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A subscription to Slightly Foxed magazine or our limited edition books would make an ideal present for those who love to read. | Browse and buy gift subscriptions | From £44
The novelist Joyce Cary shall never be forgotten, I have vowed, upon the heads of his two grandest characters, Gulley Jimson the English painter, and Mister Johnson the Nigerian clerk.
I first discovered James Hilton’s Lost Horizon as an adolescent, when I came across a hardback copy in a secondhand bookshop marked at one shilling and ninepence (8p in today’s money). It was published in Macmillan’s Cottage Library and I can still remember its nice clear typeface, the feel of its rounded corners, and the slight browning of the pages which added a nostalgic charm. As soon as I read the opening sentence I was hooked.
Sometime in 1999 a light editing job dropped through my letterbox – ‘a new edition of a memoir by the Duchess of St Albans’, the publisher had said on the phone. Preparing myself for some gently rambling aristocratic reminiscence, I made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to take a look.
Preoccupied with the ‘Phoney War’, from declaration to the fall of France, or what Waugh described as the ‘Great Bore War’, Put Out More Flags was his sixth novel, and although it was a great success on first publication in 1942, it seems to be one of his few novels that people don’t know today. Waugh readers tend to fall into two camps, usually on either side of Brideshead Revisited (1945), with some reading only the ‘mature’ books, others sticking fiercely to the early comedies. Put Out More Flags is perhaps under-loved because it falls, both chronologically and stylistically, between these two recognizable periods in Waugh’s fiction.
I have to admit it. I am a sucker for novels in which a key element is the passage of time – Buddenbrooks, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Forsyte Saga, I name just three old standbys. And then, first published in the 1950s but not read by me until several years later, came a sensational eye-opener of an entirely different sort, Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. This extraordinary novel is not concerned with a mere few generations. It retraces the history of mankind back to its start.
Vansittart’s great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we are reading.
Having recently listened to the complete Sherlock Holmes stories on audiotape (they improved the school run no end), I was bound to be curious when The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes first appeared. It takes as its point of departure Holmes’s explanation for his absence after the struggle with his arch-enemy Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.
As the years advance I’ve become increasingly aware of the books I read as a child that have exerted an influence on my life. Would I have just returned from my fourth tramp through the African bush, for example, had my imagination not been fired by a vivid account of the bond that developed between a man and his dog as they hunted big game in the South African veld? Among the many seeds sown in my childhood, Jock of the Bushveld fell on richly fertile ground.
Kazantzakis was a writer whose inner life was devoted to the struggle between flesh and spirit. Although he came within a whisker of winning a Nobel Prize in 1952, his name meant nothing to me when I first picked up Report to Greco at the age of about 22. I do remember, however, being overwhelmed by that sense of recognition which the best writers inspire. Kazantzakis put into words – and such words! – the tumultuous feelings of my youth.
When I first came across Over the Hills and Far Away I was immediately enchanted by this magical mixture of a book. Ostensibly it tells of a long-distance ride through the north of England, made to celebrate the author’s recovery from illness; but in fact it is a kind of autobiography, lit up by continual flashes of wit, high spirits and keen observation.
My favourite desk stood between tall shelves crammed with Bengali, Somali and Urdu classics, which had replaced the Yiddish collection. Here, I read my way through all the history books and memoirs on east London. These included an extensive collection of ‘Cor-Blimey-There’s-Nothing-Like-a-Knees-Up!’ autobiographies, and the ‘Dodgy Geezers that I ’ave Known’ genre, but thankfully, there were more thoughtful accounts on offer. Among them, I discovered Emanuel Litvinoff ’s Journey Through a Small Planet – a masterpiece that rivals George Orwell’s best non fiction. In fact it was to inspire me to write my own account of life on Brick Lane.
In the spring of 1987, just as I was making preparations for a lengthy research trip to Egypt, I was sent two books. The first was the wonderfully titled Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer of whom I had not heard. Originally published in 1964, it had just been reissued. The second, After a Funeral, was an account of Ghali’s time in London by the writer and publisher Diana Athill. I slipped the novel into my bag and thought no more about it for several weeks. Then, one hot night in Cairo, with plenty of free time and a cold beer to hand, I sat on a terrace overlooking the Nile and began to read. I was so captivated that I stayed up late into the night, reading the book in one sitting. Yet while the words we re quickly consumed, the world they conjured and the issues they raised – of exile and belonging – have stayed with me through the years.
Editing must be one of the few professions that require no professional training. Even a plumber needs to learn how to plumb before he’s allowed to attack pipes. An editor, on the other hand, just takes up his spanner and blowtorch and starts editing.
Of course there are a lot of different kinds of editors (and I’ve been most of them at one time or another): line editors (known in England as copy editors), newspaper editors, magazine editors, book editors. The skills involved in each case are distinctive, but they all share this same amateur, self-taught quality. Editing is something that you tend to fall into, though perhaps not entirely by accident. Editors are born, not made.
The year 1905 was not the zenith of the British Empire in territorial terms (surprisingly perhaps, that was 1947, before Indian independence), but imperial confidence was about as high then as it would ever be. No baleful auguries of the Western Front had yet been observed, no rumours of equal political rights for native peoples had reached suburban English parlours. The future would be a triumphant continuation of British supremacy, built on hard-won principles of good governance and justice. There can be few more solid expressions of that faith than the publication, in that year, of the children’s history book Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall. It is a stirring compendium of tales, beginning with Neptune raising himself from the waves and giving ‘his sceptre to the islands called Britannia, for we know: “Britannia rules the waves.”’
Robinson Crusoe is a simple stereotype; he is you and me forced back on to our own resources. He was inspired by the true adventures of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, an able but short-fused officer on the privateer Cinque Ports, who was left in the Juan Fernández Islands on Más a Tierra, now renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk had demanded to be marooned after he had pronounced the Cinque Ports unseaworthy, and Captain Thomas Stradling, just 21, had refused to tarry for repairs. Selkirk’s chest was fetched, and a few other items, including a musket, powder and shot. Only as the ship’s boat began to pull away did Selkirk realize the enormity of what he was doing and beg them to return. Stradling said, ‘Stay where you are, and may you starve.’ Thankfully for Defoe and us, he didn’t.
Despite the aspirations Gwen Raverat expressed in her classic childhood memoir Period Piece (‘O happy Mrs Bewick!’ she declares at one point) and all the drawings in the book, many of its enchanted readers have discovered with apparent surprise that its author was an artist of some importance. Yet this may not be so remarkable; little had been written about her later life until Frances Spalding’s full biography in 2001, though Gwen and her husband Jacques did feature in Paul Delaney’s The Neo-Pagans (1987) as central members of the Cambridge circle surrounding Rupert Brooke. My own journey was in the opposite direction from most people’s. I knew Gwen Raverat as an artist long before I discovered Period Piece.
I defy anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to go to mysterious Central Asia. From the moment I read those seductive first paragraphs as a student, I was drawn to the murky world of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent that Maclean observed at close quarters in the 1930s when working as a diplomat in our Moscow embassy. It was to be ten years before I travelled to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in the ‘year of stagnation’ – 1975 – and another three decades before I saw the country without the dubious assistance of a Soviet minder.
One of the first books I was ever given was Sycamore Square. It was old for a toddler, but a pretty thing to grow into: light verse, which had mostly first appeared in Punch. Ernest Shepard’s drawings showed willowy, upper-middle-class young men and women of the sort my parents had aspired to be in their youth. I later discovered that its author, Jan Struther, was the creator of Mrs Miniver, while ‘Sycamore Square’ itself was just off the King’s Road. My grandmother lived around there. It was a rather grand world, brittle and tinkling, and its idea of art was light entertainment.
For those who have travelled the English boarding-school route, similar prep-school memories are sure to be jogged by reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s My Affair with Stalin, a wonderfully entertaining and evocative novel, set in a rural prep school during the 1970s. A daring midnight raid on the tuck cupboard is masterminded by the book’s precocious hero, William Conroy. Once he has established control of the cupboard, Conroy is virtually guaranteed his position as leader of the dominant school gang, for crisps, soft drinks and instant snacks play a disproportionately large part in the life of boarding-school pupils.
I want to ask you a question: how long is it since you actually sat down and read a Shakespeare play, for the sheer pleasure of it, as you would read a novel, for example, or a volume of verse? How long is it, come to that, since you read a Shakespeare play at all? Schooldays? Student days? Last time you had to teach it as a text? – all of which involve reasons and feelings that tend to counteract and contradict the pleasure. I have no doubt that if you set out now anew, with pleasure alone in mind, you might be surprised at the kind and degree of it that awaits you, coming over you with the thrill of forgotten delight – like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odour, so I am tempted to add.
Like Flannery O’Connor, I was born in Georgia. I used to have a thick Southern accent, until my momma hired a British nanny to wallop it out of me; Momma reckons that’s why I live in London now. But if I start missing home, I can always dip into O’Connor’s fiction from the Deep South of the 1940s and ’50s. She never lost her accent, and you can hear it on every page of everything she ever wrote.
Wise Blood brings it out best.
Usually, when I discover a second-hand bookshop, I confine my browsing to one or two familiar categories. Military history is not one of them, nor is psychology. So it was by sheer fluke that I recently came upon Norman Dixon’s book among tottering piles of volumes. The title, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, jumped out at me. Who could resist it?
On the way home I wondered why I had found the title so appealing, and why I had felt a shiver of schadenfreude as I handed over my fiver.
The immediate framework of the story is the relationship between the Smalleys and Mrs Bhoolaboy, tenants and landlady respectively, as they struggle to achieve very different aims: the Smalleys to remain in the lodge at Smith’s Hotel as legitimate tenants, Mrs Bhoolaboy to evict them in order to profit from the redevelopment of her property in partnership with the owners of the neighbouring Shiraz Hotel. In the course of this tussle, Tusker is driven to a level of apoplexy that proves fatal, his demise forming the opening sentence of the book.
At the end of My Turn to Make the Tea, Monica Dickens’s autobiographical local newspaper saga, her heroine Poppy is fired for an act of noble sabotage and replaced by ‘a lad of sixteen fresh from school’. I was that boy. At least, as I turned the pages, I hoped I would be. From the age of 14 I wanted the excitement of a newspaper life, to wear the golden trilby. I saw destiny in our evening paper’s ad for a trainee. I got the job. Instead of being a teenager I would be a junior reporter. My father bought me a blue suit, a maroon tie and a pen.
I’d seen the films so I knew I would find a noisy chaos of reporters at squalid desks jabbing typewriters beneath a cumulus of smoke. Someone showed me the mysteries of sub-editors, compositors and inky-aproned printers, servants of the gigantic presses. The place reeked of tobacco, ink, paper, hot metal and canteen fry. I inhaled.
For most of 1988 I moved about London, from house-sit to house-sit, transporting all the essentials of my life and trade in a 2CV: typewriter, reference books, minimal wardrobe. At some point during that nomadic interlude, a friend of someone I hardly knew asked me pointedly whether I had read the works of Nathanael West, hinting that if I hadn’t I ought to. Perhaps he judged West’s acerbic satire of disillusion and forlorn hope peculiarly apt to the mild chaos of my existence.
So I bought a copy of Nathanael West’s complete works and read them, straight through.
It was in the school library on a somnolent Sydney summer afternoon that I first met her. A passionate, but bookish and rather inarticulate child, I had recently discovered romantic novels and had devoured Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Mary Stewart. I loved them all, but meeting Anya Seton’s Katherine, as she set out in that ‘tender green time of April’ on a journey that was to take her from sheltered convent girl to controversial great lady, was the greatest delight of all.
There is a determinedly un-modern feel to the grey-fronted shop-cum- office of Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street, a leafy Georgian oasis not far from the British Museum. A blue and white jug of irises balances on a pile of books in the window, a tailor’s dummy draped in a First World War nurse’s uniform stands near a table of Persephone books, open at their delicious patterned endpapers, and a good strong cup of tea arrives in a generous old-fashioned enamel pot. Indeed, one can quite easily imagine Miss Pettigrew, the governess heroine of Persephone’s best-selling title Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (first published in 1938), putting her head round the door and feeling perfectly at home.
In her foreword to Krishna Dutta’s Calcutta, the novelist Anita Desai mentions how visitors from that city, on unpacking in the dry air of her Delhi home, invariably release a distinctive odour. ‘Damp, mouldy, deltaic, even swampy’, it clings not just to clothes but, less eradicably, to the luggage itself. I myself possess a stained and crinkled suitcase that, twenty years after its last monsoon outing to Calcutta, still reeks of bilge water. Any organic elements must long since have expired, and desiccation has lent a sub-whiff of archaeological respectability, but still it pongs. And like India itself, I can’t bear to part with it.
It could certainly be said that Walter de la Mare has been neglected for far too long. Faber & Faber, who published his work for many years, are bringing out a small volume of his selected poems, but of his many other books only his short stories remain in print. The wonderfully varied and erudite anthologies he made from the work of other writers, Come Hither, Early One Morning and Behold This Dreamer, can still be found in second-hand bookshops (if you can find a second-hand bookshop). Critical works largely ignore him and he is omitted from the new Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Literature – along with Conan Doyle, H. E. Bates, Norman Douglas, Richard Hughes, Lawrence Durrell and many other writers whose idiosyncratic styles or subject-matter do not accord with the present glum and ludicrous diktats of English Studies. Indeed in the modern reference works in which he does appear, de la Mare is now often referred to only as a writer for children, despite the championing of his prose fiction for adults by fellow-writers from Graham Greene to Angela Carter.
Ask most readers if they have heard of A. G. Macdonell and you will usually get a blank look, though occasionally you get the response: ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of England, Their England.’ If you don’t, you then say, ‘You know, the cricket match . . .’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ is the almost invariable reply, even from people who claim to hate cricket. ‘I remember it being read to us at school. It’s hilarious . . .’
It is, too – perhaps the most famous comic set-piece in the language. Though I’ve read it to myself dozens of times, and aloud to classes often enough (it’s a wonderful way to keep a class quiet at the end of a long term), I still find myself laughing aloud as I read it.
I feel blessed to have discovered Paula Fox. Her Desperate Characters is one of those novels that, because of its clarity and compression, makes an almost physical impact on you. Instantly absorbed into the characters’ world, your delight and anticipation are only marred by dread of finishing the book – and this one is, cruelly, only 176 pages long.
Jennifer Donnelly has perfect pitch as a writer, which is an enviable talent, especially in a first novel. But then, this is an exceptional novel. I read it six months ago, and in the way of books that seem to breathe a life of their own, it set up house in a corner of my mind. I found myself thinking about the characters from time to time, wondering how they were getting along. I reread it last week, and it’s just as good as I first thought.
During my early years as a bookseller, much of each day’s business depended on the post: not just brown envelopes enclosing cheques or less welcome envelopes with publishers’ bills, but orders and gossipy letters from customers and friends. In a minor way I kept up several correspondences, more often with those who lived abroad because I was very unlikely then to contact them by telephone. When Helene Hanff published her 84 Charing Cross Road, we cannot have been the only booksellers who reacted by saying that we had hundreds of such letters in our files. Although I’ve managed to keep some of the most interesting ones, it never occurred to me to suggest that our customers should keep my replies. In fact it would have been extremely presumptuous.
A few months ago I was giving a talk to a group of students. Afterwards one of them asked if the baboon relationship in my book White Lightning has anything to do with Jody’s fated relationship with a deer in The Yearling, by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings. At the time I denied it, but I now think it a perceptive question. At about the age of 12, I was deeply moved by the book. When the deer has to be killed it is a rite of passage for Jody, tragic but also necessary to growing up and understanding the harshness of life. In my book, the death of the baboon is the end of innocence for the narrator, even though he is middle-aged. When I began to think about the question, I realized that I had read scores of children’s books with animal themes and had been profoundly influenced by them. Graham Greene made the point that we never again read in the same way we read before the age of 14. Later we look for reflections of ourselves and our views in novels.
In 1971, I was living in a road in North London that doesn’t exist now and remember spending a huge part of my student grant on two pairs of hand-made red leather boots, one for each of my children, then aged 4 and 5, and a pair of sky-blue clogs for myself, believing that, if nothing else, you had to take care of your feet. My neighbours referred to me as ‘that hippy’ but they were wrong. Hippies travelled, and lay under the stars in distant lands, smoking dope. I had no money for travel and, in any case, dope didn’t agree with me. Instead, while the children slept, I read or painted miniature Rothkoesque watercolours and wallpapered my rooms with squares of coloured sugar paper so that we seemed to be living inside a huge quilt.
Early twentieth-century Moscow is the setting for The Beginning of Spring, indeed its central presence. To Frank Reid, émigré printer’s son, its weird bureaucracy, endemic espionage and corruption, its ramshackle back streets and raucous tearooms, its frozen river clotted with debris, are both familiar and profoundly foreign. But even while absorbing the surroundings we’re plunged into the drama of events, for in paragraph one Frank’s wife Nellie has already left him, taking their children with her.
I went to East Finchley cemetery a while ago. It was cold and damp. A few dead leaves clung soggily to the grass. It felt pretty forsaken. I stood in front of a tomb: a stolid stone pillar with a globe on top. It had been mounted so that the continent of Latin America would face the viewer. This is the monument to Henry Walter Bates, the great Victorian naturalist who, in 1848, set sail for the Amazon and remained in its ‘glorious forests’ for eleven years.
The bright orange spine of The Emperor’s Last Island shone conspicuously. The author’s name didn’t register, but the powerful word ‘island’ most certainly did, and when I took the slim volume from the shelf and saw the painted sketch of Napoleon and read the subtitle, A Journey to St Helena, my pulse began to quicken. My great-grandparents were married there, a place more remote than anywhere else on earth; of greater significance to me, in the mid-1960s my own teenage eyes gazed briefly upon this island with its fortress-like cliffs; but in the intervening years I had read nothing about it.
‘The saddest story I ever wrote,’ Mrs Gaskell said of Sylvia’s Lovers, published in 1863. The book had been languishing in my daughter’s bookcase for years, bought (but not read) to encourage her when she studied the much more famous North and South for her English GCSE. A year or so ago, smitten by Richard Armitage, star of the four-part BBC adaptation of North and South, I went to find the lesser-known book again. And I decided Mrs Gaskell was probably right. There is deep sadness and grief in this novel. Unrequited love results in tragic and painful consequences. I was almost relieved my teenage daughter had not read it – then.
Following the dictum of the famous German calligrapher Friedrich Neugebauer, that ‘the ideal manuscript book would be made by one person, acting as author, scribe, illuminator and binder’, Susan set out to compose, write, illustrate and bind a Chinese cookery manual, covering the principal ingredients of fish and seafood, meat and poultry, vegetables, carbohydrates and desserts. Each ingredient is illustrated [in] a solid block of text.
Like Charles Lamb trying all his life to like Scotsmen, for forty years I wanted to enjoy the nine novels of Henry Green. They have such beguiling one-word titles – Loving, Living, Doting, Concluding. They look so tasty on other people’s shelves. They start so well: ‘A country bus drew up below the church and a young man got out. This he had to do care fully, because he had a peg leg. The roadway was asphalted blue.’
