Thomas Jones

Thomas Jones edits the LRB Blog from Orvieto. His novel, Game Theory, is published by John Murray.

Sheets of Fire and Leaping Flames

Thomas Jones, 24 September 2020

Itmust have seemed like the end of the world, and for thousands of people it was. The Younger Pliny was 17 when he witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. He described it many years later in two letters to Tacitus, who had asked him for an account of his uncle’s death. The Elder Pliny, now best known for his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia and for dying under the volcano, was...

Short Cuts: In the Bunker

Thomas Jones, 2 July 2020

The​ Abbey of Santa Maria di Falleri, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery about thirty miles north of Rome, has crumbled over the centuries into disrepair. It makes a brief appearance as a medieval palace in the classic comedy L’armata Brancaleone (1966). The roof was restored a few years ago, and the abbey can now be visited – Covid-19 permitting – on Saturday and Sunday...

From The Blog
22 May 2020

Eric Foner’s piece on the history of the electoral college has been getting an unusual amount of attention online this week, with a huge spike in pageviews on Wednesday and Thursday. It was shared on Pocket (the app formerly known as ‘Read it Later’), but also in more surprising places, such as a politics forum on a fansite for the Texas A&M college football team. It may have been doing the rounds in less public quarters, too, on Facebook and WhatsApp, since we’ve received dozens of angry – and eerily similar – letters to the editor from people who don’t appear to be regular readers of the paper.

Quaresima: Indefinite Lent

Thomas Jones, 2 April 2020

Fifteen days ago: 2706 people in Italy had at this point tested positive for Sars-CoV-2; there were 443 new cases; 276 had recovered; 107 were dead. The Italian government announced on Wednesday, 4 March that schools would be closed the following day, and would not reopen until Monday, 16 March. A week had passed since Ash Wednesday. It would have been neat if the beginning of quarantine had...

Would we be any happier? William Gibson

Thomas Jones, 20 February 2020

In​ the notorious job advert he posted on his blog last month – has anyone applied? – Dominic Cummings was hard-pressed to describe what he meant by ‘super-talented weirdos’. ‘By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for,’ the prime minister’s chief special adviser wrote. The best he could do was to reach for a fictional...

From The Blog
31 January 2020

Practically speaking, very little will change at the eleventh hour, as Big Ben doesn’t strike; Boris Johnson hails the ‘dawn of a new era’ (same old clichés, though); the chancellor of the exchequer hands to the prime minister a ceremonial fifty pence piece (the Brexit dividend paid in full) over a glass of sparkling English wine; the last Brexit secretary walks away with a £17,000 golden handshake; and Steve Baker, magnanimous in victory, raises a quiet glass of champagne, ‘discreetly’, out of respect to the disappointed, disenfranchised and defeated, many of whom are not only sorrowful but fearful about what comes next.

Luce d’Eramo​ escaped from Dachau in October 1944. Part of a work crew that was transported into Munich every day to clean the sewers, she slipped away one afternoon during an air raid, running from one doorway or alley to the next as light snow fell on the city. Ditching her rubber work clothes, she hid first in a railway siding, then made her way to an air-raid shelter to lose...

See you in hell, punk: Kai su, Brutus

Thomas Jones, 6 December 2018

Among​ Shakespeare’s tragedies Julius Caesar is unusual in not being named for its hero. By any conventional measure, the play is the tragedy of Brutus, over whose corpse his antagonist Antony declares at the end of Act V: ‘This was the noblest Roman of them all.’ Still, it makes sense that the tragedy of Brutus should be called Julius Caesar, since Caesar is the figure...

In Bayeux

Thomas Jones, 2 August 2018

We went​ to see the Bayeux Tapestry the other day. In January, Emmanuel Macron promised to lend it to Britain, so it seemed worth taking the children to visit it in Normandy before it got dropped in the sea or torn or lost on its way across the Channel (all fairly unlikely, I know, but I’m a pessimist). I needn’t have worried: the tapestry (embroidery, technically, but who calls...

Duncan’s narrative voice, describing a crucial episode in his presidency barely a month after the event, isn’t his private, inner voice; it’s a public, self-justifying voice, which is perhaps all we can expect from a novel written by a former US president and his collaborators, but anyone hoping for a flash of insight, however brief, into what it’s like to be both an ordinary, fallible human being and the most powerful person on earth is going to be sorely disappointed.

Short Cuts: The M5S-Lega Coalition

Thomas Jones, 7 June 2018

It looks​, for now, more than 11 weeks after the inconclusive general election, as though Italy is about to have a new government. On Friday, 18 May, the Movimento 5 Stelle and the Lega Nord published the text of a coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, and overwhelmingly approved by the members of both parties. They also came up with a...

Diary: The Bomb in My Head

Thomas Jones, 5 April 2018

Before we set out, my seven-year-old daughter had asked me where her grandfather and I were going. ‘We’re going for a drive around a bomb factory,’ I said. ‘A bomb factory?’ she replied, in disbelief. And it does, or it should, beggar belief that there’s a 750-acre restricted site – or ‘centre of excellence’, as AWE’s website calls it – dedicated to the development and manufacture of the most destructive weapons ever devised, squatting in plain sight on the densely populated border of Hampshire and Berkshire.

Into the Woods: The Italian Election

Thomas Jones, 8 March 2018

Given the state of the opinion polls – and their general unreliability; they were off in 2013, exaggerating the PD’s chances – it’s impossible to say what the outcome of the election will be, even in terms of how many seats each party is likely to get. And that’s before the horse-trading begins as they attempt to form a government. Both Renzi and Berlusconi have ruled out a grand coalition, and said that the only answer to an inconclusive result is another election. Jean-Claude Juncker was reported as saying that ‘we must prepare for the worst scenario,’ by which he meant Italy having ‘no operational government’. I can think of several scenarios a lot worse than that.

X marks the self

Thomas Jones, 16 November 2017

Before it was co-opted as the pocketwatch of late capitalism – a gift from the US government – GPS was developed as a way to help the US air force drop its bombs just where it wanted with as little risk as possible to American lives. As with any technological breakthrough, it took decades, with false starts, moments of inspiration, patient refinements, scepticism from the brass (‘We’re the navy, we know where we are’), inter-service rivalry and a more or less steady influx of government cash. Within days of Sputnik’s launch in 1957, two young engineers at Johns Hopkins University were using the Russian satellite’s radio signal to plot and then predict its position. GPS came of age in the 1991 Gulf War.

She’s not scared: Niccolò Ammaniti

Thomas Jones, 7 September 2017

The novel​ that made Niccolò Ammaniti internationally famous, his fourth, Io non ho paura (2001, translated into English by Jonathan Hunt as I’m Not Scared), is set in the long hot summer of 1978, in an isolated hamlet surrounded by cornfields in an unspecified part of southern Italy. The narrator, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano, is quick-witted, observant, brave and good...

Reading​ Amitav Ghosh’s book, I realised something that I feel naive for not having thought of before: trying to convince ‘climate sceptics’ of the reality of anthropogenic climate change is a waste of time. By ‘climate sceptics’ I don’t mean the apparently growing number of people who don’t believe in climate change because they were freezing cold...

Last​ January, a pair of scientists at the California Institute of Technology, Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, announced that they had discovered compelling evidence of an as-yet-unseen giant planet – Planet X – orbiting the Sun, seven times further out than Neptune.1 This isn’t the first time that astronomers have believed there may be nine planets in the solar...

Earthquake!

Thomas Jones, 17 November 2016

It isn’t​ just buildings that crumble in earthquakes, it’s language, too. Clichés fall apart: safe as houses, old as the hills, solid ground. Other words slough off their figurative encrustations and regain their specificity: epicentre, seismic shift. The magnitude 6.5 earthquake that hit Norcia at 7.40 a.m. on Sunday, 30 October was Italy’s biggest since 1980. I...

Night Jars: ‘The North Water’

Thomas Jones, 14 July 2016

Ian McGuire​’s second novel is an unflinching look at what men do, in extreme circumstances, for money, to survive, or for no reason at all. It has quite a lot – filth, sex, violence, swearing, historical revisionism – in common with TV shows like HBO’s Deadwood and its many descendants (including Peaky Blinders, excellent despite its terrible title, whose third...

Bowie’s Last Tape

Thomas Jones, 4 February 2016

When,​ on his 69th birthday, David Bowie released Blackstar, arguably his best record for 35 or even 40 years, it looked for a moment as if he might be hitting his stride again. His previous album, The Next Day, which came out in January 2013 after ten years of near silence, had a few decent songs on it, but a fair bit of padding too, and for all its surface insistence on the future...

One Last Selfless Act: Sunjeev Sahota

Thomas Jones, 22 October 2015

Sunjeev Sahota​’s novel begins with a man showing a woman round a flat. She is going to live there; he is not. We are told their names, Randeep Sanghera and Narinder Kaur, and that they’re in Sheffield, and that she used to live in London. We can work out that they’re Sikh from their names, and because she greets him with the formula ‘Sat sri akal.’ It’s...

The meanings​ that the word abroad has accumulated since it was first used to mean ‘widely scattered’ include: ‘out of one’s house’ (Middle English), ‘out of one’s native land’ (late Middle English), ‘at large, freely moving about’ (late 15th century) and ‘confused, dazed, astray, wide of the mark’ (early 19th century)....

Short Cuts: Hitler’s Last Day

Thomas Jones, 7 May 2015

‘Berlin, 30 April 1945 – by 4 p.m. the Führer will be dead.’

‘Tragedy endeavours​, as far as possible,’ Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, ‘to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun.’ Fielding in Tom Jones argued that writers weren’t ‘obliged to keep even pace with time’, but would do well to steer clear of...

Short Cuts: Death of an Airline

Thomas Jones, 23 April 2015

Everybody,​ especially if they’re afraid of flying, knows that the statistics say it’s the safest way to travel. Or one of them, anyway: as with everything else, it depends on how you measure it, though from any perspective it’s a lot closer to taking the bus than riding a motorbike or a space shuttle. But knowing that doesn’t seem to help with the anxiety. And the...

Awfully Present: The Tambora Eruption

Thomas Jones, 5 February 2015

When​ an Icelandic volcano looks as if it’s about to blow, the flurry of anxiety in our age of entitlement is focused on the potential disruption to European airspace and whether or not flights will be cancelled. In August, we were reassured – if that’s the word – that Bárðarbunga, unlike Eyjafjallajökull four years ago, wouldn’t be allowed to...

Every Open Mouth a Grave: Joshua Ferris

Thomas Jones, 21 August 2014

The narrator​ of Joshua Ferris’s new novel is a rich, white, garrulous, sexist, misanthropic New Yorker with a troubled childhood, now in early middle age, wondering what the point of it all is. But Paul O’Rourke has one redeeming feature: he’s a dentist. Which means that rather than pondering the mysteries of the universe and his place in it while staring into space, he...

Short Cuts: Facebook Misery

Thomas Jones, 17 July 2014

Heaven​ knows there are reasons enough for anyone to feel miserable about Facebook: the mediation and commodification of ordinary human relationships, the mediation and commodification of every aspect of everyday life, the invasions of privacy, the ‘targeted’ adverts, the crappy photos, the asinine jokes, the pressure to like and be liked, the bullying, the sexism, the racism,...

In​ the early 1960s, around the time that Raymond Queneau was working on his choose-your-own-sonnet sequence, Cent mille milliards de poèmes, and Marc Saporta on Composition No. 1, a looseleaf novel whose pages can be read in any order, Nanni Balestrini produced Tape Mark I, a series of sentence fragments arranged into verse sequences by a computer algorithm. A few of the many...

This is not a ghost story: Nathan Filer

Thomas Jones, 20 February 2014

Nathan Filer​ seems, by all accounts, a very nice man. Despite being given a six-figure advance from HarperCollins for his first novel, getting glowing reviews, winning the Costa Book Award and topping the bestseller lists, he says he means to keep up his registration as a mental health nurse and work occasional shifts. He collected the Costa prize three days after getting married and wore...

Necrophiliac Striptease: Mummies

Thomas Jones, 6 February 2014

In 1889, Rudyard Kipling, 23 years old, recently arrived in London and looking to ingratiate himself with England’s most popular novelist, wrote to Rider Haggard with the outline of a story he’d recently heard, a ‘thing picked up the other day across some drinks’:

There was first one Englishman and one mummy. They met in Egypt and the live man bought the dead, for it...

Something remarkable happens in the opening pages of J. Robert Lennon’s seventh novel. Elisa Brown is driving home to Reevesport, in upstate New York, from Madison, Wisconsin, where her son is buried. She makes the journey once a year, by herself, in her beaten up old Honda with its smell of dog (her husband’s, from before they were married, now dead) and cracked windscreen. As...

Call me Ismail: Wu Ming

Thomas Jones, 18 July 2013

Between 1975 and 1983, Luther Blissett made 246 appearances as a striker for Watford FC and scored 95 goals. When he joined the club they were in the Fourth Division. When he signed for AC Milan for £1 million in 1983 he was the First Division’s top scorer, with 27 goals in the 1982-83 season. He didn’t do so well at Milan, scoring only five goals in 30 games; after a year...

On a damp, chill, blustery August afternoon in Whitby a few years ago I overheard a disgruntled holidaymaker declaiming – to his family, to anyone who would listen, to the wind – that ‘global warming is a load of codswallop.’ One of his children, a boy of around ten, was valiantly trying to explain to him the difference between climate and weather. But he wasn’t paying attention, or couldn’t hear over the gale and the sound of his own voice. ‘Global warming,’ he insisted again, ‘is a load of codswallop.’ This year’s April snows provoked similar sentiments in many quarters.

Short Cuts: Seismologists on Trial

Thomas Jones, 22 November 2012

It was a hit and a miss for the Italian courts in October. On the one hand, in Milan, Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud, sentenced to a year in jail, ordered to pay damages of €10 million and barred from public office for three years. The Economist, welcoming the verdict, looked back at Berlusconi’s entrance onto the political stage in 1994: ‘The footage of the...

Short Cuts: The Vatileaks Saga

Thomas Jones, 25 October 2012

The world hasn’t seen anything like it since Princess Diana’s butler went on trial for pocketing a few personal mementos of his late lamented mistress. Earlier this month, the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was sentenced by a Vatican court to 18 months in prison for aggravated theft. Paul Burrell was saved when the queen stepped in, regina ex machina, to halt his trial. No...

Diary: Death in Florence

Thomas Jones, 21 June 2012

The story, as my grandmother always told it, was that her grandfather was pushed to his death down a liftshaft in Florence for the sake of his gold watch. It never occurred to me to wonder whether or not this was true. The events it related were too remote – a great-great-grandfather a hyphen too far. My grandmother’s grandfather was pushed to his death down a liftshaft in...

The Third Suitcase: Michael Frayn

Thomas Jones, 24 May 2012

About ten years ago I went to see Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in the West End. The play has been revived, and rewritten, many times since its first run in 1982 and its place in the farcical canon is undisputed. One consequence of its (entirely deserved) reputation for being hilarious is that audiences strongly expect it to make them laugh. More than that: they know it will make them...

The most recent Christmas issue of French Vogue, dedicated to ‘Noël en Musique’, had on its cover a photograph of Kate Moss done up as Ziggy Stardust. The picture is a monument to improbable staying power. It’s more than two decades since Moss was photographed by Corinne Day for the Face, those instantly iconic black and white images of a skinny 16-year-old on Camber Sands, wearing no make-up and very few clothes, grinning through her freckles and pointy teeth, all at once so English, so ordinary and so glamorous.

Short Cuts: Costa Concordia

Thomas Jones, 9 February 2012

Even while the bodies of the drowned were being retrieved from the wreck of the Costa Concordia, the stricken cruise ship was being freighted with allegorical significance by the Italian and international media. On the most obvious reading, the role of Silvio Berlusconi at the helm of the Italian ship of state is taken by Francesco Schettino, the hapless captain who says he didn’t mean...

Les zombies, c’est vous: Zombies

Thomas Jones, 26 January 2012

Zombies, thousands of them. At the movies, on TV, in computer games, on Facebook, roaming the streets in protest or for kicks, the undead hordes have never been more prevalent. They’re a relatively new phenomenon, as monsters in Western horror go, lacking the canonical pedigree of werewolves or vampires. But the plague spreads quickly. The zombie as it emerged in 20th-century American...

Spot the Mistakes: Ann Patchett

Thomas Jones, 25 August 2011

In Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize in 2002, a group of international businessmen and diplomats have gathered at the vice-president’s house in an unnamed and, despite some superficial resemblances to Peru, fictitious South American country for Katsumi Hosokawa’s 53rd birthday party. Hosokawa is the head of a large Japanese electronics firm, and the...

In their foreword to the predictably dismaying Higher Education White Paper, Vince Cable and David Willetts deploy the standard language of the marketplace: the Higher Education Funding Council for England will take on ‘a major new role as a consumer champion’; ‘universities will be under competitive pressure to provide better quality and lower cost’ because...

Short Cuts: ‘Niche’

Thomas Jones, 3 March 2011

At least since the New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, became a bestseller ten years ago, publishers have churned out popular social science books, several but not all of them by New Yorker staffers (including a couple more from Gladwell), with short, catchy titles and long, friendly subtitles, and if one...

‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’: Julian Barnes

Thomas Jones, 17 February 2011

The 21-year-old narrator of Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), suggests that ‘everyone has a perfect age to which they aspire, and they’re only truly at ease with themselves when they get there. I suppose with most people it’s between 25 and 35.’ For him, though, he imagines it’s ‘a sprightly 65’. The narrator of Flaubert’s...

Dropping In for a While: Maile Meloy

Thomas Jones, 2 December 2010

Maile Meloy’s first novel, Liars and Saints (2003), told the story of five generations of the Santerre family, Catholic French Canadians displaced to Southern California, and later dispersed more widely across the United States and the rest of the world. The book – chosen as a Richard and Judy Summer Read, though that shouldn’t be held against it – begins with Teddy...

Short Cuts: Facebook Break-Ups

Thomas Jones, 7 October 2010

A few years ago, when such a thing still seemed unusual, I found out through Facebook that a friend was pregnant. As soon as I’d fired off a message of congratulation, however, I wondered if I’d overinterpreted what she’d said. Perhaps ‘is eating jaffa cakes for two’ simply meant she was eating a lot of Jaffa Cakes. So I sent another message apologising for the...

