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‘You have a nice country, I would like to be your son’

Bee Wilson: Prince Bertie, 27 September 2012

Bertie: A Life of Edward VII 
by Jane Ridley.
Chatto, 608 pp., £30, August 2012, 978 0 7011 7614 3
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... Asked​ in an exam at the age of 16 whether kings should be elected, the future Edward VII answered: ‘It is better than hereditary right because you have more chance of having a good sovereign, if it goes by hereditary right if you have a bad or weak sovereign, you cannot prevent him reigning.’ By Bertie’s feeble standards, this was a flash of insight ...

Punk Counterpunk

Bee Wilson, 20 November 2014

Vivienne Westwood 
by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly.
Picador, 463 pp., £25, September 2014, 978 1 4472 5412 6
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... Some time​ in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking ...

How much meat is too much?

Bee Wilson, 20 March 2014

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat 
by Philip Lymbery, with Isabel Oakeshott.
Bloomsbury, 426 pp., £12.99, January 2014, 978 1 4088 4644 5
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Planet Carnivore 
by Alex Renton.
Guardian, 78 pp., £1.99, August 2013
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... Vegetarians, we say,​ are self-righteous and humourless; or fussy and weird; or like Hitler; we say that their diet makes them anaemic; that having to cater for them ruins every dinner party; that they are crazy not to eat bacon/lamb shanks/pepperoni because we evolved as hunter-gatherers; that their food smells horrible, and by implication, so do they; that it’s cruel to bring up a child vegetarian; that they are hypocrites, because how can they pretend to care about animal suffering when they still buy clothes from normal shops – and are those leather shoes by any chance? Vegetarians themselves often argue that they make us feel uncomfortable because their existence is a reminder of the cruelty and carnage that the rest of us refuse to see; there’s probably some truth in this ...

Mmmm, chicken nuggets

Bee Wilson: The Victorian Restaurant Scene, 15 August 2019

The London Restaurant: 1840-1914 
by Brenda Assael.
Oxford, 239 pp., £60, July 2018, 978 0 19 881760 4
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... In​ 1901, London was still the largest city in the world. It had a population of six and a half million, two million more than New York and five million more than Tokyo. One of the ‘biggest wonders of this glorious Metropolis’ as well as ‘one of the most strangely human sights that the world can show’, according to J.C. Woollan, was the spectacle of all these millions of people being fed ...

The Eerie One

Bee Wilson: Peter Lorre, 23 March 2006

The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre 
by Stephen Youngkin.
Kentucky, 613 pp., $39.95, September 2005, 0 8131 2360 7
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... He thought they looked like two soft-boiled eggs, others preferred to call them poached. Either way, any attempt to describe the appearance of Peter Lorre must deal with those eyes. What teeth are to Julia Roberts and lips to Angelina Jolie, his bulging eyes were to Peter Lorre, his unavoidable calling card and a feature quite out of proportion with the norm ...

How Do You Pay?

Bee Wilson: Falling for Michael Moore, 1 November 2007

Citizen Moore: An American Maverick 
by Roger Rapoport.
Methuen, 361 pp., £8.99, July 2007, 978 0 413 77649 5
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Manufacturing Dissent 
directed by Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk.
October 2007
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Sicko 
directed by Michael Moore.
October 2007
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... Because the man himself is so ungainly, it is easy to overlook Michael Moore’s voice. Where his body seems ungovernable and a source of embarrassment to him – he often can’t bear to watch himself on screen – his voice is confident, almost suave. There’s a moment in his least known movie, The Big One (1997), where he launches effortlessly into a gravelly imitation of Dylan singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ before reverting, with a chuckle, to his own spoken voice ...

Musical Chairs with Ribbentrop

Bee Wilson: Nancy Astor, 20 December 2012

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor 
by Adrian Fort.
Cape, 378 pp., £25, October 2012, 978 0 224 09016 2
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... In March 1936, a few days after the German invasion of the Rhineland, Nancy Astor threw a party at 4 St James’s Square. As well as being the first woman MP (elected in 1919), Astor was a legendary hostess. To this particular dinner party she invited various League of Nations delegates, the American and Russian ambassadors, an assortment of English friends and Hitler’s ‘ambassador-at-large’, Joachim von Ribbentrop ...

Like Cold Oysters

Bee Wilson, 19 May 2016

Edith Piaf: A Cultural History 
by David Looseley.
Liverpool, 254 pp., £25, October 2015, 978 1 78138 257 8
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... In 1957​ , six years before her death, Edith Piaf added a new song to her repertoire, ‘La Foule’ (‘The Crowd’). It wasn’t actually new, having been composed in 1936 in Spanish by Angel Cabral, an Argentinian, using the form of a vals criollo, a dance favoured by the Peruvian working class. Piaf heard it and asked one of her librettists, Michel Rivgauche, to compose new French lyrics ...

