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Guardian first book award shortlist 2015

American coasts and suburbias, sibling rivalry in Nigeria, sculpting muscular poetry, Putin as Simon Cowell, a father, a son and a crow ... Extracts and introductions from all the shortlisted authors

Linda swaddled her newborn Beatrice in the butter-yellow blanket the neighborhood women had knitted, and joined her husband in the car. They drove from the hospital, smiling at the baby and each other. They turned onto their street and smiled at their house, which they’d had restored and painted a color they believed would make all the difference in raising their family. Then their smiles vanished.

The man was already in the yard.
They pulled into the driveway, and the man skulked behind the maple. When he saw that they’d seen him, he stepped out from behind it. He loped back and forth.
Linda hugged Beatrice close, let her husband do the job of slamming the car doors, shouting, staring the man down. She felt helpless, and so she scurried quickly to the house, knowing that her husband’s attempts to be menacing would fail.
Inside, she watched the man in the yard watch the house. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he got inside. He always did.
And so Linda never left the house unless she had to. She locked up after her husband went to work. She installed bars over the windows. In the nursery she stood behind the curtains while Beatrice slept, and she watched the man. When she took out the garbage, she clutched her baby to her chest and locked eyes with the man as she stumbled past with the leaking bag. But all it would take was a brief moment; she knew that. If she spent too long looking for something in the fridge. If she sliced her finger cutting carrots and grimaced in pain. If she fell asleep while Beatrice napped. It would be some small thing.
Then one day a package was delivered. Linda signed for it carelessly, looking instead at the man in the yard. Inside the house, she drew out a knife to slice the box tape, and noticed the package wasn’t addressed to her. It wasn’t even for someone on the block. The deliveryman had given her a stranger’s package. He was already down the driveway in his truck.
Wait, she called, running to stop him before he pulled away.
He jumped from the truck to meet her, and something about his quickness made her suddenly remember the man in her yard. How easily her mind had let go of that burden. Some dumb box was all it took. She dropped it, ran into her house screaming. But it was too late. The man had come and gone, and he had taken Beatrice with him.

She was still speaking when Father started his Peugeot 504. At the sound of it, Obembe and I hurried from our room, but Father was already driving out of the gate. He was gone.
Whenever I think of our story, how that morning would mark the last time we’d live together, all of us, as the family we’d always been, I begin – even these two decades later – to wish he hadn’t left, that he had never received that transfer letter. Before that letter came, everything was in place: Father went to work every morning and Mother, who ran a fresh food store in the open market, tended to my five siblings and me who, like the children of most families in Akure, went to school. Everything followed its natural course. We gave little thought to past events. Time meant nothing back then. The days came with clouds hanging in the sky filled with cupfuls of dust in the dry seasons, and the sun lasting into the night. It was as if a hand drew hazy pictures in the sky during the rainy seasons, when rain fell in deluges pulsating with spasms of thunderstorms for six uninterrupted months. Because things followed this known and structured pattern, no day was worthy of remembrance. All that mattered was the present and the foreseeable future. Glimpses of it mostly came like a locomotive train treading tracks of hope, with black coal in its heart and a loud elephantine toot. Sometimes these glimpses came through dreams or flights of fanciful thoughts that whispered in your head – I will be a pilot, or the president of Nigeria, rich man, own helicopters – for the future was what we made of it. It was a blank canvas on which anything could be imagined. But Father’s move to Yola changed the equation of things: time and seasons and the past began to matter, and we started to yearn and crave for it even more than the present and the future.

Extract: A City Living in Fast-Forward
Flying in at night over Moscow you can see how the shape of the city is a series of concentric ring roads with the small ring of the Kremlin at the centre. At the end of the 20th century the light from the rings glowed a dim, dirty yellow. Moscow was a sad satellite at the edge of Europe, emitting the dying embers of the Soviet empire. Then, in the 21st century, something happened: money. Never had so much money flowed into so small a place in so short a time. The orbital system shifted. Up above the city the concentric rings began to shine with the lights of new skyscrapers, neon, and speeding Maybachs on the roads, swirling faster and faster in high-pitched, hypnotic fairground brilliance. The Russians were the new jet set: the richest, the most energetic, the most dangerous. They had the most oil, the most beautiful women, the best parties. From being ready to sell anything, they became ready to buy anything: football clubs in London and basketball clubs in New York; art collections, British newspapers and European energy companies. No one could understand them. They were both lewd and refined, cunning and naive. Only in Moscow did they make sense, a city living in fast-forward, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, where boys become billionaires in the blink of an eye.
“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold-diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian president. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the president’s vizier would call “the heights of creation”. It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march towards what the president’s vizier would call “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all”.

Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins,
singing the hymns.
I lost a wife once, and once is as many times as a
crow can lose a wife. Ooh, stab it. Just remembered
He flew a genuflection Tintagel–Carlyle cross
Morecambe–Orford, wonky, trying to poison
himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches,
but England’s litter saved him. Ley lines flung him
cross-country with no time for grief, power cables
catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black bone and
feather and other crows rained down from the sky,
a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath, but
our crow picked and nibbled at Lilt cans and salted
Durex and B&H, and the fire storm passed over his
head, as written history over the worker. Blackberry,
redcurrant, loganberry, sloe. Damson, plum-pear,
crab-apple, bruises. Clots, phlegm, tumours and
He looks in a puddle of oil and sees his beak is
brightly coloured, striped red, green, purple and
orange. Like a fucking puffin.
He opens his mouth to scream and beautiful English
melody comes out, garden-song, like a blackbird or
Ivor blooming Gurney.
This is another one of Crow’s bad dreams.

isn’t this how the best of it should be?
taking the body to the point at which
it almost breaks and then returning
having had your faith restored
in the miraculous fragility
of the self
the night I almost ended us
it was your sobbing brought me back
we talked ourselves together
and the next day still wearing your hand
around my neck I found I was struggling
to swallow every mouthful
was a labour I became aware
of the mechanics of my own body
could feel parts of myself that would
usually go unnoticed
after your hand had been on my throat
I learnt the pleasure in possessing
capacities that are never
quite fulfilled almost being broken
almost leaving but deciding
to tough it out

When news of the murder breaks I’m in Matthew’s, buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the house, but we found a dollar and sixty-three cents in change, and decided free crabs would get us the most food for that money. Usually we use bacon rinds for bait, but we’ve eaten those already.
I’m squatting down looking at the boxes of cupcakes on a bottom shelf when a woman steps over me to get to the register. Matthew’s is small and the shelves are crowded in; when Mama brought us with her to get food Renee and me would have contests to see who could get from the front door to the grimy meat counter at the back in the fewest hops – I could do it in seven. She’s a big fat woman, with more of an equator than a waist; she steps heavy, all of her trembling as she does, and for a moment I’m worried she’s going to fall and squish me. She dumps a dozen cans of pork and beans on the belt and gets out her food stamps, then digs down the front of her stretched-out red shirt and pulls a wrinkled ten-dollar bill out of her bra to pay for a pack of menthols. “Hear what happened to Cabel Bloxom?” she asks the cashier. The cashier hasn’t. “They found him waist deep in the mud in Muttonhunk Creek, had his face shot to pieces and all swole up with being in the water. His girlfriend had to identify him by the tattoo on his back.” The cashier’s eyebrows jump up, and her eyes get big. I keep rummaging among the cupcakes. The cashier can see me, but they’ll probably keep talking anyway; being thirteen doesn’t get me noticed any more than being twelve did. My necks are starting to drip blood and chicken ooze through their newspaper onto my leg.
“They know who done it?” the cashier asks as she picks up the limp bill and unlocks the glass-front tobacco case.
“Not yet. Police say they used a slug-loaded shotgun. They couldn’t find no cartridges, though.”
“That’s a lot of help – everyone around here has one of those,” the cashier answers, and she’s right. We’ve even got one, sitting next to the .22 by the porch door, in case deer show up in the yard.
“And that ain’t even the half of it.” The lady leans in close, but her whisper is almost as loud as her talking voice. “They done cut his thang clean off!”
“Guess he won’t be needing it anymore.”

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The Poems of TS Eliot: The Annotated Text review – a monumental achievement

Eliot went from starchy student to Nobel laureate who could pack out baseball stadiums on an American tour. This landmark study provides the background to a groundbreaking body of work

Buying an edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Florence as a student, I was struck by its resemblance to the flood lines marked on the side of buildings to commemorate the great flood of 1966: sometimes the footnotes would creep almost all the way to the top of the page, leaving only one or two lines of actual text. Had Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue adopted footnotes rather than endnotes in their remarkable edition of TS Eliot’s poems, whole pages of apparatus would surge by with barely a line of verse in sight. Volume one contains 346 pages of poems to 965 of commentary. In the second volume, notes follow text on a poem-by-poem basis, but their combined 290 pages is still outweighed by a 367-page “textual history”. It is a monumental achievement, and one that frames important and timely questions about the state of Eliot’s reputation.

