The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. Read more
Having taken a look at the big picture, political issues of the Hunger Games trilogy in the first part of my Damaris review, it seemed to me that the heart of the books lies in their exploration of the private. In fact, it’s very unlikely that the books would be anything like as successful as they have been were it not for this. For we really get to know Katniss, in all her doubt, confusions and even less attractive qualities. She is not a cardboard cutout heroine, which is perhaps why so many (both male and female) relate to her so well. After all, there are not many female protagonists who appeal across the gender divide. Read more
It was a joy to be able to spend a couple of hours with members of the CU at London’s University of the Arts on Thursday evening, giving a talk on this subject. Sarah Dargue has already done a really good job at summarising the key points over at the Interface Arts page (if you’re an arts student, definitely worth keeping an eye on that blog). But here is my talk outline, so that you can get some of the key quotes and references, plus my slides. Read more
Over the Easter break, we enjoyed a first in our family – we all read the same books together (or to be more accurate, competed with each to be able to start the next instalment before one of the others got to it). We all devoured Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and it was a lot of fun, leading to a number of great chats. We didn’t it feel appropriate for our 10 year old to read the third instalment (‘Mockingjay’) because there were parts that were genuinely scary for that age (and in fact, had to get her to skip around 20 pages of the 2nd, Catching Fire). But Rachel, my 13 year old and I read all 3 and thoroughly enjoyed them. There’s so much in them, quite apart from being gripping yarns. Read more
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. Read more
If you listen to any BBC radio, it was hard to miss the big splash made a few months back by the Radio 4 serialisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic twentieth century masterpiece Life And Fate. So I endeavoured (rashly) to read it before listening to the programmes (which were issued as podcasts at the time). So I’ve started … and to be frank, it has taken a bit of work to get into – I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through the 850+ pages. Set around the time of the bloody battle for Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943), Read more
I get restless if I don’t have something to read on the bus. So I grabbed the closest thing on my desk as I ran out yesterday – which had been a recently thumbed anthology of George Orwell’s Essays. (I’d been looking at it because of the seminal piece Why I Write, recently recommended to me by the Real Grasshopper). I found myself, somewhat incongruously, sitting upstairs in the front row motoring down Park Lane, and reading a short account of an experience Orwell had in the British Imperial Police in Burma – starkly entitled ‘A Hanging‘. Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
Am just back from a 24 hour escape to the country with a few other guys – we meet once or twice a year and have been (on and off) for years. It was a real tonic and encouragement to me personally. I’ve realised more and more how much I need this sort of thing. But the particular treat of this time away was staying at Ferrar House in Little Gidding. As its website shows, it has all kinds of wonderful historical, and especially literary, connections. Charles I and George Herbert… and of course more recently T S Eliot. As it happened, he only came here for an afternoon and never stayed the night. But his link with the place was immortalised by the 4th of his FOUR QUARTETS, entitled Little Gidding. Read more
I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. Read more
Sherlock Holmes is always with us. Every time I walk down Baker St (which is often because we live just behind it), the point is driven home. We love Benedict Cumberbatch’s contemporary take on Sherlock, but that’s not what I’m getting at. For a bit further up the street from us, there is in fact a “Sherlock Holmes Hotel”, believe it or not. But let’s be clear about this. There is no famous London Blue Plaque at 221B, because, of course, he DIDN’T exist. Read more
We’re back from a joyous couple of days in Oxford – including a happy return to the Museum of old Ashmole himself, stunningly redesigned and rebuilt. If you’re there before mid-Jan, check out the temporary exhibition of one my all time artistic heroes, Claude Lorrain.
But my purpose in posting today is a rather fun ad campaign around the streets of north Oxford. A pair of footprints… to begin with you’ve no idea what it’s on about. It could lead to a host of things. But like the best teaser campaigns, it works… you want to know more. Read more
Christopher Reid’s 2009 anthology A Scattering won many plaudits, all entirely deserved, including the overall Costa book award (which is very unusual for a book of poetry). It is an anthology of grief – poems written in the process and aftermath of Lucinda (his wife of 30 years) dying of cancer. But it is a wonderful, if deeply poignant, book. I found myself frequently shaken up and having to pause for long periods – which is precisely what the best poetry is meant to do. It’s full of beauty, humanity and above all the wonder of life. Read more
Any walk along the Thames Embankment or the South Bank is bound to conjure up memories and evocations. This ancient river is observed/guarded/ignored by countless buildings created at different moments in British history: the proceeds of empire and the fates of peoples are all reflected in their facades. I came across this wonderful poem by Daljit Nagra in the last New Yorker of July. And it captures it all perfectly, far more articulately than we non-poetically-gifted mortals could manage.
Here’s another gem from Elaine Feinstein’s lovely anthology of city recollections and reflections. This time though it is of a more historical nature, the tribute from of a contemporary Jewish Briton about another, one of the great leaders of the Victorian era, Benjamin Disraeli (aka Dizzy). Read more
It’s a small anthology that I’ve occasionally dipped into, having heard Elaine Feinstein speaking some months back on Radio 4. Cities is a collection of poems inspired (as you might expect) by experiences and friendships in different cities around the world. Read more
A blind Bulgarian chemist sits alone in his flat, sweltering in the Sofia summer heat. As he approaches his 100th birthday, his still sighted mind’s eye inevitably ranges over a 20th century that brought constant revolution, both to him and to Bulgaria. He is Ulrich, Read more
Having quoted a rather light-hearted bit from this excellent compilation of interviews, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things John Le Carré has said over the years about how he goes about his work, especially because of his insights into how and why narrative works (which thus helps us to engage with narratives of any sort). I’m particularly intrigued Read more
The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.
People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)