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Issue 27

Not so Merry England

Ivanhoe is the one novel by Sir Walter Scott that needs to be discovered twice – if, that is, you first encountered it at school, as I did. To me then the plot seemed overcomplicated, and the whole thing only vaguely interesting; but reading it afresh as an adult, it strikes me as that rare thing, a great book, albeit a flawed one. Better novels of Scott’s such as Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are no longer household names. Yet Ivanhoe lives on in the national consciousness for, clumsy as it sometimes is, it strikes a powerful chord, being a morality tale about the English vice of hypocrisy.
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If at First

If at First

A few years ago I was still managing to keep my mother – elderly and frail – living in her own home, which was what she wanted. But she had a collection of medical problems any one of which could flare up into a crisis without notice. Every now and again, I would get a call from one of her carers telling me that her GP had called an ambulance. I would then rush to the hospital to ensure she was properly attended to and to give her comfort. Deep down I was worried that she would never be able to return home again but instead would be cooped up in hospital or a nursing home for the rest of her life. In this period of acute anxiety I had two sources of comfort. One, naturally, was my family. The other – and I’m afraid this will seem a dreadful moment of bathos – was The Clicking of Cuthbert, a book of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse.
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Writers at Sea

A friend recently urged me to read Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled – not for the account of a supremely successful academic career in the second half of the twentieth century, nor for insights into the making of a renowned literary critic, but for the account of his naval service. Kermode, I was told, had joined up in 1940. Isolated among madmen engaged on futile, conspicuously wasteful projects in Scotland and Iceland, his war experiences were a small, entertaining testimony to the ludicrousness of war.
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Thoreau’s Axe

Thoreau’s Axe

In 1973, my wife and I left a flat in St John’s Wood for a decrepit 5-acre smallholding in West Wales. There we continued, in cheerful penury, for the next twelve years. ‘Back in the days’, as we survivors of the Sixties like to say, self-sufficiency was the watchword, and the guru of that era’s back-to-the-landers was John Seymour (See SF No. 26, p.62). His contention, that a free and modestly prosperous peasantry is the best basis for a strong and stable society, was powerfully made by his writings and example, and remains, I believe, valid today. But equally appealing to many latter-day voluntary peasants was an earlier and very different prophet of self-sufficiency: Henry David Thoreau.
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High Flyer

High Flyer

Robert Loraine was a magnificent man in a flying machine. I first encountered his story in an Anglesey meadow where he had two of his many crashes. Soon afterwards I chanced on a biography of him in a second-hand bookshop. Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman was as wrecked as one of his flimsy aircraft. A restorer made it shelfworthy so that from time to time I can marvel at Loraine’s reckless courage. As a distinguished actor he had played d’Artagnan on the London stage and he seemed to stay in character when he swapped sword for joystick. ‘He had the soul of a poet,’ Jules Védrines, his French mechanic, observed, ‘and a poet does not make a reliable pilot.’
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On the North West Frontier

Wallace Breem is one of those authors who, if he is remembered at all, is probably known only for his first novel, Eagle in the Snow, which received high praise and achieved excellent sales on its first publication in 1970. Sadly, Breem’s next two novels were largely ignored by the critics and the public. Their comparative failure and the pressure of his job dissuaded him from writing a fourth, although he did contemplate one on the disaster that befell Quintilius Varus and his legions in the Teutoburgerwald forest in AD 7; but by the time of his premature death in 1990 he had only produced some notes for a preliminary draft.
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The Well-Connected Letter-Writer

Long ago, as a student, I was told to read the letters of Madame de Sévigné to get a better understanding of seventeenth-century French history. Now that exams are far behind me, I wonder how many other students also went to a library, discovered fourteen volumes of correspondence written in French, and decided to postpone this encounter. But many years later I read a few of the letters in translation and, being an enthusiastic letter-writer myself, felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. Mme de Sévigné’s letters struck me as refreshingly frank and entertaining, and I loved her pleasure in one-sided conversations and her constant longing for replies. Like all the best correspondents she knows how to make you her confidante. You only have to read about ‘Mme Paul, who has gone quite off her head and has fallen in love with a great oaf of 25 or 26 whom she has taken on to do the garden,’ to want to read on.
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Down in the Mayfair Badlands

Down in the Mayfair Badlands

In strict taxonomic terms, Roger Longrigg’s long career – he published novels for over half his seven decades on the planet – looks like a throw-back, a reversion to the high-output conditions of the inter-war era when, as Alec Waugh once put it, ‘a book a year was the rule’. Certainly a professional bibliographer called in to reckon up his prodigious output would hardly know where to start. To begin with there are the dozen novels written in the ’50s and ’60s under his own name – gamey and somewhat louche affairs, including the horse-racing caper Daughters of Mulberry (1961). Then there are the psychological thrillers from the 1980s, most notably Mother Love (1983), under the alias ‘Domini Taylor’.
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An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

Hans Zinsser is stalking a murderer. His quarry has terrified hapless victims for centuries, coming upon them suddenly, by stealth, with overwhelming power and agility, sending whole cities into panic, pushing empires to the edge of extinction, then vanishing, only to reappear thousands of miles away. Dr Zinsser’s story is not an ephemeral romance of vampire kitsch but a true tale of blood lust, life and death. Dr Zinsser is a bacteriologist. The murderer he hunts is typhus, an adversary he respects as Holmes respected Moriarty. So deep runs his feeling that after decades of struggle, he comes to love it ‘as Amy Lowell loved Keats’, and even to write its biography. His life is so intertwined with that of his enemy that his ‘biography of a bacillus’, Rats, Lice and History, may be read as a long and entertaining digression from his incomparable memoir, As I Remember Him: A Biography of RS, which he disguised as a third-person narrative, the RS of the title being his own Romantic Self.
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Academic Angst

It was on just such a holiday that I came to read Ivy Compton- Burnett’s Pastors and Masters and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man in quick succession. And since one is the predecessor of the campus novel and the other a seminal example of the genre, inevitably I started comparing. Compton-Burnett I’d been meaning to read for a while. But Bradbury had already been written off somewhere in my head. I’d enjoyed his criticism. Probably because of vague memories of snatched glimpses of the TV version, I’d pigeonholed The History Man as shallow and chauvinistic.
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Smiling Through

Smiling Through

Some years ago I found myself acting as Her Majesty’s Permanent Representative to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP), a United Nations talking-shop based in Bangkok. There always seemed to be a gap in the ‘M’ section of the semicircle of delegates’ seats in the auditorium where we met each month. One day my colleagues and I whiled away a particularly tedious session by inventing a name for an imaginary country which might one day claim those seats – the People’s Republic of Moribundia.
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Lives on the Edge

Lives on the Edge

One of the great advantages of running an auction house for books is that you see a vast range of publications. And if you’ve been a publisher for many years before you became an auctioneer, you frequently wonder what on earth possessed publishers of earlier generations to select some of the incredible rubbish that saw the light of day. But you do find the odd unknown pearl among the dross. I happened to be interested in the short story, and after the First World War collections of these were published in large numbers. Among them a name, a strange name, figured fairly frequently – that of H. A. Manhood. His own story is interesting.
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The Perfect Spy

‘I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live again the follies and sentimentalities and exaggerations of the distant time, and to feel them, as I felt them then, without irony,’ wrote Graham Greene in the foreword to his memoir of his early years. And for an admirer like myself, A Sort of Life, written with the transparent simplicity that makes his prose so intensely his own, is seminal in understanding the early experiences that shaped Greene’s character and writing.
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