So you’ve gone into hospital for some routine neurosurgery, and as the anaesthetist’s putting you under you make small talk about the surgeon who’ll be operating on you.

‘Don’t worry, he’s very experienced,’ the anaesthetist says. ‘Actually, he’s won a Nobel Prize.’

‘Really?’ you say. ‘What for?’

...

Last June, Nasa and the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry published a detailed topographic map of the Earth, covering an unprecedented 99 per cent of the planet’s landmass. The map was compiled from data collected from a Japanese radiometer on board an American spacecraft; the elevation measurement points are only 30 metres apart. According to Nasa, the data ‘fill...

Oh, the Irony: Ian McEwan

Thomas Jones, 25 March 2010

The elements of farce in Solar have the unintended side-effect of pointing up how farcical many of the events in McEwan’s previous, more serious novels are: the drunk ex-husband in The Innocent falling asleep in his ex-wife’s wardrobe while waiting for her to come home with her new fiancé; the young man in Atonement sending the drastically wrong draft of a letter to the young woman he’s just realised he’s in love with. In The Cement Garden or The Innocent, the incongruous elements of farce make the stories darker. But McEwan hasn’t been interested in that kind of darkness for some time, and in his more recent novels, such as Saturday or even the intermittently dazzling Atonement, the farcical elements are merely incongruous. At least Solar is meant to be funny.

Short Cuts: Bio Insecurity

Thomas Jones, 5 November 2009

Eight years, billions of dollars and thousands of dead bodies into the ‘global war on terror’ – sorry, Mr President, the ‘overseas contingency operation’ – and we still don’t have an answer to one of the fundamental questions: where is Osama bin Laden? Other, of course, than skulking invulnerably in the darker corners of the Western public...

Call It Capitalism: Pynchon

Thomas Jones, 10 September 2009

The malign spirit hovering over Inherent Vice is Charles Manson, the white racist advocate of black power. He embodies the contradictions of the 1960s: he was into free love, getting stoned, the Beatles and the Beach Boys; he believed in the coming revolution; and he ordered his followers to go into other people’s homes and maim and kill in the service of a fugitive idea – just as Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon did.

Plottergeist: Sarah Waters

Thomas Jones, 9 July 2009

My grandmother’s grandfather died in 1913, survived by his wife, Ann, and five children: four sons and a daughter, Margaret. The sons all married and left home; but Margaret, who was 35 when her father died, remained as her mother’s companion. At some point the two women moved a few miles across North London from their house in Canonbury to Belsize Park, where they lived together...

Short Cuts: Politicians’ Spouses

Thomas Jones, 11 June 2009

A spouse used to be considered an indispensable asset for a politician; but then not so long ago bank shares looked like a good investment. For the moment the most notorious of the sub-prime other halves remains Richard Timney, husband and parliamentary aide to the home secretary. On the London Review blog last month Jenny Diski wrote that for the MPs involved, the expenses scandal is...

One of the dissatisfying things about a lot of classic crime fiction is that when it comes to the anagnorisis, we really only have the detective’s – and the author’s – word for who, how and whydunnit. In many cases it would take only a few tweaks here and there to turn any of the red herrings into the solution, and for Sherlock Holmes’s or Hercule Poirot’s...

Ground motions from the earthquake in Abruzzo, more than 100 kilometres away, woke my neighbours in their beds, though I managed to snore my way through it all. I live in a flat on the top floor of a house with a new, allegedly earthquake-resistant roof, and it’s possible the reason I didn’t wake up has something to do with that. Though it may just be that I’m a heavy...

Mistaken or Doomed: Barry Unsworth

Thomas Jones, 12 March 2009

Over the course of his 43-year, 16-novel writing career, Barry Unsworth has demonstrated a considerable knack for producing historical novels of timely pertinence. In 1992, for example, the year that six days of riots erupted in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted of using excessive force in the act of arresting Rodney King, a black man, Unsworth won half the Booker...

The Casa Malaparte, where Jean-Luc Godard shot Le Mépris, was built by the formerly Fascist, soon-to-be Communist writer and journalist Curzio Malaparte in the late 1930s. It stands, or rather crouches, like a predator ready to pounce, on a promontory on the eastern side of Capri, overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. A bright red, long, low oblong, tapering at one end into a stairway up to...

Short Cuts: Malcolm Gladwell

Thomas Jones, 4 December 2008

Last month, Ian McEwan announced that we have eight years left to save the planet from global warming. The timeframe seems to be based less on the scientific evidence than on the audacious hope that Obama’s administration will avert the impending environmental catastrophe. McEwan acknowledged that ‘within the climate science community there is a faction darkly murmuring that it is...

Juan Gerardi, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala, was bludgeoned to death with a paving slab in his garage on the night of 26 April 1998. The parish house of the church of San Sebastián is next to a park in the centre of Guatemala City, a few blocks from the National Palace and the headquarters of the Presidential Military Staff (EMP). At around ten o’clock on...

Loserdom: The Novel as Computer Game

Thomas Jones, 25 September 2008

Computer games resemble novels to the extent that both are narrative art forms that most people, most of the time, interact with alone. On the other hand, most computer games are no longer text-based. And with most novels you don’t have to get the protagonist to solve a puzzle or kill a certain number of bad guys before you can progress to the next chapter. But there is a place where...

Short Cuts: Spies Wanted

Thomas Jones, 17 July 2008

Once upon a time, able – or at least suitable – undergraduates were recruited to the Secret Intelligence Service by a nudge and a wink from a deep undercover agent posing as a French tutor at their Oxbridge college. These days, SIS (‘the organisation more commonly known as MI6’) advertises its vacancies in the Economist. Wannabe ‘operational officers’ (the...

Diary: The Last Days of eBay

Thomas Jones, 19 June 2008

Around the turn of the millennium, one of the friends of friends’ bands whose gigs I used occasionally to go to in the basements and back rooms of North London pubs was an indie guitar group called Keane. One Friday night in the early summer of 2001 at the Monarch on Chalk Farm Road, my girlfriend gave their manager (an ex-boyfriend of hers) a couple of quid for a homemade CD. ‘That’ll be worth a lot of money one day,’ he said. I assumed he was joking; I privately thought it was slightly affected of the band even to have a manager – couldn’t they book their own gigs at the Bull and Gate? Shows how much I know. Three years later, having traded in their guitarist for an electric piano, they released their first album. It went on to be the UK’s second biggest-selling record of 2004.

Short Cuts: The Italian Elections

Thomas Jones, 24 April 2008

The demonstrators who’ve been disrupting the progress of the Olympic torch around the world have found an unwelcome ally in the Italian far right. Last month, Forza Nuova cashed in on the popularity of the ‘flame of shame’ protests to organise a rally of their own outside the Chinese embassy in Rome. Their leader, Roberto Fiore, expressing outrage at the treatment of the...

Whisky and Soda Man: J.G. Ballard

Thomas Jones, 10 April 2008

When I was 12, I read a story by J.G. Ballard about a boy who has lived all his life in a vast city. One day, he decides to take a train out of the metropolis, to find a wide open space where he can fly a kite. But after many days on the train, he starts to recognise landmarks from the window that he has seen earlier in the journey: he has travelled all the way around the world without leaving the city. There are no wide open spaces left.

Short Cuts: Blogged Down

Thomas Jones, 24 January 2008

Publishing an anthology of blogs in book form makes about as much sense as broadcasting Singin’ in the Rain on the wireless

In 1943, chemists at Harvard came up with a cheap and simple way to thicken petrol into a gel. Not only was it easier to use in flame-throwers in this non-drip form, but it would conveniently stick to things – wood, metal, flesh – as it burned. The thickener was originally made with coprecipitated aluminium salts of naphthenic and palmitic acids, which is how it came to be known as napalm. The first napalm incendiary bombs were dropped on a fuel depot near St Lô during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The stuff was later used by the United States against the Japanese, by the Greek government against the Communists in 1946-49, as well as by UN forces in Korea and French troops in Indochina during the 1950s. But it was the Americans in Vietnam who made napalm famous.

Robert Harris’s first novel, Fatherland (1992), was a counterfactual historical thriller set in Nazi Germany in 1964. In the alternative reality of the book, Germany defeated the Soviet Union in the Caucasus in 1943, lured the Royal Navy to its destruction after learning that the British had cracked the Enigma code, and intimidated the United States into signing a peace treaty by...

Short Cuts: A Spasso con Gusto

Thomas Jones, 1 November 2007

‘A Spasso con Gusto’ is the untranslatable name of the culminating event of the week-long Slow Food festival that has taken place in the medieval Umbrian town of Orvieto every autumn since 1996. Spasso is an Italian noun that more or less corresponds to the English ‘leisure’. Andare a spasso is ‘to go for a walk’; essere a spasso is ‘to be out of...

Feuds Corner: Ismail Kadare

Thomas Jones, 6 September 2007

In Broken April, a novel written in the late 1970s but set half a century earlier, Ismail Kadare describes the last thirty days of the life of a young man.* On the evening of 17 March, on a road through the mountains of northern Albania, Gjorg Berisha shoots Zef Kryeqyqe dead. The killing is an act of vengeance: a year and a half earlier, Zef Kryeqyqe had shot Gjorg Berisha’s brother....

Short Cuts: Kicking Dick Cheney

Thomas Jones, 2 August 2007

The two things that everyone knows about Dick Cheney are that he was once the CEO of Halliburton and that he has for the past six and a half years been the most powerful vice-president in American history. In four long articles published in the Washington Post at the end of June, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker revealed much that was previously unknown, if not entirely unsuspected, about the way...

Nearly 25 years ago, when Valentino Achak Deng was six years old, his village in Southern Sudan was razed by the murahaleen, paramilitaries working for the government in Khartoum to suppress the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Achak was separated from his family and driven from his home; he was lucky not to have been killed. The people of Marial Bai, like the inhabitants of thousands of other villages across Southern Sudan, were suspected, if not of being rebels themselves, then of providing the rebels with material support. The arrival of the murahaleen was ‘like a shadow made by a low cloud. The shadow moved quickly over the land. The rumbling was horses. I saw them now, men on horses, bringing the land into darkness.’

Not a Nasty: Peter Ho Davies

Thomas Jones, 24 May 2007

The Welsh girl’s name is Esther Evans. She is 17 years old, and lives with her father – her mother is dead – on a sheep farm in North Wales. In the evenings she works behind the lounge bar of the Quarryman’s Arms in the village a couple of miles from their smallholding. It’s 1944. English sappers from the Pioneer Corps are in the area, converting an abandoned...

Short Cuts: How to Type like a Man

Thomas Jones, 10 May 2007

I first got my hands on a typewriter at the age of nine. It was my father’s, a 1967 Olivetti in grey bakelite. He clearly had no use for it: why would a dentist need a typewriter? Whereas I needed it to write a novel, a fast-paced, gut-wrenching, hard-boiled murder mystery set in a primary school. It revolved around a production of Macbeth, in which the hero, the boy detective, was...

Only the crazy make it: Jim Crace

Thomas Jones, 8 March 2007

In Jim Crace’s most celebrated novel, Quarantine, seven strangers spend a month together – or if not exactly together, then in close proximity to one another – in the Judaean desert. Four of them have come to spend forty days in fasting and contemplation in the hope of a miracle: an old stonemason from Jerusalem, dying of cancer; a woman who thinks she is unable to conceive,...

Short Cuts: Caesar’s Birthday

Thomas Jones, 22 February 2007

It’s my birthday today. The LRB has sent me a copy of The Birthday Book, which the Roman scholar Censorinus wrote for his friend Caerellius in 238 AD, and which has recently been translated into English for the first time by Holt Parker, who dedicates his translation ‘to Barbara, for her birthday’ (Chicago, £12). ‘Because you have no lack of precious gifts because...

Short Cuts: Michael Crichton’s Revenge

Thomas Jones, 4 January 2007

I could have taken the train into Rome and gone to an English-language bookshop – there’s even one at the railway station – to buy a copy of Michael Crichton’s new novel, Next (HarperCollins, £17.99). But why go to the trouble of spending the whole of Wednesday morning buying a book, when I could just download it now, on Tuesday evening?

Diesel eBooks were...

Flitting About: Alan Furst

Thomas Jones, 14 December 2006

Alan Furst’s much-admired thrillers are set in Continental Europe during the Second World War and the years leading up to it. His heroes are more likely to be journalists, film producers or novelists than professional spies or rugged military types, though the protagonist of Dark Voyage (2004) is a fairly rugged merchant seaman. The hero of The Polish Officer (1995) is, as the title...

Your life depends on it: Jonathan Raban

Thomas Jones, 19 October 2006

Jonathan Raban’s first work of fiction, Foreign Land, was published in 1985; his second, Waxwings, in 2003; Surveillance is his third. A gap of almost twenty years, and then two novels in fairly rapid succession. In the meantime, he has written a number of works of non-fiction: of memoir, reportage and – for want of a better way of putting it – travel writing. It may be tempting to...

Mr Down-by-the-Levee: Updike’s Terrorist

Thomas Jones, 7 September 2006

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy hates America. He is 18, and lives in a cramped apartment in the city of New Prospect, New Jersey, with his mother, Teresa Mulloy, an Irish-American painter and nurse’s aide. His father, Omar Ashmawy, came to the United States from Egypt to study business, and he and Teresa married soon after they met at the State University of New Jersey. He ‘decamped’...

Short Cuts: Blurbs and puffs

Thomas Jones, 20 July 2006

The dust-jacket was a late 19th-century invention; the notion that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ must be a good deal older than that. It’s an expression that in an ideal world no one would ever say. But people do say it – often, oddly, when they’re talking about books. I say ‘oddly’ because once upon a time a book’s cover would...

Diary: My Life as a Geek

Thomas Jones, 22 June 2006

In 1979-80, a six-part documentary called The Mighty Micro was broadcast on ITV. Written and presented by the late Christopher Evans of the National Physical Laboratory, and based on his book of the same name, the series looked at the ways the world might be changed by the microcomputer revolution. The BBC responded with a more practically minded, educational series called The Computer Programme – a terrible if irresistible pun – which first aired on 11 January 1982. The aim was to give viewers lessons in computer literacy. When it went into development, a suitable machine for use in the series didn’t exist. So the BBC drew up a list of specifications, and went in search of someone to build them a computer.

Outfoxing Hangman: David Mitchell

Thomas Jones, 11 May 2006

David Mitchell’s first book, Ghostwritten (1999), which describes itself as ‘a novel in nine parts’, is a collection of loosely interconnected stories. The protagonist of one will have a walk-on role in the next; a minor character from someone else’s story will later reappear as the narrator of their own. The first narrator is a member of a Japanese doomsday cult, the...

The price of a first-class stamp has gone up to 32 pence, almost 16 times what it was when the two-tier postal system was introduced in September 1968. The first first-class stamp cost 5d, a penny more than second-class. Like most innovations, it took a while to catch on. The secretary of the National Chamber of Trades called it a ‘confidence trick’. Now, almost a third of the...

Short Cuts: Ian Blair and the IPCC

Thomas Jones, 6 April 2006

On 16 March, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said that it ‘will not give a running commentary’ on the investigation into the conduct of the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, after Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police on a train at Stockwell Tube Station on the morning of 22 July 2005. The IPCC inquiry is being carried out in response to...

The London Book Fair’s relocation from Olympia to Docklands this year was not unanimously well received. Before it opened, a prominent group of writers protested against the book fair’s links with the arms trade: its organiser, Reed Exhibitions, also arranges weapon fairs; and last September, ExCel London – the hundred-acre purpose-built conference centre to the east of...

News travels fast on the internet, and not always along the most predictable channels. Urban Dead is a sadly compulsive and hugely popular text-based MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) in which human and zombie characters battle for control of a post-apocalyptic virtual city. The general idea is that people are meant to kill zombies and zombies are meant to kill people,...

Short Cuts: shipping containers

Thomas Jones, 9 February 2006

Ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks working at a warehouse on one of Basingstoke’s industrial estates. Cardboard boxes full of glassware manufactured abroad would arrive in a shipping container on the back of a 25-tonne truck, to be unloaded onto pallets and stacked up in the warehouse, where they were stored until it was time for them to be separated out and distributed to shops...

Short Cuts: Politicians and the Press

Thomas Jones, 26 January 2006

The late Gardner Botsford was for almost four decades – from 1942 till 1982, with a couple of years off fighting the Nazis – an editor at the New Yorker. Among the many good things in his elegant and enjoyable memoir, A Life of Privilege, Mostly (Granta, £12.99), are ‘a few observations on how fiction should be handled’ by Wolcott Gibbs, who, before he became the

The official euphemism for it sounds like the title of a Tom Clancy thriller, or a straight-to-video 1980s action movie starring Chuck Norris. The practice itself sounds like something that might go on, or be rumoured to go on, through the course of a novel by Don DeLillo. But there is no doubt that it does happen, despite the cagey denials and qualifications of the British and American...

Short Cuts: Is it just me?

Thomas Jones, 1 December 2005

One of the better regular sketches on Spoons, the latest moderately funny formulaic comedy show to be broadcast by Channel 4 on Friday nights, involves a man reciting a remarkably long list of all the things that he hopes the people he’s with aren’t going to talk about. I’ve only seen it a couple of times, so I can’t be sure – and it’s possible that the...

Our Little Duckie: Margaret Atwood

Thomas Jones, 17 November 2005

Margaret Atwood’s new novel is a reworking of the Odyssey, told largely from Penelope’s point of view. The Penelopiad is presented by its publisher as a retelling of a myth, but it isn’t quite that. The story of Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War would qualify as a myth, but the Odyssey does not, if a myth is a story that doesn’t depend for its resonance...

Short Cuts: ‘The Constant Gardener’

Thomas Jones, 3 November 2005

‘An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function: who dreamed that one up?’ Roy Bland asks George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). ‘Scott Fitzgerald,’ Smiley replies. The aphorism, or at any rate Bland’s paraphrase, applies just as well to a double-agent. Or to any spy: Smiley and his kind perpetrate all sorts of...

