Bee Wilson

Bee Wilson is the author, most recently, of The Way We Eat Now. She is writing her first cookbook.

The white slavery narrative operated on the assumption that a true victim would never consent to go with a trafficker. But the reality was messier. The jobs available to working-class women were precarious, poorly paid and humiliating – it wasn’t difficult for slavers to present prostitution as an attractive alternative, especially since the first step was usually to seduce the woman and promise her love and adventure.

Flour Fixated

Bee Wilson, 24 September 2020

Notmany people have heard of Norman Borlaug, but his invention – the high-yield, short-straw wheat that fuelled the Green Revolution – is consumed every day by the majority of humans on the planet. Without Borlaug’s wheat, there would be no modern food as we know it. Everything from sandwiches to pizza to soy sauce to animal feed is manufactured from wheats adapted from...

I’venever mastered the art of smiling for a photo. Like many English people above a certain age, my parents had been brought up to believe that it was, if not quite bad manners, then certainly a little vulgar to smile open-mouthed, revealing any teeth. In a well-meaning way, they passed this rule on to me and my sister. As a result, my camera smile was an odd, forced thing. I worked...

In​ 1901, London was still the largest city in the world. It had a population of six and a half million, two million more than New York and five million more than Tokyo. One of the ‘biggest wonders of this glorious Metropolis’ as well as ‘one of the most strangely human sights that the world can show’, according to J.C. Woollan, was the spectacle of all these...

Barbara Hosking​ was eating chicken curry in a bungalow in Tanganyika one day in the 1950s when she felt the room shaking. She was lunching with her old schoolfriend Mary, and this was the bungalow they shared. Both women were then working as office managers for a British-owned gold, copper and silver mine in Mpanda. Pieces of plaster were falling off the wall, the room was juddering and,...

What Dettol Can’t Fix: A Life in Lists

Bee Wilson, 13 September 2018

In the spring​ of 1942, Elisabeth Young, a diplomat’s wife living in Surrey, began keeping a ‘register’ of eggs. Each day, she recorded the date and number of eggs laid by her flock of 12 hens, sometimes logging the name of the particular hen who had laid it. She noted whether the eggs were brown or white or ‘brownish’ and any that were double-yolked. At the end...

As well as being obscene, the libels were also decidedly strange. This was swearing as a foreign language by someone who had the vocab but was not sure of how to fit the words together. The phrases ‘poxy ass’ and ‘foxy ass’ often pop up in the libels. The ‘foxy’ in question did not mean ‘sassy’, but decaying like a foxed book. The phrase ‘piss country whore’, a favourite in the letters, is not one that Christopher Hilliard can trace to any known usage. Often, they pile up an excess of adjectives for effect: ‘bloody flaming fucking piss country’, where ‘bloody country’ on its own would do.

I am the fifth dimension!

Bee Wilson, 27 July 2017

The possibility of Gef’s existence was first reported in the Manchester Daily Dispatch in January 1932. A reporter claimed he had visited the Irving household to investigate the ‘animal story’ that had been the talk of the island for several months. On arrival at the farmhouse, he heard ‘a voice which I should never have imagined could issue from a human throat’. The Irvings told him that it was an animal, something like a stoat, weasel or ferret, except that it spoke and sang songs and on occasion offered betting tips.

Not every Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it turns out, has fits of conscience and bad dreams. Claretta and Mussolini seem to have felt pretty sanguine about their own actions.

A Little Talk in Downing St

Bee Wilson, 17 November 2016

To read the Asquith-Venetia letters is to see that Asquith was a weird kind of philanderer. On the one hand, he has all the complacency of a powerful man, who – despite his general aura of Liberal pacifism – seems pretty thrilled to have so many tin soldiers to move around. Yet he also comes across as childishly needy, constantly asking her whether she found some speech he made clever or boring or whether she thinks he acted rightly on some point of national strategy. The Venetia he addresses is partly a daughter, partly a lover, and partly a projection of himself.

Lists​ make us feel better. They take the uncertainty and messiness of life and spray it with a sense of purpose. On low days, I sometimes write to-do lists of tasks I have already done and put ticks next to them, just to give myself the illusion of resolve. We cross days off a calendar, and imagine that July was something we positively achieved, rather than an unstoppable wave of time that...

Like Cold Oysters

Bee Wilson, 19 May 2016

Edith Piaf’s musical persona was highly, and brilliantly, constructed, however artless it was intended to seem. In private, she was amusing and loved practical jokes, but her act was devoid of irony. In her songs, she projected a stage mask of suffering, pain and deprivation which was all the more affecting because the audience knew that there was real suffering, pain and deprivation behind it. Her fans often remarked how ‘natural’ she was; how real. ‘With anyone else you have time to think that she’s singing well or badly. With Piaf, you undergo her,’ a critic wrote in 1950.