Ali Khan Shirvanshir is the only son of a noble Baku family, a Shiite Muslim who loves the desert, the walls of his city and its Eastern ways. He also loves Nino Kipiani. Nino is a Georgian Christian beauty of princely blood, a city girl who remembers the wooded hills of her homeland while she longs for the ever more accessible pleasures and inventions of the West. They are opposites in many ways, not least because of their religions, and yet their love overcomes all obstacles. Topical? You bet. Ali and Nino was first published almost seventy years ago and yet this story of love winning through could have been written as a salve for our own world, caught between the opposing tactics of radical Christians and Muslims.
J. H. Prynne is probably the most significant poet writing in Britain today. But he might as well have penned the complete weasel trapper’s manual as far as most people are concerned. This isn’t because we don’t care about poetry.We have pencil-marked favourite passages of Eliot and Auden. We have kept up with the output of Heaney and Hughes . We are perfectly accustomed to the complexities of Modernism. And who says we are snooty about contemporary stuff? We read the reviews and occasionally invest in the volume. We stay vaguely conversant with avant-garde tastes.
Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else.
Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little).
Several years ago I described my mother’s and aunties’ interior decor as Hove Jewish Baroque Rococo and thought myself rather amusing. Then I read Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind. His description was far more impressive: ‘contemporary provincial Jewish Rococo’. Again and again I found myself identifying like mad with Mr J’s Protagonist Sefton Goldberg, English teacher in a West Midlands polytechnic. Sefton knew the furnishings, Sefton was not good enough in any sphere, he was not up to scratch physically, he was envious, guilty, sweaty and hairy, just like me, although I am a girl. How comforting it is to know that one is not suffering alone.
I wonder how, if at all, it would be possible to measure the part played in our responses to individual books by the age at which we encounter them. Time enough for the eighteenth century later, observed Peter Currie, my excellent teacher of French literature, and he proceeded to focus, over the years of the sixth form, largely on the seventeenth century: on Corneille, Molière and Racine, seasoned memorably with La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld.
In many ways this was an excellent decision, making for a lifelong enjoyment of the authors we studied: but it also meant that (‘et par conséquent’, as Voltaire might have written) it was not until I was at university that I first read Candide. I found it unforgettable, in tune as it seemed with the sprightly and largely uncompromised visions of youth. Over the ensuing forty-five years this wildly improbable tale of experiences which leave the protagonists foxed more than slightly has become a much-loved companion. It is that rare thing, a book which is both clever and wise, as well as hugely enjoyable.
In the early 1960s, Austen Kark was travelling in Greece in the Greek Prime Minister’s second-best car, driven by the second-best chauffeur. The visit was part of his duties as Head of the BBC World Service, but he was also, as edgily as a boy taking a school friend home for a visit, hoping to show his wife, the novelist Nina Bawden, what it was about Greece and the Greeks that so enthralled him.
When I attempted to look up D. B. Wyndham Lewis on the Internet, Google kindly asked me if I didn’t really mean Percy Wyndham Lewis. Emphatically not. The Vorticist painter (whose age, it was suggested, could be estimated by counting the rings on his collar) was not known for his sense of humour. His namesake, on the other hand, was the first ‘Beachcomber’ of the Daily Express, and the collaborator with Ronald Searle on the tales of that least conventional of ladies’ academies, St Trinian’s. But he was overshadowed by his successor, J. B. Morton, and likewise by Searle’s brilliant drawings.
DB, however, doesn’t deserve the oblivion into which time appears to be edging him, if only because he was one of the two begetters of an ‘anthology of bad verse’ which he and Charles Lee – a quiet and unobtrusive writer of Cornish novels – entitled The Stuffed Owl.
William Somerset Maugham’s short stories are like the furniture in a grand boarding-house or the home of an elderly aunt. When I read ‘A Man with a Conscience’ or ‘A Winter Cruise’, I am reminded of Bechstein pianos or solid mahogany writing-desks with brass handles. They’re strangely comforting and consoling, and I’m very fond of them.
In the olden days, when people went to public libraries to borrow books to read, they were probably unaware of the workings of the librarian’s mind. Librarians cherish the illusion that the Dewey Decimal Classification system is second nature to readers as well as librarians. Thus the reader in search of books on cookery will head immediately for the 641s, and anyone planning to travel to Germany to look at its architecture can be found in front of the 720s searching specifically for the numbers after the decimal point – 943 – because, as any fool knows, 720 is Architecture and 943 is Germany (although if you were to turn it round, 943. 7 is Czechoslovakia).
It wouldn’t do to make excessive claims for Kenneth Roberts. Sixty years ago I might have; he was certainly my favourite writer then, to the extent that when I finally ran out of his books, at the age of 14, in desperation I tried novels by some other Robertses from the same shelf in the Ypsilanti Public Library. They proved to be highly unsatisfactory, nothing at all like Kenneth. What he wrote was history, American history, and I was fascinated by history. There seemed to be so little of it around in Michigan.
Anyone who has ever visited another country and found the food unidentifiable, the language incomprehensible and the rules of behaviour bizarre has experienced some degree of culture shock. Sometimes it’s exciting, often it’s disconcerting, and if you get ill or lost or inadvertently cause offence it can be frightening. Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is about culture shock of a different order altogether. It is the story of what can happen when, even with the best of intentions on both sides, two cultures collide.
Of the many missed opportunities of my schooldays, failure to learn German is the one I have regretted most and longest. But in 1949, when the chance arose, German was not the flavour of the month. There was still a large gap in one corner of School Yard where a German bomb had missed a large dormitory of sleeping boys by a few feet. And only a few years earlier, my housemaster had fought with distinction in the Green Jackets, and then married the widow of another officer, killed in battle. He bullied us into opting for elementary science (which has never been the slightest use to me) rather than German for School Certificate.
When I was a teenager, prowling voraciously round my parents’ bookshelves looking for something to read, I found a row of old books that hadn’t been looked at for at least fifty years. They were all by Sabine Baring-Gould, polymath, squarson, folksong collector, novelist and possessor of an infectiously insatiable curiosity about pretty well everything from esoteric customs to ways in which to save fuel. Among those dusty Baring-Goulds were novels such as The Broom Squire and Mehalah, his Reminiscences of a ninety-year life, The Book of Werewolves, several collections of sermons, English Folk Songs (compiled with Cecil Sharp), Curious Myths of the Middle Ages and lots of travel books including Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings in Europe, guides to the Riviera and the Languedoc, and Yorkshire Oddities and Strange Events. Best of all was Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas.
Books that make one laugh out loud are far rarer than one likes to think, and the subject of endless and often heated debate. P. G. Wodehouse usually comes out top, but although I loved him in my twenties, I have lost the appetite in late middle age: comicality needs to be combined with sadness, a sense of the absurd with a countervailing melancholy, and Wodehouse’s genial socialites seem too lacking in humanity, too short on Chaplinesque pathos, to engage me as much as they once did. One of my candidates for the funniest book ever written – battling it out with Mr Pooter, James Lees-Milne’s Another Self, and a great deal of Evelyn Waugh – is H. F. Ellis’s The Papers of A. J. Wentworth BA, a work that is all too redolent of familiar human frailties.
Kurdish was a term I heard long before I had any real sense of the world, of where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are, or what cultural and religious intolerance mean. When I was about 7, a Kurdish girl called Hozan showed me how her people danced at weddings and at great moments of celebration, stamping, swirling and clicking her tongue. She was 15, and to me she was glamour personified, spinning in a field, her tiny denim shorts alarmingly far up her bottom, her head thrown back. This was in the mid-Seventies, in Oxfordshire, and Hozan’s family was encamped with some local Romany gypsies. At about the same time, in March 1975, the Shah of Iran signed a treaty with Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of Iraq thereby lost all their external support. And so they began to be exterminated.
For fifteen years, I had one of the best jobs in the world. I was book news editor at The Bookseller, and most weeks I included in my pages an interview with an author. I talked to celebrated novelists, including several of my literary heroes. I talked to biographers and science writers. I talked to creators of blockbusting best-sellers. All sorts of people write books, or at least get their names on to book covers: I talked to movie stars, sports heroes and supermodels, and to people who had fought in wars or been shipwrecked.
As the recent Da Vinci Code spat demonstrated, complaints of plagiarism reach far beyond Aussie mapmakers. When Arthur Halliwell created his hefty film guide, he added a non-existent movie which in due course trapped a rival directory of films. Justice was swift. When Nigel Rees – he of ‘Quote Unquote . . .’ – published his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations, he slipped in a dummy quote credited to one Guy Simon (Rees’s pen name). Eventually HarperCollins bought the dummy and Guy Simon appeared in their Collins Dictionary of Quotations, a little bit of larceny for which they paid, in sterling. And when Antonia Fraser wrote her classic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, she thoughtfully inserted a burglar alarm. At Mary’s execution (Lady Antonia said) Lord Shrewsbury’s face was ‘wet with tears’. It was an invention. Later, James Mackay’s book on Mary copied it, and the alarm rang.
I first read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard while I was in Palermo in 1981, at the age of 18. It was one of those defining reading experiences which are not always easy to explain but which have to do with a deep sense of recognition. Through the alchemy of fictional characters and the way in which they engage with their world, you are taken somewhere (psychologically, morally, emotionally) that you do not usually expect to go, and the journey reveals to you something about yourself and the world you inhabit.
I’ve never had anything you could call A Career. I’ve always either gone where interest suggested and opportunity allowed or just Micawberishly waited for something to turn up. Despite the supposed end of the culture of ‘a job for life’, that approach still seems to make a lot of people uneasy. And they often become even more uneasy when they discover that one of my interests nowadays is cultivating and writing about rare, difficult and often tender plants from distant parts of the world. You can almost see the bubble of unspoken doubt rising from their heads. ‘Is this just some childish joke? Or is he really serious?’ So I was delighted to stumble across spectacular support for that general approach (in the shape of James Hamilton-Paterson) and for that particular interest (in the shape of his novel, Griefwork).
When I first read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in 1979 it certainly provoked a strong response, but hardly the admiration the cover blurb demanded for ‘one of the finest examples of high comedy of the last century’. I felt fury mixed with bafflement.
For me, at that time, every novel was a possible blueprint for how to live your life. Borne along on the second wave of feminism, the only thing I and my friends were sure of was that we didn’t want lives like our mothers’. Exactly what we did want wasn’t clear. But what I didn’t want in spades was a life like that of Mildred Lathbury, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title.
Quick: bring something to read to him on the train! This last-minute thought, just before setting the burglar alarm, sends me rushing to the pair of small bookshelves outside the bathroom which contain the old Ladybird books. Which of them shall we take? Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Florence Nightingale, The Princess and the Pea, The Fireman. They’ll do. They fit into the handbag, and I set out knowing that, even if we run out of water and KitKats, and there’s no refreshment trolley, we’ll have enough mental nourishment to keep us going through whatever South West Trains might inflict on us.
I bought my copy of Seven Men in the late Sixties in a secondhand bookshop in Sutton Coldfield. The town had two second-hand bookshops, which both closed years ago, but I can recall every shelf and see titles, bindings and jackets in eidetic detail. I suspect many other lovers of books have this useless but comforting gift, even if they spend half the morning trying to remember where they put their glasses. Seven Men had – has, it’s on the desk beside me – a navy blue cloth binding; on the front cover of my copy, like a partial eclipse of the moon, is the white imprint of the base of a teacup. It is the 1920 second impression of the first edition and on the front free endpaper is the signature of a Francis T. Bellin, followed by the date ‘1922’. When I got it the pages were uncut: Mr Bellin had missed a treat.
I can drop Anna Kavan’s name among the most literary of my friends and their brows furrow and they confess that, even though thirteen of her books are still in print, and a second biography of her life, A Stranger on Earth, by Jeremy Reed, came out this spring, they’ve never heard of her, let alone read a word by her.
Anna Kavan wasn’t her real name. She was born Helen Woods but changed her name to Helen Ferguson. Then, when she married, she became Helen Edmunds, but after her divorce (or was there a divorce? Everything about the woman is so mysterious) she destroyed all her diaries and papers, and invented a new birth date, a new physical appearance and a new literary style.
I came to Australia as a French-speaking child, without a word of English, and started school in Sydney within only a few weeks of arriving. Today, I am an author of children’s books, and English has become the language of my imagination. How did this happen? In part, the answer lies in the influence of The School Magazine, one of the world’s great literary treasures for children, which (rather incongruously) emanates from the very heart of a bureaucratic behemoth, the New South Wales Department of Education.
When I went to live for a short time in New York in the mid-1990s, a friend gave me a copy of Up in the Old Hotel, a selection of the 1940s and ’50s New Yorker writings of Joseph Mitchell. I shall always be profoundly grateful to him: if I hadn’t read Mitchell, my experience of the city would have been a thinner one, a bemused tourist’s view enlivened only by a few real-life encounters.
In March 1984, full of the joys of spring and possibly slightly mad, I bought the library of the American novelist Edith Wharton from Maggs Bros., the London booksellers, and subsequently discovered that it was incomplete.
Maggs had purchased about two thousand books from Edith Wharton’s godson, Colin Clark, which for forty-seven years had been at Saltwood Castle in Kent. Here his father, the art historian Kenneth Clark, Edith Wharton’s friend, had completely integrated them into his own library, which complicated the process of identification and extraction. This had been supervised by Colin’s brother Alan who was by then the custodian of Saltwood.
Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying paper pervading the air – I think of Gordon Comstock, George Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Poor Gordon, an advertising dropout and aspiring poet who is scraping a living as an assistant in such a bookshop, is forever bemoaning a world ruled by ‘the Money God’ rather than the Muses.
I had just come home from a protracted springtime tour of English gardens. Perhaps it was their ravishing fresh beauty, or their complexity, or their immaculate neatness, or perhaps I had just seen one topiary box spiral too many. Most likely, it was the stark impossibility of ever achieving in my garden anything approaching the quality I had seen elsewhere. Whatever the reason, a light melancholy descended on me, like a thin summer rain. I went deliberately to the bookshelf and took down a book which I had not read since it was first published in 1997. I needed a dose of Geoffrey Dutton – poet, gardener, professor of medical science, white-water swimmer and mountaineer – to help me regain my usual cheery equilibrium.
I once interviewed a well-known poet on the radio and asked him what he read when he had ’flu. He looked at me with astonishment – and some contempt – and said ‘Tolstoy, of course’. But when I have ’flu I don’t reach for the classics, I reach for Modesty Blaise.
She and her lethal associate and friend, Willie Garvin, started life in 1963 as a strip cartoon in London’s Evening Standard, and went on to star in a series of inventive thrillers by Peter O’Donnell, who created the original cartoon with the artist Jim Holdaway. I started to read them at least thirty years ago and I was hooked straight away.
We can touch the past through diaries, letters and memoirs, which allow a measure of intimacy and immediacy even across the centuries. The accepted view is that they begin to proliferate in the second half of the seventeenth century with Pepys, Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. But there is an earlier figure who has somehow slipped below the literary horizon. The letters that John Chamberlain (1554–1628) wrote are the first in English that can be read without difficulty and with pleasure.
In the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed, Paul Routledge defied anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to head off at once to Central Asia. I think he is absolutely right about that. A little later in his essay, he writes, ‘If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.’ I think he is wrong about that. Or perhaps, which is quite probable, he has not come across the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf ’s Leo the African, whose opening sentences I read as an impressionable 18-year-old on the verge of my first visit to Cairo.
When Professor Lisa Jardine was conducting her search for the ‘essential male novel’ among 400 men from the worlds of academia, the arts, publishing and literary criticism she unaccountably didn’t get round to me. Not that my answer would have changed anything. The only surprising thing about the winner, The Outsider (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus, was that anybody was at all surprised.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Royal Society of Literature took out a long lease on a white stucco Bayswater house, formerly the home of General Sir Ian Hamilton, leader of the Gallipoli Expedition. It was dilapidated but spacious, and a first-floor room roughly the size and shape of a tennis court became a library in which the Society’s Fellows could browse among one another’s works. All went well until, in the early Seventies, an elderly, light-fingered Fellow took to leaving the building with volumes secreted between two pairs of trousers, which he wore sewn together at the hem. The library was closed.
I began working for the Royal Society of Literature in the autumn of 1991, and it was on the shelves of this silent, abandoned room that I first discovered Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. Published in 1969, it had become an instant classic, and, since then, it has never been out of print. From the first sentence – ‘The village lies folded away in one of the shadow valleys which dip into the East Anglian coastal plain’ – it was clear that this was a book to slow down for, and to relish.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his walk through the mountains in 1878, was my mother’s favourite book, which automatically made it one of mine. The brown cover of her 1906 edition is faded with fingering, its pages frayed and loose from her rereadings. Many of the fictional characters who figured largest in my childhood were full of machismo, because they were in books filched from my brothers. Stevenson’s donkey Modestine, on the other hand – ‘patient, elegant, the colour of an ideal mouse’ – was a comforting antidote, domestic and affectionate for all her perceived obstinacy.
The man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was very insistent. On the bucking deck of the tender in Plymouth Sound he engaged me in conversation so closely as to quite obscure my view. She came out of nowhere as the tender swung alongside: a barnacled black whale 300 feet long, her casing almost awash, pitching and rolling gently in the south-westerly driving up from Penlee Point. Only the jutting conning-tower, delicately streaked with rust, distinguished her from a lurking sea monster, a leviathan. She was the 5,200-tonne nuclear submarine Talent. I was there that day at the behest of the Flag Officer Submarines to be shown her paces. All because, thirty-one years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Croydon, I had picked up a copy of Edward Young’s One of Our Submarines.
Contemplating diving into Rebecca West’s great Balkan travel adventure, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is like contemplating a long bungee jump. It offers both compulsion and revulsion, but once it is attempted, endured, enjoyed, you will live with the thrill of it for ever. I recently spent two months reading it, as slowly as I could, and when I finished I felt I had done the journey myself.
In 1917, Kathleen Hale arrived in London, fresh out of art school, ‘with only a few shillings in my pocket, my pince-nez delicately chained to one ear and no qualifications whatsoever for earning a living’. Her appalled mother wrote demanding that she return at once to Manchester, and take a shorthand-typing course. Not for the first time, Kathleen refused to obey. ‘I am not going to learn to type. I am going to be an artist. You can send a policeman to fetch me, but I shall come back to London again and again.’ Mother gave up.
Giorgio Bassani, who died in 2000, famously brought one Italian masterpiece to light and created another. As an editor he was instrumental in rescuing from oblivion Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard,* which had been rejected by many other publishers as…
It all began in a butcher’s shop in Shipston-on-Stour. In 2000 Sheila Stewart had written an excellent little book about her old daily help, Country Kate, to record for posterity ‘the richness of the speech of ordinary folk before “the media world” faded out their lively observations and perceptions of the real world’. Her butcher in Shipston-on-Stour then urged her to track down Old Mont, an Oxfordshire shepherd born in 1902 who sang unaccompanied in a pub ‘out Enstone way’. She did so, and over the next two years made numerous visits during which, on fifty tapes, she allowed the old shepherd to encapsulate the spirit of a passing age.
Wendell Berry is a man who refuses to be categorized, because every label attached to him is a distortion of his views. Or so he feels. This lean and lanky, six-foot-something Kentucky farmer is every English city dweller’s idea of what a Kentucky farmer should look like. He has a long face, large hands, close-set eyes, a patient manner and an easy drawl. Yet he is not quite what he seems.
