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Archive by tag: Blake MorrisonReturn
Jun 07, 2022

The astonishing story of how Rudolf Vrba escaped the Nazi camp, and his mission to tell the world about it

“It was my good fortune” are the opening words of Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man, and good fortune is the chief reason Levi gave for his survival in Auschwitz. Other factors helped too: fitness, intelligence, adaptability, usefulness about the camp, sturdy footwear. But at crucial moments he and other survivors were saved by luck.

Rudolf Vrba didn’t just survive Auschwitz, he escaped from it – he and his companion Fred Wetzler were the first Jews to do so. Vrba was 19. The story of how he got away is astonishing and what happened as a result (or failed to happen) is an indispensable part of Holocaust history. But when Vrba died in 2006, only a handful of people attended his funeral and a mere 40 were there for his memorial service nine months later. Jonathan Freedland’s gripping book sets out to bring him to prominence as a name to rank with Levi, Anne Frank and Oskar Schindler.

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Apr 27, 2022

From Franz Kafka to Anne Tyler, literature amplifies the author’s moving insights into living with agoraphobia and the remedies that have helped him

The term is treacherous and sometimes unkind; Graham Caveney imagines taking revenge on it by writing “agoraphobia” in the middle of a page, surrounded by scary white space. In Greek, agora means marketplace and phobos means fear. But the condition is thought of as modern, or as a terror of modern amplitude. Those who experience it are caricatured as horrified by the spaciousness beyond the window. In fact “agoraphobia”, Caveney tells us, “is not so much a fear of going out as a fear of something dreadful happening whilst being out”.

He writes with inside knowledge, as an agoraphobe not a doctor. At 19, travelling home from university for Christmas by coach, he had a panic attack on the M6, his world dismantled by the “horrifying symmetry” of the motorway. An only child, brought up in working-class Accrington, he had always been a little dyspraxic, or “cack-handed” as it was called. But this was new: primal fear – heart hammering, blood pounding, body in revolt. He survived the next three years by staying on campus and living within a 50-yard radius. But to the dismay of his parents, with whom he moved back in after graduating, the condition persisted (“at my most agoraphobic, everywhere outside my front door can feel like that original motorway”). Now in his 50s, he seeks to understand its origins.

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Apr 13, 2022

The German author updates Jilly Cooper and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook in a provocative celebration of the English class system

The English may be suspicious of foreigners but we sometimes need them to explain us to ourselves. Detlev Piltz, a German lawyer, became an anglophile as a 16-year-old schoolboy when he spent a month in the home of a Cotswold vicar, whose infant daughter Theresa would grow up to become prime minister. The English, he thinks, are a “wondrously wacky people”. And what especially fascinates him is our class system, the nuances of which he has been studying for half a century.

He thinks it’s the elephant in our room, something we don’t talk about, or which we pretend doesn’t exist. For a politician to admit to having a privileged background is “political suicide”; even Labour, once the party of the proletariat, finds class an uncomfortable subject. MPs may talk of levelled up, one-nation togetherness but they know it’s unattainable. “Class is the enemy of equality,” Piltz says, but that’s no reason to knock it. To his mind, England isn’t class-ridden but class-enriched.

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Mar 03, 2022

The strange true story of how East Germany’s secret service tried to win the cold war with verse

This book sounds like a quirky piece of fiction, to set beside The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. And it begins like a novel, as a young border guard called Jürgen Polinske stands outside the Adlershof military compound in East Berlin dreaming of ice-cream. But Polinske is a real person on his way to attend a poetry workshop. And this is the true story of how the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, established a creative writing programme to teach its spies the art of verse.

