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All Washed Up

All Washed Up

The book was the first full-length work by George Orwell to be published. A tale of poverty in two cities, it is divided into two parts: in the first the author becomes a dishwasher in Paris; in the second he lives the life of a tramp in London. The book’s obvious appeal for me was that it seemed to be written by a soul mate, a letter from one unpublished writer and dishwasher to another. It enabled me to romanticize my deadly dull occupation, not least by allowing me to think of myself not as a dishwasher but as a plongeur.
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‘Tombs, dear. Where’s your other sock?’

‘Tombs, dear. Where’s your other sock?’

No one told me that the pyramids had been one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but they were certainly the primal wonder of mine. From early on they exercised an oddly persistent fascination.They could not, it seemed, be taken for granted, like hills and trees and houses. Approached along the pyramid road they got larger and larger and larger until they filled up one half of the sky. It took a long while to ride lurchingly round the Great Pyramid on a camel, and from no angle could their stupendousness be made a thing of nought. They were made of square yellow blocks, exactly like sugar lumps, but higher than I was.
Putting up Useful Shelves

Putting up Useful Shelves

In 1922, Richard Kennedy’s formidable grandmother pulled a well-connected string and got him a scholarship to Marlborough. To say that Kennedy’s education up to this point had been patchy is an understatement. As he describes it in his childhood memoir A Parcel of Time, it consisted of ‘two uneducated women’, his mother and his nurse, failing to teach him to read, followed by a series of pretty dire south-coast prep schools from which he generally absented himself by the simple expedient of taking the bus home . . .

The Temptation of Mrs Harris

It was astonishing to me that a grown-up could cry, and more than astonishing that anyone should cry for joy. The memory came back to me a few weeks ago, as I reread, with my 9-year-old daughter, Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris. For Gallico, most fondly remembered as the author of The Snow Goose, was a master of the bittersweet, of the mysterious kinship between suffering and joy. He knew how to fold together humour and poignant detail in just the right proportions to prevent his prose from curdling into mawkishness and sentimentality.
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A Noble Cause

A Noble Cause

War in Val d’Orcia consists of the diary Iris Origo kept between the end of January 1943 and July 1944. The Origos were based throughout at La Foce, south of Montepulciano in central Italy, though they made occasional excursions to Florence and Rome. She and her Italian husband Antonio had devoted their pre-war lives to reviving the estate, something that could only be done by cooperating with Mussolini and his Fascist bureaucracy; when the Fascists allied themselves with Hitler and Nazism, the Origos keenly adopted the anti-Fascist cause. In what was a remote part of Tuscany they created a remarkable agricultural community, though its close-knit texture would be stretched to the utmost under wartime conditions.
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Avid to Live and Learn

Avid to Live and Learn

I shall always be grateful to A Cab at the Door. I read most of it one Sunday evening in a Victoria line tube train which was stuck for two hours outside King’s Cross station. The train lights dimmed and instead of the Blitz spirit a sullen, twitchy silence set in. I was spectacularly lucky in my companion. The sheer vigour of V. S. Pritchett’s writing and his benign, shrewd storyteller’s voice kept me suspended in his Edwardian boyhood until ‘the juice’, as the panic-stricken driver called it, came back on and we trundled away at last.

Dog Days

‘In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk.’ My copy of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – of which these are the opening words – is a first edition of the English translation from 1998. In fine condition these now fetch high prices, something that was pointed out to me as I stashed it in a knapsack last summer, and set off with two friends to retrace part of Sebald’s route along the Suffolk coast.
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The Sensation of Crossing the Street

I remember thinking clearly: what a momentous day this is, and here I am, reading a novel set in London on a single day. What a chime, what an echo! These were not the words I used to myself, as I walked in the dazzling sun, but I now think they should have been, resonating as they do with the famous opening lines of Virginia Woolf ’s novel, when Clarissa Dalloway sets forth on a perfect June morning to buy the flowers for her party: ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’
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