Heading towards the New Year

cropped-booksmay14.jpgChristmas is over (the hottest Christmas Day in Melbourne since 1988) & fortunately the outlook for New Year’s Day is a lot milder. I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate on reading over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been reading lots of short stories but can’t make a decision to start anything else.Which is probably why I’ve reread 11 books over the last couple of months (four Dorothy L Sayers, three Christine Poulsons, two Charles Dickens, Rumpole of the Bailey & Agatha Christie’s Autobiography) when I have over 1200 unread books on the tbr shelves.


I am past the halfway mark in The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, which I’m reading in instalments with my 19th century bookgroup. It divides up very conveniently into ten Books of about 150pp each. The story is full of characters with multiple aliases; noblemen masquerading as workmen, prostitutes with pure hearts, plucky seamstresses living on the edge of poverty, cruel thugs who would kill you as soon as look at you. I’m enjoying it very much but, with cliffhangers galore it would be almost impossible to review without giving something away.

persephone3I’m also pondering a few reading plans for 2017. Not Simon’s Project 24! I’ve bought hardly any books for 3 months but I know that as soon as I made a pledge like that, I’d be on a very slippery slope. Reading Persephones (I think I only read one this year) & Slightly Foxed editions (read two but they’re piling up as I have a subscription) will definitely be there. Maybe one of each per month?


I have a tottering pile of books on my desk (as you can see here with a guest appearance by Lucky) that I’ve pulled off the tbr when I’ve seen them mentioned on a blog or podcast or in my online reading group so it’s probably time I put them all back on the tbr & started again. Or, start from the bottom of the pile & read my way up?

I also idly scrolled to the bottom of my Kindle app the other day & was amazed at what’s there & how many books I’d forgotten I’d even bought. A Fine Brother : the life of Captain Flora Sandes by Louise Miller, Weeds by Jerome K Jerome, The Longest Dance by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Escape to Mulberry Cottage by Victoria Connelly, Anna by Norman Collins & Enid Bagnold by Anne Sebba – can anyone push me in the direction of one of those?

As always, when I look back at the year’s reading, I wish I’d read more Georgette Heyer, Nevil Shute,  R L Stevenson, D E Stevenson, Trollope, reread some Jane Austen for the anniversaries of the publication of her novels, started Angela Thirkell (!). I’m also pondering my Top 10 of the year. I’ll be back when the list is finalised.

I’d love to know your reading plans for 2017 if you have any. Do you like to have a plan or do you let serendipity be your guide?

Sunday Poetry – Christmas Day


Merry Christmas to everyone who visits I Prefer Reading. I hope you all have a lovely day whether or not you celebrate Christmas & whether you’re having a summer or winter Sunday.

This is the perfect Christmas day carol. Here is King’s College choir & here is Sting, for something completely different!

 I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 Our Saviour Christ and his lady2
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 And all the bells on earth shall ring,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 And all the souls on earth shall sing,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

 Then let us all rejoice, amain,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Then let us all rejoice, amain,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Footfall – Christine Poulson


Cassandra James is shocked when her friend, retired academic Una Carwardine, is found dead in her home. She’s horrified to discover that Una had been thrown down a staircase by an intruder. When Cassandra is told that the strange, silent phone call she received on a chaotic evening was Una’s last call, she is determined to find out why Una rang her & what she wanted her to do.She also feels guilty that her increasingly busy life – head of the English Department at St Etheldreda’s, life with Stephen & their daughter, Grace, & work on her book – had meant that she saw Una much less often than she had in the past.

Una & her husband were academics specialising in 19th century literature, Cassandra’s own field. Cassandra is spending her study leave writing a book, using the collection of the Cambridge Literary & Philosophical Institute (usually known as the Lit & Phil). She’s surprised & honoured to be invited to join the Institute’s Board by head librarian, Giles Brayfield. Una had planned to leave her vast & valuable collection of 19th century literature to the Institute along with a bequest that would enable the Board to buy back the lease on a prominently sited building that they desperately need for storage & as a way of raising the Institute’s profile. Giles is determined to drag the Institute & its collection into the modern age – putting the catalogue online is just the beginning – but there’s a shock in store when Una’s will is read & the bequest is instead left to St Ethedreda’s. Then, as the lawyers delve into Una’s estate, the money to store the collection is missing. Una seems to have spent over half a million pounds in the last months of her life. How could she have spent so much money & what did she buy?