John Verney, painter, illustrator, author and inventor of the invaluable maverick desk diary, the Dodo Pad (‘to stop one becoming extinct from the pressures of modern life’), loomed large in my childhood. Apart from being among my parents’ closest friends and neighbours, and paterfamilias of a large brood of children, Shetland ponies, chickens, cats, cows and bees, all of which somehow became inextricably mixed up in my memory, he was always there. Most fathers were away somewhere doing a job, but whenever we went to Runwick, the Verneys’ rambling farmhouse on the edge of Farnham in Surrey, he was always to be found wandering vaguely around in his shapeless jacket, or making paint-spattered forays from his studio in the barns, or presiding laconically over whatever rabble-rousing meal was in progress.
It is a lazy Sunday morning. I am seated in my comfortable chair, wrapped in my old dressing-gown, my coffee in hand, having turned the final page of Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. It is a novel by Wendell Berry. Jayber was placed in my hands as a gift. A box of emeralds would not have pleased me more. He has become one of those rare friends with whom I look forward to sharing the rest of my life.
Lambert had been the editor of Sight and Sound from 1949 to 1955 and was almost single-handedly responsible for transforming it from, in his words, ‘an intolerably boring magazine’ into one of the most influential film journals of that era and beyond. The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life was first published in 1959. As the subtitle suggests, it’s essentially a series of interlinking short stories rather than a novel per se. The book is peopled by an ensemble cast of LA waifs and strays who glide in and out of focus and in and out of the life of a nameless narrator, an English scriptwriter for a Hollywood studio. Among this motley crew is Mark, an ex-British public schoolboy turned beach bum, a washed-up bisexual gigolo happy to flow with the tide as long as the sun is shining; Emma, a teenage ingénue from Illinois desperate to break into pictures; and Clyde, the delinquent son of a tycoon who surrounds himself with sycophantic flunkies. Best of all, there is the wonderfully grotesque Countess Marguerette Osterberg-Steblechi, a corpulent Austro-Hungarian multi-millionairess. This relic of the old Europe yearns only to take one last voyage around the globe. But now deaf and blind, she is at the mercy of her two parsimonious nieces. Rather than squander their precious inheritance, this rapacious pair resort to faking the trip, ingeniously using gramophone records, heaters and fans to carry out the deception in the Countess’s own Californian home.
In the end we decided against opening an American branch of the shop but I was reminded of the discovery of Parnassus on Wheels last July when I was asked to buy the books of someone who had been both a real reader – she had all the issues of Slightly Foxed published up to the time of her death – and a distinguished bookwoman. She’d worked in the library of the Linnaean Society, had helped Wilfrid Blunt to bring out an illustrated herbal (and been given many of his earlier books), had worked on several dictionary projects for Oxford University Press, and had written two of the splendid catalogues, Sylva and Pomona, of Mrs Paul Mellon’s marvellous collection of flower books. Her name was Sandra Raphael, and she owned copies of several novels by Christopher Morley.
Sébastien Japrisot is a name that sounds thoroughly French, though it snags awkwardly on the hinges of the surname. Which is because it’s actually an anagram of the author’s real name, the more euphonious Jean-Baptiste Rossi. The intriguingly verbose title of his most memorable thriller, however, is a literal translation of the original French – La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil.
Lady, car, gun – you get the picture – but the glasses? There’s the snag, the detail that doesn’t feel quite right. What’s going on? I’m afraid I can’t possibly tell you.
It is a universal truth that those in the creative professions will always be patronized by those who don’t and can’t create. ‘Resting?’ they will enquire of the out-of-work actor, with a tilt of the head and an upward inflexion,…
When people ask me what they should read about the Empire, I suggest they go to the five volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire, where they will find a mass of recent research synthesized in scores of scholarly essays written by contemporary academic historians. But if they want to sense what the Empire was like, how it felt and smelt and looked, if they want to picture traders of the Hudson Bay Company with their beaver hats and sledges or Boer trekkers lumbering across the veld in their great ox-wagons – then I advise them to read James Morris.
He was still looking for that last volume. If anyone could have found it, he could. That’s how good he was at his trade. As I stood at the graveside on a bright spring day, on that exposed ridge above the Evenlode valley, I supposed that now I would never possess a copy – that the one book for which I had been searching so long had eluded me. Then I felt guilty that I was thinking of myself and not of him. It was, after all, his day.
Why does anyone write comic novels? I can understand the desire, even the need to do so, for the world is funny and getting funnier. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, or run into McDonalds with a pumpaction shotgun. Comedy…
In the summer of 1933, after leaving the Royal Academy Schools where one of his paintings had just been accepted for the Summer Exhibition, my father Mervyn Peake abandoned London for Sark in the Channel Islands. The move followed a recommendation from his former English teacher who suggested, with my father in mind, that ‘the possibilities were unusually rich for artists with a keen sense of things firmly rooted in primitive nature’. The two years he then spent on the island were so idyllic that shortly after the war he decided to return, this time with his family.
For a young adult setting out into the world, however, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake, mind; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. (Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence that suffuse the first two books.)
In the early 1960s, Shirley Guiton was attending an international conference in Paris. Her mind was not entirely on the discussions in full spate around her. She had just received a telegram, which stated briskly: ‘Found possible property Torcello come at once.’
November 7th Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs?
Cyril Hare is the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in 1900 and died in 1958. He was a barrister who became a county court judge and took his writing name from his London home, Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and his chambers in the Temple, Hare Court. His great strength is the use he made of his expert knowledge, both as barrister and judge. Tragedy at Law, published in 1942, was his favourite novel and introduced his hero, Francis Pettigrew, an ageing and very able barrister but one who has never fulfilled his early promise. Pettigrew is aided in his detection – or is it perhaps the other way round? – by a professional police officer, Inspector John Mallett of Scotland Yard, who had appeared in previous detective stories by Hare.
Mountaineers can obviously take a joke. In 1981, four years before W. E. Bowman died and a quarter of a century after the publication of his spoof mountaineering book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, he discovered to his amazement that members of the 1959 Australian Antarctic Expedition had affectionately named a small mountain Mount Rumdoodle and that this had been duly incorporated into Antarctic maps.
The story of Beowulf is told in a little over 3,000 lines of poetry, written some time between the seventh and tenth centuries in Old English. The poet has a Christian viewpoint, just about, you feel, but the old pagan world is still out there, if we lapse for one moment. It feels right that the occasional Biblical references are all from the Old Testament.
Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is an enchantingly idiosyncratic overview of popular entertainments, including those of the title. It also exposes many of the scams on the circuit, my particular favourite being ‘the pig-faced lady’ who in various incarnations over the centuries duped the punters in the form of a bear with shaved head and gloved paws, its bulky body disguised under reams of dress material.
If pest control could win you medals for bravery, Jim Corbett would have won the VC. The citation would have read something like this: ‘Regardless of his own safety, he repeatedly exposed himself to the greatest danger for the sake of others and by his heroism saved the lives of hundreds of his countrymen.’
Before my departure, I paid one final visit to the American University’s bookshop in Cairo and there I came across a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Many of my Egyptian friends had recommended it (while simultaneously dismissing it as E. M. Forster on Viagra), but I had been too disciplined to be distracted by a short story, let alone a novel sequence that weighs in at 884 pages. Now, however, I was seduced by the image on the book’s front cover, a water-colour of a neo-Palladian villa so common to Alexandria’s corniche and narrow byways. I added a copy to my pile of non-fiction books and immediately felt guilty. This is what it must feel like to commit adultery, I thought.
The shelves in my study are crammed with books that I only quite like, to the extent that I think they barely represent my taste in reading, largely because I have pressed all my favourites on voracious friends and family. So imagine my delight a few weeks ago when I discovered a copy of Anagrams by Lorrie Moore in a bookshop bin marked ‘Why Don’t You Try This?’ My second copy of this excellent novel cost me only 99p, something about which I have mixed feelings: as a reader I think it’s wonderful that books of this calibre are available for so little; as a writer I can’t help thinking that Lorrie Moore is being sold down the river. But that’s another story . . .
In the spirit of being included in writers’ worlds, we’ve been browsing our backlist of Slightly Foxed Editions: hitherto forgotten memoirs that bring alive a particular moment and make you feel you have actually known the writer. Today we’re opening the pages of Ghosting, Jennie Erdal’s strange and gripping story of the twenty years in which she became a ghost writer for the man she calls ‘Tiger’, the flamboyant figure at the centre of this wickedly funny book.
The focus of John Keay’s two books is the evolving imperial game that British India played on its north-west frontier. The Khyber Pass was one of the great invasion routes of history, and for all the Victorians knew there were other access points hereabouts. Early on in the century there were worries that Napoleon might have a go, but it was Russian steps through central Asia that turned it into the Great Game and impelled some of the most extraordinary feats of exploration. As intrepid Russians pushed south, heroic Britons pushed north. ‘Bagging the Pamirs’ was a rather different proposition from ‘bagging Munros’ in the Scottish Highlands, yet surely only the Victorians could have arranged for a naval lieutenant, John Wood, to be the first Briton to stand on the roof of the world.
We British like to think of ourselves as a cosmopolitan island race, outward-looking and worldly, yet we can be a parochial lot, too. We heap opprobrium on the Arab world for its failure to translate more than a handful of books into Arabic each year and yet our own record of translating contemporary foreign writers into English makes us seem more insular than international in our literary appetites.
The Golden Warrior is not ‘an ordinary historical novel’ in any sense. These, and even extraordinary historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, tend to be written by novelists who have done their research. Hope Muntz (1897–1981), however, was a historian, Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society, and co-editor of a volume in the Oxford Mediaeval Texts. Having lived more than half her imaginative life with Earl Harold Godwinson and Duke William the Bastard, she astonished those expecting a scholarly monograph by producing a magnificent novel.
The more you read, the more you realize you want to read, for each book generates a further reading list. Only occasional readers imagine that reading is a matter of working through a list of classics, like moving a pile of logs. The rest of us know that every ‘classic’ multiplies infinitely into minor classics, frivolities and squibs. You cannot possibly read them all now, but you know you want to read them one day. Some of these you will buy and, although they may remain unread, they contain a promise of future pleasure and their company alone helps sustain an idea of yourself, and of the world.
When I began to research the lives of twentieth-century domestic servants, I was surprised by the number of servants’ memoirs that had been published in the second half of the century. It seemed that readers in the 1970s, with Upstairs,…
On page 1 he noted the omission of Lord Acton (‘power corrupts etc’) and ten pages later he criticized the sparseness of John Aubrey’s entry, which might be explained by the absence of Brief Lives in a standard edition: both Oliver Lawson Dick’s and Anthony Powell’s editions post-date the Dictionary of Quotations by several years. But this is nothing compared to his entry for Jane Austen: ‘Less than a column and a half. Fantastic! She should have 3 pp.’
Sixty pages of non-fiction can take you to strange places. When I first read The Spawning Run, it was in armchair comfort, coolly anticipating the prospect of a literary march across sweet spring meadows to the secret, private banks of a quietly flowing stream. A place where currents concealing the best and sleekest of fish riffle, pool and glide. A place requiring rod, reel and fly as sole equipment for a quintessential day’s sport.
I am one of those fastidious individuals who, before travelling, has to draw up a reading list suited to the place he is to visit. For this reason, on a recent trip to Rome, I reread Abba Abba (one of Anthony Burgess’s slimmest books, it has the added virtue of fitting easily into a cramped suitcase). By the time he wrote the novel in the mid-seventies, Burgess had lived in Rome and married his second wife, Liana, an Italian contessa. Abba Abba is, amongst other things, a wary tribute to that capital of temporal power.
I was given The Ginger Tree, by Oswald Wynd, to read before the birth of my first child. ‘It will take your mind off things,’ said my friend. Indeed it did. Through all the dramas of a premature birth, the book stayed in my hands. The life of a young girl at the turn of the twentieth century in China and Japan provided an escape and a refuge. It still does. In times of crisis or just a bout of ’flu, I return to The Ginger Tree. It has the power that all the best books have, the power to create its own reality. I step into it and am enveloped.
Recently I’ve started writing letters to prisoners (via the New Bridge Foundation). I can recommend it as a means to think about what we have in common with each other. The amount of trust – in the postal system, in language, in the other person – encoded in each letter is staggering. With prisoners who, one way or another, are likely to have suffered many abuses of trust, it is even more striking. Our letters, it is hoped, will lead to meetings. But even if not, one hopes they extend fingers of possibility, rays of light if that’s not too presumptuous, into the darkness of ‘this place’ as they generally characterize prison.
‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas. Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for,
Florence Nightingale steadfastly refused to believe in bacteria, but she was wrong. The horrid truth is that every one of us carries billions of fellow-travellers, and no amount of bathing can ever change their number. The good news, however, is that most of our resident flora and fauna are harmless, or actually beneficial to our health. In 1976, Michael Andrews published these tidings in his bestselling The Life that Lives on Man, with all the details of our intimate companions in the micro-deserts of our forearms and the swamps of our underarms. But he failed to convince me that such slithy beasts as parasitic roundworms and liver flukes were equally benign. So I tried some internal experiments of my own.
Vic Gatrell’s book City of Laughter paints a compelling, seductive picture of London in a lost Golden Age – the Golden Age revealed in the hundreds of satirical prints that poured from the presses from about 1770 to 1830. It draws on many literary sources and is illustrated with almost 300 colour images, most from the under-explored archives at the British Museum and Yale (and many never previously reprinted). Vivid, inventive, energetic, savage in puncturing pretension and full of lavatorial and obscene humour, they offer us a fantastic panorama of a libertine London, full of violence, hearty pleasure, uninhibited sex and high spirits.
Du Maurier’s reputation seems, if possible, to grow with the years, not least because she is so difficult to pin down. Everyone, including Margaret Forster, her often uncomfortable official biographer, feels that she is, in a sense, a romantic novelist, but she also manages to be one with a literary reputation. This makes her unusual, if not unique.
I was born on 26 January 1962 in a small upstairs bedroom at 8 Fairview Road, Norbury, South London. Towards the end of that year the world held its collective breath as, courtesy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it teetered on the brink of nuclear oblivion. I have always wondered if the two events were connected. The year 1962 also saw the first publication of Betty Hope’s Survive with Me by R. G. G. Price, illustrated by Ionicus. I found my copy earlier this year in the local Oxfam shop, lurking between a suntan-oiled copy of The Da Vinci Code and an early example of Jamie Oliver’s literary oeuvre entitled, I think, It’s Beans on Toast, Mate.
It takes a special sort of long-term determination and courage to risk one’s life for someone else’s sake. Would the friends who protected Anne Frank’s family in their secret annexe have embarked on their heroic act of altruism if they had known of the long haul ahead? In her remarkable novel, Night Falls on the City, Sarah Gainham imagines what it must have been like to keep a deadly secret in such circumstances for years.
Julia Homburg is a famous classical actress whose family had been courtiers and Catholics, unassailable members of the Austrian imperial establishment. But Julia’s husband Franz Wedekind is a socialist politician and a Jew. Their story begins in March 1938.
As I make my way through narrow passages and over numerous little bridges, I am trying to imagine a Venice of two and a half centuries ago, the Venice of A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant.
Not only the book but the way it came about is intriguing. It is every writer’s dream to come across a cache of letters which tell a riveting but true story. Add to this the setting of Venice, a cast of characters that includes a beautiful English girl, a Venetian nobleman and (of course) Casanova, and a book begs to be written.
Thursday 27 February 2020
Hatchards Booksellers on Piccadilly are delighted to host an evening with Hisham Matar, author of prize-winning memoir The Return. Hisham will be interviewed by Sarah Anderson of the Biographers’ Club
6.30 p.m. Thursday 27 February
London W1J 9LE
In one way, Dickens was not a Victorian. He was born in 1812 and his formative years were spent under the Regency, then the reigns of George IV and William IV. By the time of Victoria’s coronation, many of the themes and obsessions of his creative work were formed and he retained a Regency exuberance in his early work that was not always to the taste of his more educated readers. One thing they did not care for in his early novels was his treatment of drink and drinkers.
I have a pocketful of change. Around me, there’s the sound of clothes hangers on rails. Beyond a bin of old toys there’s a clink of crockery. The flooring’s worn, the smell is musty. I can hardly restrain my fingers. What am I looking for?
I don’t know. That’s just the point.
I’m in one of my favourite places: a charity shop, in the book section. The atmosphere’s hushed. It’s that of a museum, or, perhaps, a library.
But, wait. If I love books so much, why aren’t I in a library, or, indeed, a bookshop?
‘Which would you rather be,’ asked Maurice Richardson, ‘a shit of genius or a chronic euphoric?’ The shit of genius was Evelyn Waugh, the chronic euphoric his elder brother Alec, who once wondered if he ‘was not too much in love with life, to have ever been completely in love with anyone’.
The best days of my childhood were spent in a borrowed horse-drawn wagon, ricocheting up and down the semi-sheer slopes of the Wicklow Mountains, reins firmly grasped in small hands. I loved Cinnamon, our plump and stoical horse. I loved the jangling harnesses and the neat little bow-top with its folding beds. Most of all, I loved the footloose, fly-by-night pleasures of the gypsy life.
I’ve never been to Brazil, and to tell the truth I’m not much interested in going. Even reading about South America doesn’t thrill me. I’m not sure why this should be since I found Central America fascinating, and I’m happy to read anything going about the Maya, but Brazil is one of those blank spots in my personal sphere of curiosity.
Not too many years ago, it would have been unnecessary to explain who James Thurber was. His short story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in 1947 in the New Yorker (where most of his writing first appeared), soon found an international audience, and despite the best efforts of Danny Kaye to kill it off in a truly appalling film, it remains one of the most adept pieces of comic writing of its time, with most of the classic Thurber trademarks, including his delight in inventing words: among them the pseudomedical terms ‘obstreosis of the ductal tract’ and ‘streptothricosis’, and the information that ‘Coreopsis has set in’.
‘I myself – pampered by my Jewish friends – was a steadfast anti-Semite.’ There are enough reflections from [von Rezzori’s] autobiographical work to show that he was intimately acquainted with his fictional world, and to feel that the power of his fiction is closely related to his ruthless honesty about himself.
About a year ago now a smiling vanman delivered twenty-six heavy brown-papered packages from a trolley and stacked them along the side of the hall. I scrabbled one parcel open and there they were: the first copies, straight from their Yorkshire printer, of my memoir, Learning Things. I felt triumphant. The chaotic, sometimes threatening, jumble that had been the ingredients of my family’s lives and mine were now tamed into some sort of order – not just a pile of typed pages but a real book.
It is not very expensive to publish a book but why embark on the venture at all? Well, our histories and memories are the context of our children. To my children and grandchildren (three of them half- American) the there-and-then of my parents’ lives in India, at war, even my own experiences of boarding-school and as a terrified apprentice parachutist, seem almost unimaginably far away. My mother had died when I was 17 and my father, away for so long at war, had been a remote figure, so I too learned much about them as I explored the material I had.
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’, from which he rose, more by luck than by judgement, to the dizzy heights of Worth Paquin, later plateauing out into the sunny uplands of John Lewis in the incongruous position of buyer of Ladies’ Fashion.
