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How Mary-Kay Wilmers Became Britain’s Most Influential Editor

As newspapers and magazines flounder, The London Review of Books has flourished by championing intellectual debate.

Credit... Nadav Kander for The New York Times

Supported by

By Wyatt Mason

  • Published Oct. 24, 2019 Updated Oct. 25, 2019

O n an unusually sunny, cool summer day in London, Mary-Kay Wilmers, 81, was at work in a large, light-filled loft in Bloomsbury, home to the offices of what she calls “the paper” and its readers call the L.R.B.: The London Review of Books. Petite, silver hair cut distinctively in a short bob, Wilmers had brought a copy of the latest issue — Volume 41, Number 13 — to a bright back room and a desk laden with current British newspapers and magazines. On the cover of The Sun, a photo of Taylor Swift adjoined the headline “Migrant’s 3,500-ft Plunge: Falling Jet Stowaway Lands 3ft From Sunbather.” On the cover of The Times, next to a close-up of a young woman delighting in a rainbow ice pop, ran the headline “Oxfam Staff Still Offering Aid for Sex, Report Claims.” Wilmers’s copy of the L.R.B. featured no photos of women on its cover. Instead, a painting, unblemished by text, depicting an early summer evening in London: dirty pink twilight dissolving behind a stand of trees, deep, unnatural blue overtaking the sky, two silhouetted birds coursing above overground wires. Pretty, striking and, when read with the hot pink headline incised above it — “The Sun Sets on Britain” — a different picture altogether.

“I just liked it,” Wilmers said of the headline, glasses halfway down her nose. “It was funny, and I’m a big sucker for funny” — the sun never sets on the British Empire — “not to mention appropriate.” Appropriate because, for three years, Brexit had been running down the doomsday clock, and Conservative Party elections were three weeks away. With 67 percent of the vote in early polling, the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson (christened “the blond beast of Brexit” by the British poet and sometime-L.R.B. contributor Heathcote Williams) was sure to assume the party leadership and, to the astonishment of almost everyone in England, the prime ministership .

Wilmers, who for 27 years has been the editor of the L.R.B. — this month marks its 40th anniversary — was worried about the headline because some of her editors had expressed vigorous dissent. “We’ve worked together, most of us, for a long time,” Wilmers explained in her precise, lilting syntax, “so we understand each other. I certainly was worried they were right.” The headline Wilmers liked didn’t correspond to a particular article or evoke a general theme. Rather, the 40 pages of the July 4 issue delivered the L.R.B.’s routine shuttle from politics to personal essay to history to literature, philosophy, economics and art — but without a piece directly on the darkening of British prospects.

“And,” Wilmers said, nodding toward the loft and her colleagues, “they thought that was really bad.”

Hadn’t there been other L.R.B. headlines that didn’t point to a particular piece?

“Well,” Wilmers said, “I think that was the first time.”

[The illustrated guide to Brexit.]

As newspapers and magazines experience diminishing revenue, plunging circulation and attacks from both terrorists and government leaders, the L.R.B. has not merely survived but also flourished, and its circulation has risen consistently since 1985, to its current 78,000 — substantial in a country where the glossy men’s magazine Esquire reaches 57,000 — by doing the things readers are said not to be interested in anymore.

During its life, the L.R.B. has published more than 16,000 pieces, 10,000 of them book reviews — a misleading label. An L.R.B. review is an occasion for an essay on a subject prompted by a new book, not merely an evaluation of its particular qualities. Even so, as Wilmers wrote in the late 1980s , “no one would deny that reviews are by definition parasitic, as well as being quicker and easier to write, but a review can still be more accomplished and more thoughtful than the book on whose existence it depends.”

The first issue of the L.R.B., from 1979, included an article by a Cambridge economist on the benefits of leaving the European Union but arguing nonetheless that England remain; considerations of novels by two Nobel Prize winners; new poems by a third Nobelist as well as by the poet laureate of England; a review of D.H. Lawrence’s letters; and another of an edition of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which the critic calculated Puck’s speed as he “put a girdle round about the earth/in 40 minutes” (somewhere between five and 10 miles per second, it turns out).

“For me, the L.R.B. provided the opportunity as a teenager to dive into subjects that I would never consider tackling,” says Rory Stewart, a contributor to the paper and a former Conservative member of British Parliament who is now running for mayor of London. “Euthanasia; an essay on the late Middle Ages; reflections on the politics of a country I hadn’t been considering; or just some beautiful writing about fiction: the L.R.B. is the last great possibility in Britain for people to imagine what it might be like to be a public intellectual.”

Wilmers has often said in print, repeating a variation of it to me, that the L.R.B. was the creation of its co-founder, Karl Miller, a London literary editor, and that she “kept it up” after his departure, in 1992. “Certainly it wasn’t my intention to change it,” she writes in the introduction to “London Review of Books: An Incomplete History,” published this month.

The novelist and journalist John Lanchester, a contributor to the L.R.B. for 32 years who started out, as many of the paper’s editors have, as an editorial assistant, disputed Wilmers’s claim. “It isn’t even slightly true for Mary-Kay to say that about merely perpetuating what Karl brought,” Lanchester wrote in an email. “They had worked together for a long time already, and the editorial character of the L.R.B. was always an amalgam. Karl’s paper had more literary-critical pieces than Mary-Kay’s. You can see the paper becoming more political and historical under her — differences of emphasis and degree rather than kind.”

