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Issue 82

Love at First Flight

I came across Frances Hodgson Burnett’s My Robin (1912) while doing research for a book I was writing about my grandfather. I had discovered, on reading through my father’s papers, that the family tales of connections to Frances and The Secret Garden were true. (Perhaps I’m still not convinced that Frances presented a pram with her initials emblazoned on it at the birth of my Aunt Gert, and yet it is consistent with her character.) My grandfather was gardener to Frances at Maytham Hall in Kent, and he was the inspiration for the book’s more interestingly named character, Ben Weatherstaff.
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Gloriously Over-the-top

Gloriously Over-the-top

Jan Morris loved to provoke. Though she wrote elsewhere of nationalities as a ‘cruel pretence’, she was not above outrageous generalization or outrageous distinction – in this case, between the sexes. Of all Venice’s visitors, she observes, ‘the British seem to me to provide the best of the men (often distinguished, frequently spare, sometimes agreeably individualist) and the worst of the women (ill tempered, hair unwashed, clothes ill fitting, snobby or embarrassingly flirtatious)’.
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Choosing Life

I remember exactly how I first came across The Other Side of You. It was about fifteen years ago. Yet another relationship had hit the buffers and I was consoling myself with a mini-break. Browsing in the airport bookshop, I spotted a new book by Salley Vickers. I was aware of the author’s psychoanalytic background, and when the blurb told me this was a tale of lost love, it drew me like a magnet. Even as I was putting the book in my bag I could feel its intensity, but I had no idea it would become the main event of my weekend.
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Birth of a Nation

It is 3 a.m. I have risen, as men of a certain age are wont to do, to answer a call of nature. Emerging from the smallest room, torch in hand, for I am staying with friends and the way is unfamiliar, I pass one of the innumerable bookcases which adorn every wall of every room. Each shelf is packed to bursting with an embarrassment of riches. I stop to look through them, as one does at 3 a.m., and notice on the bottom shelf a slim, grubby volume, its spine illegible. Curiosity creeps into my fingertips. Crouching silently, I prise it from its neighbours and fancy, as I blow several years of dust from its pages, that I can almost hear this little book sigh with liberation.
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Meet the Plantagenets

Meet the Plantagenets

I was 6 when I was given the new Puffin edition of Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House (1947). ‘This is a novel written about dolls in a dolls’ house,’ it begins. It was the first novel I’d ever read, arriving just at the point where I’d cracked the secret pleasure of reading to myself. We lived in Newcastle then, by the railway line. By that time, I had three younger siblings. It must have been one afternoon, when the others were downstairs, that I went up to the bedroom with my book to be alone. As the eldest I carried a certain weight: I was expected to set an example, to be grown-up, responsible. But I also got to do the first things first: first, most memorably, to read a book on my own, to make the leap, unaccompanied and unmediated, into that pocket of time and space, that dream-concoction of light and heat and air, which was – though it rose inexplicably from inside me – an entry to another world.
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The Art of Hiding Art

The Art of Hiding Art

Blanquette is as pretty as a picture, prettier than any of Monsieur Seguin’s previous goats. Her eyes are as soft as a doe’s and her beard resembles that of an army corporal. Her hooves are black and glossy, her horns are beautifully striped, her fleece is as white as mountain snow. She lets Monsieur Seguin milk her without making any fuss. She is adorable, but she is not happy. She does not wish to spend her life tethered to a stake in a paddock. When she tells Monsieur Seguin of her yearning to be set free and to go gambolling in the mountains, he claps his hand to his forehead and says, ‘Oh no, Blanquette, not you as well! Don’t you know there’s a wolf up there who’ll eat you like all my goats before?’
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Both a Caesar and a Cervantes

Both a Caesar and a Cervantes

The greatest memoirist you’ve never heard of? Quite possibly. The most enchanting read you least expected? Most definitely. Those readers who have yet to discover Babur and his Baburnama, the sixteenth-century memoirs of the opium-eating, hashish-smoking, wine-drinking, chess-playing poet, diarist, gardener, warrior, calligrapher, conqueror and founder of the Mughal Empire are in for the greatest treat. Think Pepys, Tamerlane, Machiavelli and Montaigne rolled into one.
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Eye-wateringly Sharp

Eye-wateringly Sharp

‘I always see the faults of my friends,’ writes Walburga, Lady Paget, in the introduction to her two-volume memoir Embassies of Other Days (1923). ‘But I like their faults and I mention them as it adds to the piquancy of their personalities.’ The second volume closes with a further disclaimer. ‘I have related everything exactly as it appeared to me to be and may thereby have inadvertently hurt the feelings of some, but this must be put to the account of my sincerity.’ Reader, be warned: Lady Paget can be alarmingly sincere.
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Waiting for the Rains

Waiting for the Rains

When I saw that When Rain Clouds Gather (1968) by Bessie Head had been included in ‘The Big Jubilee Read’, seventy books published during the reign of the late Queen Elizabeth, I was gratified; I’d read it and knew it deserved its place. I was also reminded of a disconcerting encounter with the author, many years ago. One of the best things in my career with the BBC World Service was talking to writers about their work. The interviews might prove to be enlightening, challenging, unexpected, tricky – and occasionally not as interesting as I’d hoped; but this one didn’t even get off the ground.
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An Antidote to Self-pity

An Antidote to Self-pity

‘Where am I?’ a soldier asks Pamela Bright in the first line of Life in Our Hands (1955). ‘In a field hospital,’ she replies, and moves on down the line of beds to the next patient. And that is all we know for the first ten pages of this book. It is three o’clock in the morning, ‘the very bottom of time’, and her ward is filled with wounded men. Some can be saved. Some, like Tom Malone, his liver ripped in two, cannot. He mumbles the Lord’s Prayer, cries out for his mother. Bright administers morphine, holds his hand, feels shame at the futility of her care.

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