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Under the Mulberry Tree

Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.
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Face to Face

For fifteen years, I had one of the best jobs in the world. I was book news editor at The Bookseller, and most weeks I included in my pages an interview with an author. I talked to celebrated novelists, including several of my literary heroes. I talked to biographers and science writers. I talked to creators of blockbusting best-sellers. All sorts of people write books, or at least get their names on to book covers: I talked to movie stars, sports heroes and supermodels, and to people who had fought in wars or been shipwrecked.
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Occupational Hazard

As the recent Da Vinci Code spat demonstrated, complaints of plagiarism reach far beyond Aussie mapmakers. When Arthur Halliwell created his hefty film guide, he added a non-existent movie which in due course trapped a rival directory of films. Justice was swift. When Nigel Rees – he of ‘Quote Unquote . . .’ – published his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations, he slipped in a dummy quote credited to one Guy Simon (Rees’s pen name). Eventually HarperCollins bought the dummy and Guy Simon appeared in their Collins Dictionary of Quotations, a little bit of larceny for which they paid, in sterling. And when Antonia Fraser wrote her classic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, she thoughtfully inserted a burglar alarm. At Mary’s execution (Lady Antonia said) Lord Shrewsbury’s face was ‘wet with tears’. It was an invention. Later, James Mackay’s book on Mary copied it, and the alarm rang.
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The Quiet Sicilian

The Quiet Sicilian

I first read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard while I was in Palermo in 1981, at the age of 18. It was one of those defining reading experiences which are not always easy to explain but which have to do with a deep sense of recognition. Through the alchemy of fictional characters and the way in which they engage with their world, you are taken somewhere (psychologically, morally, emotionally) that you do not usually expect to go, and the journey reveals to you something about yourself and the world you inhabit.
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Flowering Passions

Flowering Passions

I’ve never had anything you could call A Career. I’ve always either gone where interest suggested and opportunity allowed or just Micawberishly waited for something to turn up. Despite the supposed end of the culture of ‘a job for life’, that approach still seems to make a lot of people uneasy. And they often become even more uneasy when they discover that one of my interests nowadays is cultivating and writing about rare, difficult and often tender plants from distant parts of the world. You can almost see the bubble of unspoken doubt rising from their heads. ‘Is this just some childish joke? Or is he really serious?’ So I was delighted to stumble across spectacular support for that general approach (in the shape of James Hamilton-Paterson) and for that particular interest (in the shape of his novel, Griefwork).
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Not So Bad, Really

Not So Bad, Really

When I first read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in 1979 it certainly provoked a strong response, but hardly the admiration the cover blurb demanded for ‘one of the finest examples of high comedy of the last century’. I felt fury mixed with bafflement. For me, at that time, every novel was a possible blueprint for how to live your life. Borne along on the second wave of feminism, the only thing I and my friends were sure of was that we didn’t want lives like our mothers’. Exactly what we did want wasn’t clear. But what I didn’t want in spades was a life like that of Mildred Lathbury, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title.

Flight of the Ladybird

Quick: bring something to read to him on the train! This last-minute thought, just before setting the burglar alarm, sends me rushing to the pair of small bookshelves outside the bathroom which contain the old Ladybird books. Which of them shall we take? Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Florence Nightingale, The Princess and the Pea, The Fireman. They’ll do. They fit into the handbag, and I set out knowing that, even if we run out of water and KitKats, and there’s no refreshment trolley, we’ll have enough mental nourishment to keep us going through whatever South West Trains might inflict on us.
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Soames’s Second Coming

Soames’s Second Coming

I bought my copy of Seven Men in the late Sixties in a secondhand bookshop in Sutton Coldfield. The town had two second-hand bookshops, which both closed years ago, but I can recall every shelf and see titles, bindings and jackets in eidetic detail. I suspect many other lovers of books have this useless but comforting gift, even if they spend half the morning trying to remember where they put their glasses. Seven Men had – has, it’s on the desk beside me – a navy blue cloth binding; on the front cover of my copy, like a partial eclipse of the moon, is the white imprint of the base of a teacup. It is the 1920 second impression of the first edition and on the front free endpaper is the signature of a Francis T. Bellin, followed by the date ‘1922’. When I got it the pages were uncut: Mr Bellin had missed a treat.
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Anna and the Bazooka

I can drop Anna Kavan’s name among the most literary of my friends and their brows furrow and they confess that, even though thirteen of her books are still in print, and a second biography of her life, A Stranger on Earth, by Jeremy Reed, came out this spring, they’ve never heard of her, let alone read a word by her. Anna Kavan wasn’t her real name. She was born Helen Woods but changed her name to Helen Ferguson. Then, when she married, she became Helen Edmunds, but after her divorce (or was there a divorce? Everything about the woman is so mysterious) she destroyed all her diaries and papers, and invented a new birth date, a new physical appearance and a new literary style.
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The School Magazine and Me

The School Magazine and Me

I came to Australia as a French-speaking child, without a word of English, and started school in Sydney within only a few weeks of arriving. Today, I am an author of children’s books, and English has become the language of my imagination. How did this happen? In part, the answer lies in the influence of The School Magazine, one of the world’s great literary treasures for children, which (rather incongruously) emanates from the very heart of a bureaucratic behemoth, the New South Wales Department of Education.
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Collecting Edith

Collecting Edith

In March 1984, full of the joys of spring and possibly slightly mad, I bought the library of the American novelist Edith Wharton from Maggs Bros., the London booksellers, and subsequently discovered that it was incomplete. Maggs had purchased about two thousand books from Edith Wharton’s godson, Colin Clark, which for forty-seven years had been at Saltwood Castle in Kent. Here his father, the art historian Kenneth Clark, Edith Wharton’s friend, had completely integrated them into his own library, which complicated the process of identification and extraction. This had been supervised by Colin’s brother Alan who was by then the custodian of Saltwood.
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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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