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Writing Worth Reading

The Pope’s War

Counter-intuitive sketch of Pope Francis’s style. He may be easy-going in public, and uncombative on some doctrinal matters, but in private he is waging a “culture war” on the Vatican bureaucracy. “It looks as if the sort of Italian cardinals who brought down Benedict have been chased out.” But it’s not at all clear that Francis’s preferred alternative, a decentralisation of authority, will work much better (Metered) (1,790 words)

How To Ruin A Country: Kaiser Bill

Review of the third huge volume of John Röhl’s “awe-inspiring biography” of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was “anachronistic, racist and militaristic even by the standards of his day”. He believed a “final struggle between Germans and Slavdom” was inevitable. He got his war in 1914, but only because other European leaders were at least as belligerent. Afterwards, in old age, he urged the Nazis to exterminate Jews (1,350 words)

What Britain Owes UKIP

Nigel Farage, the much-mocked leader of the UK Independence Party, deserves praise as “a subversive who has reintroduced the vanished concept of political opposition into British politics”. He has spoken out not only against EU membership, but also against the large-scale immigration that has come with it, forcing the major parties out into the open on the great issue of the day (Metered) (1,370 words)

Jeffrey Archer’s Six Rules For Writing

Competition result. Inspired by George Orwell’s “Six Rules for Writing”, readers imagine the rules that other authors might have proposed. Reverend W.A. Spooner: “Be sure to merge all pisstakes”. Ted Hughes: “A poem without a creature is like a proverb without point”. Jeffrey Archer: “Avoid clichés like the plague”. P.G.Wodehouse: “Don’t have more than six rules. God went in for ten, but you mustn’t give yourself airs” (1,018 words)

Darwin’s Unexploded Bomb

Human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional”, with groups diverging strongly from one another in the past 50,000 years, and especially in the past 10,000. Late-20C science tended to view race as a cultural construct without biological substance; but as we learn more about genetics, we may come to see that races and civilisations are distinguished not only by culture, but also by genes (1,220 words)

Vape Alarm

E-cigarettes are “a near-miraculous cure for a big cause of death”. To oppose them because you think people shouldn’t smoke at all is like opposing contraception because you think people should practice abstinence. It’s the smoke in cigarettes that does the harm, not the nicotine — which on its own is no more harmful than caffeine. E-cigarettes are a gateway out of smoking, not into it (Metered) (1,090 words)

Back To The Future

Labour will win the next election in Britain, not because it is particularly strong, but because the compromises and confusions of the Conservative-LibDem coalition have divided and demoralised the Right. Once in power, Ed Miliband will be a populist — and popular — leader. Evidence of rising inequality troubles most voters, and the silence of Conservatives gives Labour a free hand on this great issue of our time (Metered) (1,350 words)

Life After Aids

Advances in pharmacology have beaten back HIV/Aids, at least in rich countries. Deaths are “incredibly rare” in Britain. “For those diagnosed with HIV now, life expectancy is similar to someone who does not have the virus. The medical profession considers HIV a chronic disease in the same category as, for example, type 2 diabetes. As a doctor I can tell you that, medically speaking, I’d rather have HIV than diabetes” (Metered paywall) (1,130 words)

Never Say Never Again

Gruesome recollections of covering the Rwanda genocide of 1994; massacres and remains throughout. But Rwanda recovered quickly and well. “Visitors to Kigali wondered at its tidiness, as if the Africans were so busy picking up toffee wrappers they didn’t have a moment to chop each other up with machetes again”. Could more determined Western intervention have prevented the genocide? Probably not (Metered) (1,230 words)

Scotland Wakes While England Sleeps

Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond “might just win his independence referendum in September”. More than 40% of decided voters are in favour of independence, and their side is gaining momentum in recent opinion polls. The nationalists argue that decisions affecting Scotland should be taken, as far as possible, in Scotland — exactly the argument that Britain’s ruling Tories make with respect to the European Union (1,860 words)

A Nice Gentle Murder

The Golden Age of English detective fiction, between the wars, was also a Golden Age for women writers: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh. “The detective stories of the interwar years might deal with violent death, but essentially they were and remain novels of escape. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor” (Metered paywall) (2,060 words)

Bullied To Death By A Desperate Bank

Thrilling read. When the Royal Bank of Scotland wants to call in a loan, the usual rules of business don’t apply. “Dealing with RBS feels like fighting a highly trained army skilful in psychological warfare: the removal of certainties and their replacement with threats, the opaque meanings, the unexplained substitutions of staff — new people well-versed in the dark arts of insolvency, covenants and barrack-room law (Metered paywall) (1,139 words)

