Tom Crewe

Tom Crewe is an editor at the LRB. He has more or less finished a novel about two Victorian marriages.

Interviewees describe brown hotels, leaking holiday cottages, caravans, walks and pebbled beaches and fields. Some rapturously, some ruefully. ‘I remember thinking, as we arrived at the stationary caravan at the far end of a field in Cornwall, maybe this will be the year when it’s going to be exciting or exotic,’ one says. If you did venture overseas, overcoming material and psychological barriers (‘Darling, going abroad is vulgar,’ John Mullan’s mother told him), you usually carried Britain with you – tinned. When Eleanor Oldroyd and her family went to France in 1972 they took a can of baked beans for every day of the holiday, 21 in all; her mother fitted them ‘around the wheel arch in the boot, along with the tinned mince and tinned Campbell’s soup’. When Juliet Gardiner went to Le Bourget on a school exchange, she presented her penfriend’s mother with a box of cornflakes. Still, Abroad could be a revelation. Harry Ritchie, from Kirkcaldy, went to Majorca in 1969: ‘Being able to take your clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in itself.’

On the Shelf: Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe, 16 July 2020

‘Women have always written about men,’ Jane Miller remarks in Women Writing about Men (1986),

but they have needed to be extremely circumspect about doing so. To read as a woman is to confront that circumspection as a mode of being and a kind of language … Of course, I too want to hear what women writers have been telling us about women. I am almost certain, though, that it...

Some of us​ are trapped all our lives. This is the lesson of Beryl Bainbridge’s novel Injury Time, first published in 1977. It is a sort of dinner party farce, except better. The aptly named Edward Freeman asks his friend Simpson and Simpson’s wife, Muriel, to spend the evening with him and his mistress, Binny, at Binny’s house. Binny, a divorced single mother, is...

Short Cuts: ‘Parallel Lives’

Tom Crewe, 2 April 2020

‘Im astonished​ by it,’ Phyllis Rose said in a recent interview about Parallel Lives, her study of five Victorian marriages, first published in 1983 and now reissued (Daunt, £10.99). ‘It’s miraculous that this girl knew so much.’ In her prologue about love and marriage, probably the best thing in the book, Rose’s wisdom glints like shards of...

Short Cuts: The Absence of Politics

Tom Crewe, 10 October 2019

The vocabulary​ of British politics is oddly constant. All of human life is potentially up for debate, but over the centuries our politicians have tended to fall back on stock phrases. This is especially true when it comes to talking about the constitution. Some word-pairings are predictable – e.g. ‘constitutional reform’. Some are inevitable: ‘constitutional’...

Diary: The Queen and I

Tom Crewe, 1 August 2019

I paused to take a closer look. There was someone sitting in the nearest seat. It was the queen, separated from me by a few inches and a pane of glass. We locked eyes for a vital moment: if my dead grandfather had been unwrapping a pork pie in there I couldn’t have been more surprised. When we got to Cambridge I stood and looked down the platform to confirm I wasn’t mad and there she was, stepping off the train into the waiting boredom of dignitaries. She was public again, in walkabout mode. But I knew we had seen into each other’s souls.

The​ definition of Conservative policy, according to Lord Salisbury, was the preaching of ‘confidence’: the ‘provision of work … will only exist where confidence exists; when the capitalist is sure of being repaid for his investment’. When ‘confidence is destroyed’, he told an audience in 1882, ‘capital will not flow, enterprise cannot be...

Robert Peters​, né Parkins, wasn’t much to look at. He was ‘a little man with a stiff back who walked like a penguin’. Photographs show him as steeply balding, with a rice puddingy face that glooped onto his dog collar. He was tubby, and got tubbier. But something about him made a certain kind of woman sit up. At the Institute of Historical Research in the 1950s,...

Not much​ has stuck with me from my two years studying politics at A-Level. The word ‘quango’ and what it stands for (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation). And the couple of times when actual politics, the thing itself, knocked on the classroom door asking to be let in. I happened to be in a politics lesson when David Cameron was declared the new leader of the...

Short Cuts: The p-p-porn ban

Tom Crewe, 4 April 2019

Have​ you p-p-picked up a porn pass? In April the UK government plans to introduce – or at least plans to announce a definite date for the introduction of – the world’s first ‘porn ban’, which will block all access to porn websites nationwide unless the user can prove they’re 18 or older. One such proof will be a ‘porn pass’, available at your...

