Sep 16, 2022
How the visionary impresario’s revolutionary ballet company took the Paris of Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel by storm
When young Serge Diaghilev set out to save an art form, ballet was not his first choice. The law student from the unpromising city of Perm in the Urals had started the 20th century by wanting to be a composer, until he showed his music to Rimsky-Korsakov, who was simply appalled. Then he switched to curating Russian avant-garde art, which was thrilling but had no international market. Finally, he worked his way around to ballet, which had struck him as silly when he first encountered it. Still, that was half the fun. As his friend Alexandre Benois said later: “He knew how to will a thing, he knew how to carry his will into practice.”
The will in this case involved taking an exhausted, despoiled art form and twisting it into such thrilling new shapes that the world could not help but sit up and take notice. Diaghilev inherited an art practice that was positively sclerotic, churning out nostalgic tales about dying swans and sleeping princesses for an audience composed mainly of middled-aged men who had come to ogle the girls and speculate on whether they wore knickers. His great triumph was to inject Russian ballet – he called his new French-based company the Ballets Russes – with a shot of creative adrenaline so that it was engaged in creating ecstatic moods and moments rather simply retelling implausible stories. At its heart was a new kind of body too, one that could jump as high and fast as before, but also arrange itself with a new graphic vitality. The kind of body, then, that would look right at home in the Paris of cubism and Coco Chanel. Continue reading...
Aug 25, 2022
An magical exploration of the weather literature left behind by the poets, scientists and historians of Anglo-Saxon Britain
If the airless, sultry, stuck summer left you longing for autumn or, indeed, for anything other than never-ending broil, you could do no better than plunge into the Anglo-Saxon year. Here, the seasons are properly seasonal, with wispy autumn smoke, blustery spring mornings and a summer that is lush, green and gently generative. Pride of place, though, goes to winter, a hoary-frosted, iron-earthed season of unyielding chill. Frankly, it is glorious.
Eleanor Parker conjures up this evocative magic from her careful reading of the wealth of weather literature left behind by the poets, sermonisers, scientists and historians of Anglo-Saxon Britain, a period that stretched from 410 to 1066. This means roughly 600 summers and winters to think and write about. Combing the texts of everyone from the anonymous author of Beowulf to the Christian chronicler Bede, Parker paints a glowing picture of an age when the revolving year not only filled up the senses, but intricately marked out time and meaning. Braces of scholars were engaged in computus, the science of deciding just when the new year should begin, and what happened to the solstice in a leap year. Continue reading...
Aug 17, 2022
A gripping account of how colleagues and admirers spirited the psychoanalyst from Nazi-controlled Vienna to London
By the spring of 1938 everyone in Sigmund Freud’s circle, apart from the great man, could see that the game was up. In March, the Nazis had annexed Austria, putting the founder of psychoanalysis – known to them as “a Jewish pseudoscience” – at enormous risk. By now Freud was 82, terminally ill and determined not to panic. Five years earlier, when the Nazis had made a public bonfire of his books in Germany, he had breezily declared: “What progress we are making. In the middle ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books.” If only that had been the case.
Why was Freud so convinced that he didn’t need to worry? Partly because he had spent a lifetime claiming that he didn’t do politics, apparently unaware that politics might still insist on doing something to him. The sturm and drang of Bolshevism and nazism and everything in between struck him merely as a noisy sideshow, the outward manifestation of various individuals’ ragged inner lives. Sort out the oedipal complex, the death drive and other bits and pieces, and international common sense would return. So the old man clung on in Vienna, the city where he had lived for all but the first three years of his life, convinced that things would come right in the end. Continue reading...
Aug 09, 2022
The sparkling story of two early modern Portuguese travellers and their competing views of the world
Edward Wilson-Lee ends this exhilarating book wondering how it is that, as the world becomes global, the people in it have become insular. Indeed, he suggests, the further we travel, the more anxious and even aggressive we become when encountering those who look and act differently from ourselves. To feel safe, we scuttle back to assumptions and attitudes that are familiar, parochial and, in the long run, stifling. He likens it to “sitting in next-door rooms, pretending that we are in a world of our own”.
