Thrill Of The Chaste: On Modern Virginity

THERE WAS a time when people believed that only a virgin – and only females were considered true virgins – could coax a unicorn out of hiding. Like most other folk tales, that legend can now be easily re-read in Freudian terms. Seven centuries of secular thought and medical science have discounted, if not discredited, the idea that sexual inexperience is a source of spiritual power, along with any number of pseudo-biological theories as to how maidenhood manifests itself physically. But virginity has not yet been demythologised. A few still believe in unicorns. Almost everyone still believes in virginity, which is elusive in its own way.

Dimensionally Transcendent: A History Of Doctor Who

IN THE universe of Doctor Who, all moments in time are occurring simultaneously. The trick is moving back and forth between them. With that in mind, let’s go to Saturday, November 23, 1963, as this curious new programme about an irritable, inscrutable alien gentleman suddenly appears on BBC television, in the space between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury – although most viewers don’t notice at first, distracted by the news of President John F Kennedy’s assassination, which happened only yesterday.

His Dark Materials: A Profile Of Philip Pullman

BEFORE STARTING work on His Dark Materials, a trilogy of what he called “science- fantasy” novels, Philip Pullman wrote an alternative Book Of Genesis to rival God’s own creation story. In Pullman’s version, God was nothing more or less than an angel, the first sentient being. He did not make the universe, but told the younger angels that he had, pretending to an authority that he never possessed. When the more liberal of their number rebelled against his dictatorship, they were cast out of heaven. The wisest of them – Sophia, who was not mentioned in the Bible, but later found a place in the Gnostic gospels – tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit purely and simply because it represented knowledge, which could never be a sin.

Volunteering In The Tsunami Zone

ON my first morning, I am issued with work gloves and boots, a hardhat, a dust mask, and a red and yellow boiler suit. My team leader Dave Ludvik, being Australian, calls this garment a “onesie”. I already love my onesie, and I will later wear it to jobs that don’t really call for it. Today, Dave says it’s essential, as the two of us will be driving to the “gomi-yama”, or “mountain of rubbish” down at Ishinomaki port, where assorted debris from the great tsunami is still piling up, more than two years after the event.

At Orwell’s House

George Orwell did not believe in ghosts. Any reader who respects his work could not possibly think that Orwell’s shade now haunts the remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and spent his last days of relative health and happiness. (He died of tuberculosis in 1950, and was buried elsewhere, in an English churchyard, under his real name, Eric Blair.) Even so, I’m jittery.

The Three Burials Of Pablo Neruda

WE crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia, a factory for generating clouds. It was literally dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.

Bad Faith: My Year As A False Priest In Japan

My girlfriend and I moved to Japan in the autumn of 2008. We had our reasons, and they boiled down to boredom. I’m Irish, she’s Scottish, we were both sick of living in the UK – the sort of middle-class Westerners who suppose that their lives might be more meaningful as foreigners in some faraway place. Japan seemed so distant and different as to make us look brave, but also secretly appealed to us as one of the safest, cleanest nations on Earth.

After The Tsunami: Onagawa, Japan, 2011

I FELT the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, in the same way that you might get a spot of drizzle from the tip of the tail of a hurricane. At 2.46pm on Friday, March 11, I was walking home from the library in a small, quiet town called Daishoji, some 400 miles west of the epicentre. The pavement shifted side to side, ever so slightly. I had been drinking the night before, and my first thought was for my lost youth, when I could handle a few beers and a couple of shots without wobbling off a footpath the following afternoon. It took a full five seconds to register that this movement was occurring outside my skull, and a little longer to recognise the sensation.

The Man Booker Longlist Challenge

WITH hindsight, I realise that I was naive when I set out to read all the novels on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist in a single week. I accepted the assignment for reasons of intellectual vanity. Not even the great writer and critic Gore Vidal had ever pulled off such a wheeze, although he did once famously go through the top 10 American bestsellers and write a characteristically imperious essay about the experience. Now, it would be my turn to become a book group of one, a judging panel unto myself. I would read 17 novels in seven days. Starting the week as diligent as a librarian’s apprentice, I would end it halfblind, sad-faced and walking into walls, like a pit pony down a Chinese coal-mine.

Ninjas I Have Known

THERE is no place on Earth where a person can say with absolute certainty that they are not being stalked by ninjas. Common sense suggests this is unlikely, but pure logic dictates that you cannot prove a negative, and the art of the ninja is to go unperceived. I have been around the world to look for them, to shadow them in reverse, and whenever I find a possible candidate, he or she tends to deny it. “No no no,” said Mats Hjelm, a web-designer from Stockholm, during a short break from his ninjutsu class in Tokyo. “I don’t like to call it by that name, although I know that some other people do. And I definitely don’t call myself a ninja.” This was, of course, exactly what a ninja would say.