Archive for February, 2018

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp – after my success with The Flowering Thorn last month, I am looking forward to reading more by Sharp.  I am assured this is one of her best.

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton – my experience with Ashton last month was less successful than with Sharp (I did not love Yeoman’s Hospital), but a blog reader recommended I try this hard-to-find story of a troubled marriage instead.  I read it quickly and am split on whether or not to review it – on the one hand, I found it mediocre and not worth spending too much time on.  On the other, there is practically no information about it anywhere on the internet.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser – Flashman!  I am loving this book so, so, so much.  Nothing quite like a humorous adventure story with a cowardly and caddish anti-hero.  And it’s the start of a lengthy series!

Russian PoetsKaren’s post about poetry books last week spurred me to check this one out.

Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – I am incredibly excited about this travel memoir recounting a bicycle journey along the silk road.  I first heard about it from CBC’s Spring 2018 Canadian Non-Fiction preview, which includes a lot of other great-sounding books.

Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chaira Barzini – I read a lot of great things about this novel when it came out last year and was hooked by the idea of both the heroine – an Italian teenager (written by an Italian, thank god) – and the setting – early 1990s LA leading up to the big 1994 earthquake.

Three Mercer Plays by David French – There are two David French plays on in Vancouver right now and, having seen one of them, I became interested in his other works.  These three plays about the Mercer family are probably his most famous.

The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy – I always have fun with de Courcy’s books and am excited about this social history of American heiresses and their quest for titled husbands.

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin – yet another set of personality profiles to add to the world (I enjoy learning about them all).

Cookbooks galore!  Roast Figs, Sugar Snow by Diana Henry (winter comfort food at its best), The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan (delicious-looking Persian food), and In a Polish Country House Kitchen by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden (self-explanatory, no?)

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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A long, long time ago, Danielle wrote about Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment and instantly convinced me that I had to read it.  That was five years ago today.  I may not be fast when it comes to reading books off my to-read list but I am tenacious – I get there in the end!

Heidi’s Alp (also published as The Canary-Coloured Cart) is a memoir of a trip Hardyment took with her four young daughters around Europe in a camper van in the early 1980s with an itinerary gently guided by classic children’s stories.  Hardyment isn’t rigid in her itinerary (sensible when travelling with so many children) so they take in scenic spots and child-friendly sites as well as places with literary ties.

Rather than a straightforward account of her travels, Hardyment’s book is part travel memoir but also part literary history.  She looks at the facts behind the stories and explores at some length the life of Hans Christian Anderson, which I found unexpectedly fascinating.  I was also captivated by the chapter on Hamelin and various theories behind the tale of the Pied Piper and the children he led away.  Were they young people who went as colonists to Moravia?  Confused with those killed at the battle of Sedemunde in 1259?  A fiction created to drive 16th century tourism?  Victims of a plague (like St Vitus’ Dance) or hopeful young people who set out on the Children’s Crusade of 1211?  There’s no way of knowing the truth but it’s interesting to contemplate so many possible explanations.

Hardyment also goes into some detail about the logistics of living in their cramped van (christened Bertha) with so many children.  At the start of the trip she is accompanied by a friend with a baby, making for five children and two adults.  It sounds messy and cramped and exhausting.  When her husband joins them (and the friend and baby return home) a little more order is restored but it’s still not a way I’d plan to travel.

But the places they travel to, those I would happily visit – and in some cases I already have.  I loved hearing about Denmark, a country still on my to-visit list, and their experiences in and impressions of East Germany during a brief visit there.  But, predictably, I mostly loved hearing about the places I know: they visit the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, relax at a campground within easy boating distance of Venice, find themselves charmed by laid-back Lucca in Tuscany, and are awed by the unbelievably scenic Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.  Having spent two weeks in Lucca last summer studying Italian and living within the city’s walls, I loved hearing their impressions of it:

We hadn’t meant to come to Lucca at all, let alone stay there for a night and a day, but we did.  We ate a leisurely breakfast in another little square, climbed the bizarre treetopped Guinigi tower, admired the old Roman amphitheatre, and walked halfway round the shady city walls back to Bertha.  Inside the cathedral Tilly found an early Renaissance effigy of silky marble, the young wife of Paolo Guinigi lying in state…We all loved Lucca, both for its beauty and for its down-to-earth quality.  It was a good solid reminder of everyday reality.

