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So They Call You Pisher! by Michael Rosen review – Communism, Clive James and attitude

23 September, by Sukhdev Sandhu[ —]
A joyful mishmash of a memoir from the novelist and poet ranges from his parents fighting against fascists to Bob Dylan’s singing style

I can see that, as a body of writing, it is a rag-bag of styles and genres,” Michael Rosen once said of his work. “But does it matter? I’m not trying to hoodwink anyone. I’m not trying to gain membership to a Peerage of Poets. I write ‘Bits’ and ‘Stuff’.” As always, the future children’s laureate was being both modest and a little feisty. Still, it’s a good description of So They Call You Pisher! It’s a mishmash, at once merry and pensive, of personal memoir, a history of left politics in postwar England, a portal into a lost Jewish London and a portrait of the artist as a nervy young man.

Famous individuals flicker in and out of the narrative – among them Christopher Hitchens, Howard Marks and Clive James (the latter yelling, “I’ll fucking have you! You’re ruining everything I’ve ever worked for!” when Rosen fluffs lines at a student revue audition) – but at its heart are his parents Harold and Connie Rosen. Harold was a poet, a noted educationalist, author of Are You Still Circumcised? (1999), and treated by some contemporaries “as if he was a cross between Lenny Bruce and Isaiah Berlin”. He and Connie met at a Young Communist League meeting in 1936 and both fought against Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the battle of Cable Street that year.

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‘Not amused’: Princess Margaret’s misadventures in bohemia

23 September, by Craig Brown[ —]

Picasso wanted to marry her, Gore Vidal defended her, but most writers and artists she met were spiteful about her behind her back – and, explains Craig Brown, she didn’t really like them much either

She was drawn to bohemians, just as they were drawn to her. She liked the louche hours they kept, their smoking and drinking, their refusal to do the right thing. They, in turn, enjoyed the cachet of having a real-life princess on display. It didn’t really matter that she could be difficult. After all, being difficult was her party piece. If she happened to round off an evening with a display of her famous hauteur, then it gave them something to write about.

As for Princess Margaret, she never quite understood the stuff and nonsense to which she found herself drawn. Or perhaps she understood the stuff, but not the nonsense. “What is a bohemian? What does it mean?” she once asked a lady-in-waiting, in all innocence, shortly after her marriage to the fashionable photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones.

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Penelope Lively: ‘One of the pleasures of old age is the thought that I shall never see Heathrow again’

23 September, by Penelope Lively[ —]

The Booker prizewinning novelist tries to fit in a couple of hours of writing a day, but she no longer feels guilty if she would rather be in the garden

What writing day? I am 84, for heaven’s sake. Which is not to say that I no longer write, simply that the concept of an ordered daily ritual is now out of reach. I look back – not with nostalgia, but with a kind of friendly interest – to those years when I would get to the desk by about half past nine and stay there till five or so, even if staring out of the window a good deal of the time.

Not that my working days were always like that. There were many other commitments: organisations to which I gave time, much travelling for bookish reasons. The desk days were jealously guarded. Looking at old diaries, I see that I am always complaining that I can’t get to the book that I am writing – too many other demands. One year, I left Heathrow 12 times. Well, no more of that. One of the pleasures of old age is the thought that I shall never see Heathrow again.

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The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell review – a fantasia of ancient Britain

23 September, by Tony Bradman[ —]
A magical excursion into a land of mysterious forests, witches and warriors by the author of How to Train Your Dragon

A hugely successful series is a hard act to follow. Those of us who loved Cressida Cowell’s brilliant How to Train Your Dragon books about Hiccup, his dragon Toothless and the Viking world they live in might have felt a little concerned when they came to an end in 2015. What would she do next?

I am pleased to report that The Wizards of Once – the first book in a new middle grade series – is terrific. It introduces us to a new fantasy world, though its roots again lie deep in a familiar mulch of history and legend. Not the Norse myths this time, but a fantasia of ancient Britain, a land of dark, mysterious forests and powerful magic.

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge review – darkly splendid mystery

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/frances-hardingeplay episode download
23 September, by Philip Womack[ —]
The 2015 Costa prize winner is back with a worthy follow-up to The Lie Tree, set just before the English civil war

Frances Hardinge’s last novel, The Lie Tree, won the overall Costa book award in 2015; the only other children’s book to have done so is Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, in 2001. Hardinge is at the forefront of children’s fiction, with a rich, unusual taste for language, an eye for the striking and apt image and stories that reveal a staunch defence of the weak and the oppressed. What is more, she combines a subtle, intellectual approach with plots that swoop and soar.

Her darkly splendid new book is a worthy follow-up to The Lie Tree, set just before the start of the English civil war. Hardinge has always been interested in splits and doubles; in how a character, apparently good, can be only a sliver away from being bad; in how perceptions and opinions shift according to perspective and situation. Her heroine in Cuckoo Song was a fairy changeling, unaware that she had been created and placed into the family that she thought hers; Faith in The Lie Tree must fight against the strictures placed on women in the 19th century, while unpicking a web of falsehoods around her scientist father.