I first read Voss about forty years ago and didn’t pick it up again until very recently. A few years later I was somewhat disappointed by one or two of White’s other books and this must have tainted my recollection. I certainly remembered Voss as a powerful metaphor for the condition of modern man, but when I reread it I was surprised by its force and inevitability. The Marxist critic George Lukács once defined the novel as the epic of a world from which the gods have departed. Voss is first and foremost a gripping epic and the gods have indeed disappeared – or almost: there is still spirituality in the air and the characters seem to have developed special antennae for it.
‘It is Europe that is dying, my friends.’ This gloomy observation is, his devoted fans will recognize, the very essence of Alan Furst. It is delivered, in this case, by an anti-fascist Italian exile to a group of his compatriots in Paris in 1938, in Furst’s most recent novel, The Foreign Correspondent. But the world he has brought to life in all nine of his books is old Europe – from Lisbon to the Black Sea, though usually centred in the French capital – as it is smashed and swept away by war and the unstoppable momentum of power politics.
Writing her diary one evening in January 1951, Edwin Muir’s wife Willa reflected that her husband’s poems would live on, but ‘of himself, only a legend’. Why? Contemporary poets united in marvelling at Muir’s gifts, not just as a fellow poet, but as a human being. T. S. Eliot recognized in him a more ‘complete integrity’ than he had known in any other writer; Kathleen Raine envied his stillness and stability in a hurtling world; George Barker was moved by his visionary insight. Edwin Muir, Barker wrote, was ‘like a silent clock that showed not the time but the condition, not the hour but the alternative’. Surely something more solid than ‘legend’ should survive of such genius?
For years, then, I skipped modern poetry – until I discovered Billy Collins. Cue thunder and lightning! Now I’d walk backwards across town in a blizzard to buy the latest book of Billy Collins’s poems.
His gift is to visit the familiar and reveal the outlandish. My lazy imagination wonders what lies behind that door, down that road, beyond that picture. Collins goes there. He’s a permanent trespasser on parallel worlds, making short expeditions and reaching offbeat conclusions.
I first read the book when I was 16; later, Gaunt became a recurring figure in my life, cropping up unexpectedly like one of the incidental characters in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was Mr Sweatman, my art master, who first gave it me to read and it had me utterly enthralled. Mr Sweatman was meant to be conducting the art class, but he was obsessed by a school society called the Marionette Circle. He gave most of his attention to the few boys, members of the Circle, who arrived in class with tiny gibbeted figures dangling from their hands. He and they would disappear behind a lime-green screen, where the marionettes were made to perform their antics and danses macabres. Occasionally Mr Sweatman would emerge from behind the screen to bellow ‘Noisy!’ or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ (a subject for us to paint). He was equally happy for the non-marionetteers to study art history; and with Gaunt’s book he found a perfect way of keeping me occupied.
The dogmatic persecution of those whose unhealthy lifestyle falls below the high standards of the lawmakers is vividly and terrifyingly dramatized in Benoît Duteurtre’s novel The Little Girl and the Cigarette. The French writer sets his action in the near future – without saying exactly when – and in a familiarly Western democratic country – without saying exactly which. The story, or rather one of the two stories we follow through the book, opens with a distinctly modern dilemma.
I have just returned from a long holiday in the Channel Islands visiting with Ebenezer Le Page, an old and valued friend, at Les Moulins, Ebenezer’s cottage by the sea. It is built of the same blue Guernsey granite that he is, and as he says, it will last for ever. They both will. Ebenezer is the creation of G. B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. It is his only book, published posthumously. It is fiction, but I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to. The word ‘creation’ is precisely the correct term. This is not a work of literature. It is a thing of flesh and bone. Ebenezer and I had often journeyed together in imagination, and shared our tea in front of a coal fire, but now I had come to Guernsey in body as well as spirit, to walk the streets he walked and follow the path of his life.
The forty-six volumes in Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series were originally intended as guides you could slip into your pocket. I don’t think I’ve ever actually carried one around in that fashion, not even the early, comparatively slender ones, and to do so with any of the more recent revised editions would require a poacher’s jacket and very sturdy shoulders.
Second-hand copies of The Penguin Complete Saki can be bought on Amazon for a very reasonable £5.60. The book contains 135 short stories, 3 novels and 3 plays. There’s also a foreword by Noël Coward. Which is only fitting because, if you want to fit Saki into a literary lineage, he is the missing link between Mr Coward and Oscar Wilde. These days, a tall skinny caramel machiatto from Mmm Coffee! can set you back nigh on a fiver if you throw in a biscuit, so £5.60 for 960 pages of genius is unbelievable value for money.
Ah, but I hear you say, I’m over-selling Saki. I’m not. At his best he writes short stories of sublime elegance and wit, each rendered with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. In them upper-crust Edwardian life is not so much lampooned as subtly eviscerated. And the stories are funny. Very funny. Laughter in the dark, in many cases, but laughter nonetheless. However, as with all the best satirists’ work, behind them lurk both morality and idealism.
Given this personal history, Carrie Tiffany’s quirkily titled first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, struck an immediate chord when the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced. Its intriguing plot turns on a state government-funded ‘Better Farming’ train, which rattles around rural Victoria in the 1930s, loaded with agricultural and domestic scientists preaching the gospel of science to farmers and their families. This was a book that demanded to be bought and read with the insistency of loud bells and flashing lights at level crossings. I was not disappointed.
In a tiny seventeenth-century cottage, fashioned from stone stables, I found the Idle Bookseller. Not that Ros Stinton lives up to her trade name, presiding as she does over the largest collection of books and pamphlets by or about the Victorian novelist George Gissing to be found anywhere. The shrine-cum-bookshop is up a steep flight of stairs at the back of her home, in Town Lane, Idle, once an ancient village but now swallowed up in the suburbs of Bradford. To the rear, which would have suited the mildly reactionary novelist, is the Idle Conservative Club. Down the road is the Idle Working Men’s Club, for which I imagine there is a long, if rather desultory, waiting list.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was invited to join a private train for its first – and, as it proved, only – excursion, from St Petersburg to Tashkent. Things in Russia had changed a lot, mostly for the worse. The streets of former Leningrad had been commandeered by homeless urchins and men in dark glasses with mobile phones. In a hotel bar, a drunken Red Army veteran pulled a pistol on me. Moscow seemed more dilapidated than ever, but L’Oréal perfume was on sale at the GUM store. As the train puffed south towards the Caspian Sea, blank and hungry faces stared from desolate village halts, and the carriage windows were locked for the passengers’ protection.
There are books which sit on our bookshelves for years, getting slightly more foxed as time passes. My Dubliners has followed me to five different addresses and, although a rather flimsy paperback (picked up second-hand, I see, for 1s 6d), remains in fairly decent condition. It was published in 1947 for Jonathan Cape by Guild Books, an imprint of the Publishers’ Guild ‘dedicated to bringing out the best from the lists of the twenty-six members’.
I like the idea of trying to capture the spirit of a place through a series of stories such as Dickens’s sketches of London life, Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories and Jack London’s tales of San Francisco. Joyce wrote almost all his Dubliners’ stories away from Ireland and, like most of his work, they focus unremittingly on a brief period at the turn of the twentieth century – years around which the whole of his imaginative life revolved.
One of the literary forms that has always given me most pleasure, in between the serious stuff, has been the clerihew, named after its inventor Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956). Bentley was chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph from 1912 to 1934. In 1905, a decade before he produced another of his inventions, the modern detective novel, with Trent’s Last Case, he published a slim volume entitled Biography for Beginners, which opens, under the heading ‘Introductory Remarks’, with this four-liner: The Art of Biography / Is different from Geography. / Geography is about Maps, / But Biography is about Chaps.
I was not aware when I read Treasure Island of the affinities between its famous author and my obscure self: Calvinism, a hellfire-breathing female, a father problem, a terrorized mind and a fevered imagination. Or that I would one day become an Edinburgher, live in Stevenson’s precipitous city. And indeed one of the marvellous things about Treasure Island is that there is nothing in it that could have told me anything at all about its creator. Rereading it now – an experience I heartily recommend – you can of course see scores of clues. The book is a treasure trove in more ways than one. It is eloquent of its author’s personality, apart from being a thoroughly ripping yarn.
When an Italian friend recommended a Sicilian writer of detective fiction called Leonardo Sciascia (and pronounced, in the author’s island dialect, as sash-arr), I listened politely but unenthusiastically. He explained that I should begin with A Man’s Blessings, first published in English in 1968 (and in 1992 reissued under the title To Each His Own). In this book, I was told, I would discover the essence of the Sciascia style, and if it was not to my taste I would be saved reading anything else by him.
Second-hand booksellers often find the reading of their books not just an occupational hazard but a waste of their precious time. They would rather spend it on keeping up with auction prices, reading their competitors’ catalogues or, nowadays, coursing the net. Literary values are left on the margin. Earlier this year, I found myself looking for likely candidates in our catalogue selection of Anthologies and fell deep into the trap of reading beyond the title-page and becoming immersed in delightful contents.
When I was at school I tried to start an Agatha Christie Club. Number of members (including the Chairman – myself ): three. Number of meetings: zero. This somewhat unenthusiastic response has not tempered my love of ‘good old Agatha’, although she was rather – as one of my friends described her – ‘a fascist in tights’. In her huge collection of whodunnits, the dodgy women always live around Bayswater, there is always a ten-to-one chance that the husband did it, and in Poirot, her much-loved Belgian detective, she gives us a wonderfully clichéd portrait of A Foreigner. But perhaps that’s why I enjoy her books. Reading Agatha Christie is a welcome relief from both political correctness and the convolutions of the modern world. She wrote books you can take into hospital with you – indeed, they were what my mother read when she was awaiting the birth of the Agatha Christie Chairman – or curl up with when you feel like being simultaneously scared and sentimental about an age you didn’t even experience.
Werner Herzog, the German film-maker, was friends with the late Chatwin (on the subject of walking they once compared legs together). He is known for such expansive and luminous works as Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and recently Grizzly Man, as well as some eye-catching stunts in real life. He pulled a ship through jungle and pointed a gun at an actor. But that winter journey? The resulting book? It appeared rather slimly, all of eighty-eight pages. Vom Gehem im Eis, translated as Of Walking in Ice, outdoes his other exploits by a country mile.
In the summer of 2006, I made a trip to Poland. We were quite a party: Hanna, my Polish mother-in-law, aged 80; two sisters-in-law, one brother-in-law (Turkish), my nephew and my son. The journey was important for three reasons. This…
I’m no lover of rats. At various times I’ve shot, bludgeoned and poisoned them (Warfarin Creams work best: take a standard Bourbon biscuit and mix the poison with the chocolate filling). I’d certainly never dreamed of buying a rat, much less carrying one about in my pocket; but a few months ago I walked into a Crimean pet shop with just that in mind. I should explain. We – Dan the director, Larissa the fixer, the rest of the TV crew and I, the presenter – were in the port of Feodosia on the Black Sea, filming a series on Ibn Battutah for the BBC . . .
In 1963, with twenty years’ cruising the Mediterranean in destroyers and small yachts under his belt, an ex-naval officer and historian named Ernle Bradford sat down to trace the geography of the greatest adventure story ever told: the Odyssey.
1066 and All That is a book that for me gleams so strongly with the same spirit of redress as to be a work of satirical genius. This is, I know, a little stronger than the usual estimate of Sellar and Yeatman’s ‘humour classic’. Its phrases are still commonly cited, and it appears never to have been out of print since first published in 1930. (I own two copies, one from 1936 – already the twenty-second edition – and another from 1994, reprinted twice in that year.) Yet literary criticism has paid it hardly any tributes at all. Presumably, this is because a) it contains cartoons and b) its preferred modus operandi is the pun. The pun is sometimes said to be the lowest form of wit. There is another way of looking at it, though – not as the lowest, but the most levelling.
My first parting of ways came fifty years ago, when I was 8. In September 1957 I was to be sent away to prep school. I could hardly wait.
A brand-new brown trunk, inscribed with my name and school number, had been acquired weeks before. My mother had immediately begun assembling, name-tagging and ticking off items from a printed schedule sent to her by Matron, and then laying them neatly in the trunk. Meanwhile, no doubt to prime me, I was given a Jennings book to read, one of a series of prep-school stories written by Anthony Buckeridge. I was soon comprehensively hooked, and began working my way methodically through all eight existing titles, from Jennings Goes to School, first published in 1950, to the latest, Thanks to Jennings. Three days before the start of term, with my trunk packed at last, I was brimming with Jennings-fuelled excitement.
In 1986, when I had just started at the bookshop where I still work, I was given a book by a tall, amiable man in late middle age. He was the book’s author and he had just reprinted it himself. He imagined I might be interested. Branko Bokun’s Spy in the Vatican begins, ‘In April 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany and her allies. With the surrender, a new State of Croatia was formed. The Ustashi, a band of Catholic fanatics, backed by the clergy, decided to eliminate all non- Catholics in Croatia. Orthodox Jews, Serbs and Gypsies – men, women and children – were slaughtered in their thousands.’
For the past couple of years I’ve been researching a book about the Greene family. The Greene King brewery, on which its fortunes are based, dates back to the Napoleonic period, but since I’m allergic to dynastic histories I’ve decided to concentrate on one generation: Graham Greene’s siblings and first cousins, all of whom grew up in the same small town in the early years of the last century.
When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase.
If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family and school and public events, but also in the stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly recall picking them up from the shelf – an ordinary act – and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, into another world where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility.
We found William Dampier by chance. He was a small footnote in a book about buccaneers – those ‘original pirates of the Caribbean’ – which mentioned that there was a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery. This seemed a strange outcome for a man who had pursued such a violent career and my husband and I went to see the picture. Entitled William Dampier – Pirate and Hydrographer, it shows a lean, strong-featured man with brown, shoulder-length hair and a watchful expression. There are no earrings, cutlasses or other Jack Sparrow-type flourishes. Instead, Dampier is wearing a plain coat with a white neck-cloth and holding a book, gold-tooled spine out, towards the onlooker.
In the mid-twentieth century a new device came into common use, enabling every Tom, Dick and Harry to record and play back sounds stored on magnetic tape. Arriving some 500 years after Gutenberg, the tape-recorder nevertheless had a small part to play in the preparation of text for print. A handful of enterprising writers began using it to record interviews with people whose opinions were (they judged) of interest to the reading public. The recordings were then edited, arranged in a palatable order, and published in book form. These interviews were more detailed and accurate than anything previously thought possible, except by the most tempestuous exponents of shorthand. However, critics of the new approach soon emerged. Were the books worth having? they asked. Was this ‘art’? Was it indeed proper authorship? And if so, who were the authors: those who spoke into the tape-recorders, or those who switched them on?
The Way of the World suggests that the most fulfilling journeys are only vaguely planned; wise travellers, using intuition as their compass, leave themselves free to be deflected by chance events and encounters. This book also suggests that cycling to India is far less stressful than motoring; not much can go wrong with a gearless bicycle, even on the rough tracks that preceded today’s intercontinental highways. Our heroes’ vehicle faltered frequently, demanding patient ingenuity first to diagnose and then to cure its multiple ailments. In extremis, muscle power had to replace an engine that refused the fearsome gradients around Ararat and the Luz desert’s formidable sand-barriers. Typically, Nicolas makes little of such episodes, treating them not as exhausting dramas but as the amusing, trivial side-effects of dependence on a tiny Fiat long past its use-by date.
If one were searching for the perfect antidote to Mis-lit one would find it triumphantly in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. First published in 1956 and in print ever since, the book is surely one of the most enjoyable English memoirs of the second half of the twentieth century. Every page is a celebration of the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the then unspoilt island of Corfu where the Durrell family arrived in March 1935 and where they lived until their expulsion from Eden in 1939 on the outbreak of war. It is beautifully written, with some astonishingly vivid and exact descriptions, whether of capturing a water snake in a stream or watching a lizard in its progress across a nocturnal ceiling, and it gets away, effortlessly, with all sorts of things one isn’t meant to get away with, not least the antics and tics of Funny Foreigners.
Ryszard Kapuscinski understood the pitfalls of news reporting perfectly. He eschewed any pretence of being a dashing correspondent and wrote of the strange drive that propelled him to dangerous, forgotten places, often lonely but without an ounce of self-pity. As the agency reporter for Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) covering the entire African continent, Kapuscinski witnessed the dramatic birth of the ‘developing world’. He was a most unlikely witness, a Pole from a small town swallowed up by the Soviet Union who walked a tightrope when it came to surviving as a journalist. He went on to report from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Kapuscinski witnessed more than 27 coups and revolutions, befriended Che Guevara, once awoke from a malarial daze to find Idi Amin standing over his hospital bed and was four times threatened with execution.
The Ritz Carlton/Splendide was to be Bemelmans’s home for many years, and his book about it, which first appeared in 1956, has now been reissued in a slightly truncated form together with other stories about life under Lucullan tyranny. The new edition is entitled Hotel Bemelmans and is accompanied by scores of the author’s brilliant illustrations which resemble sketches that Edward Lear might have dashed off had he chosen the life of a gay boulevardier. (The bar in the Carlyle Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side still has murals painted by Bemelmans himself, by the way.)
During Stalin’s purges in Russia, millions of people were sent to work in Siberian labour camps, and many died from lack of food, brutal punishments, overwork or the bitter cold. There were, however, some remarkable instances of survival. In the introduction to his novel The Forbidden Forest, the philosopher Mircea Eliade tells how some prisoners in one camp survived their ordeal. While those in other dormitories died at the rate of up to twelve a week, the prisoners of one dormitory stayed alive because they listened every night to an old woman telling fairy tales. Each prisoner gave up a precious portion of his daily bread ration in order to help feed the old woman so she could save her strength for the nightly storytelling sessions.
Something half-remembered involving a writer locked in a tower, and a conviction that my first encounter – literary or otherwise – with the drink crème de menthe took place within its pages: these, until recently, were my hazy but fond memories of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. But within seconds of opening the novel again, I was reminded of why I had once loved it enough to read it several times a year.
Birds of America is supposed to be Mary McCarthy’s weakest novel, though it was her own favourite. Yet it is a fine book – a brilliant study of a clever, odd teenager growing into a man. And like all good books it seems to get better each time I read it.
Sometimes, confessing to a favourite book can bring a flush of embarrassment to the cheeks. We tend to make such selections at a susceptible age and they don’t necessarily stand up to the test of time. ‘Isn’t that a bit . . . well . . . teenaged?’ some inquirer will ask with a shrivelling look. I am only too aware of this snooty equivalent of the lifted lorgnette as I admit to a long-standing love of Thornton Wilder’s little slip of a book: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
At various times in my life, from my twenties to my fifties, I planned to travel through France by boat. As real life gradually rendered the achievement of this ambition ever more unlikely, I took to reading in a random way books by people who had done it. About twenty years ago I came across a large paperback called Isabel and the Sea. I knew nothing about it or its author George Millar, but I consumed it greedily, loving every word. It was the classic ‘through France and across the Mediterranean by boat’ book. Later, I tracked down and consumed equally greedily all the other books that George Millar had written, most of which were then out of print.
