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Frieda “Freddie” Wentworth is an extraordinary comic creation; imagine Miss Jean Brodie played by Alastair Sim

David NichollsBut if Freddie dominates both school and novel, there’s also a wonderful supporting cast, and I particularly like Pierce Carroll, the inept tutor, well intentioned but entirely incapable of controlling his class. There’s Boney Lewis, a charming, drunken actor famed for his Napoleon, an off-stage cameo from Noël Coward and a great comic set piece involving a hysterically pretentious production of King John, full of mad acting and comprar teclado tfue mime.

If the idea of a stage school comedy sounds worryingly winsome, Fitzgerald dodges sentimentality and predictability. She’s clear-eyed about the prospects of the underdog and brilliant at capturing the desperation that lurks behind the smiles and bravado of those on the lower rungs – has anyone written about failure so well? There’s a bracing bitterness to the humour (“No emotion can be as pure as the hatred you feel for a child,” says Boney), and melancholy too, a sense that disaster is never far away; in this respect, the final page is quite unforgettable. Fitzgerald is rightly celebrated for the great, late historical novels such as The Blue Flower, but she is also a first-class, underrated comedian, even when the comedy is played against a backbeat of sadness.

It was such a chance meeting, says Isla. “The window of opportunity in which we met was really a few seconds. If the light had been green, we probably wouldn’t be here.” Valente must be pleased to have decided to catch up with her once she sped off, I say. He smiles and says: “On her birthday, I gave her a new bicycle.”

* Ian Martin’s Epic Space, an anthology of his satirical architectural columns, will be published in March by Unbound.

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse Chosen by Charlotte Mendelson

Novels rarely make me laugh. Practically everything else does, so clearly I’m not picky. Strangers giggling give me the giggles. Show me a wobbly film of an adult falling off a swing and I’m hysterical; if it’s a toddler I may need oxygen. Yet almost all contemporary fiction leaves me straight-faced.

There have been highlights: Cold Comfort Farm (“what do you do when you’re not … eating people?”); Flann O’Brien; Douglas Adams; Catch-22. But nothing comes close to the salvation of my teenage years, the epitome of Englishness: PG Wodehouse. It shouldn’t work. Cricket, sentimental villagey poshness, chorus girls, spats: this is not my world. But Wodehouse’s sleight of hand – the apparent casualness of his observations, the Chandleresque daring of his similes – makes every description a joy: “Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove”; “I marmaladed a slice of toast”; “the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows”. But if you want proof of Wodehouse’s gloriousness, turn to The Code of the Woosters for the greatest line ever written about aunts, or anything else: “You cowered before her like a wet sock.”

In a report released on Wednesday, S&P said total state, territory and commonwealth debt reached $1tn for the first time in April, as governments loaded up with cash in preparation for big-spending budgets due to be unveiled before the end of the year.

“Typically, bubbles are unwound when the Fed takes away the punch bowl. Obviously, this is very unlikely to happen anytime soon,” Wolfe Research strategist Chris Senyek wrote on Tuesday. “However, this bubble can still be unwound by sustained economic disappointments.”

At Freddie’s by Penelope FitzgeraldChosen by David Nicholls

So many of my early reading memories involve hysterical laughter. There was Adrian Mole, of course, and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Monty Python books, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, Geoffrey Willans’s How to Be Topp, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Books were prized for being shocking or funny or, even better, both, and the promise that a book would make the reader “laugh out loud” seemed entirely plausible. Why not? It happened all the time.

Less so now perhaps, but a book that consistently makes me laugh is Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s, a comic masterpiece from 1982 that really should be better known. It’s set in the early 60s, in a shabby, crumbling stage school in Covent Garden, full of terrifyingly precocious child actors and inept, downtrodden teachers, all presided over by the infamous Frieda “Freddie” Wentworth. Manipulative, enigmatic, sharp-tongued, opinionated, she’s an extraordinary comic creation; imagine Miss Jean Brodie played by Alastair Sim.

The Reserve Bank of Australia may need to support the states and territories by buying more of their debt if recovery from the coronavirus crisis is patchy or slow, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s says.

* Jenny Colgan’s Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is published by Sphere.

Augustus Carp, Esq by Henry Howarth BashfordChosen by Philip Ardagh

Although I’m a huge fan of PG Wodehouse in general and his Blandings stories in particular, and although Clive James’s series of unreliable memoirs has caused me to snort out loud in public, and after having weighed up Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men and Two Others, I’ve gone for Augustus Carp Esq, by Himself.

Subtitled “Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man”, and first published in 1924, it begins: “It is customary, I have noticed, in publishing an autobiography to preface it with some sort of apology. But there are times, and surely the present is one of them, when to do so is manifestly unnecessary.” Though written by Dr Henry Howarth Bashford – later Sir Henry, physician to George VI – his name did not appear in the book in his lifetime.

Carp’s nearest relative must be Pooter from Diary of a Nobody but, for me, Carp, the character and the book, surpasses Pooter and the better known classic. Here is a Sunday school superintendent, churchwarden and self-appointed president of a piety league, who religiously highlights the faults in others while constantly trying to pursue his own advancement through “good deeds”. (When falling out with those at the church of St James the Lesser, he joins the congregation of St James the Lesser Still.)

When tricked into believing that port is “a species of fruit squash imported from Portugal and known as Portugalade” he gets terrible “port-poisoning”. It all ends in tears, one of which lands on his employer, causing him to apologise –not to his employer “but to the moisture”. Why? “Because by apologising to the moisture, I was conveying to Mr Chrysostom, in the most trenchant way possible, my own opinion of his character.” Carp is, quite simply, a very British comic masterpiece.

October 6, 2020
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