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Seventy Years in a Colourful Trade

Andrew O’Hagan: The Soho Alphabet, 16 July 2020

Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia 
by Darren Coffield.
Unbound, 364 pp., £25, April, 978 1 78352 816 5
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... at the opening of Harold Pinter’s first play, The Room. ‘It was the alcoholics’ paradise,’ Barry Humphries writes in his introduction to Darren Coffield’s entertaining book.You merely ran up a slate. Later, much later, came the reckoning, but you never knew how they arrived at the astronomical total, and alkies like to pay more anyhow. It’s our ...

Cute, My Arse

Seamus Perry: Geoffrey Hill, 12 September 2019

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin 
by Geoffrey Hill.
Oxford, 148 pp., £20, April 2019, 978 0 19 882952 2
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... incorporated is winning. It is a poem on first name terms with tradition: ‘Will Blake’, ‘Kit Smart’, ‘Bert Brecht’, ‘Alun’ (Lewis), ‘Gerard’ (Hopkins) – and my favourite, ‘old Malc’, the composer Malcolm Arnold. (Did anyone call him that in his own lifetime?) Sometimes you have a clue: ‘Who say “cordiality responsible for such ...

Cutting it short

John Bayley, 3 November 1983

Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction 
by Paul Debreczeny, translated by Walter Arndt.
Stanford, 545 pp., $38.50, May 1983, 0 8047 1142 9
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The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction 
by Paul Debreczeny.
Stanford, 386 pp., $32.50, May 1983, 0 8047 1143 7
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... consummated. There is all the difference between this kind of effect and those that are sought by Barry Cornwall in his ‘dramatic fragments’, a reading of which in French had given Pushkin his model. Very much in the spirit of the age, Cornwall had sought to wring every ounce of romantic melodrama out of the situations he treated. Pushkin does just the ...

I am Prince Mishkin

Mark Ford, 23 April 1987

‘Howl’: Original Draft Facsimile 
by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Barry Miles.
Viking, 194 pp., £16.95, February 1987, 0 670 81599 3
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White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985 
by Allen Ginsberg.
Viking, 89 pp., £10.95, February 1987, 0 670 81598 5
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... various accounts of the poem’s reception, a bizarre compilation of ‘sources’ ranging through Smart and Shelley to Kurt Schwitters and Lorca, much of Ginsberg’s correspondence from the mid-Fifties, and a history of Howl’s ludicrous trial for obscenity in the San Francisco courts – the best the prosecution could muster was a private English tutor ...

So much was expected

R.W. Johnson, 3 December 1992

Harold Wilson 
by Ben Pimlott.
HarperCollins, 811 pp., £20, October 1992, 0 00 215189 8
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Harold Wilson 
by Austen Morgan.
Pluto, 625 pp., £25, May 1992, 0 7453 0635 7
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... to brood in a fantastical way on the matter, unburdening himself at length to two young reporters, Barry Penrose and Roger Courtiour. It was the first sign that Wilson’s mental powers were flagging. ‘I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room,’ he told them: Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when ...


John Lanchester, 16 November 1995

Sons of Ezra: British Poets and Ezra Pound 
edited by Michael Alexander and James McGonigal.
Rodopi, 183 pp., $23.50, July 1995, 90 5183 840 9
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‘In Solitude, for Company’: W.H. Auden after 1940 
edited by Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins.
Oxford, 338 pp., £40, November 1995, 0 19 818294 5
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by Richard Davenport-Hines.
Heinemann, 406 pp., £20, October 1995, 0 434 17507 2
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Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman 
by Thekla Clark.
Faber, 130 pp., £12.99, October 1995, 0 571 17591 0
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... towards the end of Auden’s life. The young man was Edward Mendelson. Auden went on to do a very smart thing: he made Mendelson his executor, thereby appointing an intelligent, ambitious and wholly committed young professional scholar to oversee his posthumous fortunes. In the often tragicomic panoply of literary estates and executorships, this stands out as ...


Nicholas Spice, 6 July 1995

Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music 
by Michael Chanan.
Verso, 204 pp., £39.95, May 1995, 1 85984 012 4
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Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak Easy Listening and other Moodsong 
by Joseph Lanza.
Quartet, 280 pp., £10, January 1995, 0 7043 0226 8
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... is also the red-neck barricaded inside his obsession, scanning the horizon for the cultural smart-arses, the liberal intellectual spoilsports, the neurasthenic pedants, the sick-heads who want to turn off the heavenly choirs for just a bit of morbid peace and quiet. I scoff at Lanza, but I see myself reflected in his crazy encomia, gesticulating, as it ...