Lovely Lucca

What I also loved – because I have thought it every single time I’ve crossed the border myself – is their observations of the changes you see coming down into inexplicably slovenly Italy from neat, orderly Austria:

Well, it looked like Italy.  The countryside was picturesque enough.  Sad cypresses flanked robber strongholds in the Dolomite gorges.  The immaculate wooden chalets of the Austrian Alps had changed to dilapidated farmhouses with crumbing terracotta roofs and peeling plaster walls.  Olive groves and vineyards replaced the flowery alpine pastures.

‘It’s funny,’ said Tilly.  ‘The houses here are shabby again, like they were in East Germany, but it doesn’t look as if the Italians mind, somehow.  It looked as if the East Germans couldn’t afford to do anything up.  But it looks as if the Italians can’t be bothered.’

Northern Italy

But Hardyment is more comfortable with the more lax Italian (and French) approach to life.  After a stay in Switzerland, she finds herself frustrated by national obsession with order and longs for a bit of chaos:

Switzerland had delighted us in many ways…And yet we felt strangely displaced there.  The premium the Swiss lay on good behaviour and orderly living is something of a strain to those of the casual gipsy persuasion…The minute we crossed the border and met the casual insouciance of French manners, I felt a load tumble off my shoulders.  We stopped in an untidy lay-by around seven in the evening to change drivers.  I sat at a bitumen-covered trestle table, glass in hand, and considered the unlovely public conveniences, the overfull wastebins, the lorry-drivers drawing on their Gauloises, with perverse satisfaction.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way myself but I’ve certainly felt the reverse!  I was so delighted to leave Italy after an extended stay there this summer and head back to the Germanic and Slavic worlds where things are clean, people are cheerful, and everything runs on time.  (It should also be noted that I come from Canada, a country based on “Peace, Order, and Good Government”, which primed me from birth to like such things.)

All in all, a very interesting concept for a family trip and a wonderfully compiled account of it.  I hope Hardyment’s daughters (ages five to twelve when the trip was taken) retained their love of both stories and travel as they grew up.

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Library Lust

credit: Eisenman Davidson

Back to clean and bright and practical.  Excellent.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Linda has the Mr Linky this week!

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – a much-anticipated read for me this week!  First published in Russian in 1985 but only translated into English last year, this oral history of Soviet women’s military experiences during the Second World War is just extraordinary.

What did you pick up this week?

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Today, ladies and gentlemen, loyal readers and random wanderers, is my 32nd birthday.  And as is tradition here at The Captive Reader I am celebrating in my favourite way: by sharing my five favourite libraries from the last year of “Library Lust” posts.  Enjoy!

credit unknown

via The Curious Pear

via Elle Decor

via Country Life

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For more gorgeous libraries, check out past birthday editions from 201720162015201420132012, and 2011.

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A Slow, Snowy Sunday

It’s an unexpectedly wintery day here.  All our spring flowers – our daffodils were this close to opening – have been covered in a blanket of snow and it’s all very unseasonal.  But I am ready to embrace it.  For one thing, the sun is shining!  That’s been a rare sight here this winter and should be celebrated regardless of how slippery and cold it might otherwise be outside.

After spending a few hours tramping about in the snow this morning, I have now settled down for a quiet, domestic day.  I’ve got good music on, good food ready to be cooked (the peerless minestrone soup from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking), and many good books standing by for me to read.

This eagle was very unimpressed with his newly-snowy perch

After hitting a bit of a reading slump earlier this month I seem to have got my stride back.  Nothing I picked up seemed capable of holding my interest through to the end.  Adam Gopnik’s At the Strangers’ Gate (which I had been so looking forward to) was beautifully written but not enough to engage me with its main focus, a topic of absolutely zero interest to me – the 1980s arts scene in New York.  However, if that is something you’re interested in it would be a fabulous book.  Even I made it three quarters of the way through purely on the strength of Gopnik’s writing.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson, which I started during the Persephone readathon, has also proved incapable of holding my interest.  I know it’s a favourite among many Persephone fans but its just not grabbing me the way the best diaries do.  And perhaps I’ve just read so many wartime diaries that pedestrian ones like this don’t have much ability to impact me any more.  I haven’t precisely abandoned it but I’m not racing to finish it either.

What has got me excited about reading again is one of my NetGalley books: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley.  I love Kearsley’s historical novels and, though initially skeptical about the supernatural elements in many of her novels (ghosts, inexplicable time travel, etc), she won me over with her excellent writing and superb attention to historical detail.  I adored her last novel (A Desperate Fortune) so was thrilled when I heard she had a new book coming out this year.  It won’t be released until April and I’ll write in more detail about it then but it is definitely up to the standard of her best works (in my opinion, A Desperate Fortune, The Firebird, and The Shadowy Horses).  And, unlike those favourites which deal with European history (Jacobites in Russia, France and Italy, and a Roman legion in Britain), this book looks at the Seven Years War in North America, fought between the French and English and their respective colonists (and various First Nations groups).  It’s very, very good and exactly what I needed.