The first rule when concocting a conspiracy theory is not to make any claims that can be proved not to be true. It won’t do, for example, to assert that John Kennedy was shot by Jackie Kennedy, because it’s clear from the film footage of the assassination that he wasn’t. Of course, you could make a case for that footage being faked, but how then would you account for...

Some fictional characters are easier to imagine being than others, either because they’re more like us (‘we’ being whoever’s doing the imagining, whether readers or writers), or because they’re more like characters familiar from other stories. Agu, the narrator of Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala’s short, intense and ambitious first novel, is a rebel...

Short Cuts: John Humphrys

Thomas Jones, 22 September 2005

It doesn’t take much to make John Humphrys angry. On the basis of his most recent book, Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language (Hodder, £7.99), it would seem that there isn’t much that makes him angrier than bad language. Not swearing – he likes swearing – but bad use of language. The ‘essentials’ of ‘good...

Short Cuts: Evolution versus Metamorphosis

Thomas Jones, 1 September 2005

That the human brain is the way it is because it evolved to be that way is what you might call a no-brainer. As Ian Hacking said in the last issue of the LRB, quoting Steven Rose quoting Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ Since we use our brains to make up stories, and to make sense of the stories of others, it’s hard to...

When is a planet not a planet? When it’s a warrior princess. On 29 July, astronomers at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory announced the discovery of an object larger than Pluto in the outer reaches of the Solar System. It’s currently known only as 2003 UB313, because it was first seen – or, rather, ‘the data from which the object was discovered were obtained’,...

Short Cuts: the internet

Thomas Jones, 4 August 2005

Where is the internet? At the most metaphorical level, which is also the way that most of us think about it most of the time, it exists in a parallel universe called cyberspace. We peer into this other realm through our browser windows, and can take short cuts through it to places in our world that are remote in space and time. You could, for example, rewatch the fall of 17 wickets on the...

Short Cuts: ‘Anthrax’!

Thomas Jones, 7 July 2005

The Sun has a knack of dressing up even its most shameless publicity stunts as the performance of its patriotic duty. Last month, the paper carried out yet another variation on its increasingly stale trick of taking a worthless everyday object – a cardboard box; a lump of plasticine – near a member of the royal family. ‘I could have blown Harry to bits,’ the front-page...

Short Cuts: What’s your codename?

Thomas Jones, 23 June 2005

‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Broadsword calling Danny Boy.’ Richard Burton could make any code name sound good. The character he plays in Where Eagles Dare, Major Smith, leads an elite commando raid on a Nazi fortress in the Austrian Alps. The aim of the mission is, ostensibly, to rescue a US general who’s been taken prisoner by the Germans. Smith’s real purpose,...

Short Cuts: dissed

Thomas Jones, 2 June 2005

It is perhaps a familiar scene by now: in the Houses of Parliament, a well-known public figure – not really a politician; somewhat eccentrically dressed, though everyone’s used to the extravagant robes and headgear – addresses the assembled throng of politicians, and the nation at large, on the all-important subject of respect. ‘My government,’ the queen said on...

Short Cuts: ‘The Dinner Party’

Thomas Jones, 19 May 2005

Defending New Labour in the Observer a few weeks ago, David Aaronovitch identified a sinister world of privilege, prejudice and plotting, where short-sighted, soi-disant left-wing opponents of the government gather ‘in shuttered dining-rooms in Holland Park, Highbury and Kennington’ to exchange vitriol, some of which leaks out into the public realm through such conduits as...

When I grew up, I wanted to work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Partly because of the name: an intriguing and exciting combination of the exotic and the everyday, the hi-tech and the homely, like Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver. But also because the people there produced – working, as I fondly imagined it, with hammers and saws and bric-à-brac, and perhaps a couple of sonic...

Short Cuts: Basingstoke’s Paisleyite

Thomas Jones, 21 April 2005

On 9 June 1983, my father took my elder sister and me to the village hall to vote against Margaret Thatcher. We were only small, so we went with him into the polling booth. He gave my sister the pencil and pointed to where she should draw the first line of a cross, then let me draw the second. All highly irregular, no doubt, though even if his ballot had been discounted it wouldn’t have...

Catching news about the Michael Jackson trial, I can’t help being reminded of a caustic song by Dan Bern, a singer less famous than Jackson by several orders of magnitude, called ‘Too Late to Die Young’. ‘The day that Elvis died was like a mercy killing,’ it begins, before turning its attention to the inglorious late careers of other fallen idols of American...

Short Cuts: Blair’s nuptials

Thomas Jones, 3 March 2005

I once had a teacher who was known for taking a more than professional interest in some of his pupils, especially the boys in the school cricket team. Too short-sighted to see an incoming cricket ball until it was inches from my face, by which time it was too late to do anything more useful than flinch out of the way, I was never one of those he liked to tickle as he strolled about the...

Would Sherlock Holmes have been able to solve the mystery of the Mary Celeste? Had he been invented sooner, he might have given it a go. There’s an early story by Arthur Conan Doyle called ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, which appeared anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine in January 1884, three years before the publication of ‘A Study in Scarlet’. Jephson...

Short Cuts: The smothering of Babylon

Thomas Jones, 3 February 2005

There is in the Louvre a diorite stela from the 18th century BC, on which are inscribed the 282 laws of the Code of Hammurabi: pretty much the earliest recorded set of laws we have (centuries older than Exodus, it includes the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’) – at a stretch, it might almost be called the world’s first written constitution. There’s a picture of...

As Dashiell Hammett once pointed out, murders, even in fiction, are not like mathematical problems. This hasn’t, however, prevented plenty of other crime writers from treating them as if they were. In the equation are a few constants – the corpse, perhaps the time and cause of death – and a few unknown quantities. The detective isolates y and z by means of some rigorous and...

Short Cuts: escaping from Colditz

Thomas Jones, 6 January 2005

When Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, is captured by the Germans in December 1944, he gets taken first to a POW camp near the Czech border. Most of the prisoners are Russian, but coralled in the middle of them are fifty British officers, ‘among the first English-speaking prisoners to be taken in the Second World War’. They are...

Angels aren’t what they used to be. According to St Luke’s Gospel, the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night (currently being portrayed by small children wearing tea towels in nativity plays across the country) were ‘sore afraid’ when the angel of the Lord came upon them. Even the Virgin Mary was at first ‘troubled’ by Gabriel’s visit. No...

Short Cuts: Dick Cheney’s Homepage

Thomas Jones, 18 November 2004

There’s a handy website, http://tinyurl.com, that shrinks very long web addresses into very short ones. This is useful when sending hyperlinks by email, as they can get broken up on their way through cyberspace, and so be difficult for the person at the other end to click on: tinyurl.com/53js3, for example, takes you to a map showing the location of the London Review Bookshop;...

Short Cuts: Ukip’s wrinkly glitz

Thomas Jones, 4 November 2004

So Robert Kilroy-Silk, the fallen idol of daytime TV, has failed to win the backing of a majority of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s local chairmen in his bid to replace Roger Knapman as Ukip’s leader. The party’s highest-profile MEP isn’t going to let a ‘farcical’ straw poll stand in his way, however. He has accused Ukip of being run by a...

Short Cuts: Bob Dylan’s Tall Tales

Thomas Jones, 21 October 2004

In November 1980, when the LRB was still in its infancy, barely a year old and only six months independent of the New York Review, Ronald Reagan didn’t simply take the US presidency from Jimmy Carter: he also, as Danny Goldberg argues in Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax, $23.95), wrested political access to pop culture from the Democrats. Reagan...

“Beyond providing the novel with an exoskeleton, Kennedy’s use of the Stations of the Cross is a defiantly blasphemous ‘fuck you’ to the pieties of the 12-step path to recovery. Hannah is nobody’s saviour, least of all her own. And yet her lack of self-righteousness, together with her wit, is her saving grace: she knows she is no better than she is, and doesn’t try to hide it – at least not from the reader, or from her lover Robert.”

Short Cuts: Not by Henry James

Thomas Jones, 23 September 2004

Here’s a question: who do you suppose wrote the following pitiful scene?

A restless, sad, longing little heart was beating under a worn calico dress, in a little room in Fourth Street. Tears as warm and grief swollen as any that gush from woman’s eyes crept down the cheek a little farther, waited, trembled, and then swelling as the bosom swells with sighs, ran down the...

Short Cuts: Pole-Vaulting

Thomas Jones, 2 September 2004

In the build-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, all the talk among the boys at my primary school was of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Clued-up children – in other words, those whose parents were more interested in athletics than mine – knew all about the rivalry between ‘the Tough and the Toff’, as Pat Butcher calls them in his new double-subtitled book, The Perfect...

Short Cuts: politicians v. the press

Thomas Jones, 22 July 2004

John Lloyd, currently the editor of the Financial Times Magazine, resigned as associate editor of the New Statesman in April 2003. His reasons for leaving were published in a ‘farewell article’, in which he criticised ‘a large part of the British Left’ for its opposition to the war in Iraq, described the Statesman as ‘a sort of upmarket version of the Daily...

Richard Wollheim’s memoir of his childhood, roughly a third of which appeared in two recent issues of the London Review (15 April and 20 May), is to be published in its entirety in September by the Waywiser Press. In his obituary of Wollheim in the Independent last November, John Richardson wrote that Germs – which Wollheim thought ‘the best piece of work’ he had...

The third century AD was a bad time for the Roman Empire.* It was under threat from enemies on all sides, and in a terrible state economically. Disgruntled legions were able to murder incumbent emperors and appoint new ones as the whim took them. Between 235 and 284 there were 21 ‘official’ emperors, and countless ephemeral others, of whom all but one died of unnatural causes. The...

Short Cuts: aristocrats

Thomas Jones, 20 May 2004

Peregrine Worsthorne has revealed himself as a Scarlet Pimpernel de nos jours. In his new book, In Defence of Aristocracy (HarperCollins, £15), the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph sets out, if not to rescue that persecuted class (of which he is ‘in part’ a member) from extinction, then at least ‘to engender a change’ in ‘the present climate’ of...

Welly-Whanging: Alan Hollinghurst

Thomas Jones, 6 May 2004

It is to be observed, that straight lines vary only in length, and therefore are least ornamental. That curved lines as they can be varied in their degrees of curvature as well as in their lengths, begin on that account to be ornamental. That straight and curv’d lines join’d, being a compound line, vary more than curves alone, and so become somewhat more ornamental. That the...

Short Cuts: Tintin

Thomas Jones, 15 April 2004

Should I ever find myself competing on Mastermind, I have long thought that I would choose as my specialised subject Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. I first came to this conclusion at an age when I knew pretty much nothing about anything apart from the adventures of Tintin, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision. It still has a number of advantages, however: not least that...

If you search for images of Alastair Campbell on Google, you will find, many times over, a picture taken by a Press Association photographer during the Hutton Inquiry. The photo is proliferating: it even graced a recent cover of Poetry Review. It shows Campbell standing outside, wearing a suit and tie, his right arm folded across his body, a scroll of paper in his hand. His left elbow rests...

Short Cuts: ‘Scouting for Boys’

Thomas Jones, 4 March 2004

I never was a boy scout. Not because I had anything against camping, making fires, tying knots, reading maps, climbing trees, playing at soldiers or pretending to be a spy, but because the idea of doing all those things in uniform, under the supervision of a middle-aged man in short trousers, threatened to take the fun out of them.

The book that spawned the movement, Scouting for Boys: A...

Short Cuts: Godot on a bike

Thomas Jones, 5 February 2004

‘This is a work of fiction. All characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.’ There seem to be innumerable subtle variations of the formula. There is also, no doubt, a way of determining which books require the disclaimer and which don’t, but what the rule might be is a...

Short Cuts: Princess Di and Laura Palmer

Thomas Jones, 22 January 2004

Who killed Princess Diana? It’s pretty much a case of choose your own conspiracy theory, unless you’re Michael Burgess, Coroner of the Queen’s Household, whose tedious task it now is to ascertain the manner of Diana’s death. Entirely by coincidence, Burgess will also preside over the inquest into the death of Dodi Fayed, because Fayed is buried on the family estate at...

Short Cuts: dictators’ bunkers

Thomas Jones, 8 January 2004

‘Satan’s Grotto’ was the caption to the picture of Saddam Hussein’s hidey-hole on the front page of the Sun the day after the ex-dictator was captured by American forces. Numerous cartoonists around the world played variations on the theme of George Bush confusing Saddam with Santa, though none implied the President was disappointed when the captive’s beard was...

In urgent need of an antidote to Paul Burrell’s memoir (see Short Cuts, 20 November), I hurried down to the London Review Bookshop to pick up a copy of Henry Green’s Loving. The recent (2000) Vintage Classics edition seemed as good a bet as any: it has a nice picture of a peacock swanking on the cover, and costs only £6.99. Loving, first published in 1945, is...

It may be that by the time this issue of the LRB is published, the monarchy-obliterating secret that lurks on Fleet St will have been revealed and the last of the Windsors will be preparing for exile in Bermuda, or some other far-flung corner of their former realm: Port Stanley, say, or Balmoral. Paul Burrell will have packed their bags for them one last time. The ‘irony’ of...

Forget the Dylai Lama: Bob Dylan

Thomas Jones, 6 November 2003

“Viewing them through the prism of sin, Ricks co-opts all Dylan’s songs, or at least all those that he writes about, for Christianity. Trying to show that Dylan does not fall into sin, Ricks steers his critical patrol car up a number of dead ends, and has to perform some tricky manoeuvres to extricate it; his quarry, meanwhile, has ducked down an alleyway or jumped down a manhole and is nowhere to be seen.”

Short Cuts: Crap Towns

Thomas Jones, 23 October 2003

When Robert Graves left Charterhouse School in 1914, the headmaster wrote in his report: ‘Well, goodbye, Graves and remember that your best friend is the wastepaper basket.’ (Charterhouse is the public school that was recently reported to be replacing its tuckshop with a branch of Starbucks, but in fact isn’t.) Graves’s first books of poetry were published a couple of...

Short Cuts: Precious Ramotswe

Thomas Jones, 9 October 2003

I once spent, not very happily, slightly less than 24 hours in Botswana. It was during the summer between my first and second years at university. A friend and I had got hold of some bargain plane tickets: Heathrow to Harare via Sofia on Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, flying home from Johannesburg six weeks later. The (arbitrary) plan was to hitch-hike around the more obvious tourist spots in...

Short Cuts: Anti-Socialism

Thomas Jones, 25 September 2003

Frank Field has been Birkenhead’s MP since 1979. He was, for the first year of Blair’s Administration, the Minister for Welfare Reform in Harriet Harman’s DSS. Harman and Field didn’t get on very well, and both were anyway sacked after 15 months. Not being a minister has given the former Young Conservative more time for writing. His 24th book is Neighbours from Hell:...

Short Cuts: Hatchet Jobs

Thomas Jones, 11 September 2003

Martin Amis doesn’t like journalists (if you didn’t know that already, you will now, having read Christopher Tayler’s review a few pages ago). This doesn’t stop journalists from loving Martin Amis. When the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced last month, reporters were delighted to see his name on it. Peel it back, and underneath appear the words: ‘For...

A Girl’s Best Friend: Tobias Hill

Thomas Jones, 21 August 2003

At 750 °C, a diamond will burn. It combusts perfectly, leaving no residue, no ash. That the world’s hardest substance should be so vulnerable to flames is startling; who would have thought that the most precious family jewels could easily be annihilated in a house fire, transformed into carbon dioxide and a little steam, as unremarkable as an exhaled breath? Then again, a...

Short Cuts: ‘freedom’

Thomas Jones, 24 July 2003

The first recorded use of the word ‘freedom’ in English comes in the penultimate chapter of Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (c.888), in a discussion of free will: ‘Þu segist þæt God sylle ællcum freodom swa god to donne swa yfel’ – ‘You say that God gives to everyone the freedom to...

Short Cuts: mobile phones

Thomas Jones, 10 July 2003

Not so many years ago, I heard about a bar that offered drinkers a rather special service: the use of phone booths. Not the old-fashioned, pretty much obsolete kind with telephones in them, but sound-proof cubicles in which different sorts of ambient noise were on offer. Thus, for a modest fee, an unscrupulous punter with a mobile could call a husband/wife/boss/parent/minder and claim to be...

Ruining the Daal: Ardashir Vakil

Thomas Jones, 19 June 2003

Towards the end of this, Ardashir Vakil’s second novel, a successful Anglo-Indian novelist is quizzed by a group of friends in a North London kitchen about the way he writes, and about the subject of his next book. He discusses with a barrister the benefits of revision – he rewrites everything three or four times – and concision. When writing submissions, the lawyer says,...

Short Cuts: ‘Big Brother’

Thomas Jones, 5 June 2003

It must be summer. It’s chucking it down with rain, and the words ‘Big Brother’ have returned to the front pages of the tabloids squatting soggily in newsagents’ stands. As far as American network television is concerned, however, summer is already over: the autumn schedules have been put on lavish display so advertisers can decide where to bestow their munificence....

Short Cuts: The Matrix

Thomas Jones, 22 May 2003

The first of the summer blockbusters is with us. For weeks, Carrie-Anne Moss has glowered beautifully from posters on the Underground, ‘21.05.03’, the release date of The Matrix Reloaded, stamped across her coat. Even cooler, a poster of incomprehensible green computer code resolves holographically into Keanu Reeves glowering beautifully as you walk past. I can’t wait to see...

Short Cuts: Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Jones, 8 May 2003

It’s Thomas Pynchon’s birthday today: he’s 66. By today, I mean the date at the bottom of the page, not the day I’m writing this, or whenever you may be reading it. It’s more appropriate that way, since the man doesn’t exist, in public, other than on the printed page. He has only been photographed twice, both times against his will, in the forty years since...

Man without a Fridge: Haruki Murakami

Thomas Jones, 17 April 2003

On the morning of Tuesday, 17 January 1995, shortly before 6 o’clock, the city of Kobe was hit by the largest earthquake to strike Japan since 1923. During the twenty seconds of shaking that followed, more than five thousand people died, tens of thousands were injured and three hundred thousand were made homeless. At least £100 billion of damage was caused. Haruki Murakami,...

