Friday, December 19, 2008

The Crashaw Prize

The winners of the Crashaw Prize have been announced and I'm pleased to say that I'm one of them. My debut collection, Constellations, will be published by Salt in June 2009.

More here and here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Historical Mysteries in the Spectator

A mention of my Folio Book of Historical Mysteries in this week's Spectator. In sum:

'This is a bedside book par excellence. It’s often dark and a little bit creepy.'

You can read the whole review here.

Blood Sport : Hunting in Britain Since 1066 by Emma Griffin

If you've ever doubted that hunting is all about class warfare, this book provides the historical proof. The Anglo-Saxons regarded wild animals as res nullius, property with no owner, but, as Emma Griffin shows, the arrival of William the Conqueror changed all that. The hunting-mad king claimed vast tracts of land as royal forest, forcing whoever lived there to move out. Any poor man caught killing the king's game, even outside the royal forests, was blinded and castrated. Peasants were cast in the role of poachers, while the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged went hunting. Foxhunting was held in low esteem by the aristocracy, but over time it became the ultimate toff pursuit. Griffin's gripping account follows the "sport" all the way up to the Hunting Act 2004, which spawned a spontaneous grouping of blood-sport enthusiasts, rich landowners and shotgun manufacturers known as the Countryside Alliance. It's not about cruelty to animals, concludes Griffin (more foxes are killed by motorists); it's about two contesting visions of Britishness.

Monday, December 8, 2008

And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

Two deaths made this book possible. First, the fatal stabbing of David Kammerer in 1944, around which this novella revolves like a ghoulish carousel; then the passing in 2005 of Kammerer's attacker, Lucien Carr, which meant publication could finally go ahead.

Burroughs and Kerouac were 30 and 21 respectively when they composed And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (the surreal title alludes to a report of a fire at a zoo), writing alternate chapters under pseudonyms. Carr and Kammerer were their friends, and the events surrounding the latter's death were still fresh in their minds. A bloodstained Carr sought out both men straight after the attack, but whereas the worldly-wise Burroughs calmly advised Carr to turn himself in, Kerouac buckled under the strain. "My legs kept bending at the knee," he says, as Carr confesses all in a bar.

Nevertheless, Kerouac can barely disguise his excitement at this unexpected exposure to a real-life drama. "I used to imagine what it would be like to kill someone," he admits in a key passage. "Now here stood Phillip [Carr] beside me, and he had actually done it." Hippos shows that the Beats' genius for self-mythologising, their unwavering belief in themselves as existential heroes rather than aimless losers, set in early.

Without Carr, however, the whole Beat phenomenon might never have happened, for he not only introduced Kerouac, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to one another, he also inspired them by setting a bad example. Carr's relationship with Kammerer (14 years his senior) is reminiscent of Joe Orton's with Kenneth Halliwell, the older man introducing his protégé to literature, then panicking when it seemed he might leave. Finally, forcing his attentions on Carr in a park on New York's Upper West Side, Kammerer was rewarded with a pocket knife in the heart.

Carr served two years for manslaughter, then tried to put his past behind him, persuading his friends never to publish Hippos in his lifetime. Not that they could find a publisher. "It had no commercial possibilities," Burroughs later explained. "It wasn't sensational enough to make it . . . nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it [from] a purely literary point of view." This verdict still stands.

Neither Burroughs nor Kerouac is at his best here, but Hippos has value as a testament to their latent talent. Both men, though young, come across as natural writers with an instinct for the telling detail. Burroughs is grimly fascinated by the abuse of authority, his sarcastic, petty-minded landlord Mr Goldstein being a distant relative of the County Clerk in Naked Lunch. If anything, Hippos proves that becoming a junkie was the making of Burroughs, pulling his unique vision into focus.

Kerouac's best set-piece is his description of the bizarre day he spent with Carr - watching The Four Feathers and standing in silent contemplation of Modigliani's portrait of Cocteau at MoMA - before they parted and Carr confessed to the police. Kerouac also brings alive the exotic, homoerotic allure of the waterfront and a life at sea, as he and Carr plan to sign on as seamen and reach Paris in time for the liberation. "Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means, not so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves," said John Clellon Holmes, trying to define the Beat generation in the late 1950s. Hippos, with wartime New York as its setting, has that sustained, nervous tension and sense of impending doom.

