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Try Anything Twice is a collection of her earlier work, first published in 1938. When Virago reprinted it in 1990 I was captivated. The journalistic essay is an almost period form now (only Katharine Whitehorn still practises it) but Jan Struther’s aperçus retain their point and sparkle across the century. In the title essay, she characteristically turns on its head the old axiom ‘try anything once’, suggesting that some things take years to try – ‘such as marital fidelity and keeping a diary’ – while others, such as infidelity and leaving off keeping the diary, ‘are the work of a moment’.
My father was an intellectually austere Cambridge academic, so we never had a copy of The Wind in the Willows in the house. No talking toads on this family syllabus, thank you! But Kenneth Grahame did feature on our bookshelves in the shape of two late Victorian bestsellers which would otherwise have escaped my notice, as they have done most readers’ of late: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). Neither was turned into a play by A. A. Milne or Alan Bennett, or filmed by Terry Jones. Yet without them there would have been no Toad Hall, no ‘poop-pooping’ motor cars, no escapes from prison and no epic battle with the stoats and weasels.
Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built is a short book that seems long, expansive, excursive. Of course – it cites a host of other books, from Where the Wild Things Are through The Little House on the Prairie to Nineteen Eighty-Four; it is packed with reference, with discussion. A book about books and, above all, a book about the power of books, about the manipulative effect of fiction, about the way in which story can both mirror and influence the process of growing up. A child learns to read, discovers the possibilities of that retreat into the pages of a book, and its life is never quite the same again.
On the front cover of my copy of Zuleika Dobson, a magnificently dressed young man maintains an impeccable posture as he topples backwards off a barge and into the Isis. As he plunges towards the water, apparently ready to shatter on impact, he gravely doffs his hat to a smiling girl on the deck. This girl, naturally, is Zuleika.
Edward O. Wilson, naturalist, theorist and Harvard Professor of Entomology, will be 85 this year: he is showing little sign of slowing down. In an eminent and eclectic career spanning six decades he has become one of the most eloquent public figures in modern science, produced an impressive collection of books, both scholarly and general, and won two Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction. Most recently, aged 80, he produced his first novel. ‘He is’, says Richard Dawkins, ‘hugely learned, not just in his field of social insects, but in anthropology and other subjects as well. He is an outstanding synthesizer, his knowledge is immense and he manages to bring it all together in a coherent way.’
When I was 18 I travelled around America by Greyhound bus. I still have the Hagstrom folding map I took with me, my gap-year odyssey marked out in black felt-tip pen: west from New York, skirting the Great Lakes; across the vast prairies of Minnesota and North Dakota; over the Rockies to Salt Lake City and San Francisco; back through Arizona, Texas and the Deep South. It was the first great adventure of my life – one that has yet to be surpassed.
There is only one book I own that I know I will always want to keep. It’s small and unprepossessing, navy blue, about five inches by three, and is inscribed ‘Pte I. Masidlover’, who was my grandfather. A Book of Jewish Thoughts, selected by the Chief Rabbi Dr Hertz, was issued in 1942 to ‘His Majesty’s Jewish sailors, soldiers and airmen’. My copy also bears the stamp of another excellent name, Rabbi Dayan M. Gollop, Senior Jewish Chaplain to HM Forces. The book’s size means, I suppose, that it could be kept buttoned into a top pocket and taken anywhere.
The book was A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and it is indeed a short book, but one that grips and fizzes with ideas, images and energy. Thirty-five years ago, as an inexperienced schoolteacher, I had the task of interesting a class of 16-year-olds in it, and I thought it would be ideal fare for them. Set around the middle of the nineteenth century, the novel takes the outward form of an adventure story. The ingredients are a group of children and their life on a decayed plantation, then an earthquake, a hurricane, a sailing ship, the high seas, the capture of the children by pirates and a final rescue and return to normality in England. The passing incidents include some farcical goings-on with pirates dressed as women, a ludicrous quayside auction of the pirates’ booty, some uproarious banqueting, a fight between a goat and a pig, another between a tiger and a lion – or an attempt to stage one – and a chase after a drunken monkey in the ship’s rigging. So far, so Pirates of the Caribbean; but there is also a dark side: the shocking accidental death of a child, a murder, a fatal betrayal and a hanging.
It wasn’t until the Beijing massacre in June 1989 that I really began to understand what democracy means.
At school we learned about the birth of democracy in ancient Athens; as a teenager I read about Stalin’s show trials; as an adult I saw repressive regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at first hand. Reporting on the political scene in Britain during the later stages of the Cold War, I heard the words ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ liberally bandied about; yet they remained for me essentially political slogans.
In the summer of 1965, I hitchhiked with two school friends to Greece. We had just done our A levels, with mixed results. In Corfu, we all met our first boyfriends: likewise. What cast the real spell, over all of us nice Surrey girls, were the Greek islands. And the two books we read in those enchanted weeks offered the most intense marriage of literature and experience that I can remember.
One of the most charming and illuminating memoirs I know is also the largest. A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard by Jim Ede, published by Cambridge University Press in 1984, is almost a foot square and over an inch thick. It is large because its author was above all a visual man, and he wanted to give due prominence to the many subtly toned black-and-white photographs among which his words gracefully flow. The book is like an ideal visit to Kettle’s Yard, the unique house filled with art and objects Ede created in Cambridge. Through Kettle’s Yard and the way of life it embodies, Ede (1895–1990) influenced generations of Cambridge undergraduates and many artists.
In my late seventies I have finally found for myself – that is without the aid of my biographical subjects – a children’s writer whose satire on adult behaviour is subtly developed and perfectly suited to readers of all ages. This is Mary Norton, whose quintet of novels about the Borrowers was written for the most part during the 1950s. These tiny people, who mimic what they sometimes call ‘Human Beans’, like to think of us giants as having been put on earth to manufacture useful small objects for them. There are, for example, safetypins (which become coat-hangers), cotton reels (on which to sit), stamps (which are placed as wonderful portraits and landscapes on their walls), toothbrushes (parts of which make excellent hairbrushes) and thimbles (from which they drink tea). All of these items and many more are borrowed or, as the giants would call it, ‘stolen’.
I was first introduced to Sophia Fairclough in 1985 by my new English teacher, the kind who came to lessons without notes and charmed those susceptible to such charm with his raw excitement for good writing. Sophia herself, although fictional, was immediately real to me: a quirky, self-deprecating, parentless artist who took people at face value and made many mistakes as a result. I loved her. I loved her naïvety, her optimism, even her self-destructive behaviour. I wanted to shake her into action but I also wanted to be her. She became an unlikely heroine for me, for though I planned to be a writer when I was older rather than an artist, I was quite prepared to suffer, to be poor, to live off tinned soup, even to fail in love, if these experiences enriched my writing.
Any student of nineteenth-century Chinese history is familiar with Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850), the epitome of the upright Confucian official who, in his moral and well-meaning efforts to stem the flow of opium into China, provoked the British military interventions that started the Opium War. Appointed by the Emperor to suppress the opium trade which was threatening the health of the nation and causing a disastrous outflow of silver, he arrived in Canton in March 1839 and issued orders threatening heavy punishment of Chinese opium-smokers and traffickers. He then turned his attention to the suppliers of Indian opium and drafted a letter to Queen Victoria. Though the letter was apparently never sent, he pointed out that Chinese rhubarb, tea and silk were ‘valuable products without which foreigners could not live’ and he demanded that the Queen personally seek out and destroy the opium carried on British ships and report back to him.
One of my favourite novelists, now largely forgotten, is Stanley Middleton (1919–2009). He wrote 45 novels, the last published posthumously. I thought I had them all, but when reorganizing my shelves I found I was missing two, which I’ve now bought secondhand for all of £5.80. That’s probably less than I’d pay for petrol to go to the nearest library, although I shall have to deal with the usual complaint from my wife about the lack of space in our cottage.
Born in 1874, the son of a Chancellor of the Exchequer contemporary with Gladstone and Disraeli, he made his name as a journalist covering the Boer War, became an MP at 26, President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the scapegoat of the catastrophe at Gallipoli in 1915. He was rehabilitated in his father Lord Randolph’s old post in 1924, but by 1930 – with the Conservatives in Opposition – he was in the wilderness.
There he might well have stayed. On 13 December 1931 when visiting New York, he looked right rather than left crossing Fifth Avenue and was hit by a cab. He nearly died. His autobiographical My Early Life (1929) would have been his epitaph. What a farewell it would have made to one of the nearly men of the twentieth century!
Eric Linklater was a bit of a force of nature. He was born in Wales, but wished he hadn’t been, so he conjured an Orkney childhood and let everyone assume he had been born there. His father was Orcadian, a master mariner. Perhaps he was honouring that, and the longing his Swedish mother felt for the place. But he was 70 before he admitted his Welsh beginnings.
This relative neglect is all the more surprising because MacDonald was much admired by his peers. He was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe prize twice. His early novel The Rasp (1924), which introduced his series detective Colonel Gethryn, was chosen by the American detective writer S. S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, for his ‘library of great mysteries’. And a later novel, the remorseless Murder Gone Mad (1931), was selected by John Dickson Carr as one of his ‘Ten Best Detective Novels’.
Television in the 1970s and 1980s was educational. Bergerac taught us that Jersey was a seething cauldron of crime; Grange Hill introduced a generation of children to sausages and heroin. And Monkey? Monkey taught us all about the frenzied delights of classical Chinese literature, even if it took some of us a while to realize it.
Recently, ailing and housebound, I looked for succour in a book by a contemporary French novelist, one I remembered hugely enjoying when it first appeared. A good read has to be high on the list of restoratives, and I reckoned that Philippe Delerm’s La Première gorgée de bière (The First Swig of Beer) might be just the ticket. Not because it’s all about beer – in fact the title is rather randomly lifted from one of the book’s thirty-four essays – but because I recalled it included some cheering pages on illness.
Koch’s Memoirs of a Birdman opens in 1889 when, at the age of 8, he made the world’s first ever recording of an animal, and closes in 1953 when he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to visit Iceland and record the mournful calls of the Great Northern Diver. This collection of anecdotes, reflections and regrets opens a window on the past, and allows us a glimpse of the character of this remarkable man.
Is a sequel ever as good as its original? Primo Levi’s autobiographical account of Auschwitz (If This Is a Man) is a celebrated book while its follow-up (The Truce) remains less well known. But that does not tell the whole story.
I never read Ronald Welch as a child – he was writing a bit too late for me – but his historical adventure stories have a very familiar ring. In Bowman of Crécy and The Hawk I recognized with nostalgia the dashing heroes of my youth, the dastardly villains, the beautiful but distant women, the chivalry and high moral tone.
My mother used to read to us on the battered old couch. As the light faded, we would snuggle up and read along with her pointing finger. It was magic; it was spells; it was home. Her glasses slightly askew on her thin, eager face, ‘Come hither,’ she would urge. Come Hither was the title of the orange-covered anthology from which she read. Sometimes she might break off to impress on us: ‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master-spirit. Milton.’ We always got quotations in that form. ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day. Shakespeare,’ she would pronounce, crossly plugging in the Hoover. Or ‘If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try again. Proverb’ – tartly, when we complained about homework.
I first met Beryl Bainbridge in 1982, when I went to interview her friend and editor Anna Haycraft for Books & Bookmen. I was later to discover that Beryl practically lived at the Haycrafts’ house in Gloucester Crescent, North London. I remember her wandering into the kitchen and, without preamble, pouring herself a glass of red wine from a two-litre bottle of Valpolicella.
I have read most of C. S. Forester’s books, but had never come across The General until I found a copy last year in a second-hand shop. It nestled next to a biography of Winston Churchill written in 1940 (which was also fascinating). This was something of a coincidence, because in 1941, as he crossed the Atlantic in the battleship Prince of Wales for his first meeting with Roosevelt, Churchill read three of Forester’s Hornblower novels. Hornblower – hardworking, audacious, full of initiative, demanding but careful of his men – would have been for Churchill the perfect model of what a military man should be.
It began, I seem to remember, with a grown-out hedge: four huge ash trees bordering a Hampshire footpath, all with the same odd kink in their trunks. The pleasure of recognition, of being able to look at them and know that those kinks were the result of a hedge-laying technique called pleaching that had been done to the young trees several generations ago, had me hooked.
I saw the set of books through the window of a second-hand furniture shop in Oxford a couple of years ago. Each with a dark-blue spine stamped with a gilt palm tree, they ran across the top of one of those ‘modern’ sideboards from which Nigel Patrick and Laurence Harvey used to help themselves to drinks in 1950s films. I went in at once and found a complete set of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, in thirty-five volumes, printed in 1924, bound in soft leather and in superb condition. I bought them for money I couldn’t afford and carried them triumphantly away in a variety of wrinkled carrier bags that the owner pulled out from under his counter.
I have long wanted to offer an update on the latest additions to the Crowden Archive. Some subscribers may recall the first piece on the subject, ‘Something for the Weekend’ in Slightly Foxed No. 32. In it, I described a selection of the titles in my possession which have been collected over more than thirty years and which appeal to those possessed of a Lower Fourth Form sense of humour. My mother feels that I should now move on to more suitable pastimes, pokerwork, perhaps, or tatting, but books with questionable titles just keep on falling into my hands.
The amazing thing about Nero Wolfe, hero of Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance, was that he lived in a house with its own elevator. I was 14 when I first read the book. I was spending the school holidays with my mother and brand-new stepfather, who were then living on an oil pumping station in Iraq with the evocative Babylonian name of K3. The British expatriate staff lived in prefabricated bungalows assembled in various configurations to give the illusion of variety. These were commodious, well-planned and, when the air conditioning worked, comfortable, but characterless. And here was a private detective who lived in an enormous townhouse with its own passenger lift.
Inside Europe, Inside USA, Inside Russia . . . if journalism is the first draft of history, John Gunther’s journalistic documentary works are indisputably dated – his last, Inside Australia, had to be co-authored and was published in 1972, two years after his death. The books are time-capsules: all the world leaders and political figures featured in the Inside series – and they focus primarily on leaders and politicians – are long gone. Gunther’s style, however, is still most vividly alive. He was first and foremost a reporter, and throughout his books an immediate journalistic active-case style dominates – short, punchy sentences such as ‘Hitler rants. He orates. He seldom answers questions.’ And: ‘If Stalin has nerves, they are veins in rock.’
When I was 9 and at primary school in New Zealand, my class teacher was a poet called Kendrick Smithyman. He was a rather bad-tempered curmudgeon but he had an overwhelming advantage over any other teacher I’d met: he read lots of good poetry to us, and the books he chose for class serialization were brilliant. I remember many of the poems he introduced us to, but most of all I still treasure the first book he read to us. It was E. B. White’s Stuart Little.
I began reading C. P. Snow’s ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series of novels in 1980. I had just started my first serious job in local government and, although I didn’t know it, I was about to live through a brief golden age. The managerial future was on its way but hadn’t arrived yet. I’d never even heard of a performance indicator. Still in my twenties, I emerged quickly as a bit of a legal expert (most of it bluff ) and a policy adviser (most of that calculated charm). In other words, I was enjoying myself and, rather foolishly, I fancied myself as a miniature version of Lewis Eliot, Snow’s largely autobiographical narrator.
The shelves of John Murray seemed filled with books by its strong-minded, often indomitable women writers when I went to work there in 1972: Jane Austen, Queen Victoria, travellers like Isabella Bird, Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy. Elizabeth Grant was one of whom I had not heard; idle curiosity drew me to her but I was soon engrossed. Born in 1797 she died in 1885, her posthumous fame beginning with the publication of her memoirs, edited by her niece (also Lytton Strachey’s mother) in 1898. The Memoirs of a Highland Lady went through four printings that year and has been reprinted regularly ever since, for readers are fascinated by its picture of the life of a Highland laird’s family in the twilight years of the clan system, at Rothiemurchus, the beautiful ‘Gateway to the Cairngorms’ near Aviemore. Adding to the interest are the casual though then unexceptional cruelties of her upbringing, a mysterious tale of star-crossed love and the eventual ruin of the family fortunes brought about by the political pretensions and financial incompetence of her father.
I was 16 when I first read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but because this is a novella that begins with an ending, full of uncertainties and possibilities, I soon realized that this was a complex grown-up story in which there might be sadness as well as joy. The unnamed narrator – whom Holly calls Fred because he reminds her of a much-loved younger brother – sees that she is schooled in the dark arts of glamour and seduction yet is intrigued by the reckless bravado of her disclosures. Whatever you do, seems to be her message, do it with style, and ignore convention. ‘Leave it to me,’ she says. ‘I’m always top banana in the shock department.’
On Hampstead Heath a leisured stroll
To calm the mind and soothe the soul –
North London’s take on Flatford Mill –
The air is thick with heat, and still,
The sunshine gilds the two hilltops
Burnishes meadow, pond and copse.
All round a gorgeous vista spreads
Though (adders lurk in all woodsheds)
The TV mast on Highgate Hill’s
A blot; the Royal Free – bitter pills
For anyone who cares, to swallow
And doubtless, some day, worse will follow
As Betjeman once prophesied
While all around him beauty died.
Booker has that peculiar genius which connects commonplaces that we would never have connected for ourselves, makes observations that, only when once made, are self-evident, and asks questions we would never have thought to ask. The world’s greatest storytellers are among the most famous and honoured people in history. Why? What is the value of storytelling? What need does it fulfil? Why is storytelling central to our humanity? Why is it that some stories are inherently satisfying, even spiritually nourishing, while others leave us with an empty or incomplete feeling? What is the role of numbers in storytelling? Why is it that there are few things as compelling in storytelling as the desire to have the threads of narrative untangled and explained? These are the questions Booker sets out to answer. It is a task that would have brought a lesser man to despair.
The Eustace and Hilda trilogy is a comedy of manners, an illustration of how the middle classes are lost in the upper-class world of great houses and Venetian palazzi, and puzzled by men called Dick who do not share their bourgeois morality. But like all good comedy, it has an underlying seriousness. The world Eustace finds himself in is mysterious to him; for his sister, who is more perspicacious, it is frightening. And how true this still rings, several decades later: some of us find life socially awkward, or are not quite at ease in our own skins sexually – or both.
In January 1939, as Europe was convulsing to the rhythms of what George Orwell would call ‘the tom-tom beat of a latter-day tribalism’, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and E. M. Forster were gathered at Waterloo Station. It was a solemn occasion. Auden and Isherwood were about to leave the country of their birth for the United States, where, several months later, Auden would compose ‘September 1, 1939’, the ominous poem in which he would look back on ‘the low dishonest decade’ he had just lived through, and tremble at the one to come. Auden and Isherwood attracted much criticism for their decision to leave England at so crucial an hour, yet Forster refused to abandon his friends. As he bade them farewell at Waterloo, he told them that it was now their duty to ‘keep away’ and ‘see us sink from a distance’. It would be his duty, he continued, ‘to face a world which is tragic without becoming tragic myself ’.
