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The War of Aircraftwoman 2146391

Mary Lee Settle is best known as the author of a quintet of novels set in her native West Virginia. But her memoir All the Brave Promises: The Memories of Aircraftwoman Second Class 2146391, published in 1966, is set in another world. In 1942 Mary travelled to Britain to volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the RAF and the book is an account of her time in the WAAF. I first came across it in 1985 during events to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. I had never heard of the book or its author but I was intrigued to discover a war memoir that was not about combat but about women in the support services. Their experience appeared to be missing from the national story that was being presented. So an account like this seemed unusual if not unique.
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Taking a Gander

Taking a Gander

I was determined to leave behind the pretensions of the English Lit. student in me, the one who might casually let Paradise Lost or The Prelude or even the later works of St Augustine drop from his bag as he surfed into a café after lectures. This would not do for my new life of practicality and outdoor earthiness. Skipping over anything with footnotes, I found company among the fading spines and yellowing pages of books so untouched as to have thick ditches of dust along their tops. In the old farmhouse there was plenty of James Herriot, a bit of Edward Thomas, a natural history of hedgerows and various guides to the birds of England, Scotland and, rather ambitiously, Africa. Then I found Dillon Ripley’s A Paddling of Ducks. The title set me thinking of a pushy mother duck leading a splash of little squeaks across a pond, which was rather comforting, so I settled down to read it.
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A Quare One

I sensed him looking at me as I sat in the tobacco fug of the Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street back in the ’60s engrossed in Joyce’s Dubliners. His scrutiny from the adjacent bar stool was unsettling. Suddenly, without apology, he tapped his finger on the page and nodded at me, signalling silent approval of my choice of book. Fixing my eye, he asked: ‘Did you ever hear of O’Brien?’ I shook my head. ‘Now there’s a hard man who runs Joyce close,’ he said. Then, pausing for dramatic effect, he added portentously: ‘And it was in this very bar he’d be drinking.’ Flann O’Brien, who loved to parody pub conversations, would have relished the bathetic conclusion. But I owe to that chance acquaintance a great debt. Over the next hour, he introduced me to the writing of a drunk and waspish comic genius who stretched the boundaries of literary invention and became a legend of Irish letters.
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Git a Hoss!

Git a Hoss!

Radio stations in my youth were always running phone-ins to find the greatest pop songs of all time – that is, of the last few decades. The top song, as I recall, was always the same: ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Likewise, polls of the greatest novels have their inevitable winners. Ask the public, and it’s The Lord of the Rings. Ask writers or critics, and it’s Ulysses or Proust. In 1998, Modern Library offered its 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. The list, determined by the editorial board, of course made Joyce No. 1. For me, one cheering inclusion was the book that scraped in at No. 100: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. I had thought this splendid novel almost entirely forgotten, other than as source material for the brilliant but troubled 1942 Orson Welles film of the same name.
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Marching with the Trottas

Some novels creep up quietly on you from behind, while others grasp you firmly by the collar and sweep you briskly into their firmament, barely giving you time to catch your breath. The Radetzky March is certainly among the latter, and I duly succumbed within pages, when I discovered it gently simmering with potential on a holiday bookshelf (other people’s bookshelves always simmer with more potential than one’s own). Holidays are, by definition, an attempt to embrace the unfamiliar, and this novel’s very title, so redolent of Mitteleuropa, promises immersion in a different world, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire on the fringes of which its author, Joseph Roth, led his own doomed and self-destructive life.
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A Reluctant Hero

A Reluctant Hero

What would you do if you were a soldier, the last in a long line of fighting ancestors who had all distinguished themselves in battle, but you really hated going to war and wanted to give it all up and become a writer? This is the dilemma for Chris Carey, serving in the 43rd Light Infantry under Wellington in the Peninsular War. He’s the reluctant hero of Captain of Foot, the latest volume in the Slightly Foxed Cubs edition of the Carey saga by Ronald Welch.
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The Passing of Old Europe

It was a passing reference in Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities to ‘the oracular casting of lead that fate performs with us’ that jogged my memory. When I was a child, on New Year’s Eve, we would melt small lead ingots in a spoon over a candle flame, and drop the silvery liquid into a jug of water. The shape it assumed as it fell, hissing and steaming into the future, was said to predict what the coming year held in store. It is an old German tradition that my father, a refugee from the Third Reich, upheld.
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Scourge of the Suburbs

‘Rice Mould’ is a story written in 1919 for Home Magazine, a periodical aimed at women of the suburban middle class. A party is in progress at the Browns’ villa somewhere to the south of London. While the grown-ups get ready to dance to the gramophone in the library, the youngest child, William, a spirited, muddy-kneed, tufty-haired 11-year-old, is trying to smuggle one of Cook’s best cream blancmanges in a dirty soap-dish to the girl next door. It does not go well.
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When the Clock Struck Thirteen

When the Clock Struck Thirteen

A lot of the stories I loved most as a child involved doors. Aged about 4, I suppose, I passed through the small, latched door in the hillside, into Mrs Tiggywinkle’s flagged kitchen, filled with the ‘nice, hot, singey smell’ of ironing, busy and reassuring. A few years later came the doors into Narnia, the Secret Garden and Wonderland, Bilbo Baggins’s ‘perfectly round’ green door with its shiny yellow brass knob ‘in the exact middle’, the door into the Yellow Dwarf ’s home in the orange tree, and the dark door into Bluebeard’s bloody chamber . . . But reading to my own children, the door I’ve been happiest to pass through again is the door into Tom’s Midnight Garden – a door one can only imagine because, unlike most of the others, it is never described.
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Feeling A Little Wembley

In the 1960s, at a time when I took myself more seriously, I went to work for the Observer in what I mistakenly believed was a rather important position. One afternoon, soon after my arrival, a stranger walked into the office I shared with two other people. He was neat, quite short and stocky, and, I seem to remember, he wore a pale tweed jacket. He had a pleasant light tenor voice and the air, perhaps, of a popular geography master at a prep school.
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Building Blocks

Building Blocks

The idea of telling a story based on a construction project has been with us since the Book of Genesis, but the method chosen to tell the tale imparted in The Honeywood File, and its sequel The Honeywood Settlement, is by far the most effective and entertaining way I know of describing a process that is at once collaborative and confrontational. Written by H. B. Cresswell, himself a practising architect, The Honeywood File and its successor began life as a series of weekly articles that appeared in the Architects’ Journal between 1925 and 1927, whence they soon gathered enough of a following to be collected and published as books in 1929 and 1930.
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