Without question, the political profile of the L.R.B. has risen during Wilmers’s tenure, with a routine focus on foreign affairs, ideological debate and national crises. “Mary-Kay gets up in the morning,” says Andrew O’Hagan, also a three-decade contributor to the L.R.B., “and wonders if there isn’t someone somewhere who might write a first-rate piece on the relationship between Isis and the Taliban, or the queen’s position in the Brexit debate, or the zeal to abolish guns in New Zealand, or the pathos of Michelle Obama.”

Wilmers’s writers vary widely in their backgrounds and their politics — itself an unusual quality in the world of magazines, where left or right tends to define most publications. That mix has seen the L.R.B. generate discussion well beyond its expected borders and out of proportion to its relatively modest circulation. Stewart — who is historically conservative and pro-Brexit — wrote in 2009 about the American counterinsurgency-warfare strategy in Afghanistan that, he says, has been on syllabuses of military colleges in Britain. A 2011 review by Pankaj Mishra of “Civilization,” a book about the global dominance of Western societies written by a professor at Harvard, Niall Ferguson, became international news when Ferguson threatened libel (he accused Mishra of suggesting that he was a racist who whitewashed imperialism); Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote an ambivalent assessment of “Between the World and Me,” by the cultural critic Ta-Nehesi Coates, in 2015. (“I was swept away by the incantatory momentum of the prose,” Williams wrote, “but I was troubled by what was left out in the rush to take umbrage.”) That same year, when Seymour Hersh disputed the White House account of the Navy Seals raid that killed Osama bin Laden, insisting that Pakistan must have been involved, the article was so widely read that it crashed the L.R.B. site the day it went online. And when Hersh argued in its pages that chemical attacks on Syrian civilians hadn’t been carried out by Assad, and Hersh was accused of peddling a single-sourced conspiracy theory that played into Assad’s hands, the L.R.B. stood firm.

[What do we really know about Osama Bin Laden’s death?]

“Seymour Hersh, and the paper, have been criticized on the basis, really, that we have contradicted the generally agreed accounts of events in Syria, which largely follow the version of events put out by the U.S. government,” Daniel Soar, one of the paper’s senior editors, told me. “Hersh based his reporting on information from multiple senior U.S. intelligence sources who strongly disagreed with the official accounts. Letting such people be heard is a bit like letting whistle-blowers be heard: If people on the inside have information that suggests the government is lying, then we need to know about it.”

The uproars that have originated from pieces in the L.R.B. are common enough in the life of a magazine or newspaper, but what is unusual is the paper’s structural daring and its tone. Few publications would think to publish a 60,000-word reported article on the Grenfell fire — the 2017 blaze in a London housing tower that killed 72 — much less a 26,000-word memoir of trying to ghostwrite for Julian Assange, both articles by Andrew O’Hagan, each written in the first-person. Although a reporter’s first-person presence, popularized by the New Journalism of the 1960s, is now routine, the “I” in the L.R.B., regardless of topic or type of piece, has a particular intellectual crackle. Ben Lerner can write of his struggle reading Karl Ove Knausgaard no less than Amia Srinivasan can write of hers in weighing the intelligence of the octopus. Consider a recent review by the American poet Patricia Lockwood , occasioned by a new edition of John Updike’s novels:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. “Absolutely not,” I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.

If you weren’t inclined, after that paragraph, to read the next 6,965 words of Lockwood’s article — you would call it a takedown were its thinking not so fine and its comedy not so purposeful — nothing will get you to read literary criticism. And, as Lockwood’s “Norbert” suggests, a letter to the paper is surely forthcoming.

The space that the paper gives to letters is central to, and tonally consistent with, what makes the L.R.B. unique. In large-circulation magazines like this one or The New Yorker, letters typically occupy one lively page; the letters section at the back of The New York Review of Books, by contrast, often features grand-slam matches (Tom Stoppard writes to protest Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of his play, Mendelsohn replies to Stoppard, Stoppard then responds, etc.). The L.R.B. has these sorts of athletic contests, too, but has been known to run a dozen letters in an issue, not merely from knights of the round table but also mortals who read the paper.

The idea that a small publication might foment a community that could be sustained and, for a readership, sustaining, makes a new kind of sense when you read its editor’s own writing. Wilmers’s latest book, “Human Relations and Other Difficulties,” exhibits the habit of mind that has made her paper among the most read of its kind in Europe. It’s a companionable first-person report that tours the writer’s understanding of a subject, alive to the human comedy.

The two dozen essays of “Human Relations” are culled from five decades of work, much of it for the L.R.B. There are essays on the vapidity of novel reviewing (“the fashion is for ... adjectives coupled with adverbs — ‘hauntingly pervasive,’ ‘lethally pithy,’ ‘deftly economic’ — in relationships whose significance would not be materially altered if the two partners swapped roles — pervasively haunting, pithily lethal etc.”) and on a sui generis one-volume encyclopedia then in its 88th edition published by Pears, a British soap maker, a volume from which Wilmers teases one astonishing detail after another. But the force of the collection is its focus on the difficulties women face in pursuit of ambitious professional lives. After Robert Bly’s “Iron John” appeared in 1990, a work of meninism that has not aged well, Wilmers wrote a piece that looked critically at feminism:

I have complained a lot about men in my time. In fact, I do it more and more. But I have never been part of what used to be called the women’s movement and those who have or who are, or who have never wanted to be, would probably consider me some sort of moron. I didn’t do consciousness-raising with my sisters in the late Sixties. I was married at the time and it seemed to me that if my consciousness were raised another millimeter I would go out of my mind.

