James Holland: Brideshead Revisited moved me profoundly

James Holland explains how 'Brideshead Revisited' inspired him to write and praises Alan Moorefield's use of detailed descriptions.

James Holland is a historian, journalist and novelist. He presented Cold War, Hot Jets last year and his latest non-fiction book Dam Busters is out now.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I read this when I was 17, impressionable and romantic. It fired my interest in that period between the wars, while the mix of love story and tragedy moved me profoundly.

But I’m also now aware of just how good Waugh’s writing is—his descriptive prose, dialogue and characterisation are all superb. My first book The Burning Blue was an unashamed tribute to him—a Second World War epic of love and loss, evoking a world that’s now largely gone. If I could have only one book on my shelf, it would be this.

The World At Night by Alan Furst

Another book with a style that’s inspired me. This spy thriller, set in the early 1940s, has passages that I return to whenever I get stuck with my writing. One scene, in which the reluctant hero is on a train heading towards the Spanish border when German sentries come on board to check passengers’ papers, is a masterpiece of the old adage, “Show, don’t tell”. You sense his terror through how he reacts and responds, not because the author explains how he’s feeling. That creates a very powerful atmosphere.

Desert War: The North African Campaign, 1940–1943 by Alan Moorehead

Moorehead was a pioneering foreign correspondent who, while reporting for The Daily Express on the North African campaign, brought the war down to a human level.

Instead of writing about regimental divisions or brigade numbers, he told the stories of individuals. The very particular details that infuse this book—the look on a Tommy’s face above the tank, the smell of cigarette smoke—make it a compelling read. You get a sense of what it felt like to be there.

In my own non-fiction books, I also try to write in an exciting, informative way. Following the experiences of a private, pilot or journalist in order to illustrate a bigger picture is something I’ve learned from this fantastically vivid book.