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February 21, 2013

Royal Bodies

cov3504By Hilary Mantel

Last summer at the festival in Hay-on-Wye, I was asked to name a famous person and choose a book to give them. I hate the leaden repetitiveness of these little quizzes: who would be the guests at your ideal dinner party, what book has changed your life, which fictional character do you most resemble? I had to come up with an answer, however, so I chose Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I chose to give her a book published in 2006, by the cultural historian Caroline Weber; it’s called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

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April 1, 2012

Marx at 193

By John Lanchester

In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order. Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I, on the other hand, am an empiricist. That’s not so much because I think Marx was wrong about the distorting effect of underlying ideological pressures; it’s because I don’t think it’s possible to have a vantage point free of those pressures, so you have a duty to do the best with what you can see, and especially not to shirk from looking at data which are uncomfortable and/or contradictory. But this is a profound difference between Marx and my way of talking about Marx, which he would have regarded as being philosophically and politically entirely invalid.

Consider these passages from The Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with Engels in 1848, after being kicked out of both France and Germany for his political writings:

Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.

Capitalism has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.

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March 2, 2012

Lost Charlotte Brontë short story to be published

A short story Charlotte Brontë wrote for a married teacher with whom she fell in love is to be published for the first time after it was found in a museum. Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

A short story Charlotte Brontë wrote for a married teacher with whom she fell in love is to be published for the first time after it was found in a museum.

By Murray Wardrop

The work entitled L’Ingratitude is penned in grammatically incorrect French and is the first known piece of homework set by her Belgian tutor Constantin Heger.

Brontë, who studied under Heger in Brussels alongside her sister Emily, became infatuated with the married tutor, writing several love letters to him after returning to England.

The manuscript was discovered by Brian Bracken, a Brussels-based archivist and Brontë expert, in Belgium’s Musée Royal de Mariemont.

The story was last heard of in 1913, when it was given to a wealthy Belgian collector by Heger’s son, Paul, Mr Bracken said.

Writing in the London Review of Books, which will publish the story this week, Mr Bracken said: “By all accounts a gifted and dedicated teacher, [Heger] gave Emily and Charlotte homework … based on texts by authors they had studied in class.

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November 23, 2011

The fight hasn’t gone out of literature just yet

The row between Bernard-Henri Lévy, left, and Michel Houellebecq kept Paris entertained for much of 2008. Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

Niall Ferguson’s spat with critic Pankaj Mishra is the latest in a long line of literary feuds.

By Robert McCrum

“I will hound him in print in a way he has never experienced before.” Professor Niall Ferguson’s declaration of war on critic Pankaj Mishra for a hostile notice in the London Review of Books will have brought some pre-Christmas cheer to those who row in the galleys of literary journalism.

For a moment it seemed as if this would be the year in which peace broke out on the slopes of Parnassus. In May, Theroux shook hands with Naipaul. In America, the critic Dale Peck made up with his long-term foe, “the worst writer of his generation”, novelist Rick Moody.

So, thank God for Prof Ferguson’s thin skin. The only question is: will this “spat” descend into a full-blown “feud”? In the taxonomy of literary bust-ups, which takes in Dickens v Thackeray and Henry James v HG Wells, there are three basic categories.

First, there’s the Row-Literary. This is really no more than the cost of doing business in Grub Street. The Row-Literary is usually inspired by a bad review. John le Carré’s review of The Satanic Verses in the Observer is a locus classicus.

A small domestic incident quickly became an international bushfire when lifelong literary fire-raiser Christopher Hitchens merrily chucked kerosene on some smouldering embers. Feud watchers will know that it’s the sign of a really good literary row when outsiders get dragged in.

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November 21, 2011

Four historians, two arguments, nobody dead. Does it matter? Well, yes

The argument between Niall Ferguson (pictured) and Pankaj Mishra shows the difficulty of discussing imperialism. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

Whatever political side you’re on, history cannot be taught as lists of grievances and comforts.