“We beg to call to your attention /Some minor problems of the soul”, protests the breeze in the early poem “Goldfish (Essence of Summer Magazines)”. Eliot’s hegira from starchy student to the Nobel laureate who packed out baseball stadiums on an American tour remains one of the most compelling and strange of modern poetic careers. The young Eliot wrote some fine poems in French, and he had his reasons, too: the poet of Prufrock and Other Observations is much more a belated contemporary of Laforgue, Corbière and Rimbaud than of the Georgians Ezra Pound was busy skewering in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. No less than with Yeats, however, the legacy of the 1890s played its part. Eliot was extravagant in his praise for John Davidson’s “Thirty Bob a Week”, a plausible wellspring for the melancholy chambermaids and commuters that stalk his early work. Among the most important of his juvenilia is “The Death of Saint Narcissus”, a poem of guilt, humiliation and martyrdom. An obsession with drowning runs through Eliot’s writing, inspiring section four of The Waste Land (“Death by Water”). In later life he would deride his early poems, but their reservoirs of buried feelings served him well, keeping his desert places from drying out entirely. They also contain their share of genuine near-masterpieces, such as “Oh little voices in the throats of men”, almost as good in its way as “Portrait of a Lady” or “La Figlia Che Piange”.

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The latest weapon of political dissent: reading


A student in Illinois spoke volumes by reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen at a Donald Trump rally. Which book would you reach for to speak truth to power?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could make your political positions register internationally by the simple act of, you know, reading a book? Johari Osayi Idusuyi, a student in Springfield, Illinois, has done just that. By a sequence of accidents, Idusuyi found herself sitting in the VIP area of a rally for bizarre presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Perhaps in the hope of presenting Trump as friendlier to African Americans than most people would assume, one of his people ushered the black student into a seat directly behind the entrepreneur turned demagogue.

A woman, in an attempt to counteract the crazy, reads CITIZEN during a Trump rally. Hat-tip: @JeffShotts1pic.twitter.com/iNZ10gBPOv

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My 12-hour Odyssey was magical. No wonder, when conventional art can be so dull | Charlotte Higgins

My mother’s very special relationship

Goldie Morgentaler’s mother made a lifelong friend of a British soldier soon after she was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. Living on different continents, they forged a special bond

My mother, Chava Rosenfarb, was liberated at Bergen-Belsen by the British army on 15 April 1945. At the time, she did not know that she was free because, like many of the inmates, she had typhus. The British took her to a makeshift hospital on the grounds of the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp and there she slowly recovered.

The British encouraged a return to normality after the horrific conditions they found in the camp by providing venues for concerts to be staged by the former camp inmates. Once recovered, my mother, her sister and their mother – my grandmother was one of the few older women who survived the war – went to one of these concerts. Waiting for the show to begin, my mother noticed a British soldier sitting alone in the row in front of her. She wondered how he would understand what was going on, as the concert was in Yiddish and she assumed – correctly as it turned out – that he was not Jewish. She tapped him on the shoulder and offered her services as translator. Her English was rudimentary, but good enough to start and maintain a conversation because by the end of the concert she and the soldier had become friends.

From youth to middle age to old age, they moved through life together, separated by an ocean … but always in sympathy

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Modern Poetry in Translation is Ted Hughes’s greatest contribution

A chance suggestion of Hughes’s to Daniel Weissbort at a party in the early 60s led to the creation of a magazine that is still enthusiastically promoting poetry from around the world 50 years on

Ted Hughes’s poetic legacy is beyond question. But for such an emphatically monolingual poet, his greatest contribution to the landscape of British poetry may be the internationalism he promoted through Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), the magazine he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort, through the founding of Poetry International in 1967, and through his own translations and the poetic dialogue he had with those he translated, particularly the Hungarian poets János Pilinszky and Ferenc Juhász in the 1960s and 1970s.

The timing was propitious: interest in poetry in translation was growing in the early 60s and a number of poets were already engaged in serious and systematic translation work. The “dull” and suspicious “isolations of the 50s” were over, as Hughes wrote, and the “passionate international affair commenced”. In retrospect, “it seemed easier to let the magazine take off than to keep it grounded. The sheer pressure of material forced the issue.”

