Are there any circumstances under which people won’t go on holiday?
In summer 1917, Russia was three years into a war that it was losing badly, there had been a revolution in February and there would be another one in October, and after that there would be years of civil war. Casualties in the army were shocking, as were civilian deaths from hunger and disease. Everything was chaotic and unstable; all that was solid had melted into air.
But when Lenin fled from possible arrest in St Petersburg in July 1917, leaving from Sestroretsk Station, the terminus for a small coastal railway, the trains were busy with holidaymakers:
It was the peak of the summer season and the trains were packed with middle-class passengers leaving the capital and going off to enjoy the seaside and the fresh air.1Continue reading →
Some years ago during one of the dull seasons—our work was very much on the seasonal side—my Waterstones branch entered a Book Tokens company competition on ‘opening lines’. We had to identify the opening lines of various more-or-less famous novels. We also had to come up with an opening line of our own. For whatever reason, ‘I’d been prodding the Frenchman with my boot all day to see if he was dead’ was the egg that my subconscious laid and we used that. It bothered me a little, it itched, and I knew that I wanted to make a story from it some time. Much later, the story suddenly came to me in the shower; at that time most of my best ideas, such as they were, seemed to emerge under hot water. I used to covet a pen with ink that would hold to the watery tiles, but that could be wiped away later. Continue reading →
We tend to think of fops as weak, coddled, over-groomed, and lacking in mettle. A man wearing make-up, a powdered wig and silks, speaking with an affected drawl and striking artful poses; a woman with towering hair and a lapdog, fanning herself with infinite boredom and leisure. The 18th-century gentry must have been be soft, lacking in grit, surely? Continue reading →
In the late 19th century terrorism and unrest were commonplace in parts of Europe and the United States. Anarchists were the main bogeymen, though there were numerous violently progressive movements, each hating the others. Anarchists were a mysterious and little understood underground, haunting the popular imagination, much written about in the newspapers and in novels and stories, both feared and fascinating. There was a certain dark glamour and they terrified beyond any rational danger. There were many, many more likely causes of death, but there is something intimidating about someone desiring your death impersonally, and apparently not fearing their own. We feel this now as much as then, and it’s as well to get some perspective. Continue reading →
Hitler once had a friend, of sorts: August ‘Gustl’ Kubizek. In the 1950s Kubizek wrote a memoir of young Adolf, a careful but somewhat sentimental and admiring one.
For a vital phase during the early years of his life, his late teenage years in Linz and Vienna, when we otherwise have tantalisingly little to go on, Hitler had a personal—and exclusive —friend, who later composed a striking account of the four years of their close companionship. This friend was August Kubizek. His account is unique in that it stands alone in offering insights into Hitler’s character and mentality for the four years between 1904 and 1908. It is unique, too, in that it is the only description from any period of Hitler’s life provided by an undoubted personal friend—even if that friendship was both relatively brief and almost certainly one-sided. For, like everyone else who came into contact with Hitler, Kubizek would soon learn that friends, like others, would be dropped as soon as they had served their purpose.
Dame Janet Suzman recently made some cock-eyed remarks about theatre being a ‘white invention’, it coming from the (ancient) Greeks via Shakespeare, provoking a lot of fury, angst and uncertain history. I’m not going to add to the rage, but I will say something about the Greek side of the question. Continue reading →
Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews. When the Wild West was also the Wild East. This review first appeared in Nudge Books (now NB). Continue reading →