His passionate point is that it needn’t be like this, and to prove it he takes us back to Portugal in the 16th century. This might seem eccentric, but for much of the high renaissance Portugal was the primary conduit between Europe and the rest of the unfolding world. It was the merchants and missionaries from Europe’s most westerly kingdom who were among the first from their continent to meet the sheikhs of Oman, the kings of West Africa and the emperors of China. More than this, these Portuguese pioneers were careful to carry back their impressions to the motherland, painting a picture, or perhaps forging a template, that would set the parameters for global encounters over the next 500 years. Continue reading...
Jul 28, 2022
A bracingly original tour of the world’s boggy places reveals as much about human behaviour as it does about geography
You never know what horrors may be lurking at the bottom of a swamp. Bogs, meanwhile, sound comical. Marshes are pleasanter, although bring malaria to mind, while wetlands emanate wholesomeness but are also wet in the “meh” sense of take it or leave it. Yet, as Tom Blass explains, these words all refer to the same thing: a place where land and water have got into a tussle and can’t decide which has won. The result is not so much an equilibrium, although these states of semi-submersion can hold their nerve for millennia, more a temporary detente where both sides are too exhausted to declare an outcome. It is in search of these in-between places that Blass travels from Cyprus to Lapland, Romania to Virginia, eyes peeled and treading gingerly lest he fall into the murk that lies beneath.
Early on, Blass reveals himself to be more ethnologist than naturalist. While he pays respectful attention to the fauna that he encounters as he tacks from the Romney Marshes to Louisiana’s bayous by way of the Danube delta, it is the people he is after. The Lipovans, Cajuns and Seminole are all ethnic groups that have moulded a culture from the sludge squelching between their toes and this is the true subject of Blass’s bracingly original work. Above all, he is scrupulous about avoiding cliches. There are, for instance, very few glorious sunsets in Swamp Songs or encounters with gnarly old locals acting as aquifers for ancient wisdom, small mercies for which the reader should be grateful. Continue reading...
Jul 20, 2022
From a ferocious Norse warrior to an outrageously original autobiographer, the female characters changing our understanding of the past
In 1878 a pile of ancient bones was pulled from the ground at Birka, near Stockholm, and confidently identified as the remains of a 10th-century Norse warrior. After all, the skeleton, known as “Bj 581”, was going into the next life surrounded by every kind of death-dealing instrument: spears, axes, arrows and swords, and a couple of strapping war horses. You might have assumed Bj 581 would have one of those helmets with curly horns too, were it not for the fact that the “classic” Norse headgear was actually a stage prop invented for a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle just two years earlier, in 1876. Still, it seemed plausible to imagine that Bj 581 had once sported a wild red beard.
Then, over the last 10 years, murmurs of doubt started to surface. The skeleton’s pelvis was suspiciously wide, the bones of his forearm remarkably slender. In 2017, DNA was extracted from a tooth and the truth was finally out: not a Y chromosome in sight. The Birka warrior was female. At a stroke ideas about Norse women, and about women in medieval culture generally, were turned upside down. Out went the wimples and the prayer books, the mute looks and downcast eyes, and in came something altogether fiercer and more interesting. Indeed, no sooner had the news of Bj 581’s misgendering flashed around the world than its effects started to register in popular culture. Suddenly Norse wonder-women were everywhere, from film franchises to lunch boxes. Continue reading...
Jul 06, 2022
Humour and candour enliven familiar autobiographical tropes, including an evangelical upbringing and drug addiction
Nothing about Original Sins, Matt Rowland Hill’s memoir and first book, should work. Or rather, it should work, but in such a smooth-grooved, unsurprising, seen-it-all-before way that it would fail to stir much excitement. Stuffed in here is every trope of the memoir boom from the past 15 years. First comes the story of middle-class drug addiction, as Hill’s promising young life is reduced to waiting in scary inner-city parks for a boy in a hoodie to drop off a wicked little packet. Then there is the oppressively evangelical upbringing – Hill is the son of a Welsh Baptist minister and his equally zealous wife, whose idea of fun is denouncing Darwin and shouting bits of scripture at each other in the car. And then there’s the fish-out-of-water angle, when Hill gets a scholarship from his state comprehensive to a famous school (never named but easily sourced online and it really is a properly famous one, with penguin suits, fagging and Latin prep). And finally there’s the title, Original Sins, which is hardly original.
