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An Epiphany at the British Museum

An Epiphany at the British Museum

Edmund Gosse, son of the famous naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, had worked at the British Museum since he was 17. His father’s friend Charles Kingsley had helped secure him the post of Junior Assistant in the Department of Printed Books. For someone with literary ambitions, this must have seemed an attractive position but it was, in fact, a clerical treadmill. With the other Juniors, his task was simply to write out the seemingly endless stream of revised entries prepared by his seniors for the catalogue of what was then the largest library in the world.
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The Black Isle and the Miss Boyds

The Black Isle and the Miss Boyds

Reachfar is a ruin now. Approach, as we did, from the north, across rough, boulder-strewn fields, and it has a blind, sad look, just one small window in its long stone front. Go round to the other side and the mood changes. You are greeted by a blaze of gorse and a yard that has reverted riotously to moorland. Only a stone trough remains. But, for all its decay, the croft has a companionable air, although parlour, kitchen and attics are now all one and ivy pushes its way in over crumbling sills.
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Considerable Indiscretions

Considerable Indiscretions

The huge literature on Winston Churchill can seem impenetrable to the casual reader. Churchill’s own writings, with their stentorian prose, do not always appeal (though My Early Life scores through its pell-mell pace of events). Martin Gilbert’s official biography marshals the main themes superbly but cannot convey the everyday feel of Churchillian life. A host of Churchill’s contemporaries have gone into print, reporting their dealings with the great man and basking in the light of his genius. Among them is Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, whose Winston Churchill as I Knew Him describes with beguiling insight her friend’s life up to the year 1916. In the preface Bonham-Carter quotes Gray’s remark to Horace Walpole: ‘Any fool may write a most valuable book by chance, if he will only tell us what he heard and saw with veracity.’ Such a man – though certainly no fool – was John (or Jock) Colville, one of the private secretaries to Churchill in both his spells as Prime Minister. During those periods Colville kept detailed diaries of events, which were published in 1985, two years before their author’s death, as The Fringes of Power:Downing Street Diaries, 1939–1955.
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An Observer Observed

An Observer Observed

The trouble with memoirs is that too often they are written by people whose idea of what’s interesting is not the same as the reader’s. They are either grossly self-serving, like most political memoirs, or a good story spoiled by bad writing. Autobiography is not easy: it calls for literary talent, professional detachment and moral courage. Alan Moorehead had all three. Not only was he a rare example of a high-profile newspaper reporter who turned himself into a bestselling author, but he also had the vital extra ingredient of critical self-awareness. The result is an unusually good autobiography.
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Tarka the Rotter

Tarka the Rotter

If we’re honest, most of us have at least one friend who we would hesitate to bring into civilized company – someone too strange or socially awkward, full of crazed notions about God or politics, given to boring on or making horrible scenes: unspeakable when drunk. Something similar holds with writers: there are books and authors that we love quite unreasonably but would hesitate to introduce to anyone nice. Often, these are the authors we read and read again, however many times we’ve given them up in despair or disgust, promising ourselves that we won’t soil another moment in their company. As with many a difficult friendship, you can end up wondering who is abusing whom. Some knotty thoughts arise: doesn’t allowing ourselves to feel ashamed of someone, anyone, always make us feel a bit ashamed of ourselves? Doesn’t it imply a priggishness – at worst a kind of treachery?
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Laura, Louisa and Me

Laura, Louisa and Me

The Child that Books Built is the title of a memoir by Francis Spufford which explores the impact of books read in childhood by interspersing an account of Spufford’s own reading with excursions into history, philosophy and psychology. It beautifully articulates the formative nature of childhood literary exploration. ‘The words we take into ourselves help to shape us,’ Spufford writes. ‘They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us . . . They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination.’
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At Home with the Pewters

At Home with the Pewters

I’m bound to admit that some of the experiences, and also, for heavens’ sake, the attitudes of the ‘pathetic ass who records his trivial life’ (as William Emrys Williams put it in his introduction to the Penguin edition of 1945), seem embarrassingly close to my own. Mr Pooter may have lived more than a hundred years ago – just up the road from where I live now, as it happens, in a house, er, rather similar to mine – but his psychology is timeless.
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