What is​ a Gavin Shuker? Most of the time, it isn’t necessary to know, unless you live in the Luton South constituency. If you don’t live there, even if you’re a Labour voter, you don’t really need to know what a Gavin Shuker is. It is a vote in Parliament. It helps make a majority, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it might next time. It is a sort of...

At Tate Britain: Burne-Jones

Tom Crewe, 24 January 2019

There are​ self-trained artists; then there are self-willed ones. Edward Burne-Jones, like Vincent Van Gogh, was one of the latter. That’s to say, he decided, in 1855, to be an artist – he was studying for a theology degree at Oxford at the time – without knowing whether he was capable of being one, perhaps even without considering absence of talent a potential obstacle....

William Ewart Gladstone​, four times prime minister of Great Britain and Ireland, died of a cancer of the palate on the 19th of May 1898. Ascension Day. It was fitting, Bill’s father said, for a Christian gentleman. It was at moments like these, he thought, when you could detect a pattern in the world.

Now they were travelling to stand with the crowds and bear witness at Mr...

Here was a plague

Tom Crewe, 27 September 2018

Aids starts with the deaths. With the dying. At first there was only confusion, incomprehension. Bodies that quickly became unintelligible to themselves. Nightsweats, shingles, thrush, diarrhoea, sores that crowded into mouths and made it impossible to eat. A fantastically rare form of pneumonia. Dementia in men of twenty: brains that shrank and withered. Tuberculosis of the stomach, of the bone marrow. A cancer meant to be slow-moving, to manifest benignly in elderly men from the Mediterranean, which burrowed from the outside in: from marks on the skin, to the stomach and lungs. Non-human illnesses: men dying from the blights of sheep, of birds, of cats, diseases no man had ever died of before. Men dying in the time it takes to catch and throw off a cold: ‘One Thursday,’ David France writes in How to Survive a Plague, ‘sexy Tommy McCarthy from the classifieds department stayed out late at an Yma Sumac concert. Friday he had a fever. Sunday he was hospitalised. Wednesday he was dead.’

It is​ a perfect Impressionist scene: a strangely empty stretch of the Seine, at the crossing-point between Suresnes and the Bois de Boulogne, where Parisians imagined themselves in the country. The view is from one side of the river, cropped so that the prow of a boat and the prongs of a tree intrude from the left; reflections seep and blur across its surface, like colours mixed into the...

Short Cuts: Colourisation

Tom Crewe, 22 March 2018

‘What​ was it like growing up in black and white?’ was a question I asked my mother once. Until that moment her memories of childhood, so much more engrossing than any bedtime story, had unspooled in my head in perfect greyscale. (They do still, in childish defiance of the facts.) It wasn’t as if I’d seen many photographs of her as a girl – I still...

There are​ two portraits Roger Fenton took of himself, separated by only a year, one of them in the exhibition of his photographs of the Crimean War at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh (until 26 November) and the other not. The first, from 1854, seems conventional: we see a Victorian gentleman – hair parted, beard trimmed to cover only the underside of his face, leaving the...

Short Cuts: The Party Conferences

Tom Crewe, 19 October 2017

Never despair​ of finding diamonds in the dust. Sir Eric Pickles, until 2015 Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, isn’t the sort of figure from whom one expects or desires fragments of autobiography, but, introducing his internal review of the Conservative Party’s performance in the 2017 election, he offered a gem, unasked:

In my Whitehall office as a...

Short Cuts: The State of Statuary

Tom Crewe, 21 September 2017

Most days​ I eat my lunch sitting under the statue of Charles James Fox in Bloomsbury Square. There are broad steps on each side of the statue, their Portland stone now stained an aqueous green, and I like to sit beneath and between Fox’s feet, looking, with him, down Bedford Place and towards Russell Square. Like most fat men in statuary (and in life), Fox is seated for greater...

The New Deal

Tom Crewe, 17 August 2017

‘Post-truth’ is a faulty concept because it presupposes the existence of shared, accepted ‘truths’ which are actually, you know, true. But also because it implies the existence of a ‘pre-truth’ period, a lawless Wild West of unmeaning and misunderstanding that was at some point tamed by the self-discipline and integrity of politicians and the media. This second assumption is equally misguided.

