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Optimistic Green Flags

Optimistic Green Flags

This morning, in the woods on Tooting Common, the sight of a young man plucking nettles and dropping them into a forage bag instantly reconnected me to my earlier life where ‘found food’ was a regular treat: wild parsnips, raspberries, blaeberries, angelica stems or water mint. Back in the 1970s, in my anti-consumerist hippy days, my home was sometimes an old Bedford van. Crammed with partner, three children, scruffy dog, cooking equipment, mattresses and quilts, this arthritic dragon – belching out smoke and small metal parts – transported us up and down the country lanes of Britain and Ireland. We enjoyed impromptu alfresco meals often gathered, picked or dug up from woods and field corners at dusk. ‘Dusking’ Richard Mabey calls it.
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Mr Smith Goes to Arcadia

In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.
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Down and Out in Havana

I knew what I wanted, and I went to Havana to find it. It was the university summer holidays. England was one long yawn, with its slow drizzle and its Third Way, the flat vowels of its politicians and their deadly practical aspirations of stability and prosperity. I’d spent two years sitting in the library reading about faraway, long-ago revolutions, grinding my teeth at the dullness of my life. I sat there absorbing other people’s pontifications so I could go off and pontificate myself, so I could order and organize a world I hadn’t yet really discovered. I wanted to find a place where people were actually living, where they were sweating and dancing and dying and having sex; a place, in fact, like that in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.
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A Chequered Career

I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus. We had commissioned him to write what turned out to be The Missing Will, the first volume of his autobiography, and every now and then I would meet him for a drink in the King and Keys, a narrow, smoke-filled pub next to the old Telegraph building in Fleet Street. It was usually half-empty when I went there during lunch breaks that continued well into the afternoon, but in the evenings, Michael told me, it was crammed to overflowing with his colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, red-faced and sweating and jostling for a place at the bar.
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Life with Aunt Sylvie

Life with Aunt Sylvie

Once in a blue moon an encounter with a new book can be like falling in love – you just know, instinctively, that you’ve found a voice that’s entirely sympathetic, and that you want to spend the rest of your life with it – or at close quarters, at least. Housekeeping had that effect on me: I remember the distant rumbles of acclaim when it first came out in 1980 and was nominated for the Pulitzer among its raft of other awards, but I didn’t catch up with it myself until last year, and I read it with a sense of wonder.

Great-aunts

My great-aunt Maud was a maiden lady. Young men were in short supply when she grew up, unconscionable numbers of them having been killed in the First World War. My grandmother hinted indeed that there had once been a curate vaguely in the offing; if so, nothing came of it and he offed rather than offered. I have a feeling that Maud was earmarked by her mother as the daughter who would stay at home and care for her parents, and to this end was over-protected and discouraged from any adult autonomy.
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Six Things to Do with Cabbage

Six Things to Do with Cabbage

Transport yourself, dear reader, to the British urban landscape of Larkin’s mythical moment, ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. You are young, educated, ambitious, and have moved, alone, to a big city – London, even – eager for the experiences and opportunities your newly acquired adult status and independence dangle tantalizingly before you. Yet as you grapple with the baffling new exigencies of the lowest rungs of the career ladder, you also find yourself lodged in the lowliest form of metropolitan habitation: the bedsitter. You long for excitement and sophistication, but your life looks, feels and very probably smells like a cross between Lucky Jim and The L-Shaped Room.
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Mystery at the Minster

Readers take something of a risk if they go back to a book they have much enjoyed but not picked up for thirty or forty years. As a bookseller, I was constantly reminded of such favourites because I could recommend them to friends, either new or second-hand. During that period John Meade Falkner’s novel The Nebuly Coat spent several years out of print but it appealed to small imprints as a reprint, and a reappearance was always welcomed. I probably read it for the first time in the admirable World’s Classics edition. Only in the last few weeks, inspired by my rereading, have I reminded myself about Falkner himself in the judicious introduction by G. M. Young and the personal note contributed by Sir Edmund Craster, a close friend from Northumberland.
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Stars in His Eyes

A lot of rubbish has been written about music over the years, which is not surprising – it is a very difficult thing to write well about. Conveying the emotions that music can produce is a task probably beyond the reach of even the English language. This can make listening to music one loves a lonely business. Often, having been enraptured by some new CD, I’ve manically called friends and urged them, with varying levels of inarticulacy, to share the experience: ‘You’ve got to hear this song! It’s like, so, um, amazing . . . it’s got this singer . . . there’s this astonishing drum solo . . .’ The attempt always ends in failure, the phone receiver pressed against the speaker, my friend’s non-committal response usually a reluctant ‘Um, sounds great.’ This is why it is so rare – and so heart-warming – to read a book like Giles Smith’s Lost in Music, which conveys what it means to live and love pop music with such warmth and accuracy.
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Balchin’s Maimed Brilliance

I have twice abandoned my attempt to write this. The first time happened when I reread Nigel Balchin’s novel, Darkness Falls from the Air, which I had admired to distraction many years ago, partly because I so loved the poem from which the title is taken (Thomas Nashe, ‘In Time of Pestilence’), partly because it seemed to me a brilliant account of what it must have been like to be in London when it was being bombed during the Second World War. This time round, however, I noticed the extent to which the novel is bedevilled with occasional but regular anti-Semitic remarks of a kind which become even more horrible when one remembers it was published in 1942. Although I tried to pretend to myself that the problem was not systemic but merely cosmetic, after a while I decided my excuse wouldn’t wash any more. This is a poison which infects the whole novel, not just the parts.
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We All Love Your Letters . . .

I thought I could never feel fond of Charing Cross Road. In 1988, when I was 23, I spent the most miserable three months of my life there. In one fell swoop, I had lost my fiancé, my flat and my job. (In a panic, as university came to an end, I had started my working life as a graduate trainee in a City bank. It was not a good move.) Facing what felt like a futureless future, I signed up for a ‘Sight and Sound’ typing course on the bleak first floor of a building next to the Garrick Theatre. Secretarial instruction was delivered over headphones to classrooms full of women, and, as I tried to follow the disembodied tutorials, my fingers kept slipping and jamming between the keys of a hefty, black manual typewriter. As I emerged at lunch-time, and wandered towards Soho Square to eat a sandwich, surrounded by shoals of down-and-outs and drunks, I kept thinking of that line from The Waste Land: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.
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