Related: Daniel Weissbort obituary

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The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs by Richard Bradford – review

Philip Larkin’s astute pictures make a tantalising companion to his verse

In October 1947, Philip Larkin wrote to his friend Jim Sutton about a recent “act of madness” – he had spent £7 on a camera. The British-made Purma Special had cost him more than a week’s wages, but it was state of the art compared with his previous model, a box camera that had been given to him by his father in 1937, when Larkin was 15.

“I am so far awaiting my first roll of results,” Larkin told Sutton in the same letter. “If they are bad, I shall feel I have been rather a fool.”

Related: In search of the real Philip Larkin

A young girl stares suspiciously at Larkin’s camera and you almost see him though her eyes, a nerdish outsider observing

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Meet Nina Freeman, the punk poet of gaming


Video games don’t have to be about death and warfare. Emotional, intimate and sexually frank, Nina Freeman’s relationship-led adventures are revolutionising the genre

The couple are entwined on a small bed in a dormitory room in New York City. Young and inexperienced, they fumble at each other’s clothes, his hands all over her. The camera draws in nearer, almost uncomfortably stark and intimate in the way of all mumblecore movies about the awkward first stages of a new relationship. But this is not an independent film. This is a video game, and the woman on the bed is played by its designer, Nina Freeman. It’s a long way from Call of Duty.

Related: Video games to get you through Valentine's Day

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Stevie Smith: you’ve read the poems, now look at the pictures

Faber’s new Collected Poems & Drawings insists, rightly, that you look at Stevie Smith’s sketchings along with her poetry

Although I will not be chucking out my beloved old editions of the works of my second favourite poet (my first is Philip Larkin) just yet – the house will have to look like it’s auditioning for a Channel 4 documentary about hoarding before that happens – I am nevertheless completely thrilled to be in possession of Faber’s new Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith. Its editor, Will May, has included such a good selection of previously uncollected and even unpublished poems, most of which seem to me to be as savage and as true as any she ever wrote. I’m especially taken with Marriage I Think (“Marriage I Think/ For women/ Is the best of opiates”), whose subject is – here’s the twist – a lonely spinster. For all that she never married herself, preferring life with her Lion Aunt, no one writes more lucidly than Smith of men and women and the perilous, compromised ground that lies between them.

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Poem of the week: Calling Card by Tracey Herd


A eulogy for a young writer who died in a car accident aged 22, this bright poem refuses mourning to insist that her unfinished legacy will endure

Calling Card
(i.m. Marina Keegan, 1989-2012)

At the last party,
the punctual, the late arrivals,
the ones who never made it
are all one and the same.

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Shelley, Johnson and the enemies of liberty | Letters

Costa category awards 2015: tiny presses square up to big hitters


The shortlists for the five prizes include award-winners Anne Enright and Kate Atkinson – and a gothic thriller set in Morecambe Bay, with an original print run of 300

An unsettling debut novel set on the Lancashire coast whose first print run stretched to just 300 copies has made the shortlist for the Costa first novel award, having been praised by judges as “unforgettable” and “a truly suspenseful page-turner with immense depth”.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, in which a teenager and his disabled brother take part in a Catholic pilgrimage to “that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune [where] the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents”, was first published by small independent Yorkshire press Tartarus last October. One of the 300 copies ended up in the hands of Mark Richards, editorial director at major publisher John Murray, who went on to acquire the rights. Today, John Murray, which is part of Hachette, calls the novel “the modern classic that we all missed”, and The Loney has picked up praise from names including Stephen King – “It’s not just good, it’s great. It’s an amazing piece of fiction,” said the horror master – as well as a film deal and a host of sales to foreign publishers.

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The Costa category shortlists 2015 – in pictures


This year’s five shortlists pit Alice in Wonderland against a 17th century diarist, a collection of sonnets against a hymn to male flesh, and English pastoral against stories of war

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An Index of Metals review – a soprano and six naked men fall flat


Carriageworks, Sydney
This theatrical staging of Fausto Romitelli’s swansong is so earnest in its quest for profundity that its emotions seem overwrought, even silly

For most of An Index of Metals, soprano Jane Sheldon is surrounded by a swarm of six naked men. With chiselled pale bodies lit by glaring lights or cast into dark foreboding silhouettes, they stalk around her, encircling and encompassing her, lifting her up and putting her down as if she is made of putty.

