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Bristling with Diligence

James Wood: A.S. Byatt, 8 October 2009

The Children’s Book 
by A.S. Byatt.
Chatto, 617 pp., £20, May 2009, 978 0 7011 8389 9
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... they don’t think. A little later in The Children’s Book, Philip Warren is walking on Romney Marsh, towards his favourite church, St Thomas Becket. He ‘knew little about Thomas Becket’, Byatt writes, ‘and did not know that the church was built on Becket lands’. Philip made his way from tuft to tuft of the ...

Wharton the Wise

D.A.N. Jones, 4 April 1985

The Missing Will 
by Michael Wharton.
Hogarth, 216 pp., £10.95, November 1984, 0 7011 2666 3
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... For 27 years Michael Wharton has written the ‘Peter Simple’ column in the Daily Telegraph. He was only 43 when he secured this good, steady job and now he has published an autobiographical account of his 43 apprentice years – dissident, drifting, bohemian years, marked by a lack of will-power, what the Greeks called aboulia ...

The Case for Geoffrey Hill

Tom Paulin, 4 April 1985

Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work 
edited by Peter Robinson.
Open University, 259 pp., £18, March 1985, 0 335 10588 2
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... use of that fable in his second volume inevitably attaches a disabling reminder of the Dunciad to Peter Robinson and his assembled chorus of scholars. There is something cosy and desperate in their yawping enterprise. It could be that Ricks, in his essay ‘Tenebrae and At-One-Ment’, is deliberately baiting ‘the current scientism and theoreticity’, but ...


W.G. Runciman: Like a Prep School, 10 January 1991

... the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Household Cavalry and the Morris Dancers of Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. Lord Quinton, when told that I was proposing to sign in, described it as ‘pure Gilbert and Sullivan’. Lord Annan told me that his wife calls it ‘Noel’s play-group’. Lord Adrian told me that I would find it like a prep school. And I remembered ...

Phattbookia Stupenda

Nicholas Spice, 18 April 1985

by Peter Carey.
Faber, 600 pp., £9.95, April 1985, 0 571 13207 3
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... proportionate and proving again that longueurs have less to do with length than with pace, which Peter Carey controls like a master, thwacking his prose along with all the exuberant free energy of a boy thwacking a hoop with a stick. To Herbert Badgery – funny man, raconteur and compère extraordinary of Illywhacker – the notion that a book might seem ...

Toxic Lozenges

Jenny Diski: Arsenic, 8 July 2010

The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play 
by James Whorton.
Oxford, 412 pp., £16.99, January 2010, 978 0 19 957470 4
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... He’s specifically referring to crime novelists – the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie – in an attempt to wrest the detective story away from the English suburbs and towards the grittier (and far more romantic) novels written by himself and Dashiell Hammett. An explanation of sorts had already been ...


David Trotter, 14 September 1989

The Rainbow 
by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Mark Kinkead-Weekes.
Cambridge, 672 pp., £55, March 1989, 0 521 22869 7
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D.H. Lawrence in the Modern World 
edited by Peter Preston and Peter Hoare.
Macmillan, 221 pp., £29.50, May 1989, 0 333 45269 0
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D.H. Lawrence and the Phallic Imagination: Essays on Sexual Identity and Feminist Misreading 
by Peter Balbert.
Macmillan, 190 pp., £27.50, June 1989, 0 333 43964 3
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... taste of the new fastidiousness. Lawrence’s critics, on the other hand, are rarely fastidious. Peter Balbert’s challenge to feminist ‘misreadings’ of Lawrence, for example, is nothing if not combative. Balbert insists that the ‘seminal’ doctrines of the ‘phallic imagination’ have been seriously misrepresented by the (presumably ...


Jeremy Treglown, 6 August 1992

Writers on World War Two: An Anthology 
edited by Mordecai Richler.
Chatto, 752 pp., £18.99, February 1992, 0 7011 3912 9
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Legacies and Ambiguities: Post-war Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan 
edited by Ernestine Schlant and Thomas Rimer.
Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins, 323 pp., $35, February 1992, 0 943875 30 7
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... rows of concrete teeth waiting to snap at concrete tanks; pill-boxes marking the dykes on Romney Marsh. All this was scenery from that awesome drama in which Dad had only recently been an actor. And looking out at the grey, flat English Channel, which in that part of the coast retreats to a sullen distance at low tide, I would have a vision of the war as a ...