About​ ten years ago, my great-uncle spent a month in a coma. Afterwards, the only thing he could remember was a dream – it wasn’t clear whether it had lasted the whole month or five minutes. In the dream he was travelling on a cruise ship crewed entirely by chimpanzees. Each morning the human passengers were gathered on the foredeck of the ship and one was selected by the chimp...

There is no reason why a plea to ‘do things differently’ couldn’t work: the gamble has been that the public are sufficiently disillusioned and dissatisfied with politics-as-usual (which they are) to vote for radical change (which they’ve already done once, in choosing to leave the EU). The problem is that while May and the Conservatives have looked at the post-New Labour landscape with clear eyes, the Corbynites have looked at it predominantly through the lens of Labour history.

I’m not sure what characteristics are generally shared by the children of archbishops but I’m quite certain that the Bensons were unlike the children of anyone else. They were all prone to depression, to a greater or lesser extent, possessing what Arthur referred to as a ‘diseased self-consciousness’. They all – probably in reaction to their father – approached the world at an angle, preferring ‘a sort of casuistical, speculative, delicate, spectatorial criticism of life’. All of them wrote books. None married or had children, and they all preferred their own sex.

The creation of the British state was a municipal project, and the state is now being unmade by the collapse of that project. What we really mean when we say that austerity has slashed the state – it is a vital distinction, and not made nearly often enough – is that it has wrecked the ability of elected local authorities to provide and administer many of the features and functions of the state as we understand them. Without seeing austerity in these terms, we can’t properly appreciate what it has been attempting, and what it has achieved.

Short Cuts: Ed Balls

Tom Crewe, 22 September 2016

The careers​ of politicians do not always end when they were supposed to. The Duke of Portland resigned as prime minister in 1783, only to have another, more successful go at governing 24 years later. Gladstone retired from the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1874 aged 65, but was leader and prime minister again by 1880, and quit his fourth premiership on a point of principle in 1894...

We Are Many: In the Corbyn Camp

Tom Crewe, 11 August 2016

It was impossible to disagree when someone pointed out that a year or so ago the idea of this many people sitting in a hall during a heatwave to discuss the Labour Party would have seemed fantastical.

Virginia Woolf’​s body was still undiscovered, lodged under Southease Bridge, when Margot Asquith, approaching eighty, published her personal tribute in the Times. The two women had been friends of a sort (Leonard disapproved): both were leading lights in famous circles of famous friends; both possessed a conversational brilliance liable to be iced with cruelty, an intensity...

Maureen met Keith at a dance in Middlesbrough Town Hall, sometime in 1955. They were both in their early twenties; she was a nurse and he was in the merchant navy. The week before – she went dancing every week, if she didn’t have a shift – Maureen had been followed off the bus by a man who then stalked her all the way to her front door, lingering outside even as she slipped off her shoes in the hallway. It was with this in mind that she accepted Keith for the last dance of the evening, knowing he would be obliged to escort her home afterwards.

I first heard​ of Benjamin Disraeli in a school assembly when I was ten or eleven. Our headmaster also taught history, and though he was known to us mainly as an expert in horse-drawn hoes, seed drills and threshing machines, that day he introduced us to a man born into the wrong religion and given an imperfect education, an author of unlikely novels and unlikelier cheques, sniffed at...

From The Blog
22 April 2016

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a difficult time to be a Prince fan, not just because he was still in the creative gulf separating 1996's botched Emancipation from his return to the mainstream with Musicology in 2004, but because I wasn't even a teenager yet. I'd been given The Hits for my tenth birthday (My Dad was a fan); I played the first track – ‘Soft and Wet’, from his first album, For You (1978), sung in a joyful, sexy squeal – and then played it again and again. Who wouldn’t want to listen to Prince?


Here was a plague

27 September 2018

Tom Crewe writes: I don’t think I’m ‘nostalgic’ for the pre-HIV sex scene – envious, certainly. Nor did I claim that people with HIV felt themselves to be ‘missing out on the fun of sex’, though it would be very odd if this wasn’t one aspect of the appalling misery of infection, especially in the pre-symptom period – Oscar Moore and Derek Jarman...

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