Lion of Jordan : The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim

An Israeli intelligence report once described King Hussein of Jordan (1935-99) as a man trapped on a bridge burning at both ends, spanning a crocodile-infested river. Assuming the throne at 17, Hussein soon discovered that you can't please everyone all the time, especially when you are dealing with Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab world, Britain and America. Yet he displayed a remarkable ability to survive in this snakepit. Avi Shlaim's openly partisan portrait reveals a thoughtful man whose efforts to secure peace in the Middle East were constantly thwarted by American ignorance and Israeli duplicity. It's a detailed and informative diplomatic history that bears out Hussein's own observation that "The problems of the Arab world are almost always the fault of its leaders and politicians, not of the people." The survival of the Hashemite dynasty was the king's abiding obsession, says Shlaim, but for all Hussein's pragmatism it should not be forgotten that he was an absolute monarch, firing prime ministers at will and cancelling elections.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Poincaré Conjecture : In Search of the Shape of the Universe by Donal O'Shea

The universe is finite but doesn't have walls, apparently, which means that it must be bent or curved in some ingenious, twisty way. But how? In 1904 the French mathematician Henri Poincaré attempted to describe its shape. His conjecture ("Is it possible that the fundamental group of a manifold could be the identity, but that the manifold might not be homeomorphic to the three-dimensional sphere?") remained unproven for more than 100 years, although Alfred North Whitehead briefly thought he'd cracked it. O'Shea has his work cut out providing an idiot's guide to differential geometry and algebraic topology, but it is the human stories that stand out: in particular the lives of the mathematicians Johann Carl Gauss, the enigmatic and brilliant Bernhard Riemann and his intellectual heir Poincaré himself. In 2006 it was confirmed that the publicity-shy Grigory Perelman, a Russian Jew, had finally proved Poincaré's conjecture. Huzzah! But hold on. "The question of the shape of the universe," concludes O'Shea, "is still very much open."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes Edited by John Gross

This book starts with Chaucer assaulting a friar in Fleet Street and ends with JK Rowling winning a high court injunction. The latter is less an anecdote (defined by Dr Johnson as "something yet unpublished; secret history") than an item from the Telegraph, which only highlights John Gross's dilemma. To update the old-fashioned literary anecdote he has had to broaden his criteria to include "anecdotal material". Often the modern authors (McEwan, Amis, Winterson) have penned the anecdote themselves, presumably because libel laws prevented anything meatier. There's still much to enjoy, however. After telling us about Ezra Pound seeking attention by eating tulips, for instance, Gross informs us that William Empson once ate a tulip, petal by petal, then threw up. We also encounter Pope falling asleep in front of royalty, Mr and Mrs Blake in the nude, Thomas Hardy showing EM Forster his pets' graves, and Dylan Thomas's wife shoving a drunken elbow in her ice cream at a dinner party, then turning to TS Eliot and saying, "Lick it off".

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Little History of the World by EH Gombrich

The German version of this marvellous history for children was written in a mere six weeks in 1935 by an unknown 26-year-old art history graduate who later became known as the distinguished art historian EH Gombrich. He was still working on an English version when he died aged 92. Like all the best teachers, Gombrich simplifies but never patronises, adding a good measure of humour and charm. The book's civilising and humanising mission is never in doubt as history unfolds up to the "tolerance, reason and humanity" of the Enlightenment. Yet in a final chapter, recalling the rise of Hitler, an older and wiser Gombrich concedes that his optimism was misplaced and that in the last century humanity took "a painful step backwards", betraying the ideals of the Enlightenment. "Schoolchildren are often intolerant," he explains. "Unfortunately grown-ups don't behave any better." Gombrich's view of history as an adventure will appeal to all ages, but perhaps this book's best recommendation is that it was banned by the Nazis for being "too pacifist".