I hardly need tell you that ‘Brazil’ is supposed to be pronounced ‘Brazzle’, although I still find it hard not to pronounce it as it looks. Unmarried, childless, but busy and fulfilled, Angela Brazil (1869–1947) lived in Coventry (a place to which some of her characters are metaphorically and unwillingly sent), and most of her romantic inclinations, it seems, were channelled into celebrating the romance of life in a girls’ boarding-school, which she distilled into 59 novels. Unlike Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books, Brazil created a totally fresh school for each novel: The Dower House, The Manor House, The Woodlands, Aireholme, Brackenfield, Silverside, Birkwood Grange and so on.
One day in the late 1980s I had a call from my Aunt Freda. It came completely out of the blue, for although Freda had been my favourite godmother throughout my childhood, I had hardly exchanged a word with her – save the odd Christmas card – for what must have been twenty years. The purpose of her call was to tell me she had a box of books to give me and would I like to pick them up from my parents’ house in Sheffield, where she would drop them off on her next visit. ‘There’s a complete Shakespeare, Churchill’s Island Race and an encyclopaedia,’ she said by way of brief explanation.
In the hope that there might be other, more nuanced narratives, I have set myself the goal of reading widely about the war: recent histories, of course, but also those books written during it or soon after its end, since they more truly encapsulate the thoughts of those who went through it all. This naturally means the war poetry as well as the prose works of Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, but alsoMr Standfast, my grandfather John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay story, and his four-volume History of the Great War.
The future of swearing, what a wonderful subject. I looked forward to learning more: since the book was blessedly short, at 94 pages, 22 lines a page and only 6 words a line, finishing it wouldn’t require many train journeys. And not only to learning but also to an hour or possibly two of literary pleasure. I had read Goodbye to All That, Graves’s great memoir of his service in the First World War, and knew how well he could write. I recalled, too, from that other book a passage on the ordinary soldiers’ wearisome use of a four-letter expletive still so current today. Graves should certainly have interesting things to say on the subject.
Hugh Trevor-Roper was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford when in 1973 he received a letter from a Swiss doctor named Reinhard Hoeppli. Hoeppli had a strange request. He was in possession of a manuscript of memoirs written by an English scholar he had known in Peking. The author, Edmund Backhouse, had died in 1944; Hoeppli, presumably acting on Backhouse’s wish, wanted the manuscript to be deposited in the Bodleian and perhaps published. After all, the scholar had once donated a number of rare Chinese books to the library. Would Trevor-Roper examine the text and see to its fate in Oxford?
Endymion tells the story of Endymion and Myra Ferrars, a pair of improbably beautiful and good-natured twins, who are forced to make their own way in the world when their father loses his power and income in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act, which saw Tory MPs ejected from constituencies up and down the country in the first post-Reform general election. Throughout, Endymion’s story allows Disraeli to make fiction from the materials of his own political coming-of-age. The result is a novel which translates the great dramas of the nineteenth century to a human scale.
Because I write about monarchs, people have sometimes asked me whether I’ve read Frances Donaldson’s Edward VIII. ‘Not my period,’ I would stupidly reply, but the historian’s get-out-of-jail card was a ruse: the fact was I doubted whether a book on the Abdication written back in the 1970s could still be of interest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Elizabeth Longford once observed that Frances Donaldson’s biography of Edward VIII had more effect than any other book on the future of the monarchy. Edward VIII was explosive: it shattered the romantic myth of the golden prince who abdicated because he was unable to rule without the ‘help and support of the woman I love’. By revealing the real man as shallow and fickle, it demonstrated the worth of sterling work and devotion to duty. The book is also a tract for our times today. Watching the play Charles III – which hinges on the scenario of the abdication of a future King Charles – I was struck by the relevance of Frances Donaldson’s story. The king comes to the throne, stubbornly resolved on a fatal course of action, is betrayed (as he sees it) by his family, and his support melts away: it’s all here in Edward VIII, which should be required reading for anyone interested in the monarchy’s future.
The Thin Man was Hammett’s last book, and rather different from his others – it’s both thriller and sly sexual farce, the dialogue full of the slick one-liners which instantly became the markers for smart Hollywood dialogue right up to and including All about Eve. It’s a fine book – but it doesn’t compare with The Maltese Falcon. This is a detective story, but not about a particular murder – though it starts with one, the result of a treasure hunt. The eponymous falcon is an immeasurably precious relic originally given by the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain. Covered in black paint, it has knocked about for a century and more, unrecognized for what it is. But now Casper Gutman, the ‘fat man’, is on its trail, and Hammett’s detective, Sam Spade, is drawn into a violent tussle between thieves determined to get their hands on it.
Then, last year, I heard an interview with Jack on the BBC, talking about his memoir of life as a political prisoner in Malawi from 1987 to 1991. Its title, And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night, refers to one of the methods used to dispose of the bodies of prisoners of the Banda regime – by tipping them into crocodile-infested waters.
Joan Wyndham was not about to let such a disagreeable thing as a world war get in the way of having a jolly time. It is not that she didn’t take the war seriously – after art school she volunteered as an auxiliary nurse and then served as a WAAF officer – just that she was determined to get on with the things she enjoyed: shopping, dancing, learning to sculpt, curling her hair in pipe cleaners, swimming in the Serpentine and lying in bed all morning in a silk kimono with her feet on a hot-water bottle.
She was certainly not going to let anything interfere with the important business of falling in love. Over the course of the war, recorded in two volumes of diaries published when Joan was in her sixties as Love Lessons (1985) and Love Is Blue (1986), she falls in love – madly, passionately, all-consumingly, but often for not much more than a week – with a succession of ever more unsuitable men.
Rereading can be exhilarating or disappointing: it is rarely neutral. For me, revisiting P. J. Kavanagh’s account of his first thirty or so years, The Perfect Stranger, has been enjoyable as well as enlightening. Of course, even the first time round any book is edited as we go along by personal preference and perception. And when, as in this case, nearly half a century has passed, it’s likely that the reader’s perspectives have been modified by personal experience, and that some of the detail will have been forgotten.
Published in 1956, Captain of Dragoons is set in the reign of Queen Anne, during the early years of the War of the Spanish Succession, and the relevant member of the family is Charles Carey, ‘a tall, lean young officer of Dragoons, with a crop of black hair cut short for comfort under his wig, and a pair of inky black brows that were convenient warning signals that his quick temper was rising’; he is also one of the most brilliant swordsmen in the Duke of Marlborough’s army, and is given ample opportunities to display his prowess.
The speaker – and wide-eyed narrator of I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This – is Sarah Makepeace, ex-college girl from Four Corners, Massachusetts, newly arrived in Greenwich Village and keen to earn a byline on the front page. At the novel’s hub is a nicotine-fuelled New York city news-desk in the 1970s, when stories were hammered out on typewriters or phoned in from call-boxes – the era of Gloria Steinem and aviator glasses, the Women’s Movement at its militant height and Gay Pride before Aids struck.
Vidal explores this confrontation between old and new in a fictive autobiography drawing on three surviving volumes of Julian’s letters and essays, and contemporary recollections. In doing so, he paints a sympathetic portrait of an individual gullible and pragmatic, sensitive and stubborn. Julian was a skilful military commander, a talented administrator and a concerned social reformer. But he was driven by contempt for Christians who he saw bowing to an authority they regarded as greater than Rome. He mocked them as Galileans, and their churches packed with relics he called charnel houses.
Every morning, when the dog drags me out, we take the Church Walk behind the shops, through a wrought-iron gateway into the churchyard, passing the old half-timbered Guildhall. There, on a rock sticking out of a shrub border, is a bronze plaque of a woman with an odd gaze, her hair done up in a bun, against a background of distant hills. The plaque is a brand: Much Wenlock and this part of south-west Shropshire have become Mary Webb Country.
In the parochial lies the universal, or does it? Join us on a trip to the British countryside as we plough into the matter of nature, landscape and the rural world in literature to find out more. Together with Juliet Blaxland, author of Wainwright Prize shortlisted The Easternmost House, and Jay Armstrong of Elementum Journal, the Slightly Foxed Editors and host Philippa share tales of living on the edge of eroding cliffs, pioneering bird photographers, ancient arboreal giants, guerrilla rewilding and favourite loam and lovechild comfort reads. In this month’s forage through the magazine’s archives, we go down to the Folly Brook to explore a vanishing world with ‘BB’ and his little grey men and, to finish, there are the usual wide-ranging recommendations for books to take your reading off the beaten track.
‘This is a beautiful, sparkling book, a brief glimpse of a wild childhood that is recognizable even in its strangeness – he has captured the essence of youth, that delicate balance of happiness and misery.’
Before we become tangled in ribbon and swaddled in wrapping paper, we thought it timely to browse our bookshelves and head to the windswept shores of Galloway for some bracing fresh air. This article by Galen O’Hanlon appeared as the preface to our limited hardback edition of Gavin Maxwell’s The House of Elrig.
‘An attractive flyer slipped out from the pages and grabbed my attention. It was about Slightly Foxed, a British quarterly literary magazine “for literary nonconformists.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced love at first sight, but this came close. I was hooked even before I made it to the Slightly Foxed website . . . I’ve only just received my first issue, and my “to-read” list has already become much longer.’
Reading this book is like returning to an old friend. I remember reading it as a child . . . Slightly Foxed have re-issued my old friend in a gorgeous new edition – their books are always a pleasure to read. Beautifully bound, with the original illustrations by C. Walter Hodges (the Roman watchtower on page 216 is really evocative of an abandoned outpost of Empire north of the Wall) . . .
War in Val d’Orcia consists of the diary Iris Origo kept between the end of January 1943 and July 1944. The Origos were based throughout at La Foce, south of Montepulciano in central Italy, though they made occasional excursions to Florence and Rome. She and her Italian husband Antonio had devoted their pre-war lives to reviving the estate, something that could only be done by cooperating with Mussolini and his Fascist bureaucracy; when the Fascists allied themselves with Hitler and Nazism, the Origos keenly adopted the anti-Fascist cause. In what was a remote part of Tuscany they created a remarkable agricultural community, though its close-knit texture would be stretched to the utmost under wartime conditions.
‘The etiquette of bedtime reading is such a delicate matter that we must approach it on tiptoe . . .’
Greetings from No. 53 where we’re battening down hatches and stacking up reading piles as we approach winter, on tiptoe or otherwise, and watch the nights draw in ever closer. The clocks go back this Sunday, giving us an extra hour in bed with a good book. Therefore, we’re turning back the clocks to Slightly Foxed Issue 37 and appreciating some amusing and enlightening pillow talk from Oliver Pritchett, all about the delicate etiquette of reading in bed.
Living in buzzard country, I should have been looking for a book that would fill the many gaps in my knowledge of these avian next-door neighbours. In fact, I was simply searching for the best writing on birds when I came across J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) – a book that isn’t so much the ‘best’ as the only writing of its kind on the subject. An account of the tracking of peregrines across a small patch of country in eastern England, its prose is really poetry of the most intense kind; experience compressed into a language that has been honed to the keenest of edges. Baker wields it fiercely, dispensing almost immediately with convention (‘Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious’), slicing early paragraphs of information into staccato sentences and cutting and splicing verbs, nouns and adjectives so that the reader cannot help but see all anew, through Baker’s passionate eye.
I did, though, on someone’s recommendation, pick up an English translation of This Earth of Mankind (1980). The first volume in the Buru Quartet, it forms a necessary introduction to those that follow and is in many ways the most evocative. The book itself smelled faintly of cloves. The text told of bamboo rustling in the night breeze, of furtive encounters and noisy frogs and thick black coffee under the bougainvillaea. To someone ignorant of all save Bali’s beaches, it brought the land and its peoples alive. I read on.
On this particular day what caught my eye was a large-format hardback entitled The Complete Little Nemo in Slumberland, Volume 1: 1905–1907. I picked it up, opened the cover, and fell into a magical world.
The premise of this comic strip is simple. In the very first frame, Morpheus, the King of Slumberland, ‘requests the presence of Little Nemo’. The strip then consists of what happens to Little Nemo when he leaves the safety of his bed and travels through Slumberland to meet the king. The last frame of every strip always has Nemo waking up back in the reassuring familiarity of his bedroom. Often he finds that he has fallen out of bed. And sometimes his mother or father is there to welcome him back to reality.
Mention Gone with the Wind and everyone thinks of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. It is Gable, in the role of Rhett Butler, who utters the immortal ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ when a repentant Scarlett, rejected by Butler, asks what she is to do now – but that is not what he says in the book. Clark Gable added the ‘Frankly’ and that is how it is always quoted. In fact most of the popular images of the novel are from the movie. You could leave the cinema thinking Gone with the Wind was mainly a love story dealing with nostalgia for a golden antebellum age. In fact the book is closer to an anti-romance, and is full of ambiguity and ambivalence about the good old days.
I had been book-starved for some years. It didn’t help that I was a literary snob and this was the pre-digital age. Earning a living by travelling around the world was extraordinary but I had forfeited good novels for this two-and-a-half-year experience. Sometimes I was lent books by clients but they weren’t always to my taste; I bought the odd second-hand novel from Aboudi’s bookshop in Luxor but they were hideously overpriced; and sometimes I was given a gem. Towards the end of my time in Egypt, another tour leader handed me Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible through a window of the departing Cairo-Aswan sleeper train with a shouted promise that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. She was right and I stayed up too late for several nights to finish this beautiful story of another part of Africa and overactive imaginations. Such finds were rare, sadly, and I ‘made do’, a state I didn’t much care for.
Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One is not one of his ‘big name’ books. It doesn’t rank with, say, Scoop, Vile Bodies or Brideshead Revisited in the reading consciousness. I came across it only by dint of having a father who had read everything, usually as soon as it came out, and who had a first edition of the Penguin on his shelf. ‘If you like Decline and Fall,’ he would say, ‘you should read The Loved One,’ but for some reason I never did. Not until the other day, when it successfully got me through two dismal coach journeys. That is what Waugh specializes in, of course: a book to read which is like eating a longdrawn- out tea at Fortnum’s, but one you can leave and return to at your leisure – not that leaving it is all that easy.
The name Platero in Spanish means ‘silversmith’ and is frequently given to grey-coloured donkeys. The relationship between Platero and the ‘I’ of the book is evoked with extraordinary tenderness. This book about a man and his donkey – an animal we humans often grant little dignity – is a love story of heartbreaking beauty and grace, a book about nature and our relationship with it, but also about imagination, the ‘clatter of fancy’ that enlivens our lives.
The pioneering work in question, The Quest for Corvo (1934), was written by an author who published little else of note. It broke all the rules but established a literary sub-genre of its own by revealing the working of the biographer’s mind as he struggles to uncover and make sense of the scattered fragments of a life. This experimental work demonstrates how the image of any figure portrayed in a biography is not so much a photograph as a portrait in mosaic, reflecting within it something of the portraitist’s own personality and predispositions. As Julian Symons, the crime writer and brother of its author wrote, it blew the gaff on the genre ‘by refusing for a moment to make the customary pretence of detachment’.
The novel has sometimes been compared to James Barrie’s Peter Pan, and there are obvious parallels; in both books there are boys who are either unwilling or unable fully to grow up. However, this is not a book for children: far from it. The magic here lies in the narrative and its setting, the lyricism of the writing, and the delicate relationship of aspirations to actuality. The fabulous fête, as its author explained, is set within ‘a really quite simple story which could very well be my own’. Like Seurel, he grew up in a small country school run by his father. Like Meaulnes, he rebelled against the boredom of learning by rote, the endless preparation for tests and exams. Like Frantz, he was impetuous and romantic, having many short-lived affairs before being reported missing while on patrol near Verdun.
Many years ago the novelist Alison Lurie assured me that while there was an upper class in the United States, it played very little part in the lives of most Americans: that was why Louis Auchincloss (1917–2010), the prolific author of novels about New York’s WASP ascendancy, remained an acquired taste over there. Or as an American critic once put it, ‘For all its merits, [his work] is out of context today.’ What nonsense! growled Auchincloss’s distant kinsman, Gore Vidal, when I mentioned this to him shortly afterwards. The caste to which ‘cousin Louis’ belonged, and about which he wrote so perceptively, was still firmly in the saddle, so he was doing Americans a favour by showing how their rulers behaved ‘in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs’.
Published in 1952, Golden Earth remains one of the most timeless guides to Burma. It is classic Lewis, crammed with incident, humour, observation and detail. There is no mistaking the poise of his prose (Luigi Barzini likened reading it to ‘eating cherries’), nor the empathy that characterizes his dealings with everyone he meets, from monks and policemen to businessmen and lorry drivers. Both Golden Earth and its immediate predecessor, A Dragon Apparent (1951), based on his travels in Indochina, are much more than very fine examples of twentieth-century travel literature. This is profoundly civilized writing in defence of ancient civilizations under imminent threat.
‘Infinity is no big deal, my friend; it’s a matter of writing. The universe only exists on paper,’ said Paul Valéry. I first found this ironic phrase as the epigraph to Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil (1985), or A Concise History of Portable Literature, by the Catalan author Enrique Vila-Matas. Vila-Matas is a brilliantly playful writer, an ironist himself, who toys with the parameters between reality and fiction and most usually elides them. His narrators are generally men a little like Vila-Matas himself; his novels discuss real and unreal authors with equal earnestness and the overall effect is both funny and poignant. For are we all not slightly unreal, or on the cusp of unreality, at any given moment, or if we feel fairly real this morning then might we not be unreal tomorrow, or in the near future?
This unlikely clergyman turned out to be an ideal biographical subject. But it took Pearson seven difficult years to find him and then write The Smith of Smiths. It was published in 1934 when he was in his early forties. He had discovered an occupation that would absorb him for the remaining thirty years of his life. The book was soundly based on fact rather than guesswork and contained many quotations from the subject’s hitherto unpublished letters. It reads in places like an anthology of wit, but its true merit lies in the congenial atmosphere Pearson created and the perfect way in which he and his subject were attuned. Sydney Smith was a happy man and Pearson was to write a happy book. In the opinion of Richard Ingrams, who contributed an introduction to the Hogarth Press edition in 1984, ‘it is probably his masterpiece’. Certainly it turned out to be his most durable work.
