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Writing Worth Reading

Emperor Augustus Makes For Thrilling Fiction

John Williams’s novel, Augustus, gives us “the emperor’s life as he wished others to see it”. Augustus is neither hero nor villain, but a man trying to make the best of a difficult situation. “Resolute action does not require the hope that human society can be improved permanently. A semblance of civilised order is worth striving for, even though sooner or later it will be succeeded by chaos and barbarism” (1,970 words)

Too Much Information

New novels from Martin Amis and Ian McEwan — Zone Of Interest and The Children Act respectively — share a common weakness: The fiction is overloaded with more fact than the stories can bear. Amis wants to show us how much he knows about death camps; McEwan wants to show us how much he knows about lawyering. McEwan’s book is competent but joyless; Amis’s book is “alienating when it isn’t repellent” (2,020 words)

The Menace Of Beatlism

The New Statesman reaches into its archives and pulls out a plum from 1964, which should serve as a caution to cultural critics for all time. Paul Johnson, later the NS editor, denounces The Beatles: “At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on The Beatles”. This was apparently, the “most complained-about piece” in the paper’s history (940 words)

David Ben-Gurion: Prophet In The Wilderness

From the archives. A 1955 profile of David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel and, with Chaim Weizmann, the country’s founding father. “If it had not been for Ben-Gurion’s obsession with the Negev, the Jewish armies might have cleared the hills of Samaria and removed that bulge which nearly divides Israel. Instead he insisted on pushing south to conquer a desert which never figured in pre-Israel maps of Palestine” (1,590 words)

August The Fourth 1914

Diary of a literary critic on the eve of World War One. A walk through night-time London. The air is full of excitement. The streets are buzzing. The public is thrilled. “I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are banded together to kill their fellow men” (1,100 words)

How To Win A Tour De France Sprint

It’s teamwork. You need a ‘leadout train’ of several riders. “The team’s designated sprinter is at the back of this train and is sheltered by the efforts of those riding in front to save his energy. With four cyclists riding in a line, a rider positioned four men back only has to produce 64 per cent of the power of the rider at the very front”. The front runners peel off one by one, leaving the sprinter to win (1,100 words)

The Lost World Of Stefan Zweig

Renewed enthusiasm for Zweig’s writing, stirred in part by Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, is carrying his reputation to greater heights than it reached in his lifetime. He was complacent about Nazism until it was too late, while easily panicked by smaller dangers. Contemporaries found something “contorted and unresolved” in his character. But we can empathise now with his circumstances and his sensibility (2,530 words)

Football Is Unquantifiable

Why does data-based predictive analysis work so well in baseball and so badly in football? Because football has far more external variables, many of them related to environment and emotion. “Baseball players can only perform actions that have a limited range of outcomes, making it not too dissimilar to games like chess. Loving football requires an acceptance of devastation or ecstasy, without warning, with regularity” (1,450 words)

First World War, The Battle Of Historians

We will get a more accurate picture of the First World War, now that the last participants are dead. While they lived, historians writing about the war paid “a natural deference” to their memories and sensibilities. But as history comes to be written entirely from documents, “there can be, paradoxically, far more rigour in the analysis, as sources are tested against each other, and the unreliability of active memory ceases to intrude” (3,600 words)

Gods In Bottles And Concrete Crocodiles

An exhibition of British folk art at the Tate Britain in London seeks to recover “an indigenous British culture” of the kind last celebrated a century ago before narratives of multiculturalism came to dominate public life. Perhaps the show portends, even unconsciously, “a new sense of nationalism”. At any rate, it is full of delights: “This stuff is beyond classification; that is part of its appeal; it is Britain’s feral past” (1,500 words)

The Last World Cup

Enjoy the World Cup while you still can. The clubs are fed up with Fifa, and so are the sponsors. “It feels like the end of an era. After Brazil 2014, unless there is urgent and fundamental reform of a kind that would seem unlikely, the tournament is finished. In Vladimir Putin and the secretive autocrats of Qatar, Fifa has the partners it deserves – and the world should turn away in disgust” (3,350 words)

