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22-23 April


When novelists were treated like rock stars

“There was a moment when novelists were sexy,” says Robbie Millen in The Times. “Martin Amis – phwoarrrr!… Ian McEwan – woof!” The reading public had such a thing for “round-shouldered intellectuals in corduroy jackets” that they became the subject of gossip columns. The peak of this literary sexiness came with the launch of Granta’s “Twenty Under Forty” in 1983. This list of the best young British novelists featured a formidable cast of literary stars: Salman Rushdie, already a Booker winner; five other eventual winners including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro; writers like William Boyd and Rose Tremain, who are still writing bestsellers 40 years on.


The warlord who built Saudi Arabia

How did Saudi Arabia go from neglected wasteland to global powerhouse in barely a hundred years? It was all down to one man, says Steve Coll on Empire: the charismatic tribal warlord Abdulaziz Al Saud. At the turn of the 20th century, his clan was in exile in Kuwait, “plotting a return” to a region they’d previously ruled. Saud was a formidable battle leader, at a time when war in Arabia consisted of a “bunch of malnourished men” charging into one another’s camps and trying to chase their enemies away. So when in 1902 he marched his clansmen across the desert to the mud walls of his ancestral kingdom – “not much to look at, but meaningful to him” – he vanquished the tribe that occupied Riyadh with ease. That was “the birth of modern Saudi Arabia”. The new King devoted the next two decades to violently completing his takeover of the Arabian Peninsula and indulging his three great pleasures in life: “women, perfume and prayer”.

Quirk of history

My parents – a British Army dentist and nurse stationed in Cold War-era West Berlin – used to go on dates to East Berlin, says James Jeffrey in The Spectator. Despite the possibility of a “third world war”, there was an agreement that allowed officers to cross the divided city. At the sight of a mess-kit-clad British officer with his sweetheart in a ball gown, “Russian and East German soldiers threw up smart salutes”. When they went into restaurants, the resident band would strike up the British national anthem. The “absurd romance” of it all had to end before midnight, however – when, Cinderella-like, “they scampered back through Checkpoint Charlie to avoid causing a diplomatic crisis”.


When audience members in Manchester brought the Whitney Houston musical The Bodyguard a halt earlier this month – wailing the “And Iiiiiiiii” from I Will Always Love You – they became part of a long tradition, says Josh Spero in the FT. Theatregoers “clapped and booed” performances in Shakespeare’s time, even “attacking the fixtures and fittings” when particularly displeased. Beethoven’s seventh symphony was such a hit at its premiere that the audience “immediately demanded an encore of the dance-like second movement”. It was boring old Wagner who established the idea that “the work of art is holy”: at his opera house at Bayreuth, the composer insisted the lights be dimmed during performances so that audience members wouldn’t distract each other. “In fairness, if you’d written Parsifal you’d also want the audience to shush.”


quoted 22.4.23

“I think you will find that the sun is always shining in my books – a state of affairs which minutely lifts the spirit of the English reader.”

Ian Fleming

Staying young

Back in 2018, says David Merritt Johns in The Atlantic, a Harvard doctoral student named Andres Ardisson Korat came to an unusual conclusion: among diabetics, “eating half a cup of ice cream a day” lowered the risk of heart problems. The idea that a treat “loaded with saturated fat and sugar” might actually be good for you “raised some eyebrows at the nation’s most influential department of nutrition”, so they sent him away to do some more digging. Was there some dodgy data, perhaps, or a “hidden source of bias” in his method? But all his attempts to debunk his own finding were in vain. “The ice-cream signal was robust.” And the weird thing is, Korat is far from the only scientist to discover the “shimmer of a health halo around ice cream”. But for some reason people “don’t want to talk about it”.


The apartment

This third-floor flat in Maida Vale, west London, has a spacious bedroom – large enough to fit a desk – an en suite bathroom and an airy, modern kitchen with a large island unit. The Grand Union Canal and Hyde Park are both a short walk, and Warwick Avenue and Westbourne Park Tube stations are six minutes away. £525,000.

The penthouse

You may recognise this Upper East Side penthouse as Kendall Roy’s swanky New York pad in Succession. The sprawling interior is set across three storeys, with five bedrooms, a private lift, a sculptured staircase and floor-to-ceiling windows throughout offering panoramic views over the Manhattan skyline. It also has 3,500 sq ft of outside space, including a massive roof terrace 450ft above the city. $29m.



quoted 23.4.23

“The English like eccentrics. They just don’t like them living next door.”

Julian Clary