I came to A Lady and Her Husband via H. G. Wells, which is all the wrong way round. I’d been seeking suffragettes. I wanted some fictional feminists in my life. Already on my team I had Mira Ward, from Marilyn French’s consciousness-raising epic The Women’s Room, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying sexual adventuress Isadora Wing. But the Seventies feminists were so bleak. And post-feminists were so muddled. I wanted inspiration. I wanted clarity. I thought about the suffragettes. They’d had clear battle lines and actual victories; might their novels be more heartening?
There is a greater accretion of literary anecdote attached to the old John Murray premises at No. 50 Albemarle Street than perhaps to any other building. At times, when working there in the 1970s and ’80s, I felt the place might finally disappear beneath these parasitic lianas and leaves, with me buried inside, but among them there was always one orchid which I treasured, dating from April 1815, when Scott and Byron met there for the first time. A very young John Murray III was a witness and recalled much later how ‘It was a curious sight to see the two greatest poets of the age – both lame – stumping downstairs side by side.’
Thomas More’s original ideal society, the island of Utopia, is really ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’, though a ‘nowhere’ quite specifically somewhere in the New World. I only learned this a couple of years ago when I read More’s classic work while researching a book about the sale of London Bridge to America. The bridge now stands in Lake Havasu City. En route to see it I spent a week in Los Angeles, and it was there, at a drinks party in a geodesic dome in the Hollywood hills, that someone suggested I read Alison Lurie’s novel The Nowhere City (1965). Initially it was the title that grabbed me. But from the opening page, with its clipping from a real newspaper report about a class of schoolchildren trying to recreate the first Thanksgiving feast on a Californian surfing beach, I was entranced.
The majority of the book is Bell being introduced to a task, doing it badly, and getting better. What makes Corduroy such an enjoyable book is the way he writes about the experience. He is never patronizing about the labourers, and nor does he idolize them with the eye of a Romantic poet.
In 1969, a friend and I rather rashly accepted a commission to produce from scratch a new set of guides to Britain’s inland waterway network. We were young, naïve, confident and in need of the money. Four years and 2,000 waterway miles later, the project was finished and the four books quickly became the standard waterway guides, still in print over forty years later.
I first heard of Nevil Shute’s A Town like Alice (1950) when I was a schoolboy, and long before I read it I was fascinated by the title. How, I wondered, could a town possibly be like a person? When I eventually discovered that ‘Alice’ was short for Alice Springs, a remote settlement in the Australian Outback, I was still baffled – for from what I knew of the plot, the novel’s main focus was wartime Malaya. And though I have now read it half a dozen times, and come to love its combination of far-flung romance, desperate endurance and old-fashioned stoicism, there remains a conundrum at the heart of it which continues to tantalize me, like a stubborn morsel of crabmeat wedged in the corner of a claw.
Published in 1854, it’s the world’s first guidebook to Greece, by which its author, the mysterious GFB, meant classical and historical Greece, many of these places ‘not yet reunited to Christendom’. Admittedly Pausanius produced ten topographical volumes back in the second century ad, and footnotes to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage describe how to visit places mentioned in his topographical poem, but this was the first informative, practical guide. Suggested routes around Greece accompany essays on language, government, character, soil, the justice system, the economy, history, architecture, religion, plus tips on how and when to go. It’s a good read too. GFB was determined that it should be enjoyed as much beside the fire at home as it was on the road.
Decades ago wits, poets and dukes
Circled like planets round Gloria Jukes,
Bluestocking, tuft-hunter, grande amoureuse –
Was ever a salon brilliant as hers?
In the summer of 1974, the author Olivia Manning reread the transcript of a BBC radio talk she had given eleven years earlier about her arrival in Cairo in 1941 with her husband, Reggie Smith. Although she was not well, it inspired her to follow her Balkan trilogy (see SF no. 63), detailing the wartime experiences of Harriet and Guy Pringle in Bucharest and Athens, with a second sequence set in Egypt and the Middle East. The task took five years and by the time it was finished Manning had only months to live. She died in July 1980, aged 72.
Joan Aiken was the daughter of the American poet laureate Conrad Aiken and the Canadian writer Jessie MacDonald, and two of her siblings also wrote books, so writing clearly ran in the family. From her pen came a raft of books, including a handful of Jane Austen sequels, period romances, supernatural short stories and most things in between. What I want to write about here though is her sequence of eleven novels for children that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 – page-turning adventure stories, set in a mostly historical past, with a sprinkling of the paranormal and a bucketful of brilliant characters.
When I was a child, people of a certain age who met my father often remarked, ‘You look just like Simon Callow.’ I had no idea who Simon Callow was, so my father bought me his autobiography, Being an Actor (1986). Over the years it has become my battered treasure, all creased corners and cracked spine, highlighted and annotated, lent to friends and quickly sought back. Callow takes us into a singular world where the emotions and anxieties of ordinary life are exposed, examined and amplified. He offers insight into what it is to be an actor and, I would say, what it is to be human.
T. H. White (1906–64) was clearly a strange fellow, which should be evident to anyone who has read his books. The best known, of course, is his Arthurian epic, The Once and Future King (progenitor of Camelot), but he also wrote such memorable – and delightful – books as Mistress Masham’s Repose (about a crew of Lilliputians who fetch up in the garden of an English estate, see SF no. 2), a moving account of training a goshawk, and a sort of diary about field sports and flying called England Have My Bones. He even translated a medieval bestiary.
I met the novelist Ruth Adler thirty years ago. She was then in her eighties, an elegant, quietly spoken but forthright woman. For a while she had been, as my husband put it, one of his many mothers. For much of his childhood during the Second World War and in the years that followed, while his own mother was working after her divorce, Raphael was parked on relatives or close friends. All of them, like Ruth Adler – the pen name of Ray Waterman – were members of the British Communist Party, the majority having joined in the 1930s. ‘Party’ households were not renowned for their comfort; Raphael’s mother scorned domesticity as bourgeois. So he generally found himself in cheerless, spartan rooms strewn with a few utilitarian items, table and chairs piled up with pamphlets, as if awaiting a committee meeting. But Ray’s house was special. Soft furnishings, pottery, paintings and, above all, the feeling of a home.
In the north London suburb of Edmonton where I grew up, virtually the only feature of note is Charles Lamb’s cottage in Church Street, which is marked with a blue plaque. The essayist lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century. Lamb was born in 1775 and in 1792 began thirty-three years of tedious work as a clerk at the East India Company counting-house. Over the length of his adult life he lived – on and off – with his sister Mary. Their story is told in Sarah Burton’s highly readable A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb (2003).
Of all Richard Wagner’s music dramas, the one I know best is Tristan und Isolde, as do a lot of people, I imagine. I first came to it as an undergraduate, courtesy of the LPs lent me by my tutorial partner. At the age of 19, Henry was already an authority on Wagner, thanks in large part to the volunteer work he’d been doing for three years as a scene-shifter and odd-jobber at the Bayreuth Festival.
Obviously, the telling of anecdotes can become a dangerous addiction; there’s the risk of becoming like the chap who has memorized a thousand jokes and relentlessly reels them off in the saloon bar. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by the late James Sutherland and first published in 1975, is an honourable exception.
One summer’s evening, at the age of 13 or 14, Rose Tremain had what she describes as ‘an epiphany’. She had been playing tennis with friends at school, but was alone, when she was overcome with the certainty that writing was ‘the only thing I wanted to do’; that her life would be half-lived if not devoted to words. It would be quite a while before she was able to live out this conviction – when her first novel was published she was in her early thirties – but in the fullness of time Rose Tremain was to become one of the most prolific and best-loved novelists of her generation . . .
At boarding school in the late Sixties we had as our English teacher a Miss J. H. B. Jones. Coaxing us self-absorbed teenagers through the A-level syllabus she was diffident, patient and unassuming, and had it not been for a brief conversation in which she suggested I read The Death of the Heart (1938) by Elizabeth Bowen, I’m sorry to say I would by now have forgotten her utterly. But I went off for the long summer holiday and took her advice; I have my Penguin copy fifty years later, and the cover illustration of a young girl wearing an anguished expression still takes me back to those inevitably anguished years.
It was some time in the mid-Sixties when things began to change in my mother’s kitchen. First we got a fridge. Farewell mesh-doored meat safe, farewell flecks of curdled milk floating in your tea. The second thing that happened was Fanny Cradock. This was a brief love affair – my mum later transferred her culinary trust and affection to Delia Smith – but while it lasted its impact was astonishing. Expenditure on piping bags, time spent tracking down a butter curler and a grapefruit knife, foods coloured contrary to the laws of Nature: the responsibility for this and much more could be laid at Fanny’s door.
The great wave of Romanticism that swept over Scottish literature from the mid-Victorian era onwards was always going to have its answering cry. This tendency was particularly marked among the group of twentieth-century writers who had grown up in its paralysing shadow. There you were, in your draughty schoolroom somewhere near Inverness, being lectured about Queen Victoria’s ‘Jacobite moods’ and having it dinned into your head that Waverley was the greatest novel ever written north of the Tweed, while outside the window the unemployment queues grew longer and the winds swept in from continental Europe.
‘The summer issue was a delight. I couldn’t contemplate life without my quarterly edition of Slightly Foxed – it should be available on the NHS for sad sufferers – it’s arrival and the anticipation of the goodies therein always lifts my spirits significantly. You are without doubt the purveyors of the most outstanding literary magazine available. I prostrate myself before you and bow to the literary magic that you weave. May it long continue.’
‘I have found a book, and three more to follow, which is such a joy and has delighted me so much . . . These books are superbly produced so elegant to look at and to hold . . . these books from Slightly Foxed are like perfect gems.’
You read a book, laugh a lot, recommend it to your friends. Some laugh, others don’t. Why is a sense of humour so individual and at the same time so culturally specific? We are mostly moved to the same emotional responses by tragedy, but we don’t laugh at the same things and I’ve always wondered why. There are many kinds of humour and life would be intolerable without it, but as society changes, so humour changes too. We still weep at old Greek tragedies – but laugh at old Greek comedies? Not so much.
Patrick Hamilton, now best known for his novel Hangover Square and the play Gaslight, was a troubled man who is often seen as the court poet of shabby alcoholics and wandering drunkards. He is, however, also the bard of a particular area west of London, that part of the Thames valley that extends from just beyond Slough to Reading, where his characters often go to seek refuge from the excesses of the city. This is a strange hinterland of pretty villages and small towns occupied largely by people who work in London, places that are eerily quiet during the week (apart from the air traffic from Heathrow, which of course Hamilton knew nothing about) and yet vitally attached to the metropolis.
We lived in Dahl’s world, my brother and I more literally than most children since we grew up a couple of miles from Gypsy House, his home in Great Missenden. As we drove past it my parents would always say: ‘That’s where Roald Dahl lives.’ I think I used to doubt them. Could Dahl really live somewhere as prosaic as an ordinary house in rural Buckinghamshire? I liked to think he lived in a Willy Wonka-style factory turning out madcap books with the help of oompa loompas. I met him once at a charity event; he was sitting at a table looking very old and signing books.
Reading Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure this summer, the memory of my first acquaintance with her has been strong. I’ve heard the precise tones and emphases of her own reading in every line and I’ve realized what I didn’t before, namely that her story offers a wonderfully detailed and idiosyncratic account of life between the wars in Britain. Her narrative is punctuated with well-known names, but above all it offers a vivid sense of what it was like to inhabit a body at a particular point in time.
I like to think we run an open-door policy in our library at home in Norfolk. That is to say, on warm days in summer the door to the garden is actually open. Anyone’s welcome to come in for a browse. Last summer a stoat wandered in, peered dismissively at the modest shelf of my own titles, sniffed about under my desk and then ambled out. Most Julys the house ants – here long before us and so given due respect – pour out from alarming new holes in the floor, march along the tops of my editions of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, and shuffle in a lost and desultory way about the carpet, seeming uninterested in getting outdoors for their nuptial flights. But while I fret about the continuance of their ancient lineage, the culling is already under way. Next through the door come the bolder blackbirds and robins, hoovering the insects up in front of the shelves.
The maxim ‘write what you know’ has been drummed into aspiring novelists on creative writing courses for years and it aptly sums up the varied career of R. F. Delderfield, whose writing life was divided into three distinct parts. He was encouraged early on by George Bernard Shaw and Graham Greene among others, and one of his several mentors advised him to ‘write what pleases you and you have a slim chance of pleasing others by accident’.
Perhaps some of the best moments in a book-lover’s life are when you chance upon something that turns out to be a real find. The first of many such discoveries for me was a well-used Penguin entitled Twenty Years A-Growing, which I came across nearly sixty years ago, in the back room of a junk shop. I bought it for a penny, read the whole book that day and loved every word of it. I have it still and often revisit it.
Back in 1968, when I was editing Poetry Review, published by the Poetry Society, I started a campaign to have a memorial to Byron placed in Poets’ Corner. I was tentative in my first approach to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, suspecting they might not be particularly enthusiastic about giving space to a man who boasted of having enjoyed a hundred different women during his first two years in Venice and who thought that ‘all sense and senses’ were against belief in religion.
I have always had a weakness for diaries and memoirs, especially those written by men of the cloth. It’s generally quite gentle observational stuff, cataloguing the daily round, usually in a country parish, and much of its fascination lies in the diurnal detail, some of it joyous, some of it poignant, as local characters are christened, married and buried. This writing, for me at least, provides an instant escape to a lost world running at less than half the speed of our own.
In general, I’m cavalier about books. I lend them and therefore lose them, scribble in them, festoon them in pink Post-it notes, share baths with them and pile them up on shelves and tables in no particular order.
If there were quiz questions about the subtitles of books, this – ‘An Experiment in Literary Investigation’ – might be among the trickier ones, offering as it does no hint of the book’s subject matter. But a taster of what is to follow, and of the reason behind the subtitle, comes at once in the book’s preface.
It might be irresponsible to recommend Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) to youngsters today, with its sulky, unrepentant heroine who snoops on neighbours and whose notebook entries result in her losing friends. They might like it as much as I did. My copy, kept safe through house sales and moves and decades, is the only childhood book I still have, my best and most important. I’ve written inside the front cover: ‘Amy M. Liptrot, Private Spy. This book is totally brilliant!’
‘I came across your wonderful podcast this morning on the Slightly Foxed website. It really sums up our world and the joy our work brings.’ ILAB
It was eerie the first time I watched The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin because it all felt so familiar. I’d bought a DVD box-set on a whim. Suddenly my parents’ baffling banter made sense. When I thought they were speaking gibberish they were in fact quoting Perrin. My mother would say ‘great’ and my father would say ‘super’. My father would say things like ‘I didn’t get where I am today’ and my mother would say ‘I’m not a committee person.’ If lunch was going to be late my father would say ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’. They’d been doing it so long that I doubt they even knew they were speaking Perrinese. It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly Perrin has seeped into popular culture and language.
My father was a bibliophile, a bibliographer and a university librarian for fifty years, and I cannot remember a time when I was without books. It was inevitable, therefore, that I should grow up with an ambition to own and run a bookshop. After thirty years in advertising, I bought a small haberdashery called Stuff & Nonsense in Stow-on-the-Wold. I stripped it of all the racks, previously filled with green anoraks, rolls of furniture fabric, strange hats with earflaps that pulled down or bobbles that stood up, shooting-sticks, carved thumb-sticks and pink wellingtons, and fitted it out with bookshelves.
Revisiting the Carey novels today, I am struck by how fresh and magnetizing they have remained, and by how much there is in these books – as there is in all good children’s literature – that can be enjoyed by adults. It is common for readers of Welch to credit him with sparking a love of history (I know an Oxford scholar of medieval literature who says she owes her career to Welch); what we hear less often is how subtle and careful his use of history can be. Escape from France and Nicholas Carey work brilliantly as historical fiction because the history with which they are suffused is always given a human face.
On the cover was a drawing of a slender wrist held by a gloved hand; beneath the wrist was a candle held close. I began to read a story familiar to me: the account given in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs of the torture of the Protestant Rose Allen. I remember how bright and still it was, and how relieved I felt that no one passing by wondered what we were doing, and drew near enough to hear the child reading how the young Rose, bringing a jug of water to her mother, was found by an interrogator in her own home; how he took her candle and moved it back and forth across her hand in the form of a cross until the tendons audibly cracked; and how later she thanked God she’d kept her temper, and not brought the jug down on her tormentor’s head.
I have read so much Updike, so many articles, so many collections of his criticism and journalism, and virtually all his many novels, that I sometimes think I know more about his thought processes than I do about my own. In his introduction to The Early Stories, 1953–1975, John Updike speaks candidly about his professional life. His inspiration, he says, has been drawn from life; he has always believed that ‘out there was where I belonged, immersed in the ordinary which careful explication would reveal to be the extraordinary’. And this, I think, gave him the leitmotif of his writing life and made him the writer he became.
Jennie Erdal wrote letters, speeches and articles for a flamboyant London publisher. But when he asked her to write a novel – a passionate romance – in his name she faced her biggest challenge . . .
Read an extract from Ghosting featured in the Guardian.
Over lunch one day in the autumn of 1996, I mentioned my fascination with Broadmoor to the novelist David Hughes. Had I read Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, he asked in response. No? I must! McGrath had grown up at Broadmoor, where his father had been appointed medical superintendent in 1957; and, though his fictional asylum wasn’t named, there was little doubt that it was based on his childhood home. The novel was just out, and getting rave reviews. I bought it immediately.
Borden begins The Forbidden Zone with a surprisingly bald statement: ‘I have not invented anything in this book.’ She explains that the sketches and poems were written between 1914 and 1918 but the stories are more recent and recount ‘true episodes I cannot forget’. The paradox becomes clear: she is telling the truth and yet the truth was so dreadful that ‘I have blurred the bare horror of facts and softened the reality in spite of myself . . .’
Alan Coren was on fire. Or, at least, smoking. He was also ablaze with enthusiasm. In due course, the cigarette was extinguished. The enthusiasm was not.
It was 2004 and he had come to see the archives of Punch, which the British Library had just acquired. Coren had worked on the magazine since the early 1960s and been its editor between 1978 and 1987. After he left, it went into a terminal decline, ceasing publication in April 1992. The title was eventually purchased by Mohamed Al Fayed and relaunched in 1996 but finally sank in 2002.
Scanning the contents page, I could see that these were tiny stories about everyday subjects, most no more than a couple of pages long – prose sketches rather than conventional narratives – with titles like ‘Trousers’, ‘The Job Application’ or ‘The Boat’. But in the middle there was one covering more than sixty pages called ‘The Walk’. It was the first story I read by Walser, and it introduced me to a writer of both tragic and exultant modesty.
