Biography & Memoir

Three hitchhikers sitting on a dirt road in California, 1970.

Hitchhiking

Mike Jay

23 June 2022

‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ was always the first question you were asked by those who had never done it, but I don’t recall the issue ever coming up with fellow travellers. It was in everybody’s interest to strengthen the virtuous circle of trust; there was safety in numbers, and most people weren’t carrying much in the way of valuables.

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On Sylvia Townsend Warner

David Trotter

23 June 2022

On 2​ january 1931, Valentine Ackland sent her new lover, Sylvia Townsend Warner, a book about bisexuality. ‘After reading it carefully,’ she reported with evident relief, ‘I discover that you . . .

Albania after Hoxha

Thomas Meaney

23 June 2022

Albania​ was Stalin’s favourite example of total insignificance in world politics. Its fate was barely discussed at the wartime conferences of the Allied powers. Against considerable odds, and with . . .

Dining Room Radicals

Rosemary Hill

7 April 2022

Joseph Johnson​ was fourteen when he arrived in London from Everton, Lancashire in 1753. He came to be apprenticed to George Keith, a bookseller in Gracechurch Street in the City. This was Hogarth’s . . .

Walter de la Mare

Mark Ford

24 March 2022

‘Is there anybody there?’ the Traveller asks in ‘The Listeners’, Walter de la Mare’s poem from 1912. It’s a question that at first seems to go unanswered, for the mysterious silent inhabitants . . .

Always the Same Dream: Princess Margaret

Ferdinand Mount, 4 January 2018

Only the hardest heart would repress a twitch of sympathy. To live on the receiving end of so much gush and so much abuse, to be simultaneously spoilt rotten and hopelessly infantilised, how well would any of us stand up to it?

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On Not Going Home

James Wood, 20 February 2014

A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack.

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Desperately Seeking Susan: remembering Susan Sontag

Terry Castle, 17 March 2005

Afew weeks ago I found myself scanning photographs of Susan Sontag into my screensaver file: a tiny head shot clipped from Newsweek; two that had appeared in the New York Times; another printed...

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Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

I cannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

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A Feeling for Ice

Jenny Diski, 2 January 1997

I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white; white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It’s the best I could do.

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The Old Devil and his wife

Lorna Sage, 7 October 1993

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path, and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his.

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Too Close to the Bone

Allon White, 4 May 1989

Faust, despairing of all philosophies, may yet drain a marsh or rescue some acres from the sea.

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Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces...

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The Wrong Blond

Alan Bennett, 23 May 1985

On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off Newfoundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant.

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Unnerved by death threats and assassination plots, Robespierre acquired a trio of bodyguards armed with clubs. In the end, however, his undoing was not the work of a murderous stranger but of his adversaries...

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The Hierophant: Servant King

Michael Ledger-Lomas, 10 March 2022

The​ Queen’s Dolls’ House, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was put on display at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. A twee descendant of Victoria and Albert’s Crystal...

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Serious Mayhem: The McLaren Strand

Simon Reynolds, 10 March 2022

The Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren declared, ‘were anti-music and anti-business’, yet ‘God Save the Queen’ outsold Rod Stewart twice over. This was his knack, and his downfall: to take the uncommercial...

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Diary: Out of Sir Vidia’s Shadow

Paul Theroux, 24 February 2022

Ihad​ planned to become a doctor – I imagined working in a hospital in a tropical country like Dr Schweitzer. I graduated in 1963, but being unable to afford medical school I joined the...

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Diary: Scratched on a Stone

Philip Terry, 27 January 2022

Taking a leap in the dark – and is this not what the bounding horses lining the ceiling of Lascaux’s axial gallery ask us to do? – Jean-Luc Champerret proposes that the grids act as frameworks for...

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Diary: Selling my hair on eBay

Alan Bennett, 6 January 2022

29 May, Yorkshire. I’ve lost count of the number of times on TV I’ve seen the sequence whereby a dead lamb is skinned and the skin fitted onto an orphaned lamb which is then foisted on a bereaved sheep...

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At the Gay Bar

Andrew Durbin, 6 January 2022

At some point​ on a night out an older queen will swing down from the rafters to let you know you’re too late. Five, maybe ten years ago, he explains, it was much better here. The music was better,...

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Strap on an ox-head: Christ comes to Stockholm

Patricia Lockwood, 6 January 2022

The literary stomach of the world is a goat’s, not a hummingbird’s, and Karl Ove Knausgaard knows it. He tosses us crumpled newspapers, cardboard cups, grocery lists – all the detritus that makes...

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Sebald’s deep preoccupation is with what his character Jacques Austerlitz calls ‘the marks of pain’, psychological and physical, in human and other animals. These marks are indelible, and for some...

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Diary: Wrestling Days

Tom Crewe, 16 December 2021

Who cared if it was a low-budget British production, the sort that still tours provincial towns, advertised in newsagent doorways: to sit in the dark, to chew down a hotdog with scalding onions, to watch...

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No Innovations in My Time: George III

Ferdinand Mount, 16 December 2021

George’s defenders cannot have it both ways. Either they take the king whole, hot and strong and stubborn to the last; or they have to sideline him as an endearing nullity. To present him as a great...

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Reading books like this, I feel like a Philip K. Dick character in the grip of wild-eyed madness. I want to run around telling the authors to snap out of it, to stop wasting their time and their Sontag...

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Like Colonel Sanders: The Stan Lee Era

Christopher Tayler, 2 December 2021

The​ great realisation of the Stan Lee era at Marvel was that heroes didn’t need to be paragons. They could be anxious teenagers with money worries, like Spider-Man, or members of a bickering pseudo-family,...

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Life Pushed Aside: The Last Asylums

Clair Wills, 18 November 2021

I am haunted by the figure of Rolanda Polonsky, walking through the hospital corridors. If my eight-year-old self had opened the doors that frightened me I might have found her, back then, exactly as she...

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We must think! Hannah Arendt’s Islands

Jenny Turner, 4 November 2021

Thinking is what Arendt probably claimed to have been spending whole days doing: ‘the two in one’, ‘the soundless dialogue ... between me and myself’. She would be thinking, and she would be smoking;...

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On Gertrude Beasley

Elisabeth Ladenson, 21 October 2021

One​ of the last things Gertrude Beasley wrote before her disappearance in 1927 was an article called ‘I Was One of Thirteen Poor White Trash’. It came out in Hearst’s...

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Outside in the Bar: Ten Years in Sheerness

Patrick McGuinness, 21 October 2021

In Uwe Johnson’s work, perspective doesn’t come from a bird’s-eye view but from staying at eye level – from looking and never stopping. His characters are suspicious of any claim that there is...

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Craxton liked small jokes, hiding the date of a painting in the label on a bottle of beer, or turning his signature into part of the pattern on a cigarette packet. His art had become a quest for colour,...

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