Elements Of Eloquence

Review of a new book on English style that champions rhetorical elegance over plain words. “The shiniest piece of information I picked up is that, in English, adjectives go in this order: Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac” (Metered Paywall) (720 words)

It All Began In 1963

For British readers of a certain age, mainly, but deserving of a wider audience. The year 1963 was a watershed not only for America, with the Kennedy assassination, but also for Britain, where, with some help from the Beatles, John Profumo and Harold Wilson, public morality lost patience with the old hierarchical order of the 1950s and started to swing. No reference to Philip Larkin, oddly, save perhaps for the title (Metered paywall) (1,560 words)

Doctors Should Tell People They Are Fat

“For too long, my fellow doctors have pussyfooted around their obese patients, too scared to confront the, er, elephant in the room. They don’t want to cause offence. But nice euphemisms mean that people don’t confront reality. I’m not going to stop diagnosing cancer just because people don’t like hearing the dreaded word. So why should it be different when informing people that they are obese?” (1,710 words)

Assad Now Has The Enemy He Wants

Syria’s rebels have morphed into an Islamist alliance fighting for Sharia law, not democracy. The Islamists have the money and the guns, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Also the moral high ground: the “secular” rebels are seen as corrupt and opportunist. Of all the rebel forces, perhaps only ten per cent count as pro-Western, reasonably disciplined and militarily effective. The rest are jihadis and freebooters (Metered paywall) (1,160 words)

Are You My Death?

Man shot in Kenya’s Westgate massacre lives to tell the story. “The terrorist stood up again, then lay back down on his back, rolled over and shot me. I let out this groan. I could immediately feel the blood flowing. I twitched and pretended to be dead so he wouldn’t think I needed another shot. The only time I felt scared was when I looked into that guy’s eyes. After that I felt, what will be will be” (1,480 words)


Review of What’s in a Surname? A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker, by David McKie. “In the 17th century, under the influence of the Puritans, the practice arose of baptising children with scriptural or pious phrases annexed to their last name. Hence there are church records of such names as Preserved Fish, Thankful Thorpe, Repentance Water, Kill-sin Pimple, and Humiliation Hinde” (740 words)

Honesty About Syria

By threatening to intervene in Syria we encourage the rebels to fight on instead of seeking peace. “If we don’t have the motivation or the money to enforce it, we should make it crystal clear that we will not intervene in any significant way at all. Instead, we could encourage the remaining secular rebels and the Free Syrian Army to pursue peace instead of justice: after all, if no further assistance is coming, then they aren’t likely to win more territory” (1,360 words)

Meet The Gypsy Entrepreneurs

“Ask anyone from the settled community what Gypsies do for money and the list would be short: tarmacking, roofing, scrap-metal dealing, hawking or maybe horse dealing. This picture has a germ of truth in it. Many Gypsies still work as skilled labourers — but what’s remarkable is just how entrepreneurial they are, too. These are trading peoples, with a global attitude towards seeking work. Many are Freemasons” (1,350 words)

The Missing Middle

On the changing composition of British society: the rich are taking over, the middle classes are losing out. “The middle classes who can afford to pay for school fees for their children often do so at the expense of all their own luxuries — yet they know it will be money well spent. Nothing defines the life chances of a British teenager more than whether their parents managed to afford fees” (1,800 words)

What Do Conductors Actually Do?

Review of Inside Conducting, by Christopher Seaman. “The conductor’s work is not often discussed in such plain detail. Conducting is ‘like riding a horse not driving a car’. A tighter grip on the baton produces a harder tone. Keeping the arms moving upward very slowly can restrain an audience’s desire to rush to clap after a quiet ending. The conductor acts as the ‘artistic conscience’ of the orchestra and its human face” (820 words)

Benjamin Disraeli, “Unscrupulous Charlatan”

Review of two new books on Disraeli, flamboyant 19C British prime minister — “A bizarre, overdressed, bankrupt novelist” who ran for parliament to gain immunity from arrest, and so avoid debtor’s prison. He treated politics as a game; and, once he had won it, he “dismissed as humbug the idea that a prime minister should do anything, let alone concern himself with the details of policy or the drudgery of departmental work” (1,300 words)

Why I’m Hiring Graduates With Thirds This Year

“Nobody has any evidence to suggest that recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds. Some specialised fields demand spectacular mathematical ability, but these are relatively few. So my instincts suggest that if we confine our recruitment efforts to people in the lower half of the degree ladder we shall have an exclusive appeal to a large body of people no less valuable than anyone else” (600 words)

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