The Oxford Companion to Black British History

Don't be put off by the textbook format. This is really a collection of punchy, argumentative and thought-provoking essays that would make a perfect bedside book. The entry on British sport, for instance, detects an "animalising trope", which attributes a black athlete's success to natural ability (with sinister "echoes of the race-IQ debate") rather than skill or practice. (It also examines the racist reaction of British football fans to black players in the early 1980s.) The entry on multiculturalism deftly debates the pros and cons, while an entry on Roman Britain reminds us that black British history didn't begin with the arrival of the Empire Windrush. After all, African soldiers defended Hadrian's Wall in the second century AD. Music and the arts are well represented, and literature's big names are neatly skewered, from Jane Austen's imperialist morality to TS Eliot's "King Bolo and his big black Qween". Why is African-American history so much better documented than black British history, the editors wonder. This magnificent volume goes some way to redressing the balance.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781--1997 by Piers Brendon

The true symbol of the British empire is the moustache, says Piers Brendon in this lively history, reaching its "apotheosis in the crossed scimitars of Lord Kitchener". The last British prime minister to sport a tache was Macmillan ("Dorothy Macmillan also had a faint moustache," observes Brendon). But the moustache vanished as rapidly as the empire itself, becoming at best a joke (Chaplin), at worst a symbol of villainy (Hitler/Stalin). This extended riff on facial hair is a good example of Brendon's irreverence, but if his default mode is to debunk, there is serious scholarship behind the jokes. The British empire was inspired by the loss of the American colonies, says Brendon (the book starts with the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781) and it ended with the Hong Kong handover of 1997. The British saw themselves as the "spiritual heirs of Rome", which gave them abundant confidence, but also made them anxious: would their empire decline and fall? In the end the simple rule that brings down all empires came into play: occupiers are never welcome.

Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes : In Search of Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray

"No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell," declared Bob Dylan; in this engaging, meandering biography Michael Gray follows in the footsteps of the great prewar bluesman. Willie spent his life travelling ("Baby, I was born to ramble," he told his first wife) and seemed almost magically to transcend his blindness (he was also a crack shot with a pistol, provided his target made a noise). Gray makes his research a large part of the story, soaking up the atmosphere of the American South and describing the brutal, racially segregated world into which Willie was born, although as an entertainer Willie's personal experience of whites was comparatively benign. Willie never had a hit record and eventually became an alcoholic. Rediscovered in 1956, he made his last recording in a record store in Atlanta, Georgia, where his career had begun in 1927. "I don't want this ever published while I'm alive," he said, "'cause if I did ever get any money for it, I would just drink myself to death."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Whisperers : Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes

Russians have two words for a "whisperer": the first suggests someone who fears being overheard, the second someone who informs on others. The distinction, says Orlando Figes in this truly impressive history, has its origins in the Stalin years, when Russia became "a nation taught to whisper".


Beyond Chutzpah : On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman Finkelstein

Can Israel be criticised? Jewish American academic Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, argues that legitimate criticism of Israeli policy is possible, although, as he discovered, it may mean losing your job and being labelled a "Jewish anti-Semite".


Monday, September 22, 2008

Orwell in Tribune : 'As I Please' and Other Writings 1943-7

This excellent collection carries with it a characteristic aura of cigarettes, cups of strong brown tea and counting out one's change. It is peculiarly Orwellian, although it speaks of the lot of any jobbing freelance in the 1940s. His 80 "As I Please" columns are impressive, even before we discover that he was simultaneously writing Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Kipling Sahib : India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling by Charles Allen

"Kipling is a jingo imperialist," declared Orwell. "He is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting" (yet at the same time he was also "a shameful pleasure"). A sensitive study of Kipling's Bombay childhood and lifelong interest in India, Kipling Sahib presents the author in a much more forgiving light. This isn't Kipling the Little Englander, this is young "Ruddy", the "little friend of all the world" . . .


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare

A performing killer whale at Windsor Safari Park provided the young Philip Hoare with his first experience of whalekind, but it was a sad-eyed beluga whale in a tank at Coney Island ("a huge ghostly baby fixing me with its stare") that sparked a continuing fascination. This enjoyable trawl through the history, literature and lore of whales shows that Hoare's time has not been misspent. He seems more attuned than most of us to what motivates these "charismatic megafauna". Cetologists have yet to explain why whales leap out of the water, for instance, but I suspect Hoare's far-from-scientific explanation is closest to the truth: because it's fun.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Little History of the English Country Church by Roy Strong

"When churches fall completely out of use / What shall we turn them into?" wonders Philip Larkin in "Church Going", the poem that begins and ends this engrossing history. According to Strong, the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries were the golden age of the parish church. After that the story is one of desecration and decline, yet Strong resists the idea of the modern country church becoming a mere museum of lost faith.


