The English Agent by Clare Harvey

Published by Simon & Schuster on February 23, 2017




My Life in Books
by Clare Harvey

It may surprise you to know that even though I make my living from writing, I don’t live in a house lined with over-stuffed bookshelves. I’m a book lover, but not a book hoarder. It’s a legacy of seventeen years married to a soldier; the army posted us to a new home every two years or so, and I always de-cluttered each move. But each time we did get a posting order to wherever (Northern Ireland, Nepal or Nottingham) and I began to think about having a clear out, there were always some books I found I just could not part with. So I’ve just had a browse on my bookshelves and found the seven books that I think tell you something about my life.



1. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr:



Before I could read myself, this is the book that had me enthralled. I’m the youngest child, so I was still at home with my mum when my elder sisters went to school. We lived in Ilfracombe in Devon at the time. I would sit on Mum’s knee, at the kitchen table after lunch, and this is one of the books I can remember her reading to me. I can also remember that we had a somewhat wayward collie dog called Scamper who used to get jealous. By the end of the story Scamper was usually sitting on Mum’s knee and I was on the floor (Mum carried on with the story, regardless)! I read this to my own children when they were small, too.

2. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

When I’d just turned seven we moved from Devon to Mauritius, due to my dad’s job. I’d not long learned to read properly, but because we had no TV out there I read, lots, and soon became a total bookworm (as the photo shows!). I read all the Little House on the Prairie series of books, many times over, and fell in love Laura Ingalls Wilder as an author and as the heroine of the stories. Looking back, what’s interesting is that these books aren’t fiction, they are memoir: a blend of personal history and story telling. And the kind of writing I love to do most is where real-life events are melded with fiction. So perhaps my writing career really began with reading the Little House on the Prairie books all those years ago in Mauritius.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:



When I was 12 I was sent to a state boarding school (a comprehensive school that had a boarding ‘hostel’ attached) in Devon. My mum bought me this copy of Pride and Prejudice before I went, and I remember her saying she thought I was ‘old enough’ for Austen. I tried – but failed – to read it. I think the language was just a little too impenetrable for a 12-year-old and I didn’t get around to reading, and loving, this book until I was a few years older. Nevertheless, this copy of Pride & Prejudice stayed on my bedside locker in the dormitory throughout my first traumatic year at school, a constant reminder of my mum, and of home. And when I look inside the cover I can see the bookplate that I stuck there as a homesick pre-teen, with its picture of a unicorn and my curly over-practised signature in pencil. It’s so poignant because my own twin girls will be 12 this year, and are obsessed with unicorns, too. The thought of sending them away to school with nothing but a full tuck box and a copy of Pride & Prejudice makes me want to weep.

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:



Looking at the date inside the cover of this I can see that I bought it as an 18th birthday present to myself. And if you’ve ever read any Sylvia Plath this tells you all you need to know about the angst-ridden teen I was at the time. It’s tempting to look back on my teens and twenties and yearn for those sun-kissed, cellulite-free days, but this book reminds me that what was slender and sunny on the outside, hid a dark and conflicting muddle underneath. In 1988, as well as devouring Sylvia Plath and writing some very bad poetry, I took four A ‘levels (English, Art, Pure Maths & Physics), failed miserably to get a place at Oxford University, and enrolled on a foundation course at Exeter College of Art and Design. There was quite a lot of navel gazing and scribbling in notebooks going on – I’m not sure I was any fun to be around, but I do still have a few friends from that era, so perhaps I wasn’t as much of a killjoy as I recall…

5. Summer with Monika by Roger McGough:

Boyfriends, eh? In my early twenties I fell totally and obsessively in love with someone, in the way that you do at that age. I was studying Law at the University of Leicester, but had come home for the summer holidays and met man when pulling pints in my local pub. Falling for him was like coming down with the flu. We bought this book in Waterstones in Exeter, and read it together. I thought our relationship was destined to be chapter four (‘our love will be an epic film, with dancing songs and laughter, the kind in which the lovers meet, and live happy ever after…’), but I should really have focussed more on the latter sections of McGough’s wonderful poem-story, such as chapter 39 (‘I wanted my pie in the sky, but you gave it me in the face’). Still, to paraphrase the wise and talented Joanna Trollope, you can’t be a writer until you’ve been knocked about a bit by life – otherwise you have nothing to write about – so even doomed relationships with manipulative men are never wasted, if you’re an author.

6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:

After graduating from university I lived with the pie-in-the-face boyfriend (see number 5) for a while. An old friend of his was on leave from the army one Christmas time, and had come to visit. On Christmas morning pie-in-the-face and I were going off to visit our respective families for Christmas Day (having spent Christmas Eve clubbing), but the army mate said he wasn’t going anywhere and intended to spend the day eating takeaway pizza and drinking beer in front of the telly. When I asked why he wasn’t going home to see his own family, he told me that his mother had died a couple of years previously and he couldn’t face spending Christmas Day with his father and new stepmother. Feeling sorry for him, I gave him a present of a wrapped copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray (originally meant for pie-in-the-face, even though I knew he wouldn’t appreciate it). Instead of watching telly all day, the army bloke read Oscar Wilde, and enthused about the book when I saw him again after Christmas. And you know what? Reader, I married him (six years later, mind). We have just celebrated 19 years of marriage – 19 years is bronze, apparently, and he’s just bought me this bronze-heart ring.



7. A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm

I couldn’t do this list without including this fascinating book. Romanian-born Vera Atkins was the agent handler for the Secret Operations Executive’s French section in WW2. A fierce, fabulous woman-of-a-certain-age, Vera had a secret past that presented a massive conflict of interest in her work with the SOE. Anyone who’s read this book will know how much I’m indebted to Sarah Helm’s portrayal of this real-life heroine, whose fictitious namesake plays such an important role in my new book, The English Agent.


I have loved this nostalgia-fuelled foray into the books of my life. Have any of them had an impact on yours? If not, which ones have? Do tell!



The English Agent is out now in hardback, paperback and e-book.

You can catch up with me here:

Twitter: @ClareHarveyauth
Facebook: ClareHarvey13
Web: http://clareharvey.net




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