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Diary

Neal Ascherson: Among the icebergs, 18 October 2007

... what is happening. It is just that we, the humans, may have to adjust our own way of life.’ ...

In Delville Wood

Neal Ascherson: Shrapnel balls and green acorns, 7 November 2013

... Albert wrote to his sister Mabel from the trenches. That Mary he’d danced with, could she find out if Mary ever thought about him? Mabel considered he was too young for all that, it wasn’t proper. So she didn’t ask. But then he wrote again, so she did. ‘My insides go all jumbly when I think about Albert,’ said Mary to Mabel. So Mabel put that in her next letter to Albert ...

At the Ashmolean

Neal Ascherson: ‘The Lost World of Old Europe’, 5 August 2010

... Poor Europa! The competition to give her an ancestry has been raging for generations. Now the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – the new, gorgeously refashioned Ashmolean, which reopened last November with 39 new galleries – has joined in.* The Lost World of Old Europe reveals a brilliant, imaginative, precocious culture that arose in south-eastern Europe in the late Neolithic period, the Copper Age, but after flourishing for several thousand years, failed and was forgotten ...

On Jonathan Miller

Neal Ascherson: Jonathan Miller, 2 January 2020

... Ifirst met​ Jonathan’s knees. This was because Cambridge sofas in the 1950s had broken springs. Once they had buoyed up culture heroes like Rupert Brooke, John Cornford or Guy Burgess. Now, as we trudged across the great Gromboolian plain of the 1950s, they had given up the struggle. Modish undergraduates perched on the arms. Jonathan, new to the place, tried to sit down and slid backwards into the depths ...

Nairn is best

Neal Ascherson, 21 May 1987

Nairn: In Darkness and Light 
by David Thomson.
Hutchinson, 303 pp., £12.95, April 1987, 0 09 168360 2
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... Some sixty years ago, when David Thomson was a boy, he suffered from a condition that badly affected his eyesight. He could see, but poorly. He read Braille and, though this was forbidden, the printed page. On two occasions, when the condition grew worse, he was condemned to spend six weeks at a time lying on his back in a darkened room. In general, all heavy physical exertion was banned ...

Heartlessness

Neal Ascherson, 19 December 1991

Judge on Trial 
by Ivan Klima, translated by A.G. Brain.
Chatto, 547 pp., £14.99, November 1991, 9780701133498
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... The war was finished – and so was the regime of occupation. Its most hated representatives had either fled or wound up in prison while their victims had been proclaimed martyrs. But all that concerned just a tiny section of the population: most of the people had not died, fled or gone to gaol, but merely gone on with their lives. Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday’s laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday’s crimes to be acts of heroism ...

At the British Museum

Neal Ascherson: Celts, 22 October 2015

... Splendid​ specimens of the untrousered, strong-legged Celt’. That was what John Stuart Blackie, the founder of Scotland’s first chair of Celtic studies in 1882, liked to see about him in the Highlands. In Celts: Art and Identity (at the British Museum until 31 January, then at the National Museum of Scotland from 30 March until 25 September) he would have met several untrousered, strong-legged giants ...

Believing in gringos

Neal Ascherson, 19 May 1983

Salvador 
by Joan Didion.
Chatto, 108 pp., £6.99, April 1983, 0 7011 3912 9
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... The fire that is burning in our own front yard’. Three days after President Reagan used those words to describe events in Central America, as he addressed the joint Houses of Congress, the Polish police were out again on the streets of Warsaw and Gdansk and the crowds were fleeing from the teargas and the batons. Back yards have become front yards these days ...

Diary

Neal Ascherson: On A.J.P. Taylor, 2 June 1983

... Men everywhere supposed (as A.J.P. Taylor tends to begin sentences) that he would join in the general execration of Lord Dacre over the Hitler diaries. A lot of men, indeed, were looking forward to this: historians wrestling in mud is a common spectacle that never loses its power to give pleasure – like dissent between taxi-drivers. They were disappointed ...

Red Souls

Neal Ascherson, 22 May 1980

Russian Hide and Seek 
by Kingsley Amis.
Hutchinson, 240 pp., £5.95, May 1980, 0 09 142050 4
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... We have come out of a long tunnel, and the view has changed. War is now quite clearly visible, not all that far off. That is not inevitably where we are going, the terminus. But most of us never expected to get so close, so suddenly. The Russians are in Afghanistan, aggrieved and astonished at the world’s reaction. Nato is buying itself a new armoury it does not need, deliberately presenting what is really a crisis of confidence within the Alliance as a response to a Soviet threat ...

Cross Words

Neal Ascherson, 17 November 1983

The Story of the ‘Times’ 
by Oliver Woods and James Bishop.
Joseph, 392 pp., £14.95, October 1983, 0 7181 1462 0
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Good Times, Bad Times 
by Harold Evans.
Weidenfeld, 430 pp., £11.95, October 1983, 0 297 78295 9
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... Rupert Murdoch’s decision to take on the Times was an act of considerable courage. But it was also the act of a determined man who, as a shrewd entrepreneur and a newspaperman of great experience, had every reason to know what he was doing ... The costly changes introduced by the Editor [Harold Evans] had been accompanied by a substantial number of new senior editorial appointments ...

Hard Men

Neal Ascherson, 5 May 1983

Contact 
by A.F.N. Clarke.
Secker, 160 pp., £6.95, March 1983, 0 436 09998 5
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... This book is written in anger,’ the author begins. ‘Anger at previous attempts to portray the British soldier. Anger at the violence and the hatred that became part of a way of life. Anger at the misrepresentation of the facts ...’ And here, at the very outset, as it seems to me, the writer starts to lose his way among his own emotions. Northern Ireland offers an infinity of occasions for anger, as Clarke knows better than most of us: he was a subaltern in the Parachute Regiment on two particularly foul spells of duty, in Belfast (Shankill Road, Crumlin Road, the Ardoyne) during 1973, and at Crossmaglen in South Armagh in 1976 ...

In the Hands of the Cannibals

Neal Ascherson, 20 February 1997

Europe: A History 
by Norman Davies.
Oxford, 1365 pp., £25, October 1996, 0 19 820171 0
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... In this supposedly scientific age, the imaginative side of the historical profession has undoubtedly been downgraded. The value of unreadable academic papers and of undigested research data is exaggerated. Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic licence. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration ...

Bring on the hypnotist

Neal Ascherson, 12 March 1992

After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism 
edited by Robin Blackburn.
Verso, 327 pp., £32.95, November 1991, 0 86091 540 9
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... The revolutions of 1989 were ‘the end of an era in which world history was about the October Revolution ... Those of us who believed that the October Revolution was the gate to the future of world history have been shown to be wrong.’ Not many of the contributors to After the Fall are able to face that wrongness with the stoic honesty of Eric Hobsbawm ...

Where will this voyage end?

Neal Ascherson, 14 June 1990

Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two centuries look back on the French Revolution 
by E.J. Hobsbawm.
Verso, 144 pp., £24.95, May 1990, 0 86091 282 5
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... Historians as a tribe are suckers for anniversaries, no less than journalists. And both professions are equally unwilling to leave a nice, juicy coincidence alone, in the spirit of that pre-glasnost Pravda phrase: ‘It is no accident that ...’ These faiblesses ensure that, in our lifetimes and in those of our children, books and journals and Sunday papers will continue to gnaw and growl over the fact that a year of revolutionary upheaval in Eastern and Central Europe took place precisely 200 years after the beginning of the French Revolution ...

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