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From National Trust . . .

From National Trust . . .

Not everyone has dinner with Winston Churchill and watches him re-enact the Battle of Jutland with wine glasses and decanters, puffing cigar smoke to represent the guns; or gets into a spitting match at a bus stop; or snorts cocaine with Lord Berners (the Uncle Merlin of Love in a Cold Climate); or is told by Diana Mosley how Hitler loved England and wept when Singapore fell to the Japanese; or hears from John Betjeman of his first teenage affair, in a punt with the son of a vicar; or can describe as Jim could a vast range of riveting and also somehow illuminating encounters with friends as varied as the Mitfords, Cyril Connolly, Mick Jagger, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Powell, Bruce Chatwin and Ivy Compton-Burnett – as well as the livelier end of the aristocracy and the other luminaries, sympathetic or strange, brought to light by the National Trust.
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Trouble at Tampling

J. L. Carr was a primary school head in Kettering, Northamptonshire, who took early retirement from teaching so he could become a full-time writer, and who supported himself, his wife and his son in the meantime by setting up and running from his home a publishing house, the Quince Tree Press, which produced a series of ‘little books’, mainly selections of the great English poets, and county maps that Carr drew and illustrated himself. Probably the most famous of the ‘little books’ – designed to fit into an envelope and light enough for an ordinary postage stamp – is Carr’s Dictionary of Extraordinary Cricketers. Carr wrote eight novels, one of which is, I am as certain as it is ever possible to be, a masterpiece. One cannot credit him with the amplitude which T. S. Eliot identified as one of the characteristics of greatness in a writer, because even that masterpiece – A Month in the Country – is very short, almost a novella, but it contains more of the fullness of life than most very long novels.
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Cooking with a Poet

There came to the house a charming letter, a photograph of ‘my paradise of a small garden’ and a parcel of some of the most enchanting volumes I had ever seen. Printed in India (of which more below), they were bound in sari cloth, each in a different rich colour and pattern, and each embossed in gold. They smelled slightly musty, as if they had been stored in someone’s cellar. A number of typographical errors had been elegantly corrected with the author’s fountain pen, and each volume autographed in the same lovely hand. Finally, these little books turned out to contain not just recipes – Onion Soup without the Fuss, Dandelion Wine, Mincemeat Tel Aviv – but a selection of poems and the hugely entertaining story of the author’s life.
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Race of Ghosts

Preoccupied with the ‘Phoney War’, from declaration to the fall of France, or what Waugh described as the ‘Great Bore War’, Put Out More Flags was his sixth novel, and although it was a great success on first publication in 1942, it seems to be one of his few novels that people don’t know today. Waugh readers tend to fall into two camps, usually on either side of Brideshead Revisited (1945), with some reading only the ‘mature’ books, others sticking fiercely to the early comedies. Put Out More Flags is perhaps under-loved because it falls, both chronologically and stylistically, between these two recognizable periods in Waugh’s fiction.
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Backwards up the Orinoco

I have to admit it. I am a sucker for novels in which a key element is the passage of time – Buddenbrooks, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Forsyte Saga, I name just three old standbys. And then, first published in the 1950s but not read by me until several years later, came a sensational eye-opener of an entirely different sort, Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. This extraordinary novel is not concerned with a mere few generations. It retraces the history of mankind back to its start.
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A Fine Burgundy

A Fine Burgundy

Vansittart's great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we are reading.
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Top Dog

Top Dog

As the years advance I’ve become increasingly aware of the books I read as a child that have exerted an influence on my life. Would I have just returned from my fourth tramp through the African bush, for example, had my imagination not been fired by a vivid account of the bond that developed between a man and his dog as they hunted big game in the South African veld? Among the many seeds sown in my childhood, Jock of the Bushveld fell on richly fertile ground.
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Uncle Solly’s World

My favourite desk stood between tall shelves crammed with Bengali, Somali and Urdu classics, which had replaced the Yiddish collection. Here, I read my way through all the history books and memoirs on east London. These included an extensive collection of ‘Cor-Blimey-There’s-Nothing-Like-a-Knees-Up!’ autobiographies, and the ‘Dodgy Geezers that I ’ave Known’ genre, but thankfully, there were more thoughtful accounts on offer. Among them, I discovered Emanuel Litvinoff ’s Journey Through a Small Planet – a masterpiece that rivals George Orwell’s best non fiction. In fact it was to inspire me to write my own account of life on Brick Lane.
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One Hot Night in Cairo

In the spring of 1987, just as I was making preparations for a lengthy research trip to Egypt, I was sent two books. The first was the wonderfully titled Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer of whom I had not heard. Originally published in 1964, it had just been reissued. The second, After a Funeral, was an account of Ghali’s time in London by the writer and publisher Diana Athill. I slipped the novel into my bag and thought no more about it for several weeks. Then, one hot night in Cairo, with plenty of free time and a cold beer to hand, I sat on a terrace overlooking the Nile and began to read. I was so captivated that I stayed up late into the night, reading the book in one sitting. Yet while the words we re quickly consumed, the world they conjured and the issues they raised – of exile and belonging – have stayed with me through the years.
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Edit and Be Damned

Edit and Be Damned

Editing must be one of the few professions that require no professional training. Even a plumber needs to learn how to plumb before he’s allowed to attack pipes. An editor, on the other hand, just takes up his spanner and blowtorch and starts editing. Of course there are a lot of different kinds of editors (and I’ve been most of them at one time or another): line editors (known in England as copy editors), newspaper editors, magazine editors, book editors. The skills involved in each case are distinctive, but they all share this same amateur, self-taught quality. Editing is something that you tend to fall into, though perhaps not entirely by accident. Editors are born, not made.
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