Leaf back through the year

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
Maureen McTaggart asks writers, illustrators, MPs, ministers and educationists what they have most enjoyed reading this year

Seamus Hegarty

Director National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz continues to beguile me. Palace of Desire (Doubleday) is the second in the series and brings Cairo of 70 years ago to vivid life. The enthusiasms and pain of earnest adolescence have seldom been portrayed as well.

Ireland has been much in the news this year - again. Dermot Healy's A Goat's Song (HarperCollins) is a tortured love story spanning north and south, Catholic and Presbyterian. Intricate and at times over-artful, it nevertheless captures something of the enigma of the two Irelands. As a bonus, his convoluted use of the narrative form raises perplexing questions about the very nature of fiction.

William Boyd's The Blue Afternoon (Penguin) moves effortlessly between 1930s Los Angeles and turn-of-the-century Manila in an enthralling tale of love and loss and what might have been. A marvellous read.

Delight of the year was the discovery of Janette Turner Hospital's first novel The Ivory Swing (Virago). Astonishingly mature, her scalpel-sharp prose and her insights into the female psyche - foreign albeit alluring territory to a mere male - were already much in evidence.

Gillian Shephard

Secretary of State for Education

In these days when it is fashionable to compare the state of the world with the Middle Ages, I have found The Waning of the Middle Ages (Penguin) by J Huizinga, as impressive as the day I first read it when I was an undergraduate.

Merely to re-read the chapter headings, The Violent Tenor of Life, The Political and Military Value of Chivalrous Ideas, Religious Thought beyond the Limits of Imagination - gives some flavour of the book. Take this point: "A present day reader, studying the history of the Middle Ages, based on official documents, will never sufficiently realise the extreme excitability of the mediaeval soul . . . . To be sure, the passionate element is not absent from modern politics (Huizinga was writing in 1924) but it is now restrained and diverted for the most part by the complicated mechanism of social life. Five centuries ago it still made frequent and violent irruptions into practical politics, upsetting rational schemes." More relevant than Huizinga might have supposed.

Another book which I greatly enjoyed this year was Isabel Allende's The Infinite Plan (HarperCollinsFalmingo). I have read all Allende's novels. I know it is partly the genre, but there just is no one else who can weave, and interweave, so fascinating a saga which is at once fantastic, and extraordinary, but also down to earth, and with really credible background details. I read the book more or less at one sitting, and look forward to reading it again.

Allan Lee

Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for book illustration

Two new books made a powerful impact on me this year. Roberto Calasso's extraordinary journey through Greek myth in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (HarperCollins) demonstrates the continued vitality of the oldest stories, and their ability to engender great works of art, while every page of Marina Warner's brilliant study of fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde (Chatto Windus) offers new wonders and insights. Her acute eye for pictorial symbolism, for the manifestation of ancient ideas in contemporary culture and for the truths buried within fantastic narratives make this the richest and most rewarding book on the subject I've ever come across.

I was also pleased to be introduced to the deranged but highly entertaining academic, professor Kinbote, in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (Everyman). Having appropriated the last work of the American poet he studies so obsessively, Kinbote's inspired, rambling commentary reveals it to be a thread of coded references to the life story of the exiled king of Zembia - and the assassin who stalks him.

Finally, Robert Holdstock in The Hollowing (HarperCollins) continues his fruitful probing into the roots of stories. The "mythagos" he unearths in his latest novel include an engagingly piratical Jason, dealing in golden fleeces and other stolen mythic property.

Nick Tate

Chief Executive School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

My reading this year has taken place in bursts and snatches: on train journeys to and from innumerable conferences, on an Isle of Wight beach, on a plane to Singapore. Looking back on it, two themes stand out.

