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Issue 67

Delivering a Missing Letter

A disused bus shelter in the market town of Sedbergh is a curious place for a quest to end, literary or otherwise. The town itself is rather curious too; geographically in Cumbria but on the wrong side of the M6 to be in the Lake District proper, it sits almost exactly on the watershed where the rolling green fells give way to the harsher limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales. Hard up against the Howgill Fells, it has always attracted walkers but in recent years it has also become a haven for readers. It now has seven bookshops, including an enormous second-hand one at the end of the High Street, and bookshelves are squeezed into any available space in the town’s other shops and cafés. When we arrived for cake and a potter while holidaying in Hawes, it was more in hope than expectation that here we would find the missing piece to complete the Scandinavian puzzle that our dining-room bookshelf had become.
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Coal, Rent and Chaos

A couple of years ago the judges for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction decided that none of the sixty two books submitted was funny enough to win, so they withheld the award. One of them, the publisher David Campbell, explained: ‘Despite the submitted books producing many a wry smile amongst the panel during the judging process, we did not feel than any of the books we read this year incited the level of unanimous laughter we have come to expect.’ Humour is notoriously subjective, but I am confident that if the prize had existed sixty-seven years ago, Gwyn Thomas’s A Frost on My Frolic would have been a strong contender.
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An Irresistible Cad

Is it possible to love a book and hate it at the same time? That is the question that nags me whenever I think of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (1885). It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece: the characterization is subtle, the social critique is incisive, the plot is completely absorbing. But its protagonist, nicknamed Bel-Ami because of his extraordinary good looks, is one of literature’s most despicable creations: a man who tramples on friend and foe alike – and above all on the women who love him – in his pursuit of wealth and status. With another writer, you might stomach such behaviour in the sure expectation of a spectacular come-uppance; but Maupassant’s amoral universe is one in which some people can get away with anything. What keeps us turning the pages is the brilliance of his writing and a fascination with how far his anti-hero can go.
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Mood Music

Mood Music

‘Dance after dance with an old fogey. Three running now, pressed to his paunch.’ Oh, the hell of parties! The small humiliations. The shy, smudged-mascara, wallflower-grief of it all. Where was Rollo? Archie? Tony? Even Reggie, dreaded Reggie, would do. In Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz we share every agony, every spurning, every smallest saving grace with Olivia Curtis, just 17 and, as her dressmaker cheerfully tells her, ‘no bewtee’. We meet her on her birthday, staring into the bedroom mirror with a mix of adolescent pride and doubt. And such is Lehmann’s uncanny power that the reflection in the glass isn’t Olivia’s: it’s our own.
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Blooming Marvellous

Sometime in the late 1990s, when I was staying in Dublin with my sister Marie Heaney and her husband Seamus, he was working on the introduction to a book called A Way of Life, Like Any Other, which I took to be a novel. I’d never heard of it, but the fact that Seamus was writing an introduction to this new edition seemed like an honour and signalled importance. First published in 1977, it had won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the American PEN/Hemingway Award. How had I missed it?
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Branching Out

Branching Out

In keeping with its name, Pimpernel Press has put down its roots in an unassuming Victorian house hidden at the end of a pleasant street off West London’s Harrow Road. The only hint that a publisher is in residence is the pile of tempting-looking books glimpsed from the front doorstep through the ground-floor bay window. Pimpernel’s publisher, Jo Christian, squeezes past me in the narrow hall to usher me into her combined office and living-room, where a long table is covered with a comfortable clutter of laptop, proofs, interesting objects and framed photographs. Beneath a wall thick with prints and paintings a pair of life-sized Coade stone greyhounds – refugees perhaps from some great house or garden – stand next to a large old sofa covered in piles of books. We’re clearly a long way here from the world of corporate publishing.
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Progression by Digression

In many ways The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a maddening book. It is funny, of course, but also eccentric, anarchic and longwinded; and it’s hard to understand why it survived to become a classic. Perhaps these days only university students and professors read Tristram Shandy. But for two centuries it was a family favourite. My great-grandfather Walter Congreve discovered it while lying wounded in hospital during the Boer War. He carried it with him – alongside the Bible – through the First World War, to his military command in Palestine and thence to Malta as governor.
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The Last of Rome

The Last of Rome

Desperation drove me to Horatius, one gloomy afternoon in late October. Thirty restless children were waiting to be entertained, educated or even just dissuaded from rioting by their hapless supply teacher. I gave them Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome – largely because my father’s recitation of ‘How Horatius Kept the Bridge’ had so grabbed and held my own attention, decades earlier. The drama of the thing still worked its magic: the bridge fell with a crash like thunder, whereupon ‘a long shout of triumph rose from the walls of Rome / As to the highest turret-tops was splashed the yellow foam’. My father would put gleeful stress on the word ‘yellow’. Then, of course, brave Horatius, fully armed and uttering a powerful prayer to Father Tiber, hurls himself into the turbulent river and makes it to the other shore.
A Vanished Warmth

A Vanished Warmth

At school I loved our history lessons. I spent hours drawing plans of castles and battles, and was a binge reader of historical fiction by anyone from Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece to Mary Renault and Robert Graves. A little later I enjoyed exploring first-hand evidence from the past and I particularly remember some volumes in the school library called They Saw It Happen. The third of these English historical anthologies, covering the years 1689–1897, was especially well-known to us because it had been compiled by bufferish Mr Charles-Edwards and suede-shoed Mr Richardson from our very own History Department.
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Giving Pain a Voice

Giving Pain a Voice

A lone doctor hares down a country lane in his Land Rover, his thumb jammed on the horn to warn the oncoming traffic that he’s not stopping. A woodman’s been pinned to the ground on a remote hillside by a falling tree and every second counts. Even at the start of A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967), we are given an inkling of what makes Dr Sassall an exceptional GP. He had his thumb on the horn partly, he explains, so that the man under the tree might hear it and know he is on his way. Dr Sassall understands that even when the immediate danger is physical, his patients need him to keep their minds in mind. A good doctor treats the whole of his patient, not just his wounds.
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An Obscure Form of Magic

An Obscure Form of Magic

I’ve just read Party Going (1939), Henry Green’s comic and melancholic masterpiece, for the third or fourth time, and I’m still not sure how to convey its complex flavour. It’s a fantastically busy and exuberant novel, in which nothing really happens. (The major events include: an old lady picking up a dead pigeon and subsequently feeling ill; a beautiful young woman having a bath; a servant getting a kiss from a stranger.) It’s at once so beautifully written that I want to quote the whole thing, and so eccentrically stylized that it isn’t easy to find a quotable line. (Green was intolerant of standard English grammar and syntax; witness for example his take-’em-or-leave-’em approach to articles, as in the novel’s bizarre opening sentence: ‘Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.’) It’s an effervescent comedy of manners, set almost exclusively among members of the English upper class – and yet its most remarkable quality is an anguished sense of human suffering.
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Left, Left, Left

Left, Left, Left

In the early 1980s I began working on my first book, a biography of Nancy Mitford. Four of the six Mitford sisters were then still living, Pamela in the Cotswolds, Diana in Paris with her second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, Debo, wife of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, and Jessica, always known as ‘Decca’, with her family in California. Throughout my research Pam, Diana and Debo were immensely kind and helpful, all of them possessed of great charm and a slightly idiosyncratic sense of humour. They invited me to stay, gave me access to hundreds of letters, and mined for my benefit lucid memories of their early lives and of their family and friends.

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