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Can Benedict Cumberbatch make Ian McEwan work on TV?

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tv-and-radioplay episode download
23 September, by Mark Lawson[ —]

The Child in Time, starring Cumberbatch, kicks off a trio of adaptations that may make the author the most screen-friendly novelist of his generation

Three decades after it won the Whitbread prize, Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time has become a TV film. It will be screened this weekend in the coveted Sunday 9pm drama slot on BBC1, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing a children’s writer whose daughter vanishes on a shopping trip.

This transmission launches an unofficial festival of McEwan adaptations: Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach (in which I play a minor role) will be shown at the London film festival next month before a general release next year, soon followed by Richard Eyre’s movie of The Children Act.

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Two glasses of red wine every evening? Tick

23 September, by Howard Jacobson[ —]

And if two glasses are good, only imagine the benefits that accrue to me from five

By my reckoning, I must be the healthiest person in the country. Brisk 10-minute walk a day? Tick. Two glasses of red wine every evening? Tick. (And if two glasses are good, only imagine the benefits that accrue to me from five.) Four cups of coffee a day? Tick. No smoking? Tick. No recreational drugs? Tick. Sunscreening? Tick. Statins? Tick. More than five hours’ sleep? Tick. More than six hours’ sleep? Tick. Emotional agility: as, for example, overcoming negative emotions by welcoming them with self-compassion? Tick. Porridge? Tick. Porridge and berries? Tick, tick. Cheese (I was once off it to avoid fat, now I’m on it again for protein, calcium and vitamins A and B12)? Tick. Not wearing Lycra? Tick. (I’m not sure whether I shouldn’t be wearing Lycra for health or for fashion reasons, so I’m not wearing it for both. In which case, make that another double tick.)

So why aren’t I feeling well? Could it be that some people are simply not fashioned to feel well no matter how many boxes they tick? There’s a presumption in the health industry that all any of us wants is to get ourselves into shape and live for ever. We are shepherded into blooming longevity, and before we are able to ask ourselves if we wouldn’t rather burn with Walter Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame” and then go out early, we find ourselves 110, unable to remember our name.

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck review – humanising migration

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/immigrationplay episode download
23 September, by Eileen Battersby[ —]

The plight of African asylum seekers in Europe is vividly drawn in this powerful, candid novel

Displacement has moved beyond a literary theme; for millions, it is reality. The notion of war has been overtaken by upheaval, which forces desperate people to flee without hope of a final destination, allowing history to repeat itself, relentlessly. This is the humanising lens through which Jenny Erpenbeck, Europe’s outstanding literary seer, views our world.

Previously she had looked to the layered history of her own country, Germany, in dazzling metaphysical fictions such as Visitation and The End of Days. As a Berliner born in the former East Germany in 1967, her early experience was dominated by living in a divided city within a fractured country; her work suggests that she believes human understanding resides in memory.

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Slouching towards Biloxi: Joan Didion on life in America's south

23 September, by Joan Didion[ —]

In 1970 the writer spent a month in the south because it seemed to represent the future of America. And now that we are ‘living though the scariest of times’, she has decided to publish her notebooks

John and I were living on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. I had wanted to revisit the South, so we flew there for a month in 1970. The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan. We went wherever the day took us. I seem to remember that John drove. I had not been back since 1942–43, when my father was stationed in Durham, North Carolina, but it did not seem to have changed that much. At the time, I had thought it might be a piece.

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Jane Smiley on The Man Who Loved Children

22 September, by Jane Smiley[ —]
Jane Smiley continues her series on the novel with Christina Stead's domestic tragedy about a family as horrible and irredeemable as that of Agamemnon

One of the few novels that come close to attaining the grandeur of tragedy is The Man Who Loved Children, and the tragedy it most recalls, perhaps, is Medea. It is also a thoroughly modern novel and a fascinating social document. Christina Stead's father was a Fabian socialist, and she was born in Australia. She lived for many years in the United States, was married to a prominent Marxist writer, and was up-to-date in her understanding of all the myriad subjects and ideas that come up in the course of this long and dense work of fiction. Most important, though, is that she actually does give her ordinary government bureaucrat and his unhappy wife that sense of unstoppable and fated intensity that literature usually reserves for kings and queens.

Sam and Henny Pollit, husband and wife and parents of six and then seven children (the eldest, Louisa, Sam's child by his former wife, is the novel's protagonist), live in a large house in Washington DC. Henny is a former southern belle, one of 12 offspring of a wealthy and influential man, David Collyer. Sam is self-made, also from a big family, but a big family without money or status (one of his sisters is a schoolteacher). Sam is smart but impolitic, and Stead is masterful at communicating the maddening excesses of his demeanour. He is drunk on his own words, on his own elevated ideas, on his grandiose sense of himself and his mission. In a normal novel he would be a comic blowhard waiting for his come-uppance, something of a clown, but with the dark addition of unmitigated narcissism.

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