Short Cuts: Boycotting Bristol

Thomas Jones, 20 March 2003

Pupils at the Albert Einstein Middle School in Sacramento, California are not allowed to wear sandals without socks. Einstein himself would have been sent home to change, sandals without socks being his default footwear. On the cover of Dear Prof. Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, however, he is shown sitting cross-legged on a stoop, a benign grin on his face and...

Long Haul: at Heathrow

Thomas Jones, 6 March 2003

It had been announced that the troops were leaving Heathrow; the withdrawal seemed to be complete by the time I arrived on Tuesday evening. There wasn’t a machine-gun to be seen all the way from the train platform to the departure gate. My initial response was disappointment. There’s something boyishly thrilling about the idea of tanks at airports – or rather, there is if...

Short Cuts: Dodgy Latin

Thomas Jones, 20 February 2003

Charles Clarke’s reservations about the usefulness of studying classics were more or less on a par with the old schoolboy assertion that ‘Latin’s a dead language,/As dead as dead can be:/First it killed the Romans,/And now it’s killing me.’ The Education Secretary was, unsurprisingly, sharply criticised; not least by Peter Jones, a Spectator columnist, who told the...

Short Cuts: War Talk

Thomas Jones, 6 February 2003

As Tony Blair prepares to consolidate his place in the history books as Britain’s greatest wartime Prime Minister since John Major, shipping our boys out to the Gulf, boots or no boots, his rhetoric at least is wearing steel toe caps. ‘We are going to be in the front line of this whatever happens,’ he told the Commons Liaison Committee, meaning not, as you might think, that...

Short Cuts: Nephews and Daughters

Thomas Jones, 23 January 2003

There’s a pretty steady effluence these days of works of sub-Darwinian evolutionary psychology, books that propound a startling, and often startlingly simple new theory to explain, and perhaps to explain away, every and any aspect of human nature. A recent example is The Eternal Child: An Explosive New Theory of Human Origins and Behaviour by Clive Bromhall (Ebury, £17.99)....

Short Cuts: The ‘Onion’

Thomas Jones, 12 December 2002

‘America’s finest news source’, the Onion, has assembled an omnibus of every issue of the spoof weekly paper published between October 2000 and October 2001. The Onion ad Nauseam: Complete News Archives Volume 13 (Boxtree, £12.99) is the first of what is expected to be many such annuals. It includes the famous post-11 September issue: ‘US vows to defeat whoever it...

In the Classroom: back to school

Thomas Jones, 28 November 2002

Towards the end of last summer term, I visited a London comprehensive rated ‘Excellent’ by Ofsted. It’s not a specialist school, or a faith school, or a city academy. It is, however, slightly unusual in being comprehensive in more than just name. Almost a third speak a language other than English at home. Twenty per cent are entitled to free school meals (shorthand for...

Short Cuts: The Quiet American

Thomas Jones, 14 November 2002

One of the films showing at the London Film Festival later this month is The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, directed by Philip Noyce, and based on Graham Greene’s novel. (It isn’t the first time the book’s been adapted for the screen: Mankiewicz made a version in 1958 which Greene, who anyway tended to have a very low opinion of films based on his...

The Whole Sick Crew: Donna Tartt

Thomas Jones, 31 October 2002

Greek tragedy contributed to the mise en scène of Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (1992). Four classics students, privileged even by the standards of the elite Vermont college they attend, conduct a bacchanal and, in their frenzy, kill a local farmer, tearing him apart in much the same manner that Pentheus is done away with in Euripides’ Bacchae. Their secret...

Short Cuts: Aristophanes

Thomas Jones, 3 October 2002

A new edition of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, by S. Douglas Olson, was published recently (Oxford, £65), in time for George Bush not to read it before he blunders into Iraq. Aristophanes’ earliest surviving comedy was first performed in 425 BC, six years into the Peloponnesian War.

The causes of the war were, as causes of war are, complicated. According to Thucydides, as Olson...

Short Cuts: Cyborgs

Thomas Jones, 19 September 2002

One of the most tangential, and consequently least horrible, contingencies of the Soham murders is the decision by the parents of an 11-year-old girl to have a microchip implanted in their daughter so she might be traceable in the extremely unlikely event of her abduction. The scientist behind the chip – which has been soundly criticised by Barnardo’s – is Kevin Warwick,...

A distantish relation of mine, R. Ellis Roberts, was, for a few years from 1928, literary editor of the New Statesman, and a relatively undistinguished one at that. Kingsley Martin described Roberts (in Father Figures, his first volume of autobiography) as the ‘only writer on the NS whose contributions I could not stomach – I found his writing intolerable.’ Clifford Sharp,...

There’s an excellent fifty-second song by the White Stripes called ‘Little Room’, which goes like this:

well you’re in your little room and you’re working on something good but if it’s really good you’re gonna need a bigger room and when you’re in the bigger room you might not know what to do you might have to think of how you got started...

Short Cuts: Sedan Stories

Thomas Jones, 8 August 2002

One of the ads on London Underground for the Science Museum’s Grossology exhibition features a little girl’s freckly and bespectacled face gawping amazed into a fish-eye lens. ‘How much poo is that?’ she is asking. Underneath, the small print informs any curious passengers dawdling on the platform quite how many tonnes of manure the horses that once pulled...

Hong Pong: John Lanchester

Thomas Jones, 25 July 2002

First, let me declare a disinterest. John Lanchester and I are both involved, in different ways, with the London Review of Books, but otherwise have nothing to do with one another. Now that’s out of the way, onto the novels. Lanchester’s first, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), begins: ‘This is not a conventional cookbook’ – a more interesting way of saying that it is...

Short Cuts: The Ryanverse

Thomas Jones, 11 July 2002

Tom Clancy, as his fans already know, has a new novel coming out in August. When he first revealed its gestation, at the beginning of 2001, he said its working title (or ‘codename’, as www.clancyfaq.com prefers) was ‘The Red Rabbit’, but this was likely to change as it was ‘too stylised’ – and perhaps too Updiked, though Clancy didn’t mention...

Short Cuts: Dream On

Thomas Jones, 27 June 2002

Results are in for ‘Dream Lab: The Big Library Experiment’. Ten thousand library-goers filled in questionnaires about their reading and dreaming habits, and the numbers have been crunched by Mark Blagrove, a psychologist at the University of Wales, Swansea. It turns out that readers of fiction are more likely than non-readers of fiction to have ‘bizarre dreams’ in...

We live, so we are frequently told, in information-rich times. At least, those of us who live in information-rich places do. The glut is such that it isn’t possible even to make a fully informed choice of what to take in: the range of possibilities itself needs to have been preselected if we are ever to get beyond reading the menu. (This is why Waterstone’s and other booksellers...

Short Cuts: The Size of Wales

Thomas Jones, 23 May 2002

Cod ethnography is a less popular subject in primary schools these days than it once was, but not so many years ago a surprising number of seven-year-olds seemed to ‘know’ that Red Indians would say ‘How’ when greeting each other, and that Eskimos kiss by rubbing noses. (In a recent poll of under-tens, three out of three had no idea about either of these things; one,...

Short Cuts: Flashman

Thomas Jones, 9 May 2002

It’s hard to imagine anyone settling down to write the further adventures of that Harry Potter of the 1830s, Tom Brown; even harder to imagine anyone settling down to read them. (Thomas Hughes did in fact write a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, but it’s never done as well as Tom Brown’s Schooldays: Amazon.co.uk hasn’t even heard of it.) It’s a different matter for...

Liquid Fiction: Francis Spufford

Thomas Jones, 25 April 2002

In my nursery school nativity play, the Christmas before I turned five, I was cast as the narrator. My role involved sitting on a set of steps to one side of the stage in Silchester village hall, and reading out, from a primitive autocue – a series of large sheets of white cardboard, the text handwritten on them in thick felt-tip pen – the story of the first Christmas, as my...

Short Cuts: military intelligence

Thomas Jones, 4 April 2002

In his review of Joseph Persico’s book about FDR and spying in World War Two (see pages 19-20 of this issue), R.W. Johnson mentions the Cicero Affair, the leak from the British Embassy in Ankara of the preparations for Operation Overlord. Our man in Turkey at the time was Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen. ‘Cicero’, codenamed for his eloquence, was Knatchbull-Hugessen’s...

Short Cuts: Blair on Blincoe?

Thomas Jones, 21 March 2002

The special celebrity guest, a common enough creature on our TV screens, is a rarer bird on the books pages of the nation’s newspapers and magazines. But a tip for twitchers (should there be any) would be to keep half an eye on the New Statesman. A couple of years ago, in an inspired piece of commissioning, they asked Christine Hamilton to review An Accidental MP, Martin Bell’s...

Short Cuts: Buffy!

Thomas Jones, 7 March 2002

As we go to press at the beginning of the last quarter of February, the phoney spring is over. Mid-January to mid-February was the warmest it’s been since 1659 (which is when records began), foxing unwary plants into flowering prematurely, to give the frost something to kill. My feelings about the weather are not put into any kind of perspective by the stoicism of Mark Blumberg, a...

Short Cuts: Say Cheese

Thomas Jones, 21 February 2002

Welcome. Ahaa, or should I say Yee-haa!, because I, Alan Partridge, am broadcasting live from Las Vegas, US of A, stateside. I promise you tonight we’ll have a real half-pound cheeseburger of a show for you. And it’s a cheeseburger that contains lots of meaty chat, a salad of wit and a flap of amusing cheese.

Knowing Me, Knowing You: Radio Show 3

One of Alan Partridge’s...

Microwaved Turkey: Tim Lott

Thomas Jones, 7 February 2002

Tim Lott’s first novel, White City Blue, came out in 1999. The narrator, Frankie Blue, is a West London estate agent. His best friends are Tony, Nodge and Colin. Diamond Tony – formally, Anthony Diamonte – is a flash Italian hairdresser: handsome, charming, apparently successful, he has a flair for cruelty. Nodge – or Noj, Jon backwards – is an overweight cab...

Perhaps one of the functions of toys is to introduce children to disappointment. When Star Wars was the thing (the first time round) I was given a Darth Vader costume for my birthday. I didn’t really expect it to make me seven feet tall, telekinetic, nifty with a light sabre and everything else that you get in exchange for giving yourself over to the dark side, but did hope for...

Short Cuts: Ulysses vs. Ulysses

Thomas Jones, 13 December 2001

On 22 November, judgment was handed down in a case brought against Macmillan and Danis Rose by the estate of James Joyce. Ulysses: A Reader’s Edition, edited by Rose, was published by Macmillan in 1997. Joyce died in 1941, and under the Copyright Act 1956 any of his work that appeared while he was alive passed out of copyright on 1 January 1992. Three days later, Rose read a newspaper...

Short Cuts: friendsreunited.com

Thomas Jones, 29 November 2001

Every Friday and Saturday night, more than a thousand twentysomethings attend a club night in London known as School Disco. The dress code is strictly school uniform, the music 1980s disco. Smoking in the toilets is encouraged. The man who started it, ‘in a small back-street restaurant . . . back in September 1999’, Bobby Sanchez, explains its origins on the website,

Short Cuts: TV Lit

Thomas Jones, 15 November 2001

What do TV presenters and narrators of novels have in common?* Both are to some extent fictional, both need to be not only convincing but liked if they are to be successful. (There are of course good novels with hateful narrators, but one of the pleasures of fiction is that it lets us like people we wouldn’t in real life.) A difference between them is that TV presenters more often than...

Short Cuts: Darwinians & Creationists

Thomas Jones, 1 November 2001

In the last issue of the LRB, Steven Shapin mentioned an anti-Darwinian organisation in California called the Institute for Creation Research. ‘Its leading lights call themselves Creation Scientists,’ he wrote, ‘and its website flaunts their doctoral degrees in natural science from distinguished universities.’ By some unscientific coincidence, the current issue of the

Short Cuts: Scrabble

Thomas Jones, 18 October 2001

When people talk about words failing them, they normally have something vaguely semantic in mind, a feeling that words and meanings are out of joint, that they know what they want to say but not how to say it. This explanation is predicated on a notion that meaning exists prior to and independently of language, and whether or not that is the case is questionable. But whatever its cause, the...

On the Make: Jonathan Lethem

Thomas Jones, 6 September 2001

Jonathan Lethem’s first novel is set at an indeterminate time in the not too distant future. The United States – and possibly the whole world – is now run by the Inquisition, also known as the Office. You need a licence to ask questions. Everyone has to carry a card which registers how much ‘karma’ they have: the level can be increased or reduced at the...

Short Cuts: 10,860 novels

Thomas Jones, 23 August 2001

Last year, 116,415 new books were published in the UK, of which 10,860 were works of fiction. Even reading at a rate of one novel or collection of short stories per day, it would take you 29 years, 8 months and 24 days to get through them all. By which time a further 322,900 would have appeared, and – many of them – disappeared. And that’s not taking into account the year on...

Short Cuts: Telly

Thomas Jones, 9 August 2001

Bloomsbury have sent out the first publicity pack for Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, edited by John Lahr, which are to be published in October. Among the slogans (‘Think Alan Clark meets Alan Bennett’ – no, don’t) and the paraphernalia (a padlock and key) is a pamphlet of highlights. A good many of the selected entries concern spanking, and a good many others are...

Short Cuts: the biography of stuff

Thomas Jones, 5 July 2001

Announcing the winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize, Andrew Marr was pleased to be able to say that none of the shortlisted books was the obvious result of a publisher’s ‘wheeze’, or the so-called biography of something which couldn’t in all honesty be said ever to have had a life. One of the more glaring recent additions to the latter category is Cocaine:...

Short Cuts: Britney’s Biggest Fan

Thomas Jones, 21 June 2001

Ann Widdecombe should now have time to finish her second novel. It was due for publication this summer, but had to be deferred till next year because of the election campaign. The heroine of An Act of Treachery is to be a convent schoolgirl in Occupied France; she falls in love with a senior German officer who, to give the story real moral complexity, is also married. Il n’y a que le...

No One Left to Kill: Achilles

Thomas Jones, 24 May 2001

Two destinies, Thetis said. You can choose.

Stay in the fight and be known – for ever – as the greatest warrior on earth, and your life will be short as the beat of that wing.

Or – if you can be happy without this name – live long and peacefully, farming Peleus’ land in Phthia alongside Neoptolemus, the son now growing in Deidamia’s womb. Stay, and you...

Short Cuts: Literary Prizes

Thomas Jones, 10 May 2001

One of the best stories in Neonlit: ‘Time Out’ Book of New Writing Volume 2 (1999) is ‘Shelf Life’ by Tom Bromley. The story’s working title, which mysteriously disappeared somewhere between proofs and final publication, was ‘The Curse of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. The protagonist is a first novel that consistently fails to sell; which...

Short Cuts: Amis Biz

Thomas Jones, 19 April 2001

Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience, was recently published in paperback. The banned ads have returned to the Underground, now that the offending image of the boy Amis ‘smoking’ in short trousers – never mind that the cigarette was unlit – has been overlaid by a minimalist design of red and white text stamped on a wash of black, intimating No Logo chic. In the...

‘Sounding off’ in the column of that name in last Sunday’s Observer (we go to press on 22 March), Melvyn Bragg – novelist, broadcaster, Controller of Arts Programmes at LWT, President of the National Campaign for the Arts, Labour peer and otherwise big-haired all-rounder – lavished praise on Chris Smith. He ended with an anecdote about

a meeting in the Cabinet...

Short Cuts: Fastsellers

Thomas Jones, 22 March 2001

Some moderately interesting statistics are thrown up by The Book Sales Yearbook 2001 (Bookseller Publications, £299). For example: the top five consolidated publishing groups – Bertelsmann, Pearson, News Corp, W.H. Smith and Holtzbrinck – were responsible for a whopping 49.3 per cent of sales in the General Retail Market in 2000; grim news for independents (News Corp’s...

Short Cuts: New Writing

Thomas Jones, 8 March 2001

Every spring since 1992, a volume called New Writing has been published under the auspices of the British Council. This year the Arts Council has joined in the sponsorship fun, and the anthology has a new publisher, Picador. New Writing 9 came in for some friendly ribbing last March from Private Eye’s ‘Bookworm’ because the not so new writing of a disproportionate number of...

Victor Pelevin, the internationally fêted bad boy of Russian fiction, whose 1993 collection of short stories, The Blue Lantern, has this month been reissued in English (Faber, £6.99), has a new rival. And I don’t mean Toby Litt, the John Calvin of the New Puritans, though the name of Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-land Busy also comes to mind, what with Litt’s latest...

Full Tilt: Peter Carey

Thomas Jones, 8 February 2001

In the penultimate chapter of David Copperfield, David and Agnes, after ten years of uneventful but blissful marriage – ‘I had advanced in fame and fortune, my domestic joy was perfect’ – are sitting by the fire in their house in London, one night in spring, when they receive a visit from an elderly stranger. This man turns out to be Mr Peggotty, who emigrated to...

Short Cuts: The Spectator

Thomas Jones, 25 January 2001

When, in May, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson gives up his role as Tory MP for the Spectator to take over from Michael Heseltine as the editor of Henley-on-Thames, you have to wonder where they’re going to find someone sufficiently blond to be his successor at Doughty Street (from which sturdy address the organ Johnson currently oversees emerges each week). Blondness might be thought...

Short Cuts: Bo yakasha.

Thomas Jones, 4 January 2001

Synaesthesia, for those who don’t know, is ‘a confusion of the senses, whereby stimulation of one sense triggers stimulation in a completely different sensory modality’, so that colours may be heard, sounds tasted, smells seen. Famous synaesthetes – as those who suffer from (or enjoy?) the condition are known – include Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kandinsky, Nabokov and...

Short Cuts: bookshops

Thomas Jones, 14 December 2000

Waterstone’s haven’t had a very good year. On 4 January, the first working day of the new millennium, Ben Rogers wrote in the Guardian that he was ‘surprised to wander into the philosophy section’ of their Gower Street store: not very surprising behaviour for a philosopher, you might think, except that he discovered ‘someone’ had ‘divided the whole of...

