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Revolutionary Chic

Neal Ascherson, 5 November 1992

Chamfort: A Biography 
by Claude Arnaud, translated by Deke Dusinberre.
Chicago, 372 pp., £21.50, May 1992, 0 226 02697 3
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... The noblest and most innocent of all revolutionary manifestos is the Hessische Landbote, written by Georg Büchner in 1834 when he was 20 years old. Addressed to the peasantry of Hesse, the Landbote had almost no effect except to provoke a wave of repression against the young intellectuals who were behind it. It is written, deliberately, in language of Biblical simplicity, and its subtitle might have been spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!’ This slogan went straight into the German radical tradition and, from there, into folkmemory and cliché ...

Up against the wall

Neal Ascherson, 25 June 1992

My Life in Politics 
by Willy Brandt.
Hamish Hamilton, 498 pp., £20, April 1992, 0 241 13073 5
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... On 19 March 1970, Willy Brandt went out on the balcony of a hotel at Erfurt and the East German crowd roared: ‘Willy, Willy!’ Some famous photographs show him looking down at them gravely, almost in meditation. This was one of the grand moments in postwar European politics, or so it then seemed. A Chancellor of the Federal Republic had broken through the Cold War barricades and visited the German Democratic Republic for the first time ...

Down Dalston Lane

Neal Ascherson, 27 June 1991

A Journey through Ruins: The Last Days of London 
by Patrick Wright.
Radius, 294 pp., £16.99, May 1991, 0 09 173190 9
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... In the winter of 1941, so I have been told, there were nights when it was never dark at the fighter airfield at North Weald. You could walk up the shallow ridge at the southern perimeter and see, twenty miles away, the whole horizon as an arch of intolerable red and orange light: London burning. In our time, the M11 cuts across a corner of the old Battle of Britain aerodrome to reach that ridge ...

What sort of Scotland?

Neal Ascherson, 21 August 2014

... It was nothing​ but questions for the bus party. We heard them all across Scotland, we asked them and we tried to provoke them. The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the question-slogan of the Poles during their 123-year struggle to regain independence: ‘Poland yes – but what sort of Poland?’ ‘What sort of Scotland?’ Will Storrar, our organiser, went to Homebase in Wick and bought an enormous roll of lining paper ...

Marseille, 1940-43

Neal Ascherson, 18 July 2013

... Say this city has ten million souls, Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes: Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us. ‘Refugee Blues’, W.H. Auden Marseille is an old-fashioned town. ‘You still have a queen,’ the lady checking museum tickets remarked. ‘So why don’t you cut her throat? Kings and queens are pointless, cost a fortune ...

He is English, after all

Neal Ascherson: Unboreable Leigh Fermor, 7 November 2013

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos 
by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
John Murray, 362 pp., £25, September 2013, 978 1 84854 752 0
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... The first book ended with ‘To be continued’. The second with ‘To be concluded’. But the third book of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s famous walk from the Hook of Holland to ‘Constantinople’ was never completed. He died two years ago, rewriting and correcting and adding and tweaking almost to the end. The manuscript, some versions of it handwritten, some typed up, remained unfinished ...

Bye Bye Britain

Neal Ascherson, 24 September 2020

... In​ 2019, Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 2020, he shrank into being prime minister of England. For the second time in less than seven years, the union is in trouble. But this time the problem needs a new question. Forget: ‘Should Scotland be independent?’ The Scots will take care of that ...

Diary

Neal Ascherson: In Gdansk, 19 October 2017

... In Gdansk​ , the walk to the museum takes me past the Patriotic Clothing Store. Two blonde, blue-eyed dolls stand in the window, wearing little T-shirts saying: ‘My parents are 100% Polish.’ They have their wee fists raised in what a visiting journalist from Warsaw suggested, a bit unfairly, was a fascist ‘Heil’. Inside, the shop is small and dour ...

Beyond Discussion

Neal Ascherson, 3 April 1980

The Last Word: An Eye-Witness Account of the Thorpe Trial 
by Auberon Waugh.
Joseph, 240 pp., £6.50, February 1980, 0 7181 1799 9
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... Heh, heh!’ went the judge in the Thorpe trial, Mr Justice Cantley. According to Auberon Waugh, who sat in the press benches all through the six weeks of the Old Bailey proceedings, he made a habit of it: his own jokes, the floundering of witnesses, the incredible spectacle over which he was presiding, all presented matter for a good heh. Auberon Waugh purses his lips over this, but that’s his technique as a pamphleteer ...