The first is autobiographies and reflections. Over the summer I read Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Penguin), St Augustine's Confessions (Penguin), and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (Penguin). Marcus Aurelius left me with memorable aphorisms. Newman's brilliant marshalling of arguments gave me new heights to aspire to in drafting School Curriculum and Assessment Authority papers. But St Augustine stood head and shoulders above the others for sheer intellectual vitality: a mind that probed and nagged away at itself right up until the last week when he lay unattended in a bare room looking at a blank wall.

The other theme is the clash of cultures. John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses (Faber and Faber) made me slightly less negative about 20th-century mass culture and revised my view of some literary heroes. I did not agree with much of War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, edited by Sarah Dunant (Virago), though some of the essays sensitized me to issues on which I had pronounced too readily.

But my favourite was the Selected Poems (Penguin) of the Nobel Prize-winning Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, especially his sonnets and the marvellous way he evokes an incredibly richAnglo-Hispanic Judaeo-Christian heritage.

Sir Robert Balchin

Chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation

The only welcome side-effect of breaking my leg this year, ironically in Venice, was a huge increase in reading time during the following months. My books, therefore, are, each in their own way, cheering ones for the convalescent.

It was with gleeful anticipation that I learned that George MacDonald Fraser had produced his tenth saga in the history of Rugby expellee and bounder Harry Flashman: Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (HarperCollins Pounds 15.99). This is the story of John Brown (of John Brown's Body fame). Flashman was disgracefully funny, even if he did not provoke me to laugh aloud as he has done in the previous nine.

One book impossible to read without a snort of laughter is The Life and Death of Rochester Sneath by Humphrey Berkeley, who, alas, has just died. As a Cambridge undergraduate he invented Sneath, the sleazy headmaster of a third grade public school, who wrote to various "colleagues" on HMC. The resulting hilarious correspondence has been reprinted by Harriman House at Pounds 6.99: every Head must read it.

Finally The Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopaedia (HarperCollins Pounds 25) is a marvellous compendium which made me wish that I had even a tiny drop of Scottish blood. If you want to know how properly to don a kilt (lie on it with your legs in the air) this is the book for you.

Steve Sinnott

President, National Union of Teachers Conference 1994

I started the year by forcing myself to complete Kenneth Baker's memoirs The Turbulent Years (Faber and Faber). I subsequently wrote to him suggesting a number of corrections.

Mervyn Jones' biography, Michael Foot (Victor Gollancz) is well written, critical but revealing a radical politician, with spirit, dignity and integrity. It was a refreshing contrast to my first read. I also enjoyed, for different reasons, Ben Pimlott's Harold Wilson (Harper Collins).

Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (Victor Gollancz) was a good bedtime read. Although about Arsenal and the consumption associated with football rather than football itself, it also dealt with relationships, in particular those between generations - always a good subject for teachers. Have Arsenal always been that bad?

In the summer while in the United States, I bought a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Faber and Faber). His poem "I sit and look out", with its call to all those who see and hear inequality and injustice not to remain silent, is a poem for educationalists to reflect on over Christmas.

Anthea Millett

Director of Inspection at Ofsted, chief executive designate Teacher Training Agency

Four Weddings and a Funeral spurred me to revisit WH Auden this year. His Collected Poems, edited by Mendelson (Faber Faber), contains all the work which Auden wished to see published. In poems such as "Atlantis", "In Praise of Limestone" and "The Quest", it is not always easy to follow his thought but in other poems his colloquial and conversational style, his variety of mood - racy, gossipy, ironic or philosophical - are well worth the intellectual effort.

Always a devotee of American crime fiction, I have discovered Carl Hiaasen. His bizarre, frightening but funny stories about greed, hypocrisy and low life in the Florida swamps are a revelation. Try Striptease, but don't expect any heroes: the only good guys are the alligators.

The geographer in me was delighted to find A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird (Virago). This 19th century account is the ideal companion for a late 20th century journey across the American West from San Francisco to Denver. Much has changed in 100 years but not the "majestic peaks, the sunset glories, the diamond bright stars and the crystalline air".

