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Catching a Tartar

In April 1851 Leo Tolstoy was a university dropout, troubled by gambling debts and plagued by venereal disease. To escape his drifter’s life in Moscow, he set out to join his brother Nikolai’s artillery unit in Chechnya with the vague intention of enlisting in the army. By the time Tolstoy made his journey, many well-educated young men, inspired by Pushkin and Lermontov, had already gone to fight the peoples inhabiting the mountain fastnesses on Russia’s southern frontier (and perhaps win the heart of a demure tribal princess). The Caucasus quickly became a staple of the empire’s popular fiction, populated by Russian Flashmans.
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From Small Beginnings

From Small Beginnings

I was as spellbound as anybody and already an enthusiast since schooldays for The Lord of the Rings. So these myths from the frosty north struck a powerful chord in me, and when in 1960 a volume bearing the title Njal’s Saga appeared in the Penguin Classics series, I fell on it eagerly. I was in for a surprise. No gods, no dragons, no gold-hoards, no reforged swords. Instead – what? An everyday story of country folk. But what folk! And what a country!
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Joining up the Dots

Joining up the Dots

In the endlessly wet, cold, dark days of last January, when hibernation seemed the only possible option, I was given the perfect book to escape into – a children’s book as it happened. Reading it brought back to me the old sofa in an upstairs room where I used to go and curl up as a child and dream myself back into other times and places. I realize now that it was from the children’s authors I read then, rather than anything I learned in the classroom, that I connected with English history. They lit up my imagination. During those endless afternoons I was the lonely Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall dreaming of home, the medieval peasant in his hut in the forest, the little girl living near the docks in Tudor London, catching her first glimpse of the great ship Mary Rose.
A Peal of Perfect Thunder

A Peal of Perfect Thunder

When, a few years later, I started to read G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, I thought how feeble we were as revolutionaries compared to the seven anarchists of that book – at the beginning of the book anyway, for it has many surprises up its sleeve. Of all of Chesterton’s stories this novel, published in 1908, is the most fantastic and ultimately mysterious. Chesterton was profoundly religious and politically conservative, and he regarded with horror a world in which, as now, revolutionaries demanded attention by indiscriminate bombings and assassinations.
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The Charlock’s Shade

Cyril Connolly is the patron saint of literary under-achievers. For all young English graduates who ever believed they had a novel in them but didn’t; every journalist with an edgy work-in-progress hidden in the bottom drawer of his desk; every would-be McEwan or Mantel who has spent frustrated years subbing other people’s words on the Wythenshawe Gazette, Connolly is the figure to whom they cleave for comfort. Because if ever a man had an obvious talent to write it was he.
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Kindness of Strangers

Kindness of Strangers

‘If you get out now, Gnädige Frau, you can take the underground and you will be in the city in no time,’ said a fellow traveller to Christabel Bielenberg on a stationary train just outside Berlin in 1944. So she did and the train steamed off. A few miles on, American bombers attacked, killing almost everyone on board. Her life had been saved by luck – and the kindness of a stranger. It’s the stories of such small human decencies in the midst of war that make her memoir The Past Is Myself (1968) such an extraordinary book.

A Mortal Wound

The myth of the golden years before the First World War, brought to a tragic and unforeseen end by that war’s outbreak, lingers on despite all the evidence produced by subsequent historians to show how dangerously shaky were the foundations of that apparent stability. In 1936 when The Strange Death of Liberal England was published, George Dangerfield’s picture of the years from 1910 to 1914 was startlingly original. It was also astonishingly well written, which was probably one of the reasons why it made very little stir at the time, since so serious a reassessment might not have been expected to find its expression in such apparently genial mockery and in passages of quite such bravura prose.
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Batting under the Walls of Troy

Batting under the Walls of Troy

The sound of bat on ball. The smell of newly cut grass. The sight of players in whites crouching, waiting, hoping. Summer must be here. Yet for many cricket lovers there really is no close season. Come autumn, stumps may be drawn but a different type of pleasure replaces the ebb and flow of the physical contest. For the true enthusiast, those shelves stacked with old and (occasionally) new books on the game serve as the perfect antidote to winter.
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The Flight of an Odd Duck

I have been reading a number of books on everyday life in Britain in the Second World War recently and have been on the lookout for more titles to read. My friend Jack Walsdorf, bookseller, book collector, librarian and author of, among other things, a bibliography of Julian Symons, told me of the latter’s Notes from Another Country (1972). Having obtained a copy from a second-hand bookseller in Galway, I read this slim volume in a couple of hours and with enormous enjoyment.
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Sweet Revenge

There are many definitions of what makes a great work of literature, but for my money a great book must do one thing above all else: it must create a world of its own, with its own unique atmosphere and moral universe. It must invent that world and transport you into it, and make you believe in it, from first sentence to last. Paradoxically you will inhabit it intimately as an autonomous world existing independently of you, the reader. The plot and the setting, the characters and their language – all exist elsewhere, and you merely overhear, oversee, even though you are drawn into the very heart and essence of the creation. This is the godlike miracle of great writing. Homer did it, Shakespeare did it, the Brontës and Dickens did it. The new world the author creates is peculiar and true to that particular poem, play or novel, and true to no other.

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