And yet, despite all the deja vu, this book is brilliant. The writing shimmers off the page, so that the night sweats are sweatier, the Bible stuff more granular and the class angle queasier than anything you will have read before. Put them all together, add lashings of humour and lacerating candour, and you have a propulsive book – and an informative one too. Depending on where your knowledge gaps lie, you will either learn how to inject yourself with class A drugs or be able to reach for Titus 2 verses 4 and 5 every time you need a reason for snapping off the car radio. Continue reading...
Jun 09, 2022
Faced with a devastating diagnosis, Morris responds by doing all she can to improve the odds of survival for her, and others
In 2016 Jessica Morris was on an annual hiking weekend with friends in upstate New York when she started to feel all wrong. Being out of breath was nothing new since she was in her mid-50s, and exercise had never been her thing. What was her thing, though, was talking – and now, weirdly, she couldn’t do that either. The words were all bunched up in her head and refused to launch themselves on to her tongue. The next thing she remembered was waking up in an ambulance, her face twisted into a permanent grin, which was strange, since she wasn’t feeling remotely happy.
Within days Morris was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a glioblastoma. GBM typically rips through patients in 14 months, leaving only 5% alive at the end of five years. It is the disease that took the lives of the MP Tessa Jowell, Senator John McCain and Beau Biden, the president’s son. And, when Morris gets a definitive diagnosis, she knows that it is the one that will take her off, too: “in a nanosecond, my life had gone from one of smooth, predictable joy to one of unimaginable terror”. Continue reading...
Jun 03, 2022
The story of the clergymen, soldiers, architects, actors and apothecaries forced to rub shoulders during desperate times
In the centuries following the burning down of Basing House by Oliver Cromwell in 1645, all sorts of odd things kept turning up in the ruins. There was fine glass from Venice, an ivory cup from west Africa, apothecary jars from Delft and fragments of a Chinese bowl. Random though these remnants were, they were nothing compared with the assorted jumble of house guests who had left them behind. For three years at the height of England’s civil war, 500 or so mostly strangers had been obliged to cram hugger-mugger into the Tudor castle, which lay two miles east of Basingstoke. Sheltered within the massive earthwork fortifications were Roman Catholics and Anglicans, soldiers and architects, actors and apothecaries, people who burned with righteous anger at what was happening to their beloved country, and those who couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over. The one thing they all had in common was that they were nominally king’s men, on the side of Charles I in his bloody and seemingly endless struggle against his own parliament.
In The Siege of Loyalty House the historian Jessie Childs, whose great strength is her ability to deliver first-rate scholarship in really luscious prose, uses Basing as a microcosm through which to view the civil war in all its fog and mess. While each side liked to trade in stereotypes – Cavaliers cut off old ladies’ heads and played tennis with them, Puritans wanted to cancel Christmas – if you asked people why they were for or against the king they replied vaguely in terms of “religion”, “liberty”, “loyalty” and “law”. The ageing architect Inigo Jones appears to have been holed up in Basing House for no other reason than his role as the Stuarts’ in-house purveyor of grand buildings and court masques. Then there was Thomas Fuller, a clergyman who took advantage of the downtime offered by the siege to write a vast study of Britain patchworked from its “native commodities and rarities”. Hampshire, for Fuller, was a place of “malignant” moles, “troutful waters” and the best bacon in the land. All this hectic record-making was his way of keeping the olden days safe even as they were going up in smoke. Continue reading...
May 20, 2022
The self-deceptions of a dangerous groomer unravel in a portrait that reassesses his life and writings
Giacomo Casanova, that serial seducer of Enlightenment Europe, liked to think of himself as providing a social service. Whether it was romping in a gondola, or making out with two women at the same time (sisters were good, mothers and daughters even better) or getting it on with a girl who was passing herself off as a castrato (cross-dressing excited him), he insisted on the right of everyone involved to experience pleasure. According to Histoire de Ma Vie, the monumental and hugely priapic autobiography that he left behind at his death in 1798, Casanova very seldom resorted to violence or coercion. The worst thing that any partner might complain of was a certain post-coital tristesse which lasted only until the next sexual encounter arrived to chase it away.