Short Cuts: Dead Babies

Thomas Jones, 16 November 2000

The spoof memoir Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man was first published anonymously in 1924. Carp is a pious, hypocritical, gluttonous, not very bright and, yes, carping resident of Camberwell, and the narrator of what Anthony Burgess called ‘one of the great comic novels of the 20th century’. He begins one recollection of his childhood...

Dark Sayings: Lawrence Norfolk

Thomas Jones, 2 November 2000

In the first book of the Iliad, Nestor, the oldest by a generation of the Achaean chieftains at the siege of Troy, intervenes in the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, telling them they should listen to him because

You are both younger men than I, and in my time I struck up with better men than you, even you, but never once did they make light of me. I’ve never seen such men, I...

Short Cuts: What’s in a name?

Thomas Jones, 19 October 2000

Peter Lilley, an international fraud investigator and no relation of the Tory MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, has written a book called Dirty Dealing: The Untold Truth about Global Money Laundering (Kogan Page, £16.99). Before outlining how best to prevent the crime, he explains the various ways to go about committing it, such as opening an anonymous Austrian Sparbuch – savings book...

Short Cuts: National Poetry Day

Thomas Jones, 5 October 2000

Today – if the date at the bottom of this page is anything to go by – is National Poetry Day. Since ‘today’ is a week or two off, at least for readers in the UK, there’s still a bit of time to get ready, and what better way to prepare than by reading The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman. Thames and Hudson first published it in 1966...

Short Cuts: statistics and reading

Thomas Jones, 21 September 2000

JustBooks.co.uk, ‘believed to be the largest second-hand specialist book platform in Europe’, has conducted a survey of the nation’s reading habits. After questioning 291 people (you may not think that’s very many out of 60 million, but the interviews were ‘in-depth’ and ‘face-to-face’), they have reached various intriguing conclusions. Having decided that excitement is the best measure, they found that 77.3 per cent of those questioned thought reading ‘can be more exciting than watching a film’, 81.8 per cent thought it could be more exciting than TV and, ‘staggeringly’, 23.7 per cent thought it ‘can be more exciting than sex’. You could say that’s a bit like trying to decide whether a kilo is bigger than an hour; but even so, it’s slightly odd that 76.3 per cent of people think sex cannot (ever?) be more boring than reading. And what about reading about sex? Ah, statistics. The press release gives some details about the representative 291, claiming that ‘the majority (42.3 per cent)’ were aged between 21 and 35. How 42.3 per cent can constitute a majority is beyond me, but the thought that it might is a comfort when reading that ‘sadly for reviewers … 41.9 per cent said they were not influenced by reviews’: on the exciting platform of second-hand statistics, that’s only 0.4 per cent short of a majority – perhaps they could form a coalition with the 5.5 per cent who said they don’t know.’‘

Taking Flight: Blake Morrison

Thomas Jones, 7 September 2000

Towards the end of And When Did You Last See your Father? (1993), Blake Morrison says:

Short Cuts: dictionaries

Thomas Jones, 24 August 2000

When Murray Gell-Mann proposed the existence of a kind of sub-atomic particle in 1964, he came up with the name ‘quark’ after a phrase in Finnegans Wake: ‘Three Quarks for Muster Mark!’ A new kind of genetically modified flax resistant to herbicides has been developed in Canada and christened ‘triffid’, allegedly in honour of a nebula – Alan McHughen, the scientist responsible, may be a mild-mannered biologist by day, but at night he’s an amateur astronomer. He’s dismissive of fears that the association with John Wyndham’s 1950s novel won’t do the controversy-strewn world of GM any favours; and he’s done that clever thing of appropriating an opponent’s discourse: the Canadian triffid is an ironic (and more modern) riposte to all the talk about Frankenstein foods and the like. Anyone looking for a good reason to distrust genetic science, however, need look no further than Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable. It’s not published till November, but Cassell have sent out a taster of sample entries, including one for Dolly, ‘the world’s first cloned sheep, born on 5 July 1996 at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh’. Perhaps Gell-Mann would have called her Molly, but the depressing fact is that she was named after the ‘full-figured country singer Dolly Parton’ because she was cloned from a cell nucleus taken from another sheep’s udder. And this, we are supposed to believe, is progress; though the hopelessly optimistic or paranoid might see some cosmic connection in the fact that ‘quark’ is a variety of low-fat, soft cheese made from skimmed milk.

Short Cuts: I'll eat my modem

Thomas Jones, 10 August 2000

By now everyone must know the deal: if 75 per cent of people who download the monthly installments of Stephen King’s ‘new’ online novel, The Plant, pay for it, he’ll keep on churning it out. Addressing visitors to his website as ‘my friends’, he urges them to ‘Remember: Pay and the story rolls. Steal and the story folds. No stealing from the blind newsboy!’ Since the man’s sight is rapidly failing him, the last sentence has its own macabre twist – ‘vintage King’, as the pundits might say. Cynics might reply that King is in fact banking on only, say, 60 per cent of his readers forking out. He wrote the first three episodes back in the early 1980s (he nonchalantly makes a virtue out of the epistolary story being ‘set … before e-mail … when even the fax was a fringe technology’). As long as fewer than three quarters of readers cough up, he’ll have effortlessly, even wordlessly fulfilled his promise to his fans that they’d have something new this summer – he took a sabbatical following a nasty road accident – while earning at least a few dollars, one per honest reader per pre-prepared episode. Money for old rope, to buy King more time.’‘

Mockney Rebels: Lindsay Anderson

Thomas Jones, 20 July 2000

In 1793, the scholars of Winchester College revolted, in response to the cancellation of an Easter holiday. They barricaded themselves inside the College quadrangle and, having armed themselves with stolen pistols and stones removed from the buildings, took to the rooftops, where they hoisted the red cap of liberty and bombarded the soldiers who came to put a stop to the rebellion. The authorities finally got them to surrender with some false diplomacy, and the net result was 35 expulsions. Today, the school is quite proud of the ‘Great Rebellion’: the English establishment thrives on tricks of this kind – witness the Shelley memorial at University College, Oxford. The first time I saw If …, Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 fable of public school rebellion, was at a screening organised by Winchester College’s film society.’‘

Short Cuts: Bad Manners

Thomas Jones, 6 July 2000

Wicked Etiquette: Over Seven Hundred Faux pas to Avoid – in Bed and out (Collins and Brown, 192 pp., £9.99, 22 June, 1 85585 795 2) is an anthology of mainly Victorian advice collected by Sarah Kortum from such books as the anonymous Gems of Deportment (1880) and Things that Are Not Done by Edgar and Diana Woods (1937). In 1860, The Perfect Gentleman, the work of ‘a Gentleman’, suggested: ‘Do not praise bad wine, for it will persuade those who are judges that you are an ignoramus or a flatterer.’ The similarly anonymous 19th-century author of The American Code of Manners (would it have been bad manners for these people to sign their pronouncements?) advised its readers not to ‘say of anything which you enjoy at table: “I love it,” “I love melons,” “I love peaches,” “I adore grapes” – these are schoolgirl utterances … Love is an emotion of the heart, but not one of the palate.’ Whoever s/he was can’t have read Fielding, In Tom Jones (1749), ‘what is commonly called love’ is defined as ‘the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh’. Not all of the ‘gems’ concern table manners; that’s just one of eleven chapters. Other subjects covered include letter-writing: ‘use as few parentheses as possible,’ Emily Thorwell wrote (in The Lady’s Guide to Complete Etiquette, published in 1886). ‘It is a clumsy way of disposing of a sentence, and often embarrasses the reader.’ The best and the worst nuggets are both reprinted on the back cover. The best is ‘never start an argument unless you are well-dressed,’ the worst: ‘to invariably commence a conversation by remarks on the weather shows a poverty of ideas that is truly pitiable.’ The weather’s fine by me, just so long as you don’t talk like that. The anthology, illustrated by Ronald Searle, has a charming dedication ‘to the Unknown Man whose photograph was found hidden in a copy of the Bazar Book of Decorum (1870)’.

Short Cuts: Adopt a Book

Thomas Jones, 22 June 2000

Last month the British Library launched their Adopt-a-Book scheme, which is, they say, doing very well, with hundreds of people responding. Prices start at £15, for which you get your name on a communal bookplate; for £150 you get a book to yourself; and for donations of £1000 or more you can choose which book you get (comedian, football fan and former English teacher Frank Skinner has apparently made an early bid for Johnson’s Dictionary). You also get a certificate and the chance to attend an annual ‘meet your book’ event. Thousands of books are slowly turning to dust, and current funding for conservation is so low that more books join the endangered list each year than are rescued. The target of the new scheme is to save 250 volumes more than would otherwise have been possible. The infamous £29 million of public money pumped into the Dome would no doubt have come in useful – might not the New Millennium Experience Company hand that princely sum over to the British Library and set up an adoption scheme to raise funds for itself? There could even be a monthly ‘meet your zone’ event to boost attendance figures; although, despite appearances, the body zone may be less susceptible to anthropomorphism than a crumbly old codex.

Short Cuts: Rough Guiding

Thomas Jones, 1 June 2000

Simon Anholt is a very successful advertising copywriter, ‘widely recognised as one of the world’s most influential and respected consultants to corporations seeking to market their brands in the global marketplace’. From a certain point of view, his new book, Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising (Wiley, 326 pp., £19.50, 2 March 2000, 0...

Short Cuts: Looking Ahead

Thomas Jones, 18 May 2000

A special 25th anniversary edition of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Consensus was published in March. Harvard University Press are advertising it together with Richard Lewontin’s new book, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment, presumably to let everyone know they’re not taking sides. Lewontin and Wilson, fiercely opposed to each other intellectually, used to have labs one directly above the other at Harvard (and weren’t on speaking terms) – an arrangement curiously reproduced in the design of the new ad.’

Speaking British

Thomas Jones, 30 March 2000

Graham Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, after coming down from Oxford, allegedly on ‘intellectual’ grounds, though it also conveniently meant he was eligible to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he had met as an undergraduate when she was working in Blackwell’s bookshop. His adoptive faith didn’t begin to manifest itself very strongly in his writings, however, for another dozen years. In 1938, after Brighton Rock was published, Greene went to Mexico as a journalist to report on the religious persecution there, an experience out of which came both The Lawless Roads (1939) and The Power and the Glory (1940). It was also at this time that he began his relationship with Dorothy Glover. Faith and sex are inextricable in Greene’s work – the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory is a father in more sense than one; Scobie in The Heart of the Matter (1948) is driven to suicide by his faith and his unwillingness to repent of his adultery – but the entanglement is knottiest in The End of the Affair (1951).’‘

swete lavender: Molesworth

Thomas Jones, 17 February 2000

Perhaps, in order to find Molesworth utterly hilarious, it is necessary to have read it as a child. Wendy Cope claims to ‘hav been reading this stuff and roaring with larffter since i was 11 yrs old’ (which, if nothing else, endorses Philip Hensher’s assertion in the introduction to this edition that those who attempt to imitate Molesworth’s style always ‘come a cropper’). Hensher, too, at ‘inexplicable moments’, has had to ‘lay down Down with Skool! and cry with laughter’, and he first read it when he was ‘probably no more than ten or eleven’. So I suppose I ought to say at this point that I didn’t read it when I was at school, and reading it now I don’t find it hilarious, though it is sometimes funny. People who did read it at school probably think I’m missing the point, and of course I am – in fact, I can’t fail to, because I didn’t read it at school – but I’d say that those who, like Hensher, think Molesworth is ‘sublime’ are missing a different point: and they’re bound to, because they did read it at school.’‘

From The Blog
27 July 2019

No sooner was Jacob Rees-Mogg installed as Leader of the House of Commons than he sent out a ‘style guide’ to staff, essentially a list of words and phrases they were now ‘banned’ from using, along with demands that they address ‘all non-titled males as Esq.’ and use imperial measurements. No sooner was the document circulated than it was ‘leaked’ exclusively to ITV news. Within moments, it was all over Twitter, and Twitter was all over it.

From The Blog
20 February 2019

The LRB blog was launched in March 2009. Nearly ten years later, it was creaking at the seams and in need of an update – which, as you can see, we’ve now done. It doesn’t only look different – better, we think – but there have been various behind-the-scenes changes too (i.e. a complete overhaul) so it should all work more smoothly.

From The Blog
1 June 2018

A week is a very long time in Italian politics, but also no time at all. When the last issue of the LRB went to press on 25 May, it looked as though a new government was about to be formed in Rome. The Movimento 5 Stelle and the Lega had drawn up, signed and approved a coalition agreement – a curious and probably unworkable mix of their variously anti-establishment and racist policies – and nominated Giuseppe Conte to be prime minister. The president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, had reluctantly agreed to ask Conte to form a government. But then it all fell apart when Mattarella and the leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, couldn't agree on who would be finance minister: Salvini refused to propose anyone except the eurosceptic Paolo Savona; Mattarella refused to give him the job; Conte threw in the towel; ricominciamo da capo.

From The Blog
8 March 2018

The Italian general election has resulted in a hung parliament. There is already talk of a Third Republic, as the 'mainstream' parties have been swept aside by a populist wave, though it's worth remembering that the Partito Democratico was only formed in 2007, out of the remnants of the remnants of the parties that dominated Italian politics during the First Republic (from 1946 until 1994); that the current incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia dates from as recently as 2013; and that the Second Republic (1994-2018) was dominated by Berlusconi and his meretricious brand of soi-disant anti-establishment but ultimately self-serving politics. It's hard to mourn the passing of that era; or would be, if it were possible to believe that it had really passed.

From The Blog
13 February 2018

Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from Rome, left the rehab clinic where she’d been staying in the province of Macerata, in central Italy, on 29 January. Her dismembered corpse was discovered two days later, in two suitcases, in the countryside nearby. Innocent Oseghale, a 29-year-old Nigerian with an expired residency permit and a criminal record of drug dealing, was arrested almost immediately on suspicion of involvement in Mastropietro’s death.

From The Blog
2 October 2017

Glen Newey, the LRB blog’s most prolific contributor, died suddenly on Saturday morning. He was an implacable opponent of cant, in all its forms, not least concerning the dead: ‘De mortuis nil nisi veritas,’ he wrote on the demise of the US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia last year. His last post, published just over a month ago, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana: ‘On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land.’ So I’ll try not to say anything that would have made him cringe.

Not that he was much given to cringing. 

From The Blog
30 August 2017

A couple of years ago, a state school teacher got in touch with me with concerns about the Cambridge Pre-U exam, an alternative to A-levels introduced in 2008. She was worried both that it gave yet another unfair advantage to privately educated children, and that it involved potential conflicts of interest, since many of the questions were set by teachers whose pupils would be taking the exams. In a piece for Independent School Parent (what you do mean, you don't subscribe?) in 2012, the headmaster of Winchester College explained why the school had dropped A-levels in favour of the Cambridge Pre-U.

From The Blog
26 January 2017

'I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence,' the president of the United States said on ABC News last night, 'and I asked them the question: "Does it work? Does torture work?" And the answer was: "Yes, absolutely." … Do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.' In Why Torture Doesn't Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, Shane O'Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, argues that 'torture is as ineffective as it is abhorrent.'

From The Blog
18 January 2017

Antonio Tajani, a former spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi, was elected president of the European Parliament yesterday. He dedicated his victory to the people who died in the earthquake in central Italy last August. At 10.25 this morning, a magnitude 5.3 earthquake struck not far from Amatrice. There have been three more of equivalent size in the hours since (and 200 of magnitude 2 or above): an unprecedented phenomenon.

From The Blog
2 January 2017

Last night's episode of Sherlock on BBC1 – spoiler alert – was the third piece of prestige TV I've watched in as many months to conclude with the self-sacrificial death of the superpowered lone female member of a gang of outsider heroes.

From The Blog
27 December 2016

I went to the pantomime in Bridlington yesterday: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with a special guest star who had 'stepped in at the last minute' to play the wicked queen – ‘the Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe’. I lost my voice booing in Act One; after the interval I wondered if contemptuous silence wasn’t anyway better. I might have found it easier to suspend my disbelief if her acting hadn’t been so wooden, but as she strutted about the stage, cracking Brexit jokes or saying that her henchman had ‘something of the night’ about him, I couldn’t help remembering how in 1996, when she was the junior home office minister in charge of prisons and immigration, she had defended the practice of shackling women who had just given birth.

From The Blog
5 December 2016

Technically speaking, the No vote in Italy’s constitutional referendum yesterday was a vote for the status quo. But its architect, Matteo Renzi, who has resigned as prime minister after the vote didn’t go his way, was one of the few people to see it like that. For a lot of voters who want things to change, getting rid of Renzi seemed a better bet than his proposals for getting rid of the Senate. Italy is the only country in Europe with a ‘perfectly bicameral’ system. The upper and lower houses of parliament have equal legislative powers: both are able to draft legislation, and no laws can be passed without the approval of both. Renzi wanted to replace the directly elected Senate with a smaller chamber, representing the regions, with diminished powers.

From The Blog
4 May 2016

You can’t discount an argument on the grounds that you suspect some of its proponents of ignoble motives for making it. It is almost certainly the case that some critics of the state of Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism, but that doesn’t invalidate all criticism of Israeli policy or actions. The occupation of the West Bank is illegal whether you're anti-Semitic or not. Defenders of Israel sometimes ask – the international relations equivalent of a drunk driver telling the police to go after real criminals – why the left is so focused on Israel’s wrongdoings, rather than the often far worse crimes of other states. But the answer probably has less to do with anti-Semitism than the fact that, of the $5.7 billion the United States spends each year on foreign military financing, $3 billion goes to Israel. You can’t police the way people think, only what they do, which may sometimes include what they say.

From The Blog
15 April 2016

'I sometimes argue with my friend Heathcote Williams about his use of pornography as a means of attacking his political enemies,' Francis Wyndham wrote in the first issue of the LRB (25 October 1979): It seems to me an irrelevant weapon in any context, and in the hands of a man with Heathcote’s anarchistic, optimistic, nearly utopian convictions it becomes puzzlingly inconsistent. His polemical essays have been appearing, often unsigned, in the underground press over the past decade … They abound in fantastic, and often very funny, descriptions of the people he disapproves of (such as Mrs Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Royal Family and Jesus Christ) engaged in eccentric forms of sexual intercourse. Williams's unsigned pamphlets still appear, forty years on, though there's less eccentric sex in them than there used to be. His latest is Boris Johnson: The Blond Beast of Brexit – A Study in Depravity.

