A subscription to Slightly Foxed magazine or our limited edition books would make an ideal present for those who love to read. | Browse and buy gift subscriptions | From £44
A subscription to Slightly Foxed magazine or our limited edition books would make an ideal present for those who love to read. | Browse and buy gift subscriptions | From £44
It wasn’t at first sight the sort of book I would choose, but there was nothing else remotely interesting on the single shelf in the charity shop. The dust-jacket showed a number of vapidly drawn images of Parisian life in pale reds and yellows. The title, A Girl in Paris, was not encouraging. But on the back was glowing praise by Patrick Leigh Fermor for a previous work by the author, Shusha Guppy. I opened it and was hooked.
‘The associated podcast launched a year or so ago reflects the erudition, intelligence and wide-ranging enthusiasm of the magazine and its contributors.’
Biographer and academic Jane Ridley and screenwriter and novelist Daisy Goodwin join the Slightly Foxed Editors to reveal the wealth to be found in royal biographies, memoirs and historical novels. From the remarkable diaries of Queen Victoria and the extraordinary life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria to Prince Albert’s cashmere breeches, a cottage meal at Sissinghurst with the Queen Mother, and Edward VII’s many mistresses, the parade of tales about the lives and loves of royal people roams far and wide. And we go on a on a quest for Queen Mary with James Pope-Hennessy in this month’s hunt through the magazine’s archives.
I guess (but I don’t know, since it’s not often a hot topic of conversation) that every amateur indexer has his or her own way of working. Since our joint IT expertise would shame most 10-year-olds and certainly does not extend to using a computer’s indexing facility, my husband and I use pencil and paper. Tried and tested over the course of twenty-five indexes of varying lengths and complexity, this old-fogeyish no-tech method has served us well, but never more so than when compiling the index to Sowing the Wind, John’s twentieth – century history of the Middle East.
It seems amazing that Ann Schlee’s work is not known to everyone, because she has always had her following and is still writing, but her four big novels written between the 1970s and 1996 are now out of print and hard to find.
I hunted for his books as well as for the miscellanies and magazines that featured his work. Though his entertaining, much-quoted Memoirs of the Forties soon reappeared in paperback, the rest of his surprisingly extensive output was hard to obtain. Due to their scarcity, his books commanded prices way beyond what I could afford. When I mentioned this to a flatmate who had access to a well-stocked reference library, my friend offered to smuggle out the ones I wanted. The first was the novel Of Love and Hunger, handed over to me at a furtive rendezvous. Before returning it a fortnight later, I photocopied the entire book. Confronted by a stack of smudgily duplicated pages, I felt like a Soviet dissident poring over a samizdat volume.
It is 8 a.m. on a September Sunday in New Delhi. The garden below is still fresh and green before the heat of the day, and pigeons bill and coo on the air-conditioning unit outside the bedroom window. There is a discreet knock at the door, and a tray of ‘bed tea’ is silently placed beside us, accompanied by the morning papers. As I sip (tea with hot milk – an unfamiliar taste), I turn to my favourite section of the Hindustan Times, the ten pages of ‘Matrimonials’.
John Ruskin’s Praeterita is one of the most exhilarating books I know, and I often go back to it. For most of his life the great art-critic-cum-sage was writing books to educate people. Once, when a reader told him how much he enjoyed his books, Ruskin answered, ‘I don’t care whether you enjoyed them. Did they do you any good?’ But at the end of his life, when he feared he was going mad, he felt he must abandon all the religious and aesthetic and social controversy of his life, and write a book that just recalled the happiness of his youth. The result was Praeterita – ‘past things’.
Rereading the books of one’s youth is always a hazardous business, since a magic once lost can never be regained, so I contemplated a fresh assault on A Square of Sky with pleasure tinged with dread. Not that I was that young when I read it last, back in the early 1970s: I’d turned 30, and was working as London’s most ineffectual literary agent. I much preferred memoirs and autobiographies to biographies or post-Victorian novels, and Janina David’s account of her childhood in wartime Poland struck me as a fine example of the genre.
At the top of some concrete stairs, in a slightly run-down area of London near Sadler’s Wells, is a room with a magic carpet, otherwise known as Eland Books. Open an Eland book and you are miraculously transported to another time and place – imperial India perhaps, or sixteenth-century Turkey, Ireland in the 1950s, or Germany just before the Second World War.
Once met, I rarely dislike a person. But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence. So it was with Wyndham Lewis. I never met him but I might easily have done so, since I often begged J. R. Ackerley, the brilliant literary editor of The Listener and a close friend of us both, to effect an introduction. But Ackerley, always oddly fearful that, if he brought any two of his friends together, he might lose both of them, did nothing.
It is laconic and simple, non-romantic in that Slocum refuses to be a lone hero struggling against the terrifying sea. Rather, he is at home in the ocean wilderness, insisting that ‘the wonderful sea charmed me from the first’. Spray is his companion as much as a boat: ‘The Spray enjoyed many civilities while she rode at anchor.’ Revisiting Sailing Alone after more than thirty years, I was reminded of Slocum’s trick of appearing as a self-effacing guest, reading and cooking while the trusty Spray gets on with the job of sailing, holding her course with the wheel secured.
In Issue 1, I described the tradition in Chinese books of placing an illustration above a solid block of text on each page, a tradition that I set out to revive in my Chinese cookery manual.
No book has exposed my own double standard to me more clearly than Dancer by Colum McCann. A fictional portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, told from many angles in many different voices, it opens with one of the best short evocations of battle that I have ever read, as Russian soldiers return from the front at the end of the Second World War. The picture narrows to an industrial town in the remote hinterland where a boy watches the trains come in, waiting for his father. Then we see him being handed through a hospital window to perform folk dances for the wounded; he is a prodigy, who makes even the human wrecks drinking meths draw breath.
Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi has the strange distinction of being the only nineteenth-century Egyptian writer with his very own website. I first heard about him in a lecture by the French journalist and political scientist Guy Sorman. Sorman had just published a book on the Muslim world called Les enfants de Rifa‘a and started off by explaining the enigmatic title.
We all remember the first novels we read of our own volition, unprompted by parents or schoolmasters: in my case these were John Buchan’s stories of the adventures of Richard Hannay. We were in the throes of the Second World War and so First World War novels had a special relevance. When, therefore, half a century later, a reviewer of one of my own books said that the narrative read like ‘something out of Buchan’ (though he may not have meant it as an unqualified compliment), I regarded it as the ultimate accolade: Buchan had been a role model and Hannay was my hero.
I found a copy of Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel in a small bookshop in Dehra Dun in northern India. It was the dust jacket that caught my eye – a pen-and-ink drawing of a pair of large gnarled feet in shabby sandals, crossed, and resting on a balcony rail. Irresistible. The bookseller peered over my shoulder. ‘He lives here,’ he said, with a wide smile of pride. ‘Did you know?’ I didn’t. I had never heard of Allan Sealy. But a local author writing about local matters, places, people? Whether it lived up to its cover or not, it was the right book to read then, and there.
I suppose Tom Thumb in the fairy story is usually the first extremely small live person we come across. Early on we’re charmed by the miniature world of dolls’ houses, but the people in them are often lumpishly out of proportion to the finely detailed furniture and possessions they may live among – and they have no opinions, and they never eat the midget food upon their midget plates.
Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I am talking about.
‘Everything he wrote was total bilge. Apart, that is to say, from A Grief Observed. The man was a genius when it came to describing grief. I have to give him that. If you are coming to terms with a serious loss – as I am – you can’t beat A Grief Observed. You should read it.’
Once upon a time, or until about 1960 that is, there existed a genre of horticultural literature called, colloquially, ‘the chatty gardening book’. In fact, the phrase did these books less than justice, for they were generally interesting, amusing, literary works written by educated, cultured people for the edification of an equally educated gardening readership. I collect as many as I can find in second-hand bookshops for, even if the spelling of plant names in them is sometimes archaic, they are still a pleasure to read.
In 2002 Anthony Rota, a fourth-generation bookseller, published his memoirs of the antiquarian trade. He has known it for most of his life whereas I only came into it in 1965 after graduating from Cambridge. I was based in Curzon Street, while his shop was in Savile Row, but both of us might well have used the title of his book, Books in the Blood. In it he recalled some of the deals he had done, as well as two or three that he had notably missed, the many friends he made and the life of a West End bookshop before the era of the Internet.
My first encounter with Memoirs of Hadrian was during a brief holiday in Andalusia. As I drove north from Málaga into the snow-covered hills, my husband turned to the first page. Within a sentence we were transported into the second century ad; a few pages later we realized we were traversing the very same landscape Hadrian had known as a boy. It was in the hills and forests around Seville that he learned to ride and to hunt: ‘The kill in a Spanish forest was my earliest acquaintance with death and with courage.’
Ghali wrote his novel while living in poverty in Germany. The book was published in 1964 by André Deutsch and, as a result, Ghali met Diana Athill, who worked at Deutsch and is now best known for her autobiography Stet. ‘I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners, and an oppressed foreigner who could shrug off hardship in order to look at things with the humour and perceptiveness shown in his book was one whom I would certainly like.’
When I was a small boy, a holiday treat would be to visit my father who, for several decades, was the advertising manager of Pontings department store, the least glamorous if most worthy of its siblings on Kensington High Street, Barkers and Derry & Toms. There were a variety of routes through the store – via Ladies’ Coats, Hardware or maybe the domed Linen Hall – leading eventually to the roof-top office where my father and his staff were enveloped in a chaos of merchandise sent up by each buyer to be advertised on the back of the Evening Standard or included in the latest catalogue. Young though I was, I became infected with a strong desire to possess things, which all but the most ascetic of us probably share. This is what makes Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise such a pleasure, even if, by the end, a guilty one.
If the figures of history are paraded before the mind’s eye, century by century, once the 1750s are reached one seems suddenly to be looking through a zoom lens. The procession of more-or-less august personages, remote and rather incomprehensible, conventionally portrayed and stiffly posed, and speaking or writing in stilted formulae, is elbowed aside by an animated and colourful crowd, all in close focus. Their faces and their pens are equally lively: here at last are men and women with whom we would like to converse, at whose jokes we could laugh, and with whom it would be our good fortune to become friends.
‘What’s that book that’s making you laugh so much?’ said my wife. It was my old Everyman Lavengro, still for some reason in its bright red dust jacket, now tattered and torn. It’s a reprint of Everyman’s 1906 edition and it has a curiously hostile introduction by Thomas Seccombe, who a few years later was to be given the Chair of English Literature at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Poor George Borrow, he declared, ‘had anything but a fluent pen’, his inventive faculty was small, his style ‘peculiarly dry’, and he wrote only because he had to.
Goshawk Squadron, a story of the war in the air over the Western Front, is the missing link between Catch-22 and Blackadder. It was Derek Robinson’s first novel, published in 1971, and it was immediately short-listed for the Booker Prize, joining the likes of V. S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Mordecai Richler. The judges were no lightweights, either: Saul Bellow, John Fowles, Lady Antonia Fraser and Philip Toynbee, under the chairmanship of John Gross. Not an alternative comedian in sight.
Published in 1981, Among the Believers is the account of a journey through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution. Its subject, the Muslim fundamentalist revival, was not yet much of an issue inside Britain. (Naipaul made the journey again in 1995 for a sequel, Beyond Belief, but this first encounter with Islam proved to be the more revealing.)
Like everyone else, I had been shocked and baffled by the attacks on America. And although I had read a good deal of the torrent of punditry unleashed by the events of September 11, I was little closer to understanding them. Since I was in the middle of writing a book about the Muslim Uighurs of China, I snatched the paperback up.
I blame my grandmother. She was a great beach walker, scouring the coast for seashells thrown up by the Indian Ocean. She had eyes like a hawk, even at 60, finely tuned to any hint of a polished cowrie or the bright edge of a fan-shaped scallop half buried in the sand. And she was wonderfully generous, seeding our dawn searches with rare specimens left invitingly in my path.
‘Her whole life was spent riding at breakneck speed towards the wilder shores of love.’ Lesley Blanch’s memorable description of Jane Digby el Mezrab supplied the title of her first book and her contribution to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; it has passed into the language, and places the writer definitively in her chosen emotional and geographical landscape. Saturated with movement and high drama, the image is outlandish, exotic, flagrantly romantic, with a hint of opéra bouffe.
It’s 1991 and the recession is beginning to bite. Publishers’ accountants are staring at unearned balances, and reputations – for being artistic, for having introduced a ‘new voice’ or style – are about to be shown up for what they are: froth on the daydream, in the unforgettable (and pretentious) words of the French surrealist writer Boris Vian. Everywhere, writers are talking of TV opportunities – or even, as rumour has it that Paramount are about to open a London office, the true daydream, that of the Hollywood blockbuster.
As well as being a rattling good read, Sabine Baring-Gould’s bloodstained historical romance Cheap Jack Zita is full of coincidences that make me feel rather possessive about it. It’s set in Ely for one thing, and so am I – admittedly not quite the Ely of 1816, though reading the book, it’s surprising to see how little the place has changed in the past 200 years.
I once met a girl who was writing a thesis on Conrad. Her opinion of Nostromo was nothing if not passionate. ‘It’s like Conrad means to bore you to death,’ she recommended. ‘You must read it!’ So I did. I set out into the novel one morning and then kept on going for a couple of days, crouching by the coal fire of a scruffy student kitchen, staving off hunger with big basins of porridge.
The term ‘masterpiece’ is often used lazily as a bit of instant praise, but the dictionary definition is actually ‘a production surpassing in excellence all others by the same hand’. So, strictly, you can only produce one masterpiece. Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) may have had this on his mind when he began his book The Unquiet Grave: ‘The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.’ He, alas, never produced a major work to earn the distinction himself, and he will mainly be remembered as the founder (with Stephen Spender) of the literary magazine Horizon and as the principal book reviewer of the Sunday Times in the period after the Second World War.
Garden-writing is always either grimly concerned with the nuts and bolts of gardening’s practicalities or with its latest and flashiest fashions. The first kind is written by mere doers, the second by mere puffers, therefore neither is of any interest as writing. Gardening, and by extension writing about gardening, is something done better in Britain than anywhere else, certainly better than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again, dear reader. A single slim volume, Gardening for Love by Elizabeth Lawrence, delicately but devastatingly disposes of all those fallacies.
My first copy of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea was a twelfth birthday present, given to me in 1956. It was Cassell’s expurgated ‘Cadet Edition’, intended for a generation who knew little about the war during which they had been born. While Monsarrat’s publishers thought we should be acquainted with the Battle of the Atlantic, they clearly considered that we would come in our own time to adultery and what was then breathlessly referred to as ‘premarital sexual intercourse’. What mattered was access to Monsarrat’s brilliant evocation of a grim campaign at sea. I read it as I bumped into school on the Northern Line and have been haunted by it ever since.
Every year as many as eleven thousand novels may be published in Britain, of which only a handful amount to much. So it is all the more surprising to come across a masterpiece. Such is Embers by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai. I found myself so gripped by this elegiac novel, so seduced by its limpid prose, that when I came to the final page I turned back to the first and began to reread.
Once Upon Another Time is Jessica Douglas-Home’s account of the part she herself played in an extraordinary private enterprise which came to be known as ‘the Oxford visitors’. The story began with Julius Tomin, a philosophy teacher who had been ejected from his university position in Czechoslovakia. He continued openly, but unofficially, to teach courses for students expelled from Charles University on political grounds. He and his students were subjected to violence and harassment, and the strict control of access to books imposed by the authorities led to their losing touch entirely with the course of learning in the West. In 1979 Tomin wrote a letter to many Western universities, inviting lecturers to visit and speak at his seminars. Oxford was the only university to respond.
Suddenly, out of the blue, one morning in December 1965, a letter arrived on the delightfully old-fashioned headed notepaper of the Poetry Society (‘Patron, Sir Compton Mackenzie, LL.D., F.R.S.L., President, Professor Nevill Coghill, M.A., F.R.S.L.’), written, but not signed, by Robert Armstrong, Secretary and Treasurer.
John Smith, it said, had decided that a four-year stint as Editor of the Poetry Review was ‘about enough’. He and Armstrong had undertaken ‘an intimate review’ of the situation, and were now writing to ask whether I might care to take on the job.
Not many pleasures attach to growing old. And as former pleasures pass away one by one, fewer still emerge, new and unrehearsed. Reading, albeit more slowly and through spectacles, remains a source of knowledge and provides the increasingly rare frisson of sheer delight. Most unexpectedly in my perilously lengthening lifetime, however, arrived the spanking new and rejuvenating joy of rereading.
A Little Bush Maid began as a serial, from newspaper articles which Minnie (as she was christened) Grant Bruce – a jobbing journalist in Melbourne – had contributed to the children’s page she edited. Popular demand made her editor suggest they might make a book. Though it still seems thinly episodic, it does introduce the main cast of characters: David Linton, the owner of Billabong, who had turned ‘in a night from a young man to an old one’ when his wife died; Norah herself, a tomboy and apple of her father’s eye; her big brother, Jim, away at boarding-school some of the time, an athlete and no intellectual, but straight as a die; Wally Meadows his mate, dark and cheerful, ‘a wag of a boy . . . [who] straightaway laid his boyish heart down at Norah’s feet, and was her slave from the first day they met’; Mrs Brown, the cook, ‘fat, good-natured and adoring’; black Billy, the stable-hand, whose command of English is limited to the word ‘plenty’; Mr Hogg the gardener; his sworn enemy, Lee Wing, the Chinese vegetable gardener (complete with queue, or pigtail); Mr Groom, the English storekeeper, who tries to teach Norah to play the piano by more than just ear; Murty O’Toole, head stockman; Dave Boone, one of the station-hands; Sarah and Mary, Irish housemaids; and of course the dogs and the horses, particularly Norah’s pony, Bobs. At the centre of the plot is the Hermit, whom Norah befriends and who turns out to be David Linton’s long-lost friend, an accountant wrongly accused of dishonesty, who as a consequence had faked his own death before hiding away in the bush.
Faced with a new book, an illustrator ponders. Should the illustrations decorate the page or interpret the text? Should they interpret it scene by scene or accompany it at a distance as a visual counterpoint? Will they be simple visualizations, getting the costumes, settings and characters as ‘anyone’ would wish to see them, or a more personal interpretation? Will they be chapter headings, full pages or vignettes? How many have been commissioned, how frequently will they occur? Will their even placing coincide with illustratable moments, or will favourite scenes have to be ditched and minor ones brought forward?
Recently I was given a copy of The Music at Long Verney: Twenty Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was a revelation. Years ago, when I was a struggling art student, I read and loved her novels, but I somehow failed to discover the short stories. Many had first appeared in The New Yorker, and eight collections in all were published. I began to read, and there was the gracious world of the mind that I remembered from her novels, the lush sentences with their ravishing, tumbling clauses, delicious rhythms, exquisite imagery, painterly detail, the fantastic sense of place.
My favourite Russian writer-doctor is not Anton Chekhov but Mikhail Bulgakov, who describes with aching clarity the slow and at times humiliating road to acquiring what London taxi-drivers call ‘the knowledge’. (Shortly before his death from renal disease in 1940, Bulgakov wrote of medics: ‘I won’t call doctors murderers, that would be too harsh, but I will call them casual untalented hacks.’)
I first discovered Theodor Storm about eight years ago when someone sent me a copy of The Dykemaster in an excellent translation by Denis Jackson. I say excellent, not because of its truth to the original German, of which I’m not competent to judge, but because of its strong and consistently evocative English; like all good translations, it brings its own flavour to the story.
Some books arrive out of the blue and virtually save one’s life, and Douglas Botting’s biography of Gavin Maxwell was one such book for me. I was lying in my hospital bed after an unscheduled operation, and had implored my sister-in-law to bring me a novel by Trollope, as nothing had cheered me so much during a previous illness as The Small House at Allington. I had rarely felt more in need of cheering up.
Greetings from No. 53 where we’ve been busy with subscriptions, renewals and book orders thanks to those of you who’ve been adding to your Foxed reading lists. We’re very grateful as the office is now looking shipshape and ready for the arrival of the spring quarter’s offerings in just a few weeks’ time. Before we look ahead to the new season, we’re looking back through the SF archives. This article by Valerie Grove appears as the preface to our pocket paperback edition of Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love, in which we meet the funny, complicated, creative young reader who became a much beloved writer.
For those like me who look out for, and sometimes even retain, useless knowledge, the first World’s Classic, published in 1901, was Jane Eyre; the last in the original pre-paperback series, published in 1973, was Crime and Punishment. The latter was No. 619, making the series many hundred volumes shorter than the original Everyman edition of classics, and many hundreds longer than the modern Everyman which started in 1992. If you had read even half of its remarkable range, you could consider yourself very widely read.
They were also convinced that there was a niche to be filled. So they set about raising money from friends and well-wishers – not a lot, just enough to get started – and in June 2003 launched the Maia Press. The name is based on a version of their two Christian names. Maia, they later discovered, was, serendipitously, the Greek word for ‘midwife’ – an eminently suitable name for a small literary publisher.
