My Old Dressing Gown

or A Warning to Those with more Taste than Money   This, one of Diderot’s most light-hearted pieces, was written as a note of thanks to Madame Geoffrin, a wealthy patron who had sent him a new dressing gown along with some pictures and ornate furniture in return for his help in the matter of…

Praise for the Siesta

I’m no fan of the term “downtime” which reinterprets leisure as a kind of absenteeism from productivity (by analogy with outages in industrial systems and power networks), and only grudgingly concedes that “human capital” needs to “resource” itself. Many cultures across the world, not least those around the Mediterranean, long ago adapted to the human…

When doctors die

When Paul Kalanithi’s short (unfinished) memoir When Breath Becomes Air was released in early 2016, it went on to become, with some assiduous marketing, a non-fiction bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. The story it tells is a poignant one, of final acceptance of a fatal illness and marital reconciliation, while offering a very…

Music and metabolism

This tongue-in-cheek homage to the Indonesian composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur was written after I visited him in April 2009 in his home city of Surabaya, where he very kindly put me up for the night in his modest kampong house and showed me around the city. Born in 1935, Slamet owed his interest in music…

Safeguards and salvage

Updated version Adam Kirsch (born 1976) is an American poet and literary critic whose work is distinguished by its scope and ambition, its continuing appraisal of the modernist movement and its growing interest in religious writings (as opposed to literary ones): Kirsch’s intriguing daily readings of the Talmud can be found on the Tablet website….

Irony lady

Living under Mrs Thatcher Phyllida Lloyd’s 2011 film The Iron Lady won Meryl Streep the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Twenty-five years after she has was ousted as prime minister, Thatcher’s impact on British life continues to polarise opinion. She was leader of the Conservative Party but her policies were…

The White Cities

by Joseph Roth   I became a journalist one day out of despair when I realised none of the other professions could satisfy me. Not one of them. The generation that marked the beginning and end of puberty by scribbling verses wasn’t mine, and I didn’t belong either to the very latest, the generation that…

Mad on Metrics

As the Indo-European languages tell us, medicine and religion have much in common, not least in offering a measure of salvation to the sinful. In her ambitious novel Corpus Delicti (English title: The Method), the socially committed German novelist Julie Zeh considers how much personal liberty we would be prepared to forego in a future…

Madder and indigofera

A professional visit to St Lucia, 2009 Our unexceptionally torpid meeting at the Ministry of Health on the Castries waterfront was enlivened by one of the beautiful local crested hummingbirds hovering in a blur of blue for a few moments outside the plate glass of our office on the fourth floor.               It brought to…

Picking Olives in Apulia

Over the past two years the olive plantations in the province of Lecce and other parts of Apulia have been attacked by a proteobacterium never previously seen in Europe known as Xylella fastidiosa. Up to a million trees are thought to be affected, with withering of the growth shoots rapidly leading to tree collapse. The…

Where grass is greener

Nature Writing in 2014 1 Philip Hoare’s previous book Leviathan, or The Whale—which won the 2009 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction—was dominated by one big idea, as advertised in its title; The Sea Inside starts off as an exploration of the big idea’s medium, the vast connected body of salty water on our planet that…

From Haruspicy to Detox: Lecture Puts Liver in Spotlight

Interview with Jody Becker – The Liver Meeting Today Sunday, November 9, 2014, p. 16 Science journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ recent book Anatomies (2013), supposedly an “eye-opening tour” through the secrets of the body, doesn’t even have a chapter-heading for the liver. For Iain Bamforth, MBChB, DLitt, this omission is notable, if not perplexing. He will address…

Empurpled

If every poet’s work has its chromatic wavelength, one that could be played on Rimbaud’s mystical organ for synaesthetic vowels, then Georg Trakl monopolizes the far end of the spectrum, lilac shading into violet into intense near-blackness…

Radical Kleist

A New Biography of Heinrich von Kleist Two hundred years ago, on a mild November day on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee near Potsdam, Heinrich von Kleist shot Henrietta Vogel, terminally ill (according to her doctor) with what was probably endometrial cancer, then himself. She was 31; he was 34. The local church book…