Veteran biographer Leo Damrosch knows just how dodgily self-deceiving all this sounds. It is hard to see how an adult man who often slept with very young girls (10 was the legal age of consent) could be read today as anything other than a paedophile. Casanova’s insistence that everything was consensual overlooks, or over-writes, the brutal power dynamics in play. While he didn’t generally sleep with sex workers, he often slept with girls who were being prostituted by their parents or their protectors in return for favours, promotion, social advantage or even just a heavy purse. Venereal disease – he refused to use a condom or, as he put it, “envelop myself in a dead skin” – was not just a hazard but could, on occasions, be weaponised. And when the inevitable happened and Casanova did sire children, he was careful to have nothing to do with them. On one occasion he ended up sleeping with his daughter Leonilda, who produced a baby boy who was, of course, also his grandson. Continue reading...
May 12, 2022
The octogenarian playwright documents the baffling absurdities of lockdown with his usual flair
It is 16 August 2020 and Alan Bennett and his partner are on their customary evening walk. Given that 86-year-old Bennett is hobbled with arthritis, this is hardly an ambitious excursion – literally three minutes “round the block” of their north London street. Suddenly the windows fly open and neighbours start banging pots and clapping. Since he needs to lean heavily on his walking stick, Bennett is unable to join in, but he compensates by standing in the street and nodding enthusiastically. Until, that is, the horrible thought strikes him that it must look as if he is acknowledging the applause, perhaps even trying to generate it himself. To disavow this, he tries shaking his head, “but this just looks like modesty”.
It is a typical Bennett moment, part gentle social comedy part revelation about the self-delusions of the ego. It probably never occurred to the hollering neighbours that their joyful noise for the NHS might be misconstrued as directed at one elderly, slightly famous playwright. Bennett’s diaries, which he has been publishing since the early 1980s, are full of these “absurd and inexplicable” moments. Continue reading...
Apr 27, 2022
From ancient China to Marilyn Monroe – this fascinating history celebrates the joy of ‘bookhood’
One of the most familiar visual tropes to emerge from the pandemic has been that of Serious People seated in front of their bookshelves. Whether it’s a cabinet minister on television or an accountant working from home, the poetics of Zoom insist on a backdrop of titles composed of equal parts stuffy professional manual, well‑thumbed Penguin Classic and, for those who like to raise the stakes, last year’s International Booker prize shortlist. Books don’t just furnish a room, they semaphore to the world exactly how you yourself would like to be read.
In this brilliantly written account of the book-as-material-object, Emma Smith explains that people have been posing in front of their libraries ever since Gutenberg started cranking up the printing press. Before, in fact: one of her earliest revelations is that people in China and Korea were printing books several centuries before sluggish northern Europe got round to it. Still, one of the most deft proponents of the early “shelfie” was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, also known as Madame de Pompadour, companion of Louis XV. In the 1750s, when Jeanne was making the tricky move from maîtresse-en-titre to femme savante, she enrolled her favourite painter, François Boucher, to manage the transformation. From now on he was to paint her either against a backdrop of crammed bookshelves or, better still, actually reading a book and looking thoughtful about it. Continue reading...
Apr 20, 2022
How modern literary criticism came to be – with a little help from TS Eliot, FR Leavis, Raymond Williams and others
In a famous experiment from the late 1920s, IA Richards set his Cambridge students the task of reading a series of short, anonymous literary extracts. They were asked to pay minute attention to rhythm, sound, tone, texture and syntax before attempting to date each text. Richards conceived this Practical Criticism, as the methodology came to be called, as a tough-minded challenge to what had hitherto passed as literary criticism. In the prewar period, university professors were apt to make vague aesthetic judgments about a book’s “beauty” or “soul” before lobbing in a few comments about the author’s mother or the publishing practices of the time. Richards’s students, by contrast, were asked to exclude all such background blather in favour of what they could deduce from the words on the page.
