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A Year in Barsetshire

A Year in Barsetshire

In the spring of 2020, amidst the early devastation of Covid-19, I found myself unable to read. I was grappling with the after-effects of an accident when the pandemic struck, so my concentration was already fractured by the time the streets fell silent. Deprived of the consolations of print, one April afternoon I pressed play on the first chapter of the audiobook of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden as I left the house for my daily walk. I did so without much expectation that the noise would do anything other than provide a mild distraction from the exigencies of the day, but within minutes the cathedral close of Barchester had opened up before me and I was hooked. What follows is an account of the year I spent among the inhabitants of Barsetshire, and of the solace I found in the connected stories of the Barchester novels.
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On Juniper Hill

On Juniper Hill

Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise has always felt like home. A romantic notion, perhaps, from someone brought up in the 1970s and ’80s, rather than a century ago, as Flora was. I first read it when I was 13, then again in my twenties, and once more recently, this time as a mother, looking back on my own childhood but also on that of my children, as the oldest two began to make their way into the world, away from the rural hamlet and tenanted ex-farmworker’s cottage they’ve grown up in. With the passing of time that feeling of home­coming has only grown stronger.
A Glorious Menagerie

A Glorious Menagerie

‘Of all the civilizations of the ancient world, none enjoyed such a close and significant relationship with the animal realm as that of the ancient Egyptians.’ So Philippe Germond, an Egyptologist at the University of Geneva, plunges into his subject in An Egyptian Bestiary (2001). But already he is outflanked on the facing page by the regal profile of a leopard’s head carved in sunken relief, the sharply incised contour framing it with a powerful line of shadow. Which is fitting, for this is above all a picture book, led by 280 spectacular photo­graphs (mostly credited to his co-author Jacques Livet) of artworks that speak across the millennia and challenge the imagination.
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Fulmar, Gannet and Puffin

Fulmar, Gannet and Puffin

In shelves to the left and right of the fireplace in our dining-room, my husband keeps an extensive collection of books about Scotland. Half a shelf is given over to volumes on St Kilda. If ever I feel the need to escape from Hammersmith to a landscape of vast skies, mountainous waves, sea-spray blowing like white mares’ tails across the rocks, this is where I turn: to the extraordinary archipelago, 110 miles west of the Scottish mainland, whose black cliffs and dizzying stacks, the highest in Britain, unfold in a drumroll of Gaelic names – Mullach Mor, Mullach Bi, Conachair.
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The Art of Bookselling

The Art of Bookselling

Just as most good books aren’t really about the things they say they are, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978) isn’t really about a bookshop. It’s about English insularity, politics, the misuse of power and the headstrong persistence of hope, with Florence Green’s Suffolk bookshop a symbol for every newcomer who ever found their best intentions beaten down by suspicion and hidebound tradition. At the end of the book, the formidable local matriarch Mrs Gamart manipulates her MP nephew into pushing through Parliament a bill specifically designed to close down Florence’s shop in favour of a local arts centre. The arts centre is Mrs Gamart’s pet project, and the town of Hardborough falls into line behind her. Florence has to con­clude that ‘the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop’. That is the last line of a book about a book­shop. An upbeat ending it is not.
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Not So Verray Parfit

Not So Verray Parfit

I once taught English at a girls’ school in which the head of depart­ment didn’t like poetry. It’s an odd aversion but it worked well for me. The poetry room was right at the top of a very tall building, and thither wended her way every pupil in the place, to be rewarded by peaceful sessions chewing over every kind of poem, from epic to lyric to limerick. But some of these girls also had to pass public exams. The A-level syllabus was dictated by a higher authority and this term the poetry module featured Chaucer. No problem in that. To me, he is the tops. He understood the complicated, subtle, self-deluded and some­times glorious nature of human beings better than any writer, before or since, and he displayed enough humour, generosity and lightly worn erudition to keep a whole pilgrimage entertained from here to eternity.
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Fresh as Paint

Fresh as Paint

My brother, my sister and I grew up in a rambling farmhouse in Hampshire hung with pictures by friends of our parents, for they knew a wide range of artists and tended, naturally, to buy works by people they knew. Some of these paintings seemed gloomy and frankly baffling, but those by Julian Trevelyan and his wife Mary Fedden danced with life and colour. Julian and Mary were among our favourite week­end guests, and we were particularly in thrall to Julian, who loomed over us from his immense height with his ‘craggy welcoming face and patriarchal beard’, in the words of his cousin Raleigh Trevelyan. He would spend hours entertaining us with comic drawings, notably of himself as Edward Lear’s ‘old man with a beard/ Who said “It is just as I feared!/ Two Owls and a Hen/ Four Larks and a Wren/ Have all made their nests in my beard.”’
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Hammering Away at Words

Hammering Away at Words

‘Why do I feel as if the Earth is disappearing from under my feet?’ was the reaction of one friend when I introduced him to Hooting Yard, the ‘nonsense’ literary universe created by that most cultish of cult writers, Frank Key. Yes, you must have a care when approaching Hooting Yard. Make sure you’re sitting down or at least have some­thing solid to grab on to, because vertigo is guaranteed as you are struck by a series of dizzying revelations.
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Following the Music

As deputy literary editor of the Independent on Sunday in the mid-1990s, it was my job to organize and compile several of the routine book columns and features every week. One such was the long-running ‘The Book that Changed Me’. It involved typing up a short telephone interview with a literary or other type of celebrity; less frequently, the contributor would write the copy themselves. It can be difficult to drum up fresh ideas once a column has been underway for some time, but we never ran short of suggestions and contribu­tions. One highlight for me was hearing Christopher Lee declaim at length down the line in Elvish, in his fanatical enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings. I can only imagine how delighted he must have been to be offered the part of Saruman.
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The Sins of the Father

The Sins of the Father

A. A. Milne’s son musing with mixed feelings on his childhood as ‘Christopher Robin’; Daphne du Maurier’s daughter recalling life at Menabilly, the model for Rebecca’s Manderley . . . I’ve always been drawn to memoirs by the children of famous writers. They may not be as stirring as the life stories of the writers themselves, the Trollopes and Dickenses who emerge triumphant from youthful adversity, but those whose lives are lived in the shadow of celebrated parents have struggles and sufferings of their own. It can be as much a burden as an honour to bear a well-known name, and I’m intrigued to find out how they carry it.
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A Fresh Take on the ’45

Flemington by Violet Jacob was recommended to me by my grand­parents. Posthumously. When writing my biography of John Buchan, I came across a letter he wrote in 1911 to the author, soon after the book was published: ‘My wife and I are overcome with admiration for [Flemington] and we both agree that it is years since we read so satisfying a book. I think it the best Scots romance since The Master of Ballantrae. The art of it is outstanding.’
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Through a Glass, Madly

In my day, the A-level Spanish syllabus included a few score of the key pages of Don Quijote – windmills mistaken for giants, labourers for lords, prostitutes for princesses, and so on. When I got to univer­sity I found that we were supposed to know the whole novel. I struggled through most of it but couldn’t handle its digressions and longueurs. Cervantes could veer off at tangents and not return for a hundred pages or more. My tutors encouraged me to persevere. After all, Cervantes was revered as Spain’s Shakespeare.
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