To compensate for this structural flaw, I went to Athens and had the adventure I wanted to have. Then I nipped back to Rome, found a seedy pensione and holed up there until he arrived. For two days I lived on peaches and pasta and read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
Baldwin’s famous novel was published in 1956 when he was becoming not only America’s foremost black homosexual writer but also a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin outspokenly held white America accountable for the racism poisoning its society. He insisted that, because whites could not love themselves, they could not love their black brothers and sisters, and that they paid for their persecution ‘by the lives they led’. Yet Giovanni’s Room contains not a single black character. It is as if Baldwin is writing above race and gender in order to draw universal conclusions. The boldness of the enterprise still astonishes me.
A parasite is often to be admired for its ingenuity and persistence, even if it isn’t always attractive. A friend of mine once discovered a worm in his bed. It had come from his own body and had been living there for several months, beginning its tour in the previous March, when it manifested itself by giving him a cough and a bad chest. He found this out later when researching the life of the roundworm, which had apparently completed a convoluted journey round his interior, beginning in the spring. ‘The female roundworm’, he said proudly, ‘lays a quarter of a million eggs a day!’
It is perhaps a good idea to take this sort of positive view of parasitism, because, according to W. H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples, we are all parasites. ‘Most human lives’, he writes, ‘are caught in a precarious equilibrium between the microparasitism of disease organisms and the macroparasitism of large-bodied predators, chief among which have been other human beings,’ the sort involved in ‘war, plunder, enslavement, tax farming’.
The one thing that five of the six Stefan Zweig books currently in print in Britain have most strikingly in common is not the author’s consistency of style but his photograph opposite the title page. The most famous of these, The Royal Game, notorious in European and American chess circles for decades, is the only one innocent of his image, the publisher preferring instead to show us a sketch of the battleground whereupon that so-called royal game is fought. The photograph in the other five books is warmly revealing. Herr Zweig’s devilish Viennese smile – as evident yet as beautifully suppressed as a maître d’s as he spins a yarn to his richest and most despised customer that really, yes truly, there are no free tables tonight – underlines a polished French moustache which is given subtle uplift by the fourth finger of Zweig’s right hand lying against his cheek. Posing thus he exudes the supremely confident air of a conjuror, a salesman of Hispano-Suizas, a hypnotherapist; definitely someone not to be trusted – and one cannot help but speculate on what his left hand is doing.
The day before she died she was clambering over a pile of books on the floor of my study: novels used for teaching, reference books for the novel I was writing. She wasn’t used to being there. She clambered over the twentieth-century fiction, and a guide to Victorian china, in the same way she did everything: slowly, with a thoughtful curiosity, and a gaze as ancient as Greece.
It is peculiarly exciting to turn a page and find a strong personal emotion exactly distilled – an emotion hitherto believed to be one’s private idiosyncrasy. Around the age of 13 most bookish children break into verse (the literary equivalent of acne) and I then wrote a ‘poem’ about corncrakes – specifically, what their crake did to me (and continued to do until farming became agribusiness and the crake was heard no more.) On p. 282 of Woodbrook David Thomson says in a few words what I failed to say in several feverishly florid verses.
I first read Alison Uttley’s The Country Child over thirty years ago, when I was already in my twenties. I have always remembered it fondly, for it described a way of life that did not then seem so very far away. My grandmother was born in 1897 and I could still remember her stories of life on a remote Devon farm. When the book was reissued recently I read it again, this time with the eyes of a children’s librarian, wondering whether it would appeal to those brought up in very different times and from very different backgrounds.
I can’t remember the moment when I decided to allow Biggles some space in my new novel, but I imagine he just turned up one day, demanding attention. An ingrained loyalty to past escapism meant that I had to take him seriously. There’s an inner store in my mind, a bag of glittery details that I’ve accumulated over the years. Biggles was probably sitting waiting for the opportunity and jumped out when I was rummaging around for something else.
The ups and downs of literary reputations are often slightly mysterious. I still find it strange, though, that although we pay ample homage to most of the heavyweights of the nineteenth century, one of the best and liveliest of them all has been allowed to fade from view. Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) deserves much better than that. I find his writings – sceptical, dry and sparkling with wit – as rewarding today as when I first read them many years ago.
Last summer the two masters of travel writing, Norman Lewis and Wilfrid Thesiger, died within a month of each other. As Britain buried the last of her explorers and the best of her travel writers, it became clear that a literary threshold had been crossed. The obituaries were unanimous in their praise of these great men, a pair of triumphant individualists who were born with a zeal to record a vanishing world.
The notion of a long swim through Britain began in the pouring rain while Roger Deakin was swimming in his moat in Suffolk. The idea became an obsession and, inspired by John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, in which the hero Ned Merrill swims drunkenly home through a series of neighbours’ pools, he embarked on a random journey to swimming spots throughout the British Isles.
Scrolling idly through the SOAS Library’s subject catalogue, I must have brushed an unusual combination of keys, so activating a random function not mentioned on the options bar nor widely known to researchers. The feat has since proved impossible to repeat. But I keep trying; for it was thanks to this truly serendipitous action that up flashed a title which, for its crystal candour, can seldom have been bettered. Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos was so specific it had to be just that – a handbook and culinary guide to the fish to be found in landlocked Laos. The author was Alan Davidson, the publisher Prospect Books, the category ‘Long Loan’, and the status ‘Available’. Like a minnow into the reeds, I darted to the stacks.
I have always been interested in translations, for they can affect one nation’s view of another. Thanks to Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and a weepy film called Waterloo Road, for most Chinese,
London remains eternally wreathed in fog, never mind the Clean Air Acts. And translation can ensure that books long forgotten in their native place continue to thrive elsewhere.
I am next to a businessman at a formal dinner. The conversation dries up after the soup. At a loss, I ask what sort of books he enjoys. Risky, I know. Either he won’t read, ‘except on planes when I buy whatever I can find at the airport’, or his answer will be as revealing as if I had asked him to tell me his life story. I am lucky. My businessman, more interested in fiction than foreign exchange, tells me, the book junkie, of a wonderful American author of whom I am ignorant. I am eternally grateful to him and still have the scrap of paper – menu on one side, ‘Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose’, on the other – which I stuffed into my tiny bag.
Given that we’re talking in years, it is ironic that the book that stimulated this article deals with the most ephemeral entomological order, poetically described by Louis MacNeice as ‘One only day of May alive beneath the sun’. The American artist Gaylord Schanilec is illustrating and writing Mayflies of the Driftless Region, which he plans to publish in the autumn of 2005 under his Midnight Paper Sales imprint.
Only one masterpiece has ever been written about the game: Beyond a Boundary, by the intellectual and political agitator C. L. R. James. It is a book that transcends all other books on the subject in the same way that Sir Donald Bradman existed in a solitary eminence above all other batsmen. I don’t think that an English writer could ever have written a book of such calibre, because our literary culture has wrongly regarded sport as trivial. By contrast James treated cricket with deep moral seriousness, for in the West Indies, where he was born and bred, the game formed a central part of the culture of the islands. The most important theme of his book is how cricket created a new national consciousness which enabled the West Indies to shake off their colonial oppressors. The development of this argument confers a wonderful amplitude on Beyond a Boundary.
I got lucky in 1971. In that year’s Booker prize I came 2nd, or so Saul Bellow, one of the judges, said. Coming 2nd, of course, was like coming 102nd; nevertheless it boosted my ego, which got a further shot in the arm when the International Biographical Centre, based in Cambridge, wrote and said they would be pleased to include my entry in their International Who’s Who in Poetry. I was flattered, but there were two problems. The book cost £18, which I didn’t have. And I hadn’t written a line of poetry.
I owe the discovery of The Passing of a Hero and Conventional Weapons to a fellow-visitor to the London Library who, shrewdly interpreting the glazed stare of a fellow shelf-crawler, urged me to make my way to English fiction and look for Jocelyn Brooke.
Brooke is known today, although not widely, for three wartime novels – The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, which were reissued in 1981 by Secker & Warburg as ‘The Orchid Trilogy’. Unashamedly autobiographical, they use the twin devices of orchids and fireworks, subjects on which Brooke had acquired a rich store of recondite knowledge, to tell the story of Brooke’s upbringing in Kent, his years at Oxford and his experiences as a soldier posted to Italy in the Second World War.
‘The small material objects that surround one’s daily life have always influenced me deeply,’ wrote E. (Edith) Nesbit in her memoir Long Ago When I Was Young. In my mother’s old nursery were several such objects – a doll’s crib, a triangular book cupboard made by my great grandfather – but the smallest and most influential was a smiling Buddha-shaped figurine: Billikin, God of Things as They Ought to Be.
Every Christmas we went to see Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre in London, a faithful restaging of the original Edwardian production, and the second major influence in this fanciful child’s life. For if things really were As They Ought to Be, fairies and adventure would surely follow. It was inevitable, then, that of all the children’s books I loved, E. Nesbit’s magic trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, would take precedence over her more famous The Railway Children or The Story of the Treasure Seekers.
Halfway through Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous novel Gilead, the narrator, John Ames, a 77-year-old preacher in Iowa, makes this observation: ‘Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behaviour, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.’
It is unusual for moral responses to be set aside in favour of aesthetic ones in a theological context, especially (one might think) where the context is Calvinist. The practice is more familiar, even if it often goes unrecognized, in literature. It is, for example, one of the sustaining tensions of Tolstoy’s work – Anna concludes that Karenin is a bad man immediately after being disgusted by his clammy hand. More directly than most fiction, Gilead portrays an individual trying to make sense of his life. This might also serve as a description of the art of autobiography, and I immediately found myself applying Ames’s remark to a clutch of autobiographies I had recently read.
I was drawn to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 debut novel, for just such unintellectual reasons. I suppose I must have been about 17 at the time. From what I remember, my sudden urge to read this two-decade-old novel stemmed from seeing the 1960 film adaptation on TV. I was also curious because it was set in Nottingham, where I’d grown up.
I am, literally, a bad reader. I have mild dyslexia and well remember, when reading Peyton Place in my youth, taking ‘sonofabitch’ as ‘sofabitch’ and thinking it was a piece of bordello furniture. I am also partially sighted and have difficulty reading in either bright or low light; and with poor peripheral vision I tend to miss the ends of lines. So the advent of audio tapes and of the Talking Book (pioneered by the RNIB) has been a splendid thing for me.
It is a fair bet to say that, for most people under the age of 50, and those who are not jazz fans, the name Louis Armstrong is one associated – if recognized at all – with the sound of his voice (or, far worse, pastiches of it) singing ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ or ‘Hello Dolly’ on the backing tracks of commercials. A dimmer memory may come of a jovial old cove appearing in the film High Society, dueting with Bing Crosby and tooting a few notes on his trumpet. Even when Louis died in 1971, few of those who genuinely mourned the loss of a great entertainer had any knowledge of his true history or musical worth.
Good Morning, Midnight is in fact the fourth in a series of novels that draw largely on Jean Rhys’s own life. Sasha Jansen is a lonely, ageing alcoholic who, at the instigation of a worried friend, goes to spend a recuperative fortnight in Paris, where she had lived during her brief marriage. Now she wanders the streets, ‘remembering this, remembering that’. She has been so damaged by men that when happiness is within her grasp she is unable to prevent herself seeking revenge with a futile gesture of self-destruction.
The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Marin County, an affluent Bohemian suburb of San Francisco, the desired state of mind is ‘mellow’. And so the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners, in which Kate and Harvey Holroyd struggle to embrace the new Zeitgeist.
Do your favourite authors have a recognizable voice, so that you can identify them from a paragraph in the same way that you identify a voice over the telephone? Angela Thirkell has just such a voice, but even so she has been out of fashion since the 1960s – partly, I suspect, because her later work had a strongly rancorous tone. I’d never heard of her until I came to weed a technical college library in the ’70s and happened upon a hardback novel with a map of Barsetshire as a frontispiece. Who was this Thirkell woman?
Bad News by Edward St Aubyn is, quite simply, the best book ever written about drugs. Thomas de Quincey, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Cocteau, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Irvine Welsh and Will Self may all be writers roped together like mountaineers heading for the summit, but it is St Aubyn they will find at the top. I first came across the book about five years ago. There it was, quietly glowing away on a friend’s shelf. And from the moment I picked it up I knew it was a work of perfection. It fitted my own experience as seamlessly as a silk glove.
There’s an esprit de l’escalier peculiar to the writer, when your book has just gone to the printer and you hit upon something so crucial to it that you hop about for days cursing at the loss. So it is with me and Karel Čapek.
Eight winters ago in India I fled the manila-folder-bound desiccation of Delhi for the south and Kerala. The backwaters there have a sensuality that slides about you as you enter, moving you away from the frantic buzz of life, separating you from a sense of time and place. The slowness starts to seep into your skin, spreading itself over you, drinking you in.
I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, be it of labels on jam jars or the small print on the back of tax forms, aged copies of free newspapers left on seats on the London Underground, Peter Rabbit or Plato. Reading is more than pleasure, it’s like breathing. Generally, though, I read for aesthetic reasons (literature, to enjoy the writer’s skill), to keep up (newspapers and periodicals) or for escape (thrillers, the blacker the better). Or that was true before my mother died.
Recently, I noticed a rather irritating poster on the Underground proclaiming: ‘You never forget your first time.’ It was an advertisement for a villa holiday company – bizarrely – but the irritation I felt (since I am not annoyed by villa holidays per se) had to do with the too obvious double entendre. In fact, one does not forget the first time that one does quite a lot of things – seeing one’s name in print, for instance, or walking along Striding Edge, that most vertiginous of paths on to the top of Helvellyn – and certainly I have never forgotten the first time I read a gardening book.
The Longshoreman is the story of an obsession with fish, beginning when, as a boy in the 1940s, Richard Shelton explored the streams around his home in Buckinghamshire, and continuing right through the twenty years he spent as head of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry, in Scotland, from 1982 to 2001.
Eighty years ago Ian Suttie, a Scottish psychiatrist, wrote The Origins of Love and Hate, in which he fiercely criticized Freud’s theories. Freud saw human beings as ‘isolates wrestling with their instincts’, Suttie saw them as dreading isolation, ‘striving from the first to relate to [the] mother, and [their] future mental health turning on the success or failure of this first relationship’. Love was social rather than sexual in its biological function, thought Suttie, and was derived from a ‘self-preservation instinct rather than the genital appetite’.
Every season a couple of wonderful biographies emerge whose reviews and sales might lead one to believe that they will stay bestsellers for ever. A year or two later they are in no greater demand than thousands of other backlist titles. Examples of this might be Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana or David Gilmour’s Curzon. Both were rightly acclaimed, but after the flurry of reviews, after Christmas had come and gone, they joined others on the shelves as definitive works on rather specialized subjects whose future sales will be steady, but modest. This is not to derogate the books: it is just what happens.
Thirty-nine years ago I came to work at Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Curzon Street. Between school and Cambridge, I had worked for three months at Heffers, where Mr Reuben Heffer had cannily put me in the Science Department. It was the only part of the shop where I wouldn’t read the stock. This could hardly be called a preparation for the sophisticated carriage trade in the West End, and I had little inkling of what would be expected of me. At my interview with Handasyde Buchanan, Heywood’s long-term partner and my future boss, it appeared that he considered himself the doyen of London booksellers and that he was pleased that, like him, I had had a Classical education.
A curious thing: the New York literary world is smaller than the London literary world. It also has a strange feeling of being more old-fashioned. I was edited there by the legendary Joe Fox. I don’t think he liked me, but we would have dinner at a hotel restaurant, the last place where he could smoke in New York, and talk about great writers, including William Maxwell. Joe Fox died at his desk in Random House behind a huge pile of copies of the New York Times, cigarette on his lips.
It was towards the end of his long life, after revolutionalizing many other aspects of design, that William Morris embarked on his ‘typographical adventure’ at the Kelmscott Press. Though it survived for less than eight years and was wound up shortly after his death in 1896, it managed to produce 53 publications, including many of his own writings and a celebrated edition of Chaucer in a highly distinctive dark, ‘Gothic’ style. Kelmscott provided the crucial impetus for the four leading private presses considered in an excellent new series from the British Library and Oak Knoll Press.
The Red Hourglass, a debut volume by a writer called Gordon Grice, explores a fundamental premise. ‘We want the world to be an ordered room,’ its author writes, ‘but in the corner there hangs an untidy web.’ Within lurks ‘an irreducible mystery, a motiveless evil in Nature’. This was the idea that had captured the imagination of the movie director. And that was the idea that had trapped me, too, the first time I came across the book. I had picked it up from a literary editor’s review pile and started to leaf, distractedly, through it. Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor, transfixed.
The only time I have been to Greece as it appears on the modern map was when I was barely out of short trousers. I went with that indispensable aid to travel, an aunt, and with the idea that I knew quite a lot about the place. My aorists and iota subscripts, however, were useless; that crucial moment for quoting Simonides on the dead Spartans never turned up. Even the sights were an anticlimax – bones of buildings, hordes of charabancs; the glory that was.
Though J. M. Coetzee is now internationally fêted as South Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, his early novels remain largely ignored. His first, Dusklands, is especially worth rediscovering. Drawing a keenly observed connecting line backwards through history, it links the American war in Vietnam with the European land grab at the southern tip of Africa in the eighteenth century.
In 1935, Denton Welch – then an art student at Goldsmith’s College – was knocked off his bike on a busy road just outside Bromley. He spent over a year in hospital and was permanently weakened by his injuries. He died thirteen years later at the age of 33, leaving behind him a few strange but compelling books – all of which obsessively pick over Denton’s recollections of his life before the accident. They culminate in A Voice through a Cloud, a nightmarish account of his months in hospitals and convalescent homes in southern England. He died before he finished it and it ends, with poignant abruptness, in the middle of a paragraph, with Denton sitting, uncertain and in pain, in his doctor’s car which is parked outside a bungalow in Broadstairs.
Arctic Dreams is much more than a travel book; its subtitle is Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, which causes one to raise an eyebrow. Desire? What does the man mean? To be honest I am still not too sure, but by now I am sufficiently beguiled by its author not to care too much. Suffice it that he takes you on a journey to black seas in which float icebergs the size of cathedrals, to the campsites of Inuit who died fifteen hundred years ago, and to endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke; that he conjures up for you the intimate presence of narwhals, polar bears, seals, whales, muskoxen.
Count Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is a long novel about the follies, beauties and shortcomings of Hungarian society in the decade leading up to the First World War. He wrote it during the 1930s, when the disastrous outcomes of that war were still developing. Nostalgia may have been an active ingredient of this project, but Banffy’s purpose was to record rather than gild what had been lost. One of his conscious motivations was to help future Hungarians understand their past.
Books that have a profound effect on your life are usually books that you read young, but I only recently discovered The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists. Nevertheless its impact has been startling. It caught me at that moment in middle age when you realize that the only thing ahead is death, but there it sits on my bedside table to provide comfort, exhilaration and much amusement.
I was thus apprehensive, for my sake as well as my children’s, when I encouraged them to read Rosemary Sutcliff. I wondered whether I would still be drawn to her ancient worlds, her vanished races among the Caledonian Forest, her harpers and her war hosts, her bonfire festivals of Lammas and Beltane, her mead horns at Saxon feastings, her evocations of the last of Roman Britain.
I need not have worried. The magic was still there. In his pantheon of literary heroes and heroines, Giuseppe di Lampedusa reserved the highest places for the authors he called creatori di mondi. Rosemary Sutcliff was such a writer, a creator of worlds, lost worlds, often worlds of lost causes, of the departing legions, of Arthurian Britain, of the last stand of the Lakeland Norsemen against the knights of William Rufus. But they are not simply worlds of battle-axes and war horns. Her imagination encompassed the natural world, a feeling for its rites and a knowledge of its workings. Some of her most beautiful passages describe the changing of seasons, the ways of wolf packs, the flights of wild geese, the solitudes of the east coast marshes. And no one (except perhaps Kipling) has handled the death of a devoted dog better than she did in Dawn Wind.
In 1963 a convict serving a four-year sentence in Dartmoor for car theft thought he would write a novel. He called his book Young and Sensitive and described it as ‘a tender novel of awakening love as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy, when he discovers his first affair is a thing of vibrant beauty’.
Tikopia lies 1,500 miles east of Australia in that part of the Pacific known as Melanesia. But culturally Tikopia’s population is Polynesian. For reasons that are not entirely clear the Tikopia ‘back-migrated’ from the Polynesian heartlands in Samoa and Tonga, sailing west against the general flow of migration about a thousand years ago. Today the island is technically part of the Solomons, but it is largely autonomous. Its inhabitants, whose skin is the colour of copper, are quite alone in a black-skinned Melanesian sea. It is this combination of isolation and insularity that has made Tikopia a favourite subject for anthropologists.
That a romantic could have also been
So classical is striking you’ll agree
Though waxing passionate when we are green
And cooler when mature is probably
A change determined in the very gene
Or so at any rate it seems to me –
Our grasp of life is just that bit more firm,
Our reason turns like the proverbial worm.