My raddled copy of Owd Bob: The Grey Dog of Kenmuir, with its broken spine and pages falling out, sits in my bookcase alongside other lifelong companions such as Come Hither (which I was delighted to see featured in Issue 43 of Slightly Foxed), but as an adult I feared to open it, because I had once loved it so much. I never knew who wrote it since the title page was missing and the wording on the spine was obliterated by brown sticky tape, until some years ago I mentioned it to my bibliophile brother-in-law, who came up with the author’s name – Alfred Ollivant.
I’m continually amazed by how many remarkable writers can pass you by, even when you think you read a lot. My friend had sent me a copy of The Cone-Gatherers (1955) by Robin Jenkins. I’d never heard of him, but I later discovered that in his long life (1912–2005) he’d written thirty novels and two short-story collections. His books have also appeared on the school syllabus in his native Scotland, and the Robin Jenkins Award was established to recognize exceptional works of environmental literature. But I didn’t know any of this when I sat down to read the book.
Hary-O, as she was called, was born in 1785 to the beautiful Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and incurable gambler, and the 5th Duke, who seems to have passed his life largely disengaged from his surroundings. With her elder sister Georgiana, who became Lady Morpeth then eventually Countess of Carlisle, and younger brother William, always known as Hart, the bachelor 6th Duke, she formed an unrivalled mutual admiration society. Whenever they were apart, they were the most assiduous of correspondents, which means that we can enjoy Hary-O’s mordant wit and shrewd commentary through her letters to them. She once strikingly invoked Georgiana: ‘O sister of my own sort, liver of the chicken to which I am gizzard.’
We are delighted to let you know that 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is now available as a cloth-bound hardback Plain Foxed Edition. It’s a gloriously heart-warming read, the account of a friendship – almost a love story – conducted through books that captures the essence of a slower, gentler era.
‘Oh, Alex.’ I suspect many readers of E. M. Delafield’s fourth novel, Consequences (1919), have said this aloud at least once. They may have said it in sorrowful sympathy; they may have chuckled it knowingly; they may have shrieked it in exasperation. They may have varied its emphasis: ‘Oh, Alex.’ But they will have said it – probably – as I have, in a range of tones and volumes. Consequences is one of the most frustrating books I know.
Oblomov, which was published in 1859, grew out of an initial sketch, Oblomov’s Dream, a portrait of life on a sleepy country estate, rustic and dilapidated in its rut of feasting and napping and storytelling. It makes some sense of Oblomov’s condition, the family history at home in Oblomovka and the way the shared love of cosy simplicity has softened his heart and his bones.
Both The Woman in White and The Moonstone are clever and absorbing. But where should one go in Collins’s work after them? Armadale is fascinating but dauntingly complex, with its two cousins of the same name. For an easier point of entry, and a gripping read, I always recommend No Name (1862). As its title playfully implies, it’s about loss of identity – another favourite topic, in this case arising in typical Collins manner from a botched will.
There were, it would seem, as many Robert Shaws as there were parts to play. It was both a blessing and a curse, this catholicity. My Robert Shaw is perhaps less known; but he may be the key to all the other manifestations. I know the writer, the man who never forgot the short, crucial time he spent in my home town in Orkney.
‘A comfort read must be a constant sensory delight and it is here that Brendon Chase really excels. Almost every page has a treat for the senses – wood smoke, the discovery of a an iridescent purple emperor butterfly, or wild swimming. And through the inadvertent, ecstatic discoveries of the grownups chasing the boys, BB shows how adults can rediscover these pleasures too . . .’
‘Erdal is gossipy but good-natured, and maintains a stalwart fondness for her boss . . . their partnership has generated an unusually rich and entertaining memoir – hilarious, infuriating and unforgettable.’
We are pleased to share news of the latest addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions list, No. 48: Boy by Roald Dahl.
‘This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten.’
No one who reads it is likely to forget Dahl’s recollections either. It’s easy to see where the ogres who people Dahl’s fiction come from . . .
Gail, Hazel and host Philippa enter the world of second-hand bookselling with Chris Saunders of Henry Sotheran’s, the world’s oldest antiquarian bookshop. From folios to quartos, half-binding to cockling, foxing to forgery, they tackle trade terminology and share tales of rarities and curiosities. The conversation ranges far and wide in the typical Slightly Foxed manner – from Parisian romances and the libraries of English country houses to outsized ornithological specimens and books of unusual provenance. In this month’s wander through the magazine’s archives Nigel Anthony recounts the tale of a bookseller’s quest for bibliophilic bliss in a sleepy corner of the Cotswolds, and there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading from off the beaten track.
‘Slightly Foxed comes four times a year and turns that day into gold’ | We’re delighted to let you know that the Autumn issue of Slightly Foxed magazine (No. 63) has left the printing press at Smith Settle. We do hope you’ll enjoy the new issue wherever in the world you are. It ranges far and wide in the usual eclectic manner . . .
Gail, Hazel and host Philippa are transported to Orkney as they explore the life and works of the poet and novelist George Mackay Brown OBE. Together with his biographer Maggie Fergusson and Colin Waters of the Scottish Poetry Library, they bring to light a writer who was at once a solitary soul and a raconteur, a lover and a drinker, a member of the Edinburgh literati yet fame-shy. From the oft-recited ‘Hamnavoe’ to the Booker-nominated Beside the Ocean of Time Mackay Brown’s work sings of his island roots, interweaving life and social history with myth and legend. In this month’s travels through the magazine’s archives, Christopher Robbins and Rory Murphy tackle the high falutin literary rap of Finnegans Wake, and there are the usual wide-ranging recommendations for reading off the beaten track too.
Bailey Hill is the well-loved independent bookshop in Castle Cary, a town that lies between the Somerset Levels, Mendip Hills and the Blackmore Vale. This haven for booklovers encourages browsing and buying with a wide range of contemporary fiction and non-fiction and children’s books for all ages, as well as local and natural history, walking guides, topography and maps, as befits its beautiful location.
Should you really never judge a book by its cover? Had I gone along with that dictum years ago I would not have happened upon Edmund Crispin. Shameful though it is to admit it, I was attracted not by the name of the author – unknown to me – but by a Penguin Crime jacket. Its green and cream design caught my eye at an Amnesty International book sale in the church opposite our house. Our dining-room had recently been redecorated, and I judged Frequent Hearses would, suitably displayed, tone with the colour scheme.
The date is 28 September 1939. The author cannot know that what he will record in this 15-shilling notebook – and the many that follow it over the next six years – will become an astonishing first-hand account of Britain’s darkest hours, and a vivid, often harrowing portrait of one of its greatest leaders. For this is an extraordinary soldier, General Sir Alan Brooke, later Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, destined to become Churchill’s right-hand man as head of the British armed forces, and broker of the Grand Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin. Yet despite the pivotal role he played, his name is still comparatively little known.
Davidson’s book offers us a series of intense, lyrical and surprisingly moving meditations on landscapes, buildings and mythical settings, as seen at the close of day through the eyes of painters and writers. The Last of the Light is a spellbinding exploration of that haunted moment of transition, either on some particular evening or in the history of the civilizations through which Davidson effortlessly roams. Again and again we find ourselves confronting the familiar with fresh eyes, noticing the tiny but significant details that he brings to the fore and quickens into life.
1. Jan Struther, the well-known and successful writer, lecturer, radio performer etc. (with a subdivision called Jan Struther, the much-too-little-known and really pretty terrific serious poet whose depth and brilliance will only really be appreciated by a discerning literary public after she is dead!)
That ‘item no. 1’ was the first on a list concocted by my grandmother Jan Struther in a letter to her brother Douglas in 1951.
Aged 14, I read Gaudy Night simply as a tantalizing romance masquerading as a thriller. Rereading it now I see it as a ghost story, its form demanded by its subject matter. The ghosts float across the text as metaphors that are not merely decorative, as elements of style, but fundamental to the plot, which has to do, crucially, with language, written and spoken: language stolen, repressed, destroyed.
As a beneficiary of the Welfare State and the Permissive Society – to name just two of their life-enhancing achievements – I owe an enormous debt to the liberal intelligentsia who, in the teeth of opposition from the Old Gang, brought them to pass. But who were these irreverent shock troops and what motivated them? The answer is given by one of their standard bearers, Noel Annan (1916‒2000), in his dazzling group portrait Our Age (1990), which is not only a joy to read but also a wonderful crib for anyone studying the social history of Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Florence Marian McNeill, known as Floss, understood the importance of regional dishes. You may know her better as a folklorist; but without The Scots Kitchen, first published in 1929, she’d never have begun collecting the scraps of song, story, local traditions and unlikely remedies which grew over the years to become her definitive work on folklore, The Silver Bough.
Rosemary Sutcliff knew about chariots. In the first of her four Roman books, The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), her young hero, the centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, politely suggests to his British friend Cradoc that the British are all charioteers. Cradoc replies (accurately): ‘The British can all drive after a fashion; not every one is a charioteer.’ Marcus, however, is the real thing, the best in his Legion. Elegantly he slaloms Cradoc’s four strong little black stallions through planted spears, and then, reaching open land, he gives them their heads and they are off, at full gallop.
Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) is a poem about love and death, the two things which change all things – which is a powerful reason for reading what happens to be a powerful piece of writing, one of the key works of the nineteenth century, and one which has been described antithetically as the epitome of Victorian scepticism and of Christian faith.
At the back of Penelope Fitzgerald’s only short-story collection, The Means of Escape (2000), there is a charming black-and-white photograph of the author. It shows her buttoned into a high-collared shirt under a garment that appears to be an academic robe but could simply be a very large cardigan. Not quite smiling, she looks gentle yet distinguished, exactly as I remember her; and, as I looked at the photograph, there she was again and so was I, back in the old public library at the top of Highgate Hill in north London.
It is an irony that the dramatization of a novel may deter not spur. Instead of leading the viewer to the book, it becomes a substitute. Such a fate appears to have befallen Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, which in its Balkan and Levant trilogies traces the wartime travails of young Harriet and Guy Pringle as they flee the advancing Germans, first in Bucharest and Athens, then in Egypt and the Middle East. The six volumes were published to acclaim between 1960 and 1980. Yet Manning’s work is now probably better remembered as the 1987 BBC TV dramatization starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
Throughout his work – James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), Danny, The Champion of the World (1975), The Twits (1980), The BFG (1982) and more – Dahl is firmly on the side of the child, whose world is generally populated by adult grotesques, full of cruelty, unkindness and absurd demands. In Boy, we can see where these creatures come from.
The first book I ever bought for myself was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I’ve bought thousands more books since, but Ballet Shoes is still a very special favourite. It hasn’t been out of print since it was published in 1936. I recently treated myself to a first edition with its rare silver cover (so fragile it generally disintegrated within weeks) but my first copy was a Puffin paperback.
Are writers born or bred? One of my grandfathers was a poet – an exact contemporary of Kipling, though rather less famous. His main contribution to literature was the invention of the poetry postcard. He also invented ‘The Quick and Easy Method of Washing Floors’, that ingenious bucket with a pedal that presses two rollers together and squeezes your mop, and which is found in every school and hospital throughout the universe; he sold the rights to it for, I think, twenty guineas.
‘The best kind of historical fiction, far too good to be limited to children’s bookshelves’
We are pleased to announce the publication of two new titles in the Slightly Foxed Cubs series of highly collectable classic children’s books, The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Rosemary Sutcliff (1920‒92) wrote three of her four great historical novels for children set during the last years of the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers (winner of the Carnegie Medal) – between 1954 and 1959, and the fourth, Frontier Wolf, which comes third in the chronological story, in 1980. Slightly Foxed is now reissuing all four of the Roman novels, with their original illustrations, in a limited, numbered edition.
Wednesday 2 October 2019
Hatchards Booksellers on Piccadilly were delighted to host biographer Edmund Gordon and theatre critic Susannah Clapp for an evening celebrating the life and work of Angela Carter. This was the second in an event series with Slightly Foxed and the Biographers’ Club.
187 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LE
We’re delighted that the Slightly Foxed Podcast has been selected as one of the Sunday Times Top 100 Podcasts to Love.
Often dismissed as difficult, The Waves is a book that should be heard rather than read. And I don’t mean buying the audio-version. I mean the kind of deep listening we give to a friend who needs to unburden herself. We turn self off and become an ear into which she pours her life.
For someone who writes about nature, as I do, the importance of Gilbert White’s Selborne, coupled with the daily journals he kept from 1751 to 1793, cannot be overestimated. The original parson-naturalist, White dedicated his life to observing and recording the natural history of his small Hampshire parish. In doing so he not only advanced our understanding of British flora and fauna quite considerably – he was the first to identify the harvest mouse and the noctule bat, and to distinguish between the chiffchaff, the willow warbler and the wood warbler, by listening to their song – but also laid the groundwork for an appreciation of local habitats that still informs our national character today.
Thirty years or so ago, we always shopped on a Friday morning at a local supermarket, and for a number of weeks we observed a strange phenomenon in the car park. Cars would arrive at, say, five to nine – but instead of everyone leaping out and going about their business, not a door opened until five seconds past the hour, when with one accord everyone sprang from their cars and made for the lift. The reason: at nine, Arthur Marshall stopped reading the latest instalment of his autobiography, Life’s Rich Pageant (1984).
I was born in 1948 and so I stepped over into vague adulthood during the 1960s. My parents were what you might call bohemian, which meant they used Freud as the springboard for seeing sex in every aspect of life and they believed in doing whatever they felt like doing and to hell with the consequences. They were also good people in their way: my mother full of laughter and sociability, my father full of booze and poetry and fascinated by the transforming power of metaphor ‒ just so long as you could find the right one to fit the occasion . . .
The novel is a beautiful collision between The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Catcher in the Rye, translated to the streets of Stradhoughton. This is a fictional West Yorkshire town derived from Hunslet, which stands across the River Aire from the city centre of Leeds, and is where Waterhouse grew up. I loved the novel from the first page, and I still treasure its vinegary sense of place and sardonic anti-establishment humour, perfect credentials for the wave of northern working-class fiction then rolling across Britain’s literary seabed. But Billy Liar went on to transcend the genre.
‘It’s Belloc’s Cautionary Tales –
A sovereign salve that never fails
To brighten up the blackest mood
And lift the lowest attitude.’
I wonder what the business was that the person from Porlock wanted to discuss when he (or possibly she) knocked on the door of the isolated farmhouse in Nether Stowey on that day in the summer of 1797? Maybe he (or she) said something like: ‘Sorry to bother you, Mr Coleridge, but I am honorary secretary of the Porlock Young Writers’ Circle, for my sins, and we were just wondering whether you might be good enough to judge this year’s poetry competition.’ . . .
I first read Lorna Sage’s deeply absorbing and funny memoir Bad Blood in 2001, just before it won the Whitbread Award for Biography. A week later she died of emphysema, aged only 57, and, although I’d never met her, I felt as if I had. Her printed voice still flowed in my head, witty and full of insights into the rocky worlds of children and the adults who are supposed to care for them; a precise voice, rich with details that reminded me of my own semi-rural childhood: ‘hedges overgrown with hawthorn, honeysuckle and dog roses’.
Year by year literature of and about the First World War mounts – books on its campaigns, causes, politics and economics; memoirs by politicians and generals; diaries and letters written by ordinary ‘Tommies’, by nurses in the front line and those involved on the Home Front, from the ‘Munitionettes’ who filled shells and assembled guns to the society ladies who rolled bandages and handed out tea and buns to departing soldiers. The catalogue of the London Library currently lists 1,475 titles on the First World War, and there will be many more to come during the remaining centenary years . . .
Between 1839 and 1841 John Lloyd Stephens made two long and arduous trips through Central America in search of lost Mayan cities. What followed were two huge books (respectively 900 and 700 pages long), both best-sellers in their day. Even now Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan are a splendid introduction to the Mayan world, since except for a few of the most famous sites, the ruins they describe remain as remote and untouched as they were 150 years ago. I have never been to Chinese Turkestan or to Egypt, worse luck, but from my own experience (far less extensive than his) I can testify that Stephens has got Central America and its lost cities dead right, in all their complexity, discomfort and absolute fascination. He claims to have explored no less than forty-four sites, many for the first time.
Last spring, I visited the hamlet of Knill, deep in the Herefordshire countryside. Knill lies on the river Lug, a tributary of the Wye, and in the 1930s Penelope Fitzgerald’s father, Eddie Knox, used to come here and fish with his brothers, taking the lease on a cottage. I had learned this from The Knox Brothers (1977), Fitzgerald’s beguiling biography of four remarkable men; loving it as much as her novels, I was keen to find this cottage, of which she had happy childhood memories.
Just as I was about to sit down to write this I heard an edition of Radio 4’s A Good Read in which the comedian and writer Richard Herring chose Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), the book I had planned to write about, and he went and said all the pertinent things about it that I had hoped to say . . .
The title, which translates as ‘A Study of a Tiny Academic World’, refers to the enclave that was Cambridge University in the 1900s, at which time Cornford was a fellow of classics at Trinity College (where he had been an undergraduate in the late nineteenth century). There was much about this world that he disliked, and many of these dissatisfactions can seem rather minor and arcane. But his principal and most important objections ‒ objections from which Microcosmographia Academica would arise ‒ were related to such minutiae.
As with many of the books I’ve come to love most, I bought Autonauts of the Cosmoroute (1983) impulsively, knowing nothing about it, and mainly because of its cover. This features a doughty old red Volkswagen camper, with its forward-pitched roof raised like a sceptical eyebrow as a bearded man climbs out through its sliding side door. In the foreground, we see two lurid, flowery chairs. Above is only blue sky. Inside, you can make out a cooker, a folding table and a checked curtain. It is the kind of van in which you could go a long way.
Brian (pronounced Bree-an) Moore started his life in Belfast in 1921 and ended it in Malibu, California, in 1999, and that journey – and all that it implies – is the central thread of his fiction. He wrote twenty novels. I have read them all. I bought most of them in hardback the moment they came out. Indeed he was my favourite living novelist.
You should never camp in a ravine. Look for higher ground, and a windbreak – a fallen tree is fine, but rocks are the best. Gather balsam wood for bedding, and use your tomahawk to cut firewood from a dead tree. Make two fires. Set the bigger one against the rocks for warmth, and spread the ashes of the smaller one over the ground you wish to sleep on – they will stop it being so cold and damp. Catch fish from the river, but keep an eye out for Indians moving silently through the forest on moccasined feet. This much I have learnt from Ronald Welch’s Mohawk Valley . . .
I have the clearest recollection of my first reading of Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. I have just reread it, from cover to cover and from footnote to footnote, for the second time. And, at the end, I have found myself, as I did thirty-five years before, with tears in my eyes.
