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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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Seeds of Friendship

Garden-writing is always either grimly concerned with the nuts and bolts of gardening’s practicalities or with its latest and flashiest fashions. The first kind is written by mere doers, the second by mere puffers, therefore neither is of any interest as writing. Gardening, and by extension writing about gardening, is something done better in Britain than anywhere else, certainly better than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again, dear reader. A single slim volume, Gardening for Love by Elizabeth Lawrence, delicately but devastatingly disposes of all those fallacies.
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Unsung Heroes

Unsung Heroes

My first copy of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea was a twelfth birthday present, given to me in 1956. It was Cassell’s expurgated ‘Cadet Edition’, intended for a generation who knew little about the war during which they had been born. While Monsarrat’s publishers thought we should be acquainted with the Battle of the Atlantic, they clearly considered that we would come in our own time to adultery and what was then breathlessly referred to as ‘premarital sexual intercourse’. What mattered was access to Monsarrat’s brilliant evocation of a grim campaign at sea. I read it as I bumped into school on the Northern Line and have been haunted by it ever since.
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A Matter of Trust

Once Upon Another Time is Jessica Douglas-Home’s account of the part she herself played in an extraordinary private enterprise which came to be known as ‘the Oxford visitors’. The story began with Julius Tomin, a philosophy teacher who had been ejected from his university position in Czechoslovakia. He continued openly, but unofficially, to teach courses for students expelled from Charles University on political grounds. He and his students were subjected to violence and harassment, and the strict control of access to books imposed by the authorities led to their losing touch entirely with the course of learning in the West. In 1979 Tomin wrote a letter to many Western universities, inviting lecturers to visit and speak at his seminars. Oxford was the only university to respond.
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The Editor Regrets

Suddenly, out of the blue, one morning in December 1965, a letter arrived on the delightfully old-fashioned headed notepaper of the Poetry Society (‘Patron, Sir Compton Mackenzie, LL.D., F.R.S.L., President, Professor Nevill Coghill, M.A., F.R.S.L.’), written, but not signed, by Robert Armstrong, Secretary and Treasurer. John Smith, it said, had decided that a four-year stint as Editor of the Poetry Review was ‘about enough’. He and Armstrong had undertaken ‘an intimate review’ of the situation, and were now writing to ask whether I might care to take on the job.
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