Agent Jack by Robert Hutton review – MI5’s secret Nazi hunter

The story of the spy who masqueraded as the Gestapo’s man in London – and the British plots to help Hitler

Fear of an enemy within has become a defining aspect of modern history. Britain, having “stood alone” against Hitler, took pride in its defiance of fascism – after the internment of Oswald Mosley and his goons it was assumed that the country was safe from the Nazi contagion. But following the release of declassified MI5 files in 2014 that assumption collapsed, for in them was revealed an enemy hiding in plain sight. Some were Germans domiciled in Britain, but most were ordinary British citizens willing to help and even risk their lives for the Nazi cause.

Robert Hutton’s deeply researched, often astounding book describes how a loose network of homegrown fascists plotted to undermine wartime Britain, and explains the ingenious way MI5 attempted to neutralise them. It places centre-stage ...

The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles review – Françoise Hardy’s memoir

David Bowie was smitten with her, she has duetted with Iggy Pop … but the French singer and actress, pop icon of the 1960s, seems eternally insecure

When Françoise Hardy was 18 and on the verge of international stardom as a singer and model, her grandfather asked her: “Are you happy, at least?” They were the first and only words she ever heard him speak – he had retreated into silence years before. His question was a pertinent one, though, for Hardy would go on to find that happiness was, for her, quite elusive. Both in her romantic and professional life she would suffer, either at the hands of others or else (she admits) from her own shortcomings. Her memoir, impassioned and honest to a fault, offers a lesson: that beauty, stylishness and talent are no redoubt against debilitating insecurity.

One can hear the shyness that afflicted her as ...

House of Nutter by Lance Richardson review – tailor to pop stars and gangsters

The remarkable rise and fall of Tommy Nutter of Saville Row, who clothed the Beatles, and his brother David, a New York celebrity photographer

When 25-year-old Tommy Nutter launched his self-named shop at 35a Savile Row in February 1969 he was the first new tailor to set up there in more than a century. “The Row” had never seen the like before, whether in the dramatic cut of the clothes (“Neo-Edwardian dandyism”), the bold style of the shopfront (huge plate-glass windows) or the louche clientele of pop stars, models, West End impresarios and East End gangsters who flocked to the showroom. Cilla Black was one of his friends and early backers. The Beatles, his neighbours at Apple Records a few doors along, would soon put the Nutter brand on the map by wearing his clobber on the cover of Abbey Road: only George, in gravedigger denim, failed to ...

The Neighbourhood by Mario Vargas Llosa review – scandal in a nation of gossips

The murder of a tabloid editor drives this busy story about sexual and political banditry set in 1990s Lima, from the Peruvian Nobel laureate

The high stink of something rotten comes off Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel of political corruption and personal duplicity. We are in Lima, Peru, sometime in the 1990s, when President Fujimori’s rule has descended into chaotic strife: blackouts, kidnappings and terrorist bombs have become the norm, while a police curfew keeps the populace in a roiling terror. Even the rich can’t afford to be caught on the streets after dark, which is why Marisa insists that her friend Chabela stays the night, sparking an erotic encounter that takes both of them by surprise. A tricky development, this, given that their husbands – industrialist Enrique and hotshot lawyer Luciano – are best friends.

Their secret affair is merely the first panel in a busy fresco of betrayal and retribution, though Vargas Llosa’s handling of his material ...

Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976-1991 by David Lodge review – plodding and self-indulgent

Where is the accomplished comic novelist in this over-detailed, prickly account, which has only flashes of moving writing and entertaining gossip

Henry James famously contrasted life as “being all inclusion and confusion”, with art “being all discrimination and selection”. I wish that David Lodge, a James aficionado, had heeded the latter part of that dictum when he was planning Writer’s Luck, the second volume of a memoir that began with Quite a Good Time to Be Born (2015). This book presents a writer who simply has no clue as to what he should leave out, or how to compress a narrative for the sake of pace. In his acknowledgements he thanks his agent, editor and others for their help, though evidently none of them troubled to tell him his book needed serious pruning.