What a perfect basis for a novel: hole up some highly charged ‘creatives’ in a secluded location and propel them from Eden into a Sartrean existentialist hell. Published in 1969, Real People is a subversively mocking but also poignant coming-of-middle-age comedy. Janet Smith (she adds ‘Belle’ to make herself seem elegant) is a priggish ‘lady writer’ who converses on highbrow matters over dinner. She and her fellow artists smugly agree that here at ‘Illyria’ they blossom into Real People ‒ their real best selves as they would be in a decent world, away from the stress of daily life. Janet is thankful to see the back of unreal people, particularly her boring insurance executive husband and tiresome children.
On 11 August 1979, a humane and singular man, who after long periods punctuated by adversity declared himself ‘happier than I’ve been in years’, left his isolated cottage near Bantry Bay in the west of Ireland to fish from his favourite rock. There he was swept away by a huge wave, outrider of an unprecedented storm which two days later would claim the lives of eighteen crew in the Fastnet yacht race. A witness said no cry left the fisherman’s lips and he made no visible attempt to save himself. The body of the novelist J. G. Farrell was found a month later. With his death at 44, contemporary literature lost a unique voice and the prospect of even greater riches to come. John Banville said it was ‘nothing short of a disaster for English fiction’.
In the autumn of 1991, I started working for the Royal Society of Literature, one of the strangest and most beguiling organizations in London. Nobody, not even Roy Jenkins, its President, seemed to have much idea of the RSL’s purpose, and so in the evenings, after work, I took to exploring the archives. They lived in a small room over the front door of the Society’s home, 1 Hyde Park Gardens, stuffed into lever arch files whose spines read like a register of literary ghosts: Barrie, Beckett, Beerbohm, Blunden, Brooke . . .
From about the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, anyone who could afford it owned a ‘book of hours’ and kept it close at hand for daily use. It contained the prayers of the divine offices to be said at appointed hours, as well as psalms, lists of saints and a calendar, often tailored to the particular place in which it was used. My diary, the only book I use many times a day, is a paltry thing beside these medieval books, some of which are made visually beautiful with illuminations, and all of which are conceptually beautiful in their weaving of the hours of each day with the arc of the whole year.
For me as a teenager, reading voraciously on the Natal sugar farm that was then my home, what gave Herman Charles Bosman an edge over other writers was that he was a murderer. That he was also one of a handful of South African writers who could confidently be called ‘major’ seemed incidental. From my adolescent perspective, lounging in a rattan chair on the veranda, with the sea of sugarcane swaying in the distance, it was his infamy that was beguiling.
If anything, my experience with James Cameron’s book An Indian Summer (1974) demonstrates the need for magazines like Slightly Foxed. In the 1980s I was working in India as the British Council’s books officer and reading everything I could find about the subcontinent: V. S. Naipaul’s sober tomes; Forster and Ackerley on the Maharajahs; Eric Newby on negotiating the Ganges in a small boat; Sarah Lloyd’s An Indian Attachment, about her affair with a young Sikh. Because of my job I was ideally placed to find the right stuff, yet it was only during my fifth year in India that I discovered what was – and still is – the best book I’ve read on the subject.
For anyone interested in places and their associations And So to Bath (1940) is a gem. Writing at the end of the 1930s under the shadow of war and in a succession of stages along the road’s hundred miles, Roberts conjures up a fascinating historical panorama from prehistoric times to Rome, the Plantagenets, the Tudors and Stuarts, the cultural glories (and social misdemeanours) of Georgian England and the Victorian prosperity and reforms that followed it, through to a philistine twentieth century which he laments. With a magpie’s zeal Roberts has gathered it all for us. For occasional fellow travellers he has the scholarly and spinsterly Miss Whissett, and Rudolf, an enthusiastic young Austrian student of English literature whose companionship may have held more than a passing charm for the bachelor author.
Man’s Search for Meaning has apparently sold more than 10 million copies and been published in 24 languages. It is, according to the Library of Congress, one of the ‘ten most influential books in the United States’. When you are happy, E. F. Benson or some other undemanding text is enough; when you torture yourself, you need to find ways of coping. Frankl’s book is unlike any other Holocaust memoir I have read. From the darkest degradation he brings hope. He finds meaning amid the meaningless. It would be an exaggeration to say that his book saved my life – but it did help me find meaning.
The night the Evelyn Hope sailed from Hamble, there were sausages, potatoes and fried tomatoes cooked on a Primus stove for dinner. The captain opened a bottle of beer. It took three days for the boat to reach Le Havre. There the captain and his first mate disembarked and ordered a dinner of moules marinières, followed by nougat and Calvados. The diners were Charles Gibson-Cowan and Elizabeth David.
Can a book save one’s life? I used to think so when stationed in Mogadishu, avoiding thoughts of murder or suicide in that sunburnt madness only by immersing myself in Gerald Hanley’s Warriors (1971). Day after day I would throw myself on to my bed after another utterly fruitless, pointless day in the president’s office, and lie down, sweating beneath squadrons of flies and mosquitoes, and try to forget about it all.
Do you know the novels of Dan Rhodes? I ask because his books would appeal, I believe, to many readers. But he avoids journalism, does not belong to any literary groups or contemporary schools of writing and is very much an individual novelist. He neither pursues fame nor patronizes his readers. What he believes is what you get: sensitivity, humour, sadness and devastating shock. Sometimes I have been so saddened, so shocked, that I have stopped reading and put the book aside. But before long I am compelled to pick it up again and read on. And what I have read has found a place in my imagination.
Grunty Fen has long been a source of mystery. For years it lurked in the dusty lumber-room of memory, unvisited and all but forgotten, its faint miasma lingering slightly, if unpleasantly, until all that was left was the name, only the name. Like Adelstrop, you might think, as immortalized by Edward Thomas; though until recently, all the two places had in common was that once, long ago and for a short time only, each boasted a small, branch-line railway station.
We are delighted to let you know that, following sell-out runs in its original limited SF Edition and subsequent paperback incarnation, Corduroy has just been published as a cloth-bound hardback Plain Foxed Edition. These sturdy little books, bound in duck-egg blue cloth, come in the same neat pocket format as the original SF Editions and will happily fill any gaps on your shelves, as well as forming a delightful uniform edition on their own.
The Siege of Krishnapur is a tremendous read. Amid the laconic humour and enthralling action, serious questions are asked about the wisdom of accepted ideas and the ownership of possessions both material and territorial. On the way, we learn about contemporary social mores, medical and religious schisms and even how to lay a cannon in the heat of battle.
Here, I knew at once, was a skilful writer who took joy in what he made.
The book proved to be about two students barely out of their teens who go off to look for a bird: to be exact, Leach’s Fork-tailed Petrel, which the author describes jauntily as ‘like a true ornithologist’s child, cumbrously museum-named and not far removed from the class of lesser yellow-bellied fire-eater’.
Close Range collects eleven of Proulx’s short stories, all set at various points in the previous century on the ‘dangerous and indifferent ground’ of the author’s home state of Wyoming. It is a book echoing with the voices of hard-rolling, rusty-trucked ranching communities, inhabited by men and women who plod and plough and geld and herd for a living on isolated dots of farmsteads and in one-street towns. The characters don’t talk much, though occasionally they might talk too much: like a river in spate, this is when they tend to do most damage.
Among quite a few things Gulliver’s Travels has in common with Alice in Wonderland, one in particular would have surprised their authors: each jumped nimbly across the boundary of their assumed readership. But they did so from different sides of the fence. Carroll’s child’s fantasy, spun during a picnic afternoon on the river, generated an entire academic industry for serious-minded adults; Swift, on the other hand, had ground out a bitter, hard-hitting satire on bad government, intellectual pretension and moral hubris, only to have it co-opted by children in their fascination for little people and giants.
Hoban started writing Riddley Walker in 1974 and finished it five years later. It is a masterpiece. Those who know it love it, and whole websites are devoted to it, with chapter-by-chapter annotations deciphering the language, and online chat rooms discussing its themes. In 2005 a Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum (a symposium in Riddleyspeak) was held in London, with readings, quizzes and a pilgrimage to Kent to visit locations in the novel. Every 4 February, Russell Hoban’s birthday, die-hard fans leave typed quotations from his novels in random places for strangers to find.
I waited until my wife was looking the other way, nipped quickly in and bought it. Admittedly, it weighed six pounds, its heavy leather binding was rather battered and, as the label said, it ‘lacks part of brass lock’; but it was irresistible, even at £50 – once clearly irresistible, too, to His Majesty King Edward VII, a collection of dukes and duchesses, and ‘the whole of the leading members of the theatrical profession’, all of whom had been ‘pleased to subscribe, in advance of publication’.
I first read Jean Rhys in my mid-teens; a copy of Quartet from my parents’ bookshelf, which drew me with its undemanding slimness and its cover featuring the beautiful face of Isabelle Adjani in soft focus above a chessboard with the heads of Maggie Smith and Alan Bates floating around her. (The three starred in the Merchant Ivory film of the book, which I have never seen.) From the back cover I learned it was set amid ‘the winter-wet streets of Montparnasse, Pernods in smoke-filled cafés [and] . . . cheap hotel rooms with mauve-flowered wallpaper’. Chic Parisian misery: just what teenage girls love.
One afternoon sometime in the early 1950s, the lad who by a country mile was my father’s ablest pupil in his sixth-form French and Spanish class rang our doorbell, and announced that the schoolgirl on his arm had just consented to become his wife. Not immediately, of course, but as soon as both had made it through the higher education which would force them to live far from each other for the next three or four years. That lad was Ted Walker, his bride-to-be Lorna Benfell. The two had met when he was 14, she one year older. They’d fallen urgently in love. Ted wanted my parents to be among the first to hear. He held them both in high regard, and they him – a mutual affection that lasted to the end.
I read Einstein’s Dreams (1992), by Alan Lightman, not long after it was published. I was in my mid-20s, freshly released from a degree in maths and physics I had understood very little of, and then a diploma in journalism. I wasn’t a scientist, certainly not a physicist (I loved physics but just wasn’t any good at it). I was working as a science journalist, but what I really wanted to write was fiction that somehow incorporated science. And Alan Lightman was the first author I’d come across who did this, beautifully.
Someone must have recommended it. Otherwise there’s no way, twenty years ago, I’d have picked up an 880-page book about the French Revolution. Even a novel. But I did pick up Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992), and I was immediately sucked into the vortex of this swirling, populous epic that animates one of history’s greatest and bloodiest convulsions. My paperback bears the scars of my attention: the faded front cover is detached and veined with creases, the corners worn and blurred, the pages dog-eared and soft as cloth. The impact the book had on me in return feels almost as physical. Because history, until that point, had left me completely cold. With A Place of Greater Safety, it suddenly came to hot-blooded life and stepped right off the page.
Over the past few months I’ve been immersed in a feast of late-eighteenth-century reading as I’ve meandered through the foothills of a new book project. I’ve had the delight of reacquainting myself with old friends and have made some new ones along the way as I’ve lived and breathed the turbulent events of the decade following the French Revolution through the eyes of some of the period’s most brilliant writers.
I watched a lot of television in my twenties and I doubt whether it did me much good. But it did lead, indirectly, to my discovering the fascinating novels of Nigel Balchin. In 1990 I saw a TV drama series, bought a copy of the book on which it had been based and, among the endpapers, spotted a notice for another novel that sounded intriguing: The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. I’d never heard of Balchin but tracked down The Small Back Room, read it and instantly became an ardent fan. I devoted much of the rest of the decade to finding and reading his other novels (he wrote fourteen in all), and now consider Mine Own Executioner to be one of the very best of them.
Now I found myself asking: what was Robert Graves saying ‘goodbye’ to? When he published Goodbye to All That (1929), his startling memoir of his youth and his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War, he was 34. Most of the book recalls events that had ended a decade earlier. He says: ‘I had by the age of 23, been born, initiated into a formal religion, travelled, learned to lie, loved unhappily, been married, gone to the war, taken life, procreated my kind, rejected formal religion, won fame and been killed.’ Are these life events to which one can bid adieu?
One day I found a copy of Montrose, written by my grandfather, John Buchan, and published in 1928. Despite having been taught at university to be pretty sniffy about any history that made personality, rather than socio-economic forces, the driver of great events, I nevertheless thankfully abandoned my Dutch and read the book straight through.
Was anyone ever as singular as Charlotte Mew? Mannish, gruffish, diminutive, she ranged about London in her tailor-mades and cropped hair and rolled her own cigarettes, possibly with the discarded drafts of poems. She gave mesmerizing readings and was published, alongside Henry James, in The Yellow Book in 1894, and in 1914 in The Egoist by Ezra Pound.
With two prize-winning novels – Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur (see SF nos. 49 and 50) – behind him, J. G. Farrell felt sufficiently confident to paint his next exploration of the decline of the British Empire on a larger canvas. The Singapore Grip (1978), set in the build-up to Japan’s invasion of the colony in 1942, continues the theme of its predecessors in portraying a complacent élite teetering on the edge of an abyss and then tumbling to its fate.
Richard Church is remembered, if at all, as a late-flowering Georgian poet and a busy man of letters who contributed reviews to such long-forgotten periodicals as John O’London’s Weekly, and who in due course became Dylan Thomas’s baffled and increasingly embattled editor at J. M. Dent. But he deserves to be better known, if only for one book. Published by Heinemann in 1955, Over the Bridge is the first volume in an autobiographical trilogy.
Some fellow English literature students took refuge in drink, drugs or promiscuity. My escape was the novels of David Lodge. Between 1975 and 1988 he wrote Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, which form a loose trilogy set mainly at Rummidge University, a very lightly fictionalized version of Birmingham where Lodge taught.
One early autumn, when life wasn’t going exactly to plan, I joined two friends sailing around the Stockholm archipelago, the 20,000 islands and skerries that protect the approach to the Swedish capital from the Baltic. As afternoon sank into evening we set course for the outer islands and Kymmendö, the setting of August Strindberg’s novel The People of Hemsö (Hemsöborna).
Alexander Herzen was a nineteenth-century Russian political reformer and philosopher who wrote five volumes of what he described as ‘memoirs in progress’.
Alexander Herzen was a nineteenth-century Russian political reformer and philosopher who wrote five volumes of what he described as ‘memoirs in progress’. These are the opening lines of Childhood, Youth and Exile – the first two volumes of the sequence My Past and Thoughts – which covers his early years, 1812 to 1840. The other three volumes carry on from there and end around 1868.
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ You see, even Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a bit of a list-maker. Of course, our love affair with lists goes back a lot further than her. Think of the first Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament: ‘And Nahshon begat Salma, and Salma begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse . . .’ And so the begetting goes on and on. Surely, when Moses came down from the mountain top with the Ten Commandments he was bringing us an important early example of a not-to-do list.
My father’s two favourite books, which he seemed to reread almost annually, were Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and Uncle Fred in the Springtime, by P. G. Wodehouse. Both are distinguished by complexity of plot, an array of eccentric characters and prodigious comic invention. And both are very funny.
When I was 10 I read Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone for the first time. And I will never forget the moment on p. 218 in my now broken-backed copy of this novel when I experienced what I can only describe as literary magic; a magic so powerful that I still remember the shiver that ran through me.
A glance at the back of the title page of The Creevey Papers showed that Murray had reprinted it ten times in as many years following the book’s first appearance in 1903 – a good indication that he was something special, and worth enquiring about within.
I remember her most vividly gliding down from the first floor of her Holland Park house on a Stannah stairlift. Generally speaking these contraptions suggest dénouement and decline. Not with P. D. James. She reached the hall with an expression of keen anticipation and great good humour – especially if I had come to chauffeur her to an evening engagement. Being driven around London at night, she used to say, was one of the great delights of her old age.
welcomed friends, subscribers and local book-lovers to celebrate a bumper crop of autumn offerings. Our guests browsed the shelves, stocked up on good reading and enjoyed a glass of wine with the Slightly Foxed team.
Many thanks to all who attended and made the party such a joyful occasion.
The subtitle of J. B. Priestley’s Jenny Villiers – ‘A Story of the Theatre’ – was what caught my attention when I came across it in a dilapidated barn in West Sussex, where the cooing of pigeons accompanied my search round the freezing and guano-spattered interior. It turned out to be an enchanting read, depicting a vanished world of call boys, live orchestras and tea matinées, when acting was honed as a craft, actors were respected for their talent, and theatres large and small flourished in virtually every town in Britain.
The Rules of the Game is a work of military history, a genre which I have always seen as male-dominated and which I usually avoid. There are no women in this book. The only females are ships. Nevertheless, for the past nine months or so I have lugged around this 700-page tome by Andrew Gordon on the Battle of Jutland.
I made my first acquaintance with David Grayson in a dank corner of a bookshop basement. The bare light bulb just overhead had gone out, probably months before, leaving the corner in deep shadow. Ever the intrepid book hunter, I reached for my pocket torch and continued browsing. There, on the shelf nearest the floor, scuffed and soiled, its frayed and faded spine almost illegible, was Adventures in Contentment (1907) by David Grayson. Well, who doesn’t like adventures or contentment? I reached for the volume, blew decades of dust from the top of the spine, and settled myself on the floor.
Anyone who was around in the mid-1960s can probably whistle ‘Lara’s Theme’, and quite a few will remember the film for which the tune was written, in which the glamorous Julie Christie and Omar Sharif modelled fur coats in the snow. But how many people today read the book on which the film was based, the literary scoop of the twentieth century, the bestseller that won the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak?
When I look back at the food of my 1970s childhood, it all seems as brightly coloured as a pair of toe-socks or a brand new Space Hopper. It was a neon feast of packets and powders, stuff dehydrated, canned or frozen solid. A typical supper was Alphabetti Spaghetti and fish fingers accompanied by the happy glug of tomato ketchup; then a pudding of butterscotch Angel Delight (just add milk) with a squeeze from a tube of chocolate-flavoured sauce. Flavours were fantastical combinations of chemicals and ideas (remember ‘hedgehog’ crisps?).
Michael Holroyd is the most distinguished biographer of his generation, chiefly on the strength of three monumental works – Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Bernard Shaw, published between 1967 and 1992. The first two were each published in two volumes, and Bernard Shaw in four volumes.
The first thing that strikes one about the Conway family is the noise. The air is filled with Father’s sudden roars of rage, the slaps he lands on his son Howard, and his two other children, the flying plates, the slamming doors. Then there’s Grandma with her noisy coos and kisses, her cries of ecstasy one moment and shrieks of woe the next. It’s no wonder Grandpa is always going off for a little lie-down. And, of course, behind all this hubbub there are family secrets.
