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Brian Viner: The joy of what's overheard

Those of us long-sufferers who regularly rely on Britain's benighted railway network to get from A to B, preferably not via C, let alone with buses laid on from D to E, all have our pet irritations. One of my latest is the failure, more often than you'd believe possible, of the seat reservation service.

The great British enthusiast

Plane spotters, chess champions, marathon runners and historical re-enactors are just a few of the British ‘enthusiasts’ captured through the lens of street photographer Matt Stuart.

In the Penal Colony, Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Theatre

As an expression of ecstatic joy in ultimate self-harm, Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ has never been bettered. A prison officer describes in fetishist detail how he intends to put a condemned man to death, using a contraption which will carve the victim’s judgment on his naked back as he dies by slow degrees.

Plunge into Chatham's naval history

“Best reinvention of a de-commissioned dockyard" – I’m not sure if there is such a prize, but if there is, then I have no doubt of the winner. One good reason that Britain ruled the waves (mostly) from Elizabethan times to the Second World War was Chatham Dockyard, a place of tremendous energy and innovation. HMS Victory was just one of the ships that was launched here.

Denzil Freeth: Politician celebrated for his charm and oratory and

It is over 45 years since Denzil Freeth retired from the House of Commons and 55 years since he was first elected as an MP for Basingstoke. For those of us in the 1959-64 parliament, Freeth was the most sparkling orator and debater, Enoch Powell included. Had I been asked to place a bet in 1962 as to who would lead the Conservative Party in 1982, my money would have been on Freeth. The exact reasons why he abruptly halted a dazzling political career, resigning from office on 23 October 1963, were unclear to his contemporaries; but those were days when neither parliamentary colleagues nor lobby and political journalists wanted to pry into the private lives of those in public life accused of no crime. But it was the febrile atmosphere which followed the Vassal and Profumo cases, and Freeth indicated to friends that he did not want to pursue the hazards of public life.

The Diary: Paul Auster; Jerry Moffat; Punch magazine; Penny Woolcock

The New York novelist Paul Auster has declared "civil war" amid the Obama-bashing currently taking place in Middle America. "I really thought when Obama was elected, the civil war would be over. We are not fighting with bullets but this country is deeply divided. I thought his election proved that forces of progress had won but it seems that it has only made divisions more rancorous." So poisonous is the atmosphere, he says, even in America's most liberal city, that he likened it to the Vietnam War. "I have never seen the country so divided, maybe during the Vietnam War it was similar." Auster said he was not among the cynics who thought Obama hadn't done enough to deserve his recent Nobel Peace Prize: "I thought, fine, who else has promoted peace as much? I think he's a remarkable person, he has done a lot of things... he's talked to the Arab world directly, he walked into this job when it looked just like were facing a 1929-style crash. He is trying to make medical care reforms." Obama still has one fierce fan.

Coming Soon: Obsessive love is in the air

The narcotic beauty of Die Tote Stadt (pictured) sets the tone for a season of music inspired by obsessive love. Opening 27 January at the Royal Opera House, London (020-7304 4000), Willy Decker's Salzburg Festival production of Korngold's opulently scored opera represents another chance for British audiences to assess the "Viennese Puccini", though they won't have to wait too long for the real one.