Its origins weren’t sinister but idealistic. The culture minister of the newly created GDR, Johannes Becher, dreamed of a model society in which poetry, “the very definition of everything good and beautiful, of a more meaningful, humane form of living”, would have a central place. In Nazi Germany books had been burned and authors persecuted. In the GDR, authors received generous help from the state – care packages, food vouchers, posts in government and a reduced income tax rate. Reading was heavily promoted: between 1950 and 1989, the number of books published each year tripled even as the population declined. And manual workers were encouraged to write as well as read (“Pick up the quill, comrade!”). To Becher, one verse form in particular was crucial to the establishment of the new utopia: the sonnet. In its dialectical structure – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – it mirrored the Marxist view of historical progress.

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Feb 23, 2022

A golden childhood is followed by family tragedies – but resilience and understanding triumph in this powerful memoir

You’re not meant to envy your parents, but Christina Patterson couldn’t help envying hers. A Swedish mum with a Mona Lisa smile and love of cakes, coffee and conversation; an English dad with matinee idol good looks and a prestigious Foreign Office career; their love-at-first-sight romance; their glamorous postings to Bangkok and Rome before they settled in Surrey, where Christina and her two older siblings, Tom and Caroline, grew up. They made life seem so easy, as if it were one long holiday and happiness came as naturally as leaves to a tree.

As Patterson sorts through cine films and photo albums, the reader feels envious too – of the golden childhood she had, the magic shows put on in the front garden, the summer holidays in Sweden, the “warmth and love and laughter”. Then you realise that she’s remembering all this while clearing the family house. And that she’s having to learn to refer to Tom in the past tense. And that one reluctantly recalled aspect of childhood – the terrible scenes caused by her “skinny, sensitive, beautiful sister” Caroline – feels very ominous.

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Dec 09, 2021

Though more focused on flirtations and finery than the craft of film-making, there is much to enjoy in this entertaining ragbag

In the early 1940s, the teenage James Ivory was lambasted by an army officer for wearing a “stupid and girlish” pink satin bow tie. “What do you think of me?” the officer asked at the end of his tirade. “I think you’re pompous,” Ivory replied. Now he wonders if the officer was a repressed homosexual as well as a bully. Either way the episode was important: it proved Ivory could look after himself and, despite being “a skinny boy with underdeveloped biceps”, hold his own in the world of men.

He took his time to reach the pinnacle, if winning an Academy Award is a measure of that; he was 89 when he finally won an Oscar, for his work on the screenplay of Call Me By Your Name. Now 93, he has written a memoir looking back on his life and career. Though something of a ragbag, with letters, diary entries and magazine articles padding it out, it’s consistently entertaining, if only because Ivory, by his own admission, is “a fearful snob”. The snobbery began with his realisation, at an early age, that some boys are circumcised and others, less fortunate, are not: “I’m afraid the feeling that uncircumcised men are in some way socially inferior has stayed with me all of my life.”

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Jun 19, 2021

Blake Morrison on boomers, Chris Power on Gen X, Megan Nolan on millennials and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé on Gen Z … which books shaped your generation?

It took till the end of the decade for the 60s to arrive in our provincial backwater, but the impact was all the stronger for being delayed. Unlike my parents, who’d survived the war and settled down to build a comfortable life, I yearned for risk, adventure, escape. I had a vision of it already from Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows – “the open road, the dusty highways … Travel, change, interest, excitement. The whole world before you and a horizon that’s always changing” – but Mr Toad was a comical figure, whereas Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was cool.

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Apr 16, 2021

In thrall to Larkin’s genius: racism, drink and despair in a generous account of a tortured relationship over four decades

Poor Monica Jones. She would have liked to marry Philip Larkin but he kept her at arm’s length (or the 100 miles between Hull and Leicester) for more than 30 years. An academic, she loved her subject, English literature, but failed to publish any books and, as a result, was never promoted by her university department. She dressed with flair and flamboyance but was dismissed by Larkin’s friends as “a grim old bag”, “a beast”, “frigid, drab and hysterical”, and appeared, thinly disguised, as the appalling Margaret Peel (her own middle name was Beale) in Kingsley Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim. “I dread the whole of the rest of my life,” she wrote in her 30s, and death has done little to rescue her reputation.

