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K. Nichols, Washington, USA

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Vane Hopes

I always wanted to marry Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter Wimsey, that is. Me and Dorothy L. Sayers, both. Perhaps that’s where our love lives (separately) went wrong. However, I can say that Wimsey has never let me down. The clue’s in the name. From the family motto – ‘As My Whimsy Takes Me’ – to the long sensitive hands which play music and bowl cricket balls with equal ease, the beaky profile and the straw-coloured hair, the tormenting war history and passion for John Donne, not to mention the aristocratic birth and the fabulous wealth – here is a man made to fit.
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High Adventure

Publishing can be a dangerous game. On my shelves I keep, as a warning to myself, a non-fiction book – perhaps the only surviving copy – which was written by a respected author, published by a major London house, and ran into awful trouble before it reached the bookshops. (Mine was a review copy, but sending a book out for review amounts to publishing it.) It was about Cold War spies and spying. It named an eminent scientist, said he was dead, and identified him as a spy and a traitor. Two errors there: first, he was very much alive, and second, he was neither a spy nor a traitor. Result: the entire print run was pulped, and undisclosed damages were paid.
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Extra-ordinary Cricketers . . .

Extra-ordinary Cricketers . . .

In July 1967 the schoolmaster and part-time novelist J. L. Carr took two years’ leave of absence to see if he could make a living as a publisher of illustrated maps and booklets of poetry. Both were unusual: the maps featured small, annotated drawings of people, buildings, flowers, animals and recipes associated with places in the old English counties and were meant for framing and to stimulate discussion, while the works of British poets were presented in 16-page booklets, as Carr believed that people could only absorb a few poems at a time.
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‘Humbly report, sir’

‘Humbly report, sir’

On 3 January 1923 a rackety Czech ex-Communist, ex-anarchist, exeditor, ex-soldier named Jaroslav Hašek died in straitened circumstances in the village of Lipnice, east of Prague. He was not yet 40 and did not live to finish the book he was writing. By that time, however, The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War was already hundreds of thousands of words long and gave every appearance of going on indefinitely. Three volumes and a part of a fourth were complete; the hero, the ‘certified imbecile’ Josef Švejk, after a long and irregular journey east from Prague as a soldier in the 91st Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, was about to stumble into the slaughterhouse of the Galician front.
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Diamond Bombs

Diamond Bombs

When Charles Causley’s first collection of poems came out in 1951 – Farewell, Aggie Weston, the first in Eric Marx’s elegant series of ‘Poems in Pamphlet’ from the Hand and Flower Press – a fellow teacher at the ‘chalk Siberia’ in which he earned his living, picked it up and remarked dismissively, ‘Good Lord – is this the best thing you can do with your spare time?’ ‘What he didn’t know’, said Causley later, ‘was that it was the teaching I did in my spare time.’
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Some Kind of Edwardian Sunlight

Some Kind of Edwardian Sunlight

This is Daphne Manners, the young woman who comes out to India in 1942 as a VAD nurse and falls in love with Hari Kumar, an Indian journalist educated at an English public school, brought up from babyhood to be entirely English, and finding himself, on his enforced return, belonging nowhere. Their doomed and tragic love affair, to which all else returns, over and over again, is at the heart of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, though its drama is played out only in Volume One, The Jewel in the Crown (1966).
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Sky Writing

Sky Writing

It was called the Dive during the war and it drew servicemen and women from across Yorkshire and the north who enjoyed the hubbub, the smoke and beer, and the temporary sense of freedom and escape that the bar provided. It was said that if you wanted to know where the RAF’s next raid would be, Bettys Bar – the Dive – was the place to be. Now Bettys is anything but a dive: elegant, timeless and comforting. Its waitresses are similarly fragrant, their white blouses and broderie anglaise aprons ironed with military precision. Bettys’ ground-floor restaurant is bright with mirrors, reflecting the line of delicate teapots on a high shelf, the silver of cake-stands and the narrow streets of York.
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All They Had Was Hank

All They Had Was Hank

Try it yourself. Assemble a handful of chaps of pensionable age – because these will be men whose voices were wavering between treble and tenor in the 1950s – and ask them if they remember the name Hank Janson. I guarantee you an interesting reaction – first the joy of slowly dawning recognition, then a shifty flush of guilt as they realize why they remember it so well. During the Fifties Hank Janson was by far the most famous writer of sexy books in Britain. These days, young men have sex education. Then, ten years after the war, we had Hank.
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Chips Triumphant

Chips Triumphant

On my bookshelves are several well-thumbed copies of Good-bye Mr Chips. One is a first edition with a delightful jacket illustration by Bip Pares of Mr Chips asleep in an armchair. Another is a film ‘tie-in’ paperback showing Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in a scene from the 1969 musical version. A third is a beautifully bound special edition signed by the author and the artist H. M. Brock. And yet another is of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in a scene from the classic film version made in 1939.
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Lytton’s Characteristic Specimen

Lytton’s Characteristic Specimen

Rereading ‘The End of General Gordon’, the fourth of Lytton Strachey’s portraits in Eminent Victorians (1918), is an awful reminder of our failure to learn from history. Gordon’s and Gladstone’s ill-fated machinations in the Sudan are so redolent of Britain’s recent misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as almost to take one’s breath away: substitute either country for Khartoum, and you have an example fearsome enough to deter any but the most fatuous sabre-rattler from going near the place, let alone attempting to influence its political fate from thousands of miles away.
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Dream of Old England

Dream of Old England

A picture in our little house and a book excited me. There was a coloured print of Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabethan hose and doublet, sword and feathered hat, explaining his faraway adventures to two children on a beach. And there was the magic of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, where the young brother and sister act A Midsummer Night’s Dream and meet the pixie Puck, who tells them of the people of the Hills of Old England, imps and trolls and brownies and goblins, who live by Oak, Ash and Thorn. And he relates the history of Ancient Britain in fairy story and fact.
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