During my early Fleet Street years, in the 195o’s, we hacks were chillingly familiar with the grim ritual of hanging. I still remember with a shudder having to wait outside Wandsworth or some other prison as, inside, a condemned man was led by the chaplain from his cell to the waiting gallows. At the prison gates, as the execution hour approached, usually nine o’clock in the morning, one would see, trying desperately to comfort one another, a small group of the prisoner’s sobbing family.
Outbursts of memoir-writing by women followed both the English Civil Wars and the years 1789 to 1830 in France, the period encompassing the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Revolution. It is hardly surprising since both these were periods of profound upheaval, when events left a deep impress on people’s minds as well as a desire to explain and justify them, and their own behaviour at the time, to future generations. Mrs Lucy Hutchinson, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle and Anne, Lady Halkett were followed 150 years later by Mesdames de Boigne, de La Tour du Pin and de Remusat. The reissue of Madame de Boigne’s book in translation drew me back to reread the last three.
Ever since he drew my attention some years ago to the best book I’ve read in the last decade – Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell – I have trusted Nicholas Lezard’s judgement. And if I remember correctly, it was his recommendation in the Guardian that also made me rush out to find Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, of whom I had never heard. It wasn’t in the shops, so I had to order it.
In George Ramsden’s quiet secondhand bookshop, Stone Trough Books, in York, he normally has a publishing job on the go as well. Editing (letters of Siegfried Sassoon at the moment) and book-design absorb him to the extent that he may barely notice when a customer comes in. Indeed, with his horn-rimmed spectacles under a shock of rigid hair, and a manner combining chivalry with extreme vagueness, he has the air of a startled hedgehog when spotted beyond the bookstacks. His series of catalogues – a leisurely fifteen spread over twenty years – are typographically understated, without colour illustration and with only scant recommendation of the books, but nevertheless beautifully designed, as are his own publications. He confesses to being a complete amateur as regards design but his life has become infused with the subject, and he now ponders title-pages, wine-labels, logos on lorries, sheet-music covers, even shop fascias, with an unusual degree of discernment.
Each time I read Reef – the story of a boy, Triton, growing up as a servant and cook in Sri Lanka in the late 1960s – I find something new. I think the way that The Tempest flits in and out of the novel is one of the things that keeps me rereading it. Another is the play of light and shadow in Romesh Gunesekera’s prose.
I lived in Colombo from 1992 to 1994, teaching English, and my first home was on Havelock Road where, only the year before, a bomb had exploded, throwing severed heads and body parts into the air. This, by Sri Lankan standards, was nothing. Like many others, I was struck by the incongruity of such horror in a country so deceptively gentle, one that looked so much like the Garden of Eden. In Reef Gunesekera seduces you with a charming depiction of a lost era, but underlying it all is the knowledge of the killing that came later.
The tank is an emblem of state power, a behemoth that has transformed wars and threatened – and sometimes mown down – civilians. But it has also been seen as a ‘cubist slug’, has inspired a modernist song and dance routine Tanko, has led military men to philosophize, and installation artists to appropriate the rhomboid shape to suggest the ultimate in urban alienation. In short, the tank, as Tank so skilfully and wittily and sadly shows us, stands at the very heart of the twentieth century and points up its follies, its wickedness, its aspirations, its delusions – and occasionally its humanity.
When the doorbell rings at 4 a.m. in a Marylebone flat one does not normally leap out of bed to answer it – unless one suspects it might be a Bulgarian lover. Dobrinka stood there on the doorstep in a fur coat, holding the neck of a bottle and swinging a luxurious packet on a satin string. The bottle glinted in the harsh lights of the nearby Heart Hospital.
I am wretchedly ill-qualified to write about Simon Gray, since I am hopeless about going to the theatre and have never seen one of his plays. I plan to remedy matters as soon as I can, but in the meantime I cannot recommend his autobiographical writings too highly. An Unnatural Pursuit is, alas, out of print, but Fat Chance, Enter a Fox and the masterly Smoking Diaries have all been reissued in paperback, and only the most Cromwellian theatre-hater could fail to be touched, amused and thoroughly entertained by them.
William Golding was the only writer I have ever pursued. An Angry Young novel I wrote in three weeks when up at Cambridge, The Breaking of Bumbo, outsold Lord of the Flies that year for Faber & Faber. This was ludicrous, but it was followed by Golding’s kindness when I wrote to him. He sent me an open invitation to visit him by the watercress beds at Bowerchalke, halfway between Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge – midway between the new and the ancient faiths.
When he was asked to update The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins, Christopher Taylor described it as ‘one of the greatest history books ever written’. I may not have appreciated that when I bought the original version as a modest Pelican paperback in 1975 but, like any self-absorbed teenager, I was convinced of its importance to me. It was a revelation, confirming and explaining things dimly sensed yet intensely felt, and it settled deeply into my consciousness, permanently altering the way I looked at the world.
Reading the opening chapter, I was immediately sucked into a magical world. The hare’s behaviour confounds science: it may move in a great drove like deer; it sucks milk from cows at pasture; it swims the Suir estuary in Ireland; it is intoxicated by snow, and makes tunnels in it for fun, despite not being a burrowing animal like its cousin the rabbit. And as part of an elaborate, little-understood mating ritual, it will sit transfixed in groups of thirty or forty, watching dancing, boxing males and females spar for attention.
At some point in the early 1960s Jennings was supplanted in the Observer by someone altogether more bracing: Michael Frayn. It was about the time of That Was the Week That Was and Private Eye, and though as far as I know he never had anything to do with either of them, Frayn was absolutely in tune with the Zeitgeist; in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I first came across the word ‘Zeitgeist’ in one of his columns, probably in the guise of a German art critic called Ludwig von Zeitgeist.
William Golding’s is not a large oeuvre: fifteen books, a play, an unfinished novel. Rereading everything, I am struck by the modesty of the pile through which I have worked, and the brevity of the books. He pared fiction down to bony essentials: an entire universe in the 223 pages of Lord of the Flies, or the 233 of The Inheritors. I wanted to try to identify what it is that sets him apart – on a pedestal, as far as I am concerned.
It was partly her attachment to another of B.B.’s books – Brendon Chase – that gave Jane Nissen the idea of reissuing classic children’s books that had slipped out of print when she retired from a senior position at Penguin in 1998. She had started out there when her children were young, under the legendary Kaye Webb, creator of the Puffin Club (recalled by Kate Dunn on p.31), determinedly working her way up from freelance reader – ‘sticking myself to the desk with Superglue’ – until she was taken on as a children’s editor. Then, after leaving to spend seven years at Methuen, the tides of publishing carried her back to Penguin again, as editorial director of the Hamish Hamilton children’s list, which Penguin had taken over.
At a desk beneath the dome of the British Museum Reading Room, as sombre Ph.D. types on either side of me pored over earnest looking volumes, I had to restrain myself from yelling for joy at item NN 20963: the catalogue number for French Polish by P. Y. Betts. It was her only book, a novel published by Gollancz in 1933. It looked as if nobody had opened it for some while – perhaps for more than fifty years.
While still relatively young, the brilliant cartoonist and illustrator George du Maurier went blind in one eye, probably as the result of a detached retina. This didn’t prevent him from joining the staff of Punch and doing wonderful work for it until his death in 1896. His best-known cartoon shows a chinless young curate taking the top off a boiled egg at breakfast with his bishop, and their exchange has entered the language: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.’ ‘Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’
Tsar Alexander II was warned that Turgenev’s collection of short stories, variously translated into English as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album or A Sportsman’s Notebook, was politically subversive. He read it, nonetheless, and later said it had influenced his decision in 1861 to liberate Russia’s 40 million serfs.
In my mid-twenties, having given up hope of a literary career, or any sensible career for that matter, I did what many desperate men do: I trained to become a lawyer. I mustered up an impressive amount of faux enthusiasm and forced myself to mug up on the more esoteric aspects of contract and tort. Needless to say, the façade did not last very long. Within weeks, I was scouring Dillons (as it was then) in Gower Street for something to distract me. I had read Simon Raven’s brilliantly wicked cricketing memoir Shadows on the Grass – once described by E. W. Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket ever written’ – whilst at school, but had never thought to pursue his infamous ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion. Now here was my chance: I hungrily purchased the complete set.
Josephine Tey was a writer of detective stories during the classic era from the 1930s to the 1950s, when Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes and Dorothy Sayers were to the fore, when sleuths were gents, often displaying strong literary bents. Yet her most famous book, The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, is something of a sport, as much fact as fiction, as much to do with the fifteenth century as the 1950s. The Daughter of Time is Truth, according to the proverb on the title page, and the book is about who actually murdered the Princes in the Tower, the two male children of Edward IV. Josephine Tey had the brilliant idea of setting one of history’s great mysteries as a problem to be solved by her regular detective-hero, Alan Grant.
Some books announce their quality straight away. On p.3 of Small Talk at Wreyland, the author tells of an old lady looking out across her garden on a gorgeous summer afternoon. ‘She turned to me, and said, “I were just a-wonderin’ if Heaven be so very much better ’an this: ’cause, aless it were, I don’t know as I’d care for the change.”’
The writer was Cecil Torr, born in Surrey in 1857, whose grandfather lived at Wreyland, in the parish of Lustleigh on the edge of Dartmoor. As a child he often stayed with the old man, and in late middle age, after travelling widely, he gave up his London house, went to live in Wreyland in the house he had inherited, and never left.
The author is easy to spot as I walk through Christchurch airport. I recognize Owen Marshall Jones (he drops the surname for his nom de plume) from the photograph on the back of Coming Home in the Dark, one of the most sublime collections of short stories published anywhere in the world in the past quarter century. Why else come to Timaru, where its author is resident?
For me a home without Period Piece is like a house without a cat – lacking an essential cheering and comfortable element. I have loved Gwen Raverat’s memoir of growing up in Cambridge in the 1890s ever since I first read it twenty years ago when recuperating from a bad bout of ’flu, at that blissful moment when you are feeling better but not quite strong enough to get up and do anything. I can still recall the delicious feeling of reading and dozing, dozing and reading, snug in the gas-lit world of Victorian Cambridge, until the January afternoon outside the bedroom window gradually turned purple and faded into dark.
Chandler himself defined literature as ‘any sort of writing that generates its own heat’, which fairly describes his own best work. No other crime writer could work the same narcotic chemistry in my experience. I relished the hyperbole (‘a rough sky-blue sports coat not wider at the shoulders than a two-car garage’), the terse dialogue, the cast of outsize gangsters, millionaires, petty crooks, embittered law enforcers and femmes fatales who crossed their legs a little carelessly. And Marlowe, for ever pitted against the black knights of the beautiful corrupt city, on $25 a day plus expenses.
Every Thursday morning for twenty years and more, the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown cleared a breakfast-table space among the teacups and the marmalade and, sitting with his elbows among the crumbs, picked up a cheap biro and jotted down 400 words on a notepad. It was a letter to the local newspaper, The Orcadian, for publication the following Thursday, and as such was written to entertain an island community of fewer than 2,000 souls. Through the small window of the simple council house – just a few steps away – the sea glimmered and whispered.
When Peter Robb first visited Sicily in 1974, he was so taken by the food in Palermo’s Vucciria market that he wrote down this description in his notebook: ‘Purple and black eggplant, light green and dark green zucchini, red and yellow peppers, boxes of egg-shaped San Marzano tomatoes. Spiked Indian figs with a spreading blush, grapes, black, purple, yellow and white, long yellow honeydew melons, round furrowed cantaloupes, slashed wedges of watermelon in red, white and green and studded with big black seeds, yellow peaches and percocche, purple figs and green figs, little freckled apricots.’
I must have been about 12 when I first opened James’s Collected Ghost Stories and turned to ‘A School Story’. As a boy who enjoyed gruesome yarns and, more surprisingly, Latin grammar, I was delighted to discover that the two could go together. Briefly, thus: a boy, asked for a sentence using memento + genitive, comes up, apparently out of the blue, with memento putei inter quatuor taxos – ‘I remember the well among the four yews’ – at which his Latin master has a funny turn.
I was a gluttonous reader, possessive and insatiable. On my desk before me sits a little pile of three-and-sixpenny story books, so freighted with emotion that I can hardly bear to open them. The first one I pick up is Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green. The brown Sellotape splinters as I turn the pages for the first time in nearly forty years. Tucked inside is an order coupon that I forgot to post, with a cross in the box next to Aesop’s Fables and, sure enough, on the title page is a sticker showing a lion and a unicorn, and standing between them is a puffin with his beak buried in a book. ‘From the library of . . .’ underneath which I have written ‘K. S. H. Dunn – MINE’.
At first I enjoyed being the only person ever to have read The Dark of Summer. It was like coming across a deserted beach that can only be reached by boat. But then, glancing down Linklater’s exhausting bibliography (twenty-three novels, ten plays, three children’s books, six collections of short stories, three biographies and more), the thought began to niggle at me: what had happened to all those books? I instigated a search. ‘Eric Linklater?’ said one second-hand bookshop owner as he went downstairs to rummage about in his basement. ‘I should be ashamed if I didn’t have anything by him. He’s rather out of fashion these days, isn’t he?’ Another said, ‘Eric Linklater? Must have, somewhere . . . sort of middlebrow?’
When Ancestral Voices was first to be published in 1975, Chatto & Windus knew that it was ‘Heywood Hill’s sort of book’. I asked for the earliest possible proof copy and signed up a large number of customers for the finished book. In my innocence I told Helen Lady Dashwood (‘Hellbags’) that the diaries covered the period when Jim lived at West Wycombe, and she ordered an early copy. A few days after it was published, she appeared in the shop carrying her copy as if with tongs, and asked for it to be credited to her account: she ‘could not have this book in her house’.
Not everyone has dinner with Winston Churchill and watches him re-enact the Battle of Jutland with wine glasses and decanters, puffing cigar smoke to represent the guns; or gets into a spitting match at a bus stop; or snorts cocaine with Lord Berners (the Uncle Merlin of Love in a Cold Climate); or is told by Diana Mosley how Hitler loved England and wept when Singapore fell to the Japanese; or hears from John Betjeman of his first teenage affair, in a punt with the son of a vicar; or can describe as Jim could a vast range of riveting and also somehow illuminating encounters with friends as varied as the Mitfords, Cyril Connolly, Mick Jagger, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Powell, Bruce Chatwin and Ivy Compton-Burnett – as well as the livelier end of the aristocracy and the other luminaries, sympathetic or strange, brought to light by the National Trust.
J. L. Carr was a primary school head in Kettering, Northamptonshire, who took early retirement from teaching so he could become a full-time writer, and who supported himself, his wife and his son in the meantime by setting up and running from his home a publishing house, the Quince Tree Press, which produced a series of ‘little books’, mainly selections of the great English poets, and county maps that Carr drew and illustrated himself. Probably the most famous of the ‘little books’ – designed to fit into an envelope and light enough for an ordinary postage stamp – is Carr’s Dictionary of Extraordinary Cricketers. Carr wrote eight novels, one of which is, I am as certain as it is ever possible to be, a masterpiece. One cannot credit him with the amplitude which T. S. Eliot identified as one of the characteristics of greatness in a writer, because even that masterpiece – A Month in the Country – is very short, almost a novella, but it contains more of the fullness of life than most very long novels.
There came to the house a charming letter, a photograph of ‘my paradise of a small garden’ and a parcel of some of the most enchanting volumes I had ever seen. Printed in India (of which more below), they were bound in sari cloth, each in a different rich colour and pattern, and each embossed in gold. They smelled slightly musty, as if they had been stored in someone’s cellar. A number of typographical errors had been elegantly corrected with the author’s fountain pen, and each volume autographed in the same lovely hand. Finally, these little books turned out to contain not just recipes – Onion Soup without the Fuss, Dandelion Wine, Mincemeat Tel Aviv – but a selection of poems and the hugely entertaining story of the author’s life.
The novelist Joyce Cary shall never be forgotten, I have vowed, upon the heads of his two grandest characters, Gulley Jimson the English painter, and Mister Johnson the Nigerian clerk.
I first discovered James Hilton’s Lost Horizon as an adolescent, when I came across a hardback copy in a secondhand bookshop marked at one shilling and ninepence (8p in today’s money). It was published in Macmillan’s Cottage Library and I can still remember its nice clear typeface, the feel of its rounded corners, and the slight browning of the pages which added a nostalgic charm. As soon as I read the opening sentence I was hooked.
Sometime in 1999 a light editing job dropped through my letterbox – ‘a new edition of a memoir by the Duchess of St Albans’, the publisher had said on the phone. Preparing myself for some gently rambling aristocratic reminiscence, I made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to take a look.
Preoccupied with the ‘Phoney War’, from declaration to the fall of France, or what Waugh described as the ‘Great Bore War’, Put Out More Flags was his sixth novel, and although it was a great success on first publication in 1942, it seems to be one of his few novels that people don’t know today. Waugh readers tend to fall into two camps, usually on either side of Brideshead Revisited (1945), with some reading only the ‘mature’ books, others sticking fiercely to the early comedies. Put Out More Flags is perhaps under-loved because it falls, both chronologically and stylistically, between these two recognizable periods in Waugh’s fiction.
I have to admit it. I am a sucker for novels in which a key element is the passage of time – Buddenbrooks, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Forsyte Saga, I name just three old standbys. And then, first published in the 1950s but not read by me until several years later, came a sensational eye-opener of an entirely different sort, Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. This extraordinary novel is not concerned with a mere few generations. It retraces the history of mankind back to its start.
Vansittart’s great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we are reading.
Having recently listened to the complete Sherlock Holmes stories on audiotape (they improved the school run no end), I was bound to be curious when The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes first appeared. It takes as its point of departure Holmes’s explanation for his absence after the struggle with his arch-enemy Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.
As the years advance I’ve become increasingly aware of the books I read as a child that have exerted an influence on my life. Would I have just returned from my fourth tramp through the African bush, for example, had my imagination not been fired by a vivid account of the bond that developed between a man and his dog as they hunted big game in the South African veld? Among the many seeds sown in my childhood, Jock of the Bushveld fell on richly fertile ground.
Kazantzakis was a writer whose inner life was devoted to the struggle between flesh and spirit. Although he came within a whisker of winning a Nobel Prize in 1952, his name meant nothing to me when I first picked up Report to Greco at the age of about 22. I do remember, however, being overwhelmed by that sense of recognition which the best writers inspire. Kazantzakis put into words – and such words! – the tumultuous feelings of my youth.
When I first came across Over the Hills and Far Away I was immediately enchanted by this magical mixture of a book. Ostensibly it tells of a long-distance ride through the north of England, made to celebrate the author’s recovery from illness; but in fact it is a kind of autobiography, lit up by continual flashes of wit, high spirits and keen observation.
My favourite desk stood between tall shelves crammed with Bengali, Somali and Urdu classics, which had replaced the Yiddish collection. Here, I read my way through all the history books and memoirs on east London. These included an extensive collection of ‘Cor-Blimey-There’s-Nothing-Like-a-Knees-Up!’ autobiographies, and the ‘Dodgy Geezers that I ’ave Known’ genre, but thankfully, there were more thoughtful accounts on offer. Among them, I discovered Emanuel Litvinoff ’s Journey Through a Small Planet – a masterpiece that rivals George Orwell’s best non fiction. In fact it was to inspire me to write my own account of life on Brick Lane.
In the spring of 1987, just as I was making preparations for a lengthy research trip to Egypt, I was sent two books. The first was the wonderfully titled Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer of whom I had not heard. Originally published in 1964, it had just been reissued. The second, After a Funeral, was an account of Ghali’s time in London by the writer and publisher Diana Athill. I slipped the novel into my bag and thought no more about it for several weeks. Then, one hot night in Cairo, with plenty of free time and a cold beer to hand, I sat on a terrace overlooking the Nile and began to read. I was so captivated that I stayed up late into the night, reading the book in one sitting. Yet while the words we re quickly consumed, the world they conjured and the issues they raised – of exile and belonging – have stayed with me through the years.
Editing must be one of the few professions that require no professional training. Even a plumber needs to learn how to plumb before he’s allowed to attack pipes. An editor, on the other hand, just takes up his spanner and blowtorch and starts editing.
Of course there are a lot of different kinds of editors (and I’ve been most of them at one time or another): line editors (known in England as copy editors), newspaper editors, magazine editors, book editors. The skills involved in each case are distinctive, but they all share this same amateur, self-taught quality. Editing is something that you tend to fall into, though perhaps not entirely by accident. Editors are born, not made.
The year 1905 was not the zenith of the British Empire in territorial terms (surprisingly perhaps, that was 1947, before Indian independence), but imperial confidence was about as high then as it would ever be. No baleful auguries of the Western Front had yet been observed, no rumours of equal political rights for native peoples had reached suburban English parlours. The future would be a triumphant continuation of British supremacy, built on hard-won principles of good governance and justice. There can be few more solid expressions of that faith than the publication, in that year, of the children’s history book Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall. It is a stirring compendium of tales, beginning with Neptune raising himself from the waves and giving ‘his sceptre to the islands called Britannia, for we know: “Britannia rules the waves.”’