Enter, like a shining knight, John Sutherland, who was taught by Jones as an undergraduate, became a good friend and drinking partner, and rightly believes she has been hard done by. “In crucial ways Monica made me,” he says, and his book pays generous tribute to the woman who kick-started his prolific academic career. As the first scholar to see Jones’s letters to Larkin (all 54 boxes of them in the Bodleian Library), he has also learned things about her he didn’t know, some of them hard to take.

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Mar 31, 2021

This is a novel of ideas, crammed with scientific data, that suffers from too much itemising and cataloguing

A double-blind research study is one in which both the researchers and the participants are in the dark: since no one knows who is receiving the drugs and who the placebos, there’s less risk of the result being skewed by prior knowledge. In an ideal world, the double-blind principle also holds good for fiction: every novel is a thought experiment with an unpredictable outcome. The difficulty – a double-bind rather than double-blind – is that prior knowledge invariably plays a part: the novelist knows what readers are hoping for, and the blurb and the dust jacket tell them what to expect.

What defined Edward St Aubyn’s quintet of Patrick Melrose novels was their bitter comedy and sadistic wit, and though his two subsequent novels (one a satire on literary prizes, the other a reworking of King Lear) were attempts to alter the template, their tone remained much the same. Double Blind opens in unfamiliar territory, as an earnest, unworldly young botanist called Francis wanders through a country estate, Howorth, where he lives off-grid and is employed as part of a wilding project. Seemingly purged of irony, the tone is more DH Lawrence than Evelyn Waugh and almost rapturous in its pantheism (“He felt the life around him and the life inside him flowing into each other”). Francis’s pure-mindedness extends even to his drug-taking, magic mushrooms being his hallucinogen of choice: “How could pharmaceutical companies, messing about for the last few decades, hope to compete with the expertise of fungi.” Where Patrick Melrose’s trauma was childhood abuse and neglect, for Francis it’s abuse and neglect of the planet, for which a new interconnectedness with nature is the only cure.

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Mar 24, 2021

An impressive, complex biography of the celebrated American writer, packed with anecdotes and jokes, inevitably details his shocking attitude towards women

“I don’t want you to rehabilitate me,” Philip Roth instructed Blake Bailey. “Just make me interesting.” The headline story can’t fail to be interesting: lower-middle-class grandson of immigrants writes scandalous bestseller about masturbation, is vilified as a self-hating Jew, has two disastrous marriages and many lovers, accumulates a stupendously diverse body of work (comic, surreal, metafictional, naturalistic), comes to be seen as the greatest English-language novelist of his day yet never, to his chagrin, wins the Nobel. But Roth wanted nuances not headlines, suggesting that Bailey call his biography “The Terrible Ambiguity of the ‘I’”. Luckily, that isn’t the title. But ambiguity is central to the story, particularly in relation to Roth’s treatment of women, in life and in fiction, which is where the issue of rehabilitation arises and, as with his peers (Saul Bellow, John Updike and Norman Mailer), can’t really be avoided, least of all now.

“Always it came back to the women,” Bailey writes, the first of them Roth’s mother Bess, who, if not as suffocating as Alex Portnoy’s mother, was so adoring that no subsequent woman in his life could match up. While sharing Bess’s devotion to Philip and his brother Sandy, her husband Herman left a mark in other ways, not least through his work ethic (12-hour days, six days a week). “He who is loved by his parents is a conquistador,” Roth liked to say. Despite the antisemitism of the period, he remembered his childhood as a haven. Newark to him was like Dublin to Joyce: a place he escaped but never left.

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Feb 26, 2021

The honesty and clarity of the writing in this account elevates what could have been a ‘misery memoir’ into something moving and joyous

Josie George doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. The doctors don’t know either, though for 30-odd years they’ve been coming up with different ideas. Any exertion or stimulation exhausts her. There are times when she’s too weak to leave the house. A single mum with a nine-year-old son and a mobility scooter, she never knows how her health will be from one day to the next. It sounds like the material for a misery memoir. But the miracle of A Still Life – as much a miracle as her determination to write it – is its joyousness.

