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A Perfect Nightmare

A Perfect Nightmare

In 1935, Denton Welch – then an art student at Goldsmith’s College – was knocked off his bike on a busy road just outside Bromley. He spent over a year in hospital and was permanently weakened by his injuries. He died thirteen years later at the age of 33, leaving behind him a few strange but compelling books – all of which obsessively pick over Denton’s recollections of his life before the accident. They culminate in A Voice through a Cloud, a nightmarish account of his months in hospitals and convalescent homes in southern England. He died before he finished it and it ends, with poignant abruptness, in the middle of a paragraph, with Denton sitting, uncertain and in pain, in his doctor’s car which is parked outside a bungalow in Broadstairs.
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Northern Lights

Arctic Dreams is much more than a travel book; its subtitle is Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, which causes one to raise an eyebrow. Desire? What does the man mean? To be honest I am still not too sure, but by now I am sufficiently beguiled by its author not to care too much. Suffice it that he takes you on a journey to black seas in which float icebergs the size of cathedrals, to the campsites of Inuit who died fifteen hundred years ago, and to endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke; that he conjures up for you the intimate presence of narwhals, polar bears, seals, whales, muskoxen.
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The View from Denestornya

Count Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is a long novel about the follies, beauties and shortcomings of Hungarian society in the decade leading up to the First World War. He wrote it during the 1930s, when the disastrous outcomes of that war were still developing. Nostalgia may have been an active ingredient of this project, but Banffy’s purpose was to record rather than gild what had been lost. One of his conscious motivations was to help future Hungarians understand their past.
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Ancient Worlds

Ancient Worlds

I was thus apprehensive, for my sake as well as my children’s, when I encouraged them to read Rosemary Sutcliff. I wondered whether I would still be drawn to her ancient worlds, her vanished races among the Caledonian Forest, her harpers and her war hosts, her bonfire festivals of Lammas and Beltane, her mead horns at Saxon feastings, her evocations of the last of Roman Britain. I need not have worried. The magic was still there. In his pantheon of literary heroes and heroines, Giuseppe di Lampedusa reserved the highest places for the authors he called creatori di mondi. Rosemary Sutcliff was such a writer, a creator of worlds, lost worlds, often worlds of lost causes, of the departing legions, of Arthurian Britain, of the last stand of the Lakeland Norsemen against the knights of William Rufus. But they are not simply worlds of battle-axes and war horns. Her imagination encompassed the natural world, a feeling for its rites and a knowledge of its workings. Some of her most beautiful passages describe the changing of seasons, the ways of wolf packs, the flights of wild geese, the solitudes of the east coast marshes. And no one (except perhaps Kipling) has handled the death of a devoted dog better than she did in Dawn Wind.

An Island Apart

Tikopia lies 1,500 miles east of Australia in that part of the Pacific known as Melanesia. But culturally Tikopia’s population is Polynesian. For reasons that are not entirely clear the Tikopia ‘back-migrated’ from the Polynesian heartlands in Samoa and Tonga, sailing west against the general flow of migration about a thousand years ago. Today the island is technically part of the Solomons, but it is largely autonomous. Its inhabitants, whose skin is the colour of copper, are quite alone in a black-skinned Melanesian sea. It is this combination of isolation and insularity that has made Tikopia a favourite subject for anthropologists.
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A Hanging in Wandsworth

During my early Fleet Street years, in the 195o’s, we hacks were chillingly familiar with the grim ritual of hanging. I still remember with a shudder having to wait outside Wandsworth or some other prison as, inside, a condemned man was led by the chaplain from his cell to the waiting gallows. At the prison gates, as the execution hour approached, usually nine o’clock in the morning, one would see, trying desperately to comfort one another, a small group of the prisoner’s sobbing family.
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Daughters of Time

Daughters of Time

Outbursts of memoir-writing by women followed both the English Civil Wars and the years 1789 to 1830 in France, the period encompassing the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Revolution. It is hardly surprising since both these were periods of profound upheaval, when events left a deep impress on people’s minds as well as a desire to explain and justify them, and their own behaviour at the time, to future generations. Mrs Lucy Hutchinson, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle and Anne, Lady Halkett were followed 150 years later by Mesdames de Boigne, de La Tour du Pin and de Remusat. The reissue of Madame de Boigne’s book in translation drew me back to reread the last three.
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Horn-rims and Baggy Chords

In George Ramsden’s quiet secondhand bookshop, Stone Trough Books, in York, he normally has a publishing job on the go as well. Editing (letters of Siegfried Sassoon at the moment) and book-design absorb him to the extent that he may barely notice when a customer comes in. Indeed, with his horn-rimmed spectacles under a shock of rigid hair, and a manner combining chivalry with extreme vagueness, he has the air of a startled hedgehog when spotted beyond the bookstacks. His series of catalogues – a leisurely fifteen spread over twenty years – are typographically understated, without colour illustration and with only scant recommendation of the books, but nevertheless beautifully designed, as are his own publications. He confesses to being a complete amateur as regards design but his life has become infused with the subject, and he now ponders title-pages, wine-labels, logos on lorries, sheet-music covers, even shop fascias, with an unusual degree of discernment.
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Cooking for Love

Each time I read Reef – the story of a boy, Triton, growing up as a servant and cook in Sri Lanka in the late 1960s – I find something new. I think the way that The Tempest flits in and out of the novel is one of the things that keeps me rereading it. Another is the play of light and shadow in Romesh Gunesekera’s prose. I lived in Colombo from 1992 to 1994, teaching English, and my first home was on Havelock Road where, only the year before, a bomb had exploded, throwing severed heads and body parts into the air. This, by Sri Lankan standards, was nothing. Like many others, I was struck by the incongruity of such horror in a country so deceptively gentle, one that looked so much like the Garden of Eden. In Reef Gunesekera seduces you with a charming depiction of a lost era, but underlying it all is the knowledge of the killing that came later.
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Tank Tracks

Tank Tracks

The tank is an emblem of state power, a behemoth that has transformed wars and threatened – and sometimes mown down – civilians. But it has also been seen as a ‘cubist slug’, has inspired a modernist song and dance routine Tanko, has led military men to philosophize, and installation artists to appropriate the rhomboid shape to suggest the ultimate in urban alienation. In short, the tank, as Tank so skilfully and wittily and sadly shows us, stands at the very heart of the twentieth century and points up its follies, its wickedness, its aspirations, its delusions – and occasionally its humanity.
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