The best crime fiction mimics and retraces patterns of evil, unsettling yet reassuring us. Photo: Jonah Samson Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery from the series ‘Our Lady of the Flowers of Evil’.
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The consolations of crime fiction, past and present

In a world now dominated by vast, mysterious forces that none of us understands or can control, the comforts of crime fiction are perhaps more apparent than ever. Ian Sansom examines why detective stories continue to exert such power over us.

Like every other industrious autodidact growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I dutifully slogged my way through piles of glutinous, creamcovered Picadors, dour blue Penguins and Pelicans and every other worthy-looking thing available through the Essex County library system, in the belief that the consumption of vast quantities of rich, thick, self-improving stodge might train my poor, uneducated palate. It was as if eating hors d’oeuvres, oxtail soup, poached turbot and saddle of mutton would somehow turn me into a polymathic, teenage Peter Ustinov, who– to my naive, Parkinson-formed mind – more clearly represented the rounded figure of the public intellectual than any real public intellectual such as Keith Joseph, Kenneth Clark or Noam Chomsky.

At the same time as I supped at the altar of what I imagined to be “high culture”, my actual diet consisted mostly of Findus Crispy Pancakes, Battenberg cake and episodes of Perry Mason, The Avengers, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky andHutch, Cannon, McCloud, Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, Kojak, Quincy, Van der Valk, The Sweeney, The Rockford Files, Magnum, PI, Charlie’s Angels, Juliet Bravo, Moonlighting, Miami Vice, The Bill, Bergerac and Taggart – and they say there’s too much crime on telly today.

Even into my twenties and thirties, I remained partial to Heinz Big Soup, Twiglets, butterscotch Angel Delight, Wycliffe, A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders, Dalziel and Pascoe, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and Heartbeat. I was in torment. I wanted to live the life of the mind; my body craved the sweet, dark comforts of crime.

The ancient Manichaean universe that I inhabited, in which a taste for the “great tradition” necessarily excluded an appreciation of mass, pulp and pop culture, was the accepted reality until very recently. It was clearly instantiated in newspaper review pages, where most crime novels were lucky to be included in a barrel-scraping round-up: “Oh, by the way, here are half a dozen other books, not for the likes of us, you understand, but popular with the general reading public.” But so popular has crime fiction become, generating about £90m in UK book sales each year, that it’s now arguably the main course rather than a side order or an amuse-bouche.

This may or may not be a good thing. These days, you can comfortably inhabit the world of eccentric amateur detectives and embittered private eyes all year round, in the company of learned fellow travellers, on television, at the cinema, in books and online. There are murder mystery weekends and endless box sets; in classrooms, at conferences and on college campuses, it is now de rigueur for undergrads to study crime fiction and its relationship to feminism, post-colonialism and critical theory, just as I once had to sweat my way through Troilus and Criseyde and the meaning of courtly love. At City University in London, you can now study for an MA in crime thriller novels. Doubtless at a certain point, even Michael Gove will capitulate and make Elmore Leonard his grammar tsar. The underground has become the mainstream.

Just to recap, for those few who haven’t been paying attention or who haven’t had the chance to study, say, module EAS3217 (“Crime and Punishment: Detective Fiction from the Rue Morgue to the Millennium”) at the University of Exeter or EN658 (“American Crime Fiction”) at the University of Kent: Edgar Allan Poe invented detective fiction in 1841 with his short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, then Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone (1868), then along came Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie; America went hard-boiled; and now there’s everything else, including a lot from Scandinavia.

For those interested in arguing the finer points, it’s worth stating that Oedipus Rex is not a detective story (nor is Crime and Punishment, or The Crying of Lot 49), that Scott and Bailey may be better than Cagney and Lacey and, yes, Hugh Laurie’s House was clearly a take on Holmes. The debate still rages as to whether William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) was the first true detective novel, although, having read it, I can guarantee one thing: it is very boring.

There are probably as many theories about the rise of the detective novel as there are Maigret stories, though the good old Marxist explanation proposed by Ernst Bloch is perhaps as good as any. “Why,” he asks in his essay “A Philosophical View of the Detective Novel” (1965), “is the narrator who fishes in murky waters such a recent phenomenon? Above all, why does the detailed hunt for evidence appear at such a late date? The reason is that earlier legal procedures did not depend on it.”

Marx chose not to expatiate on the crime novel, thank goodness, though arguably his entire life and work was a whodunnit – in which an eccentric amateur traced a series of clues, eventually revealing who had committed the crime. In Theories of Surplus Value (1862-63), he does offer this insight: “A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia, and so on. A criminal produces crimes . . . [The criminal] renders a ‘service’ by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public. He produces not only compendia on criminal law, not only penal codes and along with them legislators in this field, but also art, belleslettres, novels, and even tragedies . . . Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces.”

