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Writing Worth Reading

Indonesia Etc

Entertaining and informative review of Elizabeth Pisani’s book, Indonesia Etc. How can a country of 13,500 to 17,000 islands — counts vary — possibly hold together as a state? Not easily, is the answer, especially since Indonesia’s 260 million people are also divided by five religions, dozens of ethnicities and hundreds of languages. But somehow, the process of national and democratic consolidation continues (1,350 words)

How To Talk Like An Estate Agent

“If in doubt, add -ed. Call something a ‘two-bedroom flat’ and it seems plain, but a ‘two-bedroomed flat’ sounds more made-to-measure; that flat has been thoroughly bedroomed, twice. Turning ‘open-plan’ into ‘open-planned’ emphasises the ratiocination of the flipper at the very moment he rammed a sofa up one end of the kitchen, in order to bedroom the place up and add £50,000 to the asking price” (780 words)


Discussion of new books by philosopher Nick Bostrom and natural scientist James Lovelock. According to Bostrom, artificial intelligence will arrive towards the end of the century, rapidly outstrip human intelligence, and “shape the world according to its preferences”, which are likely to “involve the complete destruction of human life and most plausible human values. The default outcome, then, is catastrophe” (1,190 words)

“The Rainbow”, By D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence was over-lionised in the 1960s and is over-neglected now. He was a great but very uneven writer. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is arguably the most influential, and certainly the most notorious, of his novels, “but much of it now seems embarrassing”. Sons and Lovers, is many readers’ favourite. The The Rainbow, timeless and symbolic, is the book which “secures his claim on posterity” (1,764 words)

The Man Who Groomed A Nation

Jimmy Savile “does not belong among the amoral heroes of Patricia Highsmith, disposing of people without remorse in a meaningless universe. Rather, he inhabits the driven world of Graham Greene, where the protagonist is in a lurid and sweaty argument with his maker, trying to pile up credit points to balance the final ledger against what he knows full well to be his sins”. Review of Dan Davies’s biography, In Plain Sight (2,000 words)

Facebook: A Golden Age For Research

Internet platforms try to shape our moods and behaviour all the time. The difference was that Facebook told us about it — and was making a serious effort to understand how manipulation works. We need more of this, not less. “If anything, we should insist that companies like Facebook – and governments – perform and publish research on the effects of the decisions they’re already making on our behalf” (860 words)

Constant Lambert

Review of Stephen Lloyd’s “majestic and moving” biography, Constant Lambert. Ninette de Valois called Lambert “the English Diaghilev”. With de Valois and Frederick Ashton he founded the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Anthony Powell portrayed him as Hugh Moreland in Dance To The Music Of Time. His music was “tense, spiky, often melancholy, always essentially urban”. He died of exhaustion and drink at 45 (1,550 words)

Agent Storm

Morten Storm is “a former biker turned European militant Islamist blowhard, turned Al-Qaeda associate close to some of the most senior operational extremists in the world, turned spy, turned whistleblower”; and now the author of a memoir, My Life Inside Al-Qaeda, in which he recounts befriending and betraying Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Anwar al-Awlaki, slipping him a flash drive which allowed the CIA to find and kill him (1,300 words)

“Of Sexual Irregularities”, By Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham, philosopher of utilitarianism, wrote “voluminous manuscripts” about sexual freedom. He reasoned that nothing could be more conducive to human happiness than “all-comprehensive liberty for all modes of sexual gratification”. But for two hundred years his trustees and editors suppressed these papers. A first selection is at last appearing as a volume in Bentham’s collected works (1,630 words)

Alexander Pope: In His Own Image

Alexander Pope promoted his image literally and figuratively. He sat for more than 60 portraits. He was sculpted by Louis-François Roubiliac, who produced eight busts. Pope’s general intention was apparently to create an public image of himself in harmony with the classical aesthetics of his writing, and some distance from his physical form. A childhood infection had left him short, hunchbacked, and in constant pain (1,940 words)

The Obliteration Of A Person Pick of the day

A wife’s diary, as a brain tumour consumes her husband, artist and critic Tom Lubbock. “Tom is speaking to me less. The way his intellect is made manifest through language is being destroyed. Great chunks of speech are collapsing. Holes are appearing. Avenues crumble and sudden roadblocks halt the journey from one part of consciousness to the other. He strings words together like ropes across voids” (3,800 words)

Foyles Builds Literary Temple

London gets a new flagship bookshop. Foyle’s moves down Charing Cross Road into the former Saint Martin’s School Of Art. The old shop was a rabbit-warren. The new one will be more like a temple. “People are not going to make the journey here unless they think it will be worthwhile. Why do people go to Harrods, Fortnum & Mason or Hamleys rather than the internet? Because they think it is going to be an experience” (1,098 words)

A Giant Leap For Reportage

Norman Mailer’s account of the 1968 moon landings, “A Fire on the Moon”, written in haste for “Life” magazine, is a “modern classic” and a “stunning achievement”. “Imagine Laurence Sterne with a huge subject, a big advance and a looming deadline, and you have some sense of the conflicting pressures at work”. Mailer “evokes events from almost 50 years ago in such a way that they unfold again before our eyes” (2,400 words)

Politics Or Technology – Which Will Save The World?