Robinson Crusoe is a simple stereotype; he is you and me forced back on to our own resources. He was inspired by the true adventures of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, an able but short-fused officer on the privateer Cinque Ports, who was left in the Juan Fernández Islands on Más a Tierra, now renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk had demanded to be marooned after he had pronounced the Cinque Ports unseaworthy, and Captain Thomas Stradling, just 21, had refused to tarry for repairs. Selkirk’s chest was fetched, and a few other items, including a musket, powder and shot. Only as the ship’s boat began to pull away did Selkirk realize the enormity of what he was doing and beg them to return. Stradling said, ‘Stay where you are, and may you starve.’ Thankfully for Defoe and us, he didn’t.
Despite the aspirations Gwen Raverat expressed in her classic childhood memoir Period Piece (‘O happy Mrs Bewick!’ she declares at one point) and all the drawings in the book, many of its enchanted readers have discovered with apparent surprise that its author was an artist of some importance. Yet this may not be so remarkable; little had been written about her later life until Frances Spalding’s full biography in 2001, though Gwen and her husband Jacques did feature in Paul Delaney’s The Neo-Pagans (1987) as central members of the Cambridge circle surrounding Rupert Brooke. My own journey was in the opposite direction from most people’s. I knew Gwen Raverat as an artist long before I discovered Period Piece.
I defy anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to go to mysterious Central Asia. From the moment I read those seductive first paragraphs as a student, I was drawn to the murky world of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent that Maclean observed at close quarters in the 1930s when working as a diplomat in our Moscow embassy. It was to be ten years before I travelled to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in the ‘year of stagnation’ – 1975 – and another three decades before I saw the country without the dubious assistance of a Soviet minder.
One of the first books I was ever given was Sycamore Square. It was old for a toddler, but a pretty thing to grow into: light verse, which had mostly first appeared in Punch. Ernest Shepard’s drawings showed willowy, upper-middle-class young men and women of the sort my parents had aspired to be in their youth. I later discovered that its author, Jan Struther, was the creator of Mrs Miniver, while ‘Sycamore Square’ itself was just off the King’s Road. My grandmother lived around there. It was a rather grand world, brittle and tinkling, and its idea of art was light entertainment.
For those who have travelled the English boarding-school route, similar prep-school memories are sure to be jogged by reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s My Affair with Stalin, a wonderfully entertaining and evocative novel, set in a rural prep school during the 1970s. A daring midnight raid on the tuck cupboard is masterminded by the book’s precocious hero, William Conroy. Once he has established control of the cupboard, Conroy is virtually guaranteed his position as leader of the dominant school gang, for crisps, soft drinks and instant snacks play a disproportionately large part in the life of boarding-school pupils.
I want to ask you a question: how long is it since you actually sat down and read a Shakespeare play, for the sheer pleasure of it, as you would read a novel, for example, or a volume of verse? How long is it, come to that, since you read a Shakespeare play at all? Schooldays? Student days? Last time you had to teach it as a text? – all of which involve reasons and feelings that tend to counteract and contradict the pleasure. I have no doubt that if you set out now anew, with pleasure alone in mind, you might be surprised at the kind and degree of it that awaits you, coming over you with the thrill of forgotten delight – like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odour, so I am tempted to add.
Like Flannery O’Connor, I was born in Georgia. I used to have a thick Southern accent, until my momma hired a British nanny to wallop it out of me; Momma reckons that’s why I live in London now. But if I start missing home, I can always dip into O’Connor’s fiction from the Deep South of the 1940s and ’50s. She never lost her accent, and you can hear it on every page of everything she ever wrote.
Wise Blood brings it out best.
Usually, when I discover a second-hand bookshop, I confine my browsing to one or two familiar categories. Military history is not one of them, nor is psychology. So it was by sheer fluke that I recently came upon Norman Dixon’s book among tottering piles of volumes. The title, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, jumped out at me. Who could resist it?
On the way home I wondered why I had found the title so appealing, and why I had felt a shiver of schadenfreude as I handed over my fiver.
The immediate framework of the story is the relationship between the Smalleys and Mrs Bhoolaboy, tenants and landlady respectively, as they struggle to achieve very different aims: the Smalleys to remain in the lodge at Smith’s Hotel as legitimate tenants, Mrs Bhoolaboy to evict them in order to profit from the redevelopment of her property in partnership with the owners of the neighbouring Shiraz Hotel. In the course of this tussle, Tusker is driven to a level of apoplexy that proves fatal, his demise forming the opening sentence of the book.
At the end of My Turn to Make the Tea, Monica Dickens’s autobiographical local newspaper saga, her heroine Poppy is fired for an act of noble sabotage and replaced by ‘a lad of sixteen fresh from school’. I was that boy. At least, as I turned the pages, I hoped I would be. From the age of 14 I wanted the excitement of a newspaper life, to wear the golden trilby. I saw destiny in our evening paper’s ad for a trainee. I got the job. Instead of being a teenager I would be a junior reporter. My father bought me a blue suit, a maroon tie and a pen.
I’d seen the films so I knew I would find a noisy chaos of reporters at squalid desks jabbing typewriters beneath a cumulus of smoke. Someone showed me the mysteries of sub-editors, compositors and inky-aproned printers, servants of the gigantic presses. The place reeked of tobacco, ink, paper, hot metal and canteen fry. I inhaled.
For most of 1988 I moved about London, from house-sit to house-sit, transporting all the essentials of my life and trade in a 2CV: typewriter, reference books, minimal wardrobe. At some point during that nomadic interlude, a friend of someone I hardly knew asked me pointedly whether I had read the works of Nathanael West, hinting that if I hadn’t I ought to. Perhaps he judged West’s acerbic satire of disillusion and forlorn hope peculiarly apt to the mild chaos of my existence.
So I bought a copy of Nathanael West’s complete works and read them, straight through.
It was in the school library on a somnolent Sydney summer afternoon that I first met her. A passionate, but bookish and rather inarticulate child, I had recently discovered romantic novels and had devoured Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Mary Stewart. I loved them all, but meeting Anya Seton’s Katherine, as she set out in that ‘tender green time of April’ on a journey that was to take her from sheltered convent girl to controversial great lady, was the greatest delight of all.
There is a determinedly un-modern feel to the grey-fronted shop-cum- office of Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street, a leafy Georgian oasis not far from the British Museum. A blue and white jug of irises balances on a pile of books in the window, a tailor’s dummy draped in a First World War nurse’s uniform stands near a table of Persephone books, open at their delicious patterned endpapers, and a good strong cup of tea arrives in a generous old-fashioned enamel pot. Indeed, one can quite easily imagine Miss Pettigrew, the governess heroine of Persephone’s best-selling title Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (first published in 1938), putting her head round the door and feeling perfectly at home.
In her foreword to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta, the novelist Anita Desai mentions how visitors from that city, on unpacking in the dry air of her Delhi home, invariably release a distinctive odour. ‘Damp, mouldy, deltaic, even swampy’, it clings not just to clothes but, less eradicably, to the luggage itself. I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water. Any organic elements must long since have expired, and desiccation has lent a sub-whiff of archaeological respectability, but still it pongs. And like India itself, I can’t bear to part with it.
It could certainly be said that Walter de la Mare has been neglected for far too long. Faber & Faber, who published his work for many years, are bringing out a small volume of his selected poems, but of his many other books only his short stories remain in print. The wonderfully varied and erudite anthologies he made from the work of other writers, Come Hither, Early One Morning and Behold This Dreamer, can still be found in second-hand bookshops (if you can find a second-hand bookshop). Critical works largely ignore him and he is omitted from the new Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Literature – along with Conan Doyle, H. E. Bates, Norman Douglas, Richard Hughes, Lawrence Durrell and many other writers whose idiosyncratic styles or subject-matter do not accord with the present glum and ludicrous diktats of English Studies. Indeed in the modern reference works in which he does appear, de la Mare is now often referred to only as a writer for children, despite the championing of his prose fiction for adults by fellow-writers from Graham Greene to Angela Carter.
Ask most readers if they have heard of A. G. Macdonell and you will usually get a blank look, though occasionally you get the response: ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of England, Their England.’ If you don’t, you then say, ‘You know, the cricket match . . .’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ is the almost invariable reply, even from people who claim to hate cricket. ‘I remember it being read to us at school. It’s hilarious . . .’
It is, too – perhaps the most famous comic set-piece in the language. Though I’ve read it to myself dozens of times, and aloud to classes often enough (it’s a wonderful way to keep a class quiet at the end of a long term), I still find myself laughing aloud as I read it.
I feel blessed to have discovered Paula Fox. Her Desperate Characters is one of those novels that, because of its clarity and compression, makes an almost physical impact on you. Instantly absorbed into the characters’ world, your delight and anticipation are only marred by dread of finishing the book – and this one is, cruelly, only 176 pages long.
Jennifer Donnelly has perfect pitch as a writer, which is an enviable talent, especially in a first novel. But then, this is an exceptional novel. I read it six months ago, and in the way of books that seem to breathe a life of their own, it set up house in a corner of my mind. I found myself thinking about the characters from time to time, wondering how they were getting along. I reread it last week, and it’s just as good as I first thought.
During my early years as a bookseller, much of each day’s business depended on the post: not just brown envelopes enclosing cheques or less welcome envelopes with publishers’ bills, but orders and gossipy letters from customers and friends. In a minor way I kept up several correspondences, more often with those who lived abroad because I was very unlikely then to contact them by telephone. When Helene Hanff published her 84 Charing Cross Road, we cannot have been the only booksellers who reacted by saying that we had hundreds of such letters in our files. Although I’ve managed to keep some of the most interesting ones, it never occurred to me to suggest that our customers should keep my replies. In fact it would have been extremely presumptuous.
A few months ago I was giving a talk to a group of students. Afterwards one of them asked if the baboon relationship in my book White Lightning has anything to do with Jody’s fated relationship with a deer in The Yearling, by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings. At the time I denied it, but I now think it a perceptive question. At about the age of 12, I was deeply moved by the book. When the deer has to be killed it is a rite of passage for Jody, tragic but also necessary to growing up and understanding the harshness of life. In my book, the death of the baboon is the end of innocence for the narrator, even though he is middle-aged. When I began to think about the question, I realized that I had read scores of children’s books with animal themes and had been profoundly influenced by them. Graham Greene made the point that we never again read in the same way we read before the age of 14. Later we look for reflections of ourselves and our views in novels.
In 1971, I was living in a road in North London that doesn’t exist now and remember spending a huge part of my student grant on two pairs of hand-made red leather boots, one for each of my children, then aged 4 and 5, and a pair of sky-blue clogs for myself, believing that, if nothing else, you had to take care of your feet. My neighbours referred to me as ‘that hippy’ but they were wrong. Hippies travelled, and lay under the stars in distant lands, smoking dope. I had no money for travel and, in any case, dope didn’t agree with me. Instead, while the children slept, I read or painted miniature Rothkoesque watercolours and wallpapered my rooms with squares of coloured sugar paper so that we seemed to be living inside a huge quilt.
Early twentieth-century Moscow is the setting for The Beginning of Spring, indeed its central presence. To Frank Reid, émigré printer’s son, its weird bureaucracy, endemic espionage and corruption, its ramshackle back streets and raucous tearooms, its frozen river clotted with debris, are both familiar and profoundly foreign. But even while absorbing the surroundings we’re plunged into the drama of events, for in paragraph one Frank’s wife Nellie has already left him, taking their children with her.
I went to East Finchley cemetery a while ago. It was cold and damp. A few dead leaves clung soggily to the grass. It felt pretty forsaken. I stood in front of a tomb: a stolid stone pillar with a globe on top. It had been mounted so that the continent of Latin America would face the viewer. This is the monument to Henry Walter Bates, the great Victorian naturalist who, in 1848, set sail for the Amazon and remained in its ‘glorious forests’ for eleven years.
The bright orange spine of The Emperor’s Last Island shone conspicuously. The author’s name didn’t register, but the powerful word ‘island’ most certainly did, and when I took the slim volume from the shelf and saw the painted sketch of Napoleon and read the subtitle, A Journey to St Helena, my pulse began to quicken. My great-grandparents were married there, a place more remote than anywhere else on earth; of greater significance to me, in the mid-1960s my own teenage eyes gazed briefly upon this island with its fortress-like cliffs; but in the intervening years I had read nothing about it.
‘The saddest story I ever wrote,’ Mrs Gaskell said of Sylvia’s Lovers, published in 1863. The book had been languishing in my daughter’s bookcase for years, bought (but not read) to encourage her when she studied the much more famous North and South for her English GCSE. A year or so ago, smitten by Richard Armitage, star of the four-part BBC adaptation of North and South, I went to find the lesser-known book again. And I decided Mrs Gaskell was probably right. There is deep sadness and grief in this novel. Unrequited love results in tragic and painful consequences. I was almost relieved my teenage daughter had not read it – then.
Following the dictum of the famous German calligrapher Friedrich Neugebauer, that ‘the ideal manuscript book would be made by one person, acting as author, scribe, illuminator and binder’, Susan set out to compose, write, illustrate and bind a Chinese cookery manual, covering the principal ingredients of fish and seafood, meat and poultry, vegetables, carbohydrates and desserts. Each ingredient is illustrated [in] a solid block of text.
Like Charles Lamb trying all his life to like Scotsmen, for forty years I wanted to enjoy the nine novels of Henry Green. They have such beguiling one-word titles – Loving, Living, Doting, Concluding. They look so tasty on other people’s shelves. They start so well: ‘A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do care fully, because he had a peg leg. The roadway was asphalted blue.’
Ali Khan Shirvanshir is the only son of a noble Baku family, a Shiite Muslim who loves the desert, the walls of his city and its Eastern ways. He also loves Nino Kipiani. Nino is a Georgian Christian beauty of princely blood, a city girl who remembers the wooded hills of her homeland while she longs for the ever more accessible pleasures and inventions of the West. They are opposites in many ways, not least because of their religions, and yet their love overcomes all obstacles. Topical? You bet. Ali and Nino was first published almost seventy years ago and yet this story of love winning through could have been written as a salve for our own world, caught between the opposing tactics of radical Christians and Muslims.
J. H. Prynne is probably the most significant poet writing in Britain today. But he might as well have penned the complete weasel trapper’s manual as far as most people are concerned. This isn’t because we don’t care about poetry.We have pencil-marked favourite passages of Eliot and Auden. We have kept up with the output of Heaney and Hughes . We are perfectly accustomed to the complexities of Modernism. And who says we are snooty about contemporary stuff? We read the reviews and occasionally invest in the volume. We stay vaguely conversant with avant-garde tastes.
Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else.
Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little).
Several years ago I described my mother’s and aunties’ interior decor as Hove Jewish Baroque Rococo and thought myself rather amusing. Then I read Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind. His description was far more impressive: ‘contemporary provincial Jewish Rococo’. Again and again I found myself identifying like mad with Mr J’s Protagonist Sefton Goldberg, English teacher in a West Midlands polytechnic. Sefton knew the furnishings, Sefton was not good enough in any sphere, he was not up to scratch physically, he was envious, guilty, sweaty and hairy, just like me, although I am a girl. How comforting it is to know that one is not suffering alone.
I wonder how, if at all, it would be possible to measure the part played in our responses to individual books by the age at which we encounter them. Time enough for the eighteenth century later, observed Peter Currie, my excellent teacher of French literature, and he proceeded to focus, over the years of the sixth form, largely on the seventeenth century: on Corneille, Molière and Racine, seasoned memorably with La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld.
In many ways this was an excellent decision, making for a lifelong enjoyment of the authors we studied: but it also meant that (‘et par conséquent’, as Voltaire might have written) it was not until I was at university that I first read Candide. I found it unforgettable, in tune as it seemed with the sprightly and largely uncompromised visions of youth. Over the ensuing forty-five years this wildly improbable tale of experiences which leave the protagonists foxed more than slightly has become a much-loved companion. It is that rare thing, a book which is both clever and wise, as well as hugely enjoyable.
In the early 1960s, Austen Kark was travelling in Greece in the Greek Prime Minister’s second-best car, driven by the second-best chauffeur. The visit was part of his duties as Head of the BBC World Service, but he was also, as edgily as a boy taking a school friend home for a visit, hoping to show his wife, the novelist Nina Bawden, what it was about Greece and the Greeks that so enthralled him.
When I attempted to look up D. B. Wyndham Lewis on the Internet, Google kindly asked me if I didn’t really mean Percy Wyndham Lewis. Emphatically not. The Vorticist painter (whose age, it was suggested, could be estimated by counting the rings on his collar) was not known for his sense of humour. His namesake, on the other hand, was the first ‘Beachcomber’ of the Daily Express, and the collaborator with Ronald Searle on the tales of that least conventional of ladies’ academies, St Trinian’s. But he was overshadowed by his successor, J. B. Morton, and likewise by Searle’s brilliant drawings.
DB, however, doesn’t deserve the oblivion into which time appears to be edging him, if only because he was one of the two begetters of an ‘anthology of bad verse’ which he and Charles Lee – a quiet and unobtrusive writer of Cornish novels – entitled The Stuffed Owl.
William Somerset Maugham’s short stories are like the furniture in a grand boarding-house or the home of an elderly aunt. When I read ‘A Man with a Conscience’ or ‘A Winter Cruise’, I am reminded of Bechstein pianos or solid mahogany writing-desks with brass handles. They’re strangely comforting and consoling, and I’m very fond of them.
In the olden days, when people went to public libraries to borrow books to read, they were probably unaware of the workings of the librarian’s mind. Librarians cherish the illusion that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is second nature to readers as well as librarians. Thus the reader in search of books on cookery will head immediately for the 641s, and anyone planning to travel to Germany to look at its architecture can be found in front of the 720s searching specifically for the numbers after the decimal point – 943 – because, as any fool knows, 720 is Architecture and 943 is Germany (although if you were to turn it round, 943. 7 is Czechoslovakia).
It wouldn’t do to make excessive claims for Kenneth Roberts. Sixty years ago I might have; he was certainly my favourite writer then, to the extent that when I finally ran out of his books, at the age of 14, in desperation I tried novels by some other Robertses from the same shelf in the Ypsilanti Public Library. They proved to be highly unsatisfactory, nothing at all like Kenneth. What he wrote was history, American history, and I was fascinated by history. There seemed to be so little of it around in Michigan.
Anyone who has ever visited another country and found the food unidentifiable, the language incomprehensible and the rules of behaviour bizarre has experienced some degree of culture shock. Sometimes it’s exciting, often it’s disconcerting, and if you get ill or lost or inadvertently cause offence it can be frightening. Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is about culture shock of a different order altogether. It is the story of what can happen when, even with the best of intentions on both sides, two cultures collide.
Of the many missed opportunities of my schooldays, failure to learn German is the one I have regretted most and longest. But in 1949, when the chance arose, German was not the flavour of the month. There was still a large gap in one corner of School Yard where a German bomb had missed a large dormitory of sleeping boys by a few feet. And only a few years earlier, my housemaster had fought with distinction in the Green Jackets, and then married the widow of another officer, killed in battle. He bullied us into opting for elementary science (which has never been the slightest use to me) rather than German for School Certificate.
When I was a teenager, prowling voraciously round my parents’ bookshelves looking for something to read, I found a row of old books that hadn’t been looked at for at least fifty years. They were all by Sabine Baring-Gould, polymath, squarson, folksong collector, novelist and possessor of an infectiously insatiable curiosity about pretty well everything from esoteric customs to ways in which to save fuel. Among those dusty Baring-Goulds were novels such as The Broom Squire and Mehalah, his Reminiscences of a ninety-year life, The Book of Werewolves, several collections of sermons, English Folk Songs (compiled with Cecil Sharp), Curious Myths of the Middle Ages and lots of travel books including Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings in Europe, guides to the Riviera and the Languedoc, and Yorkshire Oddities and Strange Events. Best of all was Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas.
Books that make one laugh out loud are far rarer than one likes to think, and the subject of endless and often heated debate. P. G. Wodehouse usually comes out top, but although I loved him in my twenties, I have lost the appetite in late middle age: comicality needs to be combined with sadness, a sense of the absurd with a countervailing melancholy, and Wodehouse’s genial socialites seem too lacking in humanity, too short on Chaplinesque pathos, to engage me as much as they once did. One of my candidates for the funniest book ever written – battling it out with Mr Pooter, James Lees-Milne’s Another Self, and a great deal of Evelyn Waugh – is H. F. Ellis’s The Papers of A. J. Wentworth BA, a work that is all too redolent of familiar human frailties.
Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.
For fifteen years, I had one of the best jobs in the world. I was book news editor at The Bookseller, and most weeks I included in my pages an interview with an author. I talked to celebrated novelists, including several of my literary heroes. I talked to biographers and science writers. I talked to creators of blockbusting best-sellers. All sorts of people write books, or at least get their names on to book covers: I talked to movie stars, sports heroes and supermodels, and to people who had fought in wars or been shipwrecked.
