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)

Sex, Death And Dissonance

Anton Bruckner was “a credulous yokel who propositioned girls half his age; a death-obsessed ghoul who kept a photo of his mother’s corpse; a cranky, backwards-looking obsessive.” Perhaps a drunkard too. But his obsessive personality produced “some of the greatest, grandest and most ambitious symphonies” of the 19th century. His music, filled with “violent sonic terrors”, is “the cosmos in pain” (930 words)

Paolo Veronese: The Happiest Of Painters

Veronese was a great painter, but was he a great artist? To the modern eye there is too much “pomp and celebration” in his work; too little of the “calm or the contemplative”; he is an “upmarket decorator”. But there is “hardly an inch of lifeless canvas” in his pictures, and much to enjoy. As he himself said, accused of frivolity: “When I have some space left over in a picture, I adorn it with figures of my own invention” (2,160 words)

The Sacred In Art

Believers may wonder whether non-believers can “truly comprehend the meaning” of religiously inspired art. Non-believers should turn the question round and ask: What is it that is “sacred” about sacred art? There is as much transcendence in a Rothko painting or a Neruda poem as in a Bach cantata or a Dante verse. Great art is about finding meaning and purpose in life, even — or especially — if we ourselves put it there (2,800 words)

Eight Pronunciation Errors

Pronunciation evolves. Yesterday’s mistakes become today’s good form. “Wasp used to be waps; bird used to be brid and horse used to be hros. Remember this when the next time you hear someone complaining about aks for ask or nucular for nuclear, or even perscription. It’s called ‘metathesis’, and it’s a very common, perfectly natural process” (960 words)

Ukraine: The Do-Somethings Will Do Nothing

However sated you are with writing about Crimea, find room for this jagged, sparkling polemic against intervention: “The West is agreed on the Ukraine crisis. It agrees that something must be done, and it agrees that nothing can be done. Paradox is the stuff of foreign policy. It produces summits, holds conferences, forms and reforms contact groups … Some people just cannot bear to be left out of a fight” (1,120 words)

Mastering Rage In Prisoners

Writer with history of extreme anger finds new vocation, teaching self-control to violent prisoners. “I communicate by sitting with my shoulders open and directly facing him, which shows I’m giving him my full attention and taking the risk he poses very seriously, while also showing the rest of the group I have the confidence to manage his risk. Every nuance of my body language is critical right now” (2,760 words)

Obituary: Mavis Gallant

Her style was “meditative and allusive, dry yet lyrical”. Starting in 1951 the New Yorker published more than 100 of her short stories. “While in Europe, she did not realise that the work she had left with her agent at home had continued to appear in the New Yorker; the agent had pocketed the cash while informing the magazine that she was a recluse and telling her she had been rejected” (990 words)

Drip, Drip, Drip: Rain In Literature

It rains a lot in England. It rains even more in English literature. The Canterbury Tales, “the first great epic of English daily life”, has April showers in its first line. For Shakespeare, “the rain it raineth every day”. But the wettest century in literary history is undoubtedly the 19th. In Bleak House the rain falls non-stop for 11 chapters, pauses, and then falls again. “I am in love with moistness” says the narrator of The Mill on the Floss (3,075 words)

George Orwell’s Schooldays

Orwell’s essay on his prep-school days, Such, Such Were the Joys, is “sodden with self-pity”. The tales of squalor and violence are straight out of Dickens. Indeed, they are hard to credit — perhaps because Orwell made them up, for literary or political purposes. “There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Orwell’s account of his prep-school days was – how to put this? – a load of utter bollocks” (2,800 words)

Can’t Writers Make Anything Up?