From The Blog
26 February 2016

Most newspapers and magazines these days (including, yes, the LRB) send out barrages of emails in their campaigns to lure readers into subscribing. Sometimes it's hard to tell, though, what exactly they want readers for, or what exactly it is they think they are offering them: 'news' hardly seems the word for a lot of it. Nothing wrong with taking a line, of course, but there's a difference between taking a line and crossing one. No prizes for guessing which paper sent out the following bundle of headlines. Rotherham child abuse gang leader wanted IVFPupils who go private get ahead by two yearsCity lawyer in court over ‘sex outside station’Peerages for Cameron supporters in EU referendum campaign‘Meddling’ Britain feels wrath of IranRefugees can be cleared from Jungle, French court decides

From The Blog
11 January 2016

Halfway through his final performance as Ziggy Stardust, at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, David Bowie sang 'My Death', his version of 'La Mort' by Jacques Brel. It's a faintly ridiculous song, rich with pompous melancholy, but he carries it off wonderfully. 'Whatever lies behind the door/there is nothing much to do/angel or devil, I don't care/for in front of that door/there is you.' The last time through the chorus – in D.A.

From The Blog
30 December 2015

I lost my watch in York last Tuesday, somewhere between the Shambles car park and Betty’s cafe on Davygate. It was raining, my two-year-old son ‘needed’ to be carried, my backpack was slipping off my shoulder, the streets were heaving with Christmas shoppers. It wasn’t until I was queuing for lunch and wondered what the time was that I realised my watch was missing. I retraced my steps but unsurprisingly didn’t find it. The odd glinting object in the gutter was only a half-eaten packet of mints or a condom wrapper. The watch was a 21st birthday present from my parents; I’d had it for nearly 18 years. Both keepers had fallen off the strap weeks ago, and I’d been meaning to replace them, but hadn’t got round to it because the watch stayed on my wrist OK without them, until it didn’t. Like much of the city centre, the Shambles car park 'is currently inaccessible due to the recent floods in York. All the cars that are currently parked in the car park remain safe and secure.' ‘Mr Cameron is facing a tide of public anger,’ the Yorkshire Postreported on Monday, ‘after it emerged that the government dug deep last December to finance a £300 million scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180 million scheme to safeguard 4500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.’ The estimated cost of the floods is approaching £6 billion.

From The Blog
28 September 2015

On 7 August 1991, the Albanian ship Vlora docked at the Port of Durrës, twenty miles west of Tirana, with a cargo of Cuban sugar. Thousands of people, desperate to leave Albania in the first throes of its 'transition' from communism, boarded the ship and prevailed on the captain to take them to Italy. The Vlora arrived in Bari the next day. According to a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe report from January 1992:

From The Blog
8 September 2015

Hossein Derakhshan, a leading Iranian blogger, was imprisoned in Tehran in 2008 for spreading propaganda against the ruling establishment, promoting counter-revolutionary groups and insulting Islamic thought and religious figures. He was pardoned and released last November. He recently wrote a piece about the ways the internet changed – for the worse, in his view – during his time inside. 'Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online.' The web is dying, to be replaced by the stream:

From The Blog
3 September 2015

'If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive... For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.' Peter Singer's (famous, and much disputed) contention in 'Famine, Affluence and Morality' (1972) may have acquired a new, literal force this week with the widespread dissemination of images of the drowned corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The pictures don't alter Singer's argument one way or the other, but reduce the perceived distance between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.

From The Blog
1 September 2015

An elderly couple have been murdered in their home in Palagonia, a town of 16,500 people near Catania. The police have arrested an 18-year-old suspect, who was caught with the victims' phone, computer and bloody trousers on his person. He says he found them under a tree. The crime was probably gruesome enough to have made headlines for its sensation value alone: both corpses were naked; the woman was thrown from a balcony. There were no signs of forced entry on the doors or windows of their apartment. But it's still in the news because the suspect, an Ivorian national, arrived in Sicily by boat on 8 June.

From The Blog
11 August 2015

Am I the last person to have noticed this subcategory in WHSmith bookshops? There must be people who head straight for it to grab the latest Cathy Glass, but it had passed me by, or I'd passed it by, until this weekend. I puzzled for a while over the upside-down face – I think it's Billy Connolly – then went off to see what they had on the shelves under Comic Death Stories.

From The Blog
2 July 2015

In 2009, the Argentinian writer Pablo Katchadjian published a short book called El aleph engordado, which he made by adding 5600 words to Jorge Luis Borges's 4000-word story 'The Aleph'. A Quixotic enterprise, you might think, or at least a Menardian one, if not quite a Borgesian one.

From The Blog
25 May 2015

Dennis O'Sullivan, the headteacher of a secondary school in Hertfordshire, has written an open letter to David Cameron setting out the funding crisis facing schools in England and Wales: 'a school like mine needs to find £500,000 in savings on an income of just under £6,000,000 in each of the next three years.' This is because:

From The Blog
30 March 2015

‘You know what people say about you,’ Jeremy Paxman said to Ed Miliband on Thursday. ‘They see you as a North London geek.’ ‘Who cares?’ Miliband replied. Then he asked: ‘Who does?’ Paxman dodged the question.

From The Blog
27 February 2014

The new issue of Nature Climate Change delivers a massive, multiple slap-down to the notion that the much touted 'hiatus' or 'pause' in global warming since the late 1990s means that the climate isn't changing, or the globe warming.

From The Blog
11 December 2013

Lloyds Bank has been fined a record £28 million for 'serious failings' in its 'seriously flawed' sales practices. Lloyds says it 'recognises that its oversight of these particular schemes during the period in question was inadequate and apologises to its customers for the impact that they may have had.' Last month, the bank wrote apologetically to its offshore customers to let them know that it would no longer be able to aid and abet them in their criminal activities. Of course it didn't really say that.

From The Blog
11 November 2013

Two weeks ago, Maplecroft published its sixth annual Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Maplecroft calls itself 'the world’s leading global risk analytics, research and strategic forecasting company'; its 'technological solutions identify emerging trends, business opportunities and risks to investments and supply chains worldwide'. The index didn't get much media attention, though the Philippine Star reported that the Philippines ranks as the ninth most vulnerable country.

From The Blog
6 November 2013

The 24th and last canonical Asterix book – which is to say, the last one written by René Goscinny and drawn by Albert Uderzo – was Asterix in Belgium (1979). Goscinny died in 1977, soon after he'd finished writing it, and the publishers had to take Uderzo to court to get him to do the pictures.

From The Blog
6 August 2013

From William Gibson's Spook Country (2006): The reason Americans weren't freaking out over this NSA thing, Milgrim assumed, was that they'd already been taking it for granted, since at least the 1960s, that the CIA was tapping everybody's phone. It was the stuff of bad episodic television. It was something little kids knew to be true.

From The Blog
14 June 2013

Perhaps the most – if not the only – surprising thing about 'the spy story of the age' is that anyone should be at all surprised that the NSA is doing a lot of snooping on the internet. If the documents that Edward Snowden leaked to the Guardian show the worst that the spooks are up to, it's almost reassuring; there I was thinking that someone had only to say 'gooseberry bush' on his mobile phone and within hours he'd be shot dead at Waterloo Station.

From The Blog
24 May 2013

A general paper from the 2011 Eton scholarship exam has been exhumed and is doing the rounds. The first question required candidates to read a passage from The Prince ('it is much safer to be feared than loved' etc) and then (a) summarise the argument in no more than 50 words (5 marks); (b) in their own words say what they find 'unappealing' about the argument (5 marks); and (c), for 15 marks: The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.

From The Blog
1 May 2013

Towards the end of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's father shows Nick Carraway a book Jimmy Gatz had 'when he was a boy', a copy of Hopalong Cassidy with a handwritten 'schedule' on the last fly-leaf, mapping out his day: 'rise from bed' at 6 a.m., followed by 'Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling', 'Study electricity, etc', 'Work', 'Baseball and sports', 'Practise elocution, poise and how to attain it' and 'Study needed inventions'. There's also a list of 'general resolves':

From The Blog
8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher once said that her greatest political achievement was New Labour. Tony Blair said today she was a 'towering figure', 'genuine leader' and 'generous-spirited' person who was 'rightly admired' and will be 'sadly missed'; and though they disagreed on 'certain issues' he thought his 'job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them'. Twenty-five years ago he wrote in the LRB: What makes things even worse for radical, progressive spirits is that the Ultra-Right appears to be even more in control of the Conservative Party this year than it has been previously. Mrs Thatcher clearly regards herself as a dea ex machina, sent down from on high to ‘knock Britain into shape’. She will wield her power over the next few years dictatorially and without compunction. On the other hand, there is a tremendous danger – to which Dr Owen has succumbed – in believing that ‘Thatcherism’ is somehow now invincible, that it has established a new consensus and that all the rest of us can do is debate alternatives within its framework. It is essential to demythologise ‘Thatcherism’.

From The Blog
5 March 2013

A press release from the British Council: British-based design studio Raw-Edges has been commissioned by the British Council to design a bespoke travelling bookcase to house one carefully selected work of fiction from each of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. The bookcase will also hold editions of Granta magazine. The highly inventive design means the books themselves take centre stage in the installation. The interactive nature of the bookcase also allows visitors to change the display by repositioning the books.

From The Blog
28 February 2013

Just in, some promotional material for Poetry for Now: A Collection of Verse from the Heart of Modern Britain:

This book is rather unorthodox in that it contains poems exclusively written by people who work within Britain’s corporate sector. This includes surgeons, dentists, CEOs, solicitors and bankers. Some of these professions are unpopular with the media and are not often associated with the creative arts. Even so, during the past few years there has been a small but growing community of professional workers who are expressing themselves via the medium of ‘corporate poetry’.

From The Blog
22 February 2013

One of Mario Monti's least popular reforms among Italian property owners is the introduction of a new property-based council tax (IMU) to replace the one that Silvio Berlusconi scrapped in 2008. On Wednesday, everyone on the electoral register was sent a letter with 'Avviso Importante: Rimborso IMU 2012’ printed on the envelope. The two closely printed sides of A4 inside explained how people could get last year's council tax refunded, either by bank transfer or in person at the post office. The letter was signed by Berlusconi: all people have to do to qualify for the rebate is vote for him in next week's elections. But not everyone read that far; apparently hopeful queues formed at post offices within hours. They'd have done better to mob Mediaset's headquarters.

From The Blog
9 January 2013

David Bowie fans are beside themselves (oh all right, ourselves) with delight at yesterday’s surprise release of ‘Where Are We Now?’ It's his first new song in ten years, all the papers are saying, though that’s to overlook the mean and jaunty ditty about Ricky Gervais from the second season of Extras (2006): ‘He’s got no style, he’s got no grace, he’s banal and facile, he’s a fat waste of space. Yeah yeah. Everybody sing that last line.’ Fans’ judgments aren’t exactly trustworthy – the internet’s still swarming with people who bafflingly regret Bowie’s non-appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony – but by this late stage in his career (which until yesterday, his 66th birthday, was widely believed to be probably over), who else is the song for? The fact of its being by Bowie is what mostly counts.

From The Blog
2 September 2012

'In a healthy democracy people can agree to disagree.' That's been one of Tony Blair's stock responses to critics of the Iraq war since before it started. He wheeled it out most recently to dismiss Desmond Tutu's call for him and George W. Bush to be 'made to answer for their actions in the Hague'. Obviously Blair's right, up to a point: the existence of God, who to vote for, the price of jam, what would win in a fight between a weasel and a rattlesnake – all things that people can agree to disagree about. But with some questions – such as, say, whether or not someone's committed a crime – the disagreement has to be settled in a court of law. If you're spotted kneeling over a bloody corpse with a knife in your hand, the police are unlikely to let you go just because you tell them they're entitled to their opinion, even if you're a former prime minister (we're talking about a hypothetical 'healthy democracy' here, remember).

From The Blog
17 August 2012

After regaling them with the story of how he fell for an elaborate hoax at the hands of one of the actors in Copenhagen, Michael Frayn told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday that there's a seven-word private joke hidden in his latest novel, Skios. He'll send a bottle of champagne to the first person to spot it. 'All you need to have done to understand it is have read my complete works – my 10 novels and 15 plays,' he said, apparently without feeling the need to add that they're available at all good bookshops.

From The Blog
26 July 2012

A very long trailer for the very long film version of David Mitchell's very long novel Cloud Atlas, directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, and starring multiple Tom Hankses and Halle Berrys, is propagating across the internet, with Warner Bros' lawyers in hot pursuit. It would be nice to think they're trying to repress the trailer because it makes the film look utterly terrible: lots of dreary CGI, clunking explicatory voice overs, bombastic score, intertitles announcing the themes as 'death life birth future present past love hope courage everything is connected'. 'You've saved me twice,' one of the Berrys says to one of the Hankses. 'You fall, I'll catch you,' he replies. Barf.

From The Blog
17 July 2012

According to the Office for National Statistics, the population of England and Wales has risen by 3.7 million to 56.1 million over the past ten years. That's not only more people than have ever lived here before, but also the fastest growth over any decade since records began in 1801. The world population over the same period has grown from 6.2 billion to 7 billion, and it will probably reach 10 billion by the end of the century.

From The Blog
15 May 2012

The late Antonio Tabucchi's novel Sostiene Pereira is set in Lisbon in the summer of 1938. The protagonist, Pereira, is a journalist, a veteran reporter on a national daily who now edits the culture page of Lisboa. The paper describes itself as 'apolitical' (which means it doesn't cover the Spanish Civil War) and 'independent' (it prints what the Salazar regime would like it to without having to be asked). Pereira is a widower; his closest confidant is the portrait of his wife that hangs in his hallway. He's overweight, and has a heart condition, not helped by his fondness for omelettes and sugary lemonade. His semi-retired routine is disturbed when he hires a young man, Monteiro Rossi, to prepare obituaries of famous writers. Rossi's pieces – either attacking Fascist writers or praising left-wing ones – are all unpublishable. But Pereira pays Rossi for them anyway and puts them away in a folder. Eventually he gets drawn into helping hide Rossi's cousin, who's in Portugal recruiting for the Republican cause in Spain, and as one thing leads to another Pereira soon finds himself in serious trouble with the authorities.

From The Blog
11 April 2012

At a loose end in the last week of June? No idea how to fill those empty weeks between the queen's diamond jubilee and the Olympics? Forgot to buy tickets for the Counter Terror Expo at Earl's Court at the end of April? Got a warehouse full of fighter jets and cattle prods you can't offload because your European 'partners' have foolishly slashed defence spending as well as education and welfare budgets in the name of austerity? All is not lost. From 25 to 27 June, Securing Asia 2012 will be 'bringing the the Asian Homeland Security and Counter Terror Markets to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre' in Westminster:

From The Blog
19 March 2012

In the latest issue of the Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, along with the usual spread of articles on such subjects as the threat and promise of ebooks, the pros and cons of talking at literary festivals, and the cut in the Public Lending Right, there are two self-regarding items of Tory cheer. The first is by Toby Young, plugging his latest book, How to Set Up a Free School, in the guise of a piece about the 'writer as political activist':

From The Blog
17 February 2012

Mark O'Connell has written quite a funny piece for The Millions on Martin Amis's out-of-print classic Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines, a book that Amis has done his best to disown. 'I recently discovered a copy in the library of the university where I work,' O'Connell writes, 'and I don’t think the librarian knew quite what to make of my obvious excitement at this coup.' Tom Shippey reviewedInvasion of the Space Invaders in the LRB when it came out in 1982:

From The Blog
31 January 2012

Jonathan Franzen's homily on the trouble with ebooks and the superiority of print has zapped its way around the world from the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia (the Telegraph’s showbusiness editor has the full story):

From The Blog
9 November 2011

At last Berlusconi has said he’ll step down. It should be a good day for Italian democracy. Except that – assuming he really does go – Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister will have been finally driven from office not for corruption, croneyism, tax evasion or colluding with the mafia; not for the conflict of interests between his media empire and his political position; not for having presided over years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and crumbling public services, and otherwise generally enriching himself at (almost) everyone else’s expense; not for his outspoken xenophobia, sexism and homophobia; and not even for having sex with underage prostitutes; but because the EU, the IMF and the bond markets think he can't be trusted to push through the austerity regime they want Italy to enforce, which will almost certainly make everything even worse.

From The Blog
14 October 2011

With great power, as Spider-Man's Aunt May didn't put it, comes great opportunity to shirk responsibility. It's one law for the feral underclass, bundled into the all-night magistrates' court for speedy and punitive sentencing; another for their feral overlords, dodging a £10 million tax bill with a handshake. For a while there it looked as if Liam Fox counted himself among the immune elite, clinging to office as the revelations of malfeasance kept on coming. But David Cameron and the so-called Thatcherite wing of the Tory Party, as if the prime minister weren't a Thatcherite, must have reached a deal, and Fox has been flushed in favour of 'the motorist's friend', Philip Hammond.

From The Blog
7 October 2011

The government's fifth columnist at the Guardian, Julian Glover, is to be David Cameron's new chief speech writer. He has apparently 'impressed the Downing Street team with his passion for the Coalition over the past year'.

From The Blog
7 October 2011

In a piece on rainbows in the LRB in 2002, Peter Campbell wrote: There are also rare phenomena to take account of, like cloud bows, which are the very pale rainbows you might see from the window of a plane, and things which are hard to see, like supernumerary rainbows.

From The Blog
29 September 2011

Apocalypses aren't what they used to be. Thirty years ago, science fiction stories about sentient computers taking over the world tended to imagine them trying to wipe us all out using nuclear bombs (The Terminator, War Games). These days, if Robert Harris's new novel, The Fear Index, is anything to go by, the rogue AI's weapon of choice is the financial markets. 'Tales of computers out of control are a well-worn fictional theme,' Donald MacKenzie wrote in the LRB earlier this year,

From The Blog
16 September 2011

Rory Stewart may have been the first Tory MP into Libya after Gaddafi’s ousting from Tripoli (though let’s not forget the battle for Sirte is still going on), but he certainly wasn’t the last. David Cameron and William Hague were hard on his heels. The prime minister had a tricky line to walk as he addressed the crowds in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square (he and Nicolas Sarkozy were ‘greeted as heroes’, according to British state television): how to take credit for the regime change but at the same time downplay the level of foreign intervention? The former (former?) PR man handled it with his trademark plummy aplomb.