How Mistakes Can Save Lives

What surgeons can learn from pilots. Pilots are surrounded by rules and systems designed to contain their mistakes; their fallibility is assumed. Surgeons are trusted to be the best judges of their situation, whatever the situation might be. So when Martin Bromiley, a pilot, lost his wife to a doctor’s elementary misjudgement, he decided it was high time to export some of aviation’s safety culture to medicine (6,580 words)

London’s Buried Diggers

When archaeologists excavate the foundations of present-day central London, they will find 1,000 mechanical diggers entombed in concrete. Note to the future: These are not sacrifices to some mechanical god, but the by-product of a fashion among the rich for adding basement swimming pools and media rooms. When the digging is done, the digger is stuck. You’d need a crane to get it out. Cheaper to wall it up and write it off (920 words)

Poundland Conquers The British High Street

Hard discounters crack Britain’s class code. Aldi and Lidl are “deliberately catering to middle-class tastes”. Poundland “boasts that a quarter of its shoppers are from the AB social group. Its most profitable stores are located in wealthier towns, such as Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, Guildford and Bath”. Brand-name manufacturers supply products in £1 sizes. Irony may play a part. “It’s cool to be cheap” (2,520 words)

Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

A new collection of academic essays on “Quotations From Chairman Mao” is full of interesting detail, but sadly lacking in broader perspective. “Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives” (2,140 words)

What’s In A Name

You can see why Józef Konrad Korzienowski chose to write as Joseph Conrad for an English audience; and perhaps why Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky published in France as Guillaume Apollinaire. But a writer generally gains from having a more distinctive, and thus more memorable, name. “If one is called Smith, it’s surely better to be a Zadie than a Jenny”. Better still to be China Miéville (1,048 words)

Tears Of A Clown

Chaplin was the true successor to Dickens, writes Peter Ackroyd in his biography, Charlie Chaplin. “Both produced urban fables that mixed farce with sentiment; melodrama with pantomime; comedy and pathos with poetry”. Chaplin was a great artist, but a sad and difficult man — with much to be sad about. His father drank himself to death; his mother was institutionalised with late-syphilitic madness (1,600 words)

Man In The Mirror; Self-Portraits

Review of The Self Portrait: a Cultural History, by James Hall, which argues that the history of the self-portrait is also a history of the social status of the artist. The genre was scarcely known in ancient art. It gained ground in the Renaissance, as artists became celebrities within their cities. It was exalted by Rembrandt, who “quite consciously turned himself into one of the first international artistic superstars” (1,490 words)

Why Allende Had To Die

Another classic from the New Statesman archive. Marquez was a superb journalist; this is one of his great pieces, on Allende’s end: “Chileans are very much like their country in a certain way. They are the most pleasant people on the continent, they like being alive and they know how to live in the best way possible and even a little more; but they have a dangerous tendency toward scepticism” (4,500 words)

Speech: On The Middle East

“The region is in turmoil. At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilising communities and even nations. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively” (4,900 words)

Interview: Stalin

Irresistible. The New Statesman reaches into the archives and pulls out a plum. H.G. Wells, in Moscow for a writers’ conference, interviews Stalin: “I am very much obliged to you, Mr Stalin, for agreeing to see me. I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt and tried to ascertain what his leading ideas were. Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world” (6,300 words)

Being In Your Twenties Is Actually Great

I never suspected otherwise, but still, it is good to have this confirmed by people on the spot. “You can marry whomever you want, regardless of their gender. You can move anywhere in the EU and be in your twenties there instead. And when it doesn’t work out, you can come home crying and have a complete life rethink and no one will think you’re a failure; they’ll just think you made the most of your youth” (1,230 words)

Leaving Afghanistan

Some good news from Afghanistan as Western troops withdraw. The presidential election went smoothly; turnout was heavy; the winner looks likely to be former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who is well-qualified if “super-temperamental”. According to a friend: “He is the sort of man who could easily order an execution in a fit of anger one evening, and deeply regret it when he calms down the following morning” (4,400 words)

How Heartbleed Works

“What the Heartbleed bug does is let anyone ping a server and make it throw up information from its memory, in 64kb chunks. The data that leaks is completely random – it could be anything from among the server’s memory at that moment – and 64kb isn’t much, but there’s no encryption on it, and it can be done as many times as possible. Passwords, usernames, security keys, drip by drip, it can all bleed away” (696 words)

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