She gives me partridges

Bee Wilson: Alma Mahler, 5 November 2015

Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler 
by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Donald Arthur.
Northeastern, 360 pp., £29, May 2015, 978 1 55553 789 0
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... Alma Mahler Werfel​ celebrated her 70th birthday at home in Beverly Hills on the last day of August 1949. A brass band played as guests chose from a Mitteleuropean selection of drinks: champagne, black coffee or Alma’s favourite, Bénédictine (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle a day). In the dining room, an abundant buffet was laid out ...

I am the fifth dimension!

Bee Wilson, 27 July 2017

Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra Special Talking Mongoose 
by Christopher Josiffe.
Strange Attractor, 404 pp., £15.99, April 2017, 978 1 907222 48 1
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... He​ does not feed like a mongoose,’ James Irving said of the talking mongoose that had taken up residence – or so it was said – in his remote Isle of Man farmhouse in the early 1930s. Irving told psychic investigators that his family had tried the mongoose – who went by the name of ‘Gef’ – on bread and milk, only to have their food rejected ...

I and My Wife

Bee Wilson: Eva Braun, 5 January 2012

Eva Braun: Life with Hitler 
by Heike Görtemaker, translated by Damion Searls.
Allen Lane, 324 pp., £25, October 2011, 978 1 84614 489 9
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... Eva Braun kept photograph albums. Whether lounging on the terrace at the Berghof or tagging along on a state visit to Italy, she was always snapping away. Her first and only proper job was selling rolls of film at Photohaus Hoffmann in Munich, and an interest in photography stayed with her during the 14 years of her relationship with Hitler. At the Führer’s various residences, she took colour home movies using an up to the minute 16mm Agfa-Movex camera ...

Spending Hitler’s Money

Bee Wilson: The D-Day Spies, 19 July 2012

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies 
by Ben Macintyre.
Bloomsbury, 417 pp., £16.99, March 2012, 978 1 4088 1990 6
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... In June 1943,’ Ben Macintyre writes, the spymaster Tar Robertson ‘reached the startling conclusion that every single German agent in Britain was actually under his control. Not some, not most, but all of them.’ This changed the game of counter-espionage. As well as using their double agents defensively, to monitor German intelligence or to dupe the enemy into a false sense of security, the British were now in a position where they could actively feed lies to the Germans ...

Why are you so fat?

Bee Wilson: Coco Chanel, 7 January 2010

Perfumes: The A-Z Guide 
by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.
Profile, 620 pp., £12.99, October 2009, 978 1 84668 127 1
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Chanel: Her Life, Her World, The Woman behind the Legend 
by Edmonde Charles-Roux, translated by Nancy Amphoux.
MacLehose, 428 pp., £14.99, June 2009, 978 1 906694 24 1
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The Allure of Chanel 
by Paul Morand, translated by Euan Cameron.
Pushkin, 181 pp., £12, September 2009, 978 1 901285 98 7
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Coco before Chanel 
directed by Anne Fontaine.
July 2009
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... Spray a rose scent and you think of roses. A jasmine scent, and you think of jasmine blossom. The representations may be better or worse – you may smell a rose perfume and think: this smells nothing like real roses – but they are imitations even so, however pale. The genius of Chanel No. 5, invented by Coco Chanel in collaboration with Ernest Beaux in 1920-21, is that – in keeping with Chanel’s friendships with Diaghilev and Stravinsky – it was the first abstract perfume: it smelled like nothing else ...

A Little Talk in Downing St

Bee Wilson, 17 November 2016

My Darling Mr Asquith: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Venetia Stanley 
by Stefan Buczacki.
Cato and Clarke, 464 pp., £28.99, April 2016, 978 0 9934186 0 0
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... How do you​ sign off an email? How, when writing to someone who is more than an acquaintance and less than an intimate, do you show that you mean well without being intrusively familiar? There is no common scale to draw on. You can make someone uncomfortable by sending them ‘xox’ in a work email when all they expected was a ‘cheers’. A late friend of mine always signed off ‘all good wishes’ – I felt that hit the right convivial-but-distant note ...

Il Duce and the Red Alfa

Bee Wilson: Clara and Benito, 16 March 2017

Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover 
by R.J.B. Bosworth.
Yale, 312 pp., £18.99, February 2017, 978 0 300 21427 7
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... At dawn​ on 19 April 1945 Clara Petacci, aged 33, travelled to Milan from Lake Garda to join her lover of more than a decade as he made plans for his endgame. The Allies had effectively won the war and Mussolini and his associates were no longer safe in Italy. Claretta could have fled to safety in Franco’s Spain with her parents and sister, but she told her family it was her ‘destiny’ to be with Mussolini at his time of need ...

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