Anthony Powell made a habit of putting friends and acquaintances, thinly disguised, into his novels. Kingsley Amis thought the technique showed a lack of imagination: “Can’t he make anything up?” Hanif Kureishi risks the same criticism with his latest novel, The Last Word which includes “what seems to be a fairly exact portrait of V.S. Naipaul”. The acid test is whether the book still works for readers who have never heard of Naipaul (1,200 words)

Banjo Paterson, Bard Of The Bush

Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, author of Waltzing Matilda, is “the most famous – certainly the most publicly performed – Australian writer who has ever lived”. He “looms as a giant in Australian culture”. He romanticised the outback and the rural life; a Kipling figure. According to Les Murray, Paterson “carries us into a legendary Australia he did much to create, a country in part bygone, in part fictional, in part still there”. (1,020 words)

Last Tales Of The City

Review of The Days Of Anna Madrigal, final volume in Tales Of The City, Armistead Maupin’s tapestry depicting almost 40 years of bohemian life in San Francisco. “His long, twisty narrative has encompassed homophobia, Jonestown, Aids, cancer, divorce, Republicanism and many other shocks and disappointments, all without losing its essentially sunny spirit”. But as Anna reaches extreme old age, the mood grows melancholy (1,000 words)

The Secret Of Modern Britain

Conversation with Rory Stewart, politician and romantic. I’m late to it, but no matter, it’s a terrific piece of talking and writing. On Britain: “We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere. The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don’t have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don’t have any. None of them have any power” (2,100 words)

Obituary: Peter Geach

Philosopher, Catholic, godfather of trolleyology. Philippa Foot borrowed and elaborated Geach’s question as to whether a fat man stuck at the mouth of a pothole should be killed in order to save the others inside. Geach thought not, “and used this example when arguing that, where a mother’s life is at stake unless her unborn child is killed, no intervention should occur, since their lives are of equal importance” (1,230 words)

Heroin: Art And Culture’s Last Taboo

We’re fairly at ease in discussing the role of psychedelic drugs in art. But heroin? Not so much, though it has a rich history, perhaps because heroin is such a deeply introspective drug. There’s no shared joy in it. “It wipes away the sense of responsibility to the collective. This is why heroin users are usually characterised as self-destructive narcissists who don’t really deserve to survive their habits” (4,000 words)

Latin Dictionary Takes A Century To Compile

Publication of the 17th and final volume of the British Academy’s Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources concludes a project begun in 1913 drawing on more than 1,400 sources including the Domesday Book, the Magna Carta and the Bayeux tapestry. “This is the first ever comprehensive description of the vocabulary of the Latin language used in Britain and by Britons between AD 540 to 1600″ (500 words)

Top Ten Films Noirs Of All Time

The Big Sleep leads the list. “The narrative’s defiance of our comprehension is part of the film’s sensational effect and its remarkable longevity: scenes, characters, moments and quotable lines float up out of the mesmerising stew and into your consciousness like fragments of a dream. The noir fused pulp detective fiction with the enigmatic form of German expressionism and The Big Sleep is an almost surrealist refinement of the noir genre.” (3,635 words)

Obituary: William Weaver

Greatest of all Italian translators. His skill in negotiating publishing contracts earned him the nickname in Italy of Il Vecchio Lupo, or “Old Wolf”. Umberto Eco said Weaver’s English version of The Name of the Rose was “much better than the original”. Weaver “made a fortune” from Rose, built an extension to his Tuscan villa, and called it “the Eco chamber”. He also translated Pasolini, Levi, Pirandello, Calvino, Svevo (1,250 words)

Washing Machines For Dirty Money

How British drug dealers use gambling machines to launder their money: “Dealers feed their drug money through the machines, losing a little and then cashing out with the vast majority of their stake. They can then collect a printed ticket showing they have gambled that day.” Bookmakers are limited to four machines per shop. The result: more betting shops in poorer areas, where the drug trade is busiest (2,380 words)

The Trouble With Democracy

A bad couple of months for Western democracy: NSA scandal, US government shutdown, Syrian fiasco. Are these structural problems, and are they getting worse? Yes and no. “The pattern of democratic life is to drift into impending disaster and then to stumble out of it. What is hard for any democracy is to exert the constant, vigilant pressure needed to rein in the forces that produce the crises. It is so much easier to wait for the crisis to reveal itself” (3,900 words)

“I’d Take Tea With Hitler”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett talks about The Pike, her biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio — warmonger, fascist, philanderer — which won this year’s Johnson non-fiction prize. Great attraction of D’Annunzio as a subject was that he formed “a hinge between 19th-century romanticism and 20th-century totalitarianism”. As for his character: “Disapproval is not an interesting response … I’d love to have dinner with him” (1,150 words)

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