Trouble down there

Ferdinand Mount: Tea with Sassoon, 7 August 2003

Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet 1886-1918 
by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.
Duckworth, 600 pp., £9.99, September 2002, 0 7156 2894 1
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Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches 1918-67 
by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.
Duckworth, 526 pp., £30, April 2003, 0 7156 2971 9
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Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil 
by Peter Stansky.
Yale, 295 pp., £25, April 2003, 0 300 09547 3
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... his worst stuff on the Georgians, to whom he attached himself through the early influence of Eddie Marsh and Edmund Gosse (correspondingly they did not much care for the raw tone of his war poetry). But it was Sassoon’s own inclination to look back to lost worlds and the happy days of his youth that kept him so stubbornly hostile to T.S. Eliot and to ...

Darkness Audible

Nicholas Spice, 11 February 1993

Benjamin Britten 
by Humphrey Carpenter.
Faber, 680 pp., £20, September 1992, 0 571 14324 5
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... for a surrogate mother in every relationship,’ says Elizabeth Sweeting). His ‘marriage’ to Peter Pears, begun shortly after Mrs Britten’s death, may be partly understood in this light (Pears’s singing voice, it was noted, was uncannily similar to Mrs Britten’s), as may his lifelong willingness to be looked after, sometimes dominated, by a series ...

Gorgon in Furs

D.D. Guttenplan: Paula Fox, 12 December 2002

Borrowed Finery: A Memoir 
by Paula Fox.
Flamingo, 256 pp., £12, August 2002, 0 00 713724 9
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... centre for the neighbouring farms. Most of the farmland, abandoned and neglected, had reverted to marsh and had once been a halting place for myriad birds. Every summer house had, still, in cupboard or basket or bookcase, worn copies of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Then the village people had called in the mosquito-control people. Now ...


Keith Thomas: Smells of Hell, 16 July 2020

Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times 
by Robert Muchembled, translated by Susan Pickford.
Polity, 216 pp., £17.99, May, 978 1 5095 3677 1
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The Clean Body: A Modern History 
by Peter Ward.
McGill-Queen’s, 313 pp., £27.99, December 2019, 978 0 7735 5938 7
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... cooking of flesh and fish, ‘the relics of putrefaction thereof running through the streets’. Marsh fever, blamed on the bad air around stagnant water, became known as ‘mal’aria’. The best remedy, Tryon thought, was to retreat to the countryside, where one could breathe ‘good smells and clean, thin, sweet airs’. Failing that, he recommended that ...


John Sutherland, 4 March 1982

The Survivors 
by Elaine Feinstein.
Hutchinson, 316 pp., £7.95, February 1982, 0 09 145850 1
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Helliconia Spring 
by Brian Aldiss.
Cape, 361 pp., £6.95, February 1982, 0 224 01843 4
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The Great Fire of London 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 169 pp., £7.95, January 1982, 0 241 10704 0
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A Loss of Heart 
by Robert McCrum.
Hamish Hamilton, 282 pp., £7.95, February 1982, 0 241 10705 9
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... without any grace of syntax: Two families. Two ways of life. And one city, Liverpool, planted on marsh and meadow. A city made by Irish traders first, and then slavers and shipowners, and at last a city of merchants and brokers, who put down their own great mercantile slabs. The town hall. The Liver building. Lime Street Station. This terseness could be ...

Fenton makes a hit

Blake Morrison, 10 January 1983

In Memory of War: Poems 1968-1982 
by James Fenton.
Salamander, 96 pp., £6.95, June 1982, 0 907540 17 1
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... that source: deflected by Auden’s idiom towards psychological theorising, he allows the poem to peter out with talk of how ‘the lonely and unpopular’ can rediscover at the museum ‘the landscapes of their childhood’; the attraction of the Pitt-Rivers is reduced to nostalgia for dusty childhood boxrooms. When he attempts a similar accumulation of ...

Gangsters in Hats

Richard Mayne, 17 May 1984

Essays on Detective Fiction 
edited by Bernard Benstock.
Macmillan, 218 pp., £20, February 1984, 0 333 32195 2
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Dashiell Hammett: A Life at the Edge 
by William Nolan.
Arthur Barker, 276 pp., £9.95, September 1983, 0 213 16886 3
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The Life of Dashiell Hammett 
by Diane Johnson.
Chatto, 344 pp., £12.95, January 1984, 9780701127664
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Hellman in Hollywood 
by Bernard Dick.
Associated University Presses, 183 pp., £14.95, September 1983, 0 8386 3140 1
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... age’ detective novelists. Three of them – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh – come before members of Professor Benstock’s syndicate. Bibliographically, the results are useful: critically, they’re not. All are pleasant to read, like souvenir brochures; but all rely too much on remembered responses, wallowing in the past. None ...

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