The life-shaped hole in our hearts: lockdown, solace and cultural memory

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute a brief film to the A Bit Lit YouTube channel, created by Andy Kesson and others as a forum for thoughts on literature, history and culture during lockdown. So here I am, talking about freedom and confinement, about emotional and spiritual spaces, about monasticism and... Continue Reading →

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The Quietus: Hawkwind: Days of the Underground by Joe Banks

When I was ten or so, I discovered my older brother’s copy of the NME Encyclopaedia of Rock, published in pre-punk 1976. Partly, I suppose, because I looked up to my brother so much, I read it religiously and swallowed its opinions wholesale. It wasn’t complimentary about Hawkwind: “One critic has described a typical Hawkwind... Continue Reading →

The first Svengali

Whenever Dominic Cummings makes the headlines, commentators reach for the same word to describe his relationship with the prime minister: he is Boris Johnson’s Svengali, they write. But who was the original Svengali? Svengali is one of those rare literary creations so seemingly archetypal his name becomes short-hand for a kind of behaviour: in this... Continue Reading →

History Today: Hans Holbein: The Artist in a Changing World by Jeanne Nuechterlein

In Augsburg’s Staatsgalerie Altdeutsche Meister there is a three-paneled painting illustrating the life of St Paul, painted by local artist Hans Holbein the Elder in 1504. Commissioned for the city’s Dominican convent of St Katherine, it includes, in its left panel, a self-portrait of the artist with his two sons, Hans and Ambrosius – nicknamed,... Continue Reading →

When graduates voted twice

With support for the EU significantly higher among those with a university education, it’s interesting to recall that well into the 20th century graduates could vote twice in UK general elections: once in their local constituencies and again through their universities, which at one point held fourteen seats between them. The idea that universities should... Continue Reading →

Manuela Sáenz: the Liberator’s saviour

On the night of September 25 1828, a small group of armed men approached the presidential palace in Bogotá. Inside, Simón Bolívar lay in bed asleep beside his mistress, Manuela Sáenz. Bolívar – known as El Liberator – had led large parts of South America to freedom from imperial Spain, but his increasingly autocratic, anti-republican... Continue Reading →

The Quietus: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

In ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, one of the stories that make up Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s best-known work, the eponymous narrator is in a taxi when he hears a song on the radio "about how everything that dies some day comes back". (The song isn’t named, but it’s Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City.) Popular... Continue Reading →

New Humanist: An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

Every winter, white storks – so elegant in the air, so rickety on land – make the long flight south from Europe to what we assume to be ancestral wetlands in sub-Saharan Africa. At least, that’s what most of them do. These days there’s one who disdains the long-haul option, preferring to hop across from... Continue Reading →

The end of a European union

A decades-long union of European countries is supported by the respective national elites; but its destruction comes through the ruthless exploitation of popular nationalism by an autocratic leader. Does that sound familiar? It is, of course, the Kalmar Union between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which saw the three kingdoms being governed under a single monarch... Continue Reading →

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: the film Churchill tried to kill

It’s 10 September 1942. The German army is at Stalingrad. Bomber Command is sending 479 planes to bomb Düsseldorf. And Winston Churchill is writing to Brendan Bracken, his Minister of Information, about a British film already in production. “[P]ropose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further,” he... Continue Reading →

Literary Review: Sons of the Waves by Stephen Taylor

At their peak, early in the 19th century, there were some 262,427 of them across Britain’s naval and merchant fleets. People called them Jacks, but they are nameless mostly. Or nameless to history. Even on surviving musters, their identities can be hidden behind pseudonyms. Some of these – George Million or Jacob Blackbeard, say –... Continue Reading →

The pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod

On 6 May 1939 the pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod was elected to the Disney chair of archaeology at Cambridge. She was the first woman to be a professor at either Oxford or Cambridge; women were still not admitted to full degrees at the university – despite having been educated there since 1869. Her election brought... Continue Reading →

How two monks – one Byzantine, one Libyan – remade the English church

Five of the first six archbishops of Canterbury to be consecrated were not native to this country. None came from as far afield as the seventh: Theodore, born in 602, was a Greek-speaking monk from Tarsus – the modern Turkish city of Gözlü Kule – in what was then a Byzantine province. Educated in Antioch... Continue Reading →

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