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Writer and philosopher whose work, beginning with ‘The Outsider’, searched for the meaning of man’s existence

OPERA / Wagner for beginners: As Covent Garden gets a new 'Ring', Michael White introduces the most daunting of operas

RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883) dominates modern culture like no other artist in any discipline. W H Auden reckoned him 'the greatest genius that ever lived'. Thomas Mann thought that nothing in the annals of creativity compared with the Wagner operas, apart from 'a few Gothic cathedrals'. And if Wagner is all superlatives - the mightiest, grandest, longest, loudest - the superlatives pile to their dizziest heights on the Ring cycle (1853-74), which is the biggest thing an opera house can undertake, and the most daunting prospect an opera-goer has to face: 15 hours of music spread across four nights with the instalments getting longer as they go. By the fourth night, when you've already clocked up Das Rheingold, Die Walkure and Siegfried, you arrive for what is probably the 4.30pm start of Gotterdammerung knowing that Act I alone is longer than Boheme or Tosca and you won't be out before 11. This is not an evening to round off a hard day at the office.

Jesus beats Marx for Labour politicians

THE BIBLE has overtaken Karl Marx in the affections of Labour MPs. According to a new survey, Tony Blair's emphasis on 'ethical socialism' is not just a public relations stunt: in sharp contrast to their predecessors in the Seventies, the Labour MPs of the Nineties have been influenced more by the Bible than by Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto.

Glossary: Look out, he's a bit of a personality

KELVIN MacKENZIE's explanation that he was leaving BSkyB because of a 'personality clash' moved only seven-eighths of the way towards absolute candour.

THEATRE ROUND UP / Passion plays

When David Mamet tried to write about feminism, he lost his cool completely and turned into a snarling reactionary; in the gentle ambience of the Richmond Theatre, Rod Beacham takes us on a subversive journey of sexual discovery and female emancipation. It's a bloodless revolution.

TELEVISION / Long Runners: No 31: Desert Island Discs

Age: 52. It started in 1942. The first castaway was the comedian Vic Oliver.

Hanging on to childhood

THERE can't be many people in Britain who don't know about the Save the Children Fund. It has the kind of patron every charity must pray for in the Princess Royal, and its advertising campaigns are both extensive and insistent. When it comes to finding attention-grabbing pictures for their campaigns, charities are just as competitive as commercial companies. Compassion fatigue is a visual complaint as well as an economic one, and charities are always searching for new images which will get their message across. Later this month, it will be 75 years since Eglantyne Jebb, a philanthropic late-Victorian with a degree from Lady Margaret Hall (class of 1895) and a firm belief in women's suffrage, launched the Save the Children Fund with her sister Dorothy Buxton. Their appeal at the Royal Albert Hall on 19 May 1919 was for money to help starving refugees in Europe after the First World War. They were criticised for nurturing 'children of the enemy'. Even now SCF likes to quote George Bernard Shaw's defence: 'I have no enemies under seven.'

THEATRE / A question of class: Paul Taylor on Josie Lawrence in Pip Broughton's production of Pygmalion at the Nottingham Playhouse

The pulling power of television-comedy stars and pop singers has not been lost on Nottingham Playhouse during the artistic directorship of Pip Broughton. Remember The Pocket Dream, which gave impro-merchants Mike McShane and Sandi Toskvig the chance to brush-up and bash up their Shakespeare in a show where A Midsummer Night's Dream featured as an amusingly shambolic play-within-the-play performed by hapless amateurs? Or Tony Slattery, bravely italicising the rebarbative clever- dick side of his persona as the sarcastic, bumptious nihilist in Neville's Island? or Toyah Wilcox going classical on Therese Raquin?

Virago founder looks to Labour: Carmen Callil leaves publishing to take up politics

CARMEN CALLIL, one of Britain's most successful publishers, and co-founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, may bring her talents to the Labour Party after deciding to leave publishing for good.

A rewarding challenge for employers

Much has been written in recent months on the question of whether rewards can really motivate employees. Leading academics, such as Alfie Kohn writing in the Harvard Business Review, argue that performance incentives inevitably degrade employees by focusing attention on the reward.

MUSIC / Where words fail: In the light of a new series of concert handbooks, Bayan Northcott asks to what extent words can ever explain music

In September 1957, listeners to the BBC Third Programme were treated to a curious performance of Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K421. For between its actual movements, the Aeolian String Quartet proceeded to interpolate a kind of composed commentary - juxtaposing apparently unrelated ideas from different parts of the work; gradually transforming one thematic shape into another, and so on - by that provocative young critic, teacher and theorist, Hans Keller.

Fast footwork by a cool witness

WHEN SOMEONE looks unflappable, their demeanour calm and relaxed, always keep a weather eye on the feet. Yesterday, under the chief witness's table, the Prime Minister's pedal extremities were given to some frenetic tapping.

Losing sight of the true Tory crusade: 'Back to basics' always was about sex and morality. How else could the permissive society be tackled, asks Edward Leigh

JOHN MAJOR has a sense of humour and he must laugh at the cartoons of him dressed as a Y-fronted superman. The cartoons and this week's events remind me of what George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman, that 'an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable'.

BOOK REVIEW / Quite a lot to answer for: The Penguin book of interviews - ed Christopher Silvester, pounds 18.99

IN THE introduction to his recent collection of essays, Martin Amis proposes that 'the star interview is dead' - robbed of any credibility or bite by the expert strategems of celebrity marketing: 'The great post-modern celebrities are a part of their publicity machines and that is all you are ever going to write about: their publicity machines. You review the publicity machine.'

TELEVISION / Down, out and deprived of redemption

'SAFE', last night's Screenplay (BBC 1), was the most sustained passage of misery to cross our screens for many years. It was like getting into a fight with a drunk: a bruising, frightening scuffle that moved too fast and wouldn't stop for explanations or defence; and when it finished and Billy Bragg's doleful ballad sent you packing with a flea in your ear the best you could manage was to let your breath out in a long, exhausted sigh. It was simply horrible, and there were no consolations.

Shaw bequest

Money left to the British Library by the playwright George Bernard Shaw has not reached its proper destination, Labour protested. The party's national heritage spokeswoman, Ann Clwyd, claimed that most of the money he bequeathed had gone to the British Museum.
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Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
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Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there