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Hoodwinkery and Legerdemain

Hoodwinkery and Legerdemain

The one thing that five of the six Stefan Zweig books currently in print in Britain have most strikingly in common is not the author’s consistency of style but his photograph opposite the title page. The most famous of these, The Royal Game, notorious in European and American chess circles for decades, is the only one innocent of his image, the publisher preferring instead to show us a sketch of the battleground whereupon that so-called royal game is fought. The photograph in the other five books is warmly revealing. Herr Zweig’s devilish Viennese smile – as evident yet as beautifully suppressed as a maître d’s as he spins a yarn to his richest and most despised customer that really, yes truly, there are no free tables tonight – underlines a polished French moustache which is given subtle uplift by the fourth finger of Zweig’s right hand lying against his cheek. Posing thus he exudes the supremely confident air of a conjuror, a salesman of Hispano-Suizas, a hypnotherapist; definitely someone not to be trusted – and one cannot help but speculate on what his left hand is doing.
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Feudal Afterglow

It is peculiarly exciting to turn a page and find a strong personal emotion exactly distilled – an emotion hitherto believed to be one’s private idiosyncrasy. Around the age of 13 most bookish children break into verse (the literary equivalent of acne) and I then wrote a ‘poem’ about corncrakes – specifically, what their crake did to me (and continued to do until farming became agribusiness and the crake was heard no more.) On p. 282 of Woodbrook David Thomson says in a few words what I failed to say in several feverishly florid verses.
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A Past Relived

A Past Relived

I first read Alison Uttley’s The Country Child over thirty years ago, when I was already in my twenties. I have always remembered it fondly, for it described a way of life that did not then seem so very far away. My grandmother was born in 1897 and I could still remember her stories of life on a remote Devon farm. When the book was reissued recently I read it again, this time with the eyes of a children’s librarian, wondering whether it would appeal to those brought up in very different times and from very different backgrounds.
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A Modest Superhero

A Modest Superhero

I can’t remember the moment when I decided to allow Biggles some space in my new novel, but I imagine he just turned up one day, demanding attention. An ingrained loyalty to past escapism meant that I had to take him seriously. There’s an inner store in my mind, a bag of glittery details that I’ve accumulated over the years. Biggles was probably sitting waiting for the opportunity and jumped out when I was rummaging around for something else.
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Peacock’s Progress

Peacock’s Progress

The ups and downs of literary reputations are often slightly mysterious. I still find it strange, though, that although we pay ample homage to most of the heavyweights of the nineteenth century, one of the best and liveliest of them all has been allowed to fade from view. Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) deserves much better than that. I find his writings – sceptical, dry and sparkling with wit – as rewarding today as when I first read them many years ago.
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On Matters Mekong

On Matters Mekong

Scrolling idly through the SOAS Library’s subject catalogue, I must have brushed an unusual combination of keys, so activating a random function not mentioned on the options bar nor widely known to researchers. The feat has since proved impossible to repeat. But I keep trying; for it was thanks to this truly serendipitous action that up flashed a title which, for its crystal candour, can seldom have been bettered. Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos was so specific it had to be just that – a handbook and culinary guide to the fish to be found in landlocked Laos. The author was Alan Davidson, the publisher Prospect Books, the category ‘Long Loan’, and the status ‘Available’. Like a minnow into the reeds, I darted to the stacks.
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Going West

I am next to a businessman at a formal dinner. The conversation dries up after the soup. At a loss, I ask what sort of books he enjoys. Risky, I know. Either he won’t read, ‘except on planes when I buy whatever I can find at the airport’, or his answer will be as revealing as if I had asked him to tell me his life story. I am lucky. My businessman, more interested in fiction than foreign exchange, tells me, the book junkie, of a wonderful American author of whom I am ignorant. I am eternally grateful to him and still have the scrap of paper – menu on one side, ‘Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose’, on the other – which I stuffed into my tiny bag.
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Marxism and Cricket

Only one masterpiece has ever been written about the game: Beyond a Boundary, by the intellectual and political agitator C. L. R. James. It is a book that transcends all other books on the subject in the same way that Sir Donald Bradman existed in a solitary eminence above all other batsmen. I don’t think that an English writer could ever have written a book of such calibre, because our literary culture has wrongly regarded sport as trivial. By contrast James treated cricket with deep moral seriousness, for in the West Indies, where he was born and bred, the game formed a central part of the culture of the islands. The most important theme of his book is how cricket created a new national consciousness which enabled the West Indies to shake off their colonial oppressors. The development of this argument confers a wonderful amplitude on Beyond a Boundary.
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News from Alpha Centauri

News from Alpha Centauri

I got lucky in 1971. In that year’s Booker prize I came 2nd, or so Saul Bellow, one of the judges, said. Coming 2nd, of course, was like coming 102nd; nevertheless it boosted my ego, which got a further shot in the arm when the International Biographical Centre, based in Cambridge, wrote and said they would be pleased to include my entry in their International Who’s Who in Poetry. I was flattered, but there were two problems. The book cost £18, which I didn’t have. And I hadn’t written a line of poetry.
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The Orchid Man

I owe the discovery of The Passing of a Hero and Conventional Weapons to a fellow-visitor to the London Library who, shrewdly interpreting the glazed stare of a fellow shelf-crawler, urged me to make my way to English fiction and look for Jocelyn Brooke. Brooke is known today, although not widely, for three wartime novels – The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, which were reissued in 1981 by Secker & Warburg as ‘The Orchid Trilogy’. Unashamedly autobiographical, they use the twin devices of orchids and fireworks, subjects on which Brooke had acquired a rich store of recondite knowledge, to tell the story of Brooke’s upbringing in Kent, his years at Oxford and his experiences as a soldier posted to Italy in the Second World War.
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Edwardian It Girl

Edwardian It Girl

‘The small material objects that surround one’s daily life have always influenced me deeply,’ wrote E. (Edith) Nesbit in her memoir Long Ago When I Was Young. In my mother’s old nursery were several such objects – a doll’s crib, a triangular book cupboard made by my great grandfather – but the smallest and most influential was a smiling Buddha-shaped figurine: Billikin, God of Things as They Ought to Be. Every Christmas we went to see Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre in London, a faithful restaging of the original Edwardian production, and the second major influence in this fanciful child’s life. For if things really were As They Ought to Be, fairies and adventure would surely follow. It was inevitable, then, that of all the children’s books I loved, E. Nesbit’s magic trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, would take precedence over her more famous The Railway Children or The Story of the Treasure Seekers.
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