Wilmers’s “another millimeter” is characteristic of her wit. While the humor is dry, the thrust is far from comic. With uncommon force, her essays narrate the impediments that serious women have endured from the men in their lives. There is Wilmers’s short, sharp shock of an essay about caring for a newborn (“I didn’t get depressed because I couldn’t cope. ... I got depressed because instead of maternal goodness welling up inside me, the situation seemed to open up new areas of badness in my character”) as well as longer investigations prompted by a range of women’s lives; among them Alice James, Patty Hearst and Marianne Moore. To read them is to receive an education in how marriage and motherhood, brothers and fathers, husbands and children, male and female friendships, conspire to lift or lower a woman’s prospects that, too often, are a millimeter from failure.

london review of books free

“My father was the God,” Wilmers told me one afternoon at the L.R.B. The son of German-Jewish parents, Charles Wilmers grew up mostly in England. “He looked and sounded like someone whose life had been spent in a play by Noël Coward,” Wilmers wrote in her first book, “The Eitingons” (2009), an exploration of her family history, one that includes a Soviet intelligence officer on her mother’s side who plotted the successful assassination of Trotsky. Her mother, Cecilia Eitingon, was the daughter of Belorussian Jews, successful fur traders who moved from Poland, after their street was bombed by the Germans, to Moscow where a few years later the Bolshevik Revolution came. Immigration to America was the next move to a safer life.

“My parents met in December 1935, between Le Havre and New York,” Wilmers writes. The trip, aboard the luxury liner the Aquitania, was no privation. “My mother was playing Ping-Pong; my father asked if she would give him a game.” Cecilia was divorced at 28, a naturalized American citizen; Charles, who left England once he graduated from Cambridge, was working for a Belgian multinational, Sofina, which he would eventually run.

“He valued rationality and everyone agreed that he was a very reasonable person,” Wilmers writes, “But ‘reasonable’ isn’t the same as ‘rational,’ and like most people who think of themselves as rational, my father took it for granted that objective reality was coterminous with his own thinking.”

Wilmers lived in America for her first eight years, her father’s work and her parents’ globe-trotting — they spoke many languages, her mother especially gifted — landing them in 10 different homes and Wilmers in eight different schools in America and Europe during her childhood. When she lived in Belgium, she hated its formality, how she and the other schoolchildren were expected to shake hands three or four times a day (she refused). She begged to go to boarding school in England and once there felt immediately at home.

Oxford followed. Wilmers studied modern languages, intending to be a United Nations interpreter or to work in medicine. An Oxford adviser in charge of employment advice shot down those ideas: Wilmers should learn to type and take dictation, advice that her father discouraged. Even so, she landed at the publisher Faber & Faber in London, where she began as a secretary. T.S. Eliot, though he had won the Nobel Prize a decade earlier, was an editor there in the 1960s. Wilmers recalls interactions:

I had some bad moments with him. I hadn’t been there more than a few months when he caught me looking out of the window onto Russell Square. I had my back both to my colleagues and to the door, and I was saying, “Look at all those lucky people in Russell Square doing bugger all.” My colleagues were silent and when I turned round I realized why: Eliot had come into the room and was glowering at me. I might as well have been tearing at the grapes with murderous paws.

Still, as she said during a discussion at the New York Public Library in 2018, she “quite liked” the patriarchal nature of the place, “men who were amused by clever girls, who liked them without resenting them because,” as she put it, “the clever girls weren’t going to get very far.”

It was a few years later that Karl Miller hired Wilmers to work as an editor at The Listener. Miller was older, charismatic, brilliant by all accounts. Lanchester describes him as “the funniest person I have ever known, by a distance.” His standards were high. “Legend has it,” Wilmers wrote in a tribute in 2014 , “that once on holiday from The New Statesman he’d wrapped himself in a rug and rolled on the floor groaning when a copy of the first issue produced in his absence arrived at the house where he and his family were staying.”

While working at The Listener, Wilmers married the film director Stephen Frears. In 1972 they had their first child, Sam. Wilmers says he was a charismatic baby, but he also struggled. He cried but didn’t have tears, would hold his breath until he lost consciousness, could not be put down on his back or would choke and missed developmental milestones.

Eighteen months after Sam was born, Wilmers was pregnant again, with a second son, Will, during which time Frears left.

“The no-husband thing — ” Wilmers told me. “I thought it was easier not to have to consult someone. I didn’t want to be cluttered with things that were irrelevant to the problem, or at least I’m grateful now I wasn’t cluttered with things that were irrelevant.”

Including having a husband?

“Right. If you have the larger problem.”

Did the larger problem create the husband problem?

“It was there already. I mean, he left before Will was born. I had plenty of time to sort myself out.”