‘I have written a book which gives me much pleasure. It is a kind of full-length portrait of a small country town – this small town – between the wars. The sort of life that will never come back,’ John Moore told T. H. White in the summer of 1945. Already a well-established and prolific professional writer, Moore had written Portrait of Elmbury in six weeks after leaving the Admiralty Press Division in London to return to his home town of Tewkesbury, and it was to form the first part of a trilogy based on Tewkesbury and its surrounding villages. Portrait of Elmbury and Brensham Village were both published by Collins in 1946, and The Blue Field followed two years later: the names of places and people had been changed, but the disguise was lightly worn.
Whenever I’m asked who my favourite schoolteacher was, I don’t hesitate. His name was Bill Drysdale and he taught me English when I was barely into my teens. He was tall and charismatic, with a dark beard and a beautiful bass voice. The thing we most loved about Bill, however, was that from time to time, instead of teaching us grammar, he would read us a story instead. I remember him reading Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile. But best of all, he introduced us to G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown Stories.
For almost a decade there’s been one particular book we’ve been longing to reissue. Now at last, as we reach our tenth anniversary, we’ve got the opportunity to do so. When I wrote about it in one of our very early issues, I said that for me a home without a copy of Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece (1952) was like a home without a cat – lacking an essential cheering and comfortable element – and for me that still holds true.
She began life as the fictional heroine of a small newspaper column and went on, via American bestsellerdom and a celebrated wartime Hollywood movie, to have the kind of impact on world affairs that solemn, male writers can only dream of. Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt were among her fans. The former claimed she did more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships.
Not long after we launched the Slightly Foxed Editions, we came across a little gem of a book, first published in 1948 and long out of print, which we decided we must reissue. My Grandfather, as its title indicates, is a portrait of the author’s maternal grandfather, who, though surviving sturdily into the reign of George V, was to his grandson a character from the ‘warm, gas-lit, stable-smelling past’ of the Victorian age.
Dodie Smith said she never felt ‘quite grown-up’. This may sound like an excuse for tiresome behaviour, but Dodie did retain all her life a childlike charm, being under five feet tall with a high-pitched girlish voice. She was an only child, a singularly precocious, egocentric and thoroughly original one.
The year was 1934, and Richard (‘Dick’) Tibbits, it seems, had been approached by Father Talbot of the Brompton Oratory with the suggestion that there was need for a Catholic boys’ prep school in the area. So Mr Tibbits, a Catholic convert himself, decided there and then to start one.
I see Frances Wood in that great tradition of intrepid British women explorers, like Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell. She sets out for China in 1975, when the Cultural Revolution is still going strong, and soon she is hacking a path through impenetrable jungles of revolutionary doctrine and jargon. Now she is gamely slogging across arid deserts of boredom and hours of improving lectures about the heroic deeds and shining examples of simple peasants. There are a hundred discomforts and irritations to be endured. To the natives she is a figure of curiosity; they stare and point and they don’t accept her. Like her explorer predecessors, she is indomitable, but in her case it is because of her heroic sense of humour and her eye for the absurd. Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking – her account of the year she spent as a student first at the Foreign Languages Institute in Peking and then at Peking University – is a very funny book.
Among Britain’s defeats in the Second World War, the Battle of Arnhem comes second only to Dunkirk in the popular imagination. The parachute troops’ hopeless bid for control of the Rhine crossing in September 1944, waiting for reinforcements that never came, has been described as the greatest ‘might have been’ of the war; the phrase ‘a bridge too far’ has passed into everyday speech.
‘It’s just good writing about good books, written by people who love them . . . It’s made me chuckle, and smile, and feel that, in fact, the world is still a kind and civilized place.’
Of course The Young Ardizzone is not a children’s book, rather a book about childhood intended for adults, but here, as in the Lucy and Little Tim series, the integration of words and images is complete. As a work of art the text alone, admirable as it is, would not be in the same league. Anyone experiencing it as an audio-book would miss a great deal.
Most people have some memories of early childhood that remain vividly with them through life. Sometimes they are impossible to describe, being chiefly a quite indefinable feeling prompted by opening a particular book, or an atmosphere conjured by hearing a certain piece of music. Others are more easily converted into words: the details of a flower found in a lawn, the pattern on a hall floor, the smell of a great-aunt’s sitting-room.
Bell’s first book has the virtues which allow it to transcend its times: acute observation, sincerity and that simplicity of style which does not date. Published in 1930, it portrays a way of life which had been overturned by the First World War and was to go on changing rapidly through the century. It is more than a nostalgic lament for a vanishing world, however: it describes a way of living that is very much alive.
I shall always be grateful to A Cab at the Door. I read most of it one Sunday evening in a Victoria line tube train which was stuck for two hours outside King’s Cross station. The train lights dimmed and instead of the Blitz spirit a sullen, twitchy silence set in. I was spectacularly lucky in my companion. The sheer vigour of V. S. Pritchett’s writing and his benign, shrewd storyteller’s voice kept me suspended in his Edwardian boyhood until ‘the juice’, as the panic-stricken driver called it, came back on and we trundled away at last.
Pocketable Paperbacks, Collectable Cubs, Irresistible Issues
Herewith our occasional plea to our dear readers to help us clear a few shelves this August by stocking up on paperbacks, notebooks, back issues, Cubs and greetings cards. Various bundles and other tempting offers appear in the newsletter . . .
‘The natural pleasure of reading it is enormous,’ wrote Maynard Keynes to his friend Lytton Strachey on coming to the end of Elizabeth and Essex. ‘You seem, on the whole, to imagine yourself as Elizabeth, but I see from the pictures that it is Essex whom you have got up as yourself. But I expect you have managed to get the best of both worlds.’
My grandmother’s idea of cooking was cracking open a raw egg and hurling the contents straight down her throat. She was a poet, deeply religious, immersed in the world of the spirit, never the flesh, who spent years translating Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems into Scots – an obscure language then and even more so now. The resulting book and the correspondence between her and Hopkins are still kept in the library at Aberdeen University.
There are some books, not necessarily the longest, in which the author’s intention is so perfectly realized, a seminal experience of life so beautifully recorded that the book becomes a small icon to be treasured not only on the shelf of a personal library, but in the mind. A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins is such a book.
I harbour – perversely, you might think – the fondest memories of two much maligned phenomena: the 1970s and Birmingham. I was lucky, of course. I had a relatively pleasant, carefree adolescence, and I see all this through a Proustian haze of nostalgia . . . and so, for the most part at least, does Jonathan Coe. His unabashed affection for his teens, and for the city where they took place, forms the core of The Rotters’ Club – a rite-of-passage novel which should take its place as an enduring classic of the genre, in the same league as The Catcher in the Rye or Tom Sawyer.
Period Piece features punting, picnics on Grantchester Meadows and problems with corsets and bicycles, all illustrated with Raverat’s delightful drawings, often featuring the family’s put-upon dog . . . It’s the perfect book to read in a garden on these sunny summer days.
Just who are literary festivals for and why do we love them so much? Gail, Steph and host Philippa go backstage with Anne Oxborough of the well-established Ways With Words and Michael Pugh of recent start-up the Llangwm Literary Festival to find out more. From the delights of surprise-hit speakers, post-show river swims, vodka-fuelled poetry sessions and the rise of fancy food stalls to the horrors of airborne green rooms, bacon-roll bust-ups and rail replacement buses, the conversation ranges far and wide in the usual Slightly Foxed way. In this month’s audio-adventure through the magazine’s archives the writer and performer A. F. Harrold goes speed-dating with Iris Murdoch at Cheltenham Literature Festival and, to finish, there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading from off the beaten track.
What do you feel like reading, curled up in your armchair? Obviously, a whodunnit. But not just any old whodunnit. You don’t want the colourless style and arid tricksiness of Agatha Christie, nor the stately prose and rampant snobbery of Dorothy L. Sayers. You want the real queen of crime, the best, the darkest, the most interesting, idiosyncratic and literary novelist that the Golden Age of detective fiction produced. I refer, of course, to Margery Allingham.
Tables laden with book displays, vases of flowers and choice literary quotes writ large welcome customers as they enter from the hustle of Piccadilly, while knowledgeable booksellers provide recommendations and guidance throughout its many floors – as well as beautifully gift-wrapped parcels with signature dark-green ribbon if a book-buyer so desires.
‘I just want to tell you how much I enjoy the podcast. It is splendid in every regard, and I await the 15th of the month with great anticipation. And I was thrilled when, in the July episode you noted that the Autumn Foxed Quarterly will have a piece on Olivia Manning and on Gaudy Night. I just reread The Balkan Trilogy, and Gaudy Night is a life book for me. I had been working on an essay on Gaudy Night to enter in your annual competition, but now will set that aside and look forward to reading about it in the next issue.’
‘Greetings from Crete which is where I listened to the latest podcast. It may sound idyllic sitting on a balcony over-looking the sea, but I do miss an English garden. Reference to Lady Hillingdon took me back to my Somerset garden I left some years ago where I had a yellow rose named after the lady climbing up a pergola. I often think if I was to write an essay about leaving that small but much-loved garden the title would be ‘On leaving Lady Hillingdon’. Thank you for the podcasts which help to sooth a sometimes homesick brow.’
‘Many thanks for your podcasts which always lead me down a delicious byway to forgotten places and people. Your mention of your search for memoirs reminded me of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her mother Daphne du Maurier. I read it many years ago and I looked it out yesterday to see if it was as good as I remembered. It is an extraordinary story of a childhood in a dysfunctional family and I reread it in a single sitting which is very rare for me. I cannot pretend that it leaves a cosy picture of Daphne, Boy or Menabilly but there is a raw honesty which is compelling.’
‘As always a complete delight which takes one away to a calm and peaceful place full of interest and inspiration leaving just a slight frustration as to how to find the time to read all these wonderful books. On this occasion I have particularly enjoyed the synchronicity of the podcast being on the topic of garden writing. I have just finished reading my first book on gardening (although when I look I have several on my shelves) – Hidcote: The Making of a Garden by Ethne Clarke.’
‘I am so pleased I am once again on your mailing list. This little publication is such a pleasure to read as are the podcasts to listen to.’
Last year the Bodleian Library paid £55,000 for a fold-out map torn from a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and scribbled over by J. R. R. Tolkien. Maps, said one of the Bodleian curators, were central to Tolkien’s storytelling and he had annotated this one to guide the illustrator Pauline Baynes, who was making a poster map of Middle Earth (see SF no. 41). I was delighted that it had landed safely in a public collection. In my opinion a good map always enhances a good book, especially when the author and a skilled illustrator have worked on it together.
I wanted to call this ‘How Children’s Literature Saved My Life’, but the simple truth is that my life was never in any real danger. My imaginative life, however, was in grave peril. It hovered on the brink. This is the story of how it was resuscitated in the simplest of ways – by reading children’s books.
‘A country boy with a fossilized village upbringing and a close affinity with the natural world, I was naturally drawn to Hardy, and to this story in particular with its deliberately evocative title. And I imagined the book would be a literary extension of my own rural habitat. We lived out between the sea and the fields – where horse-gear still jingled and the farmers still laid out the harvest as they had done for centuries in house-high haystacks. Hardy’s rustics were people I knew personally. In my adolescence I conducted the customary love-affair with language and literature. I mooned around country churchyards, pretending I was – not Thomas Hardy, but Thomas Gray . . .
I spend a couple of weeks each year walking on the Lake District fells, so it is inevitable that I should have fallen upon James Rebanks’s remarkable The Shepherd’s Life (2015). I loved it, and I learned much more about upland sheep farming than I could possibly have divined from hours of watching Herdwicks on the fell. Reading The Shepherd’s Life inevitably set me thinking about another book I read long ago and which, tellingly, turned the young Rebanks into a reader.
Every now and then a book is so badly published that it never quite recovers, however eloquent its admirers. Robert Kee’s account of the three years he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp is one of the great books of the Second World War; it is also sadly neglected, thanks to the part played in its publication by the novelist Graham Greene.
An Orkney Tapestry sits quietly at the heart of George Mackay Brown’s prolific output as a writer of poetry, stories, novels and plays, created over a life that was longer and richer than he or anyone else expected. (Following a diagnosis of TB as a young man, before the introduction of penicillin, he must have felt he was living on borrowed time for almost all his adult life.) For those who have never read him, this small book about his native Orkney serves as a wonderful introduction. For those who have already fallen under his spell, it is something they return to and quote from, and love like an old friend.
Although the core of the story is set during the Second World War, the conflict barely registers beside what is, to the young hero, his raison d’être: the pursuit of an idealized lover. I must have been 16 when I first read it, and nothing I had come across described more perfectly my own state of mind. It clutched at my heart; returning to it in middle age, I found certain phrases and sentences echoing across the years with haunting vividness, like a bell tolling from a submerged city.
Arthur Ransome was a great admirer of Hazlitt and hankered after producing a series of essays himself. He would probably have considered that his journalism got in the way of that ambition, but in Rod & Line he realized it. The book comprises fifty essays distilled from articles he wrote for the Manchester Guardian after having complained to the editor that the newspaper ‘was not doing what it might for fishermen’. That might put off those readers who are not among the four million anglers in Britain. It shouldn’t. Ransome was not a narrow-minded devotee of fly, float and lure but a man of wide interests and experience.
The first in Violet Needham’s Ruritanian, or Stormy Petrel, sequence, The Black Riders is set in a fictional Central European empire. Though I’d never been to Austria, I imagined it to be similar; friendlier and tidier than my bleak familiar Lancashire moors. Where we had dishevelled farmyards, derelict gates and rusting baths as water troughs, in ‘the Empire’ farms were cosy, gates swung briskly and baths were found indoors.
When T. S. Eliot summed up his life’s work in 1963, two years before he died, it was in a Collected Poems of fewer than 250 pages. But when Christopher Ricks and I published The Poems of T. S. Eliot in 2015, the two volumes ran to some two thousand. Where did the other 1,750 pages come from? What is this new edition, and what does it mean to ‘edit’ poetry anyway?
There is a temptation to approach Noël Mostert’s Frontiers (1993) circumspectly, as you would the Grand Canyon or the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s monumental – 1,292 pages, not counting index and notes ‒ and frankly imposing, a doorstopper to stop the largest door. The story it tells is of vast proportions too. Do not, however, be unnerved. This is a book which for originality, historical depth and sheer narrative richness has been compared to Gibbon ‒ and it deserves the comparison. It also deserves a great many readers.
Was any novelist – or journalist come to that – writing about breast cancer in the early 1960s? Did anyone – apart from the medical profession and a few bold souls – even talk about it? When I was growing up, the word ‘breast’ was usually only encountered in literature or hymns and was likely to summon a snigger; women and girls had ‘chests’. A mastectomy was considered almost a matter of shame. Astonishing, then, that John McGahern’s first novel, The Barracks, published in 1963, has Elizabeth Reegan’s breast cancer at its centre.
I can’t remember which teacher told us to read his new book, ,The Way of the Actor (1986). But I can remember the sense of relief when I realized that, despite the icky subtitle – A New Path to Personal Knowledge and Power – it was written by a professor of psychology and had footnotes; this I understood. Bates’s ideas were intriguing. Using his own interviews with four leading actors – Charlton Heston, Glenda Jackson, Anthony Sher and Liv Ullmann – and excerpts from hundreds of other performers’ interviews and memoirs, he laid out a theory that actors were shamans for the modern world.
For about a hundred and thirty years after his death in 1800, William Cowper was one of those figures about whom every keen reader had something to say. He was up there with Milton and Johnson, though people felt more intimately connected with Cowper than they were ever likely to feel with Milton. His long poem The Task (1785) seemed to articulate all the longed-for goodness of familiar, homely things; it was a tribute to ‘Domestic Happiness, thou only bliss of paradise that has survived the fall!’ Yet here, and in hundreds of the letters that began to be published from 1804 onwards, things of joy were surrounded by gulfs of loss and desolation.
If the subjects of our early reading determine what we become, I should long since have turned into a collie. As a child in the 1950s I read one book after another by Albert Payson Terhune about the pure-bred sable collies (the Lassie type) he kept on his New Jersey estate, Sunnybank. The books were published in the 1920s but even now most of them are still in print.
In a celebrated passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a girl is dancing – a young girl not yet out of her teens. She is an aristocrat, a countess from St Petersburg, and she is visiting the village home of a distant relative whom she calls her uncle. He is a jovial character who lives with a serf woman, Anisya, who has prepared a rustic banquet for the hunting party. The girl is Natasha, the heroine of Tolstoy’s novel.
I first read John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy soon after it was published in 1974, and have reread it several times since. It is one of those books that never fails to give me pleasure, even now I know it so well. There is so much about it to admire and enjoy: the precision of the dialogue, the deftly drawn characters, the accuracy of the settings, the steadily rising tension – above all, the sheer quality of the writing. Here is a writer in complete command of his subject: able to do whatever he wants, confident it will succeed.
My uncle had told me of a memoir by a woman called Angela Bolton who had nursed in India at the same time as Grandma. The Maturing Sun (1986) is not a long book or a work of great literature, but it is a compelling portrait of nursing life during the war. I found a second-hand copy and began to read. I was less than halfway through when, six months after she’d left us, Grandma strolled on to the page.
A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There is a collection of Leopold’s writing from the 1930s and 1940s. Author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist, Leopold was truly a powerhouse of natural history. His Sand County had a profound impact on the environmental movement, introducing the idea of wilderness management and environmental ethics. That makes it all sound rather dry, but in fact the essays sparkle with precise details.
Most people do not encourage members of their family to become biographers. There is no telling what trouble they will get into. If you write fiction any member of your family who appears on the pages of your book can be hidden by a different name that prevents them being recognized. But biographers are always invading other people’s families uninvited, writing about the dead who cannot answer them and presenting what they have written to their subjects’ families and friends. It’s no surprise we are not welcome.
Picture, if you will, the most appallingly pretentious person in the world: a well-dressed middle-aged lady at the piano, plonking her way through the slow first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. She is wearing her ‘well-known Beethoven expression’ with the ‘wistfully sad far away look from which the last chord would recall her’. Her guests, enduring the entertainment in various attitudes of suicidal boredom, give dutiful little sighs as that last chord fades, and then steel themselves for . . . another rendition of the slow first movement of the Moonlight Sonata! For – though she pretends otherwise and that Beethoven composed the trickier second movement largely by mistake – it is in fact the only tune she can play.
The Wild Irish Girl, by Sydney Owenson, was first published in 1806, since when it has rarely been out of print. I knew nothing of this novel or its author until a few years ago, when I was writing about the Italian poet and philosopher Leopardi and needed to place this tormented genius against a real background.
When he gave Captains Courageous to me, my father described the opening episode of the book: a teenage boy falls overboard from a transatlantic liner at night and is hauled into a dory by a deckhand from a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Unsurprisingly, the story resonated with me immediately, for to the child’s mind the story of Captains Courageous is one of rescue. A boy falls into the sea, has adventures and forms friendships, and in due course is returned to his grieving parents.