Footfall is a terrifically twisty murder mystery & I’m only sorry that it’s the last in the Cassandra James series. As always, I loved the setting – academic Cambridge with its libraries, bookshops & impoverished students trying to make ends meet. Bookselling, especially the rare book trade, is brought into the story by Cassandra’s meeting with Giles Brayfield’s friend, Eileen Burnham. Eileen tempts Cassandra with copies of the 19th century sensation novels she loves & also gives her some vital clues about what Una was up to at the end of her life. Cassandra’s personal life is also as complicated as ever. Stephen catches chicken pox & takes Grace off to visit his sister in Devon while he recuperates, leaving Cassandra at a loose end, revelling in the freedom of being on her own but also anxious & a little bereft. There’s more than enough to make Cassandra anxious. Apart from Una’s death & the mystery of her estate, odd things have been happening at Grace’s nursery – objects appearing & disappearing. Then, there’s a woman posing as Cassandra, copying her hairstyle & even sitting at her desk at the Lit & Phil. What could her motive be & could she have any connection with Una’s death? Then, there are Cassandra’s unresolved feelings for Superintendent Jim Ferguson. Jim is investigating Una’s death & Cassandra is drawn into the investigation not only because of her relationship with Una but because of her knowledge of books.

The many subplots keep the action moving along & Cassandra’s frantic juggling of work, motherhood & marriage rings true. Even the infrequent moments of calm when she can concentrate on her book are haunted by a looming deadline & the thought of the work waiting for her at St Etheldreda’s at the end of her study leave. All in all, this is a very enjoyable series. I definitely won’t be waiting another 15 years to reread it. I now have them all safely on my Kindle so I can revisit Cambridge & Cassandra whenever I need a dose of academic mystery.

Dickens in December


For me, December means Dickens. This year I have a treat, a new Naxos recording of Dickens’ Christmas stories.These are the stories Dickens published in the 1840s. The first of them was the perennially popular A Christmas Carol.


I’ll be listening to Miriam Margolyes reading the Carol as I have for the last few years. This new recording is of the other four stories – The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life & The Haunted Man. Even better, they’re read by David Timson, one of my favourite narrators. I listened to his recording of Dombey & Son last year & it was wonderful. He’s also recorded the complete Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon which I’m nearly halfway through. I haven’t read these later Christmas Stories as often as A Christmas Carol – I can recite whole passages from the Carol – but these later stories have never been as popular. The Carol was a hard act to follow. However, I’m finding a lot to admire & enjoy in them. I think listening is the perfect way to experience them.


I’ve also been catching up on back issues of The Dickensian, watching Ronald Colman (photo from here) in the 1935 movie of A Tale of Two Cities (which made me want to reread the book immediately) & reading this terrific interview with Jenny Hartley where she chooses her top 5 books on Dickens.


Apart from Dickens, I’m also reading this anthology of Christmas stories. A mixture of old favourites & new discoveries. So far I’ve enjoyed rereading The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers & discovering a very Golden Age story by Val McDermid called A Traditional Christmas. There are also stories by Ian Rankin, Ellis Peters, Ngaio Marsh & Margery Allingham. I bought the Kindle edition for only about $3 but it’s also available in paperback.


I’ve also been tempted by bloggers to buy a couple of Christmassy books, the first books I’ve bought for nearly two months. Elaine’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days was so enticing that I ordered it straightaway.


I was also intrigued by Heavenali’s mention of this anthology of Christmas Stories published by Everyman. I love these chunky little hardback anthologies of short stories. There are several more here that I’m tempted by.