Sam got a proper diagnosis about the same time. It came from her father’s sister, a pediatrician. Familial dysautonomia, a genetic condition of the nervous system that primarily afflicts a tiny number of Ashkenazi Jews. Sam was not expected to live past 10. The challenge for Wilmers was great. Among the many changes that having children brought about was how others saw her. People she knew were aware she had money; she was thought somewhat spoiled. Suddenly, she was seen, she came to understand, not as a little frivolous but as a little heroic. She noticed that her capacity to bear up under difficulty, to protect her boys, changed her sense of what was possible. As her mother’s sister, the pediatrician, said, “In her world, Sam and Will always came first, the paper came second and everything else trailed far behind.”

After a few years at home, Wilmers went back to work, now at The Times Literary Supplement, then the main literary review in England. But a management lockout in 1978 shuttered The Times and the T.L.S. for nearly a year, sending Wilmers home again. As the lockout wore on, an article by one of the most acute critics of the past 50 years, Frank Kermode, appeared in The Observer, a leading British newspaper. Kermode argued that something needed to be done to remedy the void in critical conversation. Kermode had been a fixture at The New York Review of Books since it began in 1963 (itself inaugurated when New York City’s papers were shuttered during a printers’ strike) and partly at his prompting the N.Y.R.B. started a British version of their New York fixture.

Miller, also an N.Y.R.B. contributor, was made editor and Wilmers deputy. Whereas the earlier offices where Wilmers worked with Miller were jobs, the L.R.B., for Miller and Wilmers both, was a cause. An idealist, Miller also had a huge temper. His many virtues apart, Wilmers says he was “a supreme bully.” Editorial quarrels were general, Miller storming out, expecting to be chased back by Wilmers. That arrangement lasted 12 years. One day, Miller exploded and, for the first time, Wilmers didn’t retrieve him.

If Miller had been essential to the L.R.B.’s founding, the paper’s ability to exist at all is because of a very different kind of support. Though it has never really made a profit — and still does not — a family trust that Wilmers’s parents established has kept the paper going. Wilmers’s brother, Robert, who was the chairman of M&T Bank at the time of his death in 2017, advised on the trust’s investments. “He was very skillful,” Wilmers said, “and as a result, the trust has been able to support the operations of the L.R.B.” Unlike so many fine magazines that cease publication after an issue or two for economic reasons, the L.R.B. has been in the uncommon position of having fallback money and being able to invest in growth. Part of that growth has involved the cultivation by Wilmers of contributions from women writers: Mary Beard, Hilary Mantel and Jenny Diski, as well as younger writers, Lockwood and Srinivasan among them, who increasingly fill the paper’s pages.

The L.R.B.’s offices now occupy three floors, with the editorial staff taking up one. Wilmers and her editors sit in a single large room, with Wilmers and her deputy, of 28 years, Jean McNicol, at the front, the remaining eight editors arranged around them in a large U — a classroom with the teacher at the head. Young and evenly divided between women and men, most of them have recently graduated from Oxford or Cambridge.

It’s hard not to be aware, at the molecular level, of the factual eliteness of the paper. It is. But the pages of the L.R.B., which foment dissenting views by including diverse, dissenting voices, couldn’t be more, in the most vital sense, common. As Stewart told me: “You wouldn’t want an entire system made up of the L.R.B. But to have the L.R.B. sitting alongside other institutions in British life — the BBC, The Guardian, the T.L.S. — you’ve got something important: intellectual conversations which can operate in a vigorous and engaged way.”

I asked Wilmers how she intended to mark the 40th anniversary in the paper. Was she going to do something special?

“No,” she said, very offhand. “It’s just meant to be good.”

Wilmers lives in Primrose Hill, several Tube stops from the L.R.B., down a leafy street lined with large townhomes. One evening, she invited me to dinner there. Behind an iron gate, down a little walk, in a small patio made private by greenery out front, a male voice introduced itself as Duncan. Slender, young, finishing a cigarette, he said, “I help out with Sam.”

Inside, through a hallway, onto a powder-pink landing, I found a shirtless, sunglassed Vladimir Putin reclining in a camping chair, abs resplendently ripped, a deep blue lake glistening behind him with evergreens above him and, beyond them, great gray peaks: June 2019, Vladimir Putin Wall Calendar.

“None of the other months is as good,” Inigo Thomas told me. Thomas, a Hugh Grant-ish person in his 50s, is a contributor to the review who, like so many associated with it, has a decades-long relationship with Wilmers. I mistook him for her boyfriend, and she corrected me, not quite incredulously. He has lived with her, on and off, for a decade. She enjoys his company, his social ease. She calls him a toff; he protests; they bicker, amiably.

