COLUMNS Terror and Detestation

by Minoo Dinshaw

Dominic Cummings, late of Downing Street, has been compared to many ‘evil counsellors’ of kings bygone or imagined. The name of Grima Wormtongue, adviser to Theoden, King of Rohan, ran aflame on Tory benches animated, perhaps, by locked down Lord of the Rings marathons. More learned if not perhaps visually discerning commentators invoked George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, generally spoken of as a lover of James I of England, and an ill-fated chief minister to James’s son, Charles I. It is, however, to a third ‘evil counsellor’ that I think Cummings can be most productively compared — an even more hated, if in many respects more admirable minister to Charles I, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford. [read full column]

COLUMNS Airplane Mode

by Martin Schauss

The act of flying and the act of reading form a unique couple, for me, for lots of people. ‘Reading in the utopia of airplanes is quite total,’ writes the poet Lisa Robertson. I can’t think of many other situations in which, under no particular pressure to finish, I can read a long book without looking up. Phone off, laptop stowed away, nowhere to go, and, especially if you’ve got an aisle seat, nowhere to look, really. In-flight movies exacerbate, rather than soothe, my airborne anxiety, the rom-coms, the minuscule, low-res quality, the poor sound from faulty headphones, so my screen stays off. [read full column]

COLUMNS The Good Swimmer

by Martha Sprackland

I got in the sea the other day, on a warm October evening in East Sussex, to where I have recently moved. I’d thought I would go swimming the day I arrived, and every day since, but a week, two weeks passed, and I’ve been timid. I’m a good swimmer, and a good sea-swimmer – though no thanks to my childhood on the north-west coast of England, in a village whose beach, though golden, wide and sandy, sloped so imperceptibly, so diffidently, that to achieve swimming depth you had first to walk what felt like several miles in your swimming costume in icy, shin-deep water, like sloshing through a big puddle. [read full column]

COLUMNS Lockdown on the Move

by Nina Ellis

Lockdown is meant to be about staying inside, in one place. The New York Times Style Magazine recently ran an article on Tehching Hsieh’s ‘One Year Performance’, in which he locked himself in a wooden cage in his studio for a year. The London Magazine published a supplement in June about the experience of being ‘cooped up’ during coronavirus. But I missed the memo: since the middle of March, I’ve moved house four times (in a mask, of course) — from Cambridge to join my partner in Pakistan, and then to North Wales, to London, and back to Cambridge. [read full column]

COLUMNS What are Book Prizes For?

by Richard Smyth

In May this year, with the UK chafing under Covid-19 lockdown, the four authors shortlisted for the 2019 Highland Book Prize — led by acclaimed poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie — volunteered to split the £1,000 prize between them, as a collective, ‘as a celebration of life, literature and community’. It was a nice gesture, if you don’t look too hard at the logic, and the authors’ decision to donate the prize money to the Highland Food Bank anyway placed it safely above reproach. It did, however, raise the question of what book prizes are for. [read full column]

COLUMNS On Villains

by Kwaku Osei-Afrifa

I’m a writer and I often have a villain problem, in that they’re rarely villains to me. I leave it to the reader to decide based on the evidence presented in the work of fiction and their own feelings about the concepts. That nuance is vital to the work lingering in a potential reader, and to me makes the process interesting. Of course, these characters and I aren’t the same. The difference here — beyond millions of sales and pounds in Rowling’s corner — is you can trace her characters’ reprehensible behaviour back to her own. [read full column]

COLUMNS Hook-up a Duck

by Jack Solloway

It’s no secret the Fringe is over-saturated. Every thesp for themselves: an all-out war in a crowded field, where celebrity, gimmicks and a mercenary attitude are king. The four million-odd turnout each season is second only in size to the Olympic Games, and arguably more cut-throat in its competition but for a hair’s width of attention. For yonks activists have campaigned against over-tourism in Edinburgh and the festival’s unsustainable growth – ‘growth for growth’s sake’, as the umbrella body Festivals Edinburgh put it. So it may not surprise you, then, that some are lapping up the ‘staycation’ tourism of a country too blasé about the pandemic to cancel its holiday plans altogether. [read full column]

COLUMNS To Hell and Back, with Bugs

by John Phipps

There is nothing loveable, redeemable or ecologically necessary about the mosquito species that feed on human blood. It’s been estimated that 5% of the humans who have ever died have died of mosquito-borne diseases. They flash into earshot in the night with their indescribable, drilling whine, and disappear again. There is something both uncanny and flamboyant about their particular awfulness. ‘When did you start your tricks / Monsieur?’ asked D.H. Lawrence in ‘The Mosquito’. He wanted them dead too. ‘I hate the way you lurch off sideways into air / having read my thoughts against you.’ [read full column]

COLUMNS Books at the BBC

by Rob Palk

The absence of the great works of European literature can be put down, not to the personal illiteracy of the judges, but to the strange stipulation that all novels considered have to be written in the English language. I have tried hard to work out a justification for this, other than simple bigotry, and can only assume they think readers, in these days of Brexit, will be put off by fancy foreign names, as they will by too many old books, or too many books aimed at adults. The Reader, a largely fictional construct, exists to be mollycoddled and flattered. She might have heard of Flaubert but he hasn’t shaped her world, and nor must he be allowed to try to. Readers who find this patronising would be advised to put their concerns to the BBC.  I can just about appreciate not watching subtitled films — there are too few car chases, and the reading hurts your eyes — but books ought to be different.    [read full column]

COLUMNS The Orwell Prize & the New Political Fiction

by Jude Cook

The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and Political Writing was awarded this week to Anna Burns for her brilliantly sustained novel Milkman, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, both worthy winners which make a strong contribution to a growing body of Troubles literature, including David Keenan’s blistering For the Good Times, and Jenny McCartney’s recent, quieter take on 1990s Northern Ireland, The Ghost Factory. Yet the Orwell prize only broadened its remit to make an award for political fiction this year, and this is perhaps symptomatic not just of the times, but of a growing desire by readers to explore political issues through novels, and not just works of non-fiction. [read full column]