As we turn the page to a new decade, we’ve made some New Year resolutions. John Mitchinson and Andy Miller of Backlisted Podcast join the Slightly Foxed Editors to bring new life to old books, leading us off the beaten track with wide-ranging reading recommendations. From Frank O’Connor’s letters, Selina Hastings’s lives and Barbara Tuchman’s histories to the poetry of John Berryman, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, they journey through genres to revive literary curiosity. And in this month’s reading from the magazine’s archives, Richard Platt makes a convincing case for The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, falling under its curse of sleepless nights.
I don’t know about you, but I have a number of books on the go at any one time. There’s one in the downstairs loo, one in the bathroom, a couple by my armchair in the living-room, and two or three by the bed. But one book has been permanently by my bed since my wife gave it me for Christmas in 2000, and I turn to it more or less every night for the crisp good sense which is guaranteed wherever I open it, and perhaps a laugh as well.
Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’ve returned well-rested and ready for the year ahead following a relaxing Christmas break. Now our thoughts are turning to the annual office overhaul: shelf-shuffling, book-shifting and making space in preparation for a new year’s worth of publications. Therefore, if you’d like to help us clear a few shelves and take the opportunity to stock up on paperbacks, back issues, Foxed Cubs and any other tempting bookish goods we’d be most grateful. To bring some cheer to the start of the year, we’re continuing our special festive December offers until the end of January.
Not a little of the appeal of Kilvert’s Diary for its early readership was the total contrast it provided to contemporary horrors. What could offer a better escape than the largely unruffled beauties, certainties and tranquillity of the high Victorian period to be found there, and in Trollope’s novels, equally popular in the war years? As Plomer wrote to the novelist Elizabeth Bowen when he first read the diary, ‘It’s as good as the Caledonian Market,’ then the happy hunting ground for Victoriana.
I grew up in a house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a bay. There was an upstairs drawing-room which was never used, and in the evenings when I was a little girl, I would go up there and close the door. Kneeling on the window-seat, I would gaze out at the sunset over the sea and the clouds banking on the horizon, and escape into my imagination. In those clouds I saw horses and chariots, marching legions, the thronged streets of medieval towns, knights in armour, great ships in full sail on a golden sea – vivid images from the books my father read me. The worlds they conjured up were consoling and utterly real to me, and I lived in them more than I lived in the present.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s classic Ballet Shoes, published in 1936, remains a favourite for anybody interested in theatre. Whenever one mentions a first-class book of this kind, if the adult addressed knows it, their face will light up, and they’ll look exactly as they must have done as a child. This is true of either sex. E. Nesbit’s name gets many nods and smiles, particularly from elderly gentlemen who remember the Psammead: ‘a little beast’, said one. Mention of Narnia produces endless discussions on the merits of the seven books. And every woman who discovered I was writing about Ballet Shoes responded in exactly the same way. A sharp intake of breath was followed by, ‘Oh! My favourite book!’
The epigraph to Querencia, by my friend Stephen Bodio, explains that the title is a term taken from the bullring, denoting the imagined, and illusory, sanctuary sought by a bull entering the ring, where he feels secure, temporarily sheltered in a magical space. A nearly untranslatable word is a good title for an almost unclassifiable book: an autobiographical fragment, evoking a place and a time, and two similarly unclassifiable people, Steve and Betsy.
Aunts up the Cross begins and ends with the death of the author’s great-aunt Juliet, aged 85 and frankly pretty eccentric if not down-right mad. She was run over by a bus which was travelling slowly in the right direction while the old lady was going pretty fast in the opposite, wrong direction. Her progress was made all the more haphazard by the dark glasses which she wore throughout the year. ‘Her untimely end might have been dramatic in a family more given over to quieter leave taking,’ wrote her great-niece, Robin Eakin. ‘But, in ours, it just seemed natural.’
When I sat down to start this piece, I nearly got tangled up in theory. William Faulkner was so brilliantly experimental with form, and consequently captured the interests of literary critics over such a broad spectrum, that it is very easy to get tangled. Then I recalled why I had wanted to write about Faulkner in the first place. I’d wanted to revisit two books by which I had been smitten in my teens.
Slightly Foxed and the Biographers’ Club are delighted to announce the shortlist for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2019. The prize of £2,500 will be awarded on Tuesday 10 March with a drinks reception at Maggs Bros. on Bedford Square, London.
Warm wishes from Hoxton Square where we’re preparing to settle by the hearth with a good book and a celebratory glass of something festive. We look forward to catching up with you when we’re back at our desks on Monday 6 January. Meantime, we leave you with an excerpt from Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, a deliciously funny picture of life in nineteenth-century Cambridge among the eccentric Darwin clan, illustrated with Gwen’s own delightful drawings.
One day early in the First World War, an inexperienced young doctor serving with the Royal Fusiliers examined a sergeant who was ‘out of sorts’. The man had a reputation for being imperturbable on patrol, but now he sat in a billet in Armentières staring at the fire, unshaven, slovenly dressed and silent. The doctor could find nothing physically wrong but gave him permission to rest. The following day, when everyone else had gone up the line, the sergeant blew his head off. ‘I thought little of this at the time,’ the doctor wrote later. ‘It seemed a silly thing to do.’
I might never have discovered James Munro’s John Craig thrillers had I not seen the film of the last of them, The Innocent Bystanders, in early 1973. Christina Foyle remarked at the time of Craig’s first appearance in The Man Who Sold Death (1964) that his creator wrote like a cross between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, but although the book and its successors were well-received, Munro never found the same fame. The film sank without trace, despite an excellent cast headed by Stanley Baker, but it did inspire me to seek out the Craig books. I loved them.
When I was a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s I believed that my father was a close personal friend of Charles Dickens. They must, I thought, have met at various inns in London and shared jokes and stories and enormous slap-up breakfasts with baked meats and ale. Samuel Pickwick would often be there, too, and Dickens would address my father as ‘VSP’, as all his friends did. We lived in the country for much of that time, in a house which I imagined was just like Dickens’s Dingley Dell. There was a walled garden, with a little summer-house, and I half expected the Fat Boy to pop up from behind the rhubarb and make my flesh creep.
I discovered Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists as a student. I was reading psychology and the course had just begun with a look at animal behaviour, which involved a grasp of scientific method and thus a lot of headache-inducing maths. In a bookshop, glumly casting round for some background reading with a lighter touch than the papers I’d been given, I happened on this remarkable book, published surprisingly by Country Life. It was about seagulls, savage wasps, camouflage and other matters now suddenly on my agenda but, because it was for ordinary readers rather than specialists, the ordeals of theory, statistical bafflement and so forth were wonderfully absent.
John Stewart Collis hated to be referred to as ‘a neglected writer’. He said that if people read that a writer is neglected their natural response is to say, ‘Well, let’s neglect him some more.’ All the same it is hard to avoid saying that Collis was, and is now, a neglected writer, this despite his having written at least one book, While Following the Plough, which deserves to be treated as one of the classic books about farming, nature and country life, on a level with those of Richard Jefferies or W. H. Hudson.
Greetings from No. 53 Hoxton Square where spirits are high, wrapping paper is running off rolls and post bags are filling up quickly as we ready ourselves to wave off the post van one last time and close the office for Christmas. There’s still time for us to help with literary gifts however, and we’d like to draw your attention to our Slightly Foxed Editions – beautifully produced pocket hardbacks, just the right size to hold in the hand and with a ribbon marker to keep your place. Perfectly designed to curl up with, these reissues of classic memoirs are highly individual and absorbing reads. So whether you’re in need of a good book or a present for someone you’re fond of, do seize the chance to stock up now.
One of my favourite books is Wolfgang Kohler’s The Mentality of Apes. I haven’t actually read more than a couple of paragraphs at a time because the contents are of less significance to me than the cover. It is an old paperback with the characteristic turquoise cover that all Pelican books had, and the simplicity of the cover design allows the title to stand out clearly. I take it with me to meetings that I don’t want to go to and place it, obtrusively, on the table, title up.
As in 1066 and All That, what carries the best jokes of And Now All This into something like poetry is an excess of wit. When the ‘Absolutely General Editors’ speak of sleepers entering ‘the land of Polymorpheus’, they casually combine their reading of Freud with their classical education. Elsewhere, ancient literature gets a whole chapter of learned mockery. ‘Myth-Information’ sets out to show – like many more pessimistic Modernist works – that ‘Western Culture is fundamentally myth-guided’. Proof comes in the form of the ‘Arthurian Cycle’, which looks like a Penny Farthing designed by William Morris, and is ‘steered by faith (or witchcraft)’.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy, but I think I was 9 or 10, for I had just gone away to boarding school, and I can remember the stab of longing that that description of the Cole family, on their way to their annual holiday at a seaside farm in the West Country, gave me. Exiled in a red-brick prep-school on the flat and muddy coast of the Bristol Channel, I dreamed with a desperate, nostalgic homesickness of the Devon lanes and cliffs and sandy beaches I’d left behind, and the sound and smell of the sea – the proper sea. The school holidays couldn’t come soon enough, and I knew exactly how Jeremy felt.
It is hard today to appreciate the extent of Hugh Walpole’s success. Not only did his novels – which had appeared annually since his first triumph, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, in 1911 – consistently head the best-seller lists, but he was also a well-known public figure on both sides of the Atlantic. At the time of his death in 1941, he was giving a series of wartime propaganda broadcasts to the USA called ‘Hugh Walpole Talking’. His views were sought, his opinions respected. Hugh Walpole was master of his game. Yet there has always been a problem about the reputation of this seemingly dominant figure.
In the summer of 1980 The Times sent me to Delhi. My first foreign posting, it rewarded all my hopes of adventure. India and Pakistan were at the heart of my reporting. I also wrote from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Early on 23 June Sanjay, the politically powerful younger son of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, crashed his sports plane in Delhi and died. It was a big story and I was only three weeks into the job.
I have always liked reading and pubs, and reading in pubs. By reading I mean sitting alone in a corner of the pub with a pint of bitter and a good book, not the Good Book – that might attract unwelcome attention. There are several conditions to be met. The pub should be quiet, and music-free. It should have few customers, and these also quiet and dotted around the smallish bar at a fairly unsocial equidistance from each other. Any conversation should be infrequent and sotto voce, limited perhaps to the names of racehorses or someone who hasn’t been in lately because he died last week. The best time is after two o’clock, when the lunchtimers have returned to work or afternoon telly. There is at least one such place remaining. It is called The Green Man and is situated in a rural West Midlands village. I am not going to name the village, because the brewery will immediately swoop and render it intolerable. As it is, it still has a public bar, a saloon bar, a snug and a small walled garden. It was in this garden that, fittingly, I first read Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man.
There are some questions that you should never ask a writer – they are instant death to any hoped-for conversation. But at every literary party or book launch I’ve ever attended, the worst of them invariably pops out like a cork from a champagne bottle, straight into the writer’s eye: Do you write by hand or use a computer?
You’d think, if you read History at university, that you might come across the man who invented it. These days, that would be a quaint hope. During my stint at Cambridge in the early Nineties, I encountered witches and deviants, demography and Dickens, consumer revolutions and the medieval kingdom of Aragon. I came across beggars and Bedlam, early Christian thought and the English Civil War. We had social and economic history, psycho-history, feminist history, oral history and micro-history. There was a brief stab at Rome from Augustus, but that was as ancient as we got. Of Herodotus, the Father of History, there was no sign.
Even if the south-eastern seaboard of Africa has never been a Bloomsbury, it has had its moments. Angus Wilson’s mother was a Durban girl, and Fernando Pessoa spent his schooldays there. But given the few exceptions, that littoral has hardly been bookish. Among the 250-strong community in which I grew up, all but about thirty were Zulu-speaking workers and their families, many of whom were illiterate. Of the remainder, most were Indian tractor drivers and mechanics and their wives and children, who spoke Tamil and Telugu by choice. That left only a handful of us who had English as our mother tongue. And that linguistic ratio was repeated across much of the surrounding countryside.
Some months ago I became a British citizen. This wasn’t such a stretch for a native of the States, but it put me in mind of other transplanted people and I have been rereading some old favourites to celebrate. Perversely, the most resonant thing I’ve read isn’t British at all: a tale written in French by a Belgian who became American and settled on an island near my family’s summer home in the northern state of Maine. It is a quiet piece of literary grisaille called Un homme obscur, ‘An Obscure Man’.
One day in May 1944, with the harbour of Fowey packed with vessels of all shapes and sizes ready for the invasion of France, Mr Spreadbury, our history master, turned up in a gown with very noticeable tears in it – almost as though someone had purposely rent it.
I first met Jack Reacher in 1997 – and I was instantly smitten. A lone figure, downing coffee and eggs in a diner on the edge of a small American town, he remains as cool as an Inuit’s deep freeze when the local cops roar up, arrest him at gunpoint and charge him with murder.
In Slightly Foxed, No. 17, I wrote of my childhood addiction to Anthony Buckeridge’s stories about Jennings and Darbyshire, pupils at the agreeable but not very realistic prep school of Linbury Court. That obsession ended abruptly when, in the late 1950s, I was myself plunged into prep-school life, and a very different school filled my imagination.
Some books carve themselves immediately and irrevocably into the minds of their readers. I must have been no more than 16 or 17 years old when I first read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Knowing little about the Russian Revolution, and the lies, torture and mass-murder that the leadership of Josef Stalin had brought in its train, I was instantly converted into a fierce disbeliever in every benign claim about life in the Soviet Union which was made in those days by the Communists and their innumerable dupes and fellow-travellers in the West.
My nearest second-hand bookshop is in a small town five or six miles away. Like many traditional small-town shops it wears many hats. Downstairs at the front are stationery and artists’ materials, upstairs are second-hand books, while the downstairs back is devoted to a small, private, pleasantly ramshackle printing museum. It was there, in a shop of a kind she would have recognized and loved, that I found my copy of Charlotte Paul’s Minding Our Own Business. In it she wrote about the first five years during which she and her husband Ed owned and ran a small American country printing firm, the Falls Printing Company, and its associated newspaper, The Snoqualmie Valley Record. (She was Charlotte Paul Reese by birth, Charlotte Groshell by marriage, Charlotte Paul as a writer.)
On my thirteenth birthday, a friend’s mother gave me a present which changed the way I thought about reading. It was books, four of them: Regency Buck and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, and My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.
When Northern Rock first ran into trouble in the autumn of 2007, worried customers queued outside branches from the early hours in an attempt to get their money out. ‘This is the first run on a British bank since Mary Poppins,’ said someone. It was one of those easy jokes which succinctly sum up what is going on. In the film Mary Poppins the run on the bank is a mistaken one, triggered by a child loudly demanding the return of the money which a benign father has banked for him. The idea that depositors might lose their money in Northern Rock was equally mistaken.
How many children’s books have characters that not only discuss literature but also give you a reading list? That is just one of the things that put Antonia Forest’s novels at the top of mine. Her wonderful sequence of thirteen books, written between 1948 and 1982, follows the fortunes of the Marlow family – eight children, naval commander father, upper-middle class stock going back to Tudor times –in vivid episodes, centred now on the girls’ boarding school, Kingscote, now on the family farm, Trennels, now on London, more specifically Hampstead. They were the first books to make me feel that my preoccupations and dreaminess, which marked me out as peculiar at school, were part of growing up – that I was not alone.
In the 1970s student grants went a long way. After paying for all the prescribed texts, there was still money left over for a good rummage in the second-hand bookshops. On a whim one day, I bought three novels by an author I had never heard of – Peter de Vries. I was attracted by the cyclamen red typeface on their bright yellow Victor Gollancz covers, and at 10p each they were a bargain. What I didn’t know was that 30p could set my slant on the world.
I call them ‘also published by’ lists. Everyone who collects secondhand books knows them; hopeful publishers used to put them at the end of a volume. There you can find the memoirs of long-forgotten statesmen and long-gone generals, books on matters once thought topical (Is the Kaiser Insane?), collections, inevitably, of essays by E. V. Lucas and, of course, novels.
As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent. I caught the bug as a kid, with the fairly broad-based ambition to collect any book published before 1860, figuring that anything that old must be rare. This first collection mounted to ten or eleven books, two of them Bibles, and starred a spineless tenth printing (1856) of Dream Life by Ik Marvel, which is probably still lying around somewhere. Since then, I’ve gone through several off-and-on phases of bibliophily, sufficient to learn that it isn’t a sport for the impecunious or anyone living in physically confined circumstances. I’ve also learned that, like less innocent obsessions, it can draw you in – seriously.
It arrived, as the inscription tells me, two months after my third birthday, a Christmas present from my mother’s brother, Uncle Basil. A large hardback book – to a 3-year-old very large, its fourteen inches height by almost ten width enough to give it immediate status: a book to wield as well as to read. The striking cover, in slightly acidic lemon yellow, had the single word Cocolo in brown, in a bold freehand.Below this was a small outline sketch of a donkey, a rather pot-bellied one with ears protruding from a wide-brimmed straw hat.
As soon as I meet Shirley Hazzard, before we begin to engage in a conversation, she is quoting Thomas Hardy’s poetry to me. She insists that the love Hardy expressed for his first wife in his later verses is genuine, that after Emma Hardy died he somehow managed to recall all the old love and feelings: ‘Not guilt, that’s too modern. He was able to recall the way he had felt when he first met her.’
Our boat journey from Jersey to Sark passes through a dangerous past. The rocks between the two islands are called in Jersey slang the Pater Nosters, for it is said that if a ship were to get too close to them, then prayer was all the mariners had left to save themselves. We notice how Jersey is well defended from the sea: an Elizabethan castle, another fort and then the grinning mouths of German fire-control towers, cadavers of wartime occupation. Jersey has always judged itself worth the effort to defend.
Ernst Kestner has smoked 846,756 cigarettes. A butcher from Lübeck in his sixties, he is driving to France, doing the sums in his head. He has been a 40-a-day man since the middle of the Second World War. What happened to him in France in the war? Why, now that he suspects he has terminal lung cancer, is he going back?
Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), was an early and spectacular part of the flowering of West African literature after independence from colonial rule. It seemed, perhaps especially to a South African like me living under increasingly draconian controls, a wonderful illustration of what liberation might mean. Now, I suspect, it is one of those books which almost everyone knows about but very few people other than students actually read.
There’s a classic type of resourceful, unassuming hero that they just don’t make any more (think Richard Hannay), and the narrator of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male, a ‘bored and wealthy Englishman’, is far too well bred ever to give his ‘widely known’ name away. The first fifty pages of this sharp little thriller – which I have a particular personal reason for enjoying, as will become apparent – form a self-contained adventure set in the summer of 1938, in which the aforementioned Englishman, after a fortnight’s sport in Poland, finds himself at a loose end in the Bavarian Alps and in possession of a Bond Street rifle complete with telescopic sight.
I’m not sure whether it was India that introduced me to R. K. Narayan or R. K. Narayan who introduced me to India. Each superimposed itself on the other so that they became indistinguishable. Travelling round India any time in the 1970s meant reading a Narayan; and reading a Narayan anywhere else meant being transported to India. An Indian train journey was unthinkable without one. In a sense it was one, for the Narayan experience began as soon as you ventured on to railway property. This was his world. His dozen or so novels had been inspired by the vision of a unremarkable town on the main line to Madras with a station nameplate that announced it as MALGUDI. Railway life loomed so large in his fictional Malgudi that attentive readers came to know exactly what to expect and could stroll from ticket barrier to tiffin room as if to the platform born.