Since her divorce, though Wilmers has not remarried, she has not lived alone. When she turned 70, there was a large party, and a commemorative book, “Bad Character,” privately printed: 139 pages of testimonials from 52 of her friends and family. It’s the sort of thing that would be embarrassing to endure sober — wedding toasts that never end — but that in this rare case feels essential, moving and riveting even to the outsider. I am only slightly exaggerating that it seems, upon reading it, that most everyone in the book has lived with Wilmers and her boys. The book builds a portrait of someone memorably voluble in private, her home always filled with people. Alan Bennett, the British playwright and L.R.B. contributor, was a neighbor for decades. Wilmers likes to say she cooked dinner for him for 30 years, and Sam has quipped that Bennett never once did the washing up. Some of the uniqueness of Wilmers’s vibrant domesticity was documented by her former nanny, Nina Stibbe, in her memoir “Love, Nina” (2013), adapted into a 2016 mini-series by Nick Hornby. Helena Bonham Carter was “George” (Wilmers). Though “Joe” (Will) and “Max” (Sam) were nothing like her boys, she told me, she liked Bonham Carter.

O’Hagan, who conceived “Bad Character” and is one of Wilmers’s closest friends, arrived a few minutes after I did. A bouncy Scot with slicked-back, ’40s movie-star hair, O’Hagan had spent the day at Parliament with Sam, now 47, who came carefully in a few minutes later, navigating his way forward, arms before him. Nearly blind, Sam had been invited by the Royal National Institute of Blind People to a meeting highlighting their work on behalf of the blind and partly sighted. Sam said that people tend to ignore them; they speak as if the sight-impaired can’t answer questions for themselves.

“Very much nicer to blind people than they are to deaf people,” Wilmers said, to much laughter, her own hearing increasingly impaired. “I want that to be known by everyone.”

“Maybe,” O’Hagan said, “we’ll have a separate function at the House of Commons for that.”

Dinner was served in a large, bright room off the open kitchen, its far wall dominated by a vast casement window. As the minutes passed, an aproned Thomas dropped various pieces of sonically heavy cookware to a running commentary of apologies. Conversation pursued narrows of contemporary British politics. Though Wilmers has made sure that her paper isn’t doctrinaire, allowing people of very different political views a place to write as long as, as she says, it’s a good piece, the paper has been historically understood as pro-Labor. So there was much to say about the Tories and the rise of conservatism. “Jacob Rees-Mogg,” months before he became an actionable meme as the patrician parliamentarian who reclined in boredom while Brexit was debated in the House of Commons, required unpacking for me, as did discussions of recent Tory debates and the noncontenders — Rory Stewart included — who had been crushed by Boris Johnson, victoriously yanking the sun down on Britain. Stewart, Thomas explained, was too polite, too thoughtful, too prone to speaking in paragraphs, though intellectually, O’Hagan interjected to say, Stewart “could have knocked them all into the ground like tent pegs.”

Johnson was precisely the kind of person, the men agreed, who shouldn’t have appealed to his supporters — working-class people who needed a government that would advocate for them. Johnson was an Eton and Oxford boy who studied Latin and Greek, who had written a dozen books including an (admittedly terrible) novel, who had a posh accent. How had this all happened? What was Johnson’s appeal?

“I don’t know,” Wilmers said, thinking. “Were I not a member of ‘the elite,’ ” she continued playfully, “I would vote for Johnson. There’s something so confident and so sort of roly-poly and quite funny about him.”

In her delivery, Wilmers was acknowledging “elite” as both literally accurate and figuratively reasonable — there’s no question that she qualified as a member of that class, for better or worse, while she was simultaneously underlining that, as it has lately become a slur, you might protest the limitedness of the usage. Mostly, the way she said it was just funny: It made a listener feel that things — political things, social things, human things — could be so much better if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously but instead took things seriously.

Later, long after supper was done, I received an email from O’Hagan. “Mary-Kay once sent me out to report on a traffic crossing that was annoying her. I spent weeks trying not to get killed — the walk-sign, the green man, came on for mere seconds — and there was something innately funny about the assignment. That was pure Mary-Kay. No one else would have published that, though once it was published everybody wanted to run a piece like it. She has that archeditor’s ability to remind her writers that the world is slightly funny. Nothing is really that important, until it is, and then,” O’Hagan went on, “she rolls out a whole other set of weaponry.”

An earlier version of this article misidentified the family member who diagnosed familial dysautonomia in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s son. It was her father’s sister, not her mother’s.

How we handle corrections

Wyatt Mason is a contributing writer for the magazine and teaches writing at Bard College. He last wrote for the magazine about the Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann.

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Since 1979, London Review of Books has focused on protecting and promoting the tradition of the literary and intellectual essay in English. Each issue contains essays, book reviews, poems, an exhibition review, "short cuts," letters, and a diary. For book reviews, they look at both unsolicited submissions and proposals.

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Performance enhancements The London Review of Books is Europe’s leading magazine of books and ideas. Published twice a month, the LRB is home to the most exciting writing on literature, history, politics, philosophy, art, poetry and more. Already a subscriber? Simply install the app and sign in with your LRB website login details. App features - Read the LRB anywhere, even offline - Get the latest issue on Wednesday, before it hits the newsstand - Save articles for later reference - Resize text for easy reading - Dark mode option - Access ten years of the LRB dating back to 2014 Subscribing via the app - The app is free to download and comes with a free preview issue - Subscribers to the LRB magazine can access the app with their LRB website login and do not require a separate app subscription - Subscriptions made via the app, however, do not include access to the LRB website and online archive - In the app, you can purchase individual issues of the magazine or an annual subscription - Subscriptions are charged to your Apple account and managed in App Store account settings - All subscriptions automatically renew unless auto-renew is turned off at least 24 hours before the end of the subscription period - If your subscription lapses, you will still be able to read the issues published while you were an active subscriber

