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Marking Time

Marking Time

Do you know where you put the window cleaner’s bill? Do you remember that you missed your last appointment at the dentist’s because you had mislaid her appointment card? When these things happen, do you put it down to just another senior moment or, perhaps, an indication of a worrying frequency of lapses in concentration, usually noted in older friends and relations? Might I suggest that you take a few moments to riffle through the last half-dozen books that you have read recently? You may be surprised at what you find.
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Around a Room in Forty-two Days

Around a Room in Forty-two Days

A Journey around My Room was the unlikely result of a duel. In 1790 Xavier de Maistre, a 27-year-old officer in the Army of Piedmont, fell out with someone over something, somewhere in Turin. One party called the other out, a duel was fought, and thus an offence was committed which merited punishment. De Maistre was sentenced to six weeks’ house arrest. Scarcely cruel and unusual, in that he was allowed the comforts of his own room, the company of his dog Rosine and the devoted attention of his manservant Joannetti. Still, for a full-blooded young man forced to cool his heels for forty-two long days and nights with only four walls to stare at, the prospect must have seemed a miserable one.
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Bain’t Feasible

Bain’t Feasible

It was May 1968. Students all over Europe were in revolt. My heart was with them, but my bottom was on a chair in the agricultural section of the university library, where I was revising for the end-ofyear exams. Eventually I could take no more of the life-cycle of the frit fly, that scourge of the oat crop, and got up to stroll round the shelves, vaguely scanning titles: Profitable Sheep Farming, Soil Conditions and Plant Growth, The Pig: Modern Husbandry and Marketing . . . Then my eye was drawn to a book I’d never seen before: Farmer’s Glory, by A. G. Street.
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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

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.
SF magazine subscribers only
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.

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