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K. Nichols, Washington, USA

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Too Much of a Good Thing

Too Much of a Good Thing

I see Frances Wood in that great tradition of intrepid British women explorers, like Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell. She sets out for China in 1975, when the Cultural Revolution is still going strong, and soon she is hacking a path through impenetrable jungles of revolutionary doctrine and jargon. Now she is gamely slogging across arid deserts of boredom and hours of improving lectures about the heroic deeds and shining examples of simple peasants. There are a hundred discomforts and irritations to be endured. To the natives she is a figure of curiosity; they stare and point and they don’t accept her. Like her explorer predecessors, she is indomitable, but in her case it is because of her heroic sense of humour and her eye for the absurd. Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking – her account of the year she spent as a student first at the Foreign Languages Institute in Peking and then at Peking University – is a very funny book.
A Personal Landscape

A Personal Landscape

Every reader of Wainwright will have his or her favourite passages: if nothing else the sequence is a monument to the self-effacing whimsy of a modest man. Enthusiasts point to the dedications of the different volumes, for example – The Eastern Fells ‘to the men of the Ordnance Survey’, The Southern Fells ‘to the sheep of Lakeland’, The North Western Fells ‘to those unlovely twins, my right leg and my left leg. Staunch supporters which have carried me about for over half a century, endured without complaint. And never once let me down.’ Again and again, the lovingly pastoral tone is enlivened by a wry (and occasionally macabre) humour.
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Happy Ever After

The Young Visiters was published in 1919 but written in 1890, when its author was 9. It appeared with a Preface by J. M. Barrie and with the manuscript’s many spelling mistakes faithfully reproduced. Within two years it had sold 230,000 copies, given rise to a stage play, and caused a rumpus in literary London. It has never been out of print since. This is an exceptional record for a slight work. Why was The Young Visiters so popular and why does it endure?
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Uncomfortable Truths

There is no book more haunting than W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I would not advise anyone unfamiliar with his earlier books to make it their introduction to his work, because his decision to do away, in this one, with paragraphs, and the way in which the narrative unfolds, are disconcerting enough when first encountered to be off-putting. It is necessary to make an act of trust – to put yourself in his hands; and this may be a problem for anyone who has not yet learned to trust him by reading his wonderful The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. I doubt whether I would have persisted beyond the first thirty-odd pages of Austerlitz if I hadn’t already learned that wherever Sebald led, I must follow him . . .
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The Oldest Paper in the World

The Oldest Paper in the World

It is not surprising that having invented paper over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese found a wide variety of ways to use it. Though the seventeenth-century landscape artist and arbiter of taste, Wen Zhengheng, considered painted wallpaper vulgar, Li Yu (1611–80), owner of the Mustard Seed Garden, advocated brown rather than white wallpaper, and Chinese painted wallpaper depicting birds, flowers, garden architecture and butterflies became popular in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1794, the first British ambassador to China, Lord Macartney, even brought back a set painted with scenes of Chinese streets and workshops for his banker Mr Coutts which can still be seen in the bank’s boardroom.
SF magazine subscribers only
Well Done, Carruthers!

Well Done, Carruthers!

In the depths of last winter the bathroom, if by no means warm, was the least glacial room in the house. Ever since the children were born it’s also been the only place in our North Norfolk home in which there is sufficient freedom from interruption to read. I was convalescing from Zadie Smith (On Beauty) and needed the literary equivalent of comfort food: of toad in the hole, cottage pie or dead man’s leg. The choice was Howard’s End, Brideshead Revisited or The Riddle of the Sands, all steadfast companions since I grew out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a rattle of rain on the bathroom window. It was an evening for Erskine Childers. I closed the door firmly on the children, drew the bath and settled down to read.
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