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Andrew Donaldson: Friends Who Have Secrets

by Andrew Donaldson for The Times

Short, sharp guidance and observations from a journalist with attitude


The Expats, by Chris Pavone (Faber and Faber) R110

Former CIA spook Kate Moore moves to Europe with her husband, but her seemingly carefree lifestyle – play dates, coffee mornings, shopping trips, skiing weekends – is threatened when she realises some new American friends are not who they claim to be. An accomplished debut from Pavone, this is an engrossing and sophisticated thriller.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of Please Please Me, the Beatles’ first album. We’re in for an avalanche of Fab Four nostalgia in the coming months, but none, according to the UK’s Independent, as thoughtful as Newspaper Taxis: Poetry After the Beatles (Seren), an anthology inspired by the group’s enormous social and cultural impact due for release next month.

The collection, which takes its name from a line from the swirling, psychedelic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, features the work of poets who lived through the Beatles’ 1960s and those who came after.

They include Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Elaine Feinstein, Peter Finch, Adrian Henry, Roddy Lumsden, Lachlan MacKinnon, Roger McGough, Sheenagh Pugh, Jeremy Reed and Carol Rumens. Also included, naturally, is Philip Larkin, whose 1974 poem, Annus Mirabilis, contained the oft-quoted: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”


“Every house,” William Thackeray noted in Pendennis, “has its skeleton in it somewhere.” But, as the novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote more than a century later, as the 1960s were dawning, “Nothing changes more than the notion of what is shocking”.

It’s an observation amply illustrated by a fascinating new social history from Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day (Viking).

Drawing upon years of research in previously sealed archives, Cohen has been able to piece together an account of how much has changed over the past 200 years in attitudes regarding such once-scandalous matters as interracial intercourse and its mixed-race progeny, adultery, illegitimacy, mental disability and homosexuality – all the subjects that, as one critic noted, novelists have steadily relied upon since the 19th century.

What’s new in Cohen’s work is that it demonstrates how the familial dynamics of shame and guilt – so often regarded as repressive and backward – played an important role in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era onwards.


“What can induce you to squander [millions] of rupees in coming to a poor rocky country like ours, and all in order to force upon us a [rascal] as a king, who the moment you turn your backs, will be upset by Dost Mohammad, our own king?” – The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury).

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