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Public Life

Pat Rogers, 1 April 1982

A Model Childhood 
by Christa Wolf, translated by Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt.
Virago, 407 pp., £8.95, April 1982, 0 86068 253 6
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The Safety Net 
by Heinrich Böll, translated by Leila Vennewitz.
Secker, 314 pp., £7.50, March 1982, 9780436054549
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The Country of her Dreams 
by Janice Elliott.
Hodder, 186 pp., £6.95, March 1982, 0 340 27830 7
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The Soul’s Gymansium and Other Stories 
by Harold Acton.
Hamish Hamilton, 165 pp., £7.95, February 1982, 0 241 10740 7
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... for analysis and description, with evident enjoyment of the human spectacle. The stories by Sir Harold Acton are pervaded by something nearer resignation: oddity is exposed, and not really put down, but celebrated only in back-handed ways. They concern expatriates in Florence, and take a good old-fashioned chunk of a lifetime (up to thirty years or ...

Half-Way up the Hill

Frank Kermode, 7 July 1988

Young Betjeman 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 457 pp., £15.95, July 1988, 0 7195 4531 5
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... of helpers and informants. Flagging only in the last stretch of the alphabet, they range from Sir Harold Acton to Douglas Woodruff, and like his subject the author has evidently ‘made it his business to know people whom he thought worth knowing’. He dissociates himself from what he calls ‘the vacuum-cleaner school’ of biographers, but remains ...

Very like Poole Harbour

Patricia Beer, 5 December 1991

With and Without Buttons 
by Mary Butts, edited by Nathalie Blondel.
Carcanet, 216 pp., £13.95, October 1991, 0 85635 944 0
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... her, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot praised her work, Aleister Crowley exploited it. In the Twenties Harold Acton came across her in Paris, not exactly among ‘the bevies of truculent women’ who surrounded Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford but somewhere near. On the fringe of the Montparnasse bars were a few talented storytellers running to seed, like poor ...

Nit, Sick and Bore

India Knight: The Mitfords, 3 January 2002

The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family 
by Mary Lovell.
Little, Brown, 611 pp., £20, September 2001, 0 316 85868 4
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Nancy Mitford: A Memoir 
by Harold Acton.
Gibson Square, 256 pp., £16.99, September 2001, 1 903933 01 3
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... by Charlotte Mosley; as well as Selina Hastings’s clear-sighted, of-the-milieu biography. Harold Acton’s knowing, gossipy, intimate memoir, long out of print and now reissued, is a welcome readdition to the canon: it makes you weep with laughter on most pages. Or scream, perhaps. That Nancy and her sisters never laughed at jokes, but rather ...

Gentlemen Travellers

Denis Donoghue, 18 December 1986

Between the Woods and the Water 
by Patrick Leigh Fermor et al.
Murray, 248 pp., £13.95, October 1986, 0 7195 4264 2
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by Jonathan Raban.
Collins, 301 pp., £10.95, September 1986, 0 00 272119 8
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The Grand Tour 
by Hunter Davies.
Hamish Hamilton, 224 pp., £14.95, September 1986, 0 241 11907 3
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... along the way with famous people. If they are sweet to him, he writes them up handsomely: Sir Harold Acton gets a good press, the Countess Anne Maria Cicogna was nice to Davies in Venice, Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis took time out from the football pitch to chat with him, Nabokov and Davies wandered around Montreux. These men are rewarded with ...

When the Mediterranean Was Blue

John Bayley, 23 March 1995

Cyril Connolly: A Nostalgic Life 
by Clive Fisher.
Macmillan, 304 pp., £20, March 1995, 0 333 57813 9
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... His point of view is more that of a journalist than of a scholar or scientist.’ Absorbed, with Harold Acton and Brian Howard, in the creation of a daring aesthetic manifesto to be called ‘The Eton Candle’, Connolly would have been greatly disturbed by this deflating prophecy, which was soon to be echoed by a boy called Jessel, one of his friends ...

A Toast at the Trocadero

Terry Eagleton: D.J. Taylor, 18 February 2016

The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918 
by D.J. Taylor.
Chatto, 501 pp., £25, January 2016, 978 0 7011 8613 5
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... of A Clockwork Orange. The book is crammed with intriguing chunks of information. We learn that Harold Monro, who established the Poetry Bookshop shortly before the First World War, was a twice-married homosexual of Scottish ancestry whose family owned a private lunatic asylum. Of the writers who made their literary debuts in the interwar era, well over a ...