Being read to has been a pleasure since childhood. Imagine my delight, then, at being given Persuasion by Jane Austen in talking book form. This complete, unabridged version, read by Anna Massey (Cover to Cover Cassettes) is an excellent rendition of a very gratifying novel where the reading underlines the irony, sharp wit and comedy of the novel. But, as always, the ultimate satisfaction is that Anne Elliot achieves both a romantic and a financially sound marriage.

Eric Bolton

Professor of teacher education, London Institute of Education

The novel that has niggled away at the edge of consciousness and, at times, taken over centre stage in illuminating some current happening, is Nadine Gordimer's None To Accompany Me (Bloomsbury). In some ways it is a hot off the press novel rooted in the collapse of apartheid, but it has none of the slipshod, phony authenticity of the knee-jerk genre. Its pervasive message, that for blacks and whites, that there is no area of personal or public life untouched by the pernicious tentacles of apartheid and its awful regime, is powerful, bleak and not confined to South Africa.

My second choice is really four books. Walter Moseley's Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly and Black Betty (Serpent's Tail) are self-contained novels. But, Moseley creates and peoples a distinctive world that is more fully enjoyed if the books are read in sequence. That world is Los Angeles, mainly in and around Watts, in the 1950s and 60s. It is black America, where even the law- abiding and God-fearing would never dream of turning to the law for help in times of trouble. Moseley's anti-hero, Easy Rawlins is the guide to the unravelling of the plot, but who-dunnit barely matters. More riveting and important is what is revealed as we vicariously experience black America through the eyes and voice of Easy Rawlins.

Finally, in Canada in summer I came across a new edition of The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. No surprises, as most are well known. But to have it all-of-a-piece reinforces her importance, not as one of the giants of literature, but as one unparalleled at using black humour to gaze on the face of the Gorgon without being turned to stone by it.

Damian Murphy

Headlined by The Times as "brightest state pupil of the year" after gaining 11 passes in the new "super" grade of GCSE

The novel I most enjoyed reading this year has to be Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (PanHeinemann), which I first came to read as a set book on the GCSE English Literature syllabus. However it would be quite impossible to define reading such a delightful novel as "work".

Harper Lee indulges the reader in a wonderfully vivid world of two children growing up, and yet includes a multiplicity of themes salient to the adult world. A skilful contrast is made between the apparently peaceful lifestyle of 1930s' small-town America, and the underlying racial tensions. This is a book where "appreciation at several levels" is truly spontaneous. Second and third readings bring to life scenes that previously seemed trivial.

As a chess addict, I thoroughly enjoyed World Chess Championship: Kasparov v Short by Daniel King and Donald Trelford (Cadogan Chess) which provides accessible commentary on the most exciting championship of recent years Finally, for sheer, idiotic amusement, I cannot resist William McGonagall's Poetic Gems (Duckworth), perhaps the greatest ever collection of bad verse.

David Blunkett

Shadow Education Secretary

With all that has happened this year, finding time to read for pleasure has been difficult to say the least.

On my two weeks annual holiday, I shared with friends the humour of Tom Sharpe but the three books I think I would pick out, from the ones I have carved out time for this year, would be Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry, The Raven at the Foregate by Ellis Peters (excellently read on to cassette by Stephen Thorne) and The Shellseekers by Rosamund Pilcher (again excellently read by Lynn Redgrave).

The first of these books is, in my view, a classic of its type, with both humour and poignancy. Chapter 13 had me in stitches as I could visualise a run down dance hall invaded by an irate truck driver, complete with truck, while Chapter 18 in contrast was so moving it brought tears to my eyes.

On the other hand, Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) who is over 80 and has recently had a leg amputated, is one of the most remarkable and optimistic people I have met over recent years. She tells wonderful stories, extraordinarily well researched and very informative. For me, Brother Cadfael brings an hour or two of medieval tranquillity, where imagination is allowed to come into play, unusual in a world now bedevilled by virtual reality and nothing left unspoken.