As the recent Da Vinci Code spat demonstrated, complaints of plagiarism reach far beyond Aussie mapmakers. When Arthur Halliwell created his hefty film guide, he added a non-existent movie which in due course trapped a rival directory of films. Justice was swift. When Nigel Rees – he of ‘Quote Unquote . . .’ – published his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations, he slipped in a dummy quote credited to one Guy Simon (Rees’s pen name). Eventually HarperCollins bought the dummy and Guy Simon appeared in their Collins Dictionary of Quotations, a little bit of larceny for which they paid, in sterling. And when Antonia Fraser wrote her classic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, she thoughtfully inserted a burglar alarm. At Mary’s execution (Lady Antonia said) Lord Shrewsbury’s face was ‘wet with tears’. It was an invention. Later, James Mackay’s book on Mary copied it, and the alarm rang.
I first read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard while I was in Palermo in 1981, at the age of 18. It was one of those defining reading experiences which are not always easy to explain but which have to do with a deep sense of recognition. Through the alchemy of fictional characters and the way in which they engage with their world, you are taken somewhere (psychologically, morally, emotionally) that you do not usually expect to go, and the journey reveals to you something about yourself and the world you inhabit.
I’ve never had anything you could call A Career. I’ve always either gone where interest suggested and opportunity allowed or just Micawberishly waited for something to turn up. Despite the supposed end of the culture of ‘a job for life’, that approach still seems to make a lot of people uneasy. And they often become even more uneasy when they discover that one of my interests nowadays is cultivating and writing about rare, difficult and often tender plants from distant parts of the world. You can almost see the bubble of unspoken doubt rising from their heads. ‘Is this just some childish joke? Or is he really serious?’ So I was delighted to stumble across spectacular support for that general approach (in the shape of James Hamilton-Paterson) and for that particular interest (in the shape of his novel, Griefwork).
When I first read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in 1979 it certainly provoked a strong response, but hardly the admiration the cover blurb demanded for ‘one of the finest examples of high comedy of the last century’. I felt fury mixed with bafflement.
For me, at that time, every novel was a possible blueprint for how to live your life. Borne along on the second wave of feminism, the only thing I and my friends were sure of was that we didn’t want lives like our mothers’. Exactly what we did want wasn’t clear. But what I didn’t want in spades was a life like that of Mildred Lathbury, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title.
Quick: bring something to read to him on the train! This last-minute thought, just before setting the burglar alarm, sends me rushing to the pair of small bookshelves outside the bathroom which contain the old Ladybird books. Which of them shall we take? Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Florence Nightingale, The Princess and the Pea, The Fireman. They’ll do. They fit into the handbag, and I set out knowing that, even if we run out of water and KitKats, and there’s no refreshment trolley, we’ll have enough mental nourishment to keep us going through whatever South West Trains might inflict on us.
I bought my copy of Seven Men in the late Sixties in a secondhand bookshop in Sutton Coldfield. The town had two second-hand bookshops, which both closed years ago, but I can recall every shelf and see titles, bindings and jackets in eidetic detail. I suspect many other lovers of books have this useless but comforting gift, even if they spend half the morning trying to remember where they put their glasses. Seven Men had – has, it’s on the desk beside me – a navy blue cloth binding; on the front cover of my copy, like a partial eclipse of the moon, is the white imprint of the base of a teacup. It is the 1920 second impression of the first edition and on the front free endpaper is the signature of a Francis T. Bellin, followed by the date ‘1922’. When I got it the pages were uncut: Mr Bellin had missed a treat.
I can drop Anna Kavan’s name among the most literary of my friends and their brows furrow and they confess that, even though thirteen of her books are still in print, and a second biography of her life, A Stranger on Earth, by Jeremy Reed, came out this spring, they’ve never heard of her, let alone read a word by her.
Anna Kavan wasn’t her real name. She was born Helen Woods but changed her name to Helen Ferguson. Then, when she married, she became Helen Edmunds, but after her divorce (or was there a divorce? Everything about the woman is so mysterious) she destroyed all her diaries and papers, and invented a new birth date, a new physical appearance and a new literary style.
I came to Australia as a French-speaking child, without a word of English, and started school in Sydney within only a few weeks of arriving. Today, I am an author of children’s books, and English has become the language of my imagination. How did this happen? In part, the answer lies in the influence of The School Magazine, one of the world’s great literary treasures for children, which (rather incongruously) emanates from the very heart of a bureaucratic behemoth, the New South Wales Department of Education.
When I went to live for a short time in New York in the mid-1990s, a friend gave me a copy of Up in the Old Hotel, a selection of the 1940s and ’50s New Yorker writings of Joseph Mitchell. I shall always be profoundly grateful to him: if I hadn’t read Mitchell, my experience of the city would have been a thinner one, a bemused tourist’s view enlivened only by a few real-life encounters.
In March 1984, full of the joys of spring and possibly slightly mad, I bought the library of the American novelist Edith Wharton from Maggs Bros., the London booksellers, and subsequently discovered that it was incomplete.
Maggs had purchased about two thousand books from Edith Wharton’s godson, Colin Clark, which for forty-seven years had been at Saltwood Castle in Kent. Here his father, the art historian Kenneth Clark, Edith Wharton’s friend, had completely integrated them into his own library, which complicated the process of identification and extraction. This had been supervised by Colin’s brother Alan who was by then the custodian of Saltwood.
Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying paper pervading the air – I think of Gordon Comstock, George Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Poor Gordon, an advertising dropout and aspiring poet who is scraping a living as an assistant in such a bookshop, is forever bemoaning a world ruled by ‘the Money God’ rather than the Muses.
I had just come home from a protracted springtime tour of English gardens. Perhaps it was their ravishing fresh beauty, or their complexity, or their immaculate neatness, or perhaps I had just seen one topiary box spiral too many. Most likely, it was the stark impossibility of ever achieving in my garden anything approaching the quality I had seen elsewhere. Whatever the reason, a light melancholy descended on me, like a thin summer rain. I went deliberately to the bookshelf and took down a book which I had not read since it was first published in 1997. I needed a dose of Geoffrey Dutton – poet, gardener, professor of medical science, white-water swimmer and mountaineer – to help me regain my usual cheery equilibrium.
I once interviewed a well-known poet on the radio and asked him what he read when he had ’flu. He looked at me with astonishment – and some contempt – and said ‘Tolstoy, of course’. But when I have ’flu I don’t reach for the classics, I reach for Modesty Blaise.
She and her lethal associate and friend, Willie Garvin, started life in 1963 as a strip cartoon in London’s Evening Standard, and went on to star in a series of inventive thrillers by Peter O’Donnell, who created the original cartoon with the artist Jim Holdaway. I started to read them at least thirty years ago and I was hooked straight away.
We can touch the past through diaries, letters and memoirs, which allow a measure of intimacy and immediacy even across the centuries. The accepted view is that they begin to proliferate in the second half of the seventeenth century with Pepys, Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. But there is an earlier figure who has somehow slipped below the literary horizon. The letters that John Chamberlain (1554–1628) wrote are the first in English that can be read without difficulty and with pleasure.
In the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed, Paul Routledge defied anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to head off at once to Central Asia. I think he is absolutely right about that. A little later in his essay, he writes, ‘If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.’ I think he is wrong about that. Or perhaps, which is quite probable, he has not come across the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf ’s Leo the African, whose opening sentences I read as an impressionable 18-year-old on the verge of my first visit to Cairo.
When Professor Lisa Jardine was conducting her search for the ‘essential male novel’ among 400 men from the worlds of academia, the arts, publishing and literary criticism she unaccountably didn’t get round to me. Not that my answer would have changed anything. The only surprising thing about the winner, The Outsider (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus, was that anybody was at all surprised.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Royal Society of Literature took out a long lease on a white stucco Bayswater house, formerly the home of General Sir Ian Hamilton, leader of the Gallipoli Expedition. It was dilapidated but spacious, and a first-floor room roughly the size and shape of a tennis court became a library in which the Society’s Fellows could browse among one another’s works. All went well until, in the early Seventies, an elderly, light-fingered Fellow took to leaving the building with volumes secreted between two pairs of trousers, which he wore sewn together at the hem. The library was closed.
I began working for the Royal Society of Literature in the autumn of 1991, and it was on the shelves of this silent, abandoned room that I first discovered Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. Published in 1969, it had become an instant classic, and, since then, it has never been out of print. From the first sentence – ‘The village lies folded away in one of the shadow valleys which dip into the East Anglian coastal plain’ – it was clear that this was a book to slow down for, and to relish.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his walk through the mountains in 1878, was my mother’s favourite book, which automatically made it one of mine. The brown cover of her 1906 edition is faded with fingering, its pages frayed and loose from her rereadings. Many of the fictional characters who figured largest in my childhood were full of machismo, because they were in books filched from my brothers. Stevenson’s donkey Modestine, on the other hand – ‘patient, elegant, the colour of an ideal mouse’ – was a comforting antidote, domestic and affectionate for all her perceived obstinacy.
The man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was very insistent. On the bucking deck of the tender in Plymouth Sound he engaged me in conversation so closely as to quite obscure my view. She came out of nowhere as the tender swung alongside: a barnacled black whale 300 feet long, her casing almost awash, pitching and rolling gently in the south-westerly driving up from Penlee Point. Only the jutting conning-tower, delicately streaked with rust, distinguished her from a lurking sea monster, a leviathan. She was the 5,200-tonne nuclear submarine Talent. I was there that day at the behest of the Flag Officer Submarines to be shown her paces. All because, thirty-one years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Croydon, I had picked up a copy of Edward Young’s One of Our Submarines.
Contemplating diving into Rebecca West’s great Balkan travel adventure, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is like contemplating a long bungee jump. It offers both compulsion and revulsion, but once it is attempted, endured, enjoyed, you will live with the thrill of it for ever. I recently spent two months reading it, as slowly as I could, and when I finished I felt I had done the journey myself.
In 1917, Kathleen Hale arrived in London, fresh out of art school, ‘with only a few shillings in my pocket, my pince-nez delicately chained to one ear and no qualifications whatsoever for earning a living’. Her appalled mother wrote demanding that she return at once to Manchester, and take a shorthand-typing course. Not for the first time, Kathleen refused to obey. ‘I am not going to learn to type. I am going to be an artist. You can send a policeman to fetch me, but I shall come back to London again and again.’ Mother gave up.
Giorgio Bassani, who died in 2000, famously brought one Italian masterpiece to light and created another. As an editor he was instrumental in rescuing from oblivion Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard,* which had been rejected by many other publishers as…
It all began in a butcher’s shop in Shipston-on-Stour. In 2000 Sheila Stewart had written an excellent little book about her old daily help, Country Kate, to record for posterity ‘the richness of the speech of ordinary folk before “the media world” faded out their lively observations and perceptions of the real world’. Her butcher in Shipston-on-Stour then urged her to track down Old Mont, an Oxfordshire shepherd born in 1902 who sang unaccompanied in a pub ‘out Enstone way’. She did so, and over the next two years made numerous visits during which, on fifty tapes, she allowed the old shepherd to encapsulate the spirit of a passing age.
Wendell Berry is a man who refuses to be categorized, because every label attached to him is a distortion of his views. Or so he feels. This lean and lanky, six-foot-something Kentucky farmer is every English city dweller’s idea of what a Kentucky farmer should look like. He has a long face, large hands, close-set eyes, a patient manner and an easy drawl. Yet he is not quite what he seems.
John Verney, painter, illustrator, author and inventor of the invaluable maverick desk diary, the Dodo Pad (‘to stop one becoming extinct from the pressures of modern life’), loomed large in my childhood. Apart from being among my parents’ closest friends and neighbours, and paterfamilias of a large brood of children, Shetland ponies, chickens, cats, cows and bees, all of which somehow became inextricably mixed up in my memory, he was always there. Most fathers were away somewhere doing a job, but whenever we went to Runwick, the Verneys’ rambling farmhouse on the edge of Farnham in Surrey, he was always to be found wandering vaguely around in his shapeless jacket, or making paint-spattered forays from his studio in the barns, or presiding laconically over whatever rabble-rousing meal was in progress.
It is a lazy Sunday morning. I am seated in my comfortable chair, wrapped in my old dressing-gown, my coffee in hand, having turned the final page of Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. It is a novel by Wendell Berry. Jayber was placed in my hands as a gift. A box of emeralds would not have pleased me more. He has become one of those rare friends with whom I look forward to sharing the rest of my life.
Lambert had been the editor of Sight and Sound from 1949 to 1955 and was almost single-handedly responsible for transforming it from, in his words, ‘an intolerably boring magazine’ into one of the most influential film journals of that era and beyond. The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life was first published in 1959. As the subtitle suggests, it’s essentially a series of interlinking short stories rather than a novel per se. The book is peopled by an ensemble cast of LA waifs and strays who glide in and out of focus and in and out of the life of a nameless narrator, an English scriptwriter for a Hollywood studio. Among this motley crew is Mark, an ex-British public schoolboy turned beach bum, a washed-up bisexual gigolo happy to flow with the tide as long as the sun is shining; Emma, a teenage ingénue from Illinois desperate to break into pictures; and Clyde, the delinquent son of a tycoon who surrounds himself with sycophantic flunkies. Best of all, there is the wonderfully grotesque Countess Marguerette Osterberg-Steblechi, a corpulent Austro-Hungarian multi-millionairess. This relic of the old Europe yearns only to take one last voyage around the globe. But now deaf and blind, she is at the mercy of her two parsimonious nieces. Rather than squander their precious inheritance, this rapacious pair resort to faking the trip, ingeniously using gramophone records, heaters and fans to carry out the deception in the Countess’s own Californian home.
In the end we decided against opening an American branch of the shop but I was reminded of the discovery of Parnassus on Wheels last July when I was asked to buy the books of someone who had been both a real reader – she had all the issues of Slightly Foxed published up to the time of her death – and a distinguished bookwoman. She’d worked in the library of the Linnaean Society, had helped Wilfrid Blunt to bring out an illustrated herbal (and been given many of his earlier books), had worked on several dictionary projects for Oxford University Press, and had written two of the splendid catalogues, Sylva and Pomona, of Mrs Paul Mellon’s marvellous collection of flower books. Her name was Sandra Raphael, and she owned copies of several novels by Christopher Morley.
Sébastien Japrisot is a name that sounds thoroughly French, though it snags awkwardly on the hinges of the surname. Which is because it’s actually an anagram of the author’s real name, the more euphonious Jean-Baptiste Rossi. The intriguingly verbose title of his most memorable thriller, however, is a literal translation of the original French – La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil.
Lady, car, gun – you get the picture – but the glasses? There’s the snag, the detail that doesn’t feel quite right. What’s going on? I’m afraid I can’t possibly tell you.
It is a universal truth that those in the creative professions will always be patronized by those who don’t and can’t create. ‘Resting?’ they will enquire of the out-of-work actor, with a tilt of the head and an upward inflexion,…
When people ask me what they should read about the Empire, I suggest they go to the five volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire, where they will find a mass of recent research synthesized in scores of scholarly essays written by contemporary academic historians. But if they want to sense what the Empire was like, how it felt and smelt and looked, if they want to picture traders of the Hudson Bay Company with their beaver hats and sledges or Boer trekkers lumbering across the veld in their great ox-wagons – then I advise them to read James Morris.
He was still looking for that last volume. If anyone could have found it, he could. That’s how good he was at his trade. As I stood at the graveside on a bright spring day, on that exposed ridge above the Evenlode valley, I supposed that now I would never possess a copy – that the one book for which I had been searching so long had eluded me. Then I felt guilty that I was thinking of myself and not of him. It was, after all, his day.
Why does anyone write comic novels? I can understand the desire, even the need to do so, for the world is funny and getting funnier. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, or run into McDonalds with a pumpaction shotgun. Comedy…
In the summer of 1933, after leaving the Royal Academy Schools where one of his paintings had just been accepted for the Summer Exhibition, my father Mervyn Peake abandoned London for Sark in the Channel Islands. The move followed a recommendation from his former English teacher who suggested, with my father in mind, that ‘the possibilities were unusually rich for artists with a keen sense of things firmly rooted in primitive nature’. The two years he then spent on the island were so idyllic that shortly after the war he decided to return, this time with his family.
For a young adult setting out into the world, however, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake, mind; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. (Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence that suffuse the first two books.)
In the early 1960s, Shirley Guiton was attending an international conference in Paris. Her mind was not entirely on the discussions in full spate around her. She had just received a telegram, which stated briskly: ‘Found possible property Torcello come at once.’
November 7th Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs?
Cyril Hare is the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in 1900 and died in 1958. He was a barrister who became a county court judge and took his writing name from his London home, Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and his chambers in the Temple, Hare Court. His great strength is the use he made of his expert knowledge, both as barrister and judge. Tragedy at Law, published in 1942, was his favourite novel and introduced his hero, Francis Pettigrew, an ageing and very able barrister but one who has never fulfilled his early promise. Pettigrew is aided in his detection – or is it perhaps the other way round? – by a professional police officer, Inspector John Mallett of Scotland Yard, who had appeared in previous detective stories by Hare.
Mountaineers can obviously take a joke. In 1981, four years before W. E. Bowman died and a quarter of a century after the publication of his spoof mountaineering book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, he discovered to his amazement that members of the 1959 Australian Antarctic Expedition had affectionately named a small mountain Mount Rumdoodle and that this had been duly incorporated into Antarctic maps.
The story of Beowulf is told in a little over 3,000 lines of poetry, written some time between the seventh and tenth centuries in Old English. The poet has a Christian viewpoint, just about, you feel, but the old pagan world is still out there, if we lapse for one moment. It feels right that the occasional Biblical references are all from the Old Testament.
Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is an enchantingly idiosyncratic overview of popular entertainments, including those of the title. It also exposes many of the scams on the circuit, my particular favourite being ‘the pig-faced lady’ who in various incarnations over the centuries duped the punters in the form of a bear with shaved head and gloved paws, its bulky body disguised under reams of dress material.
If pest control could win you medals for bravery, Jim Corbett would have won the VC. The citation would have read something like this: ‘Regardless of his own safety, he repeatedly exposed himself to the greatest danger for the sake of others and by his heroism saved the lives of hundreds of his countrymen.’
The shelves in my study are crammed with books that I only quite like, to the extent that I think they barely represent my taste in reading, largely because I have pressed all my favourites on voracious friends and family. So imagine my delight a few weeks ago when I discovered a copy of Anagrams by Lorrie Moore in a bookshop bin marked ‘Why Don’t You Try This?’ My second copy of this excellent novel cost me only 99p, something about which I have mixed feelings: as a reader I think it’s wonderful that books of this calibre are available for so little; as a writer I can’t help thinking that Lorrie Moore is being sold down the river. But that’s another story . . .
In the spirit of being included in writers’ worlds, we’ve been browsing our backlist of Slightly Foxed Editions: hitherto forgotten memoirs that bring alive a particular moment and make you feel you have actually known the writer. Today we’re opening the pages of Ghosting, Jennie Erdal’s strange and gripping story of the twenty years in which she became a ghost writer for the man she calls ‘Tiger’, the flamboyant figure at the centre of this wickedly funny book.
The focus of John Keay’s two books is the evolving imperial game that British India played on its north-west frontier. The Khyber Pass was one of the great invasion routes of history, and for all the Victorians knew there were other access points hereabouts. Early on in the century there were worries that Napoleon might have a go, but it was Russian steps through central Asia that turned it into the Great Game and impelled some of the most extraordinary feats of exploration. As intrepid Russians pushed south, heroic Britons pushed north. ‘Bagging the Pamirs’ was a rather different proposition from ‘bagging Munros’ in the Scottish Highlands, yet surely only the Victorians could have arranged for a naval lieutenant, John Wood, to be the first Briton to stand on the roof of the world.
We British like to think of ourselves as a cosmopolitan island race, outward-looking and worldly, yet we can be a parochial lot, too. We heap opprobrium on the Arab world for its failure to translate more than a handful of books into Arabic each year and yet our own record of translating contemporary foreign writers into English makes us seem more insular than international in our literary appetites.
The Golden Warrior is not ‘an ordinary historical novel’ in any sense. These, and even extraordinary historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, tend to be written by novelists who have done their research. Hope Muntz (1897–1981), however, was a historian, Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society, and co-editor of a volume in the Oxford Mediaeval Texts. Having lived more than half her imaginative life with Earl Harold Godwinson and Duke William the Bastard, she astonished those expecting a scholarly monograph by producing a magnificent novel.
The more you read, the more you realize you want to read, for each book generates a further reading list. Only occasional readers imagine that reading is a matter of working through a list of classics, like moving a pile of logs. The rest of us know that every ‘classic’ multiplies infinitely into minor classics, frivolities and squibs. You cannot possibly read them all now, but you know you want to read them one day. Some of these you will buy and, although they may remain unread, they contain a promise of future pleasure and their company alone helps sustain an idea of yourself, and of the world.
When I began to research the lives of twentieth-century domestic servants, I was surprised by the number of servants’ memoirs that had been published in the second half of the century. It seemed that readers in the 1970s, with Upstairs,…
On page 1 he noted the omission of Lord Acton (‘power corrupts etc’) and ten pages later he criticized the sparseness of John Aubrey’s entry, which might be explained by the absence of Brief Lives in a standard edition: both Oliver Lawson Dick’s and Anthony Powell’s editions post-date the Dictionary of Quotations by several years. But this is nothing compared to his entry for Jane Austen: ‘Less than a column and a half. Fantastic! She should have 3 pp.’