Out of the jiffybag

Frank Kermode, 12 November 1987

For Love and Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling 1969-1987 
by Jonathan Raban.
Collins Harvill, 350 pp., £11.50, November 1987, 0 00 272279 8
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Original Copy: Selected Reviews and Journalism 1969-1986 
by John Carey.
Faber, 278 pp., £9.95, August 1987, 0 571 14879 4
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... is likely to enjoy such books as Martin Green’s Children of the Sun, in which people like Harold Acton and Brian Howard and Cyril Connolly, and all who profess to believe that heterosexual affairs are ‘the mark of state-subsidised undergraduates’, are dug reeking from their lairs, scraped and dumped. Like Orwell, he has a particular loathing ...

Poor Hitler

Andrew O’Hagan: Toff Humour, 15 November 2007

The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters 
edited by Charlotte Mosley.
Fourth Estate, 834 pp., £25, September 2007, 978 1 84115 790 0
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... such white skins’; ‘Gentlemen never wear brown in London.’ (‘It is necessary to admit,’ Harold Nicolson wrote in his own fawning Curzon biography, ‘that it required several months of close association with Lord Curzon before even the most well-intentioned observer could wholly rid himself of a sense of unreality.’) Nothing is funnier than a noun ...


Thomas Jones: Death in Florence, 21 June 2012

... for traces of my ancestor’s ghost and I headed over the river to the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library. The institute was founded in 1917, so had no contemporary records of my great-great-grandfather’s death. What it did have were two copies of the diary that Arnold Bennett kept while in Florence in 1910, which is full of details of ...

Seventy Years in a Colourful Trade

Andrew O’Hagan: The Soho Alphabet, 16 July 2020

Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia 
by Darren Coffield.
Unbound, 364 pp., £25, April 2020, 978 1 78352 816 5
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... got a chance in a place like this,’ says a sixty-year-old woman called Rose at the opening of Harold Pinter’s first play, The Room. ‘It was the alcoholics’ paradise,’ Barry Humphries writes in his introduction to Darren Coffield’s entertaining book.You merely ran up a slate. Later, much later, came the reckoning, but you never knew how they ...

Is the lady your sister?

E.S. Turner: An innkeeper’s diary, 27 April 2000

An Innkeeper's Diary 
by John Fothergill.
Faber, 278 pp., £23.95, January 2000, 0 571 15014 4
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... you must be Mr J.M. Barrie,’ to which Sir James, ‘slyly’, says: ‘You are not far wrong.’ Harold Acton, with his ‘Big Ben’ voice, presides at the last dinner of Oxford’s banned Hypocrites’ Club, which ends in much goat-like leaping about, the sort of conduct which would not have been tolerated in commercial travellers. Evelyn Waugh, in ...

No False Modesty

Rosemary Hill: Edith Sitwell, 20 October 2011

Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius 
by Richard Greene.
Virago, 532 pp., £25, March 2011, 978 1 86049 967 8
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... as such as ‘could only have been contrived by a poet who had never experienced pregnancy’. To Harold Acton she was ‘the essential hysterical intellectual spinster’ and however unpleasant his tone it is impossible to disagree with his conclusion that ‘dear Edith wasn’t exactly what you might call cuddly.’ As so often it is Sitwell herself ...

On the Lower Slopes

Stefan Collini: Greene’s Luck, 5 August 2010

Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family 
by Jeremy Lewis.
Cape, 580 pp., £25, August 2010, 978 0 224 07921 1
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... slender evidence. As an undergraduate, he was the contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton and other gilded youths who expected the world to pay attention to them. As the editor of Oxford Outlook, he asked his father to try to persuade their Berkhamsted neighbour, the eminent historian G.M. Trevelyan, to contribute, while sending his ...

Unliterary, Unpolished, Unromantic

Charles Nicholl: ‘The Merchant of Prato’, 8 February 2018

The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City 
by Iris Origo.
Penguin, 400 pp., £10.99, May 2017, 978 0 241 29392 8
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... by heart, and surrounded by a posh, chattery, intellectual circle of Anglo-American expatriates: Harold Acton and his parents at La Pietra; Bernard and Mary Berenson at Villa I Tatti; the authors Janet Ross and Violet Paget (penname Vernon Lee); and streams of summer visitors including Edith Wharton and Vita Sackville-West. Though isolated from other ...

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