Who’s in charge?

Chalmers Johnson: The Addiction to Secrecy, 6 February 2003

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers 
by Daniel Ellsberg.
Viking, 498 pp., $29.95, October 2002, 0 670 03030 9
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... He believed that these deceptions were necessary ploys to defeat the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, who wanted to use nuclear weapons against Vietnam and China. In mid-1965, the legendary Major-General Edward Lansdale – ‘legendary’ for having thoroughly militarised the Philippine Government in the name of ‘counterinsurgency’ – was ...

I sizzle to see you

John Lahr: Cole Porter’s secret songs, 21 November 2019

The Letters of Cole Porter 
edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh.
Yale, 672 pp., £25, October 2019, 978 0 300 21927 2
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... were 267 shows on Broadway. The cultural mood was buoyant. Porter’s lyrics were no longer ‘too smart’ or too raffish for the cosmopolitan public.In its lavishness, the American musical traditionally made a myth of abundance – plenty in cap and bells. In the playful elegance of his word hoard, his proliferating wit and the lushness of his ...

A Short History of the Trump Family

Sidney Blumenthal: The First Family, 16 February 2017

... an education beyond his two years at Fordham and as a transfer student at Wharton (‘I’m a smart person. I went to the Wharton School of Finance’), it was from his guide through the circles of the Inferno, who conducted masterclasses in malice. Trump was an apt pupil in aggression. ‘I don’t think I got that from Roy at all,’ Trump told the ...

Larkin and Us

Barbara Everett, 4 November 1982

Larkin at Sixty 
edited by Anthony Thwaite.
Faber, 148 pp., £7.95, May 1982, 9780571118786
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The Art of Philip Larkin 
by Simon Petch.
Sydney University Press, 108 pp., £5.95, September 1982, 0 424 00090 3
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... on the schooldays, Amis on Larkin as an undergraduate, Charles Monteith on publishing Larkin, Barry Bloomfield and Douglas Dunn on Larkin the librarian, and others) neatly circumambulates the poet, who has made it clear that in a sense life began for him when the good poetry began, at 20 or even 30, and the ‘Toads’ poems probably say as much as one ...

The Ground Hostess

Francis Wyndham, 1 April 1983

... but never mind, I was introduced to this young man who when he opened his mouth sounded like that Barry Humphries character, you know, the Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James’s, so I knew he was Australian for a start, and when I asked him what he did he said he was a Qantas airline steward, and when I asked his name he said it was Tony ...


Alan Bennett: What I did in 2000, 25 January 2001

... too and so gets the audience going. Their arrival at the theatre comes shortly after that of Barry Manilow, who is puzzled to find press and paparazzi abruptly deserting him as they go in pursuit of grander quarry. The Prince is very enthusiastic about the play when he goes round afterwards, though I’d have thought the chances of him persuading his ...

Into the Underworld

Iain Sinclair: The Hackney Underworld, 22 January 2015

... also mastered the rubbish racket, compulsively scavenging, trawling, sweeping up: transforming, by smart curation, the unrequired into the essential. They were addicts of entropy. They modelled junk heaps and projected silhouettes on gallery walls. The shadows, miraculously, evolved into self-portraits. All the grunge traces of the embattled city were waiting ...

Why the bastards wouldn’t stand and fight

Murray Sayle: Mao in Vietnam, 21 February 2002

China and the Vietnam Wars 1950-75 
by Qiang Zhai.
North Carolina, 304 pp., $49.95, April 2000, 0 8078 4842 5
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None so Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam 
by George Allen.
Ivan Dee, 296 pp., $27.50, October 2001, 1 56663 387 7
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No Peace, No Honour: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam 
by Larry Berman.
Free Press, 334 pp., $27.50, November 2001, 0 684 84968 2
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... strategy for 1964 was to present himself as a frustrated pacifist and his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, as an implacable warmonger. This had some basis in fact: Johnson had inherited ‘that bitch of a war’ and was far more interested in the Great Society, his enlightened domestic programme. He therefore sought a decisive outcome before the next ...

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