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Articles & Extracts

Last Waltz in Vienna Extract | Part Two | Youth and Freedom

Last Waltz in Vienna Extract | Part Two | Youth and Freedom

Kirtag in St Gilgen was a very different occasion, and though my memories of that Day of Atonement visit long ago were somewhat vague, it still seemed impossible to believe that this was the same building. Austria’s best stage designers had changed it into a very life-like imitation of that famous holiday resort not far from Salzburg. They could not, even if they wanted to, put a good part of Vienna under water and bring the St Wolfgang lake into the Konzerthaus, but the White Horse Inn, the lakeside hostelry known to operetta lovers all over the world, had been reconstructed inside the building, so had the village square, maypole and all, and on various levels there were farms with real cows and horses in their stables, country-inn gardens with buxom waitresses in old-style peasant costumes serving wine and beer, and any number of bands from the genuine ‘tara-ra-boom-de-ay’ to modern ones playing the swing hits from Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers films by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, evergreens that have outlasted my youth.
Adrian Bell | The Hungry Gap | A Countryman’s Spring Notebook Extract

Adrian Bell | The Hungry Gap | A Countryman’s Spring Notebook Extract

‘April is the cruellest month,’ stated a famous poem in its first line. T. S. Eliot, who wrote it, was as townee a poet as ever lived, and hadn’t the faintest idea of the literal truth of it for the countryman. ‘Breeding lilacs out of the dead land’ he goes on, and generally making things look deceptively pleasant in a doomed planet. Not since Browning have poets exuded cheery notions, unless it were G. K. Chesterton in a pub.
Having the Last Word

Having the Last Word

According to a paperback column in the Daily Telegraph (15 August 1988) I greatly admired Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987) and thought its closing pages ‘among the most moving I have read in years’. I wasn’t alone; the novel had already won the rather more significant distinction of the Booker Prize the year before, marking the high point of Lively’s much-honoured career in both adult and children’s fiction. So why, given my proclaimed enthusiasm, did I not read another word of hers for more than thirty years? Impossible to explain, though I made good the deficit recently, having spent the first lockdown reading about a dozen of her books in close succession.
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The Benefits of Writing a Biography

The Benefits of Writing a Biography

There are writers I particularly love because they’ve guided me through adult life and helped me make sense of it. Alison Lurie, who died in 2020 at the age of 94, is one such and I owe her a debt of gratitude for elegantly and slyly interpreting the seismic cultural changes that occurred in Western life from the 1960s onwards. A Radcliffe scholar, she married early and had three children, but she didn’t let two rejected novels deter her, nor the husband who said: ‘Perhaps it’s for the best – you can spend more time with the children.’ She persevered. Her first published novel was Love and Friendship (1967), which is also the title of Jane Austen’s first completed novel (written when Jane was 14). Like the incomparable Jane, her chief aim was ‘a desire to laugh at life’ through the literary medium of witty and astute comedies of manners. And like Jane she enjoyed the company of men.
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Fertile Ground

When I was a child, I was fascinated by much that was American. I particularly enjoyed Californian grapefruit, chewing gum, Westerns, Stuart Little and the covers and cartoons of the New Yorker. A dozen enormous grapefruit would arrive in a box every Christmas, sent by a cousin of my mother’s, while chewing gum (‘that dreadful American habit!’ according to my teachers) was forbidden, so its consumption was deliciously furtive. We watched thrilling Westerns on our black-and-white television at weekends and I delighted in the sublime children’s story Stuart Little, never thinking that a tale about the mouse-child of a New York couple was at all an odd idea. Most of all, I loved the cartoons in the New Yorker, a magazine I fell upon every time we visited my aunt and uncle. They had lived for some years in the States in the 1950s, when my uncle was Washington correspondent of the Observer. These enlightened relatives even owned a large cupboard that was decorated with New Yorker covers.
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In Johnson’s Footsteps

‘We’re thinking of moving,’ announced our son one evening last year. ‘To Lichfield.’ Lichfield! The name was music to my ears. I have long had a soft spot for that little gem of a cathedral city, once the ecclesiastical capital of Mercia, now a delightful Staffordshire market town. I would be more than happy to follow the son, daughter-in-law and three of the grandchildren to Lichfield (and my wife, less familiar with Lichfield, would follow them wherever they went anyway).
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Before Darkness Fell

Before Darkness Fell

In the summer of 1939, my grandfather Erich Haugas took part in an international agricultural conference a thousand miles away in Budapest. He was 38 and his professional pride was flattered. As a chemist he was in charge of the Dairy Export Control Station laboratory in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. To his untravelled eyes this was the trip of a lifetime: Budapest was the last stretch of Western ‘civilization’ before the East and the closest to a west European capital that many east Europeans would get. No direct train went to Budapest: my grandfather had to take three trains through Latvia, Polish-occupied Lithuania, Poland and the Nazi vassal state of Slovakia: a round trip of 2,300 miles. Europe was very close to war, but to my grandfather the rumours of war were just that: rumours.
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A Stroll down Sinister Street

A Stroll down Sinister Street

A while ago on my bookshelves I came across an old copy of Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie. Its cloth binding had faded and the yellowing pages were so fine that I sometimes had to blow on them to open them as I read. Edmund Gosse believed Sinister Street was on a par with Swann’s Way by Proust, published the same year, 1913. I might well have agreed with him had I ever read any Proust. However, I do know that Swann’s Way was rejected by many French publishers and Proust was obliged to publish it at his own expense. The reviews were bad. By contrast, Sinister Street was greeted with acclaim. One work became a world classic. The other is barely remembered.
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The Tiger under the Bed

The Tiger under the Bed

There are now nearly a million people suffering from dementia in the UK, and I feel as if most of my contemporaries have had some involvement in the affliction either through parents or friends. With my father, it came on very gradually, beginning with odd lapses of memory, repetitions in speech, loss of bearings, groundless anxieties. It was exhausting for my mother, so one afternoon we suggested we take her out for a break and arranged for one of the grandchildren to stay with my father for the few hours she was away. When we told him of this plan, my father was furious: he did not need watching over; he could perfectly well look after himself. Anger is common in the early stages of dementia, and it is fuelled by fear: a mental unravelling has begun, and from now on it will only gain momentum.
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Wilderness Years

Wilderness Years

Somewhere in the badlands of Utah is a canyon called Davis Gulch. Centuries ago, the Ancestral Pueblo carved a dwelling in its rock, now inscribed with the words ‘NEMO 1934’. This is the last known signature of the vagabond Everett Ruess. The epithet ‘vagabond’ was his own, and rarely has the term been so richly deserved. An aspiring artist and writer from a bohemian home in Los Angeles, Ruess set out at the age of 16 on an uncompromising quest to seek out beauty and solitude in the rugged wilderness of the American south-west. Over the next four years he travelled the mountains, deserts and canyon-lands of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, alone but for the company of his burro and occasionally a dog. At the age of 20 he disappeared. ‘NEMO’ might have been a reference to Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – another notable seeker of solitude – or else the Greek for ‘No Man’, as employed by Odysseus.
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In Love with the League

In Love with the League

I once had what I thought was a pretty good idea for a spy novel set in the 1920s. The hero would be a shell-shocked war veteran who winds up in a clinic in Switzerland being psychoanalysed by someone vaguely like Carl Jung. A fellow patient is an attractive woman working for the brand-new League of Nations in Geneva and, as they start an affair, he discovers she – and the League – possess a secret on which the future of world peace hinges . . . I was vague on the details.
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