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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.
Cape-bound

Cape-bound

Soon after my Dublin grandfather’s death in 1946 several heavy teachests were delivered by rail to our Lismore home. My father gleefully pored over the numerous bulky tomes: the Works of Samuel Richardson in seven volumes (1785), a History of Free Masonry in five volumes, a rare numbered edition (No. 775) of the works of Henry Fielding in ten volumes with an introductory essay by Leslie Stephen, etc. etc. Being then aged 14 I was unexcited until I came upon a slim volume (foolscap octavo) by a mid-Victorian Englishwoman identifiable on p.1 as a kindred spirit. Ever since, Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from the Cape, written to a devoted husband and a worried mother, has been among my favourite accounts of travel.
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