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The Road to Room 101

The Road to Room 101

Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying paper pervading the air – I think of Gordon Comstock, George Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Poor Gordon, an advertising dropout and aspiring poet who is scraping a living as an assistant in such a bookshop, is forever bemoaning a world ruled by ‘the Money God’ rather than the Muses.
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The Unobtrusive Gardener

I had just come home from a protracted springtime tour of English gardens. Perhaps it was their ravishing fresh beauty, or their complexity, or their immaculate neatness, or perhaps I had just seen one topiary box spiral too many. Most likely, it was the stark impossibility of ever achieving in my garden anything approaching the quality I had seen elsewhere. Whatever the reason, a light melancholy descended on me, like a thin summer rain. I went deliberately to the bookshelf and took down a book which I had not read since it was first published in 1997. I needed a dose of Geoffrey Dutton – poet, gardener, professor of medical science, white-water swimmer and mountaineer – to help me regain my usual cheery equilibrium.
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Escape Routes

Escape Routes

I once interviewed a well-known poet on the radio and asked him what he read when he had ’flu. He looked at me with astonishment – and some contempt – and said ‘Tolstoy, of course’. But when I have ’flu I don’t reach for the classics, I reach for Modesty Blaise. She and her lethal associate and friend, Willie Garvin, started life in 1963 as a strip cartoon in London’s Evening Standard, and went on to star in a series of inventive thrillers by Peter O’Donnell, who created the original cartoon with the artist Jim Holdaway. I started to read them at least thirty years ago and I was hooked straight away.
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A Notorious Baggage

A Notorious Baggage

We can touch the past through diaries, letters and memoirs, which allow a measure of intimacy and immediacy even across the centuries. The accepted view is that they begin to proliferate in the second half of the seventeenth century with Pepys, Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. But there is an earlier figure who has somehow slipped below the literary horizon. The letters that John Chamberlain (1554–1628) wrote are the first in English that can be read without difficulty and with pleasure.
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Ibn Battutah Meets Forrest Gump

In the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed, Paul Routledge defied anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to head off at once to Central Asia. I think he is absolutely right about that. A little later in his essay, he writes, ‘If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.’ I think he is wrong about that. Or perhaps, which is quite probable, he has not come across the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf ’s Leo the African, whose opening sentences I read as an impressionable 18-year-old on the verge of my first visit to Cairo.
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A Private, Circumspect People

A Private, Circumspect People

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Royal Society of Literature took out a long lease on a white stucco Bayswater house, formerly the home of General Sir Ian Hamilton, leader of the Gallipoli Expedition. It was dilapidated but spacious, and a first-floor room roughly the size and shape of a tennis court became a library in which the Society’s Fellows could browse among one another’s works. All went well until, in the early Seventies, an elderly, light-fingered Fellow took to leaving the building with volumes secreted between two pairs of trousers, which he wore sewn together at the hem. The library was closed. I began working for the Royal Society of Literature in the autumn of 1991, and it was on the shelves of this silent, abandoned room that I first discovered Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. Published in 1969, it had become an instant classic, and, since then, it has never been out of print. From the first sentence – ‘The village lies folded away in one of the shadow valleys which dip into the East Anglian coastal plain’ – it was clear that this was a book to slow down for, and to relish.
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Travels with Several Donkeys

Travels with Several Donkeys

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his walk through the mountains in 1878, was my mother’s favourite book, which automatically made it one of mine. The brown cover of her 1906 edition is faded with fingering, its pages frayed and loose from her rereadings. Many of the fictional characters who figured largest in my childhood were full of machismo, because they were in books filched from my brothers. Stevenson’s donkey Modestine, on the other hand – ‘patient, elegant, the colour of an ideal mouse’ – was a comforting antidote, domestic and affectionate for all her perceived obstinacy.
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Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage

The man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was very insistent. On the bucking deck of the tender in Plymouth Sound he engaged me in conversation so closely as to quite obscure my view. She came out of nowhere as the tender swung alongside: a barnacled black whale 300 feet long, her casing almost awash, pitching and rolling gently in the south-westerly driving up from Penlee Point. Only the jutting conning-tower, delicately streaked with rust, distinguished her from a lurking sea monster, a leviathan. She was the 5,200-tonne nuclear submarine Talent. I was there that day at the behest of the Flag Officer Submarines to be shown her paces. All because, thirty-one years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Croydon, I had picked up a copy of Edward Young’s One of Our Submarines.
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On the Broad Shoulders of a Eunuch Cat

On the Broad Shoulders of a Eunuch Cat

In 1917, Kathleen Hale arrived in London, fresh out of art school, ‘with only a few shillings in my pocket, my pince-nez delicately chained to one ear and no qualifications whatsoever for earning a living’. Her appalled mother wrote demanding that she return at once to Manchester, and take a shorthand-typing course. Not for the first time, Kathleen refused to obey. ‘I am not going to learn to type. I am going to be an artist. You can send a policeman to fetch me, but I shall come back to London again and again.’ Mother gave up.
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Always a Healthy Bugger

It all began in a butcher’s shop in Shipston-on-Stour. In 2000 Sheila Stewart had written an excellent little book about her old daily help, Country Kate, to record for posterity ‘the richness of the speech of ordinary folk before “the media world” faded out their lively observations and perceptions of the real world’. Her butcher in Shipston-on-Stour then urged her to track down Old Mont, an Oxfordshire shepherd born in 1902 who sang unaccompanied in a pub ‘out Enstone way’. She did so, and over the next two years made numerous visits during which, on fifty tapes, she allowed the old shepherd to encapsulate the spirit of a passing age.
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Brothers in the Abruzzi

Brothers in the Abruzzi

John Verney, painter, illustrator, author and inventor of the invaluable maverick desk diary, the Dodo Pad (‘to stop one becoming extinct from the pressures of modern life’), loomed large in my childhood. Apart from being among my parents’ closest friends and neighbours, and paterfamilias of a large brood of children, Shetland ponies, chickens, cats, cows and bees, all of which somehow became inextricably mixed up in my memory, he was always there. Most fathers were away somewhere doing a job, but whenever we went to Runwick, the Verneys’ rambling farmhouse on the edge of Farnham in Surrey, he was always to be found wandering vaguely around in his shapeless jacket, or making paint-spattered forays from his studio in the barns, or presiding laconically over whatever rabble-rousing meal was in progress.
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A Kinder, Gentler Thoreau

It is a lazy Sunday morning. I am seated in my comfortable chair, wrapped in my old dressing-gown, my coffee in hand, having turned the final page of Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. It is a novel by Wendell Berry. Jayber was placed in my hands as a gift. A box of emeralds would not have pleased me more. He has become one of those rare friends with whom I look forward to sharing the rest of my life.
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