One of the great advantages of acquiring a stepson in my sixties was the excuse it gave me to reread aloud all those children’s books which I had so much enjoyed the first time around – Beatrix Potter (whose Tailor of Gloucester was once ranked by A. J. P. Taylor with ‘the greatest masterpieces of Balzac’), Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and The Wind in the Willows, the last so popular that I think I read it six times in quick succession.
If it had not been for Puccini’s opera, I would never have heard of Manon Lescaut. As it was, finding a copy of the novel behind the opera wasn’t easy: it was not kept on the open shelves in my public library, but locked away; and the basilisk stare with which the librarian gave me my copy left me in no doubt that this was a work of the utmost depravity.
If there were teenage novels in the 1950s, I never found them. Instead the gap between Last Term at Malory Towers and the foothills of serious literature was plugged, most enjoyably, by period adventure stories. Two types appealed. In the first, fair-haired young Englishmen, armed only with a first-class degree from Cambridge and ‘a little Hindustani’, became unwilling players in the Great Game on the North West Frontier. In the second, a rail journey across between-the-wars Europe plunged ordinary men, often from Haslemere, into a maelstrom of violence and treachery.
Present ideas for booklovers are abundant here at SF, and this week we’re putting our Plain Foxed Editions in the spotlight. Bound in duck-egg blue cloth, with a silk ribbon marker, the Plain Editions come in the same neat pocket format as the original SF Editions and will happily fill any gaps in your collection – as well as forming a delightful uniform series of their own for a new collector or fellow bibliophile.
For me it all started the night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another. But then again, that’s how it started for most of us who’ve read Maurice Sendak. Max is the hero of Sendak’s best-known work Where the Wild Things Are. First published in 1963, it has sold over 17 million copies worldwide, and has entertained, delighted and intrigued who knows how many millions of children and adults.
Literary manuscripts began to be collected in the eighteenth century – though in the case of Shakespeare, none of whose handwriting was known to survive, with the exception of a few signatures, all different, they had to be manufactured first by the enterprising hand of W. H. Ireland. In the 1790s, Ireland revealed to an astonished world examples of Shakespeare’s correspondence and even a hitherto unknown play, Vortigern, before the final exposure of his forgeries.
Last summer, during a trip to Canada’s maritime provinces, my husband and I went on a literary pilgrimage. After attending a wedding in Nova Scotia we drove northwards across the Confederation Bridge to Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. From the bridge we drove further north still, up to the Gulf of St Lawrence. We were looking for a settlement called Cavendish, and for a small, green-gabled farmhouse that draws visitors from all over the world.
There are few things more guaranteed to provoke a pleasurable wallow in melancholy than a ruin. For me, exiled in Brooklyn, with temperatures rising, the air-conditioner on the blink and police sirens screaming down Flatbush Avenue, reading the opening pages of Roderick Grant’s Strathalder was just the thing for an enjoyable reflection on the dust and ashes of worlds now disappeared.
I first encountered the work of Stephen Potter in a TV sketch show that conflated the great comedy quartet of his ‘Upmanship’ books: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship, published by Rupert Hart-Davis between the late Forties and late Fifties. The TV series began in 1974, when I was 12, by which time Potter had been dead for five years. Having recently discovered A. G. Macdonell’s, England, Their England, I was just learning that sustained drollery is better than a series of gags, and these programmes seemed another lesson to that effect.
Rupert Hart-Davis retired to Swaledale from the London publishing world two years before I joined it in 1965, so it was on the shelves of second-hand bookshops that his name first really registered with me. I often found myself spotting books which he had published before I could read his name on them, because in both design and production they had a distinct air of quality. And then, when I pulled them off the shelf, I often ended up buying them because they were to do with the Victorian era, a period that has always mesmerized me.
The year 2004 was what I shall call my ‘Suffolk Year’, one in which I immersed myself in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes through a workshop and performance at Covent Garden and a concert performance elsewhere. Britten is a magician. He can conjure up the sea, rivers and salt marshes of Suffolk, the battering North Sea storms and the endless blue skies that seduce you into believing the calm will endure; and the isolation too, which is one theme of the opera.
I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a ‘minor poet’, that no he didn’t mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick. My ears pricked up when I heard that. For some reason I’d never imagined Cohen sitting down and reading seventeenth-century English clergymen, but of course I was wrong.
I came late to magic. The stories of my childhood were mainly Greek myths (there was a Cyclops at the bottom of our garden) or the plots – with copious quotations – of Jane Austen’s novels, my mother, the storyteller, having a deep love for and knowledge of both. Later, with pretensions to intellectual sophistication, I had no time for kids’ stuff. So it was at a relatively advanced age that I discovered Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald, James Stephens, Masefield of The Midnight Folk, Tolkien, T. H. White. They burst upon my reading, fresh and new. Of the more modern books, the one that has gripped me most is Elidor by Alan Garner.
The verb ‘to travel’ could be parsed like this: I’m a traveller, you’re a tourist, he’s a tripper. Most of us, including me, are tourists, condemned to the soul-destroying procedures of modern journeys. Travellers don’t do the sheep-in-a-line bit, they make their own way. They hitch lifts from passing pilots or use the local bus or buy a camel. They don’t land briefly on the surface of other people’s lives but get right inside.
Sarah Caudwell is the author of some of the most gloriously entertaining comic novels written since the war, but she seems to be almost unknown in this country. My relatives and friends have not heard of her, she is not to be found in bookshops and she may well disappear from public libraries once their present copies disintegrate.
The Berlin Wall, a brutal, iconic structure made of concrete and barbed-wire, rose to split a city overnight in August 1961. Then just as quickly, and again overnight, it was breached in November 1989 when glasnost spread through eastern Europe. As an impressionable student in the Eighties, hungry for icons, not brutality, I found that the Wall cast a compelling spell. And if my grant couldn’t get me to Berlin at the time, then cultural touchstones worked instead. There was the music of David Bowie (whose albums Low and Heroes were made at the famous Hansa studios, by the Wall). There were certain fashions to follow (baggy coats and macs, surely the attire of spies). And, of course, there were books to devour, with accounts of the Wall covered by most genres. So, with twenty years approaching since that momentous breach, what would I read again to mark the event?
Last year I was invited to join a friend’s book group. I plodded through the book they’d chosen that week – a particularly ghastly and badly written effort by some minor celebrity – and naturally expressed my distaste at their meeting. Why had they chosen such rubbish? I thought book groups were meant to stretch the mind. And so they suggested, as I thought myself so clever, that I should choose their next book.
This morning, in the woods on Tooting Common, the sight of a young man plucking nettles and dropping them into a forage bag instantly reconnected me to my earlier life where ‘found food’ was a regular treat: wild parsnips, raspberries, blaeberries, angelica stems or water mint. Back in the 1970s, in my anti-consumerist hippy days, my home was sometimes an old Bedford van. Crammed with partner, three children, scruffy dog, cooking equipment, mattresses and quilts, this arthritic dragon – belching out smoke and small metal parts – transported us up and down the country lanes of Britain and Ireland. We enjoyed impromptu alfresco meals often gathered, picked or dug up from woods and field corners at dusk. ‘Dusking’ Richard Mabey calls it.
In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.
I knew what I wanted, and I went to Havana to find it. It was the university summer holidays. England was one long yawn, with its slow drizzle and its Third Way, the flat vowels of its politicians and their deadly practical aspirations of stability and prosperity. I’d spent two years sitting in the library reading about faraway, long-ago revolutions, grinding my teeth at the dullness of my life. I sat there absorbing other people’s pontifications so I could go off and pontificate myself, so I could order and organize a world I hadn’t yet really discovered. I wanted to find a place where people were actually living, where they were sweating and dancing and dying and having sex; a place, in fact, like that in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.
I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus. We had commissioned him to write what turned out to be The Missing Will, the first volume of his autobiography, and every now and then I would meet him for a drink in the King and Keys, a narrow, smoke-filled pub next to the old Telegraph building in Fleet Street. It was usually half-empty when I went there during lunch breaks that continued well into the afternoon, but in the evenings, Michael told me, it was crammed to overflowing with his colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, red-faced and sweating and jostling for a place at the bar.
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, a friend was billeted at the top of the tall college gatehouse. The stairs to her room were so many that, in case of fire, a long rope, bolted to the wall and ending in a noose, was thoughtfully provided for descent to the street below. With no intercom at ground level, a social call became a real test of friendship. But why did I take the stairs when I could have been shinning up the stonework?
Readers of the published letters between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis are like members of a club to which access is provided by introduction. My own introduction came in Delhi from my Indian dentist, one of the best-read men I have met (and the only dentist of mine who has offered coffee after a session of treatment).
Once in a blue moon an encounter with a new book can be like falling in love – you just know, instinctively, that you’ve found a voice that’s entirely sympathetic, and that you want to spend the rest of your life with it – or at close quarters, at least. Housekeeping had that effect on me: I remember the distant rumbles of acclaim when it first came out in 1980 and was nominated for the Pulitzer among its raft of other awards, but I didn’t catch up with it myself until last year, and I read it with a sense of wonder.
My great-aunt Maud was a maiden lady. Young men were in short supply when she grew up, unconscionable numbers of them having been killed in the First World War. My grandmother hinted indeed that there had once been a curate vaguely in the offing; if so, nothing came of it and he offed rather than offered. I have a feeling that Maud was earmarked by her mother as the daughter who would stay at home and care for her parents, and to this end was over-protected and discouraged from any adult autonomy.
Transport yourself, dear reader, to the British urban landscape of Larkin’s mythical moment, ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. You are young, educated, ambitious, and have moved, alone, to a big city – London, even – eager for the experiences and opportunities your newly acquired adult status and independence dangle tantalizingly before you. Yet as you grapple with the baffling new exigencies of the lowest rungs of the career ladder, you also find yourself lodged in the lowliest form of metropolitan habitation: the bedsitter. You long for excitement and sophistication, but your life looks, feels and very probably smells like a cross between Lucky Jim and The L-Shaped Room.
Readers take something of a risk if they go back to a book they have much enjoyed but not picked up for thirty or forty years. As a bookseller, I was constantly reminded of such favourites because I could recommend them to friends, either new or second-hand. During that period John Meade Falkner’s novel The Nebuly Coat spent several years out of print but it appealed to small imprints as a reprint, and a reappearance was always welcomed. I probably read it for the first time in the admirable World’s Classics edition. Only in the last few weeks, inspired by my rereading, have I reminded myself about Falkner himself in the judicious introduction by G. M. Young and the personal note contributed by Sir Edmund Craster, a close friend from Northumberland.
A lot of rubbish has been written about music over the years, which is not surprising – it is a very difficult thing to write well about. Conveying the emotions that music can produce is a task probably beyond the reach of even the English language. This can make listening to music one loves a lonely business. Often, having been enraptured by some new CD, I’ve manically called friends and urged them, with varying levels of inarticulacy, to share the experience: ‘You’ve got to hear this song! It’s like, so, um, amazing . . . it’s got this singer . . . there’s this astonishing drum solo . . .’ The attempt always ends in failure, the phone receiver pressed against the speaker, my friend’s non-committal response usually a reluctant ‘Um, sounds great.’ This is why it is so rare – and so heart-warming – to read a book like Giles Smith’s Lost in Music, which conveys what it means to live and love pop music with such warmth and accuracy.
It’s been hard to avoid the Mitfords recently. A collected edition of the letters of Jessica (‘Decca’) was published in 2006. The following year another collection, this time of the letters exchanged between all six sisters, appeared. And this autumn we’ve been treated to the correspondence between the youngest sister, Debo, now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.
I have twice abandoned my attempt to write this. The first time happened when I reread Nigel Balchin’s novel, Darkness Falls from the Air, which I had admired to distraction many years ago, partly because I so loved the poem from which the title is taken (Thomas Nashe, ‘In Time of Pestilence’), partly because it seemed to me a brilliant account of what it must have been like to be in London when it was being bombed during the Second World War. This time round, however, I noticed the extent to which the novel is bedevilled with occasional but regular anti-Semitic remarks of a kind which become even more horrible when one remembers it was published in 1942. Although I tried to pretend to myself that the problem was not systemic but merely cosmetic, after a while I decided my excuse wouldn’t wash any more. This is a poison which infects the whole novel, not just the parts.
I thought I could never feel fond of Charing Cross Road. In 1988, when I was 23, I spent the most miserable three months of my life there. In one fell swoop, I had lost my fiancé, my flat and my job. (In a panic, as university came to an end, I had started my working life as a graduate trainee in a City bank. It was not a good move.) Facing what felt like a futureless future, I signed up for a ‘Sight and Sound’ typing course on the bleak first floor of a building next to the Garrick Theatre. Secretarial instruction was delivered over headphones to classrooms full of women, and, as I tried to follow the disembodied tutorials, my fingers kept slipping and jamming between the keys of a hefty, black manual typewriter. As I emerged at lunch-time, and wandered towards Soho Square to eat a sandwich, surrounded by shoals of down-and-outs and drunks, I kept thinking of that line from The Waste Land: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.
Most people have an image of a typical Yorkshireman. These days that image might be corrupted by non-standard, media-influenced examples such as Geoffrey Boycott or Michael Parkinson. But not so long ago, it would have resembled Sam Small.
I am reluctantly succumbing to the charms of the British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson. For years I resisted: I had no interest in Top Gear, his high-octane programme for dim-wit motorists. I liked neither his in-your-face screen personality nor his studiously non-PC newspaper columns. Added to that, I had to suffer the ignominy of having my partner, who is normally quite discerning, make a point of regularly watching him and telling me that she found him funny.
The second half of the seventeenth century in England saw an efflorescence of diaries and memoirs, kinds of writing hardly seen before, but there was a delay of a century and a half before these writings got into print. The Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by his wife Lucy led the field, appearing in 1806, and telling how he held Nottingham Castle for Parliament. Most of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives were first published in 1813, and John Evelyn’s Diary in 1818. This attracted far more attention than the first two and was the stimulus needed to get Pepys’s diary off the shelves of his library which he had left to his old Cambridge college, Magdalene. The Master lent a volume of it to his uncle, the bibliophile Thomas Grenville, who passed it on to his brother William, he who had been Prime Minister at the head of the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ in 1806–7.
New York in the 1930s, and a new term is starting at the Night Preparatory School for Adults (‘English – Americanization – Civics – Preparation for Naturalization’). The long-suffering Mr Parkhill is confronting the first piece of written work given in by his class, the beginners’ grade – an exercise entitled ‘Fifteen Common Nouns and Their Plural Forms’
Last January, I had a major operation. For solace, I took into hospital the Winter issue of Slightly Foxed. A kind friend brought in the New Yorker. Then, about day four or five (not brilliant), came a package. It contained a beautiful card and a worn little book: Hare Joins the Home Guard by Alison Uttley. The card had an instruction: ‘If energy is short please just refer to the marked page for an image to cheer the spirits.’ I referred, and felt a smile spread through me. Here was an underground nursery, lit by glow-worms, where all the small animals of the wood might take shelter as the dreadful weasels went on the warpath. Here were Fuzzypeg the hedgehog and Moldy Warp the mole, gazing at ‘grass hammocks and little wool-lined cots and cradles which Grey Rabbit had made’. ‘You shall take charge of the young ones,’ said Moldy Warp kindly. ‘You shall put them to bed and tell them tales.’ But Fuzzypeg was having none of this. ‘No thank you! I’m going to fight.’
Many years ago I asked Eric Ambler whether he deliberately travelled in search of material. The answer was an emphatic No: ‘If you go looking, you don’t really see. That’s why I never carry a camera – you can’t see things properly through a lens.’ For Ambler, the most lasting impressions were those recorded obliquely. He quoted approvingly Max Beerbohm on Beau Brummell: ‘He looked life squarely in the face out of the corners of both eyes.’
There are three good reasons for taking take Jim [James] Lees-Milne to one’s heart. First there’s his work for the fledgling National Trust. When he joined it before the War, the Trust employed just four people, in a dowdy office in Victoria, and was concerned almost exclusively with countryside and coastline. He was one of the first to see that the country houses of England and Wales needed to be saved just as much as the scenery. They were ‘fragile and transient’ in themselves, and a burden to an aristocracy on the wane, but these houses constituted an art form probably unique in the world and he was passionate about them.
When I was about 12 my father gave me the Penguin collection, Comic and Curious Verse, selected by J. M. Cohen and priced three shillings and sixpence. Being a rather over-heated adolescent I was immediately enchanted by a short verse by Gavin Ewart:
Miss Twye was soaping her breasts in the bath
When she heard behind her a meaning laugh
And to her amazement she discovered
A wicked man in the bathroom cupboard.
There is a long shelf in our house with 66 books on it. Nothing unusual about that. But every one of these books has a powerful story to tell. Every one contains a memory. They speak to me on those evenings when I relax in a comfortable chair, with music playing in the background, and think back over the past forty years.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had her first glimpse of Florida in March 1928, aboard a steamer at the mouth of the St Johns River. It was love at first sight, which really can happen with people and places. I’ve had a similar rush of amazed delight about particular landscapes myself: it feels like the surprise of connection, or perhaps of recognition. Whatever you want to call it, it exists. Florida still charms many people, of course, including me, although what tourists now enjoy in Miami, Orlando or Key West bears no relation to the wonders that entranced Mrs Rawlings eighty years ago. She saw an alien, tropical, untamed land lit by an impossibly clear wide sky and knew that she could find what she needed there; knew that she could write there, as she passionately wanted to do. It was, as they say, a defining moment.
Back in pre-WAG days, when teenaged girls’ fantasies could be expressed by the song, ‘Some day my prince will come’, I read and reread the perfect wish-fulfilment tale. Annemarie Selinko’s Désirée is a historical novel told in diary form by its eponymous heroine, Désirée Clary. She begins writing in 1794 when she is 15. It is five years since the Revolution, and the guillotine is in daily use all over France.
Back in the Seventies I fell under the spell of farming. On those long, lonely agricultural nights I would pore for entertainment over weed identification charts, tractor maintenance manuals and George Henderson’s The Farming Ladder (1944). Recently I decided to read the latter again, to see how both Henderson and I had fared in the intervening years.
Deep in the archives of the municipal Treasure House in Beverley lies a cloth-bound volume of handwritten diaries, the work of Robert Sharp, schoolmaster, village constable, shopkeeper and tax-collector, who chronicled the daily round and common tasks about him in the east Yorkshire village of South Cave from 1812 to 1837.
Anyone who has given the British Museum’s Sainsbury Gallery of African Art anything more than a very brief visit (in and out to gawk at the Benin bronzes) will surely have admired the extent to which the curators have attempted, through a series of short films on loop, to show how some of the artefacts on display have been used – and the lives they continue, in many cases, to lead in West and Central Africa in particular. Viewers can learn about pottery, bronze casting, the rivalries between asafo banner-bearing Fante youth companies in Ghana and, most memorably for me, about the extraordinary masquerades performed by secret societies.
When I was 18 my heart was broken for the first time, by a boy so wonderful that even my mother loved him. Only one thing stopped me crying and blotted out the pain and the thought of Him – reading easy crime novels. I read every single available Maigret. Although it was the early Sixties, a Maigret was my only drug. The effect didn’t last long, but I could barely live without the next one.