Sixty pages of non-fiction can take you to strange places. When I first read The Spawning Run, it was in armchair comfort, coolly anticipating the prospect of a literary march across sweet spring meadows to the secret, private banks of a quietly flowing stream. A place where currents concealing the best and sleekest of fish riffle, pool and glide. A place requiring rod, reel and fly as sole equipment for a quintessential day’s sport.
I am one of those fastidious individuals who, before travelling, has to draw up a reading list suited to the place he is to visit. For this reason, on a recent trip to Rome, I reread Abba Abba (one of Anthony Burgess’s slimmest books, it has the added virtue of fitting easily into a cramped suitcase). By the time he wrote the novel in the mid-seventies, Burgess had lived in Rome and married his second wife, Liana, an Italian contessa. Abba Abba is, amongst other things, a wary tribute to that capital of temporal power.
I was given The Ginger Tree, by Oswald Wynd, to read before the birth of my first child. ‘It will take your mind off things,’ said my friend. Indeed it did. Through all the dramas of a premature birth, the book stayed in my hands. The life of a young girl at the turn of the twentieth century in China and Japan provided an escape and a refuge. It still does. In times of crisis or just a bout of ’flu, I return to The Ginger Tree. It has the power that all the best books have, the power to create its own reality. I step into it and am enveloped.
I attacked my new assignment as a Middle East correspondent with the alacrity of a baying hound running down a wanted man. I loaded up on the standard books on the region by all the standard experts: Hitti, Hourani, Nutting, Glubb, Fromkin, Shlaim, Lewis. I consumed their separate narratives, cross-referencing one against the other and triangulating each for bias. I was a machine in perpetual motion; the more I read, the more I needed to know. By the end of my three-year stint, I had accumulated a working library of stolid non-fiction accounts of the Middle East, from the days of the Caliphate to the Second Intifada. In 2001 I took leave to write my own book.
Recently I’ve started writing letters to prisoners (via the New Bridge Foundation). I can recommend it as a means to think about what we have in common with each other. The amount of trust – in the postal system, in language, in the other person – encoded in each letter is staggering. With prisoners who, one way or another, are likely to have suffered many abuses of trust, it is even more striking. Our letters, it is hoped, will lead to meetings. But even if not, one hopes they extend fingers of possibility, rays of light if that’s not too presumptuous, into the darkness of ‘this place’ as they generally characterize prison.
‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas. Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for,
Florence Nightingale steadfastly refused to believe in bacteria, but she was wrong. The horrid truth is that every one of us carries billions of fellow-travellers, and no amount of bathing can ever change their number. The good news, however, is that most of our resident flora and fauna are harmless, or actually beneficial to our health. In 1976, Michael Andrews published these tidings in his bestselling The Life that Lives on Man, with all the details of our intimate companions in the micro-deserts of our forearms and the swamps of our underarms. But he failed to convince me that such slithy beasts as parasitic roundworms and liver flukes were equally benign. So I tried some internal experiments of my own.
Vic Gatrell’s book City of Laughter paints a compelling, seductive picture of London in a lost Golden Age – the Golden Age revealed in the hundreds of satirical prints that poured from the presses from about 1770 to 1830. It draws on many literary sources and is illustrated with almost 300 colour images, most from the under-explored archives at the British Museum and Yale (and many never previously reprinted). Vivid, inventive, energetic, savage in puncturing pretension and full of lavatorial and obscene humour, they offer us a fantastic panorama of a libertine London, full of violence, hearty pleasure, uninhibited sex and high spirits.
Du Maurier’s reputation seems, if possible, to grow with the years, not least because she is so difficult to pin down. Everyone, including Margaret Forster, her often uncomfortable official biographer, feels that she is, in a sense, a romantic novelist, but she also manages to be one with a literary reputation. This makes her unusual, if not unique.
I was born on 26 January 1962 in a small upstairs bedroom at 8 Fairview Road, Norbury, South London. Towards the end of that year the world held its collective breath as, courtesy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it teetered on the brink of nuclear oblivion. I have always wondered if the two events were connected. The year 1962 also saw the first publication of Betty Hope’s Survive with Me by R. G. G. Price, illustrated by Ionicus. I found my copy earlier this year in the local Oxfam shop, lurking between a suntan-oiled copy of The Da Vinci Code and an early example of Jamie Oliver’s literary oeuvre entitled, I think, It’s Beans on Toast, Mate.
It takes a special sort of long-term determination and courage to risk one’s life for someone else’s sake. Would the friends who protected Anne Frank’s family in their secret annexe have embarked on their heroic act of altruism if they had known of the long haul ahead? In her remarkable novel, Night Falls on the City, Sarah Gainham imagines what it must have been like to keep a deadly secret in such circumstances for years.
Julia Homburg is a famous classical actress whose family had been courtiers and Catholics, unassailable members of the Austrian imperial establishment. But Julia’s husband Franz Wedekind is a socialist politician and a Jew. Their story begins in March 1938.
As I make my way through narrow passages and over numerous little bridges, I am trying to imagine a Venice of two and a half centuries ago, the Venice of A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant.
Not only the book but the way it came about is intriguing. It is every writer’s dream to come across a cache of letters which tell a riveting but true story. Add to this the setting of Venice, a cast of characters that includes a beautiful English girl, a Venetian nobleman and (of course) Casanova, and a book begs to be written.
Thursday 27 February 2020
Hatchards Booksellers on Piccadilly are delighted to host an evening with Hisham Matar, author of prize-winning memoir The Return. Hisham will be interviewed by Sarah Anderson of the Biographers’ Club
6.30 p.m. Thursday 27 February
London W1J 9LE
In one way, Dickens was not a Victorian. He was born in 1812 and his formative years were spent under the Regency, then the reigns of George IV and William IV. By the time of Victoria’s coronation, many of the themes and obsessions of his creative work were formed and he retained a Regency exuberance in his early work that was not always to the taste of his more educated readers. One thing they did not care for in his early novels was his treatment of drink and drinkers.
I have a pocketful of change. Around me, there’s the sound of clothes hangers on rails. Beyond a bin of old toys there’s a clink of crockery. The flooring’s worn, the smell is musty. I can hardly restrain my fingers. What am I looking for?
I don’t know. That’s just the point.
I’m in one of my favourite places: a charity shop, in the book section. The atmosphere’s hushed. It’s that of a museum, or, perhaps, a library.
But, wait. If I love books so much, why aren’t I in a library, or, indeed, a bookshop?
‘Which would you rather be,’ asked Maurice Richardson, ‘a shit of genius or a chronic euphoric?’ The shit of genius was Evelyn Waugh, the chronic euphoric his elder brother Alec, who once wondered if he ‘was not too much in love with life, to have ever been completely in love with anyone’.
The best days of my childhood were spent in a borrowed horse-drawn wagon, ricocheting up and down the semi-sheer slopes of the Wicklow Mountains, reins firmly grasped in small hands. I loved Cinnamon, our plump and stoical horse. I loved the jangling harnesses and the neat little bow-top with its folding beds. Most of all, I loved the footloose, fly-by-night pleasures of the gypsy life.
I’ve never been to Brazil, and to tell the truth I’m not much interested in going. Even reading about South America doesn’t thrill me. I’m not sure why this should be since I found Central America fascinating, and I’m happy to read anything going about the Maya, but Brazil is one of those blank spots in my personal sphere of curiosity.
Not too many years ago, it would have been unnecessary to explain who James Thurber was. His short story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in 1947 in the New Yorker (where most of his writing first appeared), soon found an international audience, and despite the best efforts of Danny Kaye to kill it off in a truly appalling film, it remains one of the most adept pieces of comic writing of its time, with most of the classic Thurber trademarks, including his delight in inventing words: among them the pseudomedical terms ‘obstreosis of the ductal tract’ and ‘streptothricosis’, and the information that ‘Coreopsis has set in’.
‘I myself – pampered by my Jewish friends – was a steadfast anti-Semite.’ There are enough reflections from [von Rezzori’s] autobiographical work to show that he was intimately acquainted with his fictional world, and to feel that the power of his fiction is closely related to his ruthless honesty about himself.
About a year ago now a smiling vanman delivered twenty-six heavy brown-papered packages from a trolley and stacked them along the side of the hall. I scrabbled one parcel open and there they were: the first copies, straight from their Yorkshire printer, of my memoir, Learning Things. I felt triumphant. The chaotic, sometimes threatening, jumble that had been the ingredients of my family’s lives and mine were now tamed into some sort of order – not just a pile of typed pages but a real book.
It is not very expensive to publish a book but why embark on the venture at all? Well, our histories and memories are the context of our children. To my children and grandchildren (three of them half- American) the there-and-then of my parents’ lives in India, at war, even my own experiences of boarding-school and as a terrified apprentice parachutist, seem almost unimaginably far away. My mother had died when I was 17 and my father, away for so long at war, had been a remote figure, so I too learned much about them as I explored the material I had.
It remains one of the more surprising facts of life that the intrepid traveller Eric Newby, who by the time I knew him had the weatherbeaten cragginess of a man only happy when halfway up the Hindu Kush, should have carved out an earlier career astride the lower slopes of haute couture. Everyone has to start somewhere, however, and he put his first reluctant footprint on the fashion world as hapless gofer in the family firm of Lane & Newby, ‘Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers’, from which he rose, more by luck than by judgement, to the dizzy heights of Worth Paquin, later plateauing out into the sunny uplands of John Lewis in the incongruous position of buyer of Ladies’ Fashion.
I first read Voss about forty years ago and didn’t pick it up again until very recently. A few years later I was somewhat disappointed by one or two of White’s other books and this must have tainted my recollection. I certainly remembered Voss as a powerful metaphor for the condition of modern man, but when I reread it I was surprised by its force and inevitability. The Marxist critic George Lukács once defined the novel as the epic of a world from which the gods have departed. Voss is first and foremost a gripping epic and the gods have indeed disappeared – or almost: there is still spirituality in the air and the characters seem to have developed special antennae for it.
‘It is Europe that is dying, my friends.’ This gloomy observation is, his devoted fans will recognize, the very essence of Alan Furst. It is delivered, in this case, by an anti-fascist Italian exile to a group of his compatriots in Paris in 1938, in Furst’s most recent novel, The Foreign Correspondent. But the world he has brought to life in all nine of his books is old Europe – from Lisbon to the Black Sea, though usually centred in the French capital – as it is smashed and swept away by war and the unstoppable momentum of power politics.
Writing her diary one evening in January 1951, Edwin Muir’s wife Willa reflected that her husband’s poems would live on, but ‘of himself, only a legend’. Why? Contemporary poets united in marvelling at Muir’s gifts, not just as a fellow poet, but as a human being. T. S. Eliot recognized in him a more ‘complete integrity’ than he had known in any other writer; Kathleen Raine envied his stillness and stability in a hurtling world; George Barker was moved by his visionary insight. Edwin Muir, Barker wrote, was ‘like a silent clock that showed not the time but the condition, not the hour but the alternative’. Surely something more solid than ‘legend’ should survive of such genius?
For years, then, I skipped modern poetry – until I discovered Billy Collins. Cue thunder and lightning! Now I’d walk backwards across town in a blizzard to buy the latest book of Billy Collins’s poems.
His gift is to visit the familiar and reveal the outlandish. My lazy imagination wonders what lies behind that door, down that road, beyond that picture. Collins goes there. He’s a permanent trespasser on parallel worlds, making short expeditions and reaching offbeat conclusions.
I first read the book when I was 16; later, Gaunt became a recurring figure in my life, cropping up unexpectedly like one of the incidental characters in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was Mr Sweatman, my art master, who first gave it me to read and it had me utterly enthralled. Mr Sweatman was meant to be conducting the art class, but he was obsessed by a school society called the Marionette Circle. He gave most of his attention to the few boys, members of the Circle, who arrived in class with tiny gibbeted figures dangling from their hands. He and they would disappear behind a lime-green screen, where the marionettes were made to perform their antics and danses macabres. Occasionally Mr Sweatman would emerge from behind the screen to bellow ‘Noisy!’ or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (a subject for us to paint). He was equally happy for the non-marionetteers to study art history; and with Gaunt’s book he found a perfect way of keeping me occupied.
The dogmatic persecution of those whose unhealthy lifestyle falls below the high standards of the lawmakers is vividly and terrifyingly dramatized in Benoît Duteurtre’s novel The Little Girl and the Cigarette. The French writer sets his action in the near future – without saying exactly when – and in a familiarly Western democratic country – without saying exactly which. The story, or rather one of the two stories we follow through the book, opens with a distinctly modern dilemma.
I have just returned from a long holiday in the Channel Islands visiting with Ebenezer Le Page, an old and valued friend, at Les Moulins, Ebenezer’s cottage by the sea. It is built of the same blue Guernsey granite that he is, and as he says, it will last for ever. They both will. Ebenezer is the creation of G. B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. It is his only book, published posthumously. It is fiction, but I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to. The word ‘creation’ is precisely the correct term. This is not a work of literature. It is a thing of flesh and bone. Ebenezer and I had often journeyed together in imagination, and shared our tea in front of a coal fire, but now I had come to Guernsey in body as well as spirit, to walk the streets he walked and follow the path of his life.
The forty-six volumes in Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series were originally intended as guides you could slip into your pocket. I don’t think I’ve ever actually carried one around in that fashion, not even the early, comparatively slender ones, and to do so with any of the more recent revised editions would require a poacher’s jacket and very sturdy shoulders.
Second-hand copies of The Penguin Complete Saki can be bought on Amazon for a very reasonable £5.60. The book contains 135 short stories, 3 novels and 3 plays. There’s also a foreword by Noël Coward. Which is only fitting because, if you want to fit Saki into a literary lineage, he is the missing link between Mr Coward and Oscar Wilde. These days, a tall skinny caramel machiatto from Mmm Coffee! can set you back nigh on a fiver if you throw in a biscuit, so £5.60 for 960 pages of genius is unbelievable value for money.
Ah, but I hear you say, I’m over-selling Saki. I’m not. At his best he writes short stories of sublime elegance and wit, each rendered with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. In them upper-crust Edwardian life is not so much lampooned as subtly eviscerated. And the stories are funny. Very funny. Laughter in the dark, in many cases, but laughter nonetheless. However, as with all the best satirists’ work, behind them lurk both morality and idealism.
Given this personal history, Carrie Tiffany’s quirkily titled first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, struck an immediate chord when the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced. Its intriguing plot turns on a state government-funded ‘Better Farming’ train, which rattles around rural Victoria in the 1930s, loaded with agricultural and domestic scientists preaching the gospel of science to farmers and their families. This was a book that demanded to be bought and read with the insistency of loud bells and flashing lights at level crossings. I was not disappointed.
In a tiny seventeenth-century cottage, fashioned from stone stables, I found the Idle Bookseller. Not that Ros Stinton lives up to her trade name, presiding as she does over the largest collection of books and pamphlets by or about the Victorian novelist George Gissing to be found anywhere. The shrine-cum-bookshop is up a steep flight of stairs at the back of her home, in Town Lane, Idle, once an ancient village but now swallowed up in the suburbs of Bradford. To the rear, which would have suited the mildly reactionary novelist, is the Idle Conservative Club. Down the road is the Idle Working Men’s Club, for which I imagine there is a long, if rather desultory, waiting list.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was invited to join a private train for its first – and, as it proved, only – excursion, from St Petersburg to Tashkent. Things in Russia had changed a lot, mostly for the worse. The streets of former Leningrad had been commandeered by homeless urchins and men in dark glasses with mobile phones. In a hotel bar, a drunken Red Army veteran pulled a pistol on me. Moscow seemed more dilapidated than ever, but L’Oréal perfume was on sale at the GUM store. As the train puffed south towards the Caspian Sea, blank and hungry faces stared from desolate village halts, and the carriage windows were locked for the passengers’ protection.
There are books which sit on our bookshelves for years, getting slightly more foxed as time passes. My Dubliners has followed me to five different addresses and, although a rather flimsy paperback (picked up second-hand, I see, for 1s 6d), remains in fairly decent condition. It was published in 1947 for Jonathan Cape by Guild Books, an imprint of the Publishers’ Guild ‘dedicated to bringing out the best from the lists of the twenty-six members’.
I like the idea of trying to capture the spirit of a place through a series of stories such as Dickens’s sketches of London life, Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories and Jack London’s tales of San Francisco. Joyce wrote almost all his Dubliners’ stories away from Ireland and, like most of his work, they focus unremittingly on a brief period at the turn of the twentieth century – years around which the whole of his imaginative life revolved.
One of the literary forms that has always given me most pleasure, in between the serious stuff, has been the clerihew, named after its inventor Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956). Bentley was chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph from 1912 to 1934. In 1905, a decade before he produced another of his inventions, the modern detective novel, with Trent’s Last Case, he published a slim volume entitled Biography for Beginners, which opens, under the heading ‘Introductory Remarks’, with this four-liner: The Art of Biography / Is different from Geography. / Geography is about Maps, / But Biography is about Chaps.
I was not aware when I read Treasure Island of the affinities between its famous author and my obscure self: Calvinism, a hellfire-breathing female, a father problem, a terrorized mind and a fevered imagination. Or that I would one day become an Edinburgher, live in Stevenson’s precipitous city. And indeed one of the marvellous things about Treasure Island is that there is nothing in it that could have told me anything at all about its creator. Rereading it now – an experience I heartily recommend – you can of course see scores of clues. The book is a treasure trove in more ways than one. It is eloquent of its author’s personality, apart from being a thoroughly ripping yarn.
When an Italian friend recommended a Sicilian writer of detective fiction called Leonardo Sciascia (and pronounced, in the author’s island dialect, as sash-arr), I listened politely but unenthusiastically. He explained that I should begin with A Man’s Blessings, first published in English in 1968 (and in 1992 reissued under the title To Each His Own). In this book, I was told, I would discover the essence of the Sciascia style, and if it was not to my taste I would be saved reading anything else by him.
Second-hand booksellers often find the reading of their books not just an occupational hazard but a waste of their precious time. They would rather spend it on keeping up with auction prices, reading their competitors’ catalogues or, nowadays, coursing the net. Literary values are left on the margin. Earlier this year, I found myself looking for likely candidates in our catalogue selection of Anthologies and fell deep into the trap of reading beyond the title-page and becoming immersed in delightful contents.
When I was at school I tried to start an Agatha Christie Club. Number of members (including the Chairman – myself ): three. Number of meetings: zero. This somewhat unenthusiastic response has not tempered my love of ‘good old Agatha’, although she was rather – as one of my friends described her – ‘a fascist in tights’. In her huge collection of whodunnits, the dodgy women always live around Bayswater, there is always a ten-to-one chance that the husband did it, and in Poirot, her much-loved Belgian detective, she gives us a wonderfully clichéd portrait of A Foreigner. But perhaps that’s why I enjoy her books. Reading Agatha Christie is a welcome relief from both political correctness and the convolutions of the modern world. She wrote books you can take into hospital with you – indeed, they were what my mother read when she was awaiting the birth of the Agatha Christie Chairman – or curl up with when you feel like being simultaneously scared and sentimental about an age you didn’t even experience.
Werner Herzog, the German film-maker, was friends with the late Chatwin (on the subject of walking they once compared legs together). He is known for such expansive and luminous works as Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and recently Grizzly Man, as well as some eye-catching stunts in real life. He pulled a ship through jungle and pointed a gun at an actor. But that winter journey? The resulting book? It appeared rather slimly, all of eighty-eight pages. Vom Gehem im Eis, translated as Of Walking in Ice, outdoes his other exploits by a country mile.
In the summer of 2006, I made a trip to Poland. We were quite a party: Hanna, my Polish mother-in-law, aged 80; two sisters-in-law, one brother-in-law (Turkish), my nephew and my son. The journey was important for three reasons. This…
I’m no lover of rats. At various times I’ve shot, bludgeoned and poisoned them (Warfarin Creams work best: take a standard Bourbon biscuit and mix the poison with the chocolate filling). I’d certainly never dreamed of buying a rat, much less carrying one about in my pocket; but a few months ago I walked into a Crimean pet shop with just that in mind. I should explain. We – Dan the director, Larissa the fixer, the rest of the TV crew and I, the presenter – were in the port of Feodosia on the Black Sea, filming a series on Ibn Battutah for the BBC . . .
In 1963, with twenty years’ cruising the Mediterranean in destroyers and small yachts under his belt, an ex-naval officer and historian named Ernle Bradford sat down to trace the geography of the greatest adventure story ever told: the Odyssey.
1066 and All That is a book that for me gleams so strongly with the same spirit of redress as to be a work of satirical genius. This is, I know, a little stronger than the usual estimate of Sellar and Yeatman’s ‘humour classic’. Its phrases are still commonly cited, and it appears never to have been out of print since first published in 1930. (I own two copies, one from 1936 – already the twenty-second edition – and another from 1994, reprinted twice in that year.) Yet literary criticism has paid it hardly any tributes at all. Presumably, this is because a) it contains cartoons and b) its preferred modus operandi is the pun. The pun is sometimes said to be the lowest form of wit. There is another way of looking at it, though – not as the lowest, but the most levelling.