From The Blog
24 August 2011

Last year the webcomic xkcd compared the speeds of seismic waves and internet traffic (I was alerted to it by a tweet yesterday): Here's one of the jokes that's doing the rounds about the earthquake in Virginia:

From The Blog
19 August 2011

It has been suggested that to make sense of the recent riots we should put down our commentpapers and turn to our bookshelves. At the Economist, 'Bagehot' has been readingHooligans: A History of Respectable Fears by Geoffrey Pearson (D.G. Wright reviewed it in the LRB in 1983). Slavoj Žižek looks to Hegel. But the book I've been brought back to most often over the last couple of weeks (at the urging of someone too young to know about the riots) is The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.

From The Blog
10 August 2011

Anyone who says the riots don't have anything to do with the cuts should have a read of 'Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe 1919-2009’, a discussion paper issued under the auspices of the Centre for Economic Policy Research's international macroeconomics programme and currently doing the rounds on Twitter, which looks at the relationship between budget cuts and civil unrest across Europe since the end of the First World War: The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. So much for 'criminality pure and simple'.

From The Blog
23 June 2011

The Harry Potter industry excels at eking out the franchise. There were only ever going to be seven novels in the series, but they've been turned into eight films – the last of which will be released in a couple of weeks – and countless other spin-offs. It was announced (or 'confirmed') today – at a press conference at the V&A and on YouTube, how else – that a website, Pottermore, will be launched in the autumn to sell exclusive ebook versions of the novels.

From The Blog
21 June 2011

For a while in the mid-1990s you couldn't walk through a university town without seeing at least one young man in a black T-shirt covered in text that claimed to be the Bible verse Ezekiel 25.17. Actually it came from the 1970s movie Karate Kiba, which is where Quentin Tarantino lifted it from to give to Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. The boys who bought the T-shirts have now grown up and had children – or maybe they've just had children – and the audiobook version of the spoof bedtime story Go the Fuck to Sleep, read by Samuel L. Jackson, when it was released last week sold almost as many copies within 48 hours as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It goes like this:

From The Blog
10 June 2011

In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan distinguished between 'hot' and 'cool' media: hot media, like the radio, are 'high definition' but 'low in participation'; 'cool media', like the telephone, are 'low definition' but 'high in participation'. (In the early 1960s, TV was 'cool', compared to the 'hot' movies. Obviously that was long before the arrival of hi-def.) Predictions about the way technology is heading, whether made by SF writers or tech companies, tend to assume the future will be hot. Characters in Brave New World go to the Feelies. Thirty years ago, everyone (well, maybe not everyone) imagined that by now we'd be watching holographic movies and wandering around with virtual reality helmets on. But no one foresaw the rise of text-messaging or Twitter. Michio Kaku's whiggish Physics of the Future, published last month, follows the trend, confident that the future will be lived in high definition.

From The Blog
17 May 2011

Italian politics rarely make British headlines unless it's a story about Berlusconi's buffoonery and this weekend's local elections have been no exception. But they may hold a salutory lesson for the bigoted right elsewhere in Europe. The results have been anything but predictable, with surprise first-round wins for the centre-left in former right-wing strongholds across the north of the country, though it's less a victory for the centre-left – the mainstream Partito Democratico didn't do especially well, relying on votes for smaller coalition partners – than a defeat for the right.

From The Blog
13 May 2011

The blog received its first slice of healthcare privatisation spam last night:

From The Blog
4 May 2011

One of the many pieces of bin Laden-related trivia in the news today is the resuscitation of a study by a group of geographers at UCLA, published in 2009, which according to the BBC ‘said there was a high probability Osama Bin Laden was located in the town where he was ultimately killed by US operatives on Sunday'. The BBC report goes on: The model employed in the study, which is typically used to track endangered species, said there was a 88.9 per cent chance he was in Abbottabad in Pakistan. But geographer Thomas Gillespie at UCLA said the same study gave a 95 per cent chance he was in another town, Parachinar. There's clearly something amiss here: if there was an 88.9 per cent chance he was in Abbottabad, there could only have been an 11.1 per cent chance he was anywhere else. Puzzled, I asked a statistician how the numbers could add up, and he said:

From The Blog
28 April 2011

Worried about security in London tomorrow? Maybe you should be. A month ago Lynne Owens, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had this to say to the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which was hearing evidence on the policing of the TUC march: we will be preparing to police any protests on the day of the royal wedding very robustly, but what we should remember is it is a different sort of event.

From The Blog
6 April 2011

Escalate, an anonymous 'collective of writers and activists from around the University of London', has just published a stimulating Marxist analysis of the TUC march against the cuts: What happened on March 26? The official answer is clear: hundreds of thousands of ‘people from all walks of life’ marched for an ‘alternative’. Who in fact were they, and what are their interests? And what material recourse do they have against their managed impoverishment? Among all the cloddish asininities emblazoned in grim edible pinks across a million A6 flyers, not once does the TUC mention class. Its current agenda is one of banal inclusivity...

From The Blog
1 April 2011

Everyone knows that Wikipedia is unreliable, though it's not clear where the evidence for that knowledge comes from – maybe it's on the internet somewhere – and a study in Nature a few years ago found that a random selection of science articles on Wikipedia sent out for peer review were nearly as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But maybe that simply means that the Britannica isn't as reliable as we used to think. So where to turn? Where else but Conservapedia, 'the trustworthy encyclopedia', started in 2006 by Andy Schlafly – according to Wikipedia, he's a ‘lawyer, conservative political activist' and 'teacher of homeschooling classes' – as a corrective to the 'liberal bias' of Wikipedia. Its list of 'popular articles' on the homepage include:

From The Blog
24 March 2011

Besides scrapping the welfare state, the government's plans to return Britain to the Victorian age include 'High Speed Two (HS2)', a 'proposal to introduce high speed rail from London to Birmingham – and later to Manchester, Leeds and ultimately Scotland. The recommended route would run from a rebuilt Euston Station to a new station in Birmingham.' The Department for Transport is currently running a formal consultation, which includes a series of 'road shows in Camden to provide more information on the proposals and give you the opportunity to have your say'. The first of them is at Euston today, until 8 p.m. There's a vivid description in Dombey and Son of what happened to Camden when the London and Birmingham Railway was built in the 1830s:

From The Blog
10 March 2011

Auditions started this week for the next series of The X Factor, to be broadcast in the autumn. Yeah well, so what. If you don't like it, don't watch it; who cares if 19.4 million people tuned in for last year's final? But the problem with The X Factor isn’t merely the bland uniformity of the music – that the show is, in Elton John's words, ‘boring and arse-paralysingly brain crippling’ – or even the grotesque parody of the democratic electoral process that it enacts, down to the endless newspaper post-mortems and manufactured outcries over vote-rigging. The X Factor is more than a diversion: it's a glaring symptom of much that's wrong with Britain's political landscape.

From The Blog
9 March 2011

Novels that mention the LRB, an occasional series: no.17, The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus. William Mendez, the ever more evasive and ever less sane writer of a novel within the novel, is looking for someone else to pose as its author. His agent suggests a journalist called Leo Benedictus. Mendez replies, by email: Leo sounds perfect! I’m actually punching the air with my left hand and typing this with my right. (A tough trick. Try it.) I’ve had a look at his stuff online... He’s a different type of writer from me, in some ways, but not too different to be believed.

From The Blog
8 February 2011

According to the campaign YES! to fairer votes, the BBC's 'top brass' have circulated a memo 'that demands that their staff stop describing "electoral reform" as "electoral reform".' A quick search of the BBC website reveals that until 20 January the words 'electoral reform' were used fairly often in relation to the upcoming referendum on AV, but since then have been applied only to Jersey and Nigeria. The BBC's reasoning is that The term “reform” explicitly means an “improvement” or “change for the better”.

From The Blog
28 January 2011

The Today programme, more politically tone deaf with every passing week, wonders why pop musicians are posher than they used to be. 'Conclusions': Are they really? Does it matter? Who knows why? Actually it does matter, and the reason for it is straightforward. One of the commenters on the BBC website gets closest to it when he says: 'It's not about being "posh", it's about there being cash in the family to support a potentially non-earning career.' But nobody there points out that changes to the benefits system mean that it's no longer possible to live on the dole while you're making your first demos and playing your first gigs.

From The Blog
24 December 2010

The online secondhand bookselling broker AbeBooks has published a list of its ten most expensive sales of the year. Among the haul were a first edition of Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which was sold for £8910, a complete first edition of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which went for £17,425, and a rare 'super deluxe' 1979 edition of Moby-Dick, which fetched £18,310. Top of the list though is a 12th-century Arabic manuscript of Al Wajaza Fi Sihhat Il Qawl Bi l Ijaz, which was bought for £28,500 – still a long way from the £7.3 million paid for a copy of Audubon's Birds of America earlier this month, but then AbeBooks isn't Sotheby's, and isn't trying to be. Meanwhile, Michael Gove's Department for Education has told Booktrust that its Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up programmes will no longer receive government funding.

From The Blog
15 December 2010

If you're in London and not sure what to do on Saturday afternoon, why not grab a book and head down to the read-in at the Vodafone shop on Oxford Street? It's being organised by UK Uncut to protest against both the mobile phone company's tax avoidance and the recently announced cuts in local government funding: The Library bloc’s mission is to target Vodafone and highlight the government’s 27% cuts to local government budgets. Vodafone’s £6bn tax dodge could pay for every single cut to every single council everywhere in the country for the next two years. Library bloc will meet inside Vodafone’s flagship store to stage a read-in. At exactly 1.04pm, on the librarian’s signal, everyone will sit down, take out a book and begin reading.

From The Blog
13 December 2010

The second verse of Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' tells 'writers and critics' not to ‘speak too soon/For the wheel’s still in spin/And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’.' Dylan was smart enough when he wrote that to know that his own prophecies were as unreliable as anyone's.

From The Blog
9 December 2010

In the latest issue of Genome Biology (thanks to Alan Rudrum for pointing it out) there's an angry open letter to George Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, from Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis, protesting against the budget cuts that have led to SUNY axeing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and theatre departments. As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business.

From The Blog
2 December 2010

So England has lost out to Russia in its bid to host the 2018 World Cup. David Cameron's last minute slapping down of Michael Gove over school sports' funding was clearly too half-hearted to make a difference. Those secret plans to distribute tickets in lieu of housing benefit will have to be shelved. Cameron can perhaps console himself with the thought that he may be out of office by the time he gets his complimentary seat at the final in Moscow. Here's hoping. After all, as Sepp Blatter said, 'football is a school of life where you learn to lose.'

From The Blog
16 November 2010

David Cameron has told the BBC that the phone call from Buckingham Palace announcing Prince William and Kate Middleton's engagement, which arrived during a cabinet meeting, was 'greeted with "a great cheer" and "banging of the table" from fellow ministers'. I bet it was: how obliging of the royal family to provide such a glittering distraction from the savagery of the spending cuts. And what a boost to the economy, too! Unless William's parsimonious recycling of his mother's engagement ring is a sign that they're planning a frugal ceremony at Bangor register office. Anyway, 'the timing is right now,' the second in line to the throne says. He surely can't mean that he was waiting for a Tory government, can he?

From The Blog
3 November 2010

It's hard to know what to make of Lord James of Blackheath's bizarre speech in the House of Lords on Monday night, in which he said that he'd been approached by an anonymous and unfeasibly wealthy international organisation, Foundation X, which was offering billions of pounds to the British state to help it through the financial crisis. Mention of the Vatican's gold reserves and laundering money for the IRA under the approving eye of the Bank of England didn't make his story sound any more plausible. It's been suggested that he's either 'barmy' or the victim of a particularly audacious hoax.

From The Blog
2 November 2010

Perhaps one of the reasons (to be generous for a moment) the Tories are so unconcerned about all the job losses they're enacting is that they really do believe the private sector will take up the slack. And for anyone who can't find work at Marks and Spencer or Vodafone, the housing minister Grant Shapps has come up with a perfect solution: they can run their own businesses from home! He's disappointingly vague, though, about what such 'home enterprise' might actually involve. It sometimes seems as if the Tory front bench view of 'running your own business' – or indeed 'finding work' – is that it's a bit like having a trust fund.

From The Blog
29 October 2010

Slavoj Žižek: 'One should bear in mind the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda.' Now count how many times George Osborne says 'confidence', ‘strong' and ‘secure' in less than two minutes in this recent interview with the BBC.

From The Blog
20 October 2010

On the face of it, Defence looks like one of the more obvious departments in which to make hefty budget cuts. Until you realise it means 42,000 job losses, including 7000 army 'personnel'. What are all those sacked soldiers going to do instead: work for Marks and Spencer? As what – security guards to keep the sick, starving, homeless masses away from the overpriced ready meals?

From The Blog
7 October 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

From The Blog
15 September 2010

Google is celebrating Agatha Christie's 120th birthday. It adds a whole new angle to those 'I'm feeling lucky' and 'Advanced Search' buttons.

From The Blog
6 September 2010

The Society of Authors has a petition to ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not to cut the Public Lending Right (which gives writers sixpence every time one of their books is taken out of a library) in next month's Spending Review. 'Any and all writers who feel strongly about this subject' should sign it, they say. Is it too much to hope that a few readers might care about PLR too? Anyway, the 'Statement by Authors' is as follows and writers can sign it here:

From The Blog
27 August 2010

Everyone breathe easy: Andrew Wylie and Random House are friends again. As the headline in the Bookseller would have it, the publisher has won the battle: the literary agent has agreed not to publish electronic versions of Random House titles under his own imprint, Odyssey Editions (a name perhaps implicitly casting Random House and the other big publishers as Polyphemus and the Cyclopes). In return, however,

From The Blog
23 August 2010

Ever wondered what to do with all those back issues? Erik Benjamins, a graduate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has used a decade's worth of October as materials for an art installation. You can adjust the weight of the dumbbells by adding or removing issues.

From The Blog
10 August 2010

There are several things wrong with the government's plans to pay for higher education with a hypothecated graduate tax – sorry, 'contribution'. For a start, it will be relatively more expensive for less well paid graduates, such as teachers and nurses. But more fundamentally, the entire debate about higher education funding – which seems to have been reduced to an unappealing slugging match between tuition fees in one corner and some kind of graduate tax in the other – now takes it for granted that individual students ought, one way or another, sooner or later, to pay for their own university courses. They get the benefit, so they should pay, right?

From The Blog
5 August 2010

The LRB blog has been invited to an exclusive panel discussion at the Barbican next Thursday on 'the Future of Kitchens'. It's part of The Surreal House exhibition, which is disinterestedly sponsored by IKEA.

From The Blog
2 August 2010

Two new wings are being opened today at the detention centre for asylum seekers at Harmondsworth, making it 'Europe's largest immigration removal centre', in the Home Office's proudly oxymoronic formulation. Never mind that the centre, as anyone (apart from Damian Green) who's been there will tell you, is already chaotically overcrowded and understaffed. We're not supposed to care about stuff like that: as far as the Home Office is concerned, the people interned at Harmondsworth are 'foreign criminals' who ‘should be sent home at the earliest opportunity' – all no doubt part of the government's progressive strategy for grubbing back votes from the BNP.

From The Blog
29 July 2010

What to make of last week's move by the agent Andrew Wylie to cut out the middle men – not the old middle men, literary agents, but the new middle men, publishers – and publish e-books himself as Odyssey Editions ('wily Odysseus', geddit?), sold exclusively through Amazon?

From The Blog
23 July 2010

There's a study in the BMJ today looking at the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and mortality rates in Britain over the past ninety years. Here are some of the findings: by the year 2007 for every 100 people under the age of 65 dying in the best-off areas, 199 were dying in the poorest tenth of areas. This is the highest relative inequality recorded since at least 1921.

From The Blog
22 July 2010

At some point in the early 1980s the father of one of my friends took a small gang of us to the Farnborough Airshow. I don't remember much about it, apart from a vague sense of the thrill of seeing the actual-size, actually flying originals of the shakily-painted plastic models of Second World War planes, pocked with dried glue, that hung from strings sellotaped to my bedroom ceiling and occasionally fell to the carpet with a feeble rip, crack and splinter in the middle of the night.

From The Blog
19 July 2010

Since writing about E.O. Wilson's novel Anthill, with its allegations that there are fundamental similarities between people and hive insects, I've spent quite a lot of time over the past couple of weeks looking at ants. I was on holiday, on one of the less salubrious but more convenient stretches of the Italian seaside, and as the beach was off-limits for much of the time – bad things can happen to five-month-old babies in the midday sun – spent several hours each day in the shade of a mimosa tree, reading books by Maile Meloy (review forthcoming) and watching the lines of ants scurrying across the yard between their nests and such scavengeables as a breadcrumb or a dead wasp, pausing occasionally to exchange pheromones with their colleagues going the other way.

From The Blog
14 June 2010

It was strange last week to leave behind the flag-smothered pubs and cars of England and arrive in Italy, where you could almost be forgiven for forgetting the World Cup was on at all. One of the local bars has a big(ish) screen outside, but there are no feverish announcements about when Italy is playing. Gaetano, the caretaker at the nearby five-a-side pitch, was raking up the cut grass on Saturday morning in a Brazil shirt. 'No one likes the Italians this year,' he said. Because they're unlikely to retain the trophy? 'It's like watching dead men play.' He made some polite murmurs about England's chances (this was before the dismal draw with the USA), but said he thought Germany would probably win (this before their 4-0 crushing of Australia).

From The Blog
10 June 2010

The way this unlikely story was reported in the Daily Mail, you'd think the Dubai Royal family was setting up in competition with Ryanair (note gratuitous use of the epithet 'free'): A stowaway hid in the undercarriage of a jumbo jet and survived temperatures of -41c at 25,000ft during a free flight into Britain. The jobless Romanian crouched in the rear-wheel compartment during an extraordinary 800-mile trip from Vienna to London on a Boeing 747 owned by the Dubai royal family.

