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Happy Ever After

The Young Visiters was published in 1919 but written in 1890, when its author was 9. It appeared with a Preface by J. M. Barrie and with the manuscript’s many spelling mistakes faithfully reproduced. Within two years it had sold 230,000 copies, given rise to a stage play, and caused a rumpus in literary London. It has never been out of print since. This is an exceptional record for a slight work. Why was The Young Visiters so popular and why does it endure?
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Uncomfortable Truths

There is no book more haunting than W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I would not advise anyone unfamiliar with his earlier books to make it their introduction to his work, because his decision to do away, in this one, with paragraphs, and the way in which the narrative unfolds, are disconcerting enough when first encountered to be off-putting. It is necessary to make an act of trust – to put yourself in his hands; and this may be a problem for anyone who has not yet learned to trust him by reading his wonderful The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. I doubt whether I would have persisted beyond the first thirty-odd pages of Austerlitz if I hadn’t already learned that wherever Sebald led, I must follow him . . .
SF magazine subscribers only
The Oldest Paper in the World

The Oldest Paper in the World

It is not surprising that having invented paper over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese found a wide variety of ways to use it. Though the seventeenth-century landscape artist and arbiter of taste, Wen Zhengheng, considered painted wallpaper vulgar, Li Yu (1611–80), owner of the Mustard Seed Garden, advocated brown rather than white wallpaper, and Chinese painted wallpaper depicting birds, flowers, garden architecture and butterflies became popular in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1794, the first British ambassador to China, Lord Macartney, even brought back a set painted with scenes of Chinese streets and workshops for his banker Mr Coutts which can still be seen in the bank’s boardroom.
SF magazine subscribers only
Well Done, Carruthers!

Well Done, Carruthers!

In the depths of last winter the bathroom, if by no means warm, was the least glacial room in the house. Ever since the children were born it’s also been the only place in our North Norfolk home in which there is sufficient freedom from interruption to read. I was convalescing from Zadie Smith (On Beauty) and needed the literary equivalent of comfort food: of toad in the hole, cottage pie or dead man’s leg. The choice was Howard’s End, Brideshead Revisited or The Riddle of the Sands, all steadfast companions since I grew out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a rattle of rain on the bathroom window. It was an evening for Erskine Childers. I closed the door firmly on the children, drew the bath and settled down to read.
SF magazine subscribers only
Divine Spark

Divine Spark

I first came across Spark when working in a little second-hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road. A battered tome of her selected works was on sale in the outside pile, desolately stationed there to be picked over by tourists and dampened by rain. Not having much to do (the shop closed a month later, not necessarily because I’d worked there) I started reading one afternoon, and was hooked. For while Muriel Spark makes you laugh out loud, she also makes you think – she must, I feel, have been a formidable dinner-party companion, quietly sitting there with her razor-sharp tongue . . .
SF magazine subscribers only

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