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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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See also Tortoise

See also Tortoise

‘It’s like Pokémon,’ said my husband Andy, standing in the cool of a church in San Gimignano on our very hot honeymoon. And yes, I suppose saint-spotting is a bit like Pokémon, the creature-collecting game invented by Nintendo in the Nineties. Slogan: ‘Gotta catch ’em all.’ We weren’t hunting for Pikachus or Bulbasaurs, but for St Catherines and St Antony Abbots in fresco cycles and altarpiece panels. Catherine you’ll know by her wheel, instrument of her martyrdom, St Antony by his bell and his pig. A friend speaks fondly of childhood holidays with his church-crawling parents. He and his twin sister would be sent off to play saintly bingo. Could they find a St John the Baptist (lamb and sheepskin gilet), a Mary Magdalene (jar of unguent), an Apollonia (tooth and pincers)? Off they would go round cloisters, into side-chapels, standing on tiptoe for a better look at stained-glass windows. As with Pokémon, they knew their saints by their markers. Gotta catch ’em all.
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Hooked on Fish

Hooked on Fish

Because they live on an island laced with rivers, ponds and streams, the British are obsessive anglers. Fishermen – and most of them are men – make up a large but secretive society cut off from the rest of us by strange language, obscure controversies and complex motives. Most books about angling are written for specialists: coarse fishers, fly-fishers, sea-fishers. But in Blood Knots (2010) Luke Jennings has broken with convention and employed his great gift for words to explain to baffled outsiders what angling is really about. This is a memoir written for everyone.
A Familiar Country

A Familiar Country

In a cardboard box I put the essential objects we would need in our rented cottage, until we got the keys to our new house in Norfolk: my infant daughter’s stuffed monkey, some paperwork, Cash’s name tapes for the boys’ new schools and the books we were reading at bedtime – Five on a Treasure Island for the boys, and for me my mother’s tatty copy of The Go-Between, a still of Julie Christie from the film on the cover, which would date it to around 1971.
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Period Piece | Chapter VII: ‘Aunt Etty’

Period Piece | Chapter VII: ‘Aunt Etty’

I have defined Ladies as people who did not do things themselves. Aunt Etty was most emphatically such a person. She told me, when she was eighty-six, that she had never made a pot of tea in her life; and that she had never in all her days been out in the dark alone, not even in a cab; and I don’t believe she had ever travelled by train without a maid. She certainly always took her maid with her when she went in a fly to the dentist’s. She asked me once to give her a bit of the dark meat of a chicken, because she had never tasted anything but the breast. I am sure that she had never sewn on a button, and I should guess that she had hardly ever even posted a letter herself. There were always people to do these things for her. In fact, in some ways, she was very like a royal person. Once she wrote when her maid, the patient and faithful Janet, was away for a day or two: ‘I am very busy answering my own bell.’ And I can well believe it, for Janet’s work was no sinecure. But, of course, while Janet was away, the housemaid was doing all the real work; and Aunt Etty was only perhaps finding the postage stamps for herself, or putting on her own shawl – the sort of things she rang for Janet to do every five minutes all day long.
My Years as a Pony

My Years as a Pony

Between the ages of 8 and 11 I thought I was a pony. I was not alone: my friends were in the grip of a similar delusion. We created fantasy mounts called Daybreak or Nutmeg, then became them. We never ran when we could gallop, at all times slapping our sides for greater verisimilitude. Jumps were constructed and then scrambled over or refused with much rearing and neighing. Fortunately our brothers were still pretending to be Spitfires, so our behaviour, on the whole, passed unremarked.
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Power and the Prince

Power and the Prince

Recently, the lack of anything worth watching on TV sent me, once again, to the DVD of Visconti’s lush 1963 film of Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958). If one loves a book, the idea that a film version might be in a different way as satisfactory as the original seems a sort of betrayal. But at the very least I find it impossible to reread the book without Burt Lancaster’s Prince Fabrizio, Claudia Cardinale’s ravishing Angelica and Alain Delon’s handsome, selfregarding Tancredi illustrating the narrative as a most remarkable set of lithographs might.
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Not Your Typical Courtier

Not Your Typical Courtier

In 1974, following the publication that year of his ‘self-portrait’, Another Part of the Wood, I did a feature on Kenneth Clark for the BBC World Service. This involved interviewing him at his ‘set’ in Albany, off Piccadilly, the austerity of which was mitigated by what I took to be a small fortune in paintings and miniatures on the walls. In the book Lord Clark, as he became, described his life (1903–83) as ‘one long, harmless confidence trick’, a reference to what he called his freak aptitude, apparent from the age of 9 or 10, for responding authoritatively to works of art.
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Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

Take two sisters, Alice and Flora Mayor, identical twins born into a comfortable upper-middle-class family in Surrey in 1872. Their clergyman father was also a professor of classical literature at King’s College, London, and their mother Jessie a talented musician and linguist. As members of a Victorian clerical family, the girls had certain duties (‘Church as depressing as usual. 2 and a half people there,’ young Flora wrote in her diary), but mostly they and their two older brothers had tremendous fun: performing amateur theatricals, skating and playing tennis, singing, writing stories, going to the theatre, and always, always reading: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Mrs Gaskell.
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Oh Sir John!

Oh Sir John!

In 1976, a year remembered in the UK for its blazing summer, publication of a scabrous novel so inflamed a group of academics that they burned copies in the library at Reading University. Less delicate souls embraced the book. It won that year’s Hawthornden Prize for Literature and the Guardian Fiction Prize, garnering encomiums from reviewers who struggled to match its exuberant prose. The New York Times called it a ‘fresco of groinwork’; Time Magazine welcomed a ‘swollen, rumbustical bladder of a book . . . unstoppable as a rush of sack to the kidneys’; Anthony Burgess praised its ‘wordy divagations of a more monkish (Rabelaisian) tradition’ and included it among his 99 best modern novels.
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