I’ll just finish this ramble with a link to a blog I’ve just discovered. Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books, organises their very popular Walking Book Club & is a freelance reviewer. She also blogs at EmilyBooks. I’ve been enjoying reading her archive as she is a fan of Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, Ann Bridge, Penelope Fitzgerald & Elizabeth Von Arnim.

I was going to finish this ramble but Lynne at dovegreyreader has written about the centenary of Penelope Fitzgerald’s birth here & I like her idea of a Persephone January. There, that really is the end.

Monday Poetry – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


I know we’ve already had our poem of the week but this poem by Longfellow was the answer to a clue in my crossword on Saturday. I vaguely knew it but hadn’t realised that it was written during the Civil War. It starts out a quite a jolly carol, darkens in the middle & ends hopefully. Poignant & lovely. I also couldn’t resist this gorgeous photograph (from here) of Longfellow taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the most original photographers of the 19th century. He looks like a Welsh bard, doesn’t he?

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old, familiar carols play,
        And wild and sweet
        The words repeat
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And thought how, as the day had come,
    The belfries of all Christendom
        Had rolled along
        The unbroken song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Till ringing, singing on its way,
    The world revolved from night to day,
        A voice, a chime,
        A chant sublime
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Then from each black, accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
        And with the sound
        The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said;
        “For hate is strong,
        And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
        The Wrong shall fail,
        The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Sunday Poetry – Christmas


I love this carol, which is spritely & tells the Nativity story briskly & beautifully. The tune is 16th century but the words were written by George Ratcliffe Woodward in 1901. You can hear King’s College Choir singing it here & here are the Rice Philharmonics who, I’ve just discovered are an a cappella group from Rice University in Texas.

Ding-dong, ding:
        Ding-dong, ding-dong:

Up! good Christen folk, and listen
How the merry church bells ring,
And from steeple
Bid good people
Come adore the new-born King:

Tell the story how from glory
God came down at Christmastide,
Bringing gladness,
Chasing sadness,
Show’ring blessings far and wide.

Born of mother, blest o’er other,
Ex Maria Virgine,
In a stable
(‘Tis no fable),
Christus natus hodie.

The Dancing Bear – Frances Faviell


After reading Frances Faviell’s memoir of the Blitz, A Chelsea Concerto, I was keen to read this book, written before A Chelsea Concerto but set in post-war Berlin. Frances’s husband was a senior civil servant in the British Administration in Berlin & Frances & their son, John, joined him in late 1946. Berlin was being administered by the four allies – Britain, the United States, France & the Soviet Union – in the uneasy years after the defeat of Hitler & before the Soviets divided Germany & took over the East.

During the War, Frances lived in Chelsea & helped many refugees with her practical kindness & friendship. Her life in Berlin is a continuation of that life in some ways. The  contrast between the lavish social life of the Allied administration & the friendship she develops with the Altmann family is striking. She is exposed to the trauma inflicted by the war as well as the ongoing hardship of the defeated German people & her attempts to alleviate the hardship as much as she can for her friends.

Frau Maria Altmann lives with her husband, Oskar, & their children Fritz, Ursula & Lilli in a barely heated apartment stripped of anything that could be sold for food or fuel. Frances meets Frau Altmann one day when she sees the older woman collapse on the street. Taking her home, Frances discovers that Maria is depriving herself of food to help her children. The Altmanns had been a prosperous family but their belongings are gone & their savings are worthless. Ursula is working as a housemaid for a group of American servicemen & Lilli is a ballet dancer. Fritz, resentful of the allies & with a nostalgic longing for the Hitler Youth he was part of during the war, has become involved in the black market. Another son, Kurt, is missing in Russia. Their lives are made more difficult by the restrictions imposed on Berliners – the tiny electricity ration, the bans on fraternising with the British (the Americans were not so strict) & the lack of food & fuel even if they had any money to pay for it.

