The most exciting book I have read this month is a non-fiction thriller by Nicholas Shakespeare called Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister. Of course Winston Churchill is very much in the news just now on account of various movies, especially The Darkest Hour, but he is only one of the fascinating characters striding across the stage, managing the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as Britain faces up to war. This is a book for people who like history, people who like gossip and people who like to watch the manoeuvres of politicians. It’s another big book, 507 pages, including more than 100 pages of notes.
Nicholas Shakespeare has had the most amazing success in his research. I think he had more than a few personal contacts. The notes explain, chapter by chapter, the sources for most of the fascinating quotations. Many come from personal anecdotes, quotes from memoirs or private correspondence. The intrigue between Lord Halifax and Baba Metcalf forms a central mystery. Halifax had been Viceroy of India, as had Baba’s father, Lord Curzon. I think I shall have to re-read Anne de Courcy’s book, The Viceroy’s Daughters. All very English.
My two favourites among the many books written by Nicholas Shakespeare are The Dancer Upstairs and In Tasmania. In his earlier life, he lived in South America, where The Vision of Elena Silves is also set, and one day he found a perfect little house on the beach in Tasmania. In 2016, he was a Visiting Fellow of All Souls. That would have been a temptation.
I received a very nice little gift recently from one of our treasured long-term customers. He dropped in a copy of the International Edition of the Daily Express because it contained an article about the final edition of Pears’ Cyclopedia. He remembered my enthusiasm for this little marvel of information. I shall have to get a copy of this – the 126th edition. My copy is the 95th edition, which was for 1986-87: A Book of Background Information and Reference for Everyday Use. Wikipedia and Google may well have taken its place, but where else can I find on one page the answers to these questions, which may be required for my crossword - International Currencies, Roman Numerals, International Timetable and the Greek Alphabet. Page N9. You could take it to a desert island with you and lack of electricity would not be a problem.
In Spectrum this Saturday, Peter Craven, in honour of 100 years since the birth of Muriel Spark, wrote a lovely piece of wholehearted admiration for work. Hear Hear! I had a look at Abbey’s database and found nine titles in stock, plus several more reissues which are forthcoming. One of the delights to be found at Abbey’s is the presence of a deep backlist of good titles sitting beside the latest and trendiest new titles. Here are Spark’s novels, all of them remembered fondly by me: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Far Cry from Kensington, Mandelbaum Gate, The Public Image, Girls of Slender Means, Territorial Rights, Bachelors, Finishing School, Drivers Seat and Spark’s Europe, which contains Not to Disturb, The Takeover and The Only Problem. I’ll have lots of fun re-reading some of these. This will overcome my present difficulty in finding the right fiction to read.
Have you been to see the latest Daniel Day-Lewis film? It is called Phantom Thread and is about an artist in charge of a famous haute couture establishment. When I was in the shop recently, Lindy showed me a gorgeous big book about The House of Worth, full of illustrations of wonderful dresses and information about the famous Parisian fashion house which operated from 1858 to 1956. An effort was made in 1999 to re-establish the name, but I think now it is only associated with perfumes.
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