My first parting of ways came fifty years ago, when I was 8. In September 1957 I was to be sent away to prep school. I could hardly wait.
A brand-new brown trunk, inscribed with my name and school number, had been acquired weeks before. My mother had immediately begun assembling, name-tagging and ticking off items from a printed schedule sent to her by Matron, and then laying them neatly in the trunk. Meanwhile, no doubt to prime me, I was given a Jennings book to read, one of a series of prep-school stories written by Anthony Buckeridge. I was soon comprehensively hooked, and began working my way methodically through all eight existing titles, from Jennings Goes to School, first published in 1950, to the latest, Thanks to Jennings. Three days before the start of term, with my trunk packed at last, I was brimming with Jennings-fuelled excitement.
In 1986, when I had just started at the bookshop where I still work, I was given a book by a tall, amiable man in late middle age. He was the book’s author and he had just reprinted it himself. He imagined I might be interested. Branko Bokun’s Spy in the Vatican begins, ‘In April 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany and her allies. With the surrender, a new State of Croatia was formed. The Ustashi, a band of Catholic fanatics, backed by the clergy, decided to eliminate all non- Catholics in Croatia. Orthodox Jews, Serbs and Gypsies – men, women and children – were slaughtered in their thousands.’
For the past couple of years I’ve been researching a book about the Greene family. The Greene King brewery, on which its fortunes are based, dates back to the Napoleonic period, but since I’m allergic to dynastic histories I’ve decided to concentrate on one generation: Graham Greene’s siblings and first cousins, all of whom grew up in the same small town in the early years of the last century.
When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase.
If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family and school and public events, but also in the stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly recall picking them up from the shelf – an ordinary act – and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, into another world where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility.
We found William Dampier by chance. He was a small footnote in a book about buccaneers – those ‘original pirates of the Caribbean’ – which mentioned that there was a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery. This seemed a strange outcome for a man who had pursued such a violent career and my husband and I went to see the picture. Entitled William Dampier – Pirate and Hydrographer, it shows a lean, strong-featured man with brown, shoulder-length hair and a watchful expression. There are no earrings, cutlasses or other Jack Sparrow-type flourishes. Instead, Dampier is wearing a plain coat with a white neck-cloth and holding a book, gold-tooled spine out, towards the onlooker.
In the mid-twentieth century a new device came into common use, enabling every Tom, Dick and Harry to record and play back sounds stored on magnetic tape. Arriving some 500 years after Gutenberg, the tape-recorder nevertheless had a small part to play in the preparation of text for print. A handful of enterprising writers began using it to record interviews with people whose opinions were (they judged) of interest to the reading public. The recordings were then edited, arranged in a palatable order, and published in book form. These interviews were more detailed and accurate than anything previously thought possible, except by the most tempestuous exponents of shorthand. However, critics of the new approach soon emerged. Were the books worth having? they asked. Was this ‘art’? Was it indeed proper authorship? And if so, who were the authors: those who spoke into the tape-recorders, or those who switched them on?
The Way of the World suggests that the most fulfilling journeys are only vaguely planned; wise travellers, using intuition as their compass, leave themselves free to be deflected by chance events and encounters. This book also suggests that cycling to India is far less stressful than motoring; not much can go wrong with a gearless bicycle, even on the rough tracks that preceded today’s intercontinental highways. Our heroes’ vehicle faltered frequently, demanding patient ingenuity first to diagnose and then to cure its multiple ailments. In extremis, muscle power had to replace an engine that refused the fearsome gradients around Ararat and the Luz desert’s formidable sand-barriers. Typically, Nicolas makes little of such episodes, treating them not as exhausting dramas but as the amusing, trivial side-effects of dependence on a tiny Fiat long past its use-by date.
If one were searching for the perfect antidote to Mis-lit one would find it triumphantly in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. First published in 1956 and in print ever since, the book is surely one of the most enjoyable English memoirs of the second half of the twentieth century. Every page is a celebration of the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the then unspoilt island of Corfu where the Durrell family arrived in March 1935 and where they lived until their expulsion from Eden in 1939 on the outbreak of war. It is beautifully written, with some astonishingly vivid and exact descriptions, whether of capturing a water snake in a stream or watching a lizard in its progress across a nocturnal ceiling, and it gets away, effortlessly, with all sorts of things one isn’t meant to get away with, not least the antics and tics of Funny Foreigners.
Ryszard Kapuscinski understood the pitfalls of news reporting perfectly. He eschewed any pretence of being a dashing correspondent and wrote of the strange drive that propelled him to dangerous, forgotten places, often lonely but without an ounce of self-pity. As the agency reporter for Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) covering the entire African continent, Kapuscinski witnessed the dramatic birth of the ‘developing world’. He was a most unlikely witness, a Pole from a small town swallowed up by the Soviet Union who walked a tightrope when it came to surviving as a journalist. He went on to report from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Kapuscinski witnessed more than 27 coups and revolutions, befriended Che Guevara, once awoke from a malarial daze to find Idi Amin standing over his hospital bed and was four times threatened with execution.
The Ritz Carlton/Splendide was to be Bemelmans’s home for many years, and his book about it, which first appeared in 1956, has now been reissued in a slightly truncated form together with other stories about life under Lucullan tyranny. The new edition is entitled Hotel Bemelmans and is accompanied by scores of the author’s brilliant illustrations which resemble sketches that Edward Lear might have dashed off had he chosen the life of a gay boulevardier. (The bar in the Carlyle Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side still has murals painted by Bemelmans himself, by the way.)
During Stalin’s purges in Russia, millions of people were sent to work in Siberian labour camps, and many died from lack of food, brutal punishments, overwork or the bitter cold. There were, however, some remarkable instances of survival. In the introduction to his novel The Forbidden Forest, the philosopher Mircea Eliade tells how some prisoners in one camp survived their ordeal. While those in other dormitories died at the rate of up to twelve a week, the prisoners of one dormitory stayed alive because they listened every night to an old woman telling fairy tales. Each prisoner gave up a precious portion of his daily bread ration in order to help feed the old woman so she could save her strength for the nightly storytelling sessions.
Something half-remembered involving a writer locked in a tower, and a conviction that my first encounter – literary or otherwise – with the drink crème de menthe took place within its pages: these, until recently, were my hazy but fond memories of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. But within seconds of opening the novel again, I was reminded of why I had once loved it enough to read it several times a year.
Birds of America is supposed to be Mary McCarthy’s weakest novel, though it was her own favourite. Yet it is a fine book – a brilliant study of a clever, odd teenager growing into a man. And like all good books it seems to get better each time I read it.
Sometimes, confessing to a favourite book can bring a flush of embarrassment to the cheeks. We tend to make such selections at a susceptible age and they don’t necessarily stand up to the test of time. ‘Isn’t that a bit . . . well . . . teenaged?’ some inquirer will ask with a shrivelling look. I am only too aware of this snooty equivalent of the lifted lorgnette as I admit to a long-standing love of Thornton Wilder’s little slip of a book: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
At various times in my life, from my twenties to my fifties, I planned to travel through France by boat. As real life gradually rendered the achievement of this ambition ever more unlikely, I took to reading in a random way books by people who had done it. About twenty years ago I came across a large paperback called Isabel and the Sea. I knew nothing about it or its author George Millar, but I consumed it greedily, loving every word. It was the classic ‘through France and across the Mediterranean by boat’ book. Later, I tracked down and consumed equally greedily all the other books that George Millar had written, most of which were then out of print.
As we turn the page to a new decade, we’ve made some New Year resolutions. John Mitchinson and Andy Miller of Backlisted Podcast join the Slightly Foxed Editors to bring new life to old books, leading us off the beaten track with wide-ranging reading recommendations. From Frank O’Connor’s letters, Selina Hastings’s lives and Barbara Tuchman’s histories to the poetry of John Berryman, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, they journey through genres to revive literary curiosity. And in this month’s reading from the magazine’s archives, Richard Platt makes a convincing case for The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, falling under its curse of sleepless nights.
I don’t know about you, but I have a number of books on the go at any one time. There’s one in the downstairs loo, one in the bathroom, a couple by my armchair in the living-room, and two or three by the bed. But one book has been permanently by my bed since my wife gave it me for Christmas in 2000, and I turn to it more or less every night for the crisp good sense which is guaranteed wherever I open it, and perhaps a laugh as well.
Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’ve returned well-rested and ready for the year ahead following a relaxing Christmas break. Now our thoughts are turning to the annual office overhaul: shelf-shuffling, book-shifting and making space in preparation for a new year’s worth of publications. Therefore, if you’d like to help us clear a few shelves and take the opportunity to stock up on paperbacks, back issues, Foxed Cubs and any other tempting bookish goods we’d be most grateful. To bring some cheer to the start of the year, we’re continuing our special festive December offers until the end of January.
Not a little of the appeal of Kilvert’s Diary for its early readership was the total contrast it provided to contemporary horrors. What could offer a better escape than the largely unruffled beauties, certainties and tranquillity of the high Victorian period to be found there, and in Trollope’s novels, equally popular in the war years? As Plomer wrote to the novelist Elizabeth Bowen when he first read the diary, ‘It’s as good as the Caledonian Market,’ then the happy hunting ground for Victoriana.
I grew up in a house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a bay. There was an upstairs drawing-room which was never used, and in the evenings when I was a little girl, I would go up there and close the door. Kneeling on the window-seat, I would gaze out at the sunset over the sea and the clouds banking on the horizon, and escape into my imagination. In those clouds I saw horses and chariots, marching legions, the thronged streets of medieval towns, knights in armour, great ships in full sail on a golden sea – vivid images from the books my father read me. The worlds they conjured up were consoling and utterly real to me, and I lived in them more than I lived in the present.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s classic Ballet Shoes, published in 1936, remains a favourite for anybody interested in theatre. Whenever one mentions a first-class book of this kind, if the adult addressed knows it, their face will light up, and they’ll look exactly as they must have done as a child. This is true of either sex. E. Nesbit’s name gets many nods and smiles, particularly from elderly gentlemen who remember the Psammead: ‘a little beast’, said one. Mention of Narnia produces endless discussions on the merits of the seven books. And every woman who discovered I was writing about Ballet Shoes responded in exactly the same way. A sharp intake of breath was followed by, ‘Oh! My favourite book!’
The epigraph to Querencia, by my friend Stephen Bodio, explains that the title is a term taken from the bullring, denoting the imagined, and illusory, sanctuary sought by a bull entering the ring, where he feels secure, temporarily sheltered in a magical space. A nearly untranslatable word is a good title for an almost unclassifiable book: an autobiographical fragment, evoking a place and a time, and two similarly unclassifiable people, Steve and Betsy.
Aunts up the Cross begins and ends with the death of the author’s great-aunt Juliet, aged 85 and frankly pretty eccentric if not down-right mad. She was run over by a bus which was travelling slowly in the right direction while the old lady was going pretty fast in the opposite, wrong direction. Her progress was made all the more haphazard by the dark glasses which she wore throughout the year. ‘Her untimely end might have been dramatic in a family more given over to quieter leave taking,’ wrote her great-niece, Robin Eakin. ‘But, in ours, it just seemed natural.’
When I sat down to start this piece, I nearly got tangled up in theory. William Faulkner was so brilliantly experimental with form, and consequently captured the interests of literary critics over such a broad spectrum, that it is very easy to get tangled. Then I recalled why I had wanted to write about Faulkner in the first place. I’d wanted to revisit two books by which I had been smitten in my teens.
Slightly Foxed and the Biographers’ Club are delighted to announce the shortlist for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2019. The prize of £2,500 will be awarded on Tuesday 10 March with a drinks reception at Maggs Bros. on Bedford Square, London.
Warm wishes from Hoxton Square where we’re preparing to settle by the hearth with a good book and a celebratory glass of something festive. We look forward to catching up with you when we’re back at our desks on Monday 6 January. Meantime, we leave you with an excerpt from Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, a deliciously funny picture of life in nineteenth-century Cambridge among the eccentric Darwin clan, illustrated with Gwen’s own delightful drawings.
One day early in the First World War, an inexperienced young doctor serving with the Royal Fusiliers examined a sergeant who was ‘out of sorts’. The man had a reputation for being imperturbable on patrol, but now he sat in a billet in Armentières staring at the fire, unshaven, slovenly dressed and silent. The doctor could find nothing physically wrong but gave him permission to rest. The following day, when everyone else had gone up the line, the sergeant blew his head off. ‘I thought little of this at the time,’ the doctor wrote later. ‘It seemed a silly thing to do.’
I might never have discovered James Munro’s John Craig thrillers had I not seen the film of the last of them, The Innocent Bystanders, in early 1973. Christina Foyle remarked at the time of Craig’s first appearance in The Man Who Sold Death (1964) that his creator wrote like a cross between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, but although the book and its successors were well-received, Munro never found the same fame. The film sank without trace, despite an excellent cast headed by Stanley Baker, but it did inspire me to seek out the Craig books. I loved them.
When I was a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s I believed that my father was a close personal friend of Charles Dickens. They must, I thought, have met at various inns in London and shared jokes and stories and enormous slap-up breakfasts with baked meats and ale. Samuel Pickwick would often be there, too, and Dickens would address my father as ‘VSP’, as all his friends did. We lived in the country for much of that time, in a house which I imagined was just like Dickens’s Dingley Dell. There was a walled garden, with a little summer-house, and I half expected the Fat Boy to pop up from behind the rhubarb and make my flesh creep.
I discovered Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists as a student. I was reading psychology and the course had just begun with a look at animal behaviour, which involved a grasp of scientific method and thus a lot of headache-inducing maths. In a bookshop, glumly casting round for some background reading with a lighter touch than the papers I’d been given, I happened on this remarkable book, published surprisingly by Country Life. It was about seagulls, savage wasps, camouflage and other matters now suddenly on my agenda but, because it was for ordinary readers rather than specialists, the ordeals of theory, statistical bafflement and so forth were wonderfully absent.
John Stewart Collis hated to be referred to as ‘a neglected writer’. He said that if people read that a writer is neglected their natural response is to say, ‘Well, let’s neglect him some more.’ All the same it is hard to avoid saying that Collis was, and is now, a neglected writer, this despite his having written at least one book, While Following the Plough, which deserves to be treated as one of the classic books about farming, nature and country life, on a level with those of Richard Jefferies or W. H. Hudson.
Greetings from No. 53 Hoxton Square where spirits are high, wrapping paper is running off rolls and post bags are filling up quickly as we ready ourselves to wave off the post van one last time and close the office for Christmas. There’s still time for us to help with literary gifts however, and we’d like to draw your attention to our Slightly Foxed Editions – beautifully produced pocket hardbacks, just the right size to hold in the hand and with a ribbon marker to keep your place. Perfectly designed to curl up with, these reissues of classic memoirs are highly individual and absorbing reads. So whether you’re in need of a good book or a present for someone you’re fond of, do seize the chance to stock up now.
One of my favourite books is Wolfgang Kohler’s The Mentality of Apes. I haven’t actually read more than a couple of paragraphs at a time because the contents are of less significance to me than the cover. It is an old paperback with the characteristic turquoise cover that all Pelican books had, and the simplicity of the cover design allows the title to stand out clearly. I take it with me to meetings that I don’t want to go to and place it, obtrusively, on the table, title up.
As in 1066 and All That, what carries the best jokes of And Now All This into something like poetry is an excess of wit. When the ‘Absolutely General Editors’ speak of sleepers entering ‘the land of Polymorpheus’, they casually combine their reading of Freud with their classical education. Elsewhere, ancient literature gets a whole chapter of learned mockery. ‘Myth-Information’ sets out to show – like many more pessimistic Modernist works – that ‘Western Culture is fundamentally myth-guided’. Proof comes in the form of the ‘Arthurian Cycle’, which looks like a Penny Farthing designed by William Morris, and is ‘steered by faith (or witchcraft)’.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy, but I think I was 9 or 10, for I had just gone away to boarding school, and I can remember the stab of longing that that description of the Cole family, on their way to their annual holiday at a seaside farm in the West Country, gave me. Exiled in a red-brick prep-school on the flat and muddy coast of the Bristol Channel, I dreamed with a desperate, nostalgic homesickness of the Devon lanes and cliffs and sandy beaches I’d left behind, and the sound and smell of the sea – the proper sea. The school holidays couldn’t come soon enough, and I knew exactly how Jeremy felt.
It is hard today to appreciate the extent of Hugh Walpole’s success. Not only did his novels – which had appeared annually since his first triumph, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, in 1911 – consistently head the best-seller lists, but he was also a well-known public figure on both sides of the Atlantic. At the time of his death in 1941, he was giving a series of wartime propaganda broadcasts to the USA called ‘Hugh Walpole Talking’. His views were sought, his opinions respected. Hugh Walpole was master of his game. Yet there has always been a problem about the reputation of this seemingly dominant figure.
In the summer of 1980 The Times sent me to Delhi. My first foreign posting, it rewarded all my hopes of adventure. India and Pakistan were at the heart of my reporting. I also wrote from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Early on 23 June Sanjay, the politically powerful younger son of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, crashed his sports plane in Delhi and died. It was a big story and I was only three weeks into the job.
I have always liked reading and pubs, and reading in pubs. By reading I mean sitting alone in a corner of the pub with a pint of bitter and a good book, not the Good Book – that might attract unwelcome attention. There are several conditions to be met. The pub should be quiet, and music-free. It should have few customers, and these also quiet and dotted around the smallish bar at a fairly unsocial equidistance from each other. Any conversation should be infrequent and sotto voce, limited perhaps to the names of racehorses or someone who hasn’t been in lately because he died last week. The best time is after two o’clock, when the lunchtimers have returned to work or afternoon telly. There is at least one such place remaining. It is called The Green Man and is situated in a rural West Midlands village. I am not going to name the village, because the brewery will immediately swoop and render it intolerable. As it is, it still has a public bar, a saloon bar, a snug and a small walled garden. It was in this garden that, fittingly, I first read Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man.
There are some questions that you should never ask a writer – they are instant death to any hoped-for conversation. But at every literary party or book launch I’ve ever attended, the worst of them invariably pops out like a cork from a champagne bottle, straight into the writer’s eye: Do you write by hand or use a computer?
You’d think, if you read History at university, that you might come across the man who invented it. These days, that would be a quaint hope. During my stint at Cambridge in the early Nineties, I encountered witches and deviants, demography and Dickens, consumer revolutions and the medieval kingdom of Aragon. I came across beggars and Bedlam, early Christian thought and the English Civil War. We had social and economic history, psycho-history, feminist history, oral history and micro-history. There was a brief stab at Rome from Augustus, but that was as ancient as we got. Of Herodotus, the Father of History, there was no sign.
Even if the south-eastern seaboard of Africa has never been a Bloomsbury, it has had its moments. Angus Wilson’s mother was a Durban girl, and Fernando Pessoa spent his schooldays there. But given the few exceptions, that littoral has hardly been bookish. Among the 250-strong community in which I grew up, all but about thirty were Zulu-speaking workers and their families, many of whom were illiterate. Of the remainder, most were Indian tractor drivers and mechanics and their wives and children, who spoke Tamil and Telugu by choice. That left only a handful of us who had English as our mother tongue. And that linguistic ratio was repeated across much of the surrounding countryside.
Some months ago I became a British citizen. This wasn’t such a stretch for a native of the States, but it put me in mind of other transplanted people and I have been rereading some old favourites to celebrate. Perversely, the most resonant thing I’ve read isn’t British at all: a tale written in French by a Belgian who became American and settled on an island near my family’s summer home in the northern state of Maine. It is a quiet piece of literary grisaille called Un homme obscur, ‘An Obscure Man’.
One day in May 1944, with the harbour of Fowey packed with vessels of all shapes and sizes ready for the invasion of France, Mr Spreadbury, our history master, turned up in a gown with very noticeable tears in it – almost as though someone had purposely rent it.
I grew up on the outskirts of London with a Dad who sat in a deckchair and read books in oriental languages while other dads mowed their lawns or fixed their houses. Our house was certainly in dire need of fixing, but it did have a lot of books in it. The rooms were lined with shelves of Chinese and Japanese volumes printed on rice paper, bound with silk and fitted into boxes, along with some translations. Among them was The Tale of Genji, ‘the world’s first novel’, as my Dad told me. The translator was Arthur Waley, a shy awkward man who never actually visited the East but who translated magnificently from many Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Ainu and Mongol.
I first met Jack Reacher in 1997 – and I was instantly smitten. A lone figure, downing coffee and eggs in a diner on the edge of a small American town, he remains as cool as an Inuit’s deep freeze when the local cops roar up, arrest him at gunpoint and charge him with murder.
In Slightly Foxed, No. 17, I wrote of my childhood addiction to Anthony Buckeridge’s stories about Jennings and Darbyshire, pupils at the agreeable but not very realistic prep school of Linbury Court. That obsession ended abruptly when, in the late 1950s, I was myself plunged into prep-school life, and a very different school filled my imagination.
