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Artist of Earth and Sky

Artist of Earth and Sky

Despite the aspirations Gwen Raverat expressed in her classic childhood memoir Period Piece (‘O happy Mrs Bewick!’ she declares at one point) and all the drawings in the book, many of its enchanted readers have discovered with apparent surprise that its author was an artist of some importance. Yet this may not be so remarkable; little had been written about her later life until Frances Spalding’s full biography in 2001, though Gwen and her husband Jacques did feature in Paul Delaney’s The Neo-Pagans (1987) as central members of the Cambridge circle surrounding Rupert Brooke. My own journey was in the opposite direction from most people’s. I knew Gwen Raverat as an artist long before I discovered Period Piece.
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The Maclean Effect

The Maclean Effect

I defy anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to go to mysterious Central Asia. From the moment I read those seductive first paragraphs as a student, I was drawn to the murky world of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent that Maclean observed at close quarters in the 1930s when working as a diplomat in our Moscow embassy. It was to be ten years before I travelled to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in the ‘year of stagnation’ – 1975 – and another three decades before I saw the country without the dubious assistance of a Soviet minder.
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From Chelsea to Belsize Park

One of the first books I was ever given was Sycamore Square. It was old for a toddler, but a pretty thing to grow into: light verse, which had mostly first appeared in Punch. Ernest Shepard’s drawings showed willowy, upper-middle-class young men and women of the sort my parents had aspired to be in their youth. I later discovered that its author, Jan Struther, was the creator of Mrs Miniver, while ‘Sycamore Square’ itself was just off the King’s Road. My grandmother lived around there. It was a rather grand world, brittle and tinkling, and its idea of art was light entertainment.
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Classroom Revolution

Classroom Revolution

For those who have travelled the English boarding-school route, similar prep-school memories are sure to be jogged by reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s My Affair with Stalin, a wonderfully entertaining and evocative novel, set in a rural prep school during the 1970s. A daring midnight raid on the tuck cupboard is masterminded by the book’s precocious hero, William Conroy. Once he has established control of the cupboard, Conroy is virtually guaranteed his position as leader of the dominant school gang, for crisps, soft drinks and instant snacks play a disproportionately large part in the life of boarding-school pupils.
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Reading the Play’s the Thing

I want to ask you a question: how long is it since you actually sat down and read a Shakespeare play, for the sheer pleasure of it, as you would read a novel, for example, or a volume of verse? How long is it, come to that, since you read a Shakespeare play at all? Schooldays? Student days? Last time you had to teach it as a text? – all of which involve reasons and feelings that tend to counteract and contradict the pleasure. I have no doubt that if you set out now anew, with pleasure alone in mind, you might be surprised at the kind and degree of it that awaits you, coming over you with the thrill of forgotten delight – like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odour, so I am tempted to add.
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Blame It on Matron

Blame It on Matron

Usually, when I discover a second-hand bookshop, I confine my browsing to one or two familiar categories. Military history is not one of them, nor is psychology. So it was by sheer fluke that I recently came upon Norman Dixon’s book among tottering piles of volumes. The title, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, jumped out at me. Who could resist it? On the way home I wondered why I had found the title so appealing, and why I had felt a shiver of schadenfreude as I handed over my fiver.
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Tusker’s Last Stand

Tusker’s Last Stand

The immediate framework of the story is the relationship between the Smalleys and Mrs Bhoolaboy, tenants and landlady respectively, as they struggle to achieve very different aims: the Smalleys to remain in the lodge at Smith’s Hotel as legitimate tenants, Mrs Bhoolaboy to evict them in order to profit from the redevelopment of her property in partnership with the owners of the neighbouring Shiraz Hotel. In the course of this tussle, Tusker is driven to a level of apoplexy that proves fatal, his demise forming the opening sentence of the book.
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Extra for the Bath