From The Blog
10 June 2010

Paul Johnson has written 'an intimate and very personal portrait of the 20th century' called, after John Aubrey, Brief Lives: two hundred portraits of famous people he has known, or met once, or nearly. The blurb calls him a 'shrewdly humorous analyst'. Here are a few examples of his shrewd humour, some of it so shrewd as to be surely unintentional. And the juxtaposition of Picasso and Pinochet is something else.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73) was, in my view, a bad man with some good qualities.

Nikita Krushchev (1894-1971) was the ebullient, ruthless, blood-stained and accident-prone Soviet leader between the end of the Stalin era and the long, comatose reign of Brezhnev.

Richard Nixon (1913-94) led a busy life after his enforced resignation.

From The Blog
27 May 2010

There's an oddly fawning interview with the work and pensions secretary in today's Guardian. Iain Duncan Smith is apparently a 'politician with no personal ambition' whose only aim is 'to help the worst off'. He's got all sorts of schemes to get people off benefits and into work, improve their quality of life in the process, and, in the long term, save the government a great deal of money. What a miracle worker. There's some indication even in the Guardian, however, that the Tory noises about making everyone better off and Britain a fairer place are too good to be true.

From The Blog
14 May 2010

So the Lib Dems have caved on Trident, immigration, the euro and voting reform. Quite a list. True, you can't have power without compromise, but too much compromise starts to look a lot like powerlessness. At least they've won a concession from the Tories on income tax: according to the BBC, in their summary of the coalition's policies, there will be a ‘substantial rise in income tax allowances for lowest paid from April 2011’. Hang on a minute, though. Can it be that the public broadcaster has fallen for the new government's spin? Because, as it happens, raising the personal income tax allowance won't benefit the very lowest paid:

From The Blog
16 November 2009

Earlier today Jill Butcher, who's in charge of marketing for the LRB, took part in Damien Hirst's identical twins installation, part of the Pop Life exhibition at Tate Modern.

From The Blog
18 June 2009

I wonder if Silvio Berlusconi, for his next coup of reactionary lawmaking, is considering a repeal of the 1971 legalisation of divorce. Before 1971, marriage in Italy really was more or less a case of till death did them part, though not many people resorted to the methods of Marcello Mastroianni's character in Pietro Germi's 1961 black comedy, Divorzio all'italiana.

On Top of Everything: Byron

Thomas Jones, 16 September 1999

Once more upon the waters! yet once more! And the waves bound beneath me as a steed That knows his rider.

Thought-Quenching: Q and China Miéville

Thomas Jones, 7 January 1999

Leaping around in a warehouse to the rhythms of repetitive beats and thumping basslines is a simple pleasure, though not, of course, to everyone’s taste. At the same time it is a tremendously difficult sensation to convey in writing, partly because it is so simple: the most basic feelings, experienced at a pre-verbal level, are by their nature the hardest to verbalise. The primary difficulty facing anyone who wishes to write creatively (rather than critically) about dance music is how to translate music into language: to evoke, rather than merely describe, the experience of the dancer. Browning, a master of this kind of translation between art forms, wrote to Ruskin in 1855 about the problem of articulating pre-verbal ideas: ‘I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language … You would have me paint it all out, which can’t be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits and outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you.’ The idiom of the record sleeve is one option open to writers of club fiction: China Miéville concludes his acknowledgments in King Rat with ‘awe and gratitude especially to A Guy Called Gerald for the sublime Gloc: old, now, but still the most terrifying slab of guerrilla bass ever committed to vinyl. Rewind.’ In the central club episode of Deadmeat, Q writes of a DJ’s music that it is not ‘a tight cosy rinse, but an intense traumatic soak that ripped through the senses … a hybrid of dancehall drum’n’bass and abstract sounds that kicked at over 160 beats per minute on a transglobal vibe’. Fine for the initiate, but not much good for anyone else; like all jargon, it is exclusive. Fortunately, both writers use it sparingly.‘

From The Blog
16 April 2010

Keane (the band) aren't happy about the Tories using their song 'Everybody's Changing'. Quite right too. Though I wonder who at Conservative central office chose it as the party's theme song, and what their ulterior motives may have been, since it doesn't exactly endorse Cameron's post-Obama message of change. 'Everybody's changing and I don't know why,' the first chorus goes.

From The Blog
15 April 2010

From 'NB', in tomorrow's TLS: Readers who depend on Amazon for reviews of new books might have stumbled on one in response to Molotov's Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky. The Amazon reviewer did not like it at all... The reviewer's "nickname" is given as "Historian" and also as "orlando-birkbeck". He or she appears to be something of an authority on Russian subjects, having already posted notices of books on Stalin, Trotsky, and Robert Service's Comrades (“awful"). Orlando-birkbeck has also tackled The Whisperers: Private life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London. This time, orlando-birkbeck was mightily pleased...

From The Blog
31 March 2010

Following the revelations in La Repubblica that a supposed interview with Philip Roth published in Libero last November was a complete fabrication, I got in touch with a few Italian novelists to ask them what they thought about the affair. Most of them politely declined to be interviewed, but Italo Calvino – I found his number in an old Turin phonebook mouldering among the carboys in the cellar; I can't think how it got there – was generous enough to give me a few minutes of his time. My computer unfortunately wiped the recording of our conversation before I was able fully to transcribe it, but here's what I've managed to salvage from my fragmentary notes. It was a bad line, and my Italian isn't all it might be, but this is more or less how the conversation went:

From The Blog
31 March 2010

A 'world exclusive clip’ from Roman Polanski’s new movie, an adaptation of Robert Harris's novel The Ghost. This scene tries to make a publishing meeting look as thrillerishly thrilling as a national security briefing or a gang of bank robbers planning one last heist. Though I suspect that outside the movies national security briefings and plots to rob banks are more like publishing meetings than the way they're represented on screen.

From The Blog
12 March 2010

Tomorrow at dusk, to mark the 1600th anniversary of the departure of the Romans from Britain, flaming torches will be lit every 250 metres along the length of Hadrian's Wall, starting at the North Tyneside end, to create a 'line of light from coast to coast'. It will take about an hour for the light to reach Carlisle, where it will be greeted with a variety of neopagan festivities: Led by the stirring sounds of street band Tongues of Fire and impressive fiery engines (from Pandeamonium) and lit by thousands of flickering flames, a parade of costumed characters and musicians will follow the elusive and beautiful airborne Heliosphere through the streets. It should all be very pretty, as long as it doesn't rain. You may be wondering, though, how the date of the end of the Roman occupation of Britain can appear to be known so precisely.

From The Blog
11 March 2010

Some spam just in from Amazon uk: 'Don't give flowers for mothersday, They Die'.

From The Blog
10 March 2010

'Fanfares, ticker-tape parades and pompom-wielding cheerleaders failed to greet the news that the UK economy grew by 0.1 per cent in the quarter-year to December,' John Lanchester wrote in the last issue of the LRB. But in some parts of the publishing industry, premature celebration seems to be underway.

From The Blog
3 March 2010

Bizarre lost causes, no.1 in an occasional series: the campaign to 'Keep Tony Blair for Prime Minister’. Failing that, they're keen for people at least to sign a petition to 'Ban Blair-Baiting’ for the duration of the Chilcot Inquiry. The petition has been online since the beginning of August last year. In seven months it's gathered a whopping 615 signatures. According to 'Keep TB for PM', the reason for this is a 'conspiracy of silence’ by the British press. Well, that's a charge they can level no longer – you heard it here first. Go on, sign it if you want to. Tell your friends. Let's see if we can't get it up to 616 by the end of the month.

From The Blog
25 February 2010

What with the European Commission's inquiry into its alleged anti-competitive behaviour and the controversy surrounding its megalomaniac digital library plans, not to mention the fiasco of Google Buzz, the irritating and privacy-invading social networking package that's now unavoidable for anyone with a Gmail account, Google's been in need of some positive publicity. So in some ways, at least to the internet behemoth's PR department, the conviction yesterday of three executives for breaking Italian privacy laws must come as a relief: Google can for once cast themselves in their old and increasingly unconvincing roles of underdogs and good guys. They explain what happened on their blog:

From The Blog
23 February 2010

With the obvious exception of Baltimore, the most fashionable American city in which to set a cop show with a twist lately seems to be Miami. Perhaps Michael Mann's big screen remake of Miami Vice has something to do with it. The same year that movie came out, the first season of Dexter went on the air. The eponymous hero (played by Michael C. Hall) is a forensics expert with the Miami PD. In his spare time he kills murderers who've escaped more regular forms of justice. He thinks of himself as a serial killer, and that's the show's ostensible conceit: Our hero's a serial killer! But, that aside, he's a nice guy! It's a bit more cunning than that, though,

From The Blog
11 February 2010

John Lanchester will be at the London Review Bookshop this evening, talking about his new book on the financial crisis, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.

From The Blog
4 February 2010

America's Fox TV network has an irritating habit of cancelling half-decent science fiction shows after only one or two seasons. The network seems especially to enjoy junking series made by Joss Whedon, who as a result is still most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy ran from 1996 to 2003 but should have been cancelled sooner: the last season and a half were rubbish. The latest Whedon venture to have bitten the dust is Dollhouse, about a sinister, top-secret company that is able to erase and replace its employees' memories, effectively turning them into different people every day. It then hires these 'dolls' out to its rich and secretive clients. The show was often as daft as this bald summary makes it sound, but quite a lot of the daftness was the network's fault, demanding that it appeal to what Fox executives imagined to be the lowest common denominator. And when it was good, Dollhouse was – nearly – very very good.

From The Blog
28 January 2010

John Burnside will be at the London Review Bookshop this evening, talking about his new memoir, Waking up in Toytown.

From The Blog
22 January 2010

Here's a nice story about George Plimpton told, for no particular reason, through the medium of Google maps.

From The Blog
15 January 2010

Everyone sends out self-congratulatory newsletters these days. Carter-Ruck, the firm of solicitors that 'remains the market leader in defamation and privacy law', calls its newsletter Get Carter-Ruck (geddit?). No prizes for guessing where that quote about being the market leader comes from. It's in many ways a paradoxical document. Since much of what it celebrates is the successful silencing of the press, some of the news is necessarily oblique: The Daily Express has published an apology to Michael Winner. For what? No one can say...

From The Blog
7 January 2010

Tonight at the London Review Bookshop: Jonathan Lethem in conversation with Tom McCarthy.

From The Blog
31 December 2009

Doubting my ability to read the words on a box of Russian chocolates the other day – quite unfairly: my Russian may be close to non-existent but you don't need more than a rudimentary grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet to decipher such loanwords as 'coffee', 'chocolate' and 'praline' – the people I was with decided to trust instead to Google's translation service, only to be immediately stumped by the problem of how to type the Russian words. The alphabet question aside, Google Translate is quite a nifty tool. Not only can it work out for itself which language the phrase you'd like to translate is in – I suppose because you may well not know that yourself – but it translates it as you type.

From The Blog
29 December 2009

The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future have shown the London Review Blog the error of its ways: we're back.

From The Blog
24 December 2009

The London Review Blog is taking a brief holiday: the next post will appear on Monday 4 January 2010.

From The Blog
9 November 2009

At the Basingstoke Odeon the other night, in an almost empty cinema, I counted six advertisements for different kinds of booze (two brands of vodka, one sweet liqueur, one bourbon and two beers, as the John Lee Hooker song doesn't quite go), three or four car ads, a couple for war-fantasy computer games and one recruiting for the Royal Marines. I resisted the urge to get drunk, get behind the wheel and dream about killing. The army recruitment spot came immediately after one of the computer games; they weren't easy to tell apart. But the sly slogan for the second game was a sobering corrective: 'As close to war as you'll ever want to get.' The movie that followed, Jennifer's Body, has been a massive flop. This is largely because the target audience, as the ads at the Odeon would seem to bear out, has been teenage boys and young men.

From The Blog
31 October 2009

One of the many silly books being published for Halloween is The Horror Film Quiz Book. The questions are organised by film, though it might have been as well to categorise them according to difficulty. They range from the absurdly easy – 'who directed the original Psycho?' or 'For his main female lead roles Hitchcock chose girls with what hair colour?' – to the uttery impossible for anyone except the most committed horror nerd: 'What type of chainsaw was used in Texas Chainsaw Massacre?' Winter evening fun for all the family.

From The Blog
21 October 2009

On 1 March 1930, the New Statesman published the following announcement: Our literary editor, Mr R. Ellis Roberts, had his bag stolen on Wednesday. It contained a number of letters and contributions unexamined. Will his correspondents please accept his apologies for any delay or neglect caused by this misfortune? (I happen to know this only because Roberts was my grandmother's uncle.) Alert readers of this blog may have noticed occasional lulls in the appearance of posts. Inevitably, we always hope for more contributions than ultimately materialise.

From The Blog
20 October 2009

August Kleinzahler will be at the London Review Bookshop this evening, talking about and reading from his poetry and music criticism.

From The Blog
14 October 2009

As if there weren't already enough reasons to think it a bad idea, Silvio Berlusconi has thrown his weight behind the campaign to install his old friend Tony Blair as the first president of the Council of Europe. It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing (and so depressingly unsurprising), that a demagogue of the right who absurdly claims to be the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy involving judges, politicians, journalists and anyone else he cares to name, should count a former British Labour prime minister among his allies rather than his opponents.

From The Blog
13 October 2009

Not so long ago, a variation on the 'Nigerian billionaire' spam scam started circulating. A certain Sergeant Dewayne Pittman of the US military sent out a few thousand emails asking for help transferring large sums of money out of Iraq. It seems that Sergeant Pittman has not only changed his citizenship and moved to a new theatre of war, but has been very rapidly promoted – those smuggled Iraqi millions must really have come in handy. He wrote to the LRB this morning: Hi, I am an active British soldier currently in Afghanistan. I am with the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. We hijacked a suspected helicopter painted black[...] We discovered other currencies including US dollars of about $ 16 million loaded inside the Blackhawk helicopter. We want to move this money out of this place..

From The Blog
9 October 2009

From Tariq Ali's forthcoming The Idea of Communism: The Central Committee instructed Marx to produce a manifesto. A few months later, the document was still not forthcoming and a slightly tetchy triumvirate – consisting of Citizens Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll – despatched a warning note to the author on behalf of the Committee: 'The Central Committee [in London] hereby directs the District Committee of Brussels to notify Citizen Marx that if the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which he consented, at the last Congress, to draw up, does not reach London before Tuesday February 1 [1848], further measures will be taken against him.

From The Blog
8 October 2009

Yesterday's decision by Italy's constitutional court to revoke the prime minister's immunity from prosecution was unexpected, but with hindsight looks almost inevitable. The fundamental grounds for it are simple: according to Article 3 of the Italian Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law. Berlusconi's reaction was predictable: he says he's the victim of a left-wing conspiracy involving the courts, the media and even – a charge he hasn't dared level before – the president of the republic. The prime minister said he needed immunity in order to run the country. Since he can't have immunity, the logical upshot is that he can't run the country. But logic has never been Berlusconi's strong point.

From The Blog
15 September 2009

On the train to Rome the other afternoon, three bored young policemen were roaming the corridors. Maybe they'd been on since Trieste and were going all the way to Naples: who knows. In the compartment next to mine a young black woman, travelling by herself, was talking on her phone. One of the policemen stopped outside the door to her compartment and asked her to be quiet. She ended the call. The other two officers swaggered along to join their friend. The three of them stood in the corridor, in silence, staring at her. I thought I should go out and ask them what was going on, maybe tell them I was an English journalist, possibly one who was writing an article about racism, or about sexual harassment... Or maybe I should I just go and sit in her compartment.

From The Blog
11 September 2009

Craig T. Nelson, an actor (the Coach in Blades of Glory), explains to Glenn 'Obama is racist’ Beck of Fox News why he'd like to stop paying his taxes: 'I've been on foodstamps and welfare.

From The Blog
7 September 2009

If you ever find yourself wondering what Karl Rove has been up to since resigning from the Bush administration in 2007, but don't feel like subscribing to Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, you can keep track of him on Twitter. This weekend, for example, he's been out hunting doves: you couldn't make it up. Lots of Rove's tweets end up on the #TCOT channel (that's 'Top Conservatives On Twitter'), which at the moment, unsurprisingly, is full of crowing over Van Jones's resignation and attacks on 'Obamacare'. It's mesmerising. auto insurance is mandatory for u to pay, so why not health insurance? think about that one all u "healthers". I half thought about pointing out the benefits of a subsidised public transport system,

From The Blog
3 September 2009

In 1880, David Barbour, a member of the Indian Civil Service, published a pamphlet called Our Afghan Policy and the Occupation of Candahar. Barbour argued that the British war in Afghanistan was both morally unjustifiable and politically inexpedient. One of his more striking assessments was that 'the thorough occupation of Afghanistan, including the Provinces of Cabul, Candahar, Herat, and Afghan Turkestan by troops who could under all circumstances be depended on, would require the services of 60,000 English troops'. At the end of July this year there were approximately 64,500 Nato troops in Afghanistan.

From The Blog
1 September 2009

On a South West Trains ‘service' out of London Waterloo the other evening, a barrage of announcements. The guard, the steward and an automated recording repeatedly informed passengers – sorry, 'customers' – where the train was going, where the buffet car was ‘situated', and that there were special 'quiet zones', with blue stickers on the windows, where mobile phones should be switched off. As if mobile phones were the only things that could disturb the quiet. There was a blue sticker on my window. There didn't seem to be any way to switch off the endless announcements. It reminded me of the Sistine Chapel, where angry young men in uniforms yell Silenzio! over the murmur of the disobedient crowd.

From The Blog
21 August 2009

Barney Frank and the dining-room table:

From The Blog
20 August 2009

Richard Poirier, the founder of Raritan and the chairman of the board of the Library of America, died on Saturday. He wrote his first review for the LRB in December 1979, on David Halberstam's The Powers that Be. Many pieces followed, on Melville, William James, Henry James, Whitman, Pynchon, Bellow – and Norman Podhoretz. His last, in 2003, was about Vivienne Eliot.