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The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread

It was partly her attachment to another of B.B.’s books – Brendon Chase – that gave Jane Nissen the idea of reissuing classic children’s books that had slipped out of print when she retired from a senior position at Penguin in 1998. She had started out there when her children were young, under the legendary Kaye Webb, creator of the Puffin Club (recalled by Kate Dunn on p.31), determinedly working her way up from freelance reader – ‘sticking myself to the desk with Superglue’ – until she was taken on as a children’s editor. Then, after leaving to spend seven years at Methuen, the tides of publishing carried her back to Penguin again, as editorial director of the Hamish Hamilton children’s list, which Penguin had taken over.
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Quite Mesmerizing

Quite Mesmerizing

While still relatively young, the brilliant cartoonist and illustrator George du Maurier went blind in one eye, probably as the result of a detached retina. This didn’t prevent him from joining the staff of Punch and doing wonderful work for it until his death in 1896. His best-known cartoon shows a chinless young curate taking the top off a boiled egg at breakfast with his bishop, and their exchange has entered the language: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.’ ‘Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’
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He Stayed the Course

In my mid-twenties, having given up hope of a literary career, or any sensible career for that matter, I did what many desperate men do: I trained to become a lawyer. I mustered up an impressive amount of faux enthusiasm and forced myself to mug up on the more esoteric aspects of contract and tort. Needless to say, the façade did not last very long. Within weeks, I was scouring Dillons (as it was then) in Gower Street for something to distract me. I had read Simon Raven’s brilliantly wicked cricketing memoir Shadows on the Grass – once described by E. W. Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket ever written’ – whilst at school, but had never thought to pursue his infamous ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion. Now here was my chance: I hungrily purchased the complete set.
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Wrestling with a Fine Woman

Josephine Tey was a writer of detective stories during the classic era from the 1930s to the 1950s, when Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes and Dorothy Sayers were to the fore, when sleuths were gents, often displaying strong literary bents. Yet her most famous book, The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, is something of a sport, as much fact as fiction, as much to do with the fifteenth century as the 1950s. The Daughter of Time is Truth, according to the proverb on the title page, and the book is about who actually murdered the Princes in the Tower, the two male children of Edward IV. Josephine Tey had the brilliant idea of setting one of history’s great mysteries as a problem to be solved by her regular detective-hero, Alan Grant.
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Better ‘an Heaven

Better ‘an Heaven

Some books announce their quality straight away. On p.3 of Small Talk at Wreyland, the author tells of an old lady looking out across her garden on a gorgeous summer afternoon. ‘She turned to me, and said, “I were just a-wonderin’ if Heaven be so very much better ’an this: ’cause, aless it were, I don’t know as I’d care for the change.”’ The writer was Cecil Torr, born in Surrey in 1857, whose grandfather lived at Wreyland, in the parish of Lustleigh on the edge of Dartmoor. As a child he often stayed with the old man, and in late middle age, after travelling widely, he gave up his London house, went to live in Wreyland in the house he had inherited, and never left.
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A Cab at the Door

A Cab at the Door

For me a home without Period Piece is like a house without a cat – lacking an essential cheering and comfortable element. I have loved Gwen Raverat’s memoir of growing up in Cambridge in the 1890s ever since I first read it twenty years ago when recuperating from a bad bout of ’flu, at that blissful moment when you are feeling better but not quite strong enough to get up and do anything. I can still recall the delicious feeling of reading and dozing, dozing and reading, snug in the gas-lit world of Victorian Cambridge, until the January afternoon outside the bedroom window gradually turned purple and faded into dark.
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Down These Mean Streets

Down These Mean Streets

Chandler himself defined literature as ‘any sort of writing that generates its own heat’, which fairly describes his own best work. No other crime writer could work the same narcotic chemistry in my experience. I relished the hyperbole (‘a rough sky-blue sports coat not wider at the shoulders than a two-car garage’), the terse dialogue, the cast of outsize gangsters, millionaires, petty crooks, embittered law enforcers and femmes fatales who crossed their legs a little carelessly. And Marlowe, for ever pitted against the black knights of the beautiful corrupt city, on $25 a day plus expenses.
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Orkney’s Prospero

Orkney’s Prospero

Every Thursday morning for twenty years and more, the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown cleared a breakfast-table space among the teacups and the marmalade and, sitting with his elbows among the crumbs, picked up a cheap biro and jotted down 400 words on a notepad. It was a letter to the local newspaper, The Orcadian, for publication the following Thursday, and as such was written to entertain an island community of fewer than 2,000 souls. Through the small window of the simple council house – just a few steps away – the sea glimmered and whispered.
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In the Garden of Death and Plenty

In the Garden of Death and Plenty

When Peter Robb first visited Sicily in 1974, he was so taken by the food in Palermo’s Vucciria market that he wrote down this description in his notebook: ‘Purple and black eggplant, light green and dark green zucchini, red and yellow peppers, boxes of egg-shaped San Marzano tomatoes. Spiked Indian figs with a spreading blush, grapes, black, purple, yellow and white, long yellow honeydew melons, round furrowed cantaloupes, slashed wedges of watermelon in red, white and green and studded with big black seeds, yellow peaches and percocche, purple figs and green figs, little freckled apricots.’
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Now We’re Shut in for the Night

Now We’re Shut in for the Night

I must have been about 12 when I first opened James’s Collected Ghost Stories and turned to ‘A School Story’. As a boy who enjoyed gruesome yarns and, more surprisingly, Latin grammar, I was delighted to discover that the two could go together. Briefly, thus: a boy, asked for a sentence using memento + genitive, comes up, apparently out of the blue, with memento putei inter quatuor taxos – ‘I remember the well among the four yews’ – at which his Latin master has a funny turn.
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Nuffin’ Like a Puffin

Nuffin’ Like a Puffin

I was a gluttonous reader, possessive and insatiable. On my desk before me sits a little pile of three-and-sixpenny story books, so freighted with emotion that I can hardly bear to open them. The first one I pick up is Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green. The brown Sellotape splinters as I turn the pages for the first time in nearly forty years. Tucked inside is an order coupon that I forgot to post, with a cross in the box next to Aesop’s Fables and, sure enough, on the title page is a sticker showing a lion and a unicorn, and standing between them is a puffin with his beak buried in a book. ‘From the library of . . .’ underneath which I have written ‘K. S. H. Dunn – MINE’.
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A Man’s Man

At first I enjoyed being the only person ever to have read The Dark of Summer. It was like coming across a deserted beach that can only be reached by boat. But then, glancing down Linklater’s exhausting bibliography (twenty-three novels, ten plays, three children’s books, six collections of short stories, three biographies and more), the thought began to niggle at me: what had happened to all those books? I instigated a search. ‘Eric Linklater?’ said one second-hand bookshop owner as he went downstairs to rummage about in his basement. ‘I should be ashamed if I didn’t have anything by him. He’s rather out of fashion these days, isn’t he?’ Another said, ‘Eric Linklater? Must have, somewhere . . . sort of middlebrow?’
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. . . to National Treasure

. . . to National Treasure

When Ancestral Voices was first to be published in 1975, Chatto & Windus knew that it was ‘Heywood Hill’s sort of book’. I asked for the earliest possible proof copy and signed up a large number of customers for the finished book. In my innocence I told Helen Lady Dashwood (‘Hellbags’) that the diaries covered the period when Jim lived at West Wycombe, and she ordered an early copy. A few days after it was published, she appeared in the shop carrying her copy as if with tongs, and asked for it to be credited to her account: she ‘could not have this book in her house’.
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