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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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Book Crooks

As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent. I caught the bug as a kid, with the fairly broad-based ambition to collect any book published before 1860, figuring that anything that old must be rare. This first collection mounted to ten or eleven books, two of them Bibles, and starred a spineless tenth printing (1856) of Dream Life by Ik Marvel, which is probably still lying around somewhere. Since then, I’ve gone through several off-and-on phases of bibliophily, sufficient to learn that it isn’t a sport for the impecunious or anyone living in physically confined circumstances. I’ve also learned that, like less innocent obsessions, it can draw you in – seriously.
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Round and Round and Round

Round and Round and Round

It arrived, as the inscription tells me, two months after my third birthday, a Christmas present from my mother’s brother, Uncle Basil. A large hardback book – to a 3-year-old very large, its fourteen inches height by almost ten width enough to give it immediate status: a book to wield as well as to read. The striking cover, in slightly acidic lemon yellow, had the single word Cocolo in brown, in a bold freehand. Below this was a small outline sketch of a donkey, a rather pot-bellied one with ears protruding from a wide-brimmed straw hat.
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Mr Pye’s Dilemma

Mr Pye’s Dilemma

Our boat journey from Jersey to Sark passes through a dangerous past. The rocks between the two islands are called in Jersey slang the Pater Nosters, for it is said that if a ship were to get too close to them, then prayer was all the mariners had left to save themselves. We notice how Jersey is well defended from the sea: an Elizabethan castle, another fort and then the grinning mouths of German fire-control towers, cadavers of wartime occupation. Jersey has always judged itself worth the effort to defend.
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