Meeting the Devil: a book of memoir from the London Review of Books (Heinemann, £25)

meeting the devilThe London Review of Books has a more or less permanent place on the front counter at Five Leaves Bookshop. Hopefully we will become intellectuals by osmosis, but more importantly it is a reminder of the best bookshop in Britain – the London Review Bookshop. Oh, if only we were in London, three minutes from the British Museum with a major international magazine behind us. Still, we have LeftLion and we are next to a bookies.

The LRB can be quite hard to read at times. A little too much on German philosophy after Hegel in the current issue, but, like the recent looong article on Julian Assange, David Renton’s article remembering the murder of Blair Peach will stay long in the memory. The LRB is like that, annoyingly over-intellectual and obscure one minute, with searing articles the next. And the authors are given enough space to develop their articles. The mag is serious about what it does. One of the best features is the inclusion of memoir, often lengthy pieces – which have been collected in this book. The title memoir is by Hilary Mantel, on a medical crisis. Others memoirs that will stick with me are by Edward Said on trying to live in the space between his role as an academic and as a campaigner for Palestine and, especially, Joe Kenyon on his days as a miner prior to nationalisation. Other pieces have become familiar – Alan Bennett on “The Lady in the Van” and Lorna Sage’s “The Old Devil and His Wife”. The latter is a demolition job on her awful grandparents which (I am almost certain) appeared as part of her family memoir Bad Blood which could be described as mis lit but transcended the genre. Not all the pieces are so good. A.J.P. Taylor’s “Breakdown” needed a paragraph or two of explanation while, surprisingly, the LRB’s long-standing editor Mary-Kay Wilmers’ article about her attitudes to the women’s movement was one of the weakest in the book.

Some of the pieces reach into the past, such as Tariq Ali writing about his strange visit to North Korea forty-odd years ago but the collection ends with Jenny Diski visiting the future – planning her own funeral.

I could say this is a book to dip into… but I’ve been reading it steadily, article after article. And I want more.

Ross Bradshaw

 

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