Neither; but as to which will change the world, technology is way ahead. “China hasn’t changed much politically since 4th June 1989 when the massacre in Tiananmen Square snuffed out a would-be revolution. But China itself has been totally altered. A country of more than a billion people has been transformed by the mobile phone. Who needs a political revolution when you’ve got a technological one?” (5,000 words)

A Brief History Of Mathematical Symbols

“Few people knew that almost all maths was written rhetorically before the 16th century, often in metered poetry. Most people think symbols for addition, subtraction or equality had been around long before Euclid wrote his Elements in the first century BCE. No! There are no symbols in any early Arab algebra books. Nor do we find any in early European printed algebra books”. They first appeared in English in 1575 (840 words)

Literary Hero To Zero

On the rise and fall of literary reputations. Who now reads Charles Morgan, or Angus Wilson? Or Theodore Dreiser, once compared with Tolstoy? In the 1950s even Virginia Woolf seemed to be heading for oblivion, but was rescued by a surge of American university interest in the 1960s. The best recipe for escaping the abyss would seem to be a publisher willing to keep you in print, and the occasional film or TV adaption (1,500 words)

Odd Job Man

Portrait of “the world’s foremost slang lexicographer”, Jonathon Green, who has spent 30 years compiling dictionaries of slang. “When he finds an instance of the word ‘fuckadoodle’ somewhere predating the Oxford English Dictionary‘s, one imagines him doing a little air-punch in his lonely room”. His achievement is “incoherent but also magnificent: a cathedral of bin lids built on foundations of quicksand” (1,500 words)

Obituary: Rosemary Tonks

The poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks is dead at 85. She published briefly but brilliantly in the 1960s; she was “the toast of London’s literary parties”; but after her mother died and her marriage broke up in the 1970s she had a breakdown, disappeared, and lived for 40 years in Bournemouth as “the reclusive Mrs Lightband”, refusing all visitors. She declared her poetry “dangerous rubbish” and turned to religion (970 words)

Facial Recognition Technology

It’s getting scary. Facebook unveils technology which is better than humans at recognising faces. Tesco plans in-store cameras which will recognise customers and pitch products accordingly: “Brands deserve to know not just an estimation of how many eyeballs are viewing their adverts, but who they are, too”. SceneTap’s cameras tell you which nearby bar is packed with people of the right gender and age (2,100 words)

Pelican Books Take Flight Again

Orlando Figes, Bruce Hood, Robin Dunbar and Ha-Joon Chang relaunch the Pelican imprint after a 25-year absence. The first Pelican was George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide To Socialism, a best-seller in 1928. Freud’s Psychopathology Of Everyday Life flew off the shelves a decade later. Nostalgia has fetishised the brand, and small wonder: Margaret Mead, Virginia Woolf, Arthur C. Clarke were all Pelican authors (3,300 words)

Chetan Bhagat: Bollywood’s Favourite Author

Conversation with popular novelist who writes in English for aspirational Indians: “It’s not my first language, and for my readers it’s not their first language”. His characters are “emerging twenty-something urbanites trying to better themselves in the call-centres and academies of a liberalising India”; roughly equivalent to the Nick Hornby demographic. He will never win a Booker Prize, but his novels sell millions (1,040 words)

I Was Swallowed By A Hippo

From the archives. If you think you are having a rough day, this may help to put things in perspective. “It was as if I had suddenly gone blind and deaf. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout” (800 words)

How I Wrote The Luminaries

“I knew I wanted to write an adventure mystery. I knew I wanted to write a book set in New Zealand. The west coast gold rush of the 1860s presented itself quite naturally: a gold rush seemed a fine theatre in which to play out an adventure story. I started reading, beginning with gold-rush history, which led me to the nature of wealth, which led me to confidence tricks and scams, which led me to fortune telling, which led me to the stars” (830 words)

Why We All Love Numbers

Book introduction. Grab-bag containing lots of interesting nuggets. Pythagoras thought odd numbers to be masculine and even numbers to be feminine; we have the same instinct 2,500 years later. For a distinctive number, take a round number and add one — Levi’s 501, Room 101. “Eleven has just gone that one past 10. It has recognised that there is an order to things, and now it is exploring the distance beyond” (2,400 words)

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