Biography & Memoir

Langston Hughes’s Journeys

Mark Ford

16 November 2023

In the crisis-ridden 1930s, Hughes was happy to combine the roles of activist, foreign correspondent and purveyor of agitprop verse. His most inventive and original poetry, however, had other sources, and in retrospect the most significant journey that he ever made was one of the shortest, from Times Square, where he spent his first night in New York on 4 September 1921, to 135th Street.

Read more about Daddy, ain’t you heard? Langston Hughes’s Journeys

David’s Presence

Gale Walden

2 November 2023

The​ day David died, I was in the Urbana Free Library, in the How to Organise section. I was always searching for ways to corral my home. Paper and books were my biggest downfall, but clothes didn’t . . .

Hate Mail

Dinah Birch

21 September 2023

Years ago​, a poison pen letter dropped onto my doormat. It was a rambling affair in uneven capitals, accusing me of all sorts of lurid wickedness. As no threats were involved and the allegations were . . .

Life of a Diplomat

Tom Stevenson

10 August 2023

In his​ 1917 guide to diplomatic practice, Ernest Satow described a court ball held in London in 1768 at which a dispute over seating placements in the diplomatic box resulted in a duel between the Russian . . .

On Army Forms

Jonathan Sawday

29 June 2023

In​ How to be Topp (1954), Nigel Molesworth unveils ‘the Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-you Letter’. The sender is instructed to strike out the words which don’t apply, before thanking the present-buyer . . .

Always the Same Dream: Princess Margaret

Ferdinand Mount, 4 January 2018

Only the hardest heart would repress a twitch of sympathy. To live on the receiving end of so much gush and so much abuse, to be simultaneously spoilt rotten and hopelessly infantilised, how well would any of us stand up to it?

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On Not Going Home

James Wood, 20 February 2014

A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack.

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Desperately Seeking Susan: remembering Susan Sontag

Terry Castle, 17 March 2005

At its best, our relationship was rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge – or possibly Stalin and Malenkov. Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer. Whenever she came to San Francisco, usually once or twice a year, I instantly became her female aide-de-camp.

Read more about Desperately Seeking Susan: remembering Susan Sontag

Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

I cannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

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A Feeling for Ice

Jenny Diski, 2 January 1997

I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white; white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It’s the best I could do.

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The Old Devil and his wife

Lorna Sage, 7 October 1993

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path, and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his.

Read more about The Old Devil and his wife

Too Close to the Bone

Allon White, 4 May 1989

Faust, despairing of all philosophies, may yet drain a marsh or rescue some acres from the sea.

Read more about Too Close to the Bone

Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces...

Read more about Paul de Man’s Abyss

The Wrong Blond

Alan Bennett, 23 May 1985

On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off Newfoundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant.

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Russian Podunks

Michael Hofmann, 29 June 2023

Konstantin Paustovsky’s fiction tends to be set in public and among strangers, so that one is tempted to think: ‘Aha, the great frieze of society,’ or ‘Is this perhaps social realism?’ But that’s...

Read more about Russian Podunks

María Gainza’s idea is that absorption is only one kind of attention: becoming distracted in the course of looking at something might be a sign of meaningful engagement. It’s when María’s mind...

Read more about Renée kept a crocodile: ‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’

Derek Parfit’s approach isn’t designed to get us to appreciate the mysterious, awe-inspiring significance of procreation and death in human life; it is simply the springboard for a new puzzle in moral...

Read more about Non-Identity Crisis: Parfit’s Trolley Problem

Into Oblivion: The Biafra Conflict

Adéwálé Májà-Pearce, 1 June 2023

History was expunged from the national school curriculum more than a decade ago because, it was claimed, there was no interest in it. Evidently, the political establishment continues to fear that knowledge...

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Belonging to No Nation

Abigail Green, 2 March 2023

As Jessica Marglin argues, the Shamama case offers an ‘insight into the way legal belonging was proved – not only in the Shamama lawsuit but in countless cases both before and since: as a narrative’....

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On Tom Nairn

Neal Ascherson, 16 February 2023

Unlike Althusser’s, Tom Nairn’s Marxism would grow almost unrecognisably open and eclectic. Many on the left never forgave him for writing that ‘the theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great...

Read more about On Tom Nairn

Opium of the Elite: Hayek in England

Jonathan Rée, 2 February 2023

Markets were, as Friedrich Hayek put it with uncharacteristic exuberance, a ‘marvel’, co-ordinating economic decisions in ‘a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully...

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Isaac Deutscher’s contributions to Workers’ Fight in 1940 fall short of an unambiguous rejection of revolutionary defeatism; it is possible that Tamara Deutscher altered her husband’s words, but...

Read more about I must start completely alone: Isaac Deutscher runs into trouble

Not Even a Might-Have Been: Chips’s Adventures

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 19 January 2023

To accuse Henry ‘Chips’ Channon of snobbery or social climbing is almost absurd: society was what gave his life meaning, and it’s thanks to his fascination with the rich and the grand that he left...

Read more about Not Even a Might-Have Been: Chips’s Adventures

George Michael was the biggest selling musician in the world in 1988. He was 25 and seemed ready to outdo Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Madonna. In Freedom Uncut, Liam Gallagher describes...

Read more about Move like a party: George Michael’s Destiny

Diary: Carmen Callil’s Causes

Marina Warner, 15 December 2022

When​ Carmen Callil chose the name Virago for the publishing house she founded in 1973, she was daring all comers in a spirit of defiant wit (with an accompanying gleeful cackle). Grasping an...

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You have to take it: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Style

Joanne O’Leary, 17 November 2022

Elizabeth Hardwick had a great command of pattern and some of her characterisations jingle like a good ad: Frost was ‘malicious and capricious’; New York, a ‘restless monster of possibility and liability’;...

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On Mike Davis

T.J. Clark, 17 November 2022

Marx, Mike Davis says near the beginning of Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, ‘never wrote a single word about cities, and his passionate interests in ethnography, geology and mathematics...

Read more about On Mike Davis

We live in a world, as Stuart Hall put it, in which one can be just as ‘committed’ a revolutionary as Marx or Lenin, but ‘every now and then – Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration...

Read more about A Difficult Space to Live: Stuart Hall’s Legacies

A Million Shades of Red: Growing Up Gay

Adam Mars-Jones, 8 September 2022

Gay men beginning to act on their desires in the 1950s faced any number of difficulties and dangers but could benefit from a certain invisibility. Their status was unspeakable, but at least it was unspoken.

Read more about A Million Shades of Red: Growing Up Gay

Things Ill-Done and Undone: T.S. Eliot’s Alibis

Helen Thaventhiran, 8 September 2022

Sounding out phrases in letters as well as in verse kept things going for T.S. Eliot: he needed a low level of compositional hum. Like a secular spiritual exercise, the letters to Emily Hale sustained...

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Chimps and Bulldogs: The Huxley Inheritance

Stefan Collini, 8 September 2022

It can be hard to grasp how ambitious the synthesis that Julian Huxley tried to provide actually was. In his hands, evolution became emphatically a story of progress, especially human progress. ‘Because...

Read more about Chimps and Bulldogs: The Huxley Inheritance

Memory Safari: Perpetual Reclamation

Daniel Trilling, 8 September 2022

Poring over family stories to give meaning to our lives is something most of us do. For the descendants of people who have survived traumatic historical events, it takes on an added intensity – and,...

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