At the end of My Turn to Make the Tea, Monica Dickens’s autobiographical local newspaper saga, her heroine Poppy is fired for an act of noble sabotage and replaced by ‘a lad of sixteen fresh from school’. I was that boy. At least, as I turned the pages, I hoped I would be. From the age of 14 I wanted the excitement of a newspaper life, to wear the golden trilby. I saw destiny in our evening paper’s ad for a trainee. I got the job. Instead of being a teenager I would be a junior reporter. My father bought me a blue suit, a maroon tie and a pen. I’d seen the films so I knew I would find a noisy chaos of reporters at squalid desks jabbing typewriters beneath a cumulus of smoke. Someone showed me the mysteries of sub-editors, compositors and inky-aproned printers, servants of the gigantic presses. The place reeked of tobacco, ink, paper, hot metal and canteen fry. I inhaled.
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Going West

For most of 1988 I moved about London, from house-sit to house-sit, transporting all the essentials of my life and trade in a 2CV: typewriter, reference books, minimal wardrobe. At some point during that nomadic interlude, a friend of someone I hardly knew asked me pointedly whether I had read the works of Nathanael West, hinting that if I hadn’t I ought to. Perhaps he judged West’s acerbic satire of disillusion and forlorn hope peculiarly apt to the mild chaos of my existence. So I bought a copy of Nathanael West’s complete works and read them, straight through.
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A Grand Passion

It was in the school library on a somnolent Sydney summer afternoon that I first met her. A passionate, but bookish and rather inarticulate child, I had recently discovered romantic novels and had devoured Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Mary Stewart. I loved them all, but meeting Anya Seton’s Katherine, as she set out in that ‘tender green time of April’ on a journey that was to take her from sheltered convent girl to controversial great lady, was the greatest delight of all. 
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A Publisher in Bloomsbury

There is a determinedly un-modern feel to the grey-fronted shop-cum- office of Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street, a leafy Georgian oasis not far from the British Museum. A blue and white jug of irises balances on a pile of books in the window, a tailor’s dummy draped in a First World War nurse’s uniform stands near a table of Persephone books, open at their delicious patterned endpapers, and a good strong cup of tea arrives in a generous old-fashioned enamel pot. Indeed, one can quite easily imagine Miss Pettigrew, the governess heroine of Persephone’s best-selling title Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (first published in 1938), putting her head round the door and feeling perfectly at home.
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City of Impregnation

City of Impregnation

In her foreword to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta, the novelist Anita Desai mentions how visitors from that city, on unpacking in the dry air of her Delhi home, invariably release a distinctive odour. ‘Damp, mouldy, deltaic, even swampy’, it clings not just to clothes but, less eradicably, to the luggage itself. I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water. Any organic elements must long since have expired, and desiccation has lent a sub-whiff of archaeological respectability, but still it pongs. And like India itself, I can’t bear to part with it.
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Unsettled and Unsettling

Unsettled and Unsettling

It could certainly be said that Walter de la Mare has been neglected for far too long. Faber & Faber, who published his work for many years, are bringing out a small volume of his selected poems, but of his many other books only his short stories remain in print. The wonderfully varied and erudite anthologies he made from the work of other writers, Come Hither, Early One Morning and Behold This Dreamer, can still be found in second-hand bookshops (if you can find a second-hand bookshop). Critical works largely ignore him and he is omitted from the new Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Literature – along with Conan Doyle, H. E. Bates, Norman Douglas, Richard Hughes, Lawrence Durrell and many other writers whose idiosyncratic styles or subject-matter do not accord with the present glum and ludicrous diktats of English Studies. Indeed in the modern reference works in which he does appear, de la Mare is now often referred to only as a writer for children, despite the championing of his prose fiction for adults by fellow-writers from Graham Greene to Angela Carter.
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A Tremendous Innings

A Tremendous Innings

Ask most readers if they have heard of A. G. Macdonell and you will usually get a blank look, though occasionally you get the response: ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of England, Their England.’ If you don’t, you then say, ‘You know, the cricket match . . .’ ‘Oh yes, of course,’ is the almost invariable reply, even from people who claim to hate cricket. ‘I remember it being read to us at school. It’s hilarious . . .’ It is, too – perhaps the most famous comic set-piece in the language. Though I’ve read it to myself dozens of times, and aloud to classes often enough (it’s a wonderful way to keep a class quiet at the end of a long term), I still find myself laughing aloud as I read it.
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