In this exhilarating book, Terry Eagleton describes the sea change in literary criticism that occurred between the two world wars. The five intellectuals he concentrates on here are inevitably male – as well as Richards, there is TS Eliot, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams – since Cambridge, the university with which they were all connected, was not particularly welcoming to female academics. Or, indeed, to anyone at all: most of the time these men appeared to dislike each other intensely and enjoyed saying so. Indeed, Eagleton’s great achievement here is to look beyond the scrim of five tricky personalities to identify the continuities in their work, which added up to a revolution in the way that people – not just professional academics, but the whole community of readers throughout the English-speaking world – thought and talked about books. Continue reading...
Apr 06, 2022
Far from being ‘years of conformity and depression’, the 50s saw radicals in race, sexuality and activism break new ground
The 1950s have not had a good press. In the US the decade has long been synonymous with a retreat to political and social conservatism following the upheaval of the second world war. Senator McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities is the obvious example here, but there are many more. Women who had taken men’s jobs during the hostilities reconvened in dormitory suburbs to nest, wear pointy bras and full skirts and raise the next generation of patriotic Americans. Black servicemen who had fought alongside their white compatriots in Europe found themselves returning to a segregated south where they were required to sit at the back of the bus. The 50s, or to be more exact the period from 1946 to 1963, marked what Norman Mailer dubbed at the time the “years of conformity and depression”.
Except it didn’t, or at least not for everyone. As James Gaines shows in this revelatory study, beneath the Pleasantville surface of postwar America there churned all manner of resentment and refusal. Everywhere he looks, Gaines finds individuals who insisted on marching to their own drum, even when that brought them into direct and even dangerous conflict with the newly oppressive status quo. In the process, he sheds light on a whole range of underground movements tackling everything from race relations to working-class feminism by way of non-binary sexuality. Continue reading...
Mar 19, 2022
The final volume of biography by Richardson, who died before finishing it, is a thrilling survey of Picasso’s surrealist era
John Richardson opens the final (fourth) volume of his magisterial biography of Pablo Picasso with the artist in more than usual disarray. The year is 1933 and, while his celebrity and his wealth are unassailable, Picasso’s marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova has entered its bitter endgame. Meanwhile, his relationship with maîtresse-en-titre Marie-Thérèse Walter, tucked away in the country, is beginning to pall even before it has properly hit its stride. Waiting in the wings is Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer who will dominate Picasso’s life, mostly painfully, for the next eight years.
Richardson shows himself as deft as ever at making connections between Picasso’s tumultuous private life and his art. The increasingly despised Olga appears in a series of nightmare images – as a hideously toothy horse, as a wonky ballerina straining to hold her arms above her head and, worst of all, as a disappointed bride whose veil is slipping off the end of her nose. Earth mother Marie-Thérèse, meanwhile, is transposed into what Richardson describes as “a kinky cluster of boxed vaginas, beehive breasts, and turdlike fingers”. Then there is glamorous Dora, depicted famously in The Weeping Woman with a green face, stringy hair and sausage fingers. As Richardson pithily puts it: “Picasso Picassified people.” Continue reading...
Feb 25, 2022
The Sassoons’ business empire once straddled the world, but later generations lacked the drive to keep it going
By the end of the 19th century, the Sassoon family were regularly referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East”. This wasn’t just lazy, it was wrong. For one thing the Sassoons’ interests and influence stretched right around the world from Shanghai via Bombay, London and Lancashire, all the way to the Atlantic coastal plain of the United States. Then there was the fact that, unlike the Rothschilds, the Sassoons were not bankers but traders, specialising in opium, cotton and oil. What perhaps the late Victorians really meant when they compared the Sassoons to the Rothschilds was simply this: they were very rich and they were Jewish, a combination that conjured ambivalent feelings not just in “polite” society through which antisemitism flowed like a subterranean river but, over time, in the Sassoons themselves.
Joseph Sassoon, who is a descendant of the dynasty’s founder David, believes that it was his family’s experience as serial immigrants that drove their success and explains their decline. Their original role as treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad meant that they seamlessly acquired the Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian that equipped them to do business throughout the vast Ottoman empire. When in 1828 they were forced to flee to Bombay as a result of a pogrom, they quickly added Hindustani to their repertoire and settled down to rebuild their lives, using their tried and tested methods of exemplary ethics and ferocious hard work. Continue reading...