As Frau Altmann begins to trust Frances, she becomes more involved with the Altmanns. Assisted by her British driver, Stampie, she is able to help in practical ways. Stampie is adept at all the ways & means of getting hold of just about anything legally or not. He always has money & always knows someone who can help. He is supporting several needy families & has an answer for any problem. Frances also learns more of the Altmann’s story. The horror of the end of the war when the Russians arrived, looting & raping indiscriminately. Frau Altmann hid her daughters in the attic but Ursula couldn’t stand the cramped conditions & was raped several times. Frau Altmann grieves for Kurt & excuses Fritz for his rudeness & laziness but Lilli is the baby of the family & her father’s favourite.Oskar Altmann is a gentle man, bewildered by his change of circumstances & at a loss in this new world.

Frau Altmann has a more difficult relationship with Ursula who has embraced the way things are, talks English with an American accent & comes home with cigarettes, food & smart clothes given to her by her employers. Her mother doesn’t want to question how she gets the extras although she sees more than Ursula realises. She is practically supporting the family although her mother continues to disapprove of her behaviour & attitudes especially when she joins Fritz in his black market activities. Her rejection of the Church especially hurts her mother whose faith never wavers. Ursula becomes involved with Joe, an American who becomes her sole protector, & who wants to marry her & take her home with him to the States. Lilli is frail but, because the Russians love ballet, she is able to continue dancing & the company receive some privileges.Lilli’s health is a worry but her quiet determination to keep going masks her pain until it’s too late.

The Dancing Bear is an affecting & very moving story. By concentrating on the story of one family, Frances Faviell brings home the plight of many thousands more. Maria Altmann is a dignified, stoic woman who understands a great deal more about her children’s lives than they realise. Her blind spot is Fritz, a bitter, resentful young man dealing with the aftermath of the defeat of his country by flouting authority wherever possible. His search for somewhere to belong will take him far from his family. Life in Berlin was difficult for everyone. The Allied Command employees had trouble getting food & fuel but they were the victors & their problems paled beside that of the Berliners who had lived through Nazism & then the destruction of their city by the Russian troops. Frances is able to help the Altmanns with her contacts & Stampie is a miracle worker but the contrast between her daily life & that of her German friends & servants is very great.

There are so many fascinating characters in this book. Fritz’s place in his mother’s heart is taken by her nephew Max who spent much of the war as a prisoner in England, working on a Welsh farm. Max is in love with Ursula & his return to Berlin stirs up emotions that she is unwilling to acknowledge. One of Frances’s acquaintances is Frau von R, an unrepentant Nazi who grieves for the past & is hostile to the conquerors. Frances admires her honesty, unlike that of many others who denied that they were members of the Nazi Party or that they knew anything about the regime’s horrors. Oskar’s brother, Hermann, drinks to forget the present & to remember the glories of the past. Frances’s servant, Lotte, shows Frances her journal, written during the Russian invasion, with its matter-of-fact descriptions of rape & destruction. Frances is an artist & uses her talent to record the life around her. This edition of The Dancing Bear includes some delicate pencil drawings, including a lovely one of Lilli. I’ve read very few post-war memoirs & this one stands out because of the compassion with which it’s told. As in A Chelsea Concerto, Faviell doesn’t flinch from recording the brutal realities of life for these desperate people. The aftermath of war & the reality of living under occupation requires compromises that will test the Altmanns but also shows how strong the will to survive can be.

The Dancing Bear is another of the Furrowed Middlebrow list from Dean Street Press.

Stage Fright – Christine Poulson


After the events of Murder is Academic, & the birth of her daughter Grace, academic Cassandra James is on maternity leave from St Ethedreda’s College. She’s helping a local theatre group put on a production of East Lynne, an adaptation of one of the most popular sensation novels of the Victorian era. Cassandra is still unsure about the future of her relationship with Stephen & she’s relieved when he’s sent to the US on a business trip. Cassandra’s work on the script of the play has given her a focus & she’s also reunited with Melissa Meadow, the leading lady of the production who she’d first met in the maternity ward as they coped with their premature babies.