I’m now bouncing between romance novels, Canadian plays, and World War Two histories, happy to be back in my very eclectic reading groove! 

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). 

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When I first heard about Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd I was delighted.  A book about foreigners in Germany from the end of WWI to the end of WWII?  Yes, please.  I didn’t manage to get my hands on a copy last year (which is why it made my list of The Ones That Got Away) and the book won’t even be published in North America until August but, thankfully, the university library was as eager as me to read it and ordered the British edition.

Boyd wisely begins her story with the start of the problem: a Germany crippled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  One of Boyd’s strengths is highlighting how awful these post-war years were for Germans: how much they struggled, how shamed they felt, and how much they longed for something better:

For Violet [Bonham-Carter], as for so many other observers of inflation-ridden Germany, it was the plight of the middle classes that aroused her greatest sympathy.  As no one could any longer afford their professional services, and as inflation destroyed their capital, many were reduced to total penury…When hyper-inflation reached its peak in November 1923, even the sceptical Lady D’Abernon was moved at the “distressing spectacle of gentlefolk half hidden behind the trees in the Tiergarten, timidly stretching out their hands for help.

But there were advantages among the chaos.  The extreme liberalism of Weimar-era Berlin, with its cabarets and cross-dressing, attracted many, as did the liberal attitudes towards sex and nudity.  Women were active in politics (they had more female parliamentarians than any other country) and in the workforce.  But outside Berlin, it drew a very different, more traditionally-inclined type of traveller, ones in search of “quaint houses, cobbled streets, brass bands, and beer.”

The book is full of familiar figures observing these scenes and unfortunately Boyd never quite delivers on her subtitle’s promise of “The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People”, unless you count (largely British and American) journalists, diplomats, and socialites as everyday people.  We hear from the fascist members of the Mitford clan (Tom, Diana, and Unity), Violet Bonham-Carter, Robert Byron, Chips Channon, Knut Hamsun, Brian Howard, Christopher Isherwood, the Lindberghs, the Windors, Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Eddy Sackville-West, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  It’s an interesting variety of perspectives – everything from Bloomsbury to passionate Nazis – but class-wise it’s rather homogenous.

What is sadly lacking are the views of other Europeans (aside from a couple of French and the odd Nordic Nazi), other foreigners, and the everyman.  Boyd mentions the Nazi push for foreign tourism by offering cheap holiday tours for the working classes but we hear from no one who actually went on them.  Instead we only see them observed:

[Sibyl Crowe, the daughter of a British diplomat] had travelled out from England by train and had been much struck with a group of her fellow passengers, bound for a small town on the Mosel.  ‘They were a party of thirty from Manchester, mostly shopkeepers, shop assistants, typists, and factory-hands – quite simple and poor persons’ […] To her surprise, she discovered that most of them had already travelled many times to Germany.  ‘One man, a draper, told me he had been there seven years running; he sang the praises of the Germans, said what nice people they were.’  A young shop assistant from a Manchester department store had hiked all over the Bavarian Alps, staying in youth hostels.

These are the voices that are missing.  Boyd quotes the gushings of teenage girls but ignores the equally unsophisticated but better-informed views of these return visitors.

The greatest variety of sources comes during the infamous Olympics, particularly from the American athletes.  American journalists were keen to report back on the discrimination faced by their black and Jewish athletes.  With overt signs of anti-Semitism tightly locked down while Germany played host, both groups reported that the only discrimination they faced came from their American coaches, not the Germans.  Many of them left the country with only good memories of the German people who had chanted and cheered for them.

The best outsider – true outsider – accounts come from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ji Xianlin.  Du Bois was an African-American scholar, a professor at Atlanta University who chose to spend a six-month sabbatical in Germany in 1936 to seek inspiration on educational methods, revisit a country he loved from his graduate student days at Berlin University in the 1890s, and take in the Bayreuth Festival with fellow opera lovers.  Ji Xianlin had come to Heidelberg from China to study Sanskrit (he obtained his PhD in 1941) but found himself trapped in the country until 1946 due to the war.  Both offer fascinating observations and well-informed ones given that both men had lived in the country for years (albeit at very different times) and had a more nuanced understanding of both the culture and the politics than many of Boyd’s other sources.