Some books carve themselves immediately and irrevocably into the minds of their readers. I must have been no more than 16 or 17 years old when I first read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Knowing little about the Russian Revolution, and the lies, torture and mass-murder that the leadership of Josef Stalin had brought in its train, I was instantly converted into a fierce disbeliever in every benign claim about life in the Soviet Union which was made in those days by the Communists and their innumerable dupes and fellow-travellers in the West.
My nearest second-hand bookshop is in a small town five or six miles away. Like many traditional small-town shops it wears many hats. Downstairs at the front are stationery and artists’ materials, upstairs are second-hand books, while the downstairs back is devoted to a small, private, pleasantly ramshackle printing museum. It was there, in a shop of a kind she would have recognized and loved, that I found my copy of Charlotte Paul’s Minding Our Own Business. In it she wrote about the first five years during which she and her husband Ed owned and ran a small American country printing firm, the Falls Printing Company, and its associated newspaper, The Snoqualmie Valley Record. (She was Charlotte Paul Reese by birth, Charlotte Groshell by marriage, Charlotte Paul as a writer.)
On my thirteenth birthday, a friend’s mother gave me a present which changed the way I thought about reading. It was books, four of them: Regency Buck and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, and My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.
When Northern Rock first ran into trouble in the autumn of 2007, worried customers queued outside branches from the early hours in an attempt to get their money out. ‘This is the first run on a British bank since Mary Poppins,’ said someone. It was one of those easy jokes which succinctly sum up what is going on. In the film Mary Poppins the run on the bank is a mistaken one, triggered by a child loudly demanding the return of the money which a benign father has banked for him. The idea that depositors might lose their money in Northern Rock was equally mistaken.
How many children’s books have characters that not only discuss literature but also give you a reading list? That is just one of the things that put Antonia Forest’s novels at the top of mine. Her wonderful sequence of thirteen books, written between 1948 and 1982, follows the fortunes of the Marlow family – eight children, naval commander father, upper-middle class stock going back to Tudor times –in vivid episodes, centred now on the girls’ boarding school, Kingscote, now on the family farm, Trennels, now on London, more specifically Hampstead. They were the first books to make me feel that my preoccupations and dreaminess, which marked me out as peculiar at school, were part of growing up – that I was not alone.
In the 1970s student grants went a long way. After paying for all the prescribed texts, there was still money left over for a good rummage in the second-hand bookshops. On a whim one day, I bought three novels by an author I had never heard of – Peter de Vries. I was attracted by the cyclamen red typeface on their bright yellow Victor Gollancz covers, and at 10p each they were a bargain. What I didn’t know was that 30p could set my slant on the world.
I call them ‘also published by’ lists. Everyone who collects secondhand books knows them; hopeful publishers used to put them at the end of a volume. There you can find the memoirs of long-forgotten statesmen and long-gone generals, books on matters once thought topical (Is the Kaiser Insane?), collections, inevitably, of essays by E. V. Lucas and, of course, novels.
As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent. I caught the bug as a kid, with the fairly broad-based ambition to collect any book published before 1860, figuring that anything that old must be rare. This first collection mounted to ten or eleven books, two of them Bibles, and starred a spineless tenth printing (1856) of Dream Life by Ik Marvel, which is probably still lying around somewhere. Since then, I’ve gone through several off-and-on phases of bibliophily, sufficient to learn that it isn’t a sport for the impecunious or anyone living in physically confined circumstances. I’ve also learned that, like less innocent obsessions, it can draw you in – seriously.
It arrived, as the inscription tells me, two months after my third birthday, a Christmas present from my mother’s brother, Uncle Basil. A large hardback book – to a 3-year-old very large, its fourteen inches height by almost ten width enough to give it immediate status: a book to wield as well as to read. The striking cover, in slightly acidic lemon yellow, had the single word Cocolo in brown, in a bold freehand.Below this was a small outline sketch of a donkey, a rather pot-bellied one with ears protruding from a wide-brimmed straw hat.
As soon as I meet Shirley Hazzard, before we begin to engage in a conversation, she is quoting Thomas Hardy’s poetry to me. She insists that the love Hardy expressed for his first wife in his later verses is genuine, that after Emma Hardy died he somehow managed to recall all the old love and feelings: ‘Not guilt, that’s too modern. He was able to recall the way he had felt when he first met her.’
Our boat journey from Jersey to Sark passes through a dangerous past. The rocks between the two islands are called in Jersey slang the Pater Nosters, for it is said that if a ship were to get too close to them, then prayer was all the mariners had left to save themselves. We notice how Jersey is well defended from the sea: an Elizabethan castle, another fort and then the grinning mouths of German fire-control towers, cadavers of wartime occupation. Jersey has always judged itself worth the effort to defend.
Ernst Kestner has smoked 846,756 cigarettes. A butcher from Lübeck in his sixties, he is driving to France, doing the sums in his head. He has been a 40-a-day man since the middle of the Second World War. What happened to him in France in the war? Why, now that he suspects he has terminal lung cancer, is he going back?
If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as on our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald. My colleagues, who prefer other writers, gracefully ignore my shop-floor eulogies which they have heard a thousand times.
Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), was an early and spectacular part of the flowering of West African literature after independence from colonial rule. It seemed, perhaps especially to a South African like me living under increasingly draconian controls, a wonderful illustration of what liberation might mean. Now, I suspect, it is one of those books which almost everyone knows about but very few people other than students actually read.
There’s a classic type of resourceful, unassuming hero that they just don’t make any more (think Richard Hannay), and the narrator of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male, a ‘bored and wealthy Englishman’, is far too well bred ever to give his ‘widely known’ name away. The first fifty pages of this sharp little thriller – which I have a particular personal reason for enjoying, as will become apparent – form a self-contained adventure set in the summer of 1938, in which the aforementioned Englishman, after a fortnight’s sport in Poland, finds himself at a loose end in the Bavarian Alps and in possession of a Bond Street rifle complete with telescopic sight.
I’m not sure whether it was India that introduced me to R. K. Narayan or R. K. Narayan who introduced me to India. Each superimposed itself on the other so that they became indistinguishable. Travelling round India any time in the 1970s meant reading a Narayan; and reading a Narayan anywhere else meant being transported to India. An Indian train journey was unthinkable without one. In a sense it was one, for the Narayan experience began as soon as you ventured on to railway property. This was his world. His dozen or so novels had been inspired by the vision of a unremarkable town on the main line to Madras with a station nameplate that announced it as MALGUDI. Railway life loomed so large in his fictional Malgudi that attentive readers came to know exactly what to expect and could stroll from ticket barrier to tiffin room as if to the platform born.
One of the great advantages of acquiring a stepson in my sixties was the excuse it gave me to reread aloud all those children’s books which I had so much enjoyed the first time around – Beatrix Potter (whose Tailor of Gloucester was once ranked by A. J. P. Taylor with ‘the greatest masterpieces of Balzac’), Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and The Wind in the Willows, the last so popular that I think I read it six times in quick succession.
If it had not been for Puccini’s opera, I would never have heard of Manon Lescaut. As it was, finding a copy of the novel behind the opera wasn’t easy: it was not kept on the open shelves in my public library, but locked away; and the basilisk stare with which the librarian gave me my copy left me in no doubt that this was a work of the utmost depravity.
If there were teenage novels in the 1950s, I never found them. Instead the gap between Last Term at Malory Towers and the foothills of serious literature was plugged, most enjoyably, by period adventure stories. Two types appealed. In the first, fair-haired young Englishmen, armed only with a first-class degree from Cambridge and ‘a little Hindustani’, became unwilling players in the Great Game on the North West Frontier. In the second, a rail journey across between-the-wars Europe plunged ordinary men, often from Haslemere, into a maelstrom of violence and treachery.
Present ideas for booklovers are abundant here at SF, and this week we’re putting our Plain Foxed Editions in the spotlight. Bound in duck-egg blue cloth, with a silk ribbon marker, the Plain Editions come in the same neat pocket format as the original SF Editions and will happily fill any gaps in your collection – as well as forming a delightful uniform series of their own for a new collector or fellow bibliophile.
For me it all started the night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another. But then again, that’s how it started for most of us who’ve read Maurice Sendak. Max is the hero of Sendak’s best-known work Where the Wild Things Are. First published in 1963, it has sold over 17 million copies worldwide, and has entertained, delighted and intrigued who knows how many millions of children and adults.
Literary manuscripts began to be collected in the eighteenth century – though in the case of Shakespeare, none of whose handwriting was known to survive, with the exception of a few signatures, all different, they had to be manufactured first by the enterprising hand of W. H. Ireland. In the 1790s, Ireland revealed to an astonished world examples of Shakespeare’s correspondence and even a hitherto unknown play, Vortigern, before the final exposure of his forgeries.
Last summer, during a trip to Canada’s maritime provinces, my husband and I went on a literary pilgrimage. After attending a wedding in Nova Scotia we drove northwards across the Confederation Bridge to Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. From the bridge we drove further north still, up to the Gulf of St Lawrence. We were looking for a settlement called Cavendish, and for a small, green-gabled farmhouse that draws visitors from all over the world.
There are few things more guaranteed to provoke a pleasurable wallow in melancholy than a ruin. For me, exiled in Brooklyn, with temperatures rising, the air-conditioner on the blink and police sirens screaming down Flatbush Avenue, reading the opening pages of Roderick Grant’s Strathalder was just the thing for an enjoyable reflection on the dust and ashes of worlds now disappeared.
I first encountered the work of Stephen Potter in a TV sketch show that conflated the great comedy quartet of his ‘Upmanship’ books: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship, published by Rupert Hart-Davis between the late Forties and late Fifties. The TV series began in 1974, when I was 12, by which time Potter had been dead for five years. Having recently discovered A. G. Macdonell’s, England, Their England, I was just learning that sustained drollery is better than a series of gags, and these programmes seemed another lesson to that effect.
Rupert Hart-Davis retired to Swaledale from the London publishing world two years before I joined it in 1965, so it was on the shelves of second-hand bookshops that his name first really registered with me. I often found myself spotting books which he had published before I could read his name on them, because in both design and production they had a distinct air of quality. And then, when I pulled them off the shelf, I often ended up buying them because they were to do with the Victorian era, a period that has always mesmerized me.
The year 2004 was what I shall call my ‘Suffolk Year’, one in which I immersed myself in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes through a workshop and performance at Covent Garden and a concert performance elsewhere. Britten is a magician. He can conjure up the sea, rivers and salt marshes of Suffolk, the battering North Sea storms and the endless blue skies that seduce you into believing the calm will endure; and the isolation too, which is one theme of the opera.
I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a ‘minor poet’, that no he didn’t mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick. My ears pricked up when I heard that. For some reason I’d never imagined Cohen sitting down and reading seventeenth-century English clergymen, but of course I was wrong.
I came late to magic. The stories of my childhood were mainly Greek myths (there was a Cyclops at the bottom of our garden) or the plots – with copious quotations – of Jane Austen’s novels, my mother, the storyteller, having a deep love for and knowledge of both. Later, with pretensions to intellectual sophistication, I had no time for kids’ stuff. So it was at a relatively advanced age that I discovered Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald, James Stephens, Masefield of The Midnight Folk, Tolkien, T. H. White. They burst upon my reading, fresh and new. Of the more modern books, the one that has gripped me most is Elidor by Alan Garner.
The verb ‘to travel’ could be parsed like this: I’m a traveller, you’re a tourist, he’s a tripper. Most of us, including me, are tourists, condemned to the soul-destroying procedures of modern journeys. Travellers don’t do the sheep-in-a-line bit, they make their own way. They hitch lifts from passing pilots or use the local bus or buy a camel. They don’t land briefly on the surface of other people’s lives but get right inside.
Sarah Caudwell is the author of some of the most gloriously entertaining comic novels written since the war, but she seems to be almost unknown in this country. My relatives and friends have not heard of her, she is not to be found in bookshops and she may well disappear from public libraries once their present copies disintegrate.
The Berlin Wall, a brutal, iconic structure made of concrete and barbed-wire, rose to split a city overnight in August 1961. Then just as quickly, and again overnight, it was breached in November 1989 when glasnost spread through eastern Europe. As an impressionable student in the Eighties, hungry for icons, not brutality, I found that the Wall cast a compelling spell. And if my grant couldn’t get me to Berlin at the time, then cultural touchstones worked instead. There was the music of David Bowie (whose albums Low and Heroes were made at the famous Hansa studios, by the Wall). There were certain fashions to follow (baggy coats and macs, surely the attire of spies). And, of course, there were books to devour, with accounts of the Wall covered by most genres. So, with twenty years approaching since that momentous breach, what would I read again to mark the event?
Last year I was invited to join a friend’s book group. I plodded through the book they’d chosen that week – a particularly ghastly and badly written effort by some minor celebrity – and naturally expressed my distaste at their meeting. Why had they chosen such rubbish? I thought book groups were meant to stretch the mind. And so they suggested, as I thought myself so clever, that I should choose their next book.
This morning, in the woods on Tooting Common, the sight of a young man plucking nettles and dropping them into a forage bag instantly reconnected me to my earlier life where ‘found food’ was a regular treat: wild parsnips, raspberries, blaeberries, angelica stems or water mint. Back in the 1970s, in my anti-consumerist hippy days, my home was sometimes an old Bedford van. Crammed with partner, three children, scruffy dog, cooking equipment, mattresses and quilts, this arthritic dragon – belching out smoke and small metal parts – transported us up and down the country lanes of Britain and Ireland. We enjoyed impromptu alfresco meals often gathered, picked or dug up from woods and field corners at dusk. ‘Dusking’ Richard Mabey calls it.
In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.
I knew what I wanted, and I went to Havana to find it. It was the university summer holidays. England was one long yawn, with its slow drizzle and its Third Way, the flat vowels of its politicians and their deadly practical aspirations of stability and prosperity. I’d spent two years sitting in the library reading about faraway, long-ago revolutions, grinding my teeth at the dullness of my life. I sat there absorbing other people’s pontifications so I could go off and pontificate myself, so I could order and organize a world I hadn’t yet really discovered. I wanted to find a place where people were actually living, where they were sweating and dancing and dying and having sex; a place, in fact, like that in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.
I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus. We had commissioned him to write what turned out to be The Missing Will, the first volume of his autobiography, and every now and then I would meet him for a drink in the King and Keys, a narrow, smoke-filled pub next to the old Telegraph building in Fleet Street. It was usually half-empty when I went there during lunch breaks that continued well into the afternoon, but in the evenings, Michael told me, it was crammed to overflowing with his colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, red-faced and sweating and jostling for a place at the bar.
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, a friend was billeted at the top of the tall college gatehouse. The stairs to her room were so many that, in case of fire, a long rope, bolted to the wall and ending in a noose, was thoughtfully provided for descent to the street below. With no intercom at ground level, a social call became a real test of friendship. But why did I take the stairs when I could have been shinning up the stonework?
Readers of the published letters between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis are like members of a club to which access is provided by introduction. My own introduction came in Delhi from my Indian dentist, one of the best-read men I have met (and the only dentist of mine who has offered coffee after a session of treatment).
Once in a blue moon an encounter with a new book can be like falling in love – you just know, instinctively, that you’ve found a voice that’s entirely sympathetic, and that you want to spend the rest of your life with it – or at close quarters, at least. Housekeeping had that effect on me: I remember the distant rumbles of acclaim when it first came out in 1980 and was nominated for the Pulitzer among its raft of other awards, but I didn’t catch up with it myself until last year, and I read it with a sense of wonder.
My great-aunt Maud was a maiden lady. Young men were in short supply when she grew up, unconscionable numbers of them having been killed in the First World War. My grandmother hinted indeed that there had once been a curate vaguely in the offing; if so, nothing came of it and he offed rather than offered. I have a feeling that Maud was earmarked by her mother as the daughter who would stay at home and care for her parents, and to this end was over-protected and discouraged from any adult autonomy.
Transport yourself, dear reader, to the British urban landscape of Larkin’s mythical moment, ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. You are young, educated, ambitious, and have moved, alone, to a big city – London, even – eager for the experiences and opportunities your newly acquired adult status and independence dangle tantalizingly before you. Yet as you grapple with the baffling new exigencies of the lowest rungs of the career ladder, you also find yourself lodged in the lowliest form of metropolitan habitation: the bedsitter. You long for excitement and sophistication, but your life looks, feels and very probably smells like a cross between Lucky Jim and The L-Shaped Room.
Readers take something of a risk if they go back to a book they have much enjoyed but not picked up for thirty or forty years. As a bookseller, I was constantly reminded of such favourites because I could recommend them to friends, either new or second-hand. During that period John Meade Falkner’s novel The Nebuly Coat spent several years out of print but it appealed to small imprints as a reprint, and a reappearance was always welcomed. I probably read it for the first time in the admirable World’s Classics edition. Only in the last few weeks, inspired by my rereading, have I reminded myself about Falkner himself in the judicious introduction by G. M. Young and the personal note contributed by Sir Edmund Craster, a close friend from Northumberland.
A lot of rubbish has been written about music over the years, which is not surprising – it is a very difficult thing to write well about. Conveying the emotions that music can produce is a task probably beyond the reach of even the English language. This can make listening to music one loves a lonely business. Often, having been enraptured by some new CD, I’ve manically called friends and urged them, with varying levels of inarticulacy, to share the experience: ‘You’ve got to hear this song! It’s like, so, um, amazing . . . it’s got this singer . . . there’s this astonishing drum solo . . .’ The attempt always ends in failure, the phone receiver pressed against the speaker, my friend’s non-committal response usually a reluctant ‘Um, sounds great.’ This is why it is so rare – and so heart-warming – to read a book like Giles Smith’s Lost in Music, which conveys what it means to live and love pop music with such warmth and accuracy.
It’s been hard to avoid the Mitfords recently. A collected edition of the letters of Jessica (‘Decca’) was published in 2006. The following year another collection, this time of the letters exchanged between all six sisters, appeared. And this autumn we’ve been treated to the correspondence between the youngest sister, Debo, now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.
I have twice abandoned my attempt to write this. The first time happened when I reread Nigel Balchin’s novel, Darkness Falls from the Air, which I had admired to distraction many years ago, partly because I so loved the poem from which the title is taken (Thomas Nashe, ‘In Time of Pestilence’), partly because it seemed to me a brilliant account of what it must have been like to be in London when it was being bombed during the Second World War. This time round, however, I noticed the extent to which the novel is bedevilled with occasional but regular anti-Semitic remarks of a kind which become even more horrible when one remembers it was published in 1942. Although I tried to pretend to myself that the problem was not systemic but merely cosmetic, after a while I decided my excuse wouldn’t wash any more. This is a poison which infects the whole novel, not just the parts.
I thought I could never feel fond of Charing Cross Road. In 1988, when I was 23, I spent the most miserable three months of my life there. In one fell swoop, I had lost my fiancé, my flat and my job. (In a panic, as university came to an end, I had started my working life as a graduate trainee in a City bank. It was not a good move.) Facing what felt like a futureless future, I signed up for a ‘Sight and Sound’ typing course on the bleak first floor of a building next to the Garrick Theatre. Secretarial instruction was delivered over headphones to classrooms full of women, and, as I tried to follow the disembodied tutorials, my fingers kept slipping and jamming between the keys of a hefty, black manual typewriter. As I emerged at lunch-time, and wandered towards Soho Square to eat a sandwich, surrounded by shoals of down-and-outs and drunks, I kept thinking of that line from The Waste Land: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.
Most people have an image of a typical Yorkshireman. These days that image might be corrupted by non-standard, media-influenced examples such as Geoffrey Boycott or Michael Parkinson. But not so long ago, it would have resembled Sam Small.
I am reluctantly succumbing to the charms of the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson. For years I resisted: I had no interest in Top Gear, his high-octane programme for dim-wit motorists. I liked neither his in-your-face screen personality nor his studiously non-PC newspaper columns. Added to that, I had to suffer the ignominy of having my partner, who is normally quite discerning, make a point of regularly watching him and telling me that she found him funny.
The second half of the seventeenth century in England saw an efflorescence of diaries and memoirs, kinds of writing hardly seen before, but there was a delay of a century and a half before these writings got into print. The Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by his wife Lucy led the field, appearing in 1806, and telling how he held Nottingham Castle for Parliament. Most of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives were first published in 1813, and John Evelyn’s Diary in 1818. This attracted far more attention than the first two and was the stimulus needed to get Pepys’s diary off the shelves of his library which he had left to his old Cambridge college, Magdalene. The Master lent a volume of it to his uncle, the bibliophile Thomas Grenville, who passed it on to his brother William, he who had been Prime Minister at the head of the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ in 1806–7.
New York in the 1930s, and a new term is starting at the Night Preparatory School for Adults (‘English – Americanization – Civics – Preparation for Naturalization’). The long-suffering Mr Parkhill is confronting the first piece of written work given in by his class, the beginners’ grade – an exercise entitled ‘Fifteen Common Nouns and Their Plural Forms’