When Art Mattered

'Portrait of french writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau' (detail) by Amedeo Modigliani

You have to admire somebody who just never quits. Such was the playwright/novelist/filmmaker/ballet scenario-maker/artist Jean Cocteau, who was an indispensable part of early twentieth century French culture, and what his biographer Claude Arnaud calls “the sad clown of modernity.” It all comes to a close when the emaciated, former opium addict Cocteau, lover of so many beautiful boys and men, dies in a world so different from the Belle Époque in which he came to flower, but in a world where Bob Dylan sang to the Tambourine Man, the Beats had issued their anti-Establishment howls, and where the virile Jean-Paul Belmondo had starred in Godard’s Breathless. The world of Cocteau’s youth was different. It was a world that now seems merely historic, a more perfumed world, replete with classical allusions (Cocteau wrote an Orpheus and other works on classical themes), a world where making it clear you wanted La Gloire made you already interesting.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears in South Africa

British prisoners of the Second Boer War, with a defiant Winston Churchill at right / Imperial War Museum

Hero of the Empire tells the story of Winston Churchill during the Second Boer War in South Africa. We begin with the author’s introduction to Churchill’s service as a British army officer fighting tribal warriors in the North-West Frontier of British India. Churchill, then in his early 20’s, was determined to earn a reputation for heroism and acted courageously in that pursuit. He was nearly killed on a number of occasions, but felt that fate was on his side. “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,” he wrote after one hairy battle. Churchill would eventually be vindicated in that belief, but his exploits in British India were insufficient to vaunt him to public attention. He needed to find another fray to fight in.

After being defeated in an 1899 British parliamentary election, Churchill decided on a different route to purpose and power. When the Second Boer War began in October 1899, Churchill sensed it was his moment to strike.