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer was a teacher from South Shields who visited Pertisau in the early 1920s. The first of her school stories set at the Alpenhof Hotel, which she transformed into the setting for her Chalet School, was published in 1925. Fifty-eight Chalet books followed, the last appearing posthumously in 1970. The books have been continuously in print ever since.
An account of a life deeply devoted to celebrity-chasing, it is both comic and rather pathetic, because though he describes his victims with enthusiasm and a considerable talent for characterization, his encounters with them were almost always unsatisfactory. The Florian’s of the title is of course the celebrated café in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, where Somers lay in wait for his victims on the (perfectly accurate) theory that sooner or later anyone who was anyone would at some time sit down in the Sala Greca or the Sala Orientale or at one of the outside tables for afternoon tea.
As a rather romantic young man in my early twenties, I longed for a retreat, a cabin by a lake where I could learn to understand nature and write reams of lapidary poetry. Of course this never came to pass, not least because I could no more build a habitable hut than I could fly, but the lure of the self-sustaining rural life remains strong. My dream might have been inspired by Henry Thoreau’s Walden, his account of his life in a hut by a pond which remains an icon of American literature. In fact it was a book by another, later American that really inspired me ‒ Robert Francis’s Travelling in Amherst (1986), a copy of which I discovered one day in Hay-on-Wye.
Maurois was a literary celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s who became one of the French great and good after his election in 1938 to the Académie française. He had wanted to write from an early age but, for a man who worked in his family’s textile mill, it could only be a matter of scribbling in his spare time. Still, he learned and became fluent in English, and not long after the outbreak of the First World War, he was sent by the French authorities to a British unit as an interpreter. From this experience Maurois wove the collection of sketches that made his name: Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (1918).
Richard of Normandy, the hero of Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Little Duke, is only 8 when the story begins. I must have been about the same age when I first read it and some of its scenes, with their rugged Norman settings, have remained with me ever since. My children loved it too, but when I came across it again the other day I wondered if I dared reread it. Would it be too moralistic, too old-fashioned? Why disturb my childhood memories? I soon found I needn’t have worried. The Little Duke is as exciting and moving as ever. And it is amazing how much historical knowledge the simply told story conveys.
The preface is in the form of a rather tetchy report by a psychoanalyst who has been consulted by Zeno Corsini. The analyst says that he must apologize for having suggested that ‘my patient write his autobiography, students of psychology will frown on this new departure. But he was an old man . . . he seemed so curious about himself.’ His patient has terminated the analysis, so the analyst is publishing his patient’s notes ‘in revenge, and I hope he is displeased’.
I came to Winchester Cathedral to pay homage to one of my favourite authors. Not Jane Austen, though. I enjoy her work, but she doesn’t need my support. When I arrive, a bevy of young admirers is already crouching over her foot-worn monument, striking poses and taking selfies with their smartphones. No, I have come to find the final resting place of Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler.
The beauty of short books is that you can afford to read them more than once. In the case of Nicolas Bouvier’s The Scorpion-Fish I read it through and then double-read it. In other words, on the second reading I read each page twice before turning to the next. With just 30 lines a page and 140 pages, it didn’t take long. It was entirely pleasurable and I felt I owed it to an author I’d once had breakfast with. . .
The danger of being known as the author of a single masterpiece is that your other books may unjustly be neglected. Certainly Collis’s biographies and autobiographies, his ecology and fiction are too original to be forgotten.
When a people disappears, they say the last thing to be forgotten is its food. You might not teach your children your mother tongue, but the chances are you’ll still cook them your mother’s recipes.
Reading her books, and meeting her in person, you can’t but feel warmed by her generosity, her bursting desire to share her enthusiasms and insights, and her appetite for life. But at the same time she’s ambivalent about the public personae writers these days are obliged to adopt. ‘You have to develop a means of surviving it,’ she says, ‘and either that becomes a performative self or for me it’s meant devising a self who can still be the real self talking about real things, like I am now to you.’
‘Cowper kept the forces of darkness at bay by constant occupation. At first this took the form of gardening and caring for a menagerie of pets, including his tame hares Bess, Puss and Tiny. Cecil is at his most vivid…
When recently I began to write a social history of British India, I realized I would have to keep Rudyard Kipling under control. I could not endlessly compare people to characters in a Kipling story or make points and then back them up with ‘As Kipling once wrote . . .’ Nor could I write about scandals in Simla and describe them as Kiplingesque scenarios.
I first read Esther Waters more than fifty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. As a young man I enjoyed reading tales of unmitigated woe, in which one disaster succeeds another, and the novel’s eponymous heroine suffers more than most at the hands of assorted drunkards, snobs, gamblers and predatory employers. And, as an Englishman in Ireland, I was fascinated by the complexity and ambiguity of relations between the two countries, and by Irish views of England ‒ of which Esther Waters is a remarkable and unusual example.
Six years ago when we moved into our neglected nineteenth-century house on the edge of Hampshire’s chalk downs it was a move into two worlds. One was of damp walls, dangerously amateur wiring, a wheezing boiler and icy, see-your-own-breath bedrooms. The other was of the world that lay beyond the streaming window-panes, the sea of rolling green turf that filled the view on two sides from our position in the valley – Watership Down.
On the face of it, crimes don’t get much cosier than those which appear in the first six novels of the Flavia sequence. The convention of Slightly Foxed dictates that titles are normally tucked away in a footnote, but I think it is worth savouring the delightful cadence of all six here: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag; A Red Herring without Mustard; I Am Half-Sick of Shadows; Speaking from among the Bones and The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. To me, each of these seems to have exactly the right balance of whimsy and menace, and these are promises that are admirably fulfilled in the books that follow.
There it is on my shelf, that familiar bottle-green spine – the first in a quartet by the same author. This quartet has shadowed me for twenty-two years now: to various sets of university lodgings and back; to three dark rooms above a car dealership in Dalston, my first ever London flat; to two house-shares and then a bedsit in Clapham Junction; and now to Streatham, my home for the last dozen years. In all that time, though, I haven’t opened any of them; in fact, all four spines remain uncracked.
Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun (1952) – a book that could easily be subtitled ‘politically motivated witch-hunts and how to avoid them’ – feels horribly relevant. The Devils is about the supposed possession of a convent of nuns, thanks to the alleged witchcraft of a Catholic priest with a sex life that reads like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It includes exorcisms, torture and Byzantine political manoeuvrings by an untouchable elite.
The problem for a writer like White when stepping into the stylist’s domain is the need to obey the rules he’s about to consider. He confined his revision of Strunk’s manual to the addition of a chapter that included his own ‘notions of error’, perhaps realizing that Strunk’s unequivocal commands – Do this, Don’t do that – did not reflect the idea of language, any language, as something evolving.
Is it acceptable to be both happily married to a living man and physically attracted to a long-dead author? I know I’m not the only one. I have one friend who goes weak at the knees when she shows me photos of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, and another who has a lasting physical pash for Joseph Banks (1743‒1820). Mine is for Peter Fleming (1907‒71), older brother of Ian.
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‘Lovely article on Durrell. I recently read My Family and Other Animals. My husband found this vaguely disturbing as I often laughed out loud uproariously for no apparent reason. It is a charming and delightful read. Thanks for reminding me of the fun of reading.’
Did we all have someone in our childhood who was The Best Giver of Presents? In my case, it was a family friend called Vere Guilford. She entered deeply enough into the person you were to get presents right. At the perfect moment she gave me a lockable cassette box. When my soul was starting to ache she gave me a double-cassette pack of Beethoven symphonies. At Christmas 1974 (I remember the mild disappointment on unwrapping it) she gave me Volume I of the twelve-volume Oxford Junior Encyclopedia.
The Orwell of the essays has a pungent literary personality. He’s dauntingly knowledgeable, decided in his views and trenchant in their expression, a non-sufferer of fools, an enemy of pretension and hypocrisy; yet withal humane, reasonable, decent. He writes as if he’s just an ordinary bloke – yet not an ordinary ordinary bloke, but an exceptionally well-read, politically aware, sensitive and intelligent ordinary bloke with wide-ranging interests and a view on everything.
Pictures came before words. And as soon as there were pictures, there were funny pictures. I’ve always felt sanguine about the future of funny pictures, partly because they’re also up-to-the-minute social comment, available to all, whether you’re literate or not, in a war zone or a suburb . . .
Emily Brontë is the greatest woman novelist of all time. That is my personal opinion, though it is one which happens to be shared by many others, including highly respected scholars. That in itself is a compelling reason for reading the one and only novel she ever completed. How far her second novel had progressed will never be known, for her sister Charlotte, who often took it upon herself to act for her sisters in the way she thought fit, probably destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death . . .
It is a wonderfully self-serving record of an almost wholly unproductive life of enthusiastic indulgence. Felix’s world was so far removed from normal human experience that it seems, says Nicolai Tolstoy in his introduction, ‘almost to belong to a land of faerie’.
Like many another bookish teenager, I spent the years between 12 and 17 in a fog of romance, my nose buried in a book. Quite often that book was by Margaret Irwin, whose Tudor trilogy, Young Bess (1944), Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953), tells the story of the early life and early reign of Elizabeth I.
‘Just to tell you that I so enjoyed the latest podcast on travel writing. Hearing you talk about Patrick Leigh Fermor and Eric Newby was so delightful as they’ve been favourites of mine for a while and I now think them as old friends. Your themes are always fresh and interesting and make me want to read more and discover new literary gems. I like the length of your podcasts too – about 30 mins is just right; not so long that you get bored and tap pause (and never return) but long enough to be really interesting and I always listen to it all and look forward to the next one. The dogs must have a very nice life too in their literary haven.’
Kipling was thorough and blatant in his search for characters and ‘copy’ when he was in Simla. Soon after arriving in the hills he would spend an afternoon loping alongside his mother’s rickshaw, ‘learning most of the scandal’ in the town. Then he would spend his time talking ‒ and above all listening ‒ to anyone from whom he could acquire ‘goodish material’ and any ‘curious yarns’.
Like Dickens, Gissing shows us the Victorian city seen from below – grimy, fog-bound and peopled by creatures to whom life has not been kind. But unlike Dickens he speaks from lived experience of the urban underworld that Dickens (despite his brief but traumatic period of servitude in the famous blacking factory) knew essentially as a tourist, if an uncommonly sharp-sighted one.
In 1970 I told BB how much I loved his books. I wrote the letter sitting at the window in a house tucked into a Devon cliff, with pine woods behind and the sea in front. I’m sitting there now. It’s the sort of place BB would have adored, the recesses of undergrowth and exposed headlands teeming with wildlife. This, I imagined, was the setting for The Little Grey Men (1942). Here were all the ingredients, including wood dogs (foxes), fernbears (badgers) and above all a winding stream. In my mind this was the Folly Brook, up which the last gnomes in England travel on their heroic quest to find their missing brother, and down which they flee in their boat the Jeanie Deans, in the 1948 sequel, Down the Bright Stream.
On the cover was Gauguin’s rendition of Jacob wrestling with the angel from his Vision after the Sermon. On the back, Hill himself scowled out from under a supremely confident comb-over in an author photograph with no hint of warmth or welcome. Licence was granted for this attitude by the words of praise around it, the first of which, from Michael Longley, declared, ‘He is a profound genius, the best poet writing in English.’ Other encomia came from the likes of George Steiner and Christopher Ricks. This was ideal.
Let’s sit back with a long cool drink in hand to be spirited away from the hustle and bustle of Hoxton to the island paradise of Corfu with Gerald Durrell and family. This lovely piece by Simon Barnes was commissioned as the preface to our limited hardback edition of My Family and Other Animals . . .
I first saw A. L. Barker’s books lined up in a row on a shelf in the University of East Anglia library, their dust covers removed, their red, blue and green cloth bindings faded, their pages clean and unmarked – it seemed as if they’d never been read. I borrowed the books and read them one after another. Here was a writer who clearly deserved attention. Her fiction seemed so contemporary, not in terms of style but because of the ideas with which it grappled: the strangeness of so-called ordinary life; the dangers of ignorance or innocence; the consequences of taking, and not taking, action . . .
Nestling in a box full of bric-à-brac was her father’s copy of The Dragon Book of Verse, a book I had last opened about sixty years ago at my prep-school, where it was used for a weekly exercise called ‘Rep’. He had bought it second-hand for 2/6d during the year he spent at Oxford before being called up. Before that it had belonged to a boy at St Edward’s, Oxford, who had coloured in many of the quaint illustrations.
I first happened across him while mining the rewarding and delightfully chaotic depths of a West Country bookshop. He has been out of fashion for a considerable time, always a recommendation as far as I’m concerned, but I think his series beginning with The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green deserves to be regarded as a mid-Victorian comedy classic.
Gavin Lyall was not the first pilot to take to fiction – Nevil Shute, Ernest K. Gann and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry navigated the skies creatively before him – but Lyall’s thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s set a standard of aerial pace and style that has not been bettered. When his first novel, The Wrong Side of the Sky, was published in 1961 P. G. Wodehouse was prompted to write: ‘Terrific! When better novels of suspense than this are written, lead me to them.’
The Life of the Bee is not a scientific study or a treatise on practical beekeeping but a study of the bees and their culture written by a man who had observed them during twenty years of beekeeping. ‘The reader of this book’, he says, ‘will not gather therefrom how to manage a hive; but he will know more or less all that can with any certainty be known of the curious, profound and intimate side of its inhabitants’; and he writes ‘as one speaks of a subject one knows and loves to those who know it not’.
In Issue 60 Alan Bradley explored ‘literary criticism, character sketches and the byways of reading’ in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. His article was illustrated with this fine bookish fellow by Gwen Raverat, which was originally produced as a decoration…
Ian Corfe-Stephens is an illustrator, graphic designer and printmaker whose woodcuts have featured in several issues of Slightly Foxed. Ian has been engraving since 1961 mainly concentrating on fine art prints of his home territory of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. ‘My…
The first time my wife-to-be invited me round for a meal, and sat me down in her book-lined dining-room, my eye was caught by three thick volumes in a slipcase, in decorative blue, white and red dust- wrappers, bearing the name ‘Marcel Proust’ in large black letters at the top of each spine. ‘You’ve read Proust!’ I burst out, thrilled to be able to add to the array of charms with which she had already dazzled me that of having read the incomparable Remembrance of Things Past.
Erich Kästner was born in Dresden on a snow-filled February day in 1899, the adored only child of Emil and Ida Kästner: he a master saddler fallen on pinched times, she – eventually – a hairdresser. Each had begun life in small-town Saxony, Emil coming from a line of joiners and blacksmiths, Ida with a background in bread, beer, butchery and horses. ‘And out of all the butchers, blacksmiths and horse dealers, one solitary member of the family, little Erich, only son of little Ida, has become – of all things – a writer!’
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Mantel … writes … with a fine ear and a furious intelligence, as she resurrects phantoms who “shiver between the lines.”
Our handsome edition of Elspeth Huxley’s much-loved memoir of her childhood in Kenya will soon go out of print and we won’t be reissuing it so, if you’ve been thinking about adding this delightful book (bound in burnt orange cloth with jungle green endpapers) to your collection, now’s the time . . .
My enthusiasm for George Bernard Shaw dates from 1950, when I was 12. On my way home from school it was my habit to buy a copy of the Star, one of London’s three evening papers, principally to check the cricket scores. One afternoon the front-page splash carried the bold headline: BERNARD SHAW DEAD. At the age of 94 he had fallen off a ladder while pruning his cherry tree, and he did not recover. I reasoned that a man who warranted front-page treatment must be a writer of consequence, so I resolved to discover more.
Wednesday 3 July 2019
Hatchards Booksellers on Piccadilly were delighted to host Bart van Es in the first of an event series with Slightly Foxed and The Biographers’ Club. Bart was interviewed by journalist and writer Rachel Cooke.
The book was called The Star-Born. Its first chapters were about owls, especially one called Eldrich, which sounded to me like the shriek of doom heard before a death. The owls were frightening: hunting, nipping on the neck, tearing open and gobbling down a succession of soft small rodents whose long tails dangled from their beaks, and whose tiny bones made an ossuary of the ruins where they nested. The next chapters were filled with creatures who were nebulous and filmy: Leaf Spirit, Air Spirit, Water Spirit and Quill Spirit, who lived among the dripping ferns and sunbows of the gorge of the River Lyd.
If Sir Edward Marsh appears in a few literary reference books, it is as the editor of five anthologies of Georgian poetry published between 1911 and 1922, the idea for which came from Rupert Brooke. As Brooke said, they ‘went up like a rocket’; ‘Yes, and came down like a stick,’ Marsh ruefully recalled. But his name pops up unexpectedly – usually just as ‘Eddie’ – in many memoirs and biographies of twentieth-century figures from Henry James to Ivor Novello, Somerset Maugham to David Cecil, D. H. to T. E. Lawrence. And he was for a quarter of a century the close friend and assistant of Winston Churchill.
The self-effacing Helene would doubtless be astounded that her little 84 is now considered a classic. I can just picture that look of incredulity, and hear that throaty laugh.
The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644–94) is renowned in the West as a master of haiku, but less well known is the fact that he was also a superb travel writer. He wrote five travel diaries, of which the last, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1702), is considered his masterpiece.
Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past begins, as I discussed in an earlier piece (SF no. 56), with the narrator recalling the times he spent as a boy in his great-aunt’s house in the village of Combray. There were two walks the family regularly took from the house, one in the direction of a property owned by a family friend, M. Swann, and the other in the direction of an estate owned by a very grand aristocratic family with local connections, the Guermantes. The Way by Swann’s, the first walk, is the name of the first book of Proust’s novel. The Guermantes Way, the second walk, is the name of the third, and with it the narrator and reader enter a new world, of dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, and all the high society of Paris’s fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain.
English Passengers is a masterpiece, an achievement of such complexity, ingenuity and sheer narrative power that each time I reread it I am newly surprised: how can a writer have thus conjured up the wildly conflicting attitudes of another time, another place, with such persuasive force?
What I want from a diary is not necessarily remarkable events, but a vivid sense of the author’s character and of the times in which he or she lived. Though it covers a mere four months, Ernest Baker’s diary more than satisfies this requirement, providing a marvellous picture of everyday life in Shoreditch in the early 1880s filtered through the consciousness of a lively and irreverent adolescent.
Reading it changed how I thought about suffering. Not because it solved the dilemma I was wrestling with, but because it expressed it to an unbearable degree. It proved to me that the work of the preacher, like the work of the artist, was not to explain but to reveal. Not to tell but to show.
