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A Visit from God

I have always liked reading and pubs, and reading in pubs. By reading I mean sitting alone in a corner of the pub with a pint of bitter and a good book, not the Good Book – that might attract unwelcome attention. There are several conditions to be met. The pub should be quiet, and music-free. It should have few customers, and these also quiet and dotted around the smallish bar at a fairly unsocial equidistance from each other. Any conversation should be infrequent and sotto voce, limited perhaps to the names of racehorses or someone who hasn’t been in lately because he died last week. The best time is after two o’clock, when the lunchtimers have returned to work or afternoon telly. There is at least one such place remaining. It is called The Green Man and is situated in a rural West Midlands village. I am not going to name the village, because the brewery will immediately swoop and render it intolerable. As it is, it still has a public bar, a saloon bar, a snug and a small walled garden. It was in this garden that, fittingly, I first read Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man.
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Travels with the Father of History

Travels with the Father of History

You’d think, if you read History at university, that you might come across the man who invented it. These days, that would be a quaint hope. During my stint at Cambridge in the early Nineties, I encountered witches and deviants, demography and Dickens, consumer revolutions and the medieval kingdom of Aragon. I came across beggars and Bedlam, early Christian thought and the English Civil War. We had social and economic history, psycho-history, feminist history, oral history and micro-history. There was a brief stab at Rome from Augustus, but that was as ancient as we got. Of Herodotus, the Father of History, there was no sign.
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Sugar Dreams

Sugar Dreams

Even if the south-eastern seaboard of Africa has never been a Bloomsbury, it has had its moments. Angus Wilson’s mother was a Durban girl, and Fernando Pessoa spent his schooldays there. But given the few exceptions, that littoral has hardly been bookish. Among the 250-strong community in which I grew up, all but about thirty were Zulu-speaking workers and their families, many of whom were illiterate. Of the remainder, most were Indian tractor drivers and mechanics and their wives and children, who spoke Tamil and Telugu by choice. That left only a handful of us who had English as our mother tongue. And that linguistic ratio was repeated across much of the surrounding countryside.
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On the Lost Isle

On the Lost Isle

Some months ago I became a British citizen. This wasn’t such a stretch for a native of the States, but it put me in mind of other transplanted people and I have been rereading some old favourites to celebrate. Perversely, the most resonant thing I’ve read isn’t British at all: a tale written in French by a Belgian who became American and settled on an island near my family’s summer home in the northern state of Maine. It is a quiet piece of literary grisaille called Un homme obscur, ‘An Obscure Man’.
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Going for the Thing

Going for the Thing

One day in May 1944, with the harbour of Fowey packed with vessels of all shapes and sizes ready for the invasion of France, Mr Spreadbury, our history master, turned up in a gown with very noticeable tears in it – almost as though someone had purposely rent it. A row with Mrs Spreadbury, we conjectured? Then the bell of St Nicholas Church, down the hill, began to toll, and a little posse of masters set out for the funeral of one of the school’s governors – as it happened, a rather distinguished one: a critic and novelist, and the creator of the school of English literature at Cambridge – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.
All about Love

All about Love

I grew up on the outskirts of London with a Dad who sat in a deckchair and read books in oriental languages while other dads mowed their lawns or fixed their houses. Our house was certainly in dire need of fixing, but it did have a lot of books in it. The rooms were lined with shelves of Chinese and Japanese volumes printed on rice paper, bound with silk and fitted into boxes, along with some translations. Among them was The Tale of Genji, ‘the world’s first novel’, as my Dad told me. The translator was Arthur Waley, a shy awkward man who never actually visited the East but who translated magnificently from many Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Ainu and Mongol.
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A Serial Offender

A Serial Offender

Some books carve themselves immediately and irrevocably into the minds of their readers. I must have been no more than 16 or 17 years old when I first read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Knowing little about the Russian Revolution, and the lies, torture and mass-murder that the leadership of Josef Stalin had brought in its train, I was instantly converted into a fierce disbeliever in every benign claim about life in the Soviet Union which was made in those days by the Communists and their innumerable dupes and fellow-travellers in the West.
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They Made It

They Made It

My nearest second-hand bookshop is in a small town five or six miles away. Like many traditional small-town shops it wears many hats. Downstairs at the front are stationery and artists’ materials, upstairs are second-hand books, while the downstairs back is devoted to a small, private, pleasantly ramshackle printing museum. It was there, in a shop of a kind she would have recognized and loved, that I found my copy of Charlotte Paul’s Minding Our Own Business. In it she wrote about the first five years during which she and her husband Ed owned and ran a small American country printing firm, the Falls Printing Company, and its associated newspaper, The Snoqualmie Valley Record. (She was Charlotte Paul Reese by birth, Charlotte Groshell by marriage, Charlotte Paul as a writer.)
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We’ve Been Here Before

We’ve Been Here Before

When Northern Rock first ran into trouble in the autumn of 2007, worried customers queued outside branches from the early hours in an attempt to get their money out. ‘This is the first run on a British bank since Mary Poppins,’ said someone. It was one of those easy jokes which succinctly sum up what is going on. In the film Mary Poppins the run on the bank is a mistaken one, triggered by a child loudly demanding the return of the money which a benign father has banked for him. The idea that depositors might lose their money in Northern Rock was equally mistaken.
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Doing the Right Thing

How many children’s books have characters that not only discuss literature but also give you a reading list? That is just one of the things that put Antonia Forest’s novels at the top of mine. Her wonderful sequence of thirteen books, written between 1948 and 1982, follows the fortunes of the Marlow family – eight children, naval commander father, upper-middle class stock going back to Tudor times –in vivid episodes, centred now on the girls’ boarding school, Kingscote, now on the family farm, Trennels, now on London, more specifically Hampstead. They were the first books to make me feel that my preoccupations and dreaminess, which marked me out as peculiar at school, were part of growing up – that I was not alone.
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The Brick of Fate

In the 1970s student grants went a long way. After paying for all the prescribed texts, there was still money left over for a good rummage in the second-hand bookshops. On a whim one day, I bought three novels by an author I had never heard of – Peter de Vries. I was attracted by the cyclamen red typeface on their bright yellow Victor Gollancz covers, and at 10p each they were a bargain. What I didn’t know was that 30p could set my slant on the world.
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