press benches all through the six weeks of the Old Bailey proceedings, he made a habit of it: his own jokes, the floundering of witnesses, the incredible spectacle over which he was presiding, all presented matter for a good heh. Auberon Waugh purses his lips over this, but that’s his technique as a pamphleteer ...

Revolutionary Chic

Neal Ascherson, 5 November 1992

Chamfort: A Biography 
by Claude Arnaud, translated by Deke Dusinberre.
Chicago, 372 pp., £21.50, May 1992, 0 226 02697 3
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... The noblest and most innocent of all revolutionary manifestos is the Hessische Landbote, written by Georg Büchner in 1834 when he was 20 years old. Addressed to the peasantry of Hesse, the Landbote had almost no effect except to provoke a wave of repression against the young intellectuals who were behind it. It is written, deliberately, in language of Biblical simplicity, and its subtitle might have been spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!’ This slogan went straight into the German radical tradition and, from there, into folkmemory and cliché ...

Where will this voyage end?

Neal Ascherson, 14 June 1990

Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two centuries look back on the French Revolution 
by E.J. Hobsbawm.
Verso, 144 pp., £24.95, May 1990, 0 86091 282 5
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... Historians as a tribe are suckers for anniversaries, no less than journalists. And both professions are equally unwilling to leave a nice, juicy coincidence alone, in the spirit of that pre-glasnost Pravda phrase: ‘It is no accident that ...’ These faiblesses ensure that, in our lifetimes and in those of our children, books and journals and Sunday papers will continue to gnaw and growl over the fact that a year of revolutionary upheaval in Eastern and Central Europe took place precisely 200 years after the beginning of the French Revolution ...

In the Hands of the Cannibals

Neal Ascherson, 20 February 1997

Europe: A History 
by Norman Davies.
Oxford, 1365 pp., £25, October 1996, 0 19 820171 0
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... In this supposedly scientific age, the imaginative side of the historical profession has undoubtedly been downgraded. The value of unreadable academic papers and of undigested research data is exaggerated. Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic licence. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration ...

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