By Ian Jack

Dr David Starkey rarely disappoints as a controversialist, so it is no surprise he thinks most of Britain is a white monoculture – “unmitigatingly white”, he told a conference this week in London. The debate had been about the national curriculum, which Starkey said needed a “serious focus on our own culture”.

Another participant, Dr Joya Chatterji, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wondered about that – wasn’t Britain rather diverse? Absolutely not, Starkey said: “You have such a series of assumptions … a kind of Ken Livingstone-esque view of rainbow Britain.” Wherever he went, he said – to Yorkshire, to his birthplace in Westmorland, to Kent, or on holiday in the south-west – he found nothing but people the same colour as himself and all previous Starkeys.

By Yorkshire, he clearly didn’t mean the ex-industrial cities and towns of the West Riding. One imagines a pale hiking party climbing Pen-y-ghent with blindfolds issued on the way back to Leeds.

Chatterji is an Indian historian. In the same week another spat between an Indian writer and a British historian broke out in the London Review of Books. Pankaj Mishra had written a scalding piece on Niall Ferguson and his latest book, Civilisation: the West and the Rest. Ferguson is a professor at Harvard, well known in this country for his TV documentaries and his pugilistic approach towards anti-imperialism. He was furious with Mishra’s review because, he wrote, it amounted to “a crude attempt at character assassination, which … strongly implies that I am a racist”. He demanded an apology. None came, though in a note appended to Ferguson’s letter, Mishra said the professor was “no racist”, but rather a kind of fashion victim to current beliefs that the west’s heyday was over and that its passing should be lamented and its triumphs acknowledged.

You might be forgiven for wondering how much any of this matters to anyone outside the combatants: four historians in two arguments, nobody dead.

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November 15, 2011

Niall Ferguson v Pankaj Mishra: battle of the historians

It's Mishra v Ferguson Photograph: Corbis; Christian Sinibalde

The two academics are having a spat. Is it time for them to step outside and settle it once and for all ?

ByPatrick Barkham

It is shaping up to be the tastiest historical scrap since Rob Newman’s comedy professor character compared the girlfriend of David Baddiel’s don to Peter Beardsley. The warring academics, beloved of 1990s students for their “that’s you, that is” repartee, have made way for Niall Fergusonand Pankaj Mishra, after the latter likened Ferguson to Tom Buchanan in the Great Gatsby.

As with all the best academic spats, spectators are advised to equip themselves with a dictionary and a history degree to follow the action.

Mishra, the Indian author and essayist, argued in the London Review of Books that Ferguson was “homo atlanticus redux”, a “retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past” whose books “are known less for their original scholarly contribution than for containing some provocative counterfactuals”.

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October 27, 2011

Peter Campbell obituary

Peter Campbell

Prolific writer, resident designer and art critic for the London Review of Books.

By Diana Souhami

Peter Campbell, who has died of cancer aged 74, was the resident designer and art critic for the London Review of Books. He worked for the magazine from its first appearance in 1979 and wrote more than 300 pieces, mainly about art but also, eclectically, about such things as escalators, weeds, bicycles, bridges and hearts. He was the magazine’s most prolific contributor. Frank Kermode perhaps delivered more words than he, but fewer articles.

Each fortnight from 1996 onwards, Peter did a cover illustration for the LRB. He came up with a seemingly infinite array of unpredictable images: a yacht and a starfish, a tram, two knickerbocker glories, a game of dominoes, a man walking past a lighted window at night, umbrellas in the rain and a plug in a wall socket (switched to on). The immediate freshness, colour, playfulness and surprise of these covers belied their technical skill, erudition and command of detail and artistic reference.

There have been two gallery exhibitions of his work in London, and another is in preparation in Wellington, New Zealand, for next year. Seeing and drawing were indivisible for Peter. When on holiday in France, he sent postcard watercolours to friends. The last one I received was of a woman in a hat sitting on a bench and holding a live chicken. “No, there is nobody like this here,” he wrote, “but my mother did have a pet bantam that sat on her lap.”

Domestic images inspired him. He described the LRB job as perfect for him and his “absurd good fortune”. It allowed his talent and years of expertise to come together.

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