I belong to a few clubs, but perhaps my favorite is that club of anonymous souls whose only communion is to have subscribed to John Julius Norwich’s Christmas Crackers, the twenty-four-page pamphlets that, since 1970, have gladdened the hearts and tickled the wit of their readers with odd, illuminating, droll, and thoughtful morçeaux on the vicissitudes of life. Snippets from the Emperor Hadrian jostle against passages from Ruskin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Times, various French poets, and the diaries of all manner of literary men and women. Some of the entries run to a page or more, although many are just a few lines. They bespeak a warm, incorrigibly curious sensibility, voracious, amused, too sybaritic to be described as detached yet too sophisticated to be pinned down by political coloration.
“You’re giving me low-cut,” said the conductor Simon Rattle to the Berlin Philharmonic: “I want topless!” That’s from the current Cracker, from 2018. The Viscount Norwich, son of the historian Duff Cooper and Lady Diana Manners (reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Mrs. Stitch), was himself a historian of note, writing companionable books about (for starters) Venice, France, Sicily, the Byzantine empire, and England.
I forget when I first became aware of the Christmas Crackers. Judging from my personal stash of the things, it was probably sometime in the 1990s. Like other members of this club, when autumn came, I would place my order (usually with Heywood Hill, the London bookshop that in its heyday incarnated the spirit of John Julius) and then wait for it to arrive sometime in late November or early December. Usually, I would order a few copies, so as to initiate other susceptible spirts into the club. And then I discovered that, every ten years, John Julius would gather the previous decade’s Crackers together, add some bonus entries, and publish the whole thing as a hardcover book. I have them all and regularly acquire additional copies when they turn up in used bookstores. They’re perfect gifts for the right sort of person.
At first, the Crackers were entirely the work of John Julius, the product of his capacious reading and perusal of commonplace books. But what was at first distributed privately to friends gained an avid public following (hence The Club) and John Julius regularly incorporated (and acknowledged) submissions sent to him from his wide circle of acquaintances.
Alas, this year’s Cracker is the last, for John Julius died in June, at age eighty-eight. His parting occupation was correcting proofs of the 2018 Cracker from his hospital bed. Requiescat in pace.—RK
1. “The good populism,” by Victor Davis Hanson (June 2018). On populism and the middle class.
2. “ ‘The Idiot’ savant,” by Gary Saul Morson (May 2018). On Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Idiot.
3. “Fahrenheit 451 updated” (April 2018). On the Amy Wax controversy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
4. “Annals of leftist autophagy” (May 2018). On Leftist friendly fire at the Brooklyn Museum.
5. “Puttin’ on the style,” by Dominic Green (February 2018). On writing, and on English style.
Criterion Books was proud to publish two exciting new titles this year. In June, we released Observation: Notation, the first and only collected volume of Andrew Forge’s art criticism. Andrew Forge, born in Hastingleigh, Kent, England, was both a painter and a teacher of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, Goldsmiths’ College, and Yale. But, for almost fifty years of his life, he wrote keen and insightful criticism in articles, exhibition reviews, catalogue essays, and more. Observation: Notation, edited by David Cast, shows the enormous breadth of Forge’s artistic understanding, with essays on Rubens, Pissarro, and Sickert, as well as his contemporaries Kenneth Martin, William Bailey, and Graham Nickson. This fall, the New York Studio School convened a panel discussion on the book, hosted by James Panero and including Cast, Bailey, Betty Cuningham, and Kyle Staver.
In December, we published Petty Theft, winner of the eighteenth New Criterion Poetry Prize. B. H. Fairchild remarked that “The New Criterion Poetry Prize has considerably strengthened its already impressive poetry list with Nicholas Friedman’s brilliant, beautifully crafted first book.” In an accomplished set of poems, Friedman’s “figure for the poet is the busker, the street-corner magician whose performance leaves his audience with a satisfied grin on their faces and with a dollar or two floating toward his upturned hat as ‘He turns the dove back to a handkerchief―/ then, grinning, disappears,’ ” comments Charles Martin. —RH
From the archive: “The artful Dickens,” by Alexandra Mullen (June 2010). On Dickens’s world & the world he created.
From the editors: “The National Gallery of Identity Politics,” by Roger Kimball (The Wall Street Journal).Forget Monet or Hopper. The art museum’s new director wants to tackle “gender equality,” “social justice,” and “diversity.”
Critics’ roundtable: “The Green Room podcast: Auctions, sculptures, and horse flesh—the best art exhibitions in 2018.”James Panero, Andrew Shea, and Benjamin Riley join Dominic Green on his podcast for Spectator USA.
Broadcast: James Panero on college architecture.
Thanks for reading The New Criterion’s Critic’s Notebook in 2018. The next Notebook will appear on January 7, 2019. Please consider signing up your friends and family for this free newsletter.