Feb 03, 2022
A compelling study of celebrates the working class pioneers of female emancipation who have been overlooked
In 1822 Susannah Wright stood before the Lord Chief Justice accused of blasphemy. Despite her limited education, she was determined to conduct her own defence and duly began to read out a carefully prepared statement. Her “blasphemy” had nothing to do with being a potty mouth. Rather, Susannah was found guilty of selling a pamphlet that challenged the right of the Established Church to meddle in secular matters. Infuriated by the effrontery of this young lacemaker from Nottingham, the judge attempted to cut her off. Sharply, she told him to be quiet: “You, sir, are paid to hear me.”
It is a thrilling moment. It is also, suggests Nan Sloane, one that deserves to be far better known. The same goes for the many other occasions on which working-class women dared to speak truth to power during the first third of the 19th century, a time of bitter unrest when it looked as though Great Britain might follow France and America into revolution. There is, for instance, Mary Fildes, president of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood on the hustings alongside Henry Hunt at Peterloo in 1819 and only narrowly escaped death in the state-sanctioned carnage that followed. Or Jane Carlile who, like Susannah Wright, was found guilty of blasphemy for selling her husband’s newspaper The Republican, and was sentenced to two years inside Dorchester prison with her newborn baby. Continue reading...
Feb 02, 2022
Despite controversy surrounding its findings, the work of a ‘cold case team’ powerfully illuminates what it was like to live under a genocidal regime
On 4 August 1944 Gestapo officer Karl Josef Silberbauer, together with three Dutch policemen, marched into a spice merchant’s on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht and demanded: “Where are the Jews?” It was a piercing moment in 20th-century history, one that never becomes dulled by retelling. Within minutes Silberbauer and his accomplices had located a dummy bookshelf, behind which lay a secret suite of rooms where two families had been hiding for two years. Placed under arrest, these eight men and women were subsequently sent to concentration camps in the east from which only one, the business’s owner, Otto Frank, returned.
We know all this because one of Frank’s first postwar acts was to publish the journal that his 15-year-old daughter had kept during their immuration. The Diary of Anne Frank became a canonical text, one of the few accounts we have of living through Hitler’s Final Solution in real time. And it is Anne’s face – peaky, clever, ferociously alive – that has become the emblem of all the evil unleashed by antisemitism in Europe’s terrible mid-century. Yet despite the story being so familiar, there is one detail that remains a mystery. Who tipped off the authorities that there were people hiding at the back of Prinsengracht 263? Continue reading...
Jan 20, 2022
Following five materials through history, this richly evocative study exposes past snobberies and contemporary exploitation
People have always dressed above their station, and other people have always minded terribly. In 1913 the American reformer Bertha June Richardson was taken aback to discover that the girls whom she encountered in the New York tenements looked smarter than she did, with “everything about them in the latest style”. Unlike many of her pursed-lipped contemporaries, though, Richardson worked hard to understand what was really going on. The Smith graduate and author of The Woman Who Spends: A Study of Her Economic Function, concluded that these immigrant girls, many of them earning no more than $6 a week in the rag trade, were enacting their particular version of the American dream, one silk petticoat and puffy sleeve at a time.
One of the great pleasures of this panoramic history of getting dressed is Sofi Thanhauser’s ability to spot moments like these where human desire and material culture collide. When Molière wrote The Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1670 about a burgher whose ambition to rise into the nobility requires him to get some fancy new outfits, audience members got the joke because they knew someone just like that and it was a relief, finally, to be allowed to snigger. A century later the script was flipped when Marie Antoinette attempted a bit of cross-class cosplay of her own. Enthralled by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s back-to-nature philosophy, the queen built her own toy farm in the grounds of Versailles and started a fashion for peasant costume among the ladies of her court. Not only was impersonating Bo Peep in the Hall of Mirrors a tone-deaf move, it decimated the domestic silk industry, throwing hundreds of Lyonnais artisans out of work. Without meaning to, the queen’s newfound passion for imported white muslin brought her a step or two closer to the guillotine. Continue reading...