Related: The interview: David Lodge

Continue reading...

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs review – musical madeleines

A collection, edited by Andrew Blauner and featuring Rick Moody, Jane Smiley and others, combines personal memories with Fab Four favesAnd still, the Beatles. Will we ever get over them? However many remasterings of the records there are, however many dramas, documentaries and memoirs of their life and times, it seems there will always be room for something more. The flood of material about the band will never slacken, because our appetite for it will never be sated. I fell ravenously on In Their Lives, even if I did balk at the subtitle “Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs”. While nearly all of the 28 essays here feature great Beatles songs (let’s draw the line at “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden”) it’s a bit presumptuous to claim greatness for the other half of the equation. Charmed as I am by David Duchovny (“Dear Prudence”) I’m not sure he’s ...

Wear and Tear by Tracy Tynan review – trapped in a parental horror film

Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy’s daughter delivers an astonishing family tell-all of narcissism and neglect Here is one peep behind the curtain I wish I’d never taken. Tracy Tynan, daughter of Kenneth Tynan and the writer Elaine Dundy, describes an upbringing of privilege and privation that deals a death blow to the character of both parents. If the Joan Crawford takedown Mommie Dearest is the template for the awful-mother showbiz memoir, Wear and Tear goes one better, or worse: this is Mommie and Daddy Dearest. You may never again read a family tell-all of such narcissism, of such subtle cruelty, of such toadying to the famous. I didn’t doubt a word of it. Ms Tynan had already laid the groundwork in 2001 by publishing her father’s diaries, which quickly became notorious for their candid revelations about his spanking and his sadomasochistic affair with a woman named Nicole. But his ...

The Art of Rivalry review – when Bacon met Freud and other creative friendships

How Picasso became pals with Matisse and why Manet slashed a Degas … all in Sebastian Smee’s study of painter friendsIn the end, the true artist goes it alone, no matter what the promptings of advisers, critics, friends. Especially those friends who are artists themselves, for without even knowing it they may also be your rivals. It’s not that the competitive impulse hardwired into so much artistic enterprise is necessarily a harmful one. It might be the thing that drives you on, that piques what this new book describes as “the yearning to be unique, original, inimitable”. But it is just as well to assume the brace position when the ambition of the artist collides with the duty of friendship. The Art of Rivalry selects four pairs of artists who were also pals and investigates the streams of influence that flowed between each pair. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Degas ...

The Nix by Nathan Hill review – a novel of extravagant appetite

A literary professor investigates the life of his estranged mother in an entertaining if self-indulgent debut novelBehold, another American monster is upon us, this one a novel of extravagant appetite that chows down a mighty spread of political history, social mores, media blague, online addiction, childhood grief, military misadventure, academic entitlement, and manages to make, if not light work of it, then something compulsive and crazily entertaining. One might tap Nathan Hill’s shoulders with the double-edged sword of “Dickensian”, given that his debut novel is stuffed with good jokes, family secrets and incidental pathos; it’s also windy with circumlocution and occasionally too intricate for its own good. The story is kickstarted by a righteous convulsion of fury. While strolling in a Chicago park, Governor Sheldon Packer – authoritarian demagogue and presidential candidate – is abused and pelted with gravel by a middle-aged woman. The incident, caught on a ...

The Muse by Jessie Burton review – a solid follow-up to The Miniaturist

A double portrait of hidden creativity set in swinging 60s London and civil war Spain from a writer who cannot be faulted for ambition The imaginative boldness that distinguished Jessie Burton’s 2014 debut novel, The Miniaturist, earned her critical raves and an international bestseller: her fans will be eager to know if she can reprise the trick with her follow-up. Having recreated the stiff-necked puritan society of 17th-century Amsterdam in her first book, in The Muse Burton has once again done the hard yards of research to reimagine not one but two distinct eras of the 20th century, and fused them to an intricate story of imposture. This is not a writer who can be faulted for ambition. In the summer of 1967 a young woman named Odelle Bastien applies for a job at the Skelton Institute, a discreetly upmarket gallery in St James’s. Odelle, having arrived in London ...