She gives me partridges: Alma Mahler

Bee Wilson, 5 November 2015

Alma Mahler Werfel celebrated her 70th birthday at home in Beverly Hills on the last day of August 1949. A brass band played as guests chose from a Mitteleuropean selection of drinks: champagne, black coffee or Alma’s favourite, Bénédictine (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle a day). In the dining room, an abundant buffet was laid out. Luminaries from the ‘German California’ scene came to pay homage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius’s divorced wife and Oscar Kokoshka’s former lover.

In Holloway prison​, in March 1909, Constance Lytton decided to carve the words ‘Votes for Women’ across her chest. She had been locked up for taking part in suffragette protests but found that, as an aristocrat, she was receiving preferential treatment from the prison officers, and she didn’t like it. Lytton had serious establishment connections. She was the sister of a...

Punk Counterpunk

Bee Wilson, 20 November 2014

Some time in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking. She went to America and dressed the New York Dolls.

How much meat is too much?

Bee Wilson, 20 March 2014

Vegetarians, we say, are self-righteous and humourless; or fussy and weird; or like Hitler; we say that their diet makes them anaemic; that having to cater for them ruins every dinner party; that they are crazy not to eat bacon/lamb shanks/pepperoni because we evolved as hunter-gatherers; that their food smells horrible, and by implication, so do they; that it’s cruel to bring up a child vegetarian; that they are hypocrites, because how can they pretend to care about animal suffering when they still buy clothes from normal shops – and are those leather shoes by any chance?

In the National Theatre’s inaugural season in 1963 Michael Redgrave played Claudius to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet. Apart from Olivier, the theatre’s first director, Redgrave, then aged 55, was its greatest star. Known to the public from his many film roles, and having just been named actor of the year by the Evening Standard for his Uncle Vanya at Chichester, which one...

In March 1936, a few days after the German invasion of the Rhineland, Nancy Astor threw a party at 4 St James’s Square. As well as being the first woman MP (elected in 1919), Astor was a legendary hostess. To this particular dinner party she invited various League of Nations delegates, the American and Russian ambassadors, an assortment of English friends and Hitler’s ‘ambassador-at-large’, Joachim von Ribbentrop. She placed Ribbentrop next to her at dinner. After the meal, she announced some party games.

Asked​ in an exam at the age of 16 whether kings should be elected, the future Edward VII answered: ‘It is better than hereditary right because you have more chance of having a good sovereign, if it goes by hereditary right if you have a bad or weak sovereign, you cannot prevent him reigning.’ By Bertie’s feeble standards, this was a flash of insight. For the 59 years that...

‘In June 1943,’ Ben Macintyre writes, the spymaster Tar Robertson ‘reached the startling conclusion that every single German agent in Britain was actually under his control. Not some, not most, but all of them.’ This changed the game of counter-espionage. As well as using their double agents defensively, to monitor German intelligence or to dupe the enemy into a false...

I and My Wife: Eva Braun

Bee Wilson, 5 January 2012

Eva Braun kept photograph albums. Whether lounging on the terrace at the Berghof or tagging along on a state visit to Italy, she was always snapping away. Her first and only proper job was selling rolls of film at Photohaus Hoffmann in Munich, and an interest in photography stayed with her during the 14 years of her relationship with Hitler. At the Führer’s various residences, she...

Look beyond the lips: Hedy Lamarr

Bee Wilson, 28 July 2011

Compared with most actresses, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t very interested in acting. She was an intelligent woman, capable of great things, but, beauty aside, the greatness didn’t show up on screen. If you only knew her through her performances in Algiers, Ecstasy or Samson and Delilah, you would never have thought it possible that she was jointly responsible for one of the great...

They Supped with the King: Mistresses

Bee Wilson, 6 January 2011

‘Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress – since I can’t be your wife?’ Ellen Olenska asks of Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. By this point in the novel, it has become obvious to us that Olenska and Archer are each other’s only chance of what Newland calls ‘a real life’. Newland’s...

My grandmother Elsie couldn’t bear to look at photographs of Princess Diana. A pretty face was spoiled, she felt, by the thick streak of kohl along the bottom of Diana’s eyes. Odder still, the kohl was sometimes blue. To Elsie, this was a form of self-mutilation: Diana might as well have taken crayons and scribbled all over herself. ‘Why must she do it?’ Elsie would...

Why are you so fat? Coco Chanel

Bee Wilson, 7 January 2010

Spray a rose scent and you think of roses. A jasmine scent, and you think of jasmine blossom. The representations may be better or worse – you may smell a rose perfume and think: this smells nothing like real roses – but they are imitations even so, however pale. The genius of Chanel No. 5, invented by Coco Chanel in collaboration with Ernest Beaux in 1920-21, is that – in...