Cavalier: The Story of a 17th-Century Playboy by Lucy Worsley

"No one can fail to warm to William's attractively voluble enthusiasms," says Worsley, chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, but I'm afraid I did.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cold War by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing

From where we are now, it is possible to look back with a certain nostalgia to the cold war, a period of immobility in world affairs that brought with it "a strange sort of peace". In a new Afterword (Cold War first appeared in 1998 to complement a BBC2 series), Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing argue that we now live in a more uncertain world of "fraught and perilous disorder", as cold war stability gives way to movement and flux, resurgent nationalism, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.


The Barefoot Emperor : An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden

"Vile carcass! How dare you bandy words with your king? Down with the man and beat him till there is not a breath in his worthless body!" Emperor Tewodros II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, was not a man to cross. The poor wretch addressed here was "mashed" to a bloody pulp.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To the Castle and Back by Václav Havel

When Václav Havel first entered Prague Castle after becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he and his team ("a group of friends from various branches of the arts") found wires and concealed microphones everywhere, and a map revealing secret rooms. It was "an enchanted Kafkaesque castle" and, as he reveals in this candid memoir, his time there frequently struck him as absurd.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mortal Coil : A Short History of Living Longer by David Boyd Haycock

David Boyd Haycock can remember "crying at the tragedy of death" at the age of five or six. His mother consoled him by saying that when he grew up everyone would live to be at least 120. And now he has written a book on the subject, covering 400 years of research into prolonging life. The good news is that more of us are reaching our hundredth birthdays than ever before. The bad news is that "we still do not fully understand the processes of senescence and death".


Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

Virginia Woolf would have preferred to be waited upon by robots or to have lived in a world "where I turn a handle and hot mutton chops are shot out on a plate - human agencies entirely ignored".


London Lights : The Minds That Moved the City That Shook the World, 1805-51 by James Hamilton

Like London itself, this is a rather untidy, sprawling book. It grew out of material left over from Hamilton's critically acclaimed biographies of JMW Turner and Michael Faraday, and it's a sort of compendium of loosely connected lives - some obscure or forgotten, but all of them, in some way, helping to create the idea of London as the capital of the world.


Saturday, August 2, 2008


Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A Coney Island of the Mind
94pp. New Directions. $23.95. 978-0-8112-1747-7

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) is an amusement park for the imagination, a “circus of the soul”, as he calls it, where “the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making”. These poems were composed to be read aloud, so it is fitting that this handsome 50th anniversary edition includes a CD. The elderly Ferlinghetti’s smoky-oaky reading voice is reminiscent of William Burroughs’s, if one swaps Burroughs’s icy malevolence for a far sunnier lyrical irony. Also included are three marvellous tracks from the 1957 LP Poetry Readings in the Cellar, where a young Ferlinghetti entertains a giggling audience with three poems – notably “Autobiography”, probably the best-known poem in A Coney Island of the Mind – punctuated by brief bursts of music from the Cellar Jazz Quintet.

Although a key player in the San Francisco Renaissance, Ferlinghetti was born in New York in 1920 and he does a mean impression of a Brooklyn tough, as well as a brash Italian-American (his father was Italian). His romantic, lyrical side frequently harks back to New York and the “fields of our childhood”, while observing that “our ‘fields’ were streets”. In a beautiful poem from his first book Pictures of the Gone World (1955), a selection from which also appears in this edition, he recalls a “summer in Brooklyn / when they closed off the street / one hot day / and the / FIREMEN / turned on their hoses / and all the kids ran out in it.”

In Ferlinghetti’s circus the poet is a clown, “a little charleychaplin man” (as befits the co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore and publishing house), and this collection is full of a literate good humour, sprinkled with borrowings from Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Beckett (“I’m tired of waiting for Godot,” he says in “Junkman’s Obbligato”). Somehow even the corniest lines retain their charm. What dates this collection most, perhaps, is its machismo, the references to “spilled sperm seed” and “penis erectus”, as well as naked women and their breasts (a Keatsian pursuit of Beauty is a constant theme). But one suspects that it was these elements, too, that helped to make it a bestseller in its day.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Summits : Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds

Churchill coined the term "summit" for a face-to-face diplomatic encounter, and it soon caught on. Here are six case studies of what David Reynolds calls "classical summitry" - great human dramas where everything is at stake - rather than the bland "institutionalised summitry" of today (regular meetings of the G8 and the European Council).


