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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

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.

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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Price of a Double Life

I am reluctantly succumbing to the charms of the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson. For years I resisted: I had no interest in Top Gear, his high-octane programme for dim-wit motorists. I liked neither his in-your-face screen personality nor his studiously non-PC newspaper columns. Added to that, I had to suffer the ignominy of having my partner, who is normally quite discerning, make a point of regularly watching him and telling me that she found him funny.
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A Very Rising Man

A Very Rising Man

The second half of the seventeenth century in England saw an efflorescence of diaries and memoirs, kinds of writing hardly seen before, but there was a delay of a century and a half before these writings got into print. The Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by his wife Lucy led the field, appearing in 1806, and telling how he held Nottingham Castle for Parliament. Most of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives were first published in 1813, and John Evelyn’s Diary in 1818. This attracted far more attention than the first two and was the stimulus needed to get Pepys’s diary off the shelves of his library which he had left to his old Cambridge college, Magdalene. The Master lent a volume of it to his uncle, the bibliophile Thomas Grenville, who passed it on to his brother William, he who had been Prime Minister at the head of the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ in 1806–7.
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The Little House at the Edge of the Wood

The Little House at the Edge of the Wood

Last January, I had a major operation. For solace, I took into hospital the Winter issue of Slightly Foxed. A kind friend brought in the New Yorker. Then, about day four or five (not brilliant), came a package. It contained a beautiful card and a worn little book: Hare Joins the Home Guard by Alison Uttley. The card had an instruction: ‘If energy is short please just refer to the marked page for an image to cheer the spirits.’ I referred, and felt a smile spread through me. Here was an underground nursery, lit by glow-worms, where all the small animals of the wood might take shelter as the dreadful weasels went on the warpath. Here were Fuzzypeg the hedgehog and Moldy Warp the mole, gazing at ‘grass hammocks and little wool-lined cots and cradles which Grey Rabbit had made’. ‘You shall take charge of the young ones,’ said Moldy Warp kindly. ‘You shall put them to bed and tell them tales.’ But Fuzzypeg was having none of this. ‘No thank you! I’m going to fight.’
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Anarchist in a Tie

Many years ago I asked Eric Ambler whether he deliberately travelled in search of material. The answer was an emphatic No: ‘If you go looking, you don’t really see. That’s why I never carry a camera – you can’t see things properly through a lens.’ For Ambler, the most lasting impressions were those recorded obliquely. He quoted approvingly Max Beerbohm on Beau Brummell: ‘He looked life squarely in the face out of the corners of both eyes.’
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Unlucky Jim

There are three good reasons for taking take Jim [James] Lees-Milne to one’s heart. First there’s his work for the fledgling National Trust. When he joined it before the War, the Trust employed just four people, in a dowdy office in Victoria, and was concerned almost exclusively with countryside and coastline. He was one of the first to see that the country houses of England and Wales needed to be saved just as much as the scenery. They were ‘fragile and transient’ in themselves, and a burden to an aristocracy on the wane, but these houses constituted an art form probably unique in the world and he was passionate about them.

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