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England’s Epic

The Golden Warrior is not ‘an ordinary historical novel’ in any sense. These, and even extraordinary historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, tend to be written by novelists who have done their research. Hope Muntz (1897–1981), however, was a historian, Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society, and co-editor of a volume in the Oxford Mediaeval Texts. Having lived more than half her imaginative life with Earl Harold Godwinson and Duke William the Bastard, she astonished those expecting a scholarly monograph by producing a magnificent novel.
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Riding the Leopard

Riding the Leopard

The more you read, the more you realize you want to read, for each book generates a further reading list. Only occasional readers imagine that reading is a matter of working through a list of classics, like moving a pile of logs. The rest of us know that every ‘classic’ multiplies infinitely into minor classics, frivolities and squibs. You cannot possibly read them all now, but you know you want to read them one day. Some of these you will buy and, although they may remain unread, they contain a promise of future pleasure and their company alone helps sustain an idea of yourself, and of the world.
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Studying Revenge

On page 1 he noted the omission of Lord Acton (‘power corrupts etc’) and ten pages later he criticized the sparseness of John Aubrey’s entry, which might be explained by the absence of Brief Lives in a standard edition: both Oliver Lawson Dick’s and Anthony Powell’s editions post-date the Dictionary of Quotations by several years. But this is nothing compared to his entry for Jane Austen: ‘Less than a column and a half. Fantastic! She should have 3 pp.’
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A Too-Early Death

I am one of those fastidious individuals who, before travelling, has to draw up a reading list suited to the place he is to visit. For this reason, on a recent trip to Rome, I reread Abba Abba (one of Anthony Burgess’s slimmest books, it has the added virtue of fitting easily into a cramped suitcase). By the time he wrote the novel in the mid-seventies, Burgess had lived in Rome and married his second wife, Liana, an Italian contessa. Abba Abba is, amongst other things, a wary tribute to that capital of temporal power.
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Bitter Fruit

Bitter Fruit

I was given The Ginger Tree, by Oswald Wynd, to read before the birth of my first child. ‘It will take your mind off things,’ said my friend. Indeed it did. Through all the dramas of a premature birth, the book stayed in my hands. The life of a young girl at the turn of the twentieth century in China and Japan provided an escape and a refuge. It still does. In times of crisis or just a bout of ’flu, I return to The Ginger Tree. It has the power that all the best books have, the power to create its own reality. I step into it and am enveloped.
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Twilight of a Golden Age

Twilight of a Golden Age

I attacked my new assignment as a Middle East correspondent with the alacrity of a baying hound running down a wanted man. I loaded up on the standard books on the region by all the standard experts: Hitti, Hourani, Nutting, Glubb, Fromkin, Shlaim, Lewis. I consumed their separate narratives, cross-referencing one against the other and triangulating each for bias. I was a machine in perpetual motion; the more I read, the more I needed to know. By the end of my three-year stint, I had accumulated a working library of stolid non-fiction accounts of the Middle East, from the days of the Caliphate to the Second Intifada. In 2001 I took leave to write my own book.
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A Bit of a Bracer

Recently I’ve started writing letters to prisoners (via the New Bridge Foundation). I can recommend it as a means to think about what we have in common with each other. The amount of trust – in the postal system, in language, in the other person – encoded in each letter is staggering. With prisoners who, one way or another, are likely to have suffered many abuses of trust, it is even more striking. Our letters, it is hoped, will lead to meetings. But even if not, one hopes they extend fingers of possibility, rays of light if that’s not too presumptuous, into the darkness of ‘this place’ as they generally characterize prison.
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There for the Duration

There for the Duration

‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas. Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for,
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Fellow-Travellers, or The Trouble a Book Can Cause

Fellow-Travellers, or The Trouble a Book Can Cause

Florence Nightingale steadfastly refused to believe in bacteria, but she was wrong. The horrid truth is that every one of us carries billions of fellow-travellers, and no amount of bathing can ever change their number. The good news, however, is that most of our resident flora and fauna are harmless, or actually beneficial to our health. In 1976, Michael Andrews published these tidings in his bestselling The Life that Lives on Man, with all the details of our intimate companions in the micro-deserts of our forearms and the swamps of our underarms. But he failed to convince me that such slithy beasts as parasitic roundworms and liver flukes were equally benign. So I tried some internal experiments of my own.
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Bottoms Up

Vic Gatrell’s book City of Laughter paints a compelling, seductive picture of London in a lost Golden Age – the Golden Age revealed in the hundreds of satirical prints that poured from the presses from about 1770 to 1830. It draws on many literary sources and is illustrated with almost 300 colour images, most from the under-explored archives at the British Museum and Yale (and many never previously reprinted). Vivid, inventive, energetic, savage in puncturing pretension and full of lavatorial and obscene humour, they offer us a fantastic panorama of a libertine London, full of violence, hearty pleasure, uninhibited sex and high spirits.
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Winning Through

Winning Through

I was born on 26 January 1962 in a small upstairs bedroom at 8 Fairview Road, Norbury, South London. Towards the end of that year the world held its collective breath as, courtesy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it teetered on the brink of nuclear oblivion. I have always wondered if the two events were connected. The year 1962 also saw the first publication of Betty Hope’s Survive with Me by R. G. G. Price, illustrated by Ionicus. I found my copy earlier this year in the local Oxfam shop, lurking between a suntan-oiled copy of The Da Vinci Code and an early example of Jamie Oliver’s literary oeuvre entitled, I think, It’s Beans on Toast, Mate.
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After the Anschluss

It takes a special sort of long-term determination and courage to risk one’s life for someone else’s sake. Would the friends who protected Anne Frank’s family in their secret annexe have embarked on their heroic act of altruism if they had known of the long haul ahead? In her remarkable novel, Night Falls on the City, Sarah Gainham imagines what it must have been like to keep a deadly secret in such circumstances for years. Julia Homburg is a famous classical actress whose family had been courtiers and Catholics, unassailable members of the Austrian imperial establishment. But Julia’s husband Franz Wedekind is a socialist politician and a Jew. Their story begins in March 1938.
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Impossible Love

Impossible Love

As I make my way through narrow passages and over numerous little bridges, I am trying to imagine a Venice of two and a half centuries ago, the Venice of A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant. Not only the book but the way it came about is intriguing. It is every writer’s dream to come across a cache of letters which tell a riveting but true story. Add to this the setting of Venice, a cast of characters that includes a beautiful English girl, a Venetian nobleman and (of course) Casanova, and a book begs to be written.
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