It’s certainly one way of looking at crime fiction: as a useful product of the criminal. Another way might be to view it as a necessary by-product of an all-corrosive and corrupting high modernism. As Virginia Woolf determinedly strode off in one direction, away from the crowd, so Raymond Chandler had no choice but to walk the mean streets towards them.

Whatever its origins and antecedents, the satisfactions of the genre seem clear and intense. W H Auden wrote in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948):

For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: firstly, the intensity of the craving – if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity – the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England). And thirdly, its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.

Alas, Auden’s addict’s defence reads rather like an admission of defeat. If the definition of a classic is that it can be read and reread, detective stories are not classics: these are books that we consume and discard, a kind of “litlite”, a cheeky, between-meals McFlurry or a Peperami. The critic and author Edmund Wilson was of the opinion that crime fiction was virtually worthless – wasted calories – and he waged a one-man campaign against the genre in a series of articles in the New Yorker, complaining that it was a load of old dross and so much sleight of hand. Yet even Wilson had to admit that crime fiction answered some kind of basic human need. Writing in 1944, in the midst of war and disaster, in a world where everybody seemed suspect and no one guiltless, with “the streets . . . full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know”, he acknowledged that there was a satisfaction to be had in the belief that when the murderer was caught, everything was going to be OK, at least momentarily. An illusion, perhaps, but a consolation nonetheless.

It's almost impossible to pack for holiday without at least one volume of comforting crime capers.
Photograph: Getty Images

In a world now dominated by vast, mysterious forces that none of us understands or can control, the comforts of crime fiction are perhaps more apparent than ever. In the world of Sherlock (and even of Dexter), evil is identifiable and often explicable. The detective –however deranged, damaged and drugaddled – remains our saviour, or at least the devil we know.

In Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985), a writer of detective stories called Daniel Quinn is mistaken for a detective called Paul Auster and attempts to navigate his way through a confused world in which the writer is the detective is the reader is – basically – us. “The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them.” You hope. G K Chesterton, in his essay “A Defence of Detective Stories” (1901), described crime-solving as an example of “successful knight-errantry”. Enter Sarah Lund, wearing a nice white jumper.

There are yet other consolations to be had from crime fiction. The grey-cell-tickling aspects are perhaps at their most amusing and pronounced in the work of Agatha Christie – and, more recently, in CSI or Criminal Minds. (CSI’s Sara Sidle is Miss Marple with expensive teeth and a degree from Harvard.) However, there are all sorts of other rhythms and patterns apart from the clue-puzzle set-up that have developed in the genre over time and that offer the reader or the viewer similar thrills. There are, for instance, the many postmodern or metaphysical variations on the old themes, in which authors mess around with the conventions and in which the detective may be defeated, clues may be meaningless and the plot may be reversed.

Unsurprisingly, detective fiction exerted a particular fascination for the experimental Oulipo group of writers – Ouvroir de littérature potentielle – who were interested in the ways in which apparent literary constrictions and restraints might be delightfully enabling. The final, unfinished novel by the Oulipian extraordinaire Georges Perec, 53 Days, was intended as a kind of literary thriller, though it’s not recommended if your idea of a literary thriller is one by Lee Child.

I think it was P D James who once remarked that the formula for a successful detective story is 50 per cent good detection, 25 per cent character and 25 per cent what the author knows best. In much recent crime fiction, what the author knows best seems to be torture, rape and mutilation, possibly because many younger authors’ teenage diet, unlike mine, did not consist of BBC adaptations of John le Carré novels or Inspector Morse but rather Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Seven. I tend to write what Americans call, rather nauseatingly, “cosy mysteries” and what my British publishers prefer to refer to coyly as “series novels”. I’m a fan of the so-called golden age of detective fiction – that period between the wars when detectives were relatively untroubled, the settings were pleasantly enclosed, romance was rare and murder most foul was not grisly.

Whatever your tastes, if you’re packing your suitcase and are unwilling to risk the gamble of picking something up at the airport, you could do worse than to follow the recommendations of the great David Torrans, the owner of my little local bookshop, No Alibis on Botanic Avenue in Belfast, which just happens to be one the greatest independent bookshops in Europe and certainly the best for crime books in the UK. This summer, Torrans is recommending to his customers The A26 (Gallic Books, £6.99) by Pascal Garnier, Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (Harvill Secker, £12.99), Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog (Picador, £12.99) and the second in Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt series, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (Faber & Faber, £12.99). Fine choices, though I’m also packing a second-hand Ngaio Marsh in case of an emergency and downloading some old episodes of Barney Miller on to my iPad, in memory of the good old days.

Ian Sansom is the author of “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle