"I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.” Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall
Contexts
The Talleyrand of East Africa

The Talleyrand of East Africa

“’Ullo, I am ze Breetish Consul.” My startled reaction revealed my prejudice. I didn’t cover it well. “You can’t be. You’re French!” “Eet is a long stohry. Shall we ’ave a drink?” We sat down. One by one the other members of the company came to join us, dressed in their evening casual best, and...
Civil rights and wrongs

Civil rights and wrongs

When James Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind 30 pages of letters titled Notes Toward Remember This House, an unfinished manuscript about the lives and deaths of three of his friends – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – civil rights activists, all of whom were assassinated in the space of...
Catching the past

Catching the past

In 2014, Otto de Kat wrote a short essay for PEN, where he gives a poetic yet also practical definition of the art and skill of writing historical fiction, of crafting novels whose life must be fictional, and yet feistily rooted in factual reality. This genre has been his own home since 1998, when he...
The opposite of Birmingham

The opposite of Birmingham

Paris is a collective masterpiece, perhaps the greatest in the world. Yet it is not a place for individual wonders, and many visitors may feel the kind of disappointment that I did on my first visit: of the world-famous attractions only the Eiffel Tower, the Opéra and the Louvre colonnade really live up to their...
A positive betrayal

A positive betrayal

“On one hand it’s a psychological thriller, so people read it fairly quickly. On the other hand, it’s a novel that withholds things from you,” says Julian Barnes of his Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending. In the thoughtfully crafted new film version, that withholding remains vital to the slow-burn reveal, but a...
Fearless flourish

Fearless flourish

Irenosen Okojie is a remarkable writer. I discovered this late last year, when her second book Speak Gigantular, a collection of extraordinary short stories – was submitted by Jacaranda Books for the Jhalak Prize, a literary award for writers from ethnic minority backgrounds. As one of the judges, I would carry two or three books...
The wisdom of parrots

The wisdom of parrots

Govind Puri, in south Delhi, is home to the modestly aspirational. People move through its alleys with a sense of purpose. Young men press by on motorbikes; screechy horns announce their arrival. Acrid fumes linger. Uniformed children bustle past. Houses are neat but ramshackle, their ceilings low. In the tiny, single-roomed home of Bhim Joshi,...
Peter Shaffer: An immortal life

Peter Shaffer: An immortal life

Our lives, our intellectual and emotional worlds, our humanity and imagination, owe a great, indelible debt to Peter Shaffer, for revealing to us the wonder and the dark mystery of our existence, for enhancing so starkly and so gently our knowledge of ourselves, of our history and society, its ethics, aspirations, the sheer mechanics and...
On borrowed ground

On borrowed ground

It is fair to say that the ancient Greeks gave to the literary imagination some of the greatest female characters, that they created, even, the very genre of a female protagonist. In a world presumed to be dominated by men, male thought and undeniably masculine politics, it is women who often offer the starkest, most...
Seduced by utopia

Seduced by utopia

“Now do tell me – what does it feel like to wake in the morning on a Tuscan farm?” Virginia Woolf asked a much younger Iris Origo in 1935. Invited to stay for tea at the Tavistock Square flat above the Hogarth Press, Origo, we may assume, obliged with a beautifully eloquent answer – after...