By the age of eight, with pain, swollen glands and bouts of lassitude that no amount of Calpol could cure, she was already a puzzle to paediatricians. Maybe she didn’t like school, one doctor suggested; on the contrary what she hated was being stuck at home on the sofa. Her social worker mum and church worker dad did their best to keep her spirits up and there would be periods when she seemed fine – could run, pedal her bike, enjoy sleepovers with friends. Then she’d go downhill again, to be puzzled over by a new set of specialists (haematologists, rheumatologists, urologists), whose tests showed nothing amiss and made her feel like a fraud.

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Jan 20, 2021

A splendid account of Stephen Jackley, whose bank robberies were an attempt to fight poverty and injustice

The homeless man sitting with his dog on a cold December night in Sidmouth must have thought it miraculous when a passing stranger dropped a roll of £20 banknotes in his hat. The stranger didn’t stop or say anything, just walked away. Even odder, every note had been marked with two letters: RH. The stranger wasn’t acting out of Christmas charity but from a sense of righteousness: he saw himself as a 21st-century Robin Hood, duty-bound to rob the rich and give to the poor. To which end, a few hours before, he’d held up the Lloyds TSB bank branch in nearby Seaton and made off with nearly £5,000.

A hard-up geography student at the University of Worcester, Stephen Jackley was the unlikeliest of bank robbers. It’s not just that he wasn’t out for personal gain (though he enjoyed using some of his winnings to travel). He also acted entirely alone, albeit after learning from the methods of illustrious peers such as the American Carl Gugasian, whose example taught him the importance of meticulous planning, physical disguise and how to escape and hide your loot in woodland areas. From his first, botched attempt to rob a bank in Exeter the police had a record of Jackley’s DNA. But because he didn’t graduate to bank robbery through petty thieving, they had no match for it on their files and assumed the culprit must be a foreigner, perhaps part of a criminal gang. Undetected, he continued towards his goal of raising £100,000 for what he called the Organisation, his one-man mission to save the planet from poverty and injustice.

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Dec 21, 2020

Decadent 1930s Berlin, a wartime first love and escape from the advancing Red Army feature in this absorbing study of the author’s grandmother

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: Wittgenstein’s famous proposition is sometimes quoted in relation to war survivors and their reluctance to talk about their experiences. The men and women who came through the second world war, building new lives for themselves in the ruins, were especially taciturn, none more so than Svenja O’Donnell’s German grandmother Inge, who’d been a 19-year-old with a baby when the advancing Red Army forced her to flee her home in Königsberg in January 1945. But for the promptings of her granddaughter, the dramas Inge was part of in the years either side of that escape might have remained a secret. But in her 80s she began to open up a little. What she revealed over the next 10 years, and Svenja supplemented with her own discoveries, has resulted in a fascinating book.

Inge was a small child when Hitler came to power and in her “carefully curated” memories of skating parties, ice-creams and pet monkeys the rise of nazism barely figured. Her parents were Lutherans, not Jews, and though they disapproved of Hitler they kept their heads down. Initially resistant when Inge pushed them to let her go to college in Berlin, they soon succumbed. In September 1940, with allied bombing raids yet to kick in, the only threat to a vivacious 15-year-old lay in the city’s decadent nightlife. And when Inge made friends with a girl called Gisela, whose mother Dorothea invited her to live with them, they’d every reason to think she would be safe.

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Nov 27, 2020

A new biography, by Richard Greene, insists there was more to the author than ‘sex, books and depression’

When Gabriel García Márquez, in the presence of Fidel Castro, asked Graham Greene if it was true that he’d played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver, Greene assured him he had, several times. Castro, one of several world leaders with whom Greene had audiences over the years (Gorbachev, Ho Chi Minh and Pope Paul VI were others), calculated the odds and said he shouldn’t be alive. Greene thought the same. He’d expected to die young (“I’d rather die of a bullet in the head than a cancer of the prostate”) but survived to the age of 86.