The Bitter Taste of Victory by Lara Feigel review – writers and artists respond to the camps and Nuremberg

Lee Miller, Billy Wilder, Martha Gellhorn and Evelyn Waugh were among the cultural stars who travelled to a nation destroyed and disgraced at the end of the second world war. Many were part of a project of cultural re-education

When Germany surrendered to the allies in May 1945 a debate was already under way as to how the country should be coaxed back to civilisation. For some it had gone so far down the road to infamy that there seemed no prospect of its being rescued. Others took a more compassionate view, and urged that a huge re-education programme be undertaken to expose German minds to ideas of peace and tolerance. One means of effecting this transformation was culture. Artists and writers would put shoulders to the wheel to help rehabilitate the country and its people – to cleanse its poisoned soul.

That was the theory. Lara Feigel’s absorbing book relives the era ...

West of Eden by Jean Stein review – an insider’s account of Hollywood death and dysfunction

Tragedy lurks around manicured lawns and marbled halls … monstrous behaviour, vanity and self-delusion suffuse this oral history of LA’s troubled dynastiesJean Stein’s study of troubled dynasties in southern California, and the Ozymandian palaces in which they lived and dreamed, brims with so much compelling material it’s hard to understand why it’s not a great book. She has interviewed butlers and hairdressers, artists and writers, sons and daughters. She has gathered a multitude of voices, some of them with amazing and horrible stories to tell, yet they are all reproduced in a monotone, which makes them sound flat and weirdly the same. The oral history technique worked for Edie, Stein’s celebrated life of Edie Sedgwick, edited with George Plimpton, but is more problematic here. West of Eden presents an insider’s view of Hollywood’s inglorious past, for which project Stein is especially well-qualified, being the daughter of Jules Stein, founder ...

1956: The World in Revolt and 1956: The Year That Changed Britain – review

Two books on a year of world-changing events, from Khrushchev’s secret speech and the Hungarian revolution to the bombing of Martin Luther King’s house and the Suez crisis War is the most decisive agent of historical change, reflected in the battalions of books regularly on parade in the shops. But once the wars have all been counted off, where can historians look for meaning? Increasingly, the tendency is to isolate a single year from which to command a view of the whole. It also goes hand-in-hand with the anniversary business. In the last few years I’ve read social histories of 1911, 1913, 1914 and 1936, all predicated on a sense that there was “something in the air”. That may not have the emotional impact of battle lines being drawn, and it also makes the historian work a little harder for a purchase on significance – trying to link the events in X with ...

Francis Bacon in Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt review – the artist’s life

In contrast to the bleakness of his art, this starry-eyed chronicle shows the painter could be genial, generous and waspishly funny
In the summer of 1963, exactly 200 years after James Boswell first met Dr Johnson, an impressionable young man named Michael Peppiatt was introduced to Francis Bacon in a Soho pub, the French House. It was a momentous occasion, for one of them at least. Peppiatt, a 21-year-old art history student at Cambridge, revered the painter, then (at 53) in the full flush of his talent, and was tickled to be taken under his capacious wing. He found himself not merely part of Bacon’s court on his noon-to-night jaunts around the fancy restaurants and louche drinking-dens of London but his chief confidant and protege. The photographer John Deakin, who had introduced them at “the French” that day, later remarked to Peppiatt: “It’s incredible, but you’ve become a ...