Melissa is married to Kevin Kingleigh, the director & leading actor of East Lynne. They’re renting Journey’s End, not far from Cassandra’s home, The Old Granary, in the Fen country outside Cambridge. Cassandra & Melissa had bonded over their shared experiences & when Melissa confides that she’s received an anonymous letter, Cassandra is surprised that she hasn’t told Kevin or the police. The letter is a poem by Byron & signed The King of Cups although the signature has been printed upside down. Melissa seems concerned & a bit fragile but the stress of combining motherhood with a demanding role as Lady Isabel in the play could explain that. Cassandra is shocked then when Melissa disappears, leaving her daughter, Agnes, behind.

The police can find no evidence of foul play or that Melissa may have left voluntarily but Cassandra can’t believe that Melissa would leave Agnes or Kevin as they’d seemed so happy. More practically, the show must go on & Melissa’s disappearance causes problems for the theatre group. Two documentary makers filming the rehearsals are finding that their project could prove more exciting than they could have hoped; the search for a new leading lady becomes urgent & then there’s the sightings of the theatre ghost lurking in the auditorium when young actress Belinda Roy is frightened by a shadowy figure sitting in the dress circle. Stan, the deputy stage manager, efficiently keeps the production on track as well as taking Cassandra in hand & organising her outfit for the first night but even she feels the tension as time goes on & Melissa doesn’t return. Cassandra is also disconcerted by the reappearance in her life of her first husband, Joe. Now a professor at an American university, he wants to catch up with Cassandra on a visit to Cambridge but he revives memories of their brief marriage that Cassandra finds difficult to resist.

Stage Fright is a very exciting mystery with the added attraction of the theatre background & Cassandra who is an engaging heroine. I’m also a fan of Victorian sensation fiction so the East Lynne discussions were also fun & relevant to the plot. Cassandra’s friendship with Melissa is grounded in their shared experiences in the maternity ward & Cassandra is glad to be working on the script for the play, to have something to keep her mind occupied while she gets used to motherhood. The closed circle of the theatre company can be friendly but also claustrophobic & Cassandra is soon questioning everyone’s motives & relationships. Kevin seems devastated by Melissa’s disappearance & a bit lost at being left to care for Agnes alone but is there something he’s hiding? While Cassandra worries about Melissa, she’s also helping Kevin to care for Agnes & getting used to being a mother herself. Joe’s reappearance while Stephen is away confuses Cassandra but eventually leads her to a decision about her future as she tries to work out the motive behind Melissa’s disappearance. I really enjoyed reading this again after nearly 15 years & I’m looking forward to reading Footfall, the third Cassandra James mystery.

Sunday Poetry – Christmas


This unusual carol, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, was written in the 18th century & most famously set to music by Elizabeth Poston in the 20th century. There are several theories about the significance & symbolism of the apple tree in the poem but I’ve just always loved it, especially when sung by a choir (here it’s St John’s college, Cambridge). Those pure young voices just make it seem even more mysterious.

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

The Pigeon Tunnel – John le Carré


Earlier this year I listened to Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré & enjoyed it very much. Not long after the biography was published, it was announced that le Carré was planning to write a memoir. Whether it was the process of being interviewed for the biography that spurred him on or whether he felt that he wanted to dispute Sisman’s version of his life is unclear. The result is The Pigeon Tunnel : stories from my life.

The subtitle is significant as this isn’t an autobiography. David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) ranges across his life, telling stories, not always in chronological order. Cornwell’s novels of espionage are probably his most famous but he continued writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall when many critics thought that he would be lost for subject matter in this brave new post-Cold War world. He has proved them wrong by tackling other subjects – corrupt pharmaceutical companies in Africa, arms dealers, post-Glasnost Russia – &, of course, there are still spies even if the enemy is now terrorism rather than the Soviet Union.