‘Eccentricity’, wrote Edith Sitwell, ‘exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.’ Ah, those were the days. And just in case this unfashionable declaration of tribal perfection fails to establish Dame Edith’s unabashed élitism, she adds: ‘Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.’
If you feel troubled by society’s fixation on producing more and more stuff regardless of whether we need it, then The Affluent Society may offer some comfort. If you also labour in a dull job that does little for you other than pay the bills, this book offers some hope, albeit distant. And if you wonder why poverty persists and why the debt culture gripped us to choking point, and worry that we haven’t yet broken its hold, then read on.
Time is linear. One thing happens, then another, then another. But while time itself may be linear, our memory of it is not. Of course we can order our memories in a linear, sort-by-date, fashion, but we can also sort by importance, by emotion and even (speaking as someone who grew up in the 1970s) by dodgy haircut. And since you are reading a literary magazine you, like me, can probably sort your memories by books – you can pick a book from your bookshelves, start to browse, and be magically transported not only to the world within the book, but also to the world you were living in when you first read it.
In 1960, when motoring for the masses was still in its infancy, I was a car-besotted 10-year-old. I liked the hand-smoothed gloss of fine coachwork, the rough heat of a flint-spiked tyre, and even the eye-smarting chemicals of cheap uncured plastic dashboards. I liked everything about them. I liked everything about the people who liked them.
On a motorbike ride across southern Italy in the Sixties, I stopped at an outdoor café in a hilltop village somewhere in the middle of Basilicata. A group of men and boys gathered a few yards away and, with that unnerving look of blank curiosity and suppressed hostility which you sometimes encounter in peasant areas, watched in silence while I drank my coffee. My discomfort ended only when they turned to inspect the much more interesting English motorcycle, a big old 350cc BSA. One of the boys mumbled a comment, and the ice was broken.
Though I’ve long been familiar with Ted Walker’s poems, until recently I had not read The High Path, his wonderful memoir of childhood. I came to it not only with the curiosity of a fellow poet, but also as one having newly completed a memoir of my own. For a writer, the recall of childhood runs an assortment of risks – the editing effected by forgetfulness or by self-censorship; the distortions brought about by nostalgia or over-simplification; the assumption that the particulars of family history will axiomatically be of interest to the reader. Yet the best memoirs – and Ted Walker’s is surely among them – carry a potent charge, not only conveying the sensuous quick of childhood, but avoiding pure solipsism by acting as triggers for the reader’s own memories.
Israel Simmons was not a tall man. Although I was still at school when I was first introduced to him by my father (and, like my father, I have never achieved more than medium height), my recollection is that he seemed to be looking up, with a slightly surprised expression. Perhaps he was wondering if, like my father, I would be a regular buyer of books in his shop on Fleet Street. Perhaps he was just wondering at the many and varied types to be found on Fleet Street back in the 1960s.
Shortly after I began teaching on the creative writing programme at Middlesex University, Shena Mackay was appointed as our Honorary Visiting Professor. Her inaugural lecture in 2001 was titled A Horror of Sunsets: The Writer’s Palette and the Enemies of the Imagination. This referred to a line from Proust: ‘I have a horror of sunsets: they’re so romantic, so operatic.’ I’ve never got on with opera myself, not being able to let the music sweep me past the banality of the plots, but I knew at once I would get on with Shena Mackay. Her subject was synaesthesia, a condition from which she suffers, if ‘suffers’ is the right word. I suspect not – ‘inhabits’, perhaps. In her case, it means seeing words or individual letters in colours.
Snobbery never pays. Certainly not in relation to books: not even in relation to their mere appearance. Have you ever, like me, sneered at those identikit sets of ‘great works’ bound in imitation leather, complete with elaborate mock-gilt lettering? And even so does your household, like this one, contain at least one such set, given by a relative who sweetly and sadly thought it the perfect gift for people who read a lot? And is that set, like ours, hidden on the bottom shelf of the least conspicuous bookcase in the most distant spare bedroom?
As a young reporter in the 1970s I travelled in what the Romans called Arabia Felix – through the Gulf sheikhdoms and emirates, into Muscat and down to the southern tip of the peninsula. I saw Dubai when it was still largely a fishing port where the pearl divers set sail in their dhows: in Kuwait, I spent an afternoon with Mrs Dickson, the widow of the last British political officer in the Gulf, in her traditional Arab house down in the old harbour. In Saudi Arabia I camped under the stars with some Bedouin on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, that stretch of a million square miles of desert which fills the bottom half of Arabia. Needless to say I was soon addicted and more trips followed. With the arrogance of the young journalist I imagined myself an Arabist and began to read all the available books. It did not take me long to realize that as only an occasional visitor I could never make the grade.
There’s no shortage of fiction that might serve as an introduction to South Africa, as I discovered when I travelled there last October. I opted for the book that claimed to be the country’s first novel, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), some township stories by Isaac Mogotsi and A Chain of Voices, a historical novel by the modern writer André Brink. But the first thing that went into my suitcase was a book I had come across on a library shelf thirty years previously and which had remained in my mind ever since: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which uses the tale of a black parson in search of his son to illuminate the state of South African society in the mid-twentieth century.
I live in east London in a second-floor flat with no garden. My groceries come from the local corner shop and, when I feel strong enough to face it, from the hellhole of a supermarket in Whitechapel. I grow some herbs in pots on my windowsill. The sage and rosemary do quite well but the coriander, tarragon, mint and parsley remain spindly however much I coax them. I have been known to forage for elderflowers, nettles and blackberries in Victoria Park and once, while visiting Dungeness, I broke off some sea kale from the shingle to eat with the kippers I had bought from a smokery there, then quickly had to hide it on realizing from a sign that it was a plant from an area of special scientific interest and I was liable for a £3,000 fine. I ate it anyway. It was . . . interesting.
Thirty years ago, when I was in a state of nervous over-excitement about the publication of my first novel, my editor gave me a copy of Theresa de Kerpely’s Arabesque to read. Her husband had published it in the UK and they both considered it remarkable. Now, it’s always tricky when someone presses a book into your hand with a speaking look and a muttered ‘amazing . . . unputdownable’ because of the very real danger that you will either founder on page one or soldier on to the end in the face of a nigh irresistible urge to de-limescale the taps instead. It’s analogous to the moment when your lifelong best friend declares her love for the patently obnoxious bloke you’ve been warning her about – you are left wondering if you ever really knew her at all.
Instruction manuals as literature? Surely not; they belong to the category of things that drive people to extremes of fury and madness. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make follow the instructions. Slightly foxed? No, utterly befuddled. Yet there is one set of Operating Instructions that I would like to put forward as literature of a very high quality – clear, sharp, understandable, interesting and very funny.
I can recall precisely where I was when Daphnis and Chloe opened in my hands like a flower: sitting on my father’s couch, my back to the window and the sun all around. Suddenly I felt the force of a wholly new, an important idea, something I had never considered quite that way before. I closed the book and, somewhat ridiculously, looked at its cover. My Penguin edition of Daphnis and Chloe was blurbed by Goethe: ‘One would do well to read it every year, to be instructed by it again and again, and to receive anew the impression of its great beauty.’
In the early 1960s my boyhood was enlivened by the novels of John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir, 1875–1940) and Dornford Yates (1885–1960). Their ‘clubland heroes’ were clean-cut ex-soldiers who spent their hols socking swarthy Balkan jaws with relative impunity before excellent Continental train services, or fast cars, whisked them home to play croquet and smoke cigars.
From the outside it looks like a children’s book. Indeed, the dust-jacket drawing is by Charles Stewart, well known for his illustrations for Barbara Leonie Picard and Nicholas Stuart Gray. A curtain parts to reveal a humble interior – a Little Red Riding Hood figure surprises a ragged-bearded St Jerome. The saint, if he is a saint, is reading by the light of a candle; his empty dinner-plate lies on the floor beside him. Inside the book there are endpaper and other maps drawn by another Charles, Charles Green.
Alethea Hayter’s clever, innovative book of 1965 turned a searchlight on a time, a place, a circle of people; it has surely inspired the subsequent fashion for group biographies, most brilliantly exemplified by Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. Hayter’s book is short, succinct, intensely focused and cunningly structured. She moves forward day by day, homing in on each member of the cast – what they looked like, how they sounded: Elizabeth Barrett with her two thick curtains of dark ringlets and ‘the taut face of an Egyptian cat goddess’; Carlyle’s conversation – ‘a flood, a war-chant, a cavalry charge of splendid sentences’. All these people were leading social and literary figures of the time, a coterie who wined and dined almost daily – ‘breakfasts’ of six or eight, three hours of competitive wit and gossip.
There are books I admire but don’t read again and books I reread compulsively. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler falls into the latter category. It was only a recent seventh rereading that finally revealed why. It had taken me that long to hold the sum of this extraordinary novel in my head – to realize that this was a great and subtle piece of writing where every character, every phrase was a carefully chosen part of a magnificent and subtle whole. It is also, even after multiple readings, extremely funny.
The generation that survived two world wars seemed to like nothing better than to go on reading about them. Well into the 1950s bookshops in the UK awarded pride of place to covers featuring grown-ups in cap and uniform superimposed on scenes of exploding ordnance and diving aircraft. In non-fiction as in fiction ‘War’ dominated the High Street; part-works, comics, board games and films catered to the same taste. Then around 1958, possibly in reaction to the Suez débâcle, ‘War’ began beating a retreat. ‘History’, ‘Travel’ and ‘Biography’ were encroaching. Within a decade the uniforms and the bombs had been banished to subterranean stacks now entitled ‘Military’.
What sparks a lifelong love of reading? Francis Spufford, author of The Child that Books Built, and Emily Drabble of the children’s reading charity BookTrust, delve into bookshelves past and present with the Slightly Foxed Editors to understand the alchemy that ignites the spark. From books as seductive objects, the haphazardness of alphabetical organization and disappearing libraries to the joys of cover-to-cover reading and books being doorways to new worlds, the conversation reveals what a passion for reading can bring to our lives. In this month’s dip into the magazine’s archives Ysenda Maxtone Graham gives tried and tested tips for reading aloud, grappling with Tolkien pronunciations along the way, and there’s the usual round-up of recommendations for reading off the beaten track.
I first became aware of Leo Walmsley at the age of 11, when my brother introduced me to his novel Foreigners (1935), which I read with tremendous enjoyment. Surprisingly one of the boys in my brother’s class revealed that he actually knew Walmsley. He was a boarder and his home was in the Cornish town of Fowey. Walmsley, he said, lived a bohemian writer’s existence in a hut on a beach near the town. A cheap second-hand Penguin edition of Foreigners was duly taken home by my brother’s friend and came back after the school holidays signed by the author.
I have a horror of scenes. I hate rows about money and I’m in misery when an Englishman abroad goes on about bloody foreigners and turns into a bully. So there is no reason for me to love Tobias Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy; I see Smollett as the man in Reception at the holiday hotel, puffing himself up and demanding to speak to the manager. Yet the cantankerous old blighter somehow always manages to win me over.
It seemed as good a time as any to tackle what remained of my stack of Christmas books, and so, bundled in an unlikely assortment of layers, complete with babushka headscarf and mitts, I reached for a clothbound reprint of Geoffrey Pyke’s To Ruhleben – And Back.
Ivanhoe is the one novel by Sir Walter Scott that needs to be discovered twice – if, that is, you first encountered it at school, as I did. To me then the plot seemed overcomplicated, and the whole thing only vaguely interesting; but reading it afresh as an adult, it strikes me as that rare thing, a great book, albeit a flawed one. Better novels of Scott’s such as Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are no longer household names. Yet Ivanhoe lives on in the national consciousness for, clumsy as it sometimes is, it strikes a powerful chord, being a morality tale about the English vice of hypocrisy.
A few years ago I was still managing to keep my mother – elderly and frail – living in her own home, which was what she wanted. But she had a collection of medical problems any one of which could flare up into a crisis without notice. Every now and again, I would get a call from one of her carers telling me that her GP had called an ambulance. I would then rush to the hospital to ensure she was properly attended to and to give her comfort. Deep down I was worried that she would never be able to return home again but instead would be cooped up in hospital or a nursing home for the rest of her life.
In this period of acute anxiety I had two sources of comfort. One, naturally, was my family. The other – and I’m afraid this will seem a dreadful moment of bathos – was The Clicking of Cuthbert, a book of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse.
A friend recently urged me to read Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled – not for the account of a supremely successful academic career in the second half of the twentieth century, nor for insights into the making of a renowned literary critic, but for the account of his naval service. Kermode, I was told, had joined up in 1940. Isolated among madmen engaged on futile, conspicuously wasteful projects in Scotland and Iceland, his war experiences were a small, entertaining testimony to the ludicrousness of war.
In 1973, my wife and I left a flat in St John’s Wood for a decrepit 5-acre smallholding in West Wales. There we continued, in cheerful penury, for the next twelve years. ‘Back in the days’, as we survivors of the Sixties like to say, self-sufficiency was the watchword, and the guru of that era’s back-to-the-landers was John Seymour (See SF No. 26, p.62). His contention, that a free and modestly prosperous peasantry is the best basis for a strong and stable society, was powerfully made by his writings and example, and remains, I believe, valid today. But equally appealing to many latter-day voluntary peasants was an earlier and very different prophet of self-sufficiency: Henry David Thoreau.
Robert Loraine was a magnificent man in a flying machine. I first encountered his story in an Anglesey meadow where he had two of his many crashes. Soon afterwards I chanced on a biography of him in a second-hand bookshop. Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman was as wrecked as one of his flimsy aircraft. A restorer made it shelfworthy so that from time to time I can marvel at Loraine’s reckless courage. As a distinguished actor he had played d’Artagnan on the London stage and he seemed to stay in character when he swapped sword for joystick. ‘He had the soul of a poet,’ Jules Védrines, his French mechanic, observed, ‘and a poet does not make a reliable pilot.’
Wallace Breem is one of those authors who, if he is remembered at all, is probably known only for his first novel, Eagle in the Snow, which received high praise and achieved excellent sales on its first publication in 1970. Sadly, Breem’s next two novels were largely ignored by the critics and the public. Their comparative failure and the pressure of his job dissuaded him from writing a fourth, although he did contemplate one on the disaster that befell Quintilius Varus and his legions in the Teutoburgerwald forest in AD 7; but by the time of his premature death in 1990 he had only produced some notes for a preliminary draft.
Long ago, as a student, I was told to read the letters of Madame de Sévigné to get a better understanding of seventeenth-century French history. Now that exams are far behind me, I wonder how many other students also went to a library, discovered fourteen volumes of correspondence written in French, and decided to postpone this encounter. But many years later I read a few of the letters in translation and, being an enthusiastic letter-writer myself, felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. Mme de Sévigné’s letters struck me as refreshingly frank and entertaining, and I loved her pleasure in one-sided conversations and her constant longing for replies. Like all the best correspondents she knows how to make you her confidante. You only have to read about ‘Mme Paul, who has gone quite off her head and has fallen in love with a great oaf of 25 or 26 whom she has taken on to do the garden,’ to want to read on.
In strict taxonomic terms, Roger Longrigg’s long career – he published novels for over half his seven decades on the planet – looks like a throw-back, a reversion to the high-output conditions of the inter-war era when, as Alec Waugh once put it, ‘a book a year was the rule’. Certainly a professional bibliographer called in to reckon up his prodigious output would hardly know where to start. To begin with there are the dozen novels written in the ’50s and ’60s under his own name – gamey and somewhat louche affairs, including the horse-racing caper Daughters of Mulberry (1961). Then there are the psychological thrillers from the 1980s, most notably Mother Love (1983), under the alias ‘Domini Taylor’.
Hans Zinsser is stalking a murderer. His quarry has terrified hapless victims for centuries, coming upon them suddenly, by stealth, with overwhelming power and agility, sending whole cities into panic, pushing empires to the edge of extinction, then vanishing, only to reappear thousands of miles away. Dr Zinsser’s story is not an ephemeral romance of vampire kitsch but a true tale of blood lust, life and death. Dr Zinsser is a bacteriologist. The murderer he hunts is typhus, an adversary he respects as Holmes respected Moriarty. So deep runs his feeling that after decades of struggle, he comes to love it ‘as Amy Lowell loved Keats’, and even to write its biography. His life is so intertwined with that of his enemy that his ‘biography of a bacillus’, Rats, Lice and History, may be read as a long and entertaining digression from his incomparable memoir, As I Remember Him: A Biography of RS, which he disguised as a third-person narrative, the RS of the title being his own Romantic Self.
I came across the book quite by chance one bitterly cold February day in the early Eighties, in a junk shop in the Brontë village of Haworth. It was a tatty copy of The Drums of Morning by Rupert Croft-Cooke, without a dust-jacket and bearing the faded sticker of the Boots Lending Library – and it launched my fascination with a writer unjustly neglected during his lifetime and now, sadly, almost forgotten.
It was on just such a holiday that I came to read Ivy Compton- Burnett’s Pastors and Masters and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man in quick succession. And since one is the predecessor of the campus novel and the other a seminal example of the genre, inevitably I started comparing. Compton-Burnett I’d been meaning to read for a while. But Bradbury had already been written off somewhere in my head. I’d enjoyed his criticism. Probably because of vague memories of snatched glimpses of the TV version, I’d pigeonholed The History Man as shallow and chauvinistic.
Some years ago I found myself acting as Her Majesty’s Permanent Representative to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP), a United Nations talking-shop based in Bangkok. There always seemed to be a gap in the ‘M’ section of the semicircle of delegates’ seats in the auditorium where we met each month. One day my colleagues and I whiled away a particularly tedious session by inventing a name for an imaginary country which might one day claim those seats – the People’s Republic of Moribundia.
One of the great advantages of running an auction house for books is that you see a vast range of publications. And if you’ve been a publisher for many years before you became an auctioneer, you frequently wonder what on earth possessed publishers of earlier generations to select some of the incredible rubbish that saw the light of day. But you do find the odd unknown pearl among the dross. I happened to be interested in the short story, and after the First World War collections of these were published in large numbers. Among them a name, a strange name, figured fairly frequently – that of H. A. Manhood. His own story is interesting.
‘I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live again the follies and sentimentalities and exaggerations of the distant time, and to feel them, as I felt them then, without irony,’ wrote Graham Greene in the foreword to his memoir of his early years. And for an admirer like myself, A Sort of Life, written with the transparent simplicity that makes his prose so intensely his own, is seminal in understanding the early experiences that shaped Greene’s character and writing.
I love Acknowledgements. They are the Pearl & Dean moment before the main feature at the cinema, like taking time to admire the colour of the wine before the first sip, like standing on the diving board and admiring the scenery before you take the plunge. You can linger over the author’s courtesies just to put off the expected pleasures of the book.
‘My head’, John Aubrey once said, ‘was always working, never idle, and even travelling did glean some observations, some whereof are to be valued.’
No doubt at all about that, even if, as he admitted, he ‘set things down tumultuarily, as if tumbled out of a Sack’. Indeed, his lack of discipline is perhaps the chief reason why the collection of his biographical notes, known as Brief Lives, survives as one of the most delightful of all books about life in seventeenth-century England and the personalities who lived it.