Conservatives

Neal Ascherson, 6 November 1980

The Meaning of Conservatism 
by Roger Scruton.
Macmillan, 205 pp., £12, 0 333 37635 8
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Counting Our Blessings 
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Secker, 348 pp., £7.95, September 1980, 9780436294013
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Peregrinations 
by Peregrine Worsthorne.
Weidenfeld, 277 pp., £9.95, October 1980, 0 297 77807 2
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... It’s only a few years ago since Mr Callaghan started presenting Labour as the British National Party. Labour, we were given to understand, was the party of patriotic unity, of social cohesion, of organic harmony between interests and classes. The Tories, on the other hand, were supposed to be ‘divisive’. It was they who were setting bewildered sections of the loyal yeomanry against each other, inciting the banker against the worker tearing apart the seamless, woad-dyed robe of Ancient British tribal solidarity ...

Making history

Neal Ascherson, 21 August 1980

The Oak and the Calf 
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Collins Harvill, 568 pp., £8.95, July 1980, 0 06 014014 3
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... I was beginning to see revealed the higher and hidden meaning of that suffering for which I had been unable to find a justification …’ (1967). ‘It makes me happier, more secure, to think that I do not have to plan and manage everything for myself, that I am only a sword made sharp to strike the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them ...

Don’t imagine you’re smarter

Neal Ascherson: The Informers, 19 July 2018

My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File 
by Katherine Verdery.
Duke, 344 pp., £20.99, May 2018, 978 0 8223 7081 9
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... to regular ‘chats’ with a Captain Kowalski, but all they told him was concocted lullaby: yes, Ascherson adored Poland, and no, he was too dumb to be a spy, and no, they had no idea who his other friends were, and he never asked about secrets. I knew they would have to do this, though we didn’t talk about it. My thought at the time was that they reckoned ...

Dance of the Vampires

Neal Ascherson, 19 January 1984

Roman 
by Roman Polanski.
Heinemann, 393 pp., £12.95, January 1984, 0 434 59180 7
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... I am widely regarded, I know, as an evil, profligate dwarf.’ So declares Roman Polanski, moodily kicking his souvenirs about on the last page of this autobiography. Of all the films he never made, the most revealing might have been the project he cooked up years ago in Paris for a sexually-explicit Snow White, with a mongoloid news vendor from St Germain-des-Prés as Prince Charming, a homosexual yodelling choir as musical accompaniment and a troupe of midget wrestlers to play the Seven Dwarves ...

Boswell’s Bowels

Neal Ascherson, 20 December 1984

James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1795 
by Frank Brady.
Heinemann, 609 pp., £20, November 1984, 0 434 08530 8
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... James Boswell created the ‘Age of Johnson’, rescuing the late 18th century, above all, for the Victorians. The Boswell industry at Yale University has given an ‘Age of Boswell’ to the 20th century. This second volume of the grand Frederick Pottle-Frank Brady biography marks the climax of that long achievement. Climax, but not end: in some country-house loft or uncleared bank vault, I would bet, lies the huge bundle which is the missing Johnson-Boswell correspondence ...

Rumba, Conga, Communism

Neal Ascherson, 4 October 1984

Family Portrait with Fidel 
by Carlos Franqui, translated by Alfred MacAdam.
Cape, 262 pp., £12.95, September 1984, 0 224 02268 7
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Infante’s Inferno 
by G. Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Levine.
Faber, 410 pp., £9.95, September 1984, 0 571 13292 8
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... Culture brings Freedom,’ José Marti once vaguely proclaimed. The attempt to make sense of this slogan during the Cuban revolution cost both these outstanding men – Franqui and Infante – their country. One of Fidel Castro’s closest comrades in the war against Batista, Carlos Franqui, came down with him from the Sierra as the bearded men took power; for the first five years after 1959 he was, more than any other single person, associated with the explosion of ‘revolutionary culture’ which amazed and moved Europe and the rebellious young of the Americas ...

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