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Unsung Heroes

Unsung Heroes

The library at Fonthill Preparatory School was just what I imagined a Gentlemen’s Club to be like: shiny brown leather armchairs with velvet cushions, long oak tables, panelled walls, a coal fire in the corner, and windows looking on to the branches of an enormous beech tree. And, of course, books. It was there that I came to know the schoolboy classics of the time: the adventures of Biggles, the misadventures of William, and the voyages of the Swallows and the Amazons.
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In the Eye of the Storm

In Hazard is an extraordinary read. It resembles The Human Predicament in mixing fiction with fact, but here the ‘fact’ is not a devastating political movement which took years to grow, but a devastating meteorological event which took place within a week. In November 1932 the steamship Phemius was sucked into a Caribbean hurricane and tested to the limits, yet somehow she and all her crew survived. The owner of the shipping line to which Phemius belonged approached Hughes and suggested he record the dramatic story. Hughes agreed to describe the storm and its effects on the ship as accurately as he could, with the proviso that he would invent a fictitious captain and crew . . .
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The Hunt for Hitler

The Hunt for Hitler

I cannot now remember when I first read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (1947). My memory is confused by the fact that I knew the author in old age and was to become his biographer; Trevor-Roper himself told me about the extraordinary circumstances in which he had come to write the book. In September 1945 he had been awaiting discharge from the army so that he could resume his pre-war role as an Oxford don, when he was asked to undertake an urgent investigation into the fate of the Führer.
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Striking Sparks

As Muriel Spark had done before me I insisted that ‘if you’re a driver, you drive’ – that I would publish what I liked, and that the lady who wrote from the South of France complaining that the contents of the magazine were ‘sheer drivel that is an insult to the intelligence’ must simply be ignored. I clung on for five years, introducing a number of then young poets now celebrated. I can scarcely believe that I did all that work without a salary – editors of the magazine had never been paid, and I didn’t learn until years later that on my appointment the Arts Council had a grant of £500 a year for the Editor, linked to £1,000 for the General Secretary – conditional on the secretary not being Robert Armstrong. The offer was naturally refused. I was awarded a small ‘honorarium’ for the last two years – less than I could have earned by writing one sixty-minute radio feature.
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Just Staying

Just Staying

In forty years MacLeod produced just sixteen short stories, later collected in Island (2002), and one not very long novel, the extraordinary No Great Mischief (1999). Notoriously, he wrote at glacial speed, toiling over each sentence by hand until its shape and heft and tune were exactly so. You could read the life’s work in a weekend, but you mustn’t: the stories demand to be savoured slowly, the way they were written. A MacLeod sentence is a tactile thing, with the hard but polished feel of a pebble in the hand. Yet the prose is not ‘writerly’ in any tiresome way: ‘I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it,’ MacLeod once said, and his work retains a strong sense of the speaking or even singing voice – of folk tales or Gaelic balladry.
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Oh Nancy, Nancy!

The Nancy Drew mysteries (I didn’t know, then, that ‘mystery’ is what Americans call a detective story) were the first series of books to which I became completely addicted. And, since there were dozens of them, it seemed as if I could never run out – useful, for a child who weekly exhausted his borrowing limit at Dorking Library. My grandfather got into the habit, for a bit, of buying me one a week. Whenever I had a book token, it was into the bookshop at the top of the main street (I can’t for the life of me remember its name) that I would go. Oh! the anticipation of a fresh one, a fresh mystery, smelling of new paperback, picked off the long shelf of Nancy Drew books in the children’s section and taken home in a crisp paper bag.
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An Unusual Lexicographer

The Spoken Word, published in 1981, was produced in response to a wave of complaints to the British Broadcasting Corporation about falling standards in spoken English. A new era of broadcasting had begun in the 1970s, as the BBC changed from being the Reithian home of ‘received pronunciation’ to something broader, permitting more regional accents and informal language. Many people felt that the move towards linguistic diversity had gone too far, resulting in what the critic Anne Karpf so eloquently described in 1980 as ‘English as she is murdered on radio’.
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Love and Loss in Brussels

Love and Loss in Brussels

In 2016, in a debate organized by the Brontë Society, a panel of four writers discussed the relative merits of Jane Eyre (see SF no. 40) and Charlotte Brontë’s last novel, Villette. When an audience vote was taken, the earlier and better-known book won, but only by a small majority; the two writers defending Villette had been eloquent in its praise. As one of them said, you often come to appreciate it later in life. If Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice, Villette is Persuasion.
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Commons People