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Does not support active reading like the web site does

Why would the LRB deliver an otherwise solid mobile app, that doesn’t support annotations! Hopefully that is only temporary, because I enjoy reading much more when I can markup my copy with highlights and margin notes. Luckily, I can do so by generating a PDF of an article off the LRB’s web site, usually via the Safari web browser’s Markup command. Many PDF readers allow me to handwrite margin notes on a tablet, and highlight passages, names and expressions that spark my interest. I derive so much more pleasure and benefit from an article when I engage it actively like this. While it’s great that the LRB’s web version offers the capability, please support me in a future version of the app. Generating a good PDF of the article inside the app would be perfect, as I can then archive my annotations in my favorite note-taking app.

I dont “like” to read on my phone

Or on a computer, really. I do plenty of it but w/o the patience i’ve learned w/ print. W/ patience comes focus, which goes on its merry way not tithering. A great app for reading when you’ve left your hard copy behind, which arrives promptly, probably before you knew it. The week or two behind i’m usually at w/ print (often longer or alrogether lost depending on fluctuations in my schedule) does not exist here. I’m as current as a reader in the UK. I haven’t tried printing from here, but maybe that’s something i would do w longer stories ive since recycled or that are from the archive. There is a “download” option for each issue. On my iphone, I’m sure I could. You are not going to get anything more here than what you came for. A rare thing indeed in this hypertechno, online world we’re in. A blessed thing indeed. Thanks,

Great app but text sizing is a blunt instrument

This app functions really well and is very easy to use, and it is a wonderful addition particularly during the pandemic when paper copies arrive late or sometimes not at all. But the choice of font size needs some work. There are only three or four settings and the difference — on an iPad mini — between the smallest size and the next largest is comically large. The smallest size means about 39 lines of an average 10 words each on the screen. He next size up is 25 lines of an average of about 6-7 words per line. There really should be something in between.

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London Review of Books: An Incomplete History review – 40 years of the LRB

I t is not unusual for periodicals to produce books applauding their own achievements, especially on their anniversaries, but this volume, put together by the editorial staff of the London Review of Books to celebrate the 40th anniversary of what they call “the paper”, is singular. Though a sort of anthology, it is more like a handsomely produced scrapbook, with photographic reproductions of original letters, draft articles and scribbled notes. (Great diplomacy has been shown in getting the permissions to reproduce some of these.) The result is a kind of coffee table book of intellectual contention.

The LRB began in 1979, when the labour dispute at the Times meant that the Times Literary Supplement was not appearing. Karl Miller , former editor of the Listener and head of English at University College London, decided to start a new review. His former deputy at the Listener, Mary-Kay Wilmers , joined him. This volume illustrates the LRB’s rickety yet oddly confident beginnings, first as an insert within the New York Review of Books, which initially provided necessary funding. It split off a year later. Wilmers had inherited some money – “I didn’t want it … So I found a use for it” – and when Miller left in 1992 Wilmers became editor, and is still.

The first issue still seems impressive, with William Empson on A Midsummer Night’s Dream , John Bayley’s review of William Golding’s Darkness Visible , and new poems by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. Pages reproduced from early issues are, however, forbidding: unbroken columns of print as far as the eye can see. The LRB demonstrated its intellectual seriousness by allowing contributors unparalleled wordage. (Cannily, the compilers have chosen to reprint only tantalising snippets of interesting items rather than whole pieces.)

We see the page from Miller’s jotter with its list of desired contributors, most of whom are eventually nabbed. A few grand refuseniks are commemorated. Karl Popper, both lofty and needy, had his assistant at LSE tell the LRB that he didn’t write reviews but would be “interested to know if you have published reviews of his own books”. Of the 66 well-known names on Miller’s intellectual celebrity list, just six are women. There is later some fretting about the predominance of male contributors in the LRB’s recent as well as distant history.

It may seem odd to have a coffee table book where the pictures are of texts, but many of these are surprisingly expressive. There is the extraordinary typed letter from the poet Laura Riding complaining about Martin Seymour-Smith’s biography of her former partner, Robert Graves. “Mr Miller!” it begins, before expressing indignation in rambling sentences, where the very print – letters overtyped, words crossed out – is a chart of her feelings. It is a reminder of what an eloquent mess a typewriter could make. In contrast, the thickly but precisely corrected typescript of Julian Barnes’s Diary article about the Booker prize (“posh bingo”) is a diagram of fastidiousness.

We get the graphic drama, as it were, of the handwritten letter, in what looks like blue felt-tip, from Bruce Chatwin in 1988, protesting against an article about Aids by John Ryle – indeed protesting at the very use of the word “Aids”. The un-joined-up script somehow makes the repressed fury all the clearer. Differently eloquent is the magnified note of thanks to Frank Kermode, for his review of The Blue Flower , from Penelope Fitzgerald, written in a hand both eccentric and highly legible: “I don’t know whether you’d agree that writing, like teaching, produces considerable spells of depression & moments of great happiness.”

