Living Underground in a Secret State – Jan Karski, Nazi Occupation & The Holocaust

The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. (more…)

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Memento Mori: Matthew Parris, The House of Commons and the 1994 Death of John Smith

John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation lastweek, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. (more…)

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A Grieving Mother in Russia’s Patriotic War, in Grossman’s Life and Fate

If you listen to any BBC radio, it was hard to miss the big splash made a few months back by the Radio 4 serialisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic twentieth century masterpiece Life And Fate. So I endeavoured (rashly) to read it before listening to the programmes (which were issued as podcasts at the time). So I’ve started … and to be frank, it has taken a bit of work to get into – I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through the 850+ pages. Set around the time of the bloody battle for Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943), (more…)

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Orwell on The Unspeakable Wrongness of Taking a Life.

I get restless if I don’t have something to read on the bus. So I grabbed the closest thing on my desk as I ran out yesterday – which had been a recently thumbed anthology of George Orwell’s Essays. (I’d been looking at it because of the seminal piece Why I Write, recently recommended to me by the Real Grasshopper). I found myself, somewhat incongruously, sitting upstairs in the front row motoring down Park Lane, and reading a short account of an experience Orwell had in the British Imperial Police in Burma – starkly entitled ‘A Hanging‘. (more…)

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The intrusion of musical grace and Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. (more…)

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So did Sherlock Holmes (HonFRSC) REALLY live round here?

Sherlock Holmes is always with us. Every time I walk down Baker St (which is often because we live just behind it), the point is driven home. We love Benedict Cumberbatch’s contemporary take on Sherlock, but that’s not what I’m getting at. For a bit further up the street from us, there is in fact a “Sherlock Holmes Hotel”, believe it or not. But let’s be clear about this. There is no famous London Blue Plaque at 221B, because, of course, he DIDN’T exist. (more…)

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Step inside a story: a perfect metaphor

We’re back from a joyous couple of days in Oxford – including a happy return to the Museum of old Ashmole himself, stunningly redesigned and rebuilt. If you’re there before mid-Jan, check out the temporary exhibition of one my all time artistic heroes, Claude Lorrain.

But my purpose in posting today is a rather fun ad campaign around the streets of north Oxford. A pair of footprints… to begin with you’ve no idea what it’s on about. It could lead to a host of things. But like the best teaser campaigns, it works… you want to know more. (more…)

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