I was on a much-rehearsed trawl of the labyrinthine bookshop when I spotted it. A neat green-cloth country volume of the type churned out in their thousands in the 1940s and ’50s – years of hardship but also ones of optimism and dreams of a better future. I read the faded spine. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam, published by the Country Book Club, 1957. Now this is the kind of thing I like. My bookshelves sag under the collective weight of H. J. Massingham, Adrian Bell, Ronald Blythe and Cecil Torr, but Ruth Adam was new to me. ‘This is a cautionary tale, and true,’ the book begins . . .
I first delved into Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s astringent and witty letters about fifteen years ago when compiling a Book of Days for the Folio Society. I had to find extracts for each day of the year, written on that day – so nearly all from diaries and letters. Towards the end of my search I was left with several stubbornly blank dates, and was even thinking I might have to write bogus entries, but she, along with Pepys, as it were saved the days.
Five or six summers ago, I was browsing in a shabbily genteel second-hand bookstore in a university town somewhere in the middle of the United States. The shop had a substantial stock of fiction, a generous and eclectic supply of non-fiction and the sort of haphazard shelving policy which actively demands exploration. I cannot now remember which section I was in when I discovered Reginald Reynolds’s extraordinary Beards: An Omnium Gatherum (1949). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in fiction, but beyond that it could have been anywhere . . .
Kim is the eponymous hero of Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece, for many one of the best books about India ever written. It’s a strange, oddly constructed book intended for children, with no proper villain, that even its author said was ‘plotless’ but which I have always found mesmerizing.
A teenage boy is talking to his father in the library of their rambling Irish house. His father tells him to look at a particular picture; the moment he obeys, four armed men enter the room. But when he turns round, his father has vanished – apparently into thin air. So, in brilliantly dramatic fashion, begins Lord Dunsany’s The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). As a novel it defies categorization, but if you imagine a John Buchan thriller with an overlay of the Celtic Twilight and Rachel Carson-style eco-prophecy you will be almost there.
Gail, Hazel and host Philippa dig into the subject of garden writing with the journalist and social historian Ursula Buchan and Matt Collins, nature writer and Head Gardener at London’s Garden Museum. The conversation meanders convivially in the usual Slightly Foxed manner, via daredevil plant-hunters, early wild gardening advocates such as Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and Vita Sackville-West, and the passing passions and fashions of garden design, with a peek over the hedge at Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter along the way. And there’s the usual round-up of the latest bookish harvest from the Slightly Foxed office and plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track too.
What we expect from Milne is lightness. Pooh carried up by his balloon. Piglet blowing dandelion seeds. Bounding Tigger. The depth of missing, of emptiness when Ken is gone from It’s Too Late Now, comes as a shock. Deeper than the Very Deep Pit that Pooh and Piglet dig to catch a Heffalump. More desolate than Eeyore without his tail.
Many writers have places, real or imagined, linked with their names – Joyce’s Dublin, Hardy’s Wessex, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha – but I don’t know of any who have a province named after them, other than José Rizal, the Filipino author of Noli Me Tangere. The province of Rizal was created in 1901 (two years after the country was ceded to America by Spain), to honour the best-known martyr of Philippine nationalism.
‘Why haven’t I tuned in to the Slightly Foxed podcast until this afternoon?! I feel like I’m at the kitchen table, drinking tea. Love the conversation and the dogs! Sending love from Jaipur, India.’
It remains one of the more surprising facts of life that the intrepid traveller Eric Newby, who by the time I knew him had the weatherbeaten cragginess of a man only happy when halfway up the Hindu Kush, should have carved out an earlier career astride the lower slopes of haute couture. Everyone has to start somewhere, however, and he put his first reluctant footprint on the fashion world as hapless gofer in the family firm of Lane & Newby, ‘Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers’ . . .
Like so many Slightly Foxed readers, I was hooked by Netflix’s first series of The Crown. The lavish production, rumoured to have cost £100 million, the understated acting, the meticulous detail and the cut-glass accents – all gave each episode a sense of stunning authenticity. Claire Foy, in the role of the Queen, was immaculate and as compelling as anyone can be driving a Land Rover in twinset and pearls, and the series as a whole introduced us to a world of privilege and glamour at the very heart of the British establishment which is usually shrouded in secrecy . . .
Hazel, Jennie and host Philippa explore the art of travel writing with the acclaimed author and biographer Sara Wheeler and Barnaby Rogerson of the well-loved independent publisher Eland Books. Buckle-up and join us on an audio adventure that takes in a coach trip around England, an Arctic sojourn, a hairy incident involving a Victorian lady and her trusty tweed skirt and a journey across Russia in the footprints of its literary greats, with nods to Bruce Chatwin, Isabella Bird, Norman Lewis, Martha Gellhorn and Patrick Leigh Fermor along the way. And to bring us back down to earth, there’s the usual round-up of news from back home in Hoxton Square and plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track.
Virginia Woolf unkindly called Bennett ‘a tradesman’ – and up to a point one sees what she meant. He did not thrive on the rarefied air of Bloomsbury: he was Enoch Arnold Bennett, late of Burslem and the Six Towns, Purveyor of Popular Fiction to the General Reader. He knew it, and it satisfied him – as well it might, for at one time he earned more than any other contemporary writer. He took all his work – novels, stories, journalism, plays and the journal – seriously, and the latter contains very little scrappy or careless writing.
Rereading The Flight of the Heron, I recaptured something of the uncomplicated delight and excitement that I had felt first timeround. The story of Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, a minor chieftain of the Cameron clan, his part in the ill-fated campaign to put Charles Edward Stuart on the throne, and his difficult but growing friendship with an English redcoat officer, Keith Windham, had not lost its power to stir.
I had heard of Margery Allingham, of course, and had read The Tiger in the Smoke as a teenager, but I had no idea that she had written an account of her life in the Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy between July 1938 and May 1941. This was a stroke of luck: to find a proper writer (with a large garden and a gardener) who could honestly and clear-sightedly anatomize her feelings and sensations, and quote those of her neighbours, during the Munich crisis, the great evacuation of children and mothers to the country when war broke out, the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz.
The capital of nowhere – could anywhere be more tantalizing? For those of us increasingly blasé or wary about visiting ‘somewheres’ the world over, many of them the target of hordes of other tourists hellbent on pleasure (and often compromising the particular qualities of their destination in the process), nowhere sounds the ultimate place to go. And, as it turns out, this place does have its own geographical co-ordinates, and is even accessible by public transport. It’s just that on arrival you may experience a sudden sense of dislocation, an overwhelming wistfulness for an elusive past, and a present that feels curiously like limbo. For in the words of its chronicler, Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), the Mediterranean port ‘stands above economics, or tourism, or science, or even the passage of ships, or if not above them, apart from them’.
In 1990, I watched a drama series on the BBC called Never Come Back. It was a superb Second World War thriller with a fine cast including James Fox, Nathaniel Parker and Martin Clunes. Then about a year later, while browsing in my local bookshop, I pulled a volume entitled Never Come Back by John Mair off the shelf and realized that the television series must have been an adaptation of it. The book had obviously been on display in the shop window for a long time because its front cover was badly faded. I almost put it back on the shelf. Thank goodness I didn’t, because Never Come Back (1941) has since become one of my favourite novels.
Early in 1925 there arrived at the Hogarth Press in London’s Tavistock Square a parcel, sent from Zululand, containing the manuscript of Turbott Wolfe, the first novel of an unknown writer named William Plomer. Leonard Woolf wrote back promptly, saying it looked ‘very interesting’ and that once Virginia, who was ill, had read it, he would write again. Plomer, living at a trading store in Entumeni, outside the forested hilltop town of Eshowe (named onomatopoeically in Zulu after the sound of wind in trees), was overjoyed. Two months later, Leonard wrote again, making an offer of publication, and weeks afterwards followed up with the news that Harcourt Brace & Co. in New York wanted to publish it too.
Hilda Prescott was a professional historian, and a biographer of Queen Mary Tudor, who knew the sixteenth century like the back of her falconer’s glove. She was also a natural novelist who carried out her method of immersing the reader, many pages before the plot takes hold, in the daily life of a long-gone England with astonishing attention to detail. She is careful to count the lapse of time as a Tudor would (‘the nearest of the plough teams passed and repassed twice before Julian moved’), she understands the people’s daily obsession with fabrics and needlecraft, she tracks and describes the changes in season, weather and land work, she knows that a postern is a side gate, and a sparver is a bed canopy, and much other evocative terminology.
In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections.
Life had been kind to the Thoreau brothers. They were fit, healthy, enjoyed nothing so much as their time together in the open air, and having successfully taken over the Concord Academy, the local private school where they themselves had been educated, they had cause for optimism. They were finding their place in the world. It was a time to breathe deeply and venture forth with confidence. These would be among the happiest days of Henry Thoreau’s all-too-brief life, and would inspire A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).
I remember thinking clearly: what a momentous day this is, and here I am, reading a novel set in London on a single day. What a chime, what an echo! These were not the words I used to myself, as I walked in the dazzling sun, but I now think they should have been, resonating as they do with the famous opening lines of Virginia Woolf ’s novel, when Clarissa Dalloway sets forth on a perfect June morning to buy the flowers for her party: ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’
‘My order of a set of Ronald Welch novels arrived safely. Thank you for bringing them back into print, for the outstanding quality of your books, and the prompt handling and careful packaging of my order. You have a very satisfied customer, and I’ll be back for more!’
‘Thrilled to receive the Summer issue – the picture on the front conjures up everything that’s special about summer and summer reading – and the contents don’t disappoint, either! I’m saving my copy for our annual retreat to Grasmere next month – sadly no foxes in the garden of our rented cottage near the Lake, but there are red squirrels! I’m also looking forward to Love and War in the Apennines, having spent a walking holiday in that area some years ago. There always seems to be at least one piece with personal resonance, not to mention ideas for gifts and future reading.’
‘I’ve been a subscriber for a few years and enjoy each edition of the quarterly: many articles remind me of my past reading, while others encourage me to search out something I may have missed when it first appeared. I also love the whole physical feel and appearance of the journal; it is a pleasure to read.’
‘I listened to the podcast last night on my evening stroll and enjoyed it enormously. As ever, it gave me plenty of inspiration for further reading too: I’ve been a fan of Norman Lewis for a long time, but hadn’t come across A Dragon Apparent, which I’ll now add to the list of books to look out for! The podcast really is a delight; I hope it is as much fun to record as it sounds!’
‘Well Issue 62 is another triumph. I’m always rather surprised at how well the editors and contributors know what I’m currently enjoying, or about to read, or how much they remind me of old classics. Especially the piece on Jonathan Meades – he’s a slightly unlikely hero of mine, and Andrew Nixon has captured his writing perfectly. I occasionally disagree with Meades, on television or on the page, but I always enjoy being provoked by him. This might be something to do with the unusual fact that his mother taught me for a year at primary school. She was fearsome and impressive and always wore a pair of furry boots, as if she had recently murdered a womble and then skinned it. She would refer to Jonathan on occasion – he was yet to make his name. I therefore also really loved An Encyclopaedia of Myself, and especially the way he conjured the part of Salisbury we lived in.’
‘I just finished reading the summer issue of Slightly Foxed, which I thoroughly enjoyed curled up on the sofa with my dog while a summer storm raged outside here in Texas. Thanks for making such a lovely publication that gives this reader new books to add to my list!’
‘I just love your podcasts and all the lovely information about books. I always feel as if I am sitting round the table with you all and the dogs and even the background noises, builders and sometimes other things. So glad you sent photos of the dogs. Now I can put faces to the sounds. I’ve been a subscriber to Slightly Foxed for several years now and read it avidly when it comes. You are so generous with all your newsletters etc. I only wish I could manage to find time to read more! You are all very much appreciated. Thank you.’
Lost in Translation (1989) could not be more specific to time and place – lost and longed-for postwar Cracow, ‘a city of shimmering light and shadow’, of ‘narrow byways . . . echoing courtyards . . . medieval church spires, and low, Baroque arcades’, whose very streets were impregnated with Hoffman’s sense of her developing self; and suburban ’60s Vancouver, with its improbably smooth and velvety lawns, enormous picture windows, ‘disingenuous’ furniture, all of it whitish with gold trimmings.
‘I’m a bit behind on the podcasts, which I love, and have just listened to No 5. The years rolled back for me when the topic turned to Virago books. I well remember hearing a radio discussion in the 1970s, (maybe on Woman’s Hour?) about this new publishing company and thinking to myself that it sounded new and exciting. I still have my first Virago purchase, Precious Bane by Mary Webb. I don’t understand how Virago can be more than forty years old when I’m sure I’m scarcely older now than I was then!’
With Father’s Day approaching we thought some of you may appreciate a few present ideas for the father figures in your lives. All presents can be wrapped in handsome brown paper and tied up with a suave and understated cream ribbon and sent off to the recipient, or to you to hand over in person, in good time for Sunday 16 June. Gifts may be sent all over the world and should arrive at far-flung destinations in good time but if you’re worried about delivery times, you can always request an e-mailable or printable gift card during the checkout process to tide you over.
‘I have so enjoyed your podcast, it is like being in the room with you, and it is a very nice room – and good company to be in.’
‘My husband bought me a subscription to Slightly Foxed for Christmas. I absolutely love everything about it. How could I not, when my first issue included three (three!) of my favourite books? The Quincunx, The Uncommon Reader, and the under-rated Barnaby Rudge. I’m not sure whether the thing I enjoy most is finding new titles or discovering that some of your contributors are fans of my own discoveries. Due to the podcasts I feel I’m getting to know you all quite well. I particularly liked the feature recently on independent bookshops. As a retired librarian from the humanities department of a major city library, I always valued the opportunities I had to provide a specialist service to readers. Over the past decade the profession has almost disappeared. Your feature gave me hope that just as bookshops are rediscovering their true role, so one day libraries might do the same.’
‘I was first given a subscription as a present from my son and enjoyed it so much that I extended it to September 2020. I look forward to the magazine which makes me reread old friends. I really enjoy your podcasts (and appreciate the dogs’ interventions as I have two dogs myself, one of whom barked angrily back to the podcast I listened to earlier!) which make me feel I know you personally. I have read and given away several of your beautiful books. They are such lovely things in themselves and I do appreciate having a bookmark built in as postcards and other bookmarks fall out so easily.’
‘I would love to pop into Hoxton Square, sit at your kitchen table, and talk about books. Unfortunately, that is difficult because I live in Colorado. However, your monthly podcasts are the next best thing. I enjoy them so much and feel like all of you are becoming good friends. I look forward to your ‘visit’ in June.’
Early one morning, late in July, the villagers of ‘crack-brained Brensham’ woke to a remarkable spectacle. There amid the customary colours of furze and wheat was a seven-acre field that ‘had suddenly become tinctured with the colour of Mediterranean skies’. Nothing like it had ever happened before, so that the villagers caught their breath at the sight of this miracle: a great, vivid patch of cerulean ‘so clear and pure that it made one think of eyes or skies’ . . .
Octavian laid down the ideological and institutional framework which would sustain that empire for the next 400 years. He died aged 76 in AD 14 having been granted the honorific title of Augustus (‘one to be revered’) and worshipped in his lifetime as a living god, an elevation by the credulous that he considered absurd.
I bought David Cecil’s Life of William Cowper, The Stricken Deer, at a time, in my early twenties, when I was starting to devour literary biography, my preferred reading ever since. I was by then familiar not just with Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre and David Copperfield but with Jane Austen, the Brontës and Charles Dickens. Most of my literary friends were in the nineteenth century: the eighteenth was largely unfamiliar territory. All I knew about William Cowper was that he had been a favourite poet of Jane Austen’s.
For great tracts of time he was away, leaving his ‘old self behind’, exploring places most of us would neither dare nor desire to visit, but which we love to read about with a vicarious sense of fearlessness and endurance. In the golden generation that produced Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and Redmond O’Hanlon, Thubron is now the Grand Old Man, bringing to journeys that are physically and psychologically testing a fine, romantic sensibility.
Paradise Lost was first published 350 years ago in 1667, and was still being hailed and even enjoyed as an epic achievement (literally) into the early twentieth century. Now it’s almost unread, except by the chosen academic few. Why? The real problem, says John Carey in his recent abridgement, is not its world picture but quite simply its length. Milton had just turned 20 when he first announced his epic intention, to compose a poem that would encompass all space and time: an ambitious aim, and, as it took another thirty years to accomplish, the resulting work was never going to be short.
Ruby Ferguson wrote nine ‘Jill’ books, of which Jill’s Gymkhana is the first. Originally published in 1949 by Hodder & Stoughton, it was beautifully illustrated by ‘Caney’, and priced at 7s 6d. A review by Frances Vivien in the Observer of 9 May that year declared it ‘a perfect pony story for girls’.
The novel is set in the 1920s and 1940s. Both world wars are elided, the one before it opens, the other between one chapter and the next, but in the background is the fierce struggle of the suffragettes, when Lilian, Harriet’s mother, had been sent to prison. A clever, principled woman, widowed young, she despairs of her daughter, who has left school without an exam or an ambition, and sends her to help look after the two children of Caroline Macmillan, one-time fellow suffragette, still dearest friend. It is in this worthy, book-lined, vegetarian household that Harriet falls for Vesey, nephew of Caroline’s husband.
One day in 1981 a young woman found herself travelling from her Scottish home to London to meet a publisher. So far so predictable perhaps. She had read Russian at university and had recently translated the memoirs of the painter Leonid Pasternak, father of the more famous Boris. There was nothing predictable about this meeting, however, and the man waiting for her at the door of his Mayfair flat was no ordinary publisher. This is how she describes him.
It’s the end of the Easter holidays, and Robin, John and Harold Hensman can’t face returning to their boarding-school. Their ‘people’ are in India, and for years they’ve been entrusted to the care of their fussy maiden aunt, assisted by the vicar. Banchester isn’t bad as English public schools go, but they are country boys who dread being trapped in a classroom when summer approaches and the great outdoors calls. They hatch a plan. They will escape and hide out like Robin Hood and his merry men in the eleven-thousand-acre forest of Brendon Chase . . .
In January 1954, a vignette appeared in the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’ section, introduced only vaguely as a missive from ‘a rather long-winded lady’. The piece – like all ‘Talk’ stories then, unsigned – was a lightly sardonic first-person account of a woman’s disastrous experience in a dress shop. It might not have been world-changing, but it did stand out from the usual ‘Talk’ pieces, which were often impersonal, mannered little things, written in the royal ‘we’. The Long-Winded Lady, though, idiosyncratic from the beginning, spoke only for herself. ‘Well, there you are,’ she signed off, ‘in case you’ve paid any attention.’