Somehow it is great to see the actual faxed page of an extremely anxious lawyer’s advice about a Christopher Hitchens piece on Conrad Black. “The real problem comes with Christopher Hitchens’s opinions about Mr Black – that he is a mad, tyrannical egotist, a sinister eccentric, a megalomaniac.” There is also a problem with the Labour politician Michael Meacher being designated “a prefect with a reputation for frigid sadism”. An editorial pen has written “cut” alongside both offending flowers of rhetoric.

There are some good spats. Here is Al Alvarez’s ex‑wife, Ursula Creagh, reviewing his book Life After Marriage: Scenes from a Divorce – and then, for good measure, Kermode writing to Miller to express his indignation at this “virtually inexcusable” choice of reviewer. “I do not believe in ‘unprejudiced’ reviewing,” Miller unanswerably replies, signing off with the sad acknowledgement that “the time has come for us to have no more to do with one another”. What Dr Johnson called “the acrimony of scholiasts” gets its delicious due. In 1993 it is both Elaine Showalter v Camille Paglia and Judith Butler portentously denouncing Terry Eagleton.

The LRB likes to show the LRB in process. On the one hand, pages proudly display memorandums in which the staff debate hyphens and the best ways to split words across the end of lines. On the other hand, we get the cock-ups over arty covers that turned out to be rubbish. LRB editors are exacting and are often themselves gifted writers (Andrew O’Hagan, Susannah Clapp, John Lanchester). They also have a collective reputation for overconfidence, illustrated in some of these pages. O’Hagan explains how staff disliked the last lines of poems that they were printing. “They were often too ‘last-line-y’.” So some were just docked. There is an example here (“Cockcrow”) from Patricia Beer, with her terse, infuriated letter of complaint. “The poem is, of course, ruined,” she writes, with justification.

Showing process also means displaying political choices. Here is Wilmers’s letter to Anne Applebaum, explaining that the journal had refused her review of a book on the last days of the Soviet Union because it spent too much time reminding the readers “that Stalin was bad”. There is Hitchens, once a favourite son who faxed in copious copy at all hours, being disinvited to the intellectual gathering when his geopolitics shifted. The book reproduces some of the notorious collection of responses by LRB contributors to 9/11, with Marjorie Perloff’s outrage that most think that, in a phrase she picks up from Mary Beard’s piece, “the United States had it coming”. As Wilmers nicely observes, “Beard didn’t quite say that, though she didn’t wholly not”.

Devotees will appreciate the well-deserved tribute to advertising manager David Rose, who pioneered the LRB’s famous personal ads (nowadays but shadows of their former selves, sadly). The book reproduces the very first such ads, from October 1998. Some of which deploy poetry, bursts of Spanish or allusions to the writings of Jacques Lacan – but some of which have a bluntness unmatched in the paper itself. “Bald, short, fat and ugly male, 53 seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.”

“It’s not gossipy, cosy or cliquey,” observes long-time contributor Alan Bennett . But, in a mostly productive way, it is cliquey. It has always had favourites and has nurtured them. With pages catching the work of writers including Lorna Sage and Jenny Diski, this celebratory volume looks like a justification of that habit. There is a leading instance. Kermode evidently got over being told by Miller that this was the end and eventually contributed over 200 pieces (more than anyone else). That is the equivalent of at least 10 lengthy books. With his unrivalled ability to “hover as a writer between academia and journalism”, he was the LRB’s tutelary spirit. A good role model to leave us with.

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Anne rothenstein, vol. 42 no. 15 · 30 july 2020.

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William Davies

Who am i prepared to kill, otto saumarez smith , richard j. evans , mark bostridge , michael bentley , yih lerh huang , paul brown , steve smith , charles mahoney , peter hayes , michael holland , olav martin kvern , chris sansom, alan bennett, schism:  china, america and the fracturing of the global trading system  by paul blustein. mcgill-queen’s, 356 pp., £27.99, september 2019, 978 1 928096 85 6 superpower showdown:  how the battle between trump and xi threatens a new cold war  by bob davis and lingling wei. harper, 480 pp., £25, june 2020, 978 0 06 295305 6 trade wars are class wars:  how rising inequality distorts the global economy and threatens international peace  by matthew c. klein and michael pettis. yale, 288 pp., £20, june 2020, 978 0 300 24417 5 the new class war:  saving democracy from the metropolitan elite  by michael lind. atlantic, 224 pp., £14.99, february 2020, 978 1 78649 955 4, hazel v. carby, peine forte et dure, frances stonor saunders, the suitcase, patrick cockburn, short cuts: thanington without, randall kennedy, the second founding:  how the civil war and reconstruction remade the constitution  by eric foner. norton, 288 pp., £18.99, october 2019, 978 0 393 65257 4, linda colley, outsourcing empire:  how company-states made the modern world  by andrew phillips and j.c. sharman. princeton, 253 pp., £25, june 2020, 978 0 691 20351 5, anne wagner, neal ascherson, a schoolmaster’s war:  harry rée, british agent in the french resistance  edited by jonathan rée. yale, 204 pp., £14.99, march 2020, 978 0 300 24566 0, n.a.m. rodger, sons of the waves:  the common seaman in the heroic age of sail 1740-1840  by stephen taylor. yale, 490 pp., £20, april, 978 0 300 24571 4, robin robertson, poem: ‘near gleann nam fiadh’, clare bucknell, you people  by nikita lalwani. viking, 231 pp., £12.99, april, 978 0 241 40953 4, michael wood, counterfactuals:  paths of the might have been  by christopher prendergast. bloomsbury, 257 pp., £19.99, february 2019, 978 1 350 09009 5 telling it like it wasn’t:  the counterfactual imagination in history and fiction  by catherine gallagher. chicago, 359 pp., £26.50, january 2018, 978 0 226 51241 9, richard shone, forster in cambridge, james lomax, diary: in ashgabat, download the lrb app.