Dec 09, 2021
Whether capturing his fractured home life or the wider political currents of the time, this is an expert analysis of the Belgian artist’s life
Given the ubiquity of René Magritte’s images in our culture it is a shock to learn that no one was interested in the Belgian surrealist until it was almost too late. All those bowler-hatted men with occluded faces, the pipe that isn’t a pipe, the giant apples and the looming clouds were hard to like and difficult to sell until 1965, when a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York put him explosively on the map. Suddenly everyone from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to a young Ed Ruscha couldn’t get enough of Magritte’s visual teases, linguistic puzzles and deadpan affect, which made banal objects – combs, matchsticks, bird cages – at once uncanny and irresistible. And still his reign continues: we are all Magrittians now, whether we know it or not, automatically decoding puzzles of space and scale presented to us in the countless advertisements and other commercial art that remains saturated by his hi-lo sensibility.
Magritte only had two years left to live by the time of the MoMA show, dying in Brussels in 1967 in the “villa” he had commissioned from an architect using his late-burgeoning fortune. He and his wife Georgette were very particular about having wall-to-wall carpeting. These dull, bourgeois touches are important, since the received narrative about Magritte’s life has always been that, in contrast to his shocking and sometimes pornographic imagination (one of his most famous works shows a woman’s naked body cut into pieces), his life was one of almost parodic respectability. He stayed married to the woman he had met when he was 14, invariably wore a suit like one of the men in his pictures, and took the dog (which was always called Loulou) for its walk at the same time every day. Alex Danchev suggests that Magritte’s rigid scheduling and besuited self-presentation may have provided a model for our own Gilbert and George. Continue reading...
Jul 28, 2021
From snake-oil salesmen to the origins of the mermaid – why people lie, and why we always want to believe
At about the age of 18 months babies start to get sneaky. They hide food they don’t like and go in for bouts of fake crying. In other words, they have learned that reality, far from being set in stone, is something that can be performed, tinkered with or even made to disappear completely. This, suggests Aja Raden, is the great foundational moment of life, indeed of all our lives. From now on we spend our time tiptoeing along the boundary between true and false, with a dizzying sense of how little there is to choose between them.
From here Raden takes us on a whistle-stop tour of hoaxes and cons. She’s not talking here about little fibs, the grownup version of hiding your spinach under your plate, but rather the swaggery whoppers that are capable of bringing down a whole peer group. Something like the Bernie Madoff scandal, a long con that lasted three decades and involved a lot of very rich people believing a criminal when he promised to make them even richer, without explaining how. In effect, and on Madoff’s own eventual admission, he was running a $65bn pyramid scheme, which used the money from new investors to pay off the marks who had been in the game for longer. All fine and dandy until the day came when he ran out of fresh meat and the whole wonky structure came tumbling down. Continue reading...
Jul 24, 2021
From Henry VIII on his charger to the sex symbol Michael Caine, this close-up history of glasses illuminates their special kind of cool
It turns out that all those stereotypes about people who wear glasses being clever, clumsy and a bit standoffish have their basis in something solid. During the dark ages, when everyone was blundering around with uncorrected vision, the myopes were rotten at finding their place in the world. Literally, they set off on the wrong path, never noticed when a wolf was waiting to pounce and were apt to lunge their sword at the wrong person. This put them at a distinct disadvantage. Not being able to lead the boar hunt, or failing to bow to a nobleman from the other side of the great hall, marked you out as an oik. The safest place was in the library where you could spend your days effortlessly scanning pages of monkish swirl and even having a go at adding some of your own. From then on, swottery and short-sightedness were soldered together in the cultural imagination.
Even once myopes started acquiring glasses during the late medieval period, many of these functional deficits remained. As soon becomes apparent in Travis Elborough’s brilliantly enjoyable survey on eyewear, short-sighted people didn’t suddenly acquire glasses and start morphing into party people and hawk-eyed hunters. Early glasses were beta-ish in the extreme, nothing more than a couple of bottle-thick lenses haphazardly tacked together with leather string or, if you were feeling fancy, gold wire. No one had yet noticed how useful ears could be and so, instead of having side arms, lenses were more likely to be attached to a band around the head or stuck on a stick and held up as a lorgnette. The first made you look like a doctor from a Leo Cullum New Yorker cartoon, the second like an effete French aristo about to have their head chopped off. Continue reading...
