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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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The Smoking Bishop

The Smoking Bishop

In one way, Dickens was not a Victorian. He was born in 1812 and his formative years were spent under the Regency, then the reigns of George IV and William IV. By the time of Victoria’s coronation, many of the themes and obsessions of his creative work were formed and he retained a Regency exuberance in his early work that was not always to the taste of his more educated readers. One thing they did not care for in his early novels was his treatment of drink and drinkers.
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Transports of Delight

I have a pocketful of change. Around me, there’s the sound of clothes hangers on rails. Beyond a bin of old toys there’s a clink of crockery. The flooring’s worn, the smell is musty. I can hardly restrain my fingers. What am I looking for? I don’t know. That’s just the point. I’m in one of my favourite places: a charity shop, in the book section. The atmosphere’s hushed. It’s that of a museum, or, perhaps, a library. But, wait. If I love books so much, why aren’t I in a library, or, indeed, a bookshop?
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Praisethurber

Praisethurber

Not too many years ago, it would have been unnecessary to explain who James Thurber was. His short story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in 1947 in the New Yorker (where most of his writing first appeared), soon found an international audience, and despite the best efforts of Danny Kaye to kill it off in a truly appalling film, it remains one of the most adept pieces of comic writing of its time, with most of the classic Thurber trademarks, including his delight in inventing words: among them the pseudomedical terms ‘obstreosis of the ductal tract’ and ‘streptothricosis’, and the information that ‘Coreopsis has set in’.
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Between Soft Covers

Between Soft Covers

About a year ago now a smiling vanman delivered twenty-six heavy brown-papered packages from a trolley and stacked them along the side of the hall. I scrabbled one parcel open and there they were: the first copies, straight from their Yorkshire printer, of my memoir, Learning Things. I felt triumphant. The chaotic, sometimes threatening, jumble that had been the ingredients of my family’s lives and mine were now tamed into some sort of order – not just a pile of typed pages but a real book. It is not very expensive to publish a book but why embark on the venture at all? Well, our histories and memories are the context of our children. To my children and grandchildren (three of them half- American) the there-and-then of my parents’ lives in India, at war, even my own experiences of boarding-school and as a terrified apprentice parachutist, seem almost unimaginably far away. My mother had died when I was 17 and my father, away for so long at war, had been a remote figure, so I too learned much about them as I explored the material I had.
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Large Busts and Slim Margins

Large Busts and Slim Margins

It remains one of the more surprising facts of life that the intrepid traveller Eric Newby, who by the time I knew him had the weatherbeaten cragginess of a man only happy when halfway up the Hindu Kush, should have carved out an earlier career astride the lower slopes of haute couture. Everyone has to start somewhere, however, and he put his first reluctant footprint on the fashion world as hapless gofer in the family firm of Lane & Newby, ‘Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers’, from which he rose, more by luck than by judgement, to the dizzy heights of Worth Paquin, later plateauing out into the sunny uplands of John Lewis in the incongruous position of buyer of Ladies’ Fashion.
A Landscape Without Figures

A Landscape Without Figures

I first read Voss about forty years ago and didn’t pick it up again until very recently. A few years later I was somewhat disappointed by one or two of White’s other books and this must have tainted my recollection. I certainly remembered Voss as a powerful metaphor for the condition of modern man, but when I reread it I was surprised by its force and inevitability. The Marxist critic George Lukács once defined the novel as the epic of a world from which the gods have departed. Voss is first and foremost a gripping epic and the gods have indeed disappeared – or almost: there is still spirituality in the air and the characters seem to have developed special antennae for it.
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Illumination and Shadow

‘It is Europe that is dying, my friends.’ This gloomy observation is, his devoted fans will recognize, the very essence of Alan Furst. It is delivered, in this case, by an anti-fascist Italian exile to a group of his compatriots in Paris in 1938, in Furst’s most recent novel, The Foreign Correspondent. But the world he has brought to life in all nine of his books is old Europe – from Lisbon to the Black Sea, though usually centred in the French capital – as it is smashed and swept away by war and the unstoppable momentum of power politics.
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One Foot in Eden

Writing her diary one evening in January 1951, Edwin Muir’s wife Willa reflected that her husband’s poems would live on, but ‘of himself, only a legend’. Why? Contemporary poets united in marvelling at Muir’s gifts, not just as a fellow poet, but as a human being. T. S. Eliot recognized in him a more ‘complete integrity’ than he had known in any other writer; Kathleen Raine envied his stillness and stability in a hurtling world; George Barker was moved by his visionary insight. Edwin Muir, Barker wrote, was ‘like a silent clock that showed not the time but the condition, not the hour but the alternative’. Surely something more solid than ‘legend’ should survive of such genius?
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