Another Chinese student, Shi Min, was studying in Paris but came on holiday to much cheaper Germany with a group of fellow Chinese students in 1935.  His group marveled at the clean streets and athletic, inelegant women (very unlike both the French and Chinese ideal), and, embarrassed, corrected policemen who asked if they were Japanese: ‘They dislike the Japanese but respect them.  They are sympathetic to Chinese but look down on them.’

It is through all these eyes that Boyd guides the reader through the 1930s as Germany turns from a depressed and downtrodden country to a nation brimming with energy and optimism – and deeply, deeply troubling politics.

What rankled me most was Boyd’s overt judgement that it was morally wrong for people to be travelling in Hitler’s Germany, especially post-Olympics.  She criticizes American schools for sending exchange students, British mothers for sending their daughters to be finished by impoverished German noblewomen, and, despite having significant written evidence to the contrary, insists ‘to any non-believer visiting Germany in the late 1930s, it must have seemed as if National Socialism had permeated every last nook and cranny of human existence.’  She is incredulous that any visitors or foreign students managed to contrive to ‘ignore the Nazis while at the same time extracting the best out of Germany.’

Her conclusion drives home everything that irritated me about this book:

Perhaps the most chilling fact to emerge from these travellers’ tales is that so many perfectly decent people could return home from Hitler’s Germany singing its praises.  Nazi evil permeated every aspect of German society yet, when blended with the seductive pleasures still available to the foreign visitor, the hideous reality was too often and for too long ignored.

I hate that she doesn’t try to explain how it came about that ‘perfectly decent people’ felt this way when she is making such sweeping criticisms.  Either let the letters speak for themselves or try to draw a conclusion but don’t damn without making the effort to understand.

Despite this frustration, it is still a fascinating book – just not a definitive one.  It’s simplistic and needlessly judgemental but it does compliment other books on the subject.  I’d hate to think of people reading it in isolation from other books about Germany at the time but if read alongside more nuanced works (like the novel Manja, the oral history Frauen, and The Germans, the unsurpassed guide to the national identity) I think the reader can properly appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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While reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, I decided I wanted to get a little more insight into Rupert Hart-Davis so I borrowed A Beggar in Purple from the library.  Published in 1983, it is a selection of pieces from his commonplace book.  A commonplace book, which I suspect many of us keep – or else use our blogs for as a substitute – is a place for readers to copy out passages and quotes that they like for one reason or another.  Every reader takes something different from what they read so looking through commonplace books is a fascinating way to get to know their compiler.

What I learned from Hart-Davis’ reinforced what I’d taken from his letters: he was sentimentally-inclined, enjoyed middlebrow fiction, and read far too much middling poetry (particularly in French).  But the good thing about commonplace books is that they are short and even when your tastes don’t entirely align with the compiler’s there is always something interesting to be found in them.  Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Harold Nicolson’s advice to duty-bound readers:

It is better to read trash with enjoyment than masterpieces with yawning groans.

Goethe marvelling at the ways of the English:

It is surprising to remark how large a portion of the life of a rich Englishman of rank is passed in duels and elopements.  Lord  Byron himself says that his father carried off three ladies.  And let any man be a steady son after that.

And a poem by V. de Sola Pinto that I (being as sentimental as Hart-Davis) immediately fell in love with:

As I sat at my old desk, writing
in golden evening sunshine,
my wife came in suddenly
and, standing beside me,
said ‘I love you’
(this year she will be sixty-three and I shall be sixty-eight).
Then I looked at her and saw
not the grey-haired woman but the girl I married in 1922:
poetry shining through the faithful prose,
a fresh flower in bloom.
I said ‘You are a rose’
(thinking how awful it would have been if I had missed her)
and I kissed her.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Border by Kapka Kassabova – You know my love of travel writing and my interest in obscure bits of Europe so it’s no surprise this exploration of the region around Bulgarian/Turkish/Greek border made it onto my to-read list.  Also, it was just selected as the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year (the entire shortlist for which is on my to-read list).

Labor of Love by Moira Weigel – Happy Valentine’s Day!  I am celebrating with this history of modern dating and how it has and has not changed over the last hundred years.

Full Marks for Trying by Brigid Keenan – Hurrah!  I am so excited to read this memoir of Keenan’s early life and journalism career having loved her memoirs about her life as the trailing spouse of an on-the-move diplomat (Diplomatic Baggage and Packing Up).

The Fear and the Freedom by Keith Lowe – another one off my list of 2017 new releases I wanted to read.

Hunger by Roxane Gay – I thought I should try this much-talked-about memoir for myself.

