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Well-salted

It is laconic and simple, non-romantic in that Slocum refuses to be a lone hero struggling against the terrifying sea. Rather, he is at home in the ocean wilderness, insisting that ‘the wonderful sea charmed me from the first’. Spray is his companion as much as a boat: ‘The Spray enjoyed many civilities while she rode at anchor.’ Revisiting Sailing Alone after more than thirty years, I was reminded of Slocum’s trick of appearing as a self-effacing guest, reading and cooking while the trusty Spray gets on with the job of sailing, holding her course with the wheel secured.
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Leap of Imagination

No book has exposed my own double standard to me more clearly than Dancer by Colum McCann. A fictional portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, told from many angles in many different voices, it opens with one of the best short evocations of battle that I have ever read, as Russian soldiers return from the front at the end of the Second World War. The picture narrows to an industrial town in the remote hinterland where a boy watches the trains come in, waiting for his father. Then we see him being handed through a hospital window to perform folk dances for the wounded; he is a prodigy, who makes even the human wrecks drinking meths draw breath.
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Embarrassing but Inspiring

We all remember the first novels we read of our own volition, unprompted by parents or schoolmasters: in my case these were John Buchan’s stories of the adventures of Richard Hannay. We were in the throes of the Second World War and so First World War novels had a special relevance. When, therefore, half a century later, a reviewer of one of my own books said that the narrative read like ‘something out of Buchan’ (though he may not have meant it as an unqualified compliment), I regarded it as the ultimate accolade: Buchan had been a role model and Hannay was my hero.
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In Dehra Dun

I found a copy of Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel in a small bookshop in Dehra Dun in northern India. It was the dust jacket that caught my eye – a pen-and-ink drawing of a pair of large gnarled feet in shabby sandals, crossed, and resting on a balcony rail. Irresistible. The bookseller peered over my shoulder. ‘He lives here,’ he said, with a wide smile of pride. ‘Did you know?’ I didn’t. I had never heard of Allan Sealy. But a local author writing about local matters, places, people? Whether it lived up to its cover or not, it was the right book to read then, and there.
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The Parson and the Squire

Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I am talking about.
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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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