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You’ve never thought about food – or London – as these writers have

T he index to London Feeds Itself goes a long way to telling you what the book is about. Around 180 restaurants in the capital , recommendations for which have been woven through the book, are grouped together by borough. Under “Kensington and Chelsea”, there’s just one entry (Panella, a Sicilian street-food restaurant on Golborne Road). Under “Brent”, there are 10. 

Merton, Sutton and Hillingdon, Hounslow, Harrow and Barnet – these are the corners of London that Jonathan Nunn and his contributors want you to visit, rather than the small plates of Soho or the white tablecloths of Mayfair. From the momos (filled dumplings) at a Nepali bakery in Uxbridge to the cholent (beef stew) from a Jewish deli in Golders Green, by the end of London Feeds Itself, I was convinced that the greatest bites to be had in the capital are ones that I – a food columnist, cookbook writer and native Londoner – haven’t yet tried. 

Yet these recommendations are only appendices to each of the 26 essays collated by Nunn, which are the real substance of the book. From housing estates to shopping centres and even communal baths, they delve into communities and architectural spaces where food is at the centre of local life. The 25 contributors here, who range from journalists to café owners, speak to parts of London that are full of life but go largely unnoticed. 

In other words, this book – now in its second, updated edition – isn’t about the London food “scene”; the restaurants mentioned have largely not been reviewed by the mainstream media. Nunn, founder of the popular online food magazine Vittles, has long had a bone to pick with the latter, whose restaurant critics he has deemed elitist and boring. 

His introduction suggests that he still does: “In the months prior to the pandemic, when restaurants temporarily shut, I looked at the last hundred reviews from eight national broadsheets. Sixty-eight per cent were for London restaurants, with 20 per cent of those restaurants in Mayfair and Chelsea and another 20 per cent in Soho and Fitzrovia. That’s 40 per cent of the entire country’s restaurant reviews taken up by a few square miles of the most expensive real estate in central London, controlled by a handful of mega-landlords.” 

In Nunn’s opinion, that area is not, by any stretch of the imagination, where you can find the best food in the capital. It’s a little unfair, I think, to the many chefs in that particular square mileage who have worked hard to earn their Michelin stars. Still, his recommendations have had their desired effect, in that I’m now desperate to visit, for example, Uncle Wrinkle, a Chinese restaurant in New Cross where the salt-and-pepper aubergines apparently have a whiff of Cinnamon Graham. 

London Feeds Itself, Nunn writes, is no mainstream food guide, but “a group effort where London’s story is told by food writers, architecture writers, journalists, activists and even one MP”. The MP in question is, predictably, Jeremy Corbyn, an interview with whom hails him, equally predictably, as “the country’s most famous allotment-user”. Still, if you aren’t inclined to learn what Jeremy does with his comfrey, you can skip to the next essay, a fascinating piece by Ruby Tandoh about the Muslim-owned ice-cream parlours serving those Londoners “for whom the public house is not an option”. If you can get to the end of it without striding out in search of a scoop of something cold and creamy, you have stronger willpower than I do. 

Many of the essays offer snapshots of stories about which I could read entire books. Take Hampstead Garden Suburb, the evolution of which is told through the eyes of Claudia Roden, the veteran cookbook writer and anthropologist, who recalls a butchers called Frohweins where “you could get unborn eggs – tiny baby eggs that were full of a kind of milk. You know, the kind of things that you would get in a shtetl.”

Or take the vanished East London warehouses described by writer and activist Melek Erdal, where “hidden people” in “hidden spaces” worked and ate alongside each other. Kurdish immigrants, including Erdal’s own family, would down tools at lunchtime. “Bundles of clothes would be cleared,” she writes, “and the pattern-cutting counter became a makeshift table. Auntie Ayse from Gaziantep would bring her chicken-and-potato-single-layer borek, ‘kombe’. Ismail brought in olives and special honeycomb that he had smuggled in from his home town, and his wife’s fresh kaymak. Dad would run out to buy fresh bread from the local firin.” Has an office lunch ever sounded further away from a sad, expensive and loveless Pret soup? 

But this isn’t a nostalgia-laden book about a forgotten city. It feels full of life and urgency; it’s concerned with London “as it is now”. If you were to pick up London Feeds Itself in 30 years’ time, it would probably read like a time capsule from the 2020s, and the city would probably look quite different. You would hope, though, that at least some of the restaurants, bakeries and delis that Nunn’s book compels you to hunt down today would still be there, still bringing communities together, still feeding people. 

London Feeds Itself is published by Fitzcarraldo/Open City at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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A kosher deli in Golders Green, one area studied in London Feeds Itself - William Barton/Alamy


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