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Keeping the bear at bay

Who would think that a battle as decisive as Marathon or Waterloo took place at the gates of Warsaw in August 1920? Such is the question that Adam Zamoyski poses at the beginning of his account of the war between Lenin’s Soviet Russia and Pilsudski’s Catholic Poland, fought in the twilight between the first and

Flights of fancy

Did you know that the first person to cage a budgerigar was John Gould, the 19th-century English artist/naturalist? Or that the word ‘penguin’ is derived from the Welsh words ‘pen’ (white) and ‘gwyn’ (head)? Or that there is no scientific (in other words fossil) evidence that the dodo ever existed? These are just three informative

More down than up

In one of the stories in this collection, a woman whose sister has died of anorexia remembers ‘an incident when she was maybe eight and I was twelve’ when the little girls encountered a flasher: . . . it sort of jumped out and curled up, in a way that I now might recognise. At

The downfall of a pessimist

In some moods, I would rather read George Gissing than any other 19th-century English novelist. In the 1890s he was ranked with Hardy and Meredith, at a time when they had finished writing novels and he was only just getting into his tortured stride. Orwell called The Odd Women ‘one of the best novels in

A tough assignment

Albania is small and little known, its history sufficiently confusing and its names sufficiently unpronounceable for us to be funny about it or, worse, to romanticise it. But humour and romance were in short supply for Albanians during the second world war (and after), and there wasn’t much left over for those sent to help

Hazy like foothills

As life-expectancy seems to grow longer by the minute, as it were — at least in our part of the globe — it was predictable that some writers would retain their marbles long enough to report ruefully back from the ageing-battlefield. At least two poets have done so very well: Roy Fuller and D. J.

Remembering Anthony Blond

The publisher Gerard Noel pays tribute to his friend and author who died last week at the age of 79 One Friday evening in the early 1980s two brand-new, bright red cars roared up to my house in Gloucestershire. The drivers were Laura and Anthony Blond, my guests for a bank holiday weekend, who had