38 chapters cover Cornwell’s travels in search of material for his fiction – to the Middle East, famously meeting Yasser Arafat, to Russia, Africa, Panama & Asia. His novels have been made into successful movies & TV series & he describes the process of film making with Martin Ritt & Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) & Alec Guinness (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Almost as interesting are the chapters about the projects that never got off the ground, with Stanley Kubrick & Sidney Pollack, among others. He is self-effacing about the dangers involved in his travels, always generously acknowledging the journalists & locals who took him into dangerous places or to meet significant people. One chapter describes lunch with Margaret Thatcher after he’s refused an honour; another describes the experience of cavalierly accepting an invitation to appear on Apostrophes, Bernard Pivot’s demandingly intellectual interview program. There would be a panel of formidable critics to conduct the interview which would be live on television & take place entirely in French, a language Cornwell hadn’t spoken in many years. He amusingly describes the immersion course in French he took in London before the interview as well as the interview itself which he seems to have come through creditably. Leaving the studio he asks his driver why there’s no one on the street & is told that everyone in Paris stays home to watch Apostrophes.

The extent of Cornwell’s involvement with the British Secret Service has excited more interest than almost anything else in his long career. He has always refused to elaborate on his time as a spy, citing his loyalty to his former colleagues & the fact that he signed the Official Secrets Act which prevents him discussing it. Adam Sisman dug out a little new information but this book maintains Cornwell’s reticence. He must have used his knowledge of the Service to write his books & some within its ranks have felt betrayed by that but he maintains that he has never broken a confidence. One of the most fascinating chapters was his account of a conversation with Nicholas Elliott, a member of the Service & a close friend of Kim Philby. Elliott, like so many others, was betrayed by Philby & devastated when he defected. Cornwell knew both men & gives a sympathetic portrayal of Elliott as he describes his interrogation of Philby in Beirut just before he left for Moscow. Cornwell acknowledges Ben Macintyre’s book on the subject, A Spy Among Friends, & I’ve downloaded the audio book as this chapter was so interesting that I want to know more.

Perhaps the most personal chapter comes near the end of the book, Son of the Author’s Father. Cornwell’s father, Ronnie, was a con man, a charming rogue who spent his life coming up with grandiose schemes to enrich himself regardless of the consequences to others. Cornwell wrote a version of Ronnie’s story in his novel, A Perfect Spy, but he has obviously struggled with the legacy of being the son of a crook who served several prison sentences in the UK & Asia, was bankrupted several times & seemingly had no conscience about the damage he left in his wake. Cornwell’s mother, Olive, abandoned her husband & two sons when David was only five. He didn’t see her again for many years & had a distant relationship with her in his adult life. Ronnie was almost a constant presence – failing to pay his school fees, employing David to collect debts in Paris, using his connection as the father of the famous John le Carré to sponge off David’s publishers, being bailed out by David from an Asian prison, ironically threatening to sue David for the cost of his education etc etc. The anger that David still feels towards both his parents is obvious. He even spent a considerable amount of money on investigators to try & disentangle Ronnie’s lies – without much success. It seems he will never discover the truth about many of the questions that plague him about his mother’s disappearance or his father’s psychology. This section of the memoir is no less fascinating for being inconclusive.

I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed to read The Pigeon Tunnel after reading Sisman’s exhaustive biography. I’m so glad I did, especially as I listened to the audio book read by Cornwell himself. I knew most of the stories from reading the biography. I knew the origin of the title, The Pigeon Tunnel, which had been the working title for many le Carré novels over the years. I’d read Sisman’s version of the meetings with Arafat, Joseph Brodsky & Andrei Sakharov but it was a different experience hearing the stories from Cornwell himself. Naturally more intimate but Cornwell came across as funnier, more self-deprecating, less earnest than he seemed in the biography. I’m glad I’ve read Sisman’s biography which filled in a lot of the background that isn’t detailed in this book. However, I don’t suppose many readers of The Pigeon Tunnel will be totally unaware of Cornwell’s life – there have been enough profiles & interviews over the years. As a collection of stories, some quite slight but many much more searching, this is an excellent insight into the complicated life of a secretive man.