Cloche Hats and Perms: Bonnie and Clyde

Bee Wilson, 10 September 2009

Easter Sunday fell on April Fools’ Day in 1934. A young woman called Bonnie Parker was sitting in a field by a narrow dirt road near the town of Grapevine, Texas, playing with a white rabbit that she had named Sonny Boy. She was waiting for her mother, to whom she intended to give the rabbit as an Easter present, but the rendezvous got delayed. By the time Sonny Boy finally met his new...

‘I went into a milk-house; they brought me some cream-cheese curds and whey, and two slices of that excellent Piedmont bread, which I prefer to any other; and for five or six sous I had one of the most delicious meals I ever recollect to have made.’ Thus Rousseau in his Confessions, where he also writes about his liking for pears, his fear of pastry shops, his fondness for starting...

No Strings: Pinocchio

Bee Wilson, 1 January 2009

If you only know the Disney film, it comes as a shock to read the original story of Pinocchio and discover that the Talking Cricket is killed by Pinocchio at their very first meeting. This unusual creature, who has lived in Geppetto’s house for a hundred years, offers Pinocchio a ‘great truth’, solemnly advising him that he will never come to any good if he doesn’t...

‘The word “clue”,’ Kate Summerscale writes, ‘derives from “clew” meaning a ball of thread or yarn.’ In mid-Victorian England, clues were satisfying objects to be grasped, then unknotted or unravelled. Clues pointed the way to go. On his way into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Theseus unravels a ball of red thread given him by Ariadne, so that...

Because the man himself is so ungainly, it is easy to overlook Michael Moore’s voice. Where his body seems ungovernable and a source of embarrassment to him – he often can’t bear to watch himself on screen – his voice is confident, almost suave. There’s a moment in his least known movie, The Big One (1997), where he launches effortlessly into a gravelly imitation of Dylan singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ before reverting, with a chuckle, to his own spoken voice. In his films, his physical appearance – in flannel shirt and outsize jeans – represents Moore the underdog, the champion of regular working folk.

Boudoir Politics: Lola Montez

Bee Wilson, 7 June 2007

Lola Montez was a dancer who couldn’t dance and a Spanish temptress who came from County Sligo. She was a fake: the world knew it, and so did she. Dishonest, profligate and almost entirely talentless, she was nevertheless stalked by the press in England, America and Europe from the mid-1840s until her death in 1861. Late in life, she charged more for one of her ‘lectures’ than Charles Dickens could command for his readings, and her doings would be reported in the same paragraph as news of Queen Victoria. Her fame was huge and preposterous. In an age before the moving image, she turned herself into a cartoonish celebrity: a woman acting as if she had the same sexual freedom as that afforded to men.

Pink and Bare: Nicole Kidman

Bee Wilson, 8 February 2007

To understand Nicole Kidman, David Thomson argues, you need to see a film called In the Cut. Not because Kidman is in it. She isn’t. The film stars Meg Ryan, is directed by Jane Campion and tells the story of how a lonely creative writing teacher, Fran, becomes involved with a cop (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating a string of particularly gruesome murders. As the film (which is based...

The Eerie One: Peter Lorre

Bee Wilson, 23 March 2006

He thought they looked like two soft-boiled eggs, others preferred to call them poached. Either way, any attempt to describe the appearance of Peter Lorre must deal with those eyes. What teeth are to Julia Roberts and lips to Angelina Jolie, his bulging eyes were to Peter Lorre, his unavoidable calling card and a feature quite out of proportion with the norm. He featured in Looney Tunes more than once as a caricature – just two vast eyes and a menacing whine. Many adjectives have been applied to Lorre’s eyes, but none is adequate to convey their peculiar intensity, the way they veered between kindness and madness, and the manner in which he made them protrude even further when he wrinkled his forehead and wiggled his ears, which he often did. Lorre, who enjoyed disconcerting strangers by staring them down, boasted that it was impossible to look into both his eyes at once. ‘When I worked with actors I liked,’ he reminisced, Humphrey Bogart being the chief example, ‘I taught them how to act with me: “Just pick one eye and look at it. The camera will never know the difference.”’

Who was it who invented the first black cakes Or the uncounted poppy-seed? Who mix’d The yellow compounds of delicious sweetmeats?

This was one of many questions asked by the poet Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists, a long series of dialogues on food and dining. If Athenaeus, who lived 1800 years ago, couldn’t, how much less equipped are we to answer questions about the way the...

Schlepping around the Flowers: bees

James Meek, 4 November 2004

Not long after​ the First World War, the movie baron Samuel Goldwyn set up a stable of Eminent Authors in an attempt to give silent screenplays more literary weight. One of the recruits was the...

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