Seamus Perry: W.S. Graham


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He began to try, in the poems he wrote in the 1940s, to make the difficulty of communication the whole point, transmuting his defensive belligerence into an extraordinary private language – the elements of which appear the same as those of the language we all use, so that it has a tantalising sense of something familiar but on investigation is completely elusive. They are the sort of poems you call hard. I don’t really know what to do with them, so I start playing games, like ‘spot the verb’.

Adam Tooze: Germany Divided


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There is much to admire about German democracy. It is flexible, open, constantly changing. The six parties it is now made up of broadly reflect the divisions of German society. The complexity is a reflection of reality. But can it produce leadership? The answer matters for Europe as well as Germany itself. A clear German position is needed on issues ranging from Brexit and the development of the Eurozone to climate change and security policy in the age of Trump. A strategic window of opportunity closed in 2017 when Emmanuel Macron waited in vain for an answer from Berlin for his Sorbonne vision of Europe’s future. Europe can ill afford further delay. It is possible that a reconfiguration of politics in Berlin will eventually produce a more decisive, more pro-European government. But that is speculation. And how long will it take?

Clare Bucknell: Nose, no nose


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‘When I came to Louisa’s, I felt myself stout and well, and most courageously did I plunge into the fount of love, and had vast pleasure,’ James Boswell wrote in his diary on a winter’s night in 1763, after an assignation with a beautiful Covent Garden actress. But the next day ‘came sorrow. Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhoea.’ The arrival of the Signor was heralded by ‘damned twinges’, ‘scalding heat’ and the excrescence of ‘deep-tinged loathsome matter’.

John Gallagher: Civility Held Sway


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Civility as a concept, or an ideal, didn’t take hold in England until the 16th century – when the national mood, insofar as we can speak of one, was a mixture of bravado and temerity. Eyeing the cultural achievements of France and Italy, and uneasily measuring themselves against the Romans and Greeks, early modern English thinkers worried that their customs, society and language were ruder and less polished than those of their Continental counterparts. The translator Thomas Hoby called for writers to translate important works in order to enrich their own language, so that ‘we alone of the worlde maye not bee styll counted barbarous in our tunge, as in time out of minde we have bene in our maners’. For Hoby and his contemporaries, civility could be a matter of the way people interacted, the ‘civil conversation’ prized by Stefano Guazzo, author of an influential book on manners and ...

Malcolm Gaskill: Magical Thinking in 1918


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In 2001 an architect called Danny Sullivan claimed to have found cine film of an angel while rooting around in a Monmouth junk shop. This was, unsurprisingly, a hoax, as were claims that Marlon Brando had paid £350,000 for the footage. But the alleged provenance was intriguing. Sullivan invented a psychical researcher called William Doidge, who had, he said, fought with the Scots Guards at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The angel had been caught on camera much later, in the Cotswolds in 1952. It’s a well-known story that British soldiers at Mons claimed they really did see angels – but that story, too, turns out to be unfounded. In September 1914 the Welsh writer Arthur Machen published a story called ‘The Bowmen’ in the London Evening News. In it, spectral archers from the Battle of Agincourt come to the aid of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons. ...

Andrew O’Hagan: Lillian Ross


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I’ve never met anybody who hated as many people as Lillian Ross did. She would count their names off on her fingers, regularly within spitting distance of them, and her voice wasn’t quiet and she wasn’t shy. Bending back each digit and making a face, she’d offer a defining word after each name: ‘Gloria Steinem – phoney; Janet Malcolm – pretentious; Renata Adler – crackpot; Susan Sontag – nobody; Nora Ephron – liar.’ Other hand: ‘Kenneth Tynan – creep; Truman Capote – leech; George Plimpton – slick; Tom Wolfe – talentless; Philip Roth – jerk.’ It was a mercy she only had two hands.