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Travelling with Swift

Travelling with Swift

Among quite a few things Gulliver’s Travels has in common with Alice in Wonderland, one in particular would have surprised their authors: each jumped nimbly across the boundary of their assumed readership. But they did so from different sides of the fence. Carroll’s child’s fantasy, spun during a picnic afternoon on the river, generated an entire academic industry for serious-minded adults; Swift, on the other hand, had ground out a bitter, hard-hitting satire on bad government, intellectual pretension and moral hubris, only to have it co-opted by children in their fascination for little people and giants.
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Mr Cattermole’s Successors

Mr Cattermole’s Successors

In the autumn of 1991, I started working for the Royal Society of Literature, one of the strangest and most beguiling organizations in London. Nobody, not even Roy Jenkins, its President, seemed to have much idea of the RSL’s purpose, and so in the evenings, after work, I took to exploring the archives. They lived in a small room over the front door of the Society’s home, 1 Hyde Park Gardens, stuffed into lever arch files whose spines read like a register of literary ghosts: Barrie, Beckett, Beerbohm, Blunden, Brooke . . .
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A Garden Litany

A Garden Litany

From about the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, anyone who could afford it owned a ‘book of hours’ and kept it close at hand for daily use. It contained the prayers of the divine offices to be said at appointed hours, as well as psalms, lists of saints and a calendar, often tailored to the particular place in which it was used. My diary, the only book I use many times a day, is a paltry thing beside these medieval books, some of which are made visually beautiful with illuminations, and all of which are conceptually beautiful in their weaving of the hours of each day with the arc of the whole year.
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The Mark of Cain

For me as a teenager, reading voraciously on the Natal sugar farm that was then my home, what gave Herman Charles Bosman an edge over other writers was that he was a murderer. That he was also one of a handful of South African writers who could confidently be called ‘major’ seemed incidental. From my adolescent perspective, lounging in a rattan chair on the veranda, with the sea of sugarcane swaying in the distance, it was his infamy that was beguiling.
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Romance of the Road

Romance of the Road

For anyone interested in places and their associations And So to Bath (1940) is a gem. Writing at the end of the 1930s under the shadow of war and in a succession of stages along the road’s hundred miles, Roberts conjures up a fascinating historical panorama from prehistoric times to Rome, the Plantagenets, the Tudors and Stuarts, the cultural glories (and social misdemeanours) of Georgian England and the Victorian prosperity and reforms that followed it, through to a philistine twentieth century which he laments. With a magpie’s zeal Roberts has gathered it all for us. For occasional fellow travellers he has the scholarly and spinsterly Miss Whissett, and Rudolf, an enthusiastic young Austrian student of English literature whose companionship may have held more than a passing charm for the bachelor author.
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London at War

London at War

Year by year literature of and about the First World War mounts –  books on its campaigns, causes, politics and economics; memoirs by politicians and generals; diaries and letters written by ordinary ‘Tommies’, by nurses in the front line and those involved on the Home Front, from the ‘Munitionettes’ who filled shells and assembled guns to the society ladies who rolled bandages and handed out tea and buns to departing soldiers. The catalogue of the London Library currently lists 1,475 titles on the First World War, and there will be many more to come during the remaining centenary years . . .
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Casting Out Fear

Man’s Search for Meaning has apparently sold more than 10 million copies and been published in 24 languages. It is, according to the Library of Congress, one of the ‘ten most influential books in the United States’. When you are happy, E. F. Benson or some other undemanding text is enough; when you torture yourself, you need to find ways of coping. Frankl’s book is unlike any other Holocaust memoir I have read. From the darkest degradation he brings hope. He finds meaning amid the meaningless. It would be an exaggeration to say that his book saved my life – but it did help me find meaning.
SF magazine subscribers only

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