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Well Dug In

Once upon a time, or until about 1960 that is, there existed a genre of horticultural literature called, colloquially, ‘the chatty gardening book’. In fact, the phrase did these books less than justice, for they were generally interesting, amusing, literary works written by educated, cultured people for the edification of an equally educated gardening readership. I collect as many as I can find in second-hand bookshops for, even if the spelling of plant names in them is sometimes archaic, they are still a pleasure to read.
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Doing a Runner

In 2002 Anthony Rota, a fourth-generation bookseller, published his memoirs of the antiquarian trade. He has known it for most of his life whereas I only came into it in 1965 after graduating from Cambridge. I was based in Curzon Street, while his shop was in Savile Row, but both of us might well have used the title of his book, Books in the Blood. In it he recalled some of the deals he had done, as well as two or three that he had notably missed, the many friends he made and the life of a West End bookshop before the era of the Internet.
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Hadrian to the Life

My first encounter with Memoirs of Hadrian was during a brief holiday in Andalusia. As I drove north from Málaga into the snow-covered hills, my husband turned to the first page. Within a sentence we were transported into the second century AD; a few pages later we realized we were traversing the very same landscape Hadrian had known as a boy. It was in the hills and forests around Seville that he learned to ride and to hunt: ‘The kill in a Spanish forest was my earliest acquaintance with death and with courage.’

Retail Therapy

When I was a small boy, a holiday treat would be to visit my father who, for several decades, was the advertising manager of Pontings department store, the least glamorous if most worthy of its siblings on Kensington High Street, Barkers and Derry & Toms. There were a variety of routes through the store – via Ladies’ Coats, Hardware or maybe the domed Linen Hall – leading eventually to the roof-top office where my father and his staff were enveloped in a chaos of merchandise sent up by each buyer to be advertised on the back of the Evening Standard or included in the latest catalogue. Young though I was, I became infected with a strong desire to possess things, which all but the most ascetic of us probably share. This is what makes Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise such a pleasure, even if, by the end, a guilty one.

My Dear Maggotty Sir

If the figures of history are paraded before the mind’s eye, century by century, once the 1750s are reached one seems suddenly to be looking through a zoom lens. The procession of more-or-less august personages, remote and rather incomprehensible, conventionally portrayed and stiffly posed, and speaking or writing in stilted formulae, is elbowed aside by an animated and colourful crowd, all in close focus. Their faces and their pens are equally lively: here at last are men and women with whom we would like to converse, at whose jokes we could laugh, and with whom it would be our good fortune to become friends.
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The Wind on the Heath

‘What’s that book that’s making you laugh so much?’ said my wife. It was my old Everyman Lavengro, still for some reason in its bright red dust jacket, now tattered and torn. It’s a reprint of Everyman’s 1906 edition and it has a curiously hostile introduction by Thomas Seccombe, who a few years later was to be given the Chair of English Literature at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Poor George Borrow, he declared, ‘had anything but a fluent pen’, his inventive faculty was small, his style ‘peculiarly dry’, and he wrote only because he had to.
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Prang Wizard

Goshawk Squadron, a story of the war in the air over the Western Front, is the missing link between Catch-22 and Blackadder. It was Derek Robinson’s first novel, published in 1971, and it was immediately short-listed for the Booker Prize, joining the likes of V. S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Mordecai Richler. The judges were no lightweights, either: Saul Bellow, John Fowles, Lady Antonia Fraser and Philip Toynbee, under the chairmanship of John Gross. Not an alternative comedian in sight.
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Holding the Pass to Paradise

Published in 1981, Among the Believers is the account of a journey through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution. Its subject, the Muslim fundamentalist revival, was not yet much of an issue inside Britain. (Naipaul made the journey again in 1995 for a sequel, Beyond Belief, but this first encounter with Islam proved to be the more revealing.) Like everyone else, I had been shocked and baffled by the attacks on America. And although I had read a good deal of the torrent of punditry unleashed by the events of September 11, I was little closer to understanding them. Since I was in the middle of writing a book about the Muslim Uighurs of China, I snatched the paperback up.
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Landscape and the Heart

Landscape and the Heart

‘Her whole life was spent riding at breakneck speed towards the wilder shores of love.’ Lesley Blanch’s memorable description of Jane Digby el Mezrab supplied the title of her first book and her contribution to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; it has passed into the language, and places the writer definitively in her chosen emotional and geographical landscape. Saturated with movement and high drama, the image is outlandish, exotic, flagrantly romantic, with a hint of opéra bouffe.
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O Jackie . . .

It’s 1991 and the recession is beginning to bite. Publishers’ accountants are staring at unearned balances, and reputations – for being artistic, for having introduced a ‘new voice’ or style – are about to be shown up for what they are: froth on the daydream, in the unforgettable (and pretentious) words of the French surrealist writer Boris Vian. Everywhere, writers are talking of TV opportunities – or even, as rumour has it that Paramount are about to open a London office, the true daydream, that of the Hollywood blockbuster.
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A Tuft of a Masterpiece

A Tuft of a Masterpiece

The term ‘masterpiece’ is often used lazily as a bit of instant praise, but the dictionary definition is actually ‘a production surpassing in excellence all others by the same hand’. So, strictly, you can only produce one masterpiece. Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) may have had this on his mind when he began his book The Unquiet Grave: ‘The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.’ He, alas, never produced a major work to earn the distinction himself, and he will mainly be remembered as the founder (with Stephen Spender) of the literary magazine Horizon and as the principal book reviewer of the Sunday Times in the period after the Second World War.
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