Bloomsbury

‘What is so good about Dickens’s novels?’ It is a question ‘oddly evaded by many who have written about him’, in John Mullan’s reckoning. ‘Gosh he is good – though so careless,’ Iris Murdoch wrote to Brigid Brophy in 1962. Many writers before and since have found Dickens not only improvisatory and self-indulgently digressive but also sentimental, melodramatic, and sermonising – a great entertainer rather than a good writer. Mullan undertakes to demonstrate that what appears to be carelessness is as often as not ‘technical boldness and experimental verve’. Composing ‘on the wings of inspiration’, in response to the exigencies of serial publication, Dickens essentially revised as he wrote. Yet, consulting the manuscripts of the novels, Mullan notes how meticulously he adjusted his diction and phrasing. Like Oliver Twist’s companion in crime, the Artful Dodger, who comes alive through his sleights of hand and language, the Artful Dickens is a magician in prose and a talented conjurer: ‘his feats of legerdemain might equally apply to his writing’.

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Sylvia Pankhurst was unquestionably the most interesting of the Pankhurst women and the only one who continues to be thought of with admiration and respect. Her life certainly deserves to be known. A talented painter, she gave up the possibility of an artist’s life for one as an activist, not only as a suffragette, but also in the labour movement and for a time as a communist, an anti-fascist, and an anti-imperialist fighting for independence for Ethiopia, where she lived for her last five years (she died in 1960 aged seventy-eight).

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The participation of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, was a great but overwhelmingly tragic adventure. According to Geoffrey Cox, an enthusiastic young journalist from New Zealand in Madrid at the time, it was ‘the most truly international army the world has seen since the Crusades’. Romance, bravery, and sacrifice were combined with bastardry, suffering, and humiliation, marred by often lazy and amateurish tactics, including the fatal notion that military discipline was a form of ‘class oppression’. Giles Tremlett’s richly documented new account overflows with exhilaration and alcohol, along with sabotage, treachery, and utter disorganisation. Perhaps it was the very failure of this romantic intervention that has encouraged, over the decades, a rose-tinted vision: a history, in effect, written by the losers.

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The concept of ‘trespass’ first entered English law records in the thirteenth century. That this appearance fell between the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the reformation of the English church by Henry VIII in 1534 is no accident. As Nick Hayes shows in The Book of Trespass, the process by which the English commons were enclosed by the statutes of the wealthy landowning class was slow but resolute; and it had everything to do with, on the one hand, the arrival of Norman delineations of property and, on the other, the disbanding of the monasteries that had worked in a bartering symbiosis with the people of the common landscapes of England.

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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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This is a strange time to be reading a book about risk, especially one in which the risk of a pandemic is a central concern. Many of us have been worrying about, and attempting to manage, risks every time we have left the house. One of the lessons of this experience has been just how bad we are at thinking about risk. In particular, we struggle to reckon with small risks that may have disastrous outcomes.

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The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel & Philanthropy by Paul Vallely

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December 2020, no. 427

Save the Children in Stockholm wanted to highlight the unfair distribution of global wealth, so it invented an online game called The Lottery of Life. This invited Swedes to a website to spin the wheel of chance. If you were born again tomorrow, where would you appear?

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The China Journals: Ideology and intrigue in the 1960s by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

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November 2020, no. 426

When the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) invited Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, to visit China in 1965, he jumped at the chance. It was a decision that all parties concerned came to regret. The eminent historian had a terrible time in China, ‘that land of bigots and parrots’. He didn’t meet the right people. He found no intellectual equals. The interpreters and guides assigned to the group weren’t up to the job. He nicknamed them Cement-head, Duckbottom, Smooth-face, and the Presbyterian.

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It is day one hundred and seventeen of the official ‘Shelter in Place’ order in Berkeley, California, when I finish Susanna Clarke’s surreal, heartbreaking novel Piranesi, having rationed the final pages over several days.

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In year four of their respective terms, George W. Bush and Barack Obama enjoyed a mixed press. Some accounts lauded them, others were sceptical. The assessments were uniformly partisan. The titles of contemporary books reflected how Republicans backed Bush (he was ‘The Right Man’), Democrats Obama (for successfully ‘Bending History’). Donald Trump, on the other hand, stands as one of the most vilified presidents in American history, from all points of the spectrum. Indeed, these books together make the case that the forty-fifth president is a man so psychologically flawed he poses a clear and present danger to American democracy.

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