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The Call of Sark

The Call of Sark

In the summer of 1933, after leaving the Royal Academy Schools where one of his paintings had just been accepted for the Summer Exhibition, my father Mervyn Peake abandoned London for Sark in the Channel Islands. The move followed a recommendation from his former English teacher who suggested, with my father in mind, that ‘the possibilities were unusually rich for artists with a keen sense of things firmly rooted in primitive nature’. The two years he then spent on the island were so idyllic that shortly after the war he decided to return, this time with his family.
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Possessed by Peake

Possessed by Peake

For a young adult setting out into the world, however, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake, mind; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. (Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence that suffuse the first two books.)
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The Judge’s Progress

Cyril Hare is the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in 1900 and died in 1958. He was a barrister who became a county court judge and took his writing name from his London home, Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and his chambers in the Temple, Hare Court. His great strength is the use he made of his expert knowledge, both as barrister and judge. Tragedy at Law, published in 1942, was his favourite novel and introduced his hero, Francis Pettigrew, an ageing and very able barrister but one who has never fulfilled his early promise. Pettigrew is aided in his detection – or is it perhaps the other way round? – by a professional police officer, Inspector John Mallett of Scotland Yard, who had appeared in previous detective stories by Hare.
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In Flight from Fitchville

The shelves in my study are crammed with books that I only quite like, to the extent that I think they barely represent my taste in reading, largely because I have pressed all my favourites on voracious friends and family. So imagine my delight a few weeks ago when I discovered a copy of Anagrams by Lorrie Moore in a bookshop bin marked ‘Why Don’t You Try This?’ My second copy of this excellent novel cost me only 99p, something about which I have mixed feelings: as a reader I think it’s wonderful that books of this calibre are available for so little; as a writer I can’t help thinking that Lorrie Moore is being sold down the river. But that’s another story . . .
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Heading for the Hills

The focus of John Keay’s two books is the evolving imperial game that British India played on its north-west frontier. The Khyber Pass was one of the great invasion routes of history, and for all the Victorians knew there were other access points hereabouts. Early on in the century there were worries that Napoleon might have a go, but it was Russian steps through central Asia that turned it into the Great Game and impelled some of the most extraordinary feats of exploration. As intrepid Russians pushed south, heroic Britons pushed north. ‘Bagging the Pamirs’ was a rather different proposition from ‘bagging Munros’ in the Scottish Highlands, yet surely only the Victorians could have arranged for a naval lieutenant, John Wood, to be the first Briton to stand on the roof of the world.
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England’s Epic

The Golden Warrior is not ‘an ordinary historical novel’ in any sense. These, and even extraordinary historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, tend to be written by novelists who have done their research. Hope Muntz (1897–1981), however, was a historian, Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society, and co-editor of a volume in the Oxford Mediaeval Texts. Having lived more than half her imaginative life with Earl Harold Godwinson and Duke William the Bastard, she astonished those expecting a scholarly monograph by producing a magnificent novel.
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Riding the Leopard

Riding the Leopard

The more you read, the more you realize you want to read, for each book generates a further reading list. Only occasional readers imagine that reading is a matter of working through a list of classics, like moving a pile of logs. The rest of us know that every ‘classic’ multiplies infinitely into minor classics, frivolities and squibs. You cannot possibly read them all now, but you know you want to read them one day. Some of these you will buy and, although they may remain unread, they contain a promise of future pleasure and their company alone helps sustain an idea of yourself, and of the world.
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