In Movement There is Peace by Elaine Orbana Foster and Joseph Wilbred Foster III – an American couple’s account of their journey along the Camino de Santiago.  I love reading about the Camino even though it seems too boring and crowded for me to actually want to walk myself.  I’ve already finished this and it was nothing special – it certainly doesn’t come close to matching my favourite book about the Camino, I’m Off Then.

What did you pick up this week?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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I’ve lost track of the number of times I have seen The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters recommended.  If you enjoy literary correspondence, it is invariably on your to-read list.  So, after being reminded of it once again in Browsings by Michael Dirda, I picked up volume one (published in 1978) to make the acquaintance of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis.

In the autumn of 1955, Hart-Davis, a publisher and editor, met his old Eton schoolmaster Lyttleton at a dinner party.  When Lyttelton, retired and in his early 70s, complained no one wrote to him anymore Hart-Davis took up the challenge.  Their correspondence continued until Lyttleton’s death in the early 1960s and filled six volumes (edited and published by Hart-Davis, naturally).  While they discuss their families and other interests (cricket.  So, so much cricket), the focus of their letters is literature which suits me perfectly.

The letters in this first volume are from 1955 and 1956 but little modern literature is discussed.  Both men had middlebrow and rather sentimental tastes: Hart-Davis was Hugh Walpole’s literary executor and biographer, there is much praise of Kipling, and the contemporary distaste for Galsworthy is lamented, particularly by Lyttelton:

Is Angus Wilson a good man?  I see he reduces The Forsyte Saga to dust and ashes in last week’s New Statesman.  How jealous they all were, and still are, of Galsworthy’s immense vogue.  And the line they take is always so lofty that they miss the main point – that so many of his characters do strike the ordinary reader as being live men and women, and one reads on wanting to know how they got out of their difficulties, and usually satisfied with the way they do it, and with G’s comments, and elucidations, and undertones throughout.  And I’ll eat my hat if “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” is not a beautiful and moving bit of writing.  But what frightful contempt our highbrow critics pour on that view.  (8 March 1956)

Through his publishing work, Hart-Davis was well-connected to the literary world while Lyttelton remained resolutely outside but deeply fascinated by it.  He often asked Hart-Davis’ opinions of certain literary figures, like the question above about Angus Wilson or his query after A.A. Milne’s death.  The correspondence must have been an exciting addition to his relatively quiet life.  However, Hart-Davis tried to make it clear from the earliest letters that he too had something to gain from the letter-based friendship with a man he said had the gifts of “a mixture of psychiatrist and father-confessor”:

Don’t think for a moment that this delightful correspondence is solely for your benefit: it is pure self-indulgence.  You are the diary I have never kept, the excuse I have so long wanted for forming words on paper unconnected with duty or business. (6 November 1955)

They are at their best when discussing certain books or just describing their love of books.  Lyttelton was particularly delighted whenever Hart-Davis sent him parcels of well-selected books from London – one of the definite benefits of having a friend in publishing:

The breakfast table this morning had that best of all objects – far better even than a dish of salmon kedgeree, or a headline in The Times saying the atom bomb had been abolished, or that the price of coal was down – viz a fat little parcel of books.  And the content of those books!  Exactly the sort of literature I love – comments wide and deep on men and things and books by a wise man who knows how to write.  Life has, at all events at 73, no greater pleasure than that.  (9 May 1956)

And it is up to Lyttelton, as the elder, to provide his opinions on the foolishness of youth.  He complains about a young writer’s idiotic but absolute confidence (“Why has he not learnt that a little real humility sharpens the perceptions wonderfully and has other good effects too.  What a strong tendency there is today to lay down the law about what one may or must, and may not and must not, admire.”)  and chastises those who don’t know how to properly spend their holidays:

It is all to the good that you are having a good laze.  Curiously few people are sensible about holidays; if not walking, they go sightseeing and to picture-gallery after p.g. of all fatiguing activities.  Many play golf, and the odd effect of that pursuit is that they return to work manifestly stupider than they were.  (18 May 1956)

Hart-Davis remains a little less opinionated and a little less interesting because of it.  He seems to have had a fascinating family life, though it is not discussed deeply.  His adored mother had died when he was young (he later wrote a book about her), his uncle was Duff Cooper (he goes to visit the widowed Diana Cooper in France and meets a predictably cosmopolitan array of visitors at her home), and he took holidays with his long-time companion (whom he later married) while he and his wife remained on good terms and stayed married until the children grew up.

In the end, it’s not a spectacular correspondence.  Neither man was a brilliant writer and neither offered much of themselves in their letters.  And there is too much talk of cricket (any cricket is too much).  But it remains mildly interesting and I could see myself picking up the next volume.

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