The Shellseekers is simply an extremely good book which for me linked a perception of a human nature with the ability to paint word portraits.

Christine Wilkinson

Appeared on BBC2's Raising Lazarus which told the story of her transformation from living on the streets to being the holder of a degree in English and women's studies

The theme of the three books I have chosen is "coming home". A book which I have recently discovered Mr God This is Anna by Fynn (Collins Fount Paperback) tells the story of an inspired child's short journey through her life. I feel I know Anna for I too am filled with curiosity and my quest is for beauty, knowledge and understanding. Anna, alive, vital and aware has no problems with God. I love this story.

My gift to myself is Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Ballantine Books). Clarissa, a Jungian analyst and story teller, through myth and stories re-awakens for me the powerful force within, which she calls wild woman. This force is my "passionate creativity", my good instincts and my knowing. Her book animates, enlightens and heals. Truly worth reading.

A beautiful gift from a friend is my third choice Lightning on My Tongue 1994 by Tina Kendall (Only Women Press). Tina is a traveller and her poetry is a tapestry of her journeys. Skilfully interweaving landscapes of relationships with people, places and things (lovers, countries, longings, colleges, learning, nature and death), she has found herself.

Bob Swindells

Winner of the Carnegie Award for Stonecold (Hamish Hamilton)

1994 was the year I discovered Armistead Maupin, whose Tales of the City series (Black Swan) is the funniest, wisest, most compassionate collection I have encountered in 40 years of avid reading. These six volumes, together with his latest novel, Maybe the Moon (also Black Swan) have impacted on me more forcibly than anything since my discovery decades ago of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Homophobes and assorted bigots will hate these books. The rest of us will laugh, cry and feel our hearts grow bigger as we discover that, as one reviewer put it, "There is room in Mr Maupin's world for all of us."

Jill Parkin

Daily Express columnist.

The year seems to have been a blur of Shirley Hughes and Dr Seuss, read to my small daughter. But I indulged myself, as I think the author did, with Rachel Billington's The Great Umbilical (Hutchinson), all about mothers and daughters. More anthology than argument. Then there was Fay Weldon's Affliction (HarperCollins), more argument than novel: an angry, healthgiving assault on the cult of psychotherapy.

On holiday I read Nancy Mitford's The Blessing (Penguin) and resolved to read more of her. It's light and ruthless, like Evelyn Waugh without the hatred. I followed it up with Hons and Rebels (Penguin), her sister Jessica's autobiography. What is amazing and frightening is how those childhood dreams and oddities became hardened into adult reality for the Mitford girls. The power of money?

My first Simone de Beauvoir, La Femme Rompue (Folio), was a sharp corrective to both Rachel Billington and Shirley Hughes, with their motherhood quotes and cosy children's tales. For de Beauvoir, domestic life requires the removal of the female spine.

Lately, I've been picking at The Wings of the Dove (Penguin) by Henry James, the only man in my choice. Occasionally his stroll through the endless rooms of the mind makes me want to rip pell-mell through Affliction again.

Peter Downes

President of the Secondary Heads Association

In the small gaps between reading the outpourings of the educational press, I try to keep my French alive and current. This year I have enjoyed two novels of adolescence and early adulthood by Philippe Labro, L'etudiant etranger and Quinze ans (Gallimard) which took me back nostalgically to the France I knew as an assistant in the Paris before the '68 turmoil, a time when the tensions and aspirations of young people were suppressed by the residual hierarchical structures and expectations of French society.

Had I not turned out to be a modern linguist, I would have read history, and therefore historical biographies fascinate me. Richard Ollard's Cromwell's Earl (HarperCollins) is a most readable account of the life of Edward Montagu, first Earl of Sandwich, whose country seat, Hinchingbrooke, is now used as the Sixth Form centre of the school of which I am Head.

