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By Folly Brook

By Folly Brook

Time is linear. One thing happens, then another, then another. But while time itself may be linear, our memory of it is not. Of course we can order our memories in a linear, sort-by-date, fashion, but we can also sort by importance, by emotion and even (speaking as someone who grew up in the 1970s) by dodgy haircut. And since you are reading a literary magazine you, like me, can probably sort your memories by books – you can pick a book from your bookshelves, start to browse, and be magically transported not only to the world within the book, but also to the world you were living in when you first read it.
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In Italy’s Dark Heart

In Italy’s Dark Heart

On a motorbike ride across southern Italy in the Sixties, I stopped at an outdoor café in a hilltop village somewhere in the middle of Basilicata. A group of men and boys gathered a few yards away and, with that unnerving look of blank curiosity and suppressed hostility which you sometimes encounter in peasant areas, watched in silence while I drank my coffee. My discomfort ended only when they turned to inspect the much more interesting English motorcycle, a big old 350cc BSA. One of the boys mumbled a comment, and the ice was broken.
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Beginning in Gladness

Beginning in Gladness

Though I’ve long been familiar with Ted Walker’s poems, until recently I had not read The High Path, his wonderful memoir of childhood. I came to it not only with the curiosity of a fellow poet, but also as one having newly completed a memoir of my own. For a writer, the recall of childhood runs an assortment of risks – the editing effected by forgetfulness or by self-censorship; the distortions brought about by nostalgia or over-simplification; the assumption that the particulars of family history will axiomatically be of interest to the reader. Yet the best memoirs – and Ted Walker’s is surely among them – carry a potent charge, not only conveying the sensuous quick of childhood, but avoiding pure solipsism by acting as triggers for the reader’s own memories.
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Remembering Mr Simmonds

Louis Simmonds was not a tall man. Although I was still at school when I was first introduced to him by my father (and, like my father, I have never achieved more than medium height), my recollection is that he seemed to be looking up, with a slightly surprised expression. Perhaps he was wondering if, like my father, I would be a regular buyer of books in his shop on Fleet Street. Perhaps he was just wondering at the many and varied types to be found on Fleet Street back in the 1960s.
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Sunsets and Suburbia

Shortly after I began teaching on the creative writing programme at Middlesex University, Shena Mackay was appointed as our Honorary Visiting Professor. Her inaugural lecture in 2001 was titled A Horror of Sunsets: The Writer’s Palette and the Enemies of the Imagination. This referred to a line from Proust: ‘I have a horror of sunsets: they’re so romantic, so operatic.’ I’ve never got on with opera myself, not being able to let the music sweep me past the banality of the plots, but I knew at once I would get on with Shena Mackay. Her subject was synaesthesia, a condition from which she suffers, if ‘suffers’ is the right word. I suspect not – ‘inhabits’, perhaps. In her case, it means seeing words or individual letters in colours.
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Cold Cure from a Warm Climate

Snobbery never pays. Certainly not in relation to books: not even in relation to their mere appearance. Have you ever, like me, sneered at those identikit sets of ‘great works’ bound in imitation leather, complete with elaborate mock-gilt lettering? And even so does your household, like this one, contain at least one such set, given by a relative who sweetly and sadly thought it the perfect gift for people who read a lot? And is that set, like ours, hidden on the bottom shelf of the least conspicuous bookcase in the most distant spare bedroom?
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In the Empty Quarter

In the Empty Quarter

As a young reporter in the 1970s I travelled in what the Romans called Arabia Felix – through the Gulf sheikhdoms and emirates, into Muscat and down to the southern tip of the peninsula. I saw Dubai when it was still largely a fishing port where the pearl divers set sail in their dhows: in Kuwait, I spent an afternoon with Mrs Dickson, the widow of the last British political officer in the Gulf, in her traditional Arab house down in the old harbour. In Saudi Arabia I camped under the stars with some Bedouin on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, that stretch of a million square miles of desert which fills the bottom half of Arabia. Needless to say I was soon addicted and more trips followed. With the arrogance of the young journalist I imagined myself an Arabist and began to read all the available books. It did not take me long to realize that as only an occasional visitor I could never make the grade.
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Comfort in Desolation

There’s no shortage of fiction that might serve as an introduction to South Africa, as I discovered when I travelled there last October. I opted for the book that claimed to be the country’s first novel, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), some township stories by Isaac Mogotsi and A Chain of Voices, a historical novel by the modern writer André Brink. But the first thing that went into my suitcase was a book I had come across on a library shelf thirty years previously and which had remained in my mind ever since: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which uses the tale of a black parson in search of his son to illuminate the state of South African society in the mid-twentieth century.
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Cheddaring, Sparging and Gaffing

Cheddaring, Sparging and Gaffing

I live in east London in a second-floor flat with no garden. My groceries come from the local corner shop and, when I feel strong enough to face it, from the hellhole of a supermarket in Whitechapel. I grow some herbs in pots on my windowsill. The sage and rosemary do quite well but the coriander, tarragon, mint and parsley remain spindly however much I coax them. I have been known to forage for elderflowers, nettles and blackberries in Victoria Park and once, while visiting Dungeness, I broke off some sea kale from the shingle to eat with the kippers I had bought from a smokery there, then quickly had to hide it on realizing from a sign that it was a plant from an area of special scientific interest and I was liable for a £3,000 fine. I ate it anyway. It was . . . interesting.
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The Only Thing that Matters

Thirty years ago, when I was in a state of nervous over-excitement about the publication of my first novel, my editor gave me a copy of Theresa de Kerpely’s Arabesque to read. Her husband had published it in the UK and they both considered it remarkable. Now, it’s always tricky when someone presses a book into your hand with a speaking look and a muttered ‘amazing . . . unputdownable’ because of the very real danger that you will either founder on page one or soldier on to the end in the face of a nigh irresistible urge to de-limescale the taps instead. It’s analogous to the moment when your lifelong best friend declares her love for the patently obnoxious bloke you’ve been warning her about – you are left wondering if you ever really knew her at all.
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First Love

First Love

I can recall precisely where I was when Daphnis and Chloe opened in my hands like a flower: sitting on my father’s couch, my back to the window and the sun all around. Suddenly I felt the force of a wholly new, an important idea, something I had never considered quite that way before. I closed the book and, somewhat ridiculously, looked at its cover. My Penguin edition of Daphnis and Chloe was blurbed by Goethe: ‘One would do well to read it every year, to be instructed by it again and again, and to receive anew the impression of its great beauty.’
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The Diary in the Attic

The Diary in the Attic

From the outside it looks like a children’s book. Indeed, the dust-jacket drawing is by Charles Stewart, well known for his illustrations for Barbara Leonie Picard and Nicholas Stuart Gray. A curtain parts to reveal a humble interior – a Little Red Riding Hood figure surprises a ragged-bearded St Jerome. The saint, if he is a saint, is reading by the light of a candle; his empty dinner-plate lies on the floor beside him. Inside the book there are endpaper and other maps drawn by another Charles, Charles Green.
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