Commons People

When I first started working at the House of Commons, back in 2001, Philip Hensher was still discussed in dark tones by my colleagues. He was the only employee in living memory to have been sacked. Five years before, he had written Kitchen Venom, a novel set in the Clerks’ Department where we worked, about John, a secretly gay, hunchbacked senior clerk who spends his workday afternoons sneaking off to see a beautiful Italian rent boy in Earls Court.
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Springtime Reflections

Springtime Reflections

You can almost smell the sylvan air, and this is one of Thomas’s attractions. Born in the suburbs, his love of nature drove his devout wish to escape the noise and chaos of London. Like him, I have moved to the sticks and I feel he is speaking for me when he writes: Many days in London have no weather. We are aware only that it is hot or cold, dry or wet; that we are in or out of doors; that we are at ease or not. But Thomas’s writing is more than pastoral escapism. He often turns his retreat to the country into an assessment of himself and this is where In Pursuit of Spring becomes spooky, funny and also strangely wise...
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A Perfect Electrometer

A Perfect Electrometer

My Cambridge tutor was bubbling over with pleasure one morning in 1962 after reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, the one she kept between 1800 and 1803 when living with her poet brother William at Dove Cottage in the Lake District. What he had been particularly taken with was something she wrote on 14 May 1802 when the two had been walking in the woods alongside Grasmere: ‘William teased himself with seeking an epithet for the Cuckow.’ I never forgot this slightly comical picture of the creative process, but it was almost thirty years before I came to read her journal myself when doing a book on Coleridge among the lakes and mountains.
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The Paris Effect

The Paris Effect

Brimming. That was how I spent my first weeks in Paris. Brimming with tears at the smallest setback. For Nancy Mitford’s Northey in Don’t Tell Alfred, dispatched to Paris to be secretary to Fanny Wincham, the new Madame l’Ambassadrice at the British Embassy, it is the ‘cruel food’ of France that sets her off. Beef consommé. Brimming. Lobster. Brimming. Foie gras. Brimming. ‘A Frenchman on board told me what they do to sweet geese for pâté de foie gras,’ says Northey at dinner on her first night at the Ambassador’s Residence. ‘Very wrong and stupid of him,’ says Fanny.

Murder Most English

Colin Watson was born in 1920. At the age of 17 he was appointed as a junior reporter on a Boston newspaper, and he spent his working life in Lincolnshire, latterly writing editorials for a chain of news-papers. He was a member of the Detection Club of Great Britain and he won the CWA Silver Dagger twice. In his photos, bespectacled, moustached, he looks like one of his own creations, a quiet, reserved Englishman, and by all accounts that is what he was. Who knew that he could see, under the bland surface of a quiet country town, the joyous anarchy of the ordinary citizen’s life? And if he couldn’t see it, he could invent it, and describe it in what must be some of the most elegant language of any crime novel.
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On the Wings of History

On the Wings of History

Kristin Lavransdatter is a love story – but a masterly one that begins, in the first book of the trilogy, with Kristin swiftly breaking her society’s norms of patriarchy, duty and honour in order to give herself over to erotic passion. Undset viewed eroticism – a desire so profound that life would be intolerable if it were not satisfied – as part of the spiritual sphere. Kristin falls, in every way, for the handsome but clearly unsuitable Erlend Nikulaussøn, although her father has already pledged her to the thoroughly decent Simon Darre. When the wedding between Kristin and Erlend is finally allowed to happen, at the end of the first book, it is an excruciating affair, the bridal crown weighing so heavily on Kristin’s head that she can hardly sit upright at the banquet.
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Man of Many Lives

Man of Many Lives

‘The Connoisseur of Harris’ was Hugh Kingsmill. In 1919 he published a novel called The Will to Love which he had written in a prisoner-of-war camp. Harris appears in it as Ralph Parker, a man whose friendship ‘was a craving for an audience, his love, lust in fancy dress’. Yet ‘in the ruins of his nature, crushed but not extinct, something genuine and noble struggled to express itself ’. Harris was in his seventies when he died in the summer of 1931 and Kingsmill’s biography of him was published the following year. They had known each other for twenty years and the book was one of those Lives that contain two main characters: the subject and the writer.
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Cellmates

Cellmates

As I remember it, Vole was already up and running when Lewis Thomas arose in our midst like some ecological genie, a combination of gentle evangelist and stand-up comedian. It was 1977, and Richard Boston, founder of the magazine, arrived at an early editorial gathering bearing a copy of Thomas’s book The Lives of a Cell, with the clear message that it was required reading. It had recently been awarded, unprecedentedly, two US National Book Awards, one in the Arts category, the other in Science, and been described in The New Yorker as a ‘shimmering vision’.
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