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The Supreme Diarist?

Though he had died in 1947 I had many of his books of collected theatre criticism, from Buzz Buzz (1914) through Brief Chronicles (1943) to the wonderful evocation of musicals and light comedies, Immoment Toys (1945). It was some time, however, before I came across Ego, his diary, the first volume of which came out in 1932. In the first entry, he says that he started writing it ‘because there seem to be a lot of things I want to say that other writers put into novels and accepted essayists into essays. Because it will be a relief to set down just what I do actually think, and in the first words to hand, instead of pondering what I ought to think and worrying about the words in which to express the hammered-out thought.’ Rebecca West claimed that she would ‘keep these journals as I keep the Goncourt Journals, as records of their time more truly historical than history’, while in an obituary broadcast Alistair Cooke called Agate ‘the supreme diarist’.
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Pox Britannica

In November 1922, George Orwell (or Eric Blair, as he was then) arrived in Burma, to take up a post with the Indian Imperial Police. He was 19, not long out of Eton, which he had attended on a scholarship; his family could not afford to send him to university. He moved about: from hill station to frontier outpost, to the outskirts of Rangoon, eventually posted to the town of Katha, in Upper Burma. It was on this remote place that he based the town of Kyauktada, the setting for his first novel, Burmese Days. It was published in New York by Harper & Brothers in 1934, and then, in 1935, in London, by Victor Gollancz, who had – needlessly – been afraid of libel.
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A Friendship of Opposites

Never one for naval yarns I didn’t at first spot Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, which are set in the wars at sea against Napoleon and then the United States. But once I’d tried one I bought them by the handful. It was like that for most of his readers. O’Brian was not successful at first; critics took him for a kind of retread C. S. Forester, and in fact his books did look a bit dated, published next to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers for instance, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. A surprising few – Iris Murdoch, Charlton Heston, William Waldegrave and David Mamet, for example – were passionate about them from the start, but ten years passed before most of us realized something new and extraordinary had appeared.
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Not So Plain Jane

Not So Plain Jane

Jane Eyre was the novel that opened my eyes to literature. It was the first classic I picked up that I couldn’t put down. I read it from cover to cover in one heady weekend when I was 13: I had a nightmare about Grace Poole on Saturday night, and a sulk on Sunday afternoon when my mother made me put it down to talk to some cousins who’d come for tea. By Sunday evening I was done and I knew, with a certainty I still remember vividly, that literature was my thing . . .
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Auburn in Wartime

I had heard of Margery Allingham, of course, and had read The Tiger in the Smoke as a teenager, but I had no idea that she had written an account of her life in the Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy between July 1938 and May 1941. This was a stroke of luck: to find a proper writer (with a large garden and a gardener) who could honestly and clear-sightedly anatomize her feelings and sensations, and quote those of her neighbours, during the Munich crisis, the great evacuation of children and mothers to the country when war broke out, the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz.
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Three in a Bed

Three in a Bed

Just as he prefers to drive rather than be driven, my husband would rather read aloud than be read to. Both preferences suit me fine as I hate getting back into the original lane after overtaking and I get a sore throat after two pages of reading aloud. Over the past year he has read the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by Watership Down, followed by the Odyssey in the E. V. Rieu translation. Each book has brought different delights and challenges.
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Marking Time

Marking Time

Do you know where you put the window cleaner’s bill? Do you remember that you missed your last appointment at the dentist’s because you had mislaid her appointment card? When these things happen, do you put it down to just another senior moment or, perhaps, an indication of a worrying frequency of lapses in concentration, usually noted in older friends and relations? Might I suggest that you take a few moments to riffle through the last half-dozen books that you have read recently? You may be surprised at what you find.
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Around a Room in Forty-two Days

Around a Room in Forty-two Days

A Journey around My Room was the unlikely result of a duel. In 1790 Xavier de Maistre, a 27-year-old officer in the Army of Piedmont, fell out with someone over something, somewhere in Turin. One party called the other out, a duel was fought, and thus an offence was committed which merited punishment. De Maistre was sentenced to six weeks’ house arrest. Scarcely cruel and unusual, in that he was allowed the comforts of his own room, the company of his dog Rosine and the devoted attention of his manservant Joannetti. Still, for a full-blooded young man forced to cool his heels for forty-two long days and nights with only four walls to stare at, the prospect must have seemed a miserable one.
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Bain’t Feasible

Bain’t Feasible

It was May 1968. Students all over Europe were in revolt. My heart was with them, but my bottom was on a chair in the agricultural section of the university library, where I was revising for the end-ofyear exams. Eventually I could take no more of the life-cycle of the frit fly, that scourge of the oat crop, and got up to stroll round the shelves, vaguely scanning titles: Profitable Sheep Farming, Soil Conditions and Plant Growth, The Pig: Modern Husbandry and Marketing . . . Then my eye was drawn to a book I’d never seen before: Farmer’s Glory, by A. G. Street.
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Catching a Tartar

In April 1851 Leo Tolstoy was a university dropout, troubled by gambling debts and plagued by venereal disease. To escape his drifter’s life in Moscow, he set out to join his brother Nikolai’s artillery unit in Chechnya with the vague intention of enlisting in the army. By the time Tolstoy made his journey, many well-educated young men, inspired by Pushkin and Lermontov, had already gone to fight the peoples inhabiting the mountain fastnesses on Russia’s southern frontier (and perhaps win the heart of a demure tribal princess). The Caucasus quickly became a staple of the empire’s popular fiction, populated by Russian Flashmans.
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From Small Beginnings

From Small Beginnings

I was as spellbound as anybody and already an enthusiast since schooldays for The Lord of the Rings. So these myths from the frosty north struck a powerful chord in me, and when in 1960 a volume bearing the title Njal’s Saga appeared in the Penguin Classics series, I fell on it eagerly. I was in for a surprise. No gods, no dragons, no gold-hoards, no reforged swords. Instead – what? An everyday story of country folk. But what folk! And what a country!
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