In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Venus de Silo byDan Jacobson

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
The Right Stuff 
by Tom Wolfe.
Cape, 436 pp., £6.95, November 1980, 0 224 01443 9
Show More
Show More

There are several reasons why it is possible, or perhaps even desirable, to disapprove of Tom Wolfe’s writing. It is sometimes verbose; occasionally it is too pleased with its own effects; it is bespattered with arch capital letters and exclamation-marks, in a manner that reminds one of Winnie the Pooh; despite the last comparison, its cadences and vocabulary are deplorably un-English. However, there are also many reasons (of a far more compelling kind, in my view) why it is possible greatly to admire his writing. It can be quick, vivid, high-spirited, resourceful, full of surprise, extremely funny; because the author delights so much in what he detests, and because he has such an uncontrollably mischievous impulse to debunk what he most esteems, every sharply observed detail is carried on an exhilarating surge and backwash of feeling. Furthermore, his prose style is capable of building up to certain big moments, and then sustaining them eloquently over many pages.

All this is true, at any rate, when Wolfe has a subject worthy of his gifts: not necessarily an ‘important’ subject, but one which has a real trajectory, one which tells a story, one to which he has given a plot. I put that word in italics (Wolfe-fashion) because it simply does not appear, so far as I can recall, in his long introduction – in effect, an elaborate defence of the kind of writing he himself has produced – to an anthology of the ‘New Journalism’.* (Even the word ‘story’ is used in the introduction only in the most perfunctory way.) Wolfe defines the New Journalism as that mode of reporting which uses the techniques of the traditional novel in order to describe real-life events. Among these techniques, according to his own account of them, are ‘scene-by-scene construction’; realistic dialogue; the creation of character, if necessary by the adoption of the point of view of one or another participant in the action; and, above all perhaps, the naturalistic recording of physical and social detail. These, he says, are the devices that ‘gave the realistic novel its unique power’; all are available to the journalist who has taken the trouble to interview and observe his subjects thoroughly; they have been more or less abandoned by most serious contemporary novelists. Now whether or not this last statement is true, it does seem to me extraordinary that anyone attempting to catalogue the sources of the ‘unique power’ of the realistic novel should omit story and plot from his list. Stories and plots do not lie about inertly within events; they have to be ‘made up’; they are, indeed, the sequential and causal connections which an author has perceived between events, and in terms of which he gives them their meaning.

This point is not made in order to defend some special asset or privilege of the novel against the depredations of a jumped-up journalist. On the contrary. What I have said seems to me to apply to any narrative, whether it be about real or imaginary events; and on the whole I welcome and sympathise with Wolfe’s attack on some of the pieties that have come to surround the novel as a literary form, and his readiness to exploit its techniques for his ends. Yet the fact remains that without a real story to tell about this or that social phenomenon he has happened to observe, the New Journalist can cut a rather uneasy figure. His obligation to mime the role of the insider – of the quarry, of the subject itself – can actually be at odds with his duties as a reporter. Every now and again, he has to drop the mask, and the language, of the first in order to throw some gobbet of information and explanation to the pathetic, eager-to-learn nothings and nobodies outside, who are his readers. The shift can be disconcerting for both parties. But when he comes before us with a sustained, coherent story to tell, when he is driven by his sense of the intricate and often unexpected connections between public and private experience, embarrassments of this kind disappear. Then, if he has the gifts of a Tom Wolfe, he can write a satire like ‘Radical Chic’ about an occasion at which he was actually present; or, as he does in The Right Stuff, he can re-create the lives of a group of people whom he has got to know many years after the central episodes he is concerned to describe.

The group Wolfe writes about in The Right Stuff are the Mercury astronauts: the first Americans to be hurled into space. The names of some of them – John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom – will no doubt sound like the music of a distant drum in the ears of older readers. In order to write about these men, Wolfe has to write also about their wives; about the corps of test pilots from whom most of the astronauts were chosen; the ‘ordinary’ Navy and Air Force fighter-pilots from whom those test pilots had in turn been selected; the psychologists and physiologists who examined them; the politicians who were eager to be associated with them; even about the chimpanzees who rode in the Mercury capsule before any humans were entrusted to it. We learn about the ‘operant conditioning’ to which those wretched chimpanzees were subjected, and about the different kind of conditioning which helped to transform the astronauts from obscure test pilots into public figures and great national heroes – temporarily at least. En route, we visit a great many different places, from the White House to the Florida resort town of Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral, where ‘even the beach … was Low Rent. It was about three hundred feet wide at high tide and hard as a brick. It was so hard that the youth of post-war Florida used to go to the stock-car races at Daytona Beach, and then, their brains inflamed with dreams of racing glory, they would head for Cocoa Beach and drive their cars right out on that hardtack strand and race their gourds off, while the poor sods who were vacationing there gathered up their children and Scotch-plaid picnic coolers and ran for cover.’