Related: Watch extracts from the Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance's Goldberg Variations

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'Our melting, shifting, liquid world': celebrities read poems on climate change


Actors including James Franco, Ruth Wilson, Gabriel Byrne, Maxine Peake, Jeremy Irons, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Sheen read a series of 21 poems on the theme of climate change, curated by UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Includes two bonus poems from Byrne and Franco

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Saudi court sentences poet to death for renouncing Islam


Friends of Palestinian Ashraf Fayadh believe he is being punished for posting video showing religious police lashing a man in public

A Palestinian poet and leading member of Saudi Arabia’s nascent contemporary art scene has been sentenced to death for renouncing Islam.

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Clive James: ‘Poets in the free countries don’t get famous’


All real poets start off by being fascinated by the sound of words. Do they all write something but mean something else?

My granddaughter has renamed her gerbils. They are now called Joey and Chandler, after the two chaps in Friends, of which she owns a box set. The gerbils live in a dirt-floored box known as a gerbilarium: a word she likes. Not long ago, one of the gerbils disappeared into the dirt. Pregnancy was suspected. I warned her that gerbils have lots of babies and that there was a threat of gerbilisation. There would be all kinds of gerbils. Verbal gerbils: good at words. Herbal gerbils: averse to nicotine.

I didn’t tell her about the fanatical rightwing Goebbels gerbils: too grown-up an idea for her, although Friends, when you think about it, is pretty grown-up, too. Just as she was readying herself for the onset of gerbilisation, it turned out both the gerbils were definitely male. Hence their new names.

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The Saturday poem: The Bible


by Neil Rollinson

Big as a suitcase, heavy
as a log, the cover wrinkled
in elephant skin.
Budby opened the book,
and the frontispiece lit up the room;
there were angels and saints,
all the shimmering animals
of heaven. Christ on his cross.
Budby’s eyes glimmered
in this new light. What he saw
I do not know, but he grabbed
a corner, as if it were no more
than a photo of Billy Bremner,
and tore the whole page out.
I couldn’t believe it.
He folded it up, and stuffed it
in the pocket of his Sunday best.
I can still remember the rip
of the paper, the dust motes
floating in the air of that miserable
Methodist chapel, and I felt
something lift me, like wings,
out of that dark place.

FromTalking Deadby Neil Rollinson (Cape, £10), shortlisted this week for the Costa poetry award. To order a copy for £8 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Kenneth Goldsmith interview: ‘I wanted to take Walter Benjamin off the pedestal and on to the coffee table’


The controversial author on turning an autopsy report into poetry, not reading his own books and his golden love letter to New York

How apt to be meeting Kenneth Goldsmith at Eisenberg’s. An old-school Jewish diner (est 1929) in New York’s Flatiron district, and these days a slightly self-conscious throwback to an era long before the neighbourhood was slathered with nail salons, salad bars and frozen yoghurt stores, it has a board outside that declares “You either get it or don’t.”

It’s here, swaddled in the aroma of pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup, that this self-proclaimed “American maverick” – and in some quarters, reviled poet – is talking about Capital, a 920-page “love letter” to 20th-century New York assembled entirely from other writers’ verse, novels, letters and histories that weighs more than three pounds and comes in a gold slipcase. “But who’s going to start at the beginning and plough their way through?” asks Goldsmith. “No one!” Capital is a tribute to, and cover version of, German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a legendarily incomplete patchwork of quotations and ruminations about mid-19th-century Paris – structured around topics such as boredom, collection, prostitution – that offered a wholly original way of thinking about modernity and urbanism. The first English translation was published in 1999 and Goldsmith was hooked.

They hated me at first. Then they grew to love me. That seems to be the way things go with me

Related: US poet defends reading of Michael Brown autopsy report as a poem

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Book of limericks transforms struggling author Ranjit Bolt into literary lion

Ranjit Bolt has won plaudits with A Lion Was Learning to Ski

In the summer of 2014, the spectacle of a middle-aged playwright selling limericks about “comedic giraffes” and “Spanish cicadas” was a regular one at Cambridge market. But as more followed – elephants, sharks and “a young lady from Derry” – some quirky street-lyrics began morphing into literature.

Of all the thousands of new books published this autumn for the all-important Christmas market, few can have had a stranger back-story than Ranjit Bolt’s A Lion was Learning to Ski, a book of limericks that, in the words of Stephen Fry, both “rhymes and delights”.

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