London Fog review – a city in the thick of it

Christine L Corton’s study of London’s once most notorious type of weather is absorbing and illuminating

Kipling described it as “black brutal”, Henry James as “glutinous”. Conan Doyle styled it “the opalescent London reek”. It turned George Gissing into “a sort of dyspeptic owl”, while according to Mark Twain it “nearly broke my heart”. Yet it had its fans: HG Wells thought it “grand”, and “to rejoice at mightily”. Fog has always held an ambiguous appeal in its stalking of the popular imagination. Sinister and malign, it has offered camouflage to thieves and murderers; our picture of Victorian street crime is peopled with shadowy figures immersed in fog. But it’s also enthralling and mysterious, softening the edges of reality until they blur into romance. A fog painted by Whistler or Monet is a thing of peculiar beauty.

Related: Review: Thames by Peter Ackroyd

Continue reading...









Orson Welles: One Man Band by Simon Callow review – tears, tantrums and bad behaviour

Was Orson Welles a frightening bully or a wayward genius? The third instalment of an epic biography

Simon Callow’s multi-part life of Orson Welles has become a labour of love – at times a chiding, regretful, head-in-the-hands kind of love, but predominantly one driven by a profound respect. The biographer has been on the trail of his subject for so long (he began writing in 1989) one might have feared he would succumb to boredom or exasperation, familiar hazards to many who had dealings with Welles in his lifetime. The project isn’t even complete. This third part, following The Road to Xanadu (1995) and Hello Americans (2006), takes us only to 1965; the last 20 years of the life are to be covered in a fourth and final instalment. Callow has stuck at his task with remarkable patience. His flamboyant tendencies as a performer have been reined in. This is ...

A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield review – childhood, the blitz, and the search for love

The yearnings of one young woman show how extraordinary an ‘ordinary’ life can be

On 18 April 1925 15-year-old Jean Pratt began a journal: “I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.” She honoured her intention, continuing to write about her life and times for the next 61 years, though she may have found the experience of rereading it a trial: these pages are too steeped in regret and heartache, in loneliness and longing, for anyone to feel very “amused”. They are touched at times with the self-doubt, if not the lyrical ingenuity, of a Home Counties Larkin. Yet they are also hugely engrossing, spiked with wit and charm, keenly observant and consistently humane. They have a sensibility all of their own.

It’s one I had already encountered in Our Hidden Lives, editor Simon Garfield’s earlier volume of diaries ...

The Past by Tessa Hadley review – a brilliant excavation of family and inheritance

Tensions run high among a Chekhovian trio of sisters on a summer holiday together

In her patient, unobtrusive, almost self-effacing way, Tessa Hadley has become one of this country’s great contemporary novelists. She is equipped with an armoury of techniques and skills that may yet secure her a position as the greatest of them. Consider all the things she can do. She writes brilliantly about families and their capacity for splintering. She is a remarkable and sensuous noticer of the natural world. She handles the passing of time with a magician’s finesse. She is possessed of a psychological subtlety reminiscent of Henry James, and an ironic beadiness worthy of Jane Austen. To cap it all, she is dryly, deftly humorous. Is that enough to be going on with?

These talents are on formidable display in her latest novel, The Past. It is the story of a family and a three-week ...

Going Up: To Cambridge and Beyond: A Writer’s Memoir by Frederic Raphael – review

Friends as well as enemies of the novelist and screenwriter must eat dust in his majestic wake

Writing a memoir is, for many, an acknowledgment that the living has given way to the remembering: a melancholy acceptance. Not for Frederic Raphael. He applies himself with a vengeance. No thresher has been more enthusiastic in reducing the cornfield of others’ reputations to size. Going Up, as its subtitle suggests, has a meaning for this writer far beyond recalling the groves of academe. He started out as a novelist and playwright before he decamped to the cinema and wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Darling (1965), an acidic portrait of celebrity shallowness starring Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde. The one time I have been at close quarters with him was 20 years ago at the leaving dinner of a literary editor we both wrote for. Freddie, making an impromptu toast, alluded to his Oscar within ...