One of the central ironies of the tale is that far more courage and skill had been demanded of the men when they had flown as combat and test pilots, on the miserable pay of regular serving officers, than when they were being fêted as heroes and showered with money and perks by a grateful nation. What is more, they knew it. So did their peers: not least among them, those who had continued to test the rocket-powered, high-performance aircraft that had seemed to offer the United States an alternative route into space. How could it not be known to them? All the pilots who appear in the book are presented as men not only of exceptional courage but also of exceptional competitiveness, with the fiercest pride in their individual performance and the sharpest sense of their place on what Wolfe calls the ‘ziggurat’ of achievement within their profession. At every point they had been in the habit of making an exact measurement of their capacity to push themselves and their machines further than anyone else had done; and then, as proven possessors in their own eyes of ‘the right stuff’, to do it again and again, in flight after flight.

Now they were transformed into ‘spam in a can’. Passengers. Chimpanzees. Subjects in an experiment. They reacted to this in different ways. All tried to get the designers of the capsule to give them some instruments to wield within it, and windows through which to look out of it, so that the man supposedly in charge could feel like a pilot – not like ‘a lab rabbit curled up motionless … with his little heart pitter-patting and a wire up the kazoo’. Some tried to turn the tables, in more or less cunning ways, on the psychologists and physiologists who were tormenting them. (So did the chimpanzees.) They also competed strenuously with one another to secure the nomination for the first flight. None dropped out. When the press presented even the heaviest drinkers and biggest womanisers among them as devoted family men and pious churchgoers, they went along with it. They went along with virtually everything. Their reward was not only much fame and some money and the awed gaze of everyone around them, including the hundreds of their co-workers in the Space Administration, but also the solitary yet rigidly controlled and monitored flights that all but one of them eventually made.

Despite their similarities, each flight was different from the others; each had its own anxieties and frustrations. One capsule sank into the sea on its return, very nearly taking its pilot with it. Another almost ran out of fuel. Another was erroneously thought by Mission Control to be in bad trouble with its heat shield: a fear which the authorities on the ground tried to keep as long as possible from the astronaut himself. One pilot deliberately set about ‘showing up’ his brethren by using far less fuel for a much longer flight than any of the others had made. Each flight is treated by the author as one set-piece among others of a very different kind. The book reaches a climacteric of sorts in the description of a triumphal welcome given by the city of Houston to the astronauts, their wives, and their children, which culminates in a gigantic barbecue inside the Houston Coliseum. There, amid the stench of roasting beef and bourbon whisky, the exhausted guests are treated to an elaborate, prancing strip-tease performed by a grotesquely aged but once-famous dancer, the ‘Venus de Houston’.

The book is a rich one, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to quote from it, or at least to continue pointing at particularly effective passages within it. There is Lyndon Johnson, then Vice-President of the United States, trying unsuccessfully to get into the Glenn household, while John Glenn is waiting for blast-off, so that he can ‘pour Texas all over’ Mrs Glenn and the children. There is Gus Grissom visiting a factory making parts for the Mercury project, and telling the workers, ‘Well … do good work!’ – a tongue-tied plea or command which produces an ecstasy of loyalty and pride in his audience. Early in the book there are some wonderful descriptions of what it is like to take off in a supersonic fighter from a desert airfield at dawn, and what it is like to land on an aircraft-carrier in mid-ocean. For all the bravura of his style, and for all the months and years of research which must have gone into producing the book, Wolfe is remarkably self-effacing in the way he tells the story. He simply never appears in it. This is entirely appropriate, somehow, for the story is ultimately one about self-transcendence: how we hunger for it, and how our technology serves that hunger; the risks a few of us are prepared to take in order to achieve it; and how very difficult and sometimes humiliating it is to succeed.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.