A Company Of Rivers: New York and Shepard Rifkin

A Company Of Rivers: New York and Shepard Rifkin

It’s easy for the visitor to forget that New York City and  all its sunless canyons between skyscrapers are built on an island which is bounded by a multitude of rivers. Climbing any of those Babelous towers to the sky, you can see the Big Apple sitting in a great big bowl of noodles:  its waterways, which border and define the narrowness of Manhattan, and  helped to shape the city’s history. Until the day before yesterday it depended upon them. The sea brought New York its huddled migrant masses, but the waterways helped to give them life. There is a writer, one who has never really had the recognition he deserves, called Shepard Rifkin, who in the course of penning a pacy thriller called McQuaid in August in effect made New  York City the main character, and in particular the rivers and waters which he knew so well. I want to digress a bit about Shepard Rifkin  before getting back to...
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My Mum Wrote Shakespeare

The strange idea that Shakespeare was written by someone else, a notion which only seriously began in Victorian times (and an aptly-named Mr Looney played a pivotal role in some of that early speculation) has not only not faded, it has been given a big boost by an entertaining film, Anonymous, which plugs the theory that the Earl of Oxford was the real author. All the renewed debate has reminded me that one person who actually added anything to Shakespeare’s own lines, though in a very modest way, was  my own mother. Eirian James, who became Eirian Wain later, was working in the 1950s for the  Arts section of the British Council in London. In collaboration with George Rylands of King’s College Cambridge and the Marlowe Society, the Council, and Mum, helped to produce LP records of the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays, and the Sonnets too. While working as the organiser and administrator of this labour of love, she got to...
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Hitler’s Cheerleaders

Philip Larkin once wrote, about his childhood home, that ‘nothing, like something, happens everywhere’. Why is it so fascinating, then, to find places where you might think nothing happened, but where (in fact) a whole collection of somethings did? You have to get off that well-beaten track, to look for the odd corners of England – let’s just stick to England, for the moment, if nobody minds – and I’ve found that you can’t look for those places, you can only find them; stumbling around, but with your eyes open. (As the screenwriter and author Ben Hecht put it, writing about himself : I was... ' just walking down the road when [I] bumped into history.') My favourite of these rare discoveries is a village called Swinbrook, in the countryside where the Cotswold hills begin to rise, about fifteen or twenty miles to the west of Oxford, and a more likely place to find nothing happening it would be hard to...
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Going to bed with Jeanette Winterson

I’ve never read any of Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, a shocking admission for someone who (against all the evidence) considers himself mildly well-read. That there are - I hope -  still years ahead in my life to read Jeanette Winterson, ironically, may be thanks to her anyway. In February 2008 I tried to end my life. My cat was in the garage with me. I did not know that when I sealed the doors and turned on the engine. My cat was scratching my face, scratching my face, scratching my face. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson. In February 2012 I thought my life had ended. My intelligence told me that that was ridiculous, but my heart thought it anyway. Which is truer, in any case? The mind’s truth, or the heart’s truth? I’d gone through a chain of circumstances, dismal and not very interesting to relate, stuff we all go through, the same old divorce and bereavement, moving house,...
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Up the Thames with a flat-coated retriever

Up the Thames with a flat-coated retriever

In Memory of Millie, the Dog of the Title, who died in June 2016. It had been the wettest April for a hundred years. We knew that, but we’d been planning this boat trip for months. We were going to take an open Canadian canoe, tents, cooking gear and a retriever called Millie upstream from Oxford to the source of the Thames. By mid-May the unseasonal rain had swollen the river as far up as the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. What should have been an easy glide on almost still waters had turned into some sort of triathlon event. The Thames was not living up to its description of ‘a pond between locks’. When we set off, from Pinkhill Lock near Oxford, the sun had come out, but the ‘lay-bys’, landing stages where you step ashore to open the lock gates, were flooded. Waterlilies, normally sunning themselves on the banks, were drowning in the deep water. Further upstream, the Environment Agency had opened weir...
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