Smoke in the Valley : Austerity Britain 1948-51 by David Kynaston

"Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." In this second instalment of David Kynaston's critically acclaimed history, Britain continues to be a joyless place, although the arrival of Listen with Mother, the first Noddy book, the first Eagle comic (featuring Dan Dare), and the first appearance of Tony Benn on Any Questions? make it a much more recognisable one.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gadfly in Russia + The Himmler Brothers

Gripped by an overwhelming desire to visit the USSR rather than work on a novel, Alan Sillitoe draws up detailed, annotated maps of Russia, kisses his wife and young son goodbye and makes a dash for it in a "boxy dark blue Peugeot Estate". It's 1967, when going abroad still had a certain allure (Sillitoe weaves fantasies around almost every passing female) and travel was exciting - although he has no time for the "bullshit" of customs, border guards and militiamen.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Blair Unbound + Fatal Avenue

"When are you going to F off and give me a date? I want the job now!" shouted Gordon Brown, bursting into No 10 in 2004. Brown was the star of Blair (2004), this book's predecessor, says Anthony Seldon, because he was stronger on policy and dominated New Labour's first term; but in Blair Unbound Brown is a spent force, obsessed with becoming PM.


Friday, June 27, 2008

The Last Fighting Tommy + Carl von Clausewitz's On War: A Biography

Harry Patch, who will be 110 on 17 June, is the last British trench fighter of the first world war. His childhood in a sleepy Somerset village is beautifully evoked in this moving memoir as he recalls the sinking of the Titanic, the suffragettes, and seeing his first plane in 1912. In 1917 he was sent to the Western Front to experience the bloody reality of warfare ("It wasn't a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic"), although he avoided killing the enemy (deliberately shooting an attacking German in the leg).


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Their Darkest Hour + Napoleon in Egypt

"Nobody knows themselves," says a wise old Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor in this morbidly fascinating book. "The nice person on the street ...That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist." Some of the men and women Rees interviews here showed exceptional bravery during the war, such as the German man caught by the Gestapo distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. Others became monsters, like the Japanese soldier who at first befriended a Chinese woman: "Raping her, eating her, killing her - I didn't feel anything about it," he says.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Comrades + William Wilberforce

Communism is hard to define, largely because of the "confusing legacy" of Marx, says Robert Service in this superb history . . .

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Young Stalin + Bright Earth

Born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, a sickly, pockmarked child with webbed toes, Stalin was beaten "like a dog" by his alcoholic father (known locally as "Crazy Beso") and mercilessly thrashed by his mother. When he asked her in old age why she hit him so much, she replied: "It didn't do you any harm." Oh yes it did, says Sebag Montefiore in this lively and accomplished account of Stalin's "gangsterish", pre-revolutionary youth . . .


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Michael Foot + The Industrial Revolutionaries

Most historians agree that Michael Foot was hopelessly miscast as Labour leader and that the "donkey-jacket" years were ruinous for the party's image. "This view needs qualification," says Morgan, in this engrossing authorised biography, "but it is difficult to dissent from it."


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant 1789-1837 + Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945

The English used to be plain-speaking, boisterous eccentrics, their conversation peppered with words like "shittenly", "turdy" and "crackfart". But then something odd happened: a peculiar squeamishness overtook the nation (or at least Middle England), reflecting a new anxiety about sexual matters, bodily functions and nudity.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption and New York's Trial of the Century

Welcome to the Tenderloin, a square mile of midtown Manhattan so notorious for its gambling houses, late-night saloons and bordellos that it became known as "Satan's Circus".


Monday, March 31, 2008

This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited

Justin Cartwright's contribution to Bloomsbury's "writer and the city" series is a poignant meditation on youth and age. "Oxford is the city of youth ... the books, the dons, the buildings are sets and props against which youth parades itself," he writes, and at 63, wandering alone through the streets in autumn surrounded by freshers, Cartwright feels his age.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Bible + AK47

It's foolish to take Genesis literally, said Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, yet as Karen Armstrong reveals in this fascinating book, the Bible is being read more literally today than ever before.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Austerity Britain + The Middle Class

This gossipy, evocative book documents the postwar comedown of a nation...

Read more

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fateful Choices + After the Reich

The Second World War was “a close-run thing – closer than is often presumed”, says Ian Kershaw in this gripping book . . .

Read more

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Book of Love: In Search of the Kamasutra

In The Book of Love James McConnachie lays to rest some of the enduring myths surrounding the Kamasutra: it is not a sex manual but a book of good conduct. It is not illustrated and it has nothing to do with Tantric sex.

Read more here