Told with light-hearted élan yet contained in a magisterial mould, Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight charts the life of Steven Runciman (1903 - 2000), a figure who was both a chronicler of the past – as a renowned historian of the Byzantine Empire – and a witness to the age in which he lived. A schoolfriend of George Orwell and an early love interest of Cecil Beaton, he partied with the Bloomsbury set as well as with royalty. To read this biography is not simply to learn about Runciman’s life but to step back into it: through the dashing, ludic style which saw him shortlisted for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, Dinshaw expertly captures the essence of his subject. In a coffee shop in Hammersmith we chatted about Runciman and also discussed Dinshaw’s next project, a book about the interlocking lives of two political moderates during the English Civil War. [read full interview]
When Notre-Dame started burning, I knew about it within four minutes. But when the Yellow Vest riots started, I wasn’t aware of it for ten days. As videos of the protests eventually emerged on my Facebook news feed, I was confused: I assumed they were old clips or even fakes. None of my Parisian friends had mentioned the situation, so how could it really be happening in their neighbourhoods? Upon discussing it with other London French expats, they turned out to share my confusion: they had no idea anything amiss had been going on, as no one in their networks had brought it up either. There were riots in the streets of Paris, and Parisians didn’t seem to care. [read full essay]
Will Ashon, Chamber Music: Enter the Wu-Tang (in 36 Pieces)
reviewed by James Cook
‘Instead of opening a book,’ Will Ashon tells us on page 25 of his second work of non-fiction, ‘you’ve opened the box of a jigsaw puzzle.’ This assertion – or caution, perhaps – is apposite. Chamber Music examines the history of New York rap collective Wu-Tang Clan, and their first album, 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), often described as ‘the greatest hip hop album of all time’. But instead of an orthodox band biography and pedestrian track-by-track appreciation,... [read more]
Tunnels are both ways into and out of trouble, dug around obstacles or right through them. Vision is indispensable, but few would say they had had visions. Like a waiter carrying drinks on a tray, the balance of opposites in each word collapses when they are compounded; ‘tunnel’ and ‘vision’ each mean several things, ‘tunnel vision’ means one thing.
The essays that make up Kevin Breathnach’s debut collection are interested in the question of what it means to be one thing, and... [read more]
Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
reviewed by Ian Birchall
Historians do not sit outside of history, dispassionately assessing the ‘facts’. How they perceive even the remote past is conditioned by the world they live in – and by the way they live in that world. Of no-one is this truer than Eric Hobsbawm, one of the 20th century's most successful historians, a prolific writer whose books have been translated into more than 50 languages. Seven years after his death, Richard Evans has given us the history of the historian. It is a long story –... [read more]
In 2016, Tilted Axis Press published an English translation of Hwang Jungeun’s novel, One Hundred Shadows. It was a perfect example of what can be done within the confines of a short novel: it told an atmospheric story of two people living impoverished lives on the fringes of society, laced with a potent dose of the uncanny. It portrayed the frustrations of life in a region that might be developed out of existence at any moment, and was charged with the potential of human connection and joy... [read more]
Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality
reviewed by Neil Dawson
In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels confidently declared that capitalism’s demise and the proletariat’s victory were ‘equally inevitable’. Only the most Panglossian radical socialist would make this claim today. The recent record of capitalism in countries such as America and Britain may be marked by extreme inequality, financial crisis, and popular discontent, but that doesn’t mean we’re on route to somewhere better. This is the writer and activist Bhaskar... [read more]
On a grey day in Edinburgh at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, a young Scotchman – full of talent and promise – looks out through his shop window and sees little to stir the spirit. The heavy rain has turned the sooty buildings near black, and the sky hangs crushingly low. He optimistically polishes and replaces his glasses, taking a second look. The scene remains bleak.
The young man is Brodie Moncur, a piano tuner for an Edinburgh piano maker, and he is at the beginning of an... [read more]
Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit is like hearing your neighbour cry through the walls. It’s distressing to hear, you feel like a voyeur, and you can’t help, because going round there would be another violation. But what if the neighbour was really playing a recording of that crying through your wall? That’s what the book is about. Over-egged, paratactic, coy about its own artifice, yet keen to explore the limits of personal fragility, Rabbit whips us through snatches of animal abuse, internet... [read more]
It's often claimed that the only people who recognise a real difference between science fiction and literary fiction are those who only read the latter. I'm inclined to argue the opposite. I came of age in an era when science fiction was well-regarded, its authors were published by Penguin Modern Classics, and sci-fi was 'acceptable reading' for someone with an interest in books. But it became clear to me as soon as I started reading science fiction that you could not be a fan of the genre... [read more]
Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto is an accessible, poignant and convincing call to arms. It investigates historical precedent for silencing and disempowering women, considers women’s own testimonies and looks at where we are today in the fight for gender equality. Building on two lectures for the London Review of Books, one from 2014, the other 2017, Beard deftly moves between ancient tropes and contemporary events to assess ways in which women’s voices have, and continue to be,... [read more]
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is one of the best volumes of 21st-century poetry I’ve read. I consider it something of a set of axioms that the best formal poetry is also always free, that the best free verse is also always formal, and that ultimately form and freedom are more synonymous than they are antithetical. In this regard, reading Three Poems was like encountering a demonstration of a proof.
In a similar vein, advancing a tradition often entails taking pains to interrogate and... [read more]