The Russian roulette story has been disputed; Greene may have played it with blanks or empty chambers. But Richard Greene (no relation) takes it as the central premise of his biography: the novelist as risk-taker and adventurer, with a history of self-harm and an addiction to danger. An early trip to Liberia, to investigate modern slavery, set the tone. Greene knew there were risks – being shot at by soldiers, bitten by snakes or infected by lassa or yellow fever – but they only spurred him on. He was accompanied by his cousin Dorothy, who found him frightening: “If you are in a sticky place he will be so interested in noting your reactions that he will probably forget to rescue you.”

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Oct 30, 2020

Success, wit, passion and a remarkable set of teeth – what one of football’s greatest managers brought to Liverpool

You don’t have to be born in Liverpool to support Liverpool FC. The brand is global, the owners are American, the fans are as likely to come from Benares as from Bootle. With the exception of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the star players also hail from elsewhere. So does the current manager, Jürgen Klopp. In the early postwar years, the presence of a German at an English club would have gone down badly: as Anthony Quinn points out, when Bert Trautmann signed for Manchester City, a crowd of 20,000 turned out in protest. Now, Brexit notwithstanding, all that’s behind us – though it helps that Klopp’s command of English (supposedly developed by watching Friends) and sense of humour have made him such a natural fit.

Related: How Friends taught the world to speak English – from Jürgen Klopp to Korean pop megastars

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Sep 03, 2020

We are becoming slaves to consumerism ... the UK’s favourite shepherd returns with a paean to a more life-enhancing approach to farming

At 20, James Rebanks ran away from his family farm in the Lake District to visit Australia. The vast scale of farming there both impressed and depressed him. He was homesick for the crooked fields, ancient hedges and dry stone walls of home. And he revered the traditions his grandfather had taught him. But now his grandfather was dead and his father deep in debt. Small farms like theirs, scraping by with a mix of crops and livestock, belonged to the past. Unless he could persuade his father to modernise, they were doomed.

For a time, on his return, they tried. They switched to more “efficient” breeds of sheep, stopped growing turnips and barley, sprayed pesticide to clear their pastures of thistles, and no longer laid hedges by hand. The bigger farms in the area, with their factory-like sheds and large herds of “engineered” cattle, were already ahead of the game. The farmers were changing, too – managerial “shirt and tie” types driving round in Range Rovers became the norm. The exception was a neighbour called Henry, so old-fashioned that he still spread his fields with muck from cattle yards rather than using artificial fertiliser or slurry. Poor Henry was a joke – until the soil from his fields was sent to an analyst and found to be richer than the intensively farmed land around it: “The most traditional farmer in the district had the healthiest soil.”

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Apr 30, 2020

A moving, bracingly honest account of a father-daughter relationship, and the modernist home that shaped family life

When Shelley Klein moved back in with her father Beri after her mother died, she brought some old furniture with her. He didn’t want it in the house: a Victorian chair would compromise the modernist vernacular, he said. He objected to her pots of herbs, too: putting them on the kitchen windowsill would ruin the rectangular symmetry. They’d had these arguments since childhood, when he stopped her having a Christmas tree. To Beri, the house was a work of art, a gallery for living in, and nothing must detract from its aesthetic.

Designed by the architect Peter Womersley, who became a close family friend, High Sunderland sits in a pine forest on the Scottish borders. A single-storey series of interconnecting boxes, its defining feature is a generous use of glass, which seems to draw the surrounding landscape inside. Klein was born there in 1963, a few years after it was built. She feels “hefted” to the place and used to dread leaving it as a child. Despite travelling widely and spending years in Cornwall, she kept returning, even before her father’s last years. Her book is a homage to the house – and to him.

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