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K. Nichols, Washington, USA

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The Salesman Only Rings Once

I hunted for his books as well as for the miscellanies and magazines that featured his work. Though his entertaining, much-quoted Memoirs of the Forties soon reappeared in paperback, the rest of his surprisingly extensive output was hard to obtain. Due to their scarcity, his books commanded prices way beyond what I could afford. When I mentioned this to a flatmate who had access to a well-stocked reference library, my friend offered to smuggle out the ones I wanted. The first was the novel Of Love and Hunger, handed over to me at a furtive rendezvous. Before returning it a fortnight later, I photocopied the entire book. Confronted by a stack of smudgily duplicated pages, I felt like a Soviet dissident poring over a samizdat volume.
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Marriage Lines

It is 8 a.m. on a September Sunday in New Delhi. The garden below is still fresh and green before the heat of the day, and pigeons bill and coo on the air-conditioning unit outside the bedroom window. There is a discreet knock at the door, and a tray of ‘bed tea’ is silently placed beside us, accompanied by the morning papers. As I sip (tea with hot milk – an unfamiliar taste), I turn to my favourite section of the Hindustan Times, the ten pages of ‘Matrimonials’.
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Revelling with Ruskin

John Ruskin’s Praeterita is one of the most exhilarating books I know, and I often go back to it. For most of his life the great art-critic-cum-sage was writing books to educate people. Once, when a reader told him how much he enjoyed his books, Ruskin answered, ‘I don’t care whether you enjoyed them. Did they do you any good?’ But at the end of his life, when he feared he was going mad, he felt he must abandon all the religious and aesthetic and social controversy of his life, and write a book that just recalled the happiness of his youth. The result was Praeterita – ‘past things’.
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Belated Reparation

Rereading the books of one’s youth is always a hazardous business, since a magic once lost can never be regained, so I contemplated a fresh assault on A Square of Sky with pleasure tinged with dread. Not that I was that young when I read it last, back in the early 1970s: I’d turned 30, and was working as London’s most ineffectual literary agent. I much preferred memoirs and autobiographies to biographies or post-Victorian novels, and Janina David’s account of her childhood in wartime Poland struck me as a fine example of the genre.
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False Bottoms

Once met, I rarely dislike a person. But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence. So it was with Wyndham Lewis. I never met him but I might easily have done so, since I often begged J. R. Ackerley, the brilliant literary editor of The Listener and a close friend of us both, to effect an introduction. But Ackerley, always oddly fearful that, if he brought any two of his friends together, he might lose both of them, did nothing.
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It is laconic and simple, non-romantic in that Slocum refuses to be a lone hero struggling against the terrifying sea. Rather, he is at home in the ocean wilderness, insisting that ‘the wonderful sea charmed me from the first’. Spray is his companion as much as a boat: ‘The Spray enjoyed many civilities while she rode at anchor.’ Revisiting Sailing Alone after more than thirty years, I was reminded of Slocum’s trick of appearing as a self-effacing guest, reading and cooking while the trusty Spray gets on with the job of sailing, holding her course with the wheel secured.
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Leap of Imagination

No book has exposed my own double standard to me more clearly than Dancer by Colum McCann. A fictional portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, told from many angles in many different voices, it opens with one of the best short evocations of battle that I have ever read, as Russian soldiers return from the front at the end of the Second World War. The picture narrows to an industrial town in the remote hinterland where a boy watches the trains come in, waiting for his father. Then we see him being handed through a hospital window to perform folk dances for the wounded; he is a prodigy, who makes even the human wrecks drinking meths draw breath.
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Embarrassing but Inspiring

We all remember the first novels we read of our own volition, unprompted by parents or schoolmasters: in my case these were John Buchan’s stories of the adventures of Richard Hannay. We were in the throes of the Second World War and so First World War novels had a special relevance. When, therefore, half a century later, a reviewer of one of my own books said that the narrative read like ‘something out of Buchan’ (though he may not have meant it as an unqualified compliment), I regarded it as the ultimate accolade: Buchan had been a role model and Hannay was my hero.
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In Dehra Dun

I found a copy of Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel in a small bookshop in Dehra Dun in northern India. It was the dust jacket that caught my eye – a pen-and-ink drawing of a pair of large gnarled feet in shabby sandals, crossed, and resting on a balcony rail. Irresistible. The bookseller peered over my shoulder. ‘He lives here,’ he said, with a wide smile of pride. ‘Did you know?’ I didn’t. I had never heard of Allan Sealy. But a local author writing about local matters, places, people? Whether it lived up to its cover or not, it was the right book to read then, and there.
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The Parson and the Squire

Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I am talking about.
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