Edward Montagu skilfully contrived to be valued both by Cromwell and subsequently by Charles II. Cousin and patron of Pepys, Montagu comes across as a man who survived the upheavals of the Civil War and Restoration by being good at his job (soldier, admiral, ambassador) and by getting on well with people in a sincere and uncomplicated way. His happy marriage produced 11 children, all of whom survived, and Pepys's diaries tell of the friendly atmosphere of Hinchingbrooke which, I hope, continues today, even though the "family" has grown to over 350.

My third area of interest is theology and, in particular, the application of Christianity to social issues. That is why I was pleased to come across a weighty collection of essays, edited by John Atherton, Social Christianity: A Reader (SPCK). The writings of Westcott, William Temple and Niebuhr are set alongside the Christian Conservative tradition of Sumner and Brian Griffiths. For those of us who struggle with the tension between the market-place philosophy of the last 15 years and the growing disparity of wealth and educational achievement in this country, this book provides much food for thought and should be recommended reading for any aspiring political leaders who claim to be Christian.

Matthew Sweeney

Poet and judge of next term's TES Young Poet of the Week

Amid all the hype surrounding the "New Generation" poets, three new collections by older poets stood out - two on the recently relaunched Cape list, The Handless Maiden by Vicki Feaver, and Thomas Lynch's Grimalkin, both speaking clearly and un-cleverly, in their different ways, about the world we wake up to, and Christopher Reid's wry, quirky limited edition, Universes (Ondt Gracehoper), which unfortunately won't be found in any bookshop.

My other favourite reading of the year shared a subarctic setting - Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow (Flamingo), a strikingly original novel that's a thriller and more, and Lawrence Millman's Last Places (Abacus), a travel book that first appeared in 1990, and follows, with searing detail (the correct way to eat seal nose chunks, for example, is by holding on to the whiskers as if they were toothpicks), the path the Vikings took across the rim of the globe.

Geraldine McCaughrean

Winner of the Whitbread Beefeater Children's Novel Award for Gold Dust (Oxford)

Jan Mark's They do Things Differently There (Bodley Head) is indescribably funny; that is, I can't describe the humour or quite what it is about. But it would be a serious crime to buy it for a 12-year-old, and not read it yourself.

In the car (my daughter's province) I may have discovered the only child's cassette which stands hearing 37 times straight off: the Ahlbergs' Jeremiah in the Dark Woods (Cover to Cover) - a perfect story, perfectly read.

An inability to stay awake nights endears me to short stories - Helen Simpson's Four Bare Legs in a Bed (Heinemann), for example, and the early, sweet-natured Garrison Keillor books (Faber). but the most life-altering thing I've read and re-read must be the transcript of An Interview with Dennis Potter (Channel 4 TV).

Also, I bought the loveliest (and most expensive) book I'm ever likely to own: Sebastiao Salgado's photographic collection, Workers (Phaidon). Haven't read a word of the text, and don't suppose I will.

Hilary McKay

Winner of the Smarties Book Prize

The first book on my list is Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow (Flamingo). This is an icebound thriller with a wonderful heroine.

I stayed up all night to find out what happened to her. Totally compelling and (almost) totally confusing especially at four o'clock in the morning. I finished the last page and started it again and it was even better second time round.

Elizabeth Von Arnim's Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (Virago) is one of the books I read over and over again. It is a love story told in letters, sparkling, courageous, and hilarious. Slightly wistful, very cheering, one of my favourite books.

I discovered for the first time this year J L Carr's What Hetty Did (J L CarrQuince Tree Press), a summer interlude in a Birmingham boarding house overflowing with characters so alive I cannot believe I did not meet them once . . . Hetty made me laugh but Michael Foreman's brilliant, beautiful War Game made me cry. It is a story of the first world war related by a boy caught up in the tragedy and told so well that although it is essentially a children's book many adults might also be able to understand it. It was the last book I read this year, and the best.

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