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Hanging Around in Doorways

Hanging Around in Doorways

I first read Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1946) in my twenties – a teaching colleague had recommended it – and loved it. I took it at face value: I enjoyed its plot, succumbed to its atmosphere, appreciated its descriptions and believed in its characters. I remembered it as a Good Book and sought out others by McCullers (always admiring her titles – The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café). But in your twenties you are robust, busy looking ahead and perhaps less inclined to dwell on the past. You don’t necessarily think sad stories apply to you. Now, rereading it several decades later, I am surprised at how moved I am by Frankie, the central character, and how much I identify with her. Which is odd, considering she is a 12-year-old on the brink of adolescence and I am 72.
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Reaching for the Moon

Reaching for the Moon

Edward Hopkins is a middle-aged bachelor, retired from teaching arithmetic to breed poultry in the English countryside. He gardens, he is vainglorious about his prize-winning chickens, and he is a regular attendee at meetings of the British Lunar Society. He is also an arrogant snob, utterly self-absorbed and lacking in self-awareness. He tells us he has a ‘gift for friendship’ and a ‘restful, pleasant personality’. Among his neighbours he has ‘selected’ two gentlemen, with whom he has spent happy evenings ‘discussing my poultry until long past midnight . . . It was a great regret to me when both of them decided to go and live farther away.’ Oh, I thought, this is going to be good.
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Friendship and a Book

Friendship and a Book

The novelist Graham Swift and I first met at a literary gathering on the outskirts of Norwich in June 2005. The university backdrop to our meeting seems strangely extra-territorial in retrospect, as though the campus’s concrete ziggurats had been dropped from Minsk on to a Mediterranean version of East Anglia. The memory is coloured not only by the exotic Babel of writers and languages around us, but also by one of those brief English heatwaves which descends just as the school exams are about to start, a false promise of summer followed by weeks of rain.
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Stumbling with Precision

Stumbling with Precision

According to Dorothy Dunnett’s fans, she is one of Scotland’s greatest writers. They descend on Edinburgh for their annual symposium on Dorothy Dunnett Day. They read the books alongside a 900-page Dorothy Dunnett Companion. They maintain two rival Dorothy Dunnett websites, and a Dorothy Dunnett Twitter feed, squabbling over every detail of the books with a heartfelt but rather off-putting enthusiasm. Since discovering Dorothy’s delights during frequent long railway journeys, I have joined their ranks. What we train commuters require is shaggy-dog stories, the longer the better, funny, intricate and with plenty of dashing about. I close my eyes and listen to the audiobooks, a remarkable performance by the Scottish voice actor David Monteath.
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In Praise of the Bookmark

In Praise of the Bookmark

Bookmarks make antiquarians anxious: will acid in their paper eat into precious pages? Will colour bleed? The oldest survivor, made of leather, lies within the sixth-century vellum of a Coptic codex. In the nineteenth century, leather, silk or ribbon were largely used for bibles and prayer books: images arise of the solemnity of Sundays, servants and family gathered after breakfast to hear the Word. Now, in W. H. Smith, you can buy a faux-wood shark, moose or flying saucer, yours for £6.99 and guaranteed to ruin a book in no time.
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A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

Two Puffins are in front of me, picked almost at random from my bookcase. And by Puffins I mean Puffin books, represented by that cheerful little bird on the spine which was for my formative reading years pretty well a guarantee of a good read. Eusebius the Phoenician by Christopher Webb was published in Britain by Puffin in 1973, The Dancing Bear by Peter Dickinson in 1974. Both captivated me; both satisfied the story-craving in the way a good dinner settles a hungry stomach.
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Expressing the Inexpressible

Expressing the Inexpressible

I’m sure it is not my worst shortcoming, but it may be the one that grieves me most: I simply cannot draw. Something in this business of squinting at the world and making appropriate marks on paper eludes me. At school, I was mortified by art classes in the way that others shuddered at the thought of Games. And when I came to have my own children, their touching faith that I would be able to draw a cat or a pig or a cow could induce an almost tearful sense of inadequacy.
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Bore-Hunting in Dublin

Bore-Hunting in Dublin

Most fiction writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries know the form and understand that they will meet the same fate: good reviews for a first novel, a larger advance for the second, severely reduced advances for any subsequent volumes, poor sales, the casting adrift by their publishers, full-time jobs in cardboard box factories or part-time jobs in academia, then oblivion. My own fantasy, as an ageing cuckoo nesting in various universities in the early part of this century, was to find a beautiful and energetic student to front my works so that I could enjoy a new career by proxy. Perhaps not: he (or she) might have been praised for their ability to satirize the politically regrettable thought patterns of men and women of previous generations, but surely the trick would only work once. Perhaps the answer would be to dream up a suitable pen name and start afresh.
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The Loss of Innocence

The Loss of Innocence

I had been reading Philip Larkin’s poetry for years before, quite recently, I decided to have a look at his novels. I knew he had written a couple in his early years: Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). I knew too that, in their Oxford days and for some while after, Larkin saw himself as primarily a novelist, while his friend Kingsley Amis regarded himself as primarily a poet (how wrong they both were). What I did not know was that, of Larkin’s novels, the second, A Girl in Winter , far from being an early misfire, is, well, a bit of a masterpiece.
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Frivolity, Filth and Fortitude

Frivolity, Filth and Fortitude

Among the excesses marking the dying days of the Bourbon ancien régime before it was swept away by the French Revolution was a craze for ridiculous hats. These structures elevated already flamboyant society coiffures to a level bordering on lunacy. Constructed from materials such as papier-mâché́, feathers and silk, they were worn to mark con- temporary events, from the death of a fêted individual to innovations such as ballooning. However, in a crowded field of eccentricity none could match the Duchesse de Lauzun who entered Mme du Deffand’s salon sporting an ‘entire tableau consisting of a stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore and a man with a gun sprouting from her head. Above, on the crown, stood a mill with the miller’s wife being seduced by a priest, while over one ear the miller could be seen leading his donkey.’
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