Jul 07, 2021
Twelve stories of magnificent – if not moral - lives recall the fun and fizz of an unjustly overlooked period of British history
The way Robert Peal describes Georgian England, you’d be mad not to want to live there yourself. In “Merrie Englande” – he uses the term without irony and a fair shot of wistfulness – everyone is high on a trifecta of chocolate, sugar and gin. No one seems cross, although there must have been some almighty hangovers, and sex sounds polymorphous and unproblematic. In the period known as the long 18th century, suggests Peal in his euphoric introduction, you could love any way you chose, get giddy on spirits and dress in a positive rainbow of new colours imported from Britain’s nascent empire. Religion, moreover, was reasonable and unflustered by sin.
Peal knows it’s not really like this of course – in the 18th century most people couldn’t afford sugar, homosexuals were hanged and John Wesley founded Methodism in order to make people feel guilty about absolutely everything. Still, Peal’s aim in this avowedly populist book is to rescue the Georgians from collective cultural amnesia. For some reason we tend not to do them at school, jumping instead from one puritan to another, Oliver Cromwell to Queen Victoria. Nor do they crop up much in historical novels and costume dramas, ceding instead either to the Tudors (Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory) or the neo-gothic (Sarah Waters, Susanna Clarke). Editors of popular history magazines will tell you confidentially that putting a Georgian on the front cover, as opposed to a Plantagenet or a Nazi, just doesn’t shift copies. They are not what you’d call catchy. Continue reading...
Jun 12, 2021
More than 150 years after Henry Mayhew’s revelatory survey of the capital’s poor, this collection of stories shows that too little has changed
In 1861 the journalist Henry Mayhew completed London Labour and the London Poor, a sprawling, four-volume account of life on the streets and on the skids. Here, for the first time, was first-person testimony from the kind of people who were usually nothing more than a silent smudge on Victorian England’s field of vision: street-sweepers and shit-collectors; sellers of wilted fruit, rotten fish and children’s bodies; beggars and beadles. Reviewing it, William Makepeace Thackeray called Mayhew’s revelatory masterpiece “a terror of tale and wonder”. Charles Dickens, famously, used Mayhew’s database of voices and experiences as a source book for peopling the odd, dark corners of his novels.
At the end of 2018 Jennifer Kavanagh set out to do a Mayhew for our own broken times. With notebook and recorder in hand, she has tramped her native city, talking to the men and women who live and work on its streets. What is at once striking is how little has changed in the intervening 160 years. There are still street sweepers, fruit sellers and even beadles (private security guards by another name). Many people are dependent on an economy of salvaging and repurposing. At night, as lucky Londoners head for their beds, thousands of others make do with the pavement. Food is still the kind that you can hold in your fingers and eat with minimal cutlery, but instead of trotters and hot potatoes it’s more likely to be a late-in-the-day sandwich. There are as many soup kitchens and flop houses as ever. Continue reading...
May 19, 2021
Julia Copus captures the hard times and brilliance of an impoverished, independent woman who was ‘the greatest poetess’ Hardy ever knew
Whenever someone mentions Charlotte Mew, they feel obliged to add context. The fact that Thomas Hardy said she was the “greatest poetess” he knew, or that Siegfried Sassoon maintained she was “the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat”. Even Virginia Woolf conceded that Mew, who wrote short stories and essays as well as verse, was “very good and interesting and quite unlike anyone else”. Walter de la Mare, trying hard to define the source of Mew’s power, ventured “she just knows humanity”.
The reason why any account of Mew, including this fine biography by Julia Copus, feels obliged to begin by bigging her up is precisely because she has so often been done down. Even during her lifetime Mew’s name was familiar only to those who lived and breathed contemporary literature, the kind of people who frequented the Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury and waited impatiently for the next issue of the Poetry Review. For these readers Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride” (1912) was nothing short of a punch to the gut and a slap on the ear, and all in a good way. The poem is a dramatic monologue in which an unschooled farmer laments the refusal of his child bride to respond to his physical and emotional expectations. Mew gives us both the farmer’s bumbling cruelty and the girl’s blind terror as she slips away “shy as a leveret” across the fertile fields. “The Farmer’s Bride” feels as old as the hills yet startlingly new, with its balladry, mixed-up metre and long, wayward lines. Continue reading...