When I was 7, I was given The Tree that Sat Down and The Stream that Stood Still, published as companion volumes in an abridged edition and written by Beverley Nichols. Apart from a strange dedication on the flyleaf, there were no clues about the author, no dust-jacket with photograph and potted biography. As a result, for years I assumed that Beverley Nichols, like Evelyn Waugh, was a lady novelist, having seen their names beside those of Marie Corelli, Mary Webb, Clemence Dane and Lady Fortescue on the bookshelves of my grandmother and her contemporaries. This entirely plausible belief lasted until A levels, when Evelyn’s true identity was unmasked in a set text. Beverley too, I now knew, was also male and the author of archly titled books on houses and gardens. But that was all.
When Molly Keane’s best-known novel, Good Behaviour (1981), was pipped to the Booker Prize post by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children she did not much mind. She was ‘ecstatic’ over its success, calling it ‘too extraordinary’. But this extravagant tone was neither archness nor Mitfordian flippancy (although, appropriate to her upbringing, she exhibited a strong, unsnobbish belief in the value of taste). She meant it. Molly Keane (1904–96) never considered herself a writer: ‘It’s all a great surprise to me – if you were to give me some old book of mine I’d read it with great surprise as though I had no connection with it at all.’
When Jenny Swann’s mother died and left her a little money, she wanted to do something with it that her intelligent, well-read mother would have liked. So she started publishing poetry – not large chunks of it between traditional hard covers, but poetry in small, tempting, bite-size helpings, attractive to those who already love poetry, and easily digestible by those who don’t normally read it. The latter were the people she particularly wanted to reach. She hoped that discovering a poem they enjoyed might tickle their taste buds and lead them on to more of the poet’s work.
Nicolson’s instinctive love of his islands only grew with time, and he bequeathed them to his son Adam as a twenty-first birthday present. Sea Room is Adam’s own love letter to the Shiants, written after more than two decades of growing intimacy with these stark, indifferent rocks, as he prepares to hand them on in turn to his own son Tom, just coming of age. This is no romantic evocation of a Rousseau-like idyll, but a raw appraisal of a place of infinite riches yet grinding poverty, of songs and stories, strife and struggle – yet his account is imbued with such passion that it left me almost feeling homesick for somewhere I’m unlikely ever to visit.
‘Call this poetry!’ I said indignantly (it wasn’t the first time I was found too solemn, early in life). Years later I discovered that around the time I was delivering that judgement, Betjeman’s Collected Poems was selling a thousand copies a day – third on the bestseller list. (‘What ho!’ its jubilant publisher Jock Murray is said to have exclaimed, ‘I never remember such a dance since we published Byron’s Childe Harold in 1812.’)
I first encountered Tété-Michel Kpomassie in a tent on top of the Greenland ice cap. The temperature was minus 30, and I had burrowed into my sleeping bag to read in the small pool of light cast by a miner’s lamp strapped to my forehead. Every so often, like a soft-shelled crab, I poked my head from the bag to take a gulp of air. The tent was brightly lit by the midnight sun, the shimmering sky outside the plastic pane the fabled Arctic blue. But it was impossible to read without being sealed into the bag. One’s fingers froze, otherwise, while turning the pages.
Like so many cats that arrive on a doorstep and choose their owner, Le Chat du rabbin found me. I can’t explain why I was loitering in the bandes dessinées section of a students’ bookshop on the boulevard St Michel – maybe it was raining outside. I picked up Le Chat du rabbin and that was it: the coup de foudre. Only after a patrolling bookshop assistant tapped me on the shoulder some time later did I snap out of the Jewish quarter of Algiers nearly a century ago, where a talking cat lives with a rabbi and his daughter.
In 1936 my father designed the house in which I grew up in the Fifties. I would like to say that it was a textbook example of Thirties Modernism, like a small-scale model of an ocean liner in dry dock, with sinuous white curving walls punctuated by Crittall metal windows, and a flat roof – that signifier of all that was modern (or ‘moderne’ in house-speak). The inside white à la Syrie Maugham, with minimalist pale plywood furniture, maybe a Marion Dorn cubist-design rug on the herringbone parquet floor, smudgy John Piper textiles hung at the windows. A regular ‘machine for living’, form elegantly following function. Only it wasn’t.
When I began my under-age drinking in the early 1960s this rite of passage took place in pubs that were, in many respects, different from those of today. And it is not just the pubs themselves that have changed – the drinks then on offer have now, in some cases, almost vanished. My initiation, as it turned out, took place during a pivotal decade in the history of the pub.
Maurice Baring – who was my godfather – once had a dream. He crossed the Styx, and there on the other side was, as he put it, ‘a Customs House, and an official who had, inscribed in golden letters on his cap, Chemins de fer de l’Enfer, who said to me “Have you anything to declare?” And he handed me a printed list on which, instead of wine, spirits, tobacco, silk, lace, etc., there was printed Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Scandinavian, Chinese, Arabic and Persian, and it was explained to me that this list referred to the literary baggage I had travelled with during my life.’ Have You Anything to Declare? was the title he gave to the best anthology of poetry and prose I know. For the past half-century I have bought any copy I see in a second-hand bookshop to give as a present. During that time at least a dozen must have passed through my hands.
On a summer afternoon fifteen years ago, I went to hear Jane Gardam at the South Bank Centre. She does not often appear in public, indeed she has been withering in her fiction about the idea of an author meeting her readers. ‘It must be like discussing your marriage with strangers,’ thinks Betty in Old Filth (2004), and there is a devastating portrait of the perils of authorship in The Queen of the Tambourine (1991).
A favourite photograph of one of my grandsons shows him astride his rocking-horse, wearing one of my old hats, a rifle and a pistol in his tiny hands and the reins between his teeth – a miniature copy of John Wayne in the iconic scene from True Grit, in which he challenges the outlaws to draw their guns and face him. As soon as I saw it, I realized I had infected him with my lifelong obsession with Westerns, on screen and on the page. I thought: ‘If that child says “Fill yore hands you sonsabitches” I’m in trouble.’
As a child I was always reassured by books which contained maps. The Hobbit, Treasure Island, Prince Caspian – their neatly drawn coastlines, mountains and compass points were promises of worlds imagined so fully that the reader could, should he wish, leave the story behind and strike out across country on his own.
Faced with the prospect of moving into a new eco-house at the bottom of our garden I have begun to realize that I must downsize my library – which is what I like to call it: a collection of many books would be more accurate. But the name doesn’t matter: the sheer number of books is the problem. I can’t resist adding to them, even though, as I am now in my late 70s, I shall never have the time to read them all; yet the thought of having to live without them is unbearable.
We come to war from many different directions. My own experiences are probably similar to those of some Slightly Foxed readers: a father who survived, just, serving in the trenches in the Great War (which he never talked about); an older brother who served in North Africa and Italy in the Second World War (which he hardly ever talked about); and childhood memories of men filling sandbags, of crouching in the cellar during air-raids, of the blackout and rationing, and the night we thought Hitler had landed in our small Worcestershire town, like something out of Dad’s Army.
A lyrical hymn to the irrecoverable past, Robin Fedden’s memoir Chantemesle takes its title from the house in which he grew up, itself named after a tiny hamlet in the Île de France. Over the years, Chantemesle has been haunted by a succession of artists. It rises above a silver bend in the Seine, its back pressed against vast, grotesque outcrops of chalk scars wrapped in scrub, created by eruptions of the last Ice Age.
In the age of the common man, said Malcolm Muggeridge, we all want to be uncommon, and they don’t come more uncommon than Gore Vidal, a writer for whom the term sui generis might have been coined. Quickened by a sense of mischief and a sense of justice, Vidal has been a thorn in the side of the American Establishment for more than sixty years. Pithy, trenchant, a lifelong enemy of cant, he is the embodiment, over there, of what Sir Maurice Bowra called the Immoral Front – subversives whose aim is to question everything and respect nothing.
Among the jumble of postcards, newspaper clippings, maps and to-do lists that cram the walls around my desk is a school photograph. The occasion was the annual fair at which a group of us had commandeered the brightly coloured parachute used for junior school games. The photograph shows four girls – my friend Tanya, in white prefect’s blazer and sash; two of our younger protégées, all drooping knee socks and jauntily loosened school ties; and a child of 6 or 7 fresh from a visit to the face-painting stall – huddled together on the grass beneath the billowing parachute in the moments before the tent collapsed around our shoulders. I don’t remember the seconds after the shutter snapped (I was the one taking the picture) but the image records a golden period, at once bittersweet, anxious and exhilarating, in the weeks before Tanya and I left school for good.
My erratic education included one year at a technical college, before it was agreed I leave on the grounds that I was incorrigibly idle. It was 1964, I was 16 and after three suffocating years at a previous school I was not going to waste my time and new freedom by studying A levels when I could do more exciting things, such as being thrown out of pubs for drinking weak beer under age. But although student and college were glad to see the back of each other, I had one regret – no more English lectures with genial Mr Butler, the single teacher for whom my rigid code of sloth made an exception.
Until my early twenties, I had never really thought about Darwin. I was halfway through a doctorate in biology by then, so in retrospect this seems like a glaring omission. Naturally, I had thought about Darwinism – or more accurately, I simply knew about it. Darwinism was at the centre of a scientific ‘theory of everything’ instilled early on by my parents, both professional biologists. There were very few childish ‘why’s’ in our household that couldn’t be answered by either Darwin or Newton. Laws of nature stood in for any conventional religion, with perhaps the advantage that they didn’t seem irrational or intrusive, so as I grew up, I never felt moved to reject them. Such was the happy upbringing that could produce a student of biology who had never given a serious second thought to what has been called ‘the greatest single idea in the history of thought’: that living species are not God-given and immutable but are capable of changing and evolving under the pressure of natural selection.
For a year or two in the Sixties, I would regularly stop off on my way home at the W. H. Smith by Earls Court station. Catering for so many well placed commuters, it was a reliable showcase of current literary taste while tending to skimp slightly on the Barbara Cartland end of the market. In 1968 they gave a decent showing to The Naked Civil Servant by local reprobate Quentin Crisp; but that was nothing compared with the previous year’s razzmatazz display of Adam Diment’s much-hyped first book, The Dolly Dolly Spy.
‘To tell the truth,’ wrote Augustus Hare, ‘had my books not been published, had The Story of My Life, and Memorials of a Quiet Life never seen the light of day, I should have missed even the most abusive things people say. One critic wrote, “What is Augustus Hare? He is neither anybody nor nobody, neither male nor female. Mr Hare’s paragraphs plump like drops of concentrated venom on the printed page.”’
In a writing life stretching over thirty years, Michael G. Coney wrote nineteen science fiction novels and a single collection of short stories. Although his novels combined accessibility with fine storytelling and superb characterization, they never reached the audience they deserved. Since his death in 2005, other than the publication of two novels in small press limited editions, his work has remained out of print in Britain.
I’m still impressed by rainbows, and this despite knowing about light, and refraction, and the unlikelihood of the existence of pots of gold. I see a rainbow and my heart soars. And for me, if a rainbow ever fell to earth and became a book it would be The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster. It is a thing of light, and wonder, and beauty.
When Slightly Foxed was young, only a few issues old in fact, the writer Christopher Hawtree came to us with the story of P. Y. Betts and her childhood memoir People Who Say Goodbye. We loved the book, and a piece about it by Christopher appeared in Issue 7. Now, several years later, we’re delighted to have the chance to issue People Who Say Goodbye as a Slightly Foxed Edition.
Like many 15-year-olds I dreamt of understanding myself better. I knew my background was ‘bourgeois’ and thought I was probably gay. Did this mean that I ‘fitted in’? Or not? My English master lent me a story by Angus Wilson called ‘Fresh Air Fiend’, and this encouraged me to read Wilson’s landmark collections The Wrong Set (1949) and Such Darling Dodos (1950). I felt attracted by his mind: he seemed to have the social world thoroughly mapped and to be writing simultaneously with an insider’s confidence and an outsider’s sharp insights. There was a certain bitterness in these stories that both attracted and disturbed me.
When she is not sugar-soaping her skirting boards or throwing scrunched paper snowballs of unsatisfactory prose, Kate Berridge is writing a biographical novel based on the life of John Ruskin.
Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’re happily penning gift messages, winding ribbons, wrestling with tape guns and hauling post bags up and down the stairs to get all of your delicious (and most welcome) gift orders out over the next few weeks. There’s still plenty of time to order subscriptions, books and goods in time for Christmas. We ship our wares all around the world.
Go forth, dear booklovers, and browse our online Readers’ Catalogue, where you’ll find our cloth-bound limited-edition hardbacks, our popular paperbacks and Plain Editions, a small collection of literary goods and our pick of titles from other publishers’ bookshelves. We do hope that it provides some interesting and unusual present solutions. Or perhaps you may be tempted to stock up on some reading for yourself.
I think it was my old friend the Evening Standard columnist Angus McGill who recommended Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly’s war diaries: Angus would have loved her unpretentious skill at conjuring up another place, another time. Published in 1994, they have the enthralling quality that Dostoevsky called ‘living life’, oﬀering you a front-row seat at the great unfolding historical drama of the Second World War. They were written on the hoof, in moments snatched at the end of long, exhausting working days when letter- writing had also to be ﬁtted in. Fifty years later she prepared them for publication and was astonished by their success.
Bound in coloured cloth, with printed endpapers and original illustrations, the Foxed Cubs make ideal presents, as stand-alone titles, or in sets. Whether you wish to venture back to Roman Britain with Rosemary Sutcliff, escape to the wild with ‘BB’, join up the dots of history with Ronald Welch, or begin to build a library for a young booklover by picking a few titles by each author (or collecting the full set at once) we have books, bundles and offers to satisfy all readers and occasions.
The white van was seen one morning to draw up in the little car park overlooking Clogher beach, a stormy inlet of the Dingle peninsula in south-west Ireland. Four men in black suits climbed out, edged down the slippery concrete steps and lined up on the beach. Then, as if responding to an invisible signal, they raised their arms in salute over the ocean, and shouted into the wind in a strange tongue.
Bleak House Books in San Po Kong, Kowloon, is one of the furthermost bookshops from our corner of Hoxton Square and we were thrilled when co-founder Albert Wan and his team of booksellers decided to give Slightly Foxed a try shortly after they opened in 2017. We’ve been shipping our wares across the seas ever since, and still delight in the fact that booklovers of Hong Kong can browse our magazine and books in person. We chatted to Albert about life in the bookshop, his favourite authors and the positive effects of providing good reading. And, to finish, there’s a round-up of recommendations from his fellow booksellers.
Abbey was born in 1927 on a family farm in the mountains of Appalachia, in western Pennsylvania, but before he was 20 he had travelled to the American south-west and fallen in love with the ‘implacable indifference’ of the red rock desert and labyrinthine canyons of ‘the four corners’, the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado converge. It would forever speak to his heart. By the 1950s he was working as a park ranger, and in 1956 he began two seasons at the Arches National Monument in south-east Utah, now a national park. He was home. It was a time of ‘pure, smug, animal satisfaction’. He began to keep a journal that would later blossom into an elegiac memoir: Desert Solitaire (1968).
Years ago, travelling in Sri Lanka, I gave my copy of Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), long out of print, to someone who had helped me, and immediately regretted it – where would I find another? Mary Lavin, once hugely admired and honoured, had been forgotten, as had almost all her work.
As yet another fearless female reporter in a flak jacket flashes on to our television screens to tell us in rapid bursts how British troops came under fire that day, I often think of the handful of women eighty or so years earlier who fought for the privilege of being in a war zone and communicating that horror to those at home.
John Reed is best known for Ten Days that Shook the World (1917), his classic account of the Bolshevik revolution. But where Ten Days rata-tat-tats like a telegram tapped out under gunfire, Insurgent Mexico slaps across a literary canvas lavish swathes of colour and furious heat and open-hearted characters and swirls them around till you can taste the dust, feel the sweat dribbling down your back and find yourself casting round for your horse, your woman and your gun.
If a case could be made that writers look like their work, then Pauline Smith would be a good example. In her girlhood and youth there was about her a refinement of feature that recalls, at a stretch, the young Audrey Hepburn. And as anyone familiar with her writing will attest, there is about Smith’s subject-matter and her use of language the hallmark of a particularly refined sensibility.
She was reading and I asked her what she was doing. After a moment’s hesitation she asked if I would like to hear the story. Of course I said yes, so she turned back to the first page and began.
Up the stairs past the coloured 1850s lithographs of British sportsmen pig-sticking in India; into the room with the campaign chest and Grandfather’s medals on top, their clasps with names like Waziristan and Chitral, and the picture of the General, his half-brother, a Mutiny hero who eventually expired of apoplexy on the parade ground at Poona. There was no escaping the Raj – witness the fact that my first job when I joined John Murray in 1972 was to superintend an update of their Handbook to India.
My father looked up from his Daily Express and said to my mother, ‘Dylan Thomas is dead.’ Why he announced this and why I took any notice and remember it now, I don’t know. I was only 8 and the name meant nothing to me. I don’t believe my father read any poetry, but back in 1953 Dylan Thomas was about as famous as a contemporary poet could be in the twentieth century.
When André Gide was asked to name his favourite novel, he dithered over the merits of Stendhal’s works before plumping for The Charterhouse of Parma. Giuseppe di Lampedusa also hesitated, inclining towards Scarlet and Black before deciding that The Charterhouse was ‘the summit of all world fiction’. As a youth, I was puzzled by these judgements but relieved later to read Lampedusa’s view that ‘the summit’ had been ‘written by an old man for old people’ and that one had ‘to be over forty before one [could] understand it’.
You must have had the experience of finding yourself so absorbed by the world conjured up in a book that you read it ever more slowly – battling the urgent desire to find out what happens next – because you can’t bear to get to the end. For me The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge is such a book. She has the gift of pulling you effortlessly into the world she has created, and leaving you bereft as well as satisfied when you arrive at the last page.
The most unorthodox branch of the American Legion, the United States’s organization of war veterans, is ‘China Post One, Shanghai – Soldiers of Fortune in Exile’. Founded in 1919, it originally met in the American Club in Shanghai until war and revolution chased it out. Today it is the only American Legion post in exile and nominally headquartered in a Communist country. The membership roster, made up of adventurers, mercenaries, CIA-paramilitary types, spooks, old China hands, and a curious mélange of pilots, includes legendary figures from the Far East.
Literary posterity is a fragile, arbitrary affair. Fashions and tastes change; the Zeitgeist moves on. For most writers little more than obscurity beckons; even for those acclaimed within their own lifetimes, temporarily sticking their heads above the parapet, oblivion is still the most natural of destinies. Only the truly, profoundly, universal survive.
Being a lover of books and beautiful things, my teenage daughter usually discovers a Persephone paperback in the contents of her Christmas stocking. Last year, it was Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski. She read it almost immediately and then, appraising it and me with shrewd enthusiasm, declared: ‘This is a very good book and you’ll love it.’ She was right on both counts.
‘Where is Patrick Spotter?’ The Japanese customer looked somewhat annoyed. She had been told that the staff of Heffers Children’s Bookshop in Cambridge were so knowledgeable that they could help with tracking down any book, even if the visitor didn’t know the title or author. We looked at each other in dismay. Was this an author we didn’t know? Then our manager appeared and courteously offered to take the lady round the shop: the first shelf they reached was Young Classics. ‘There!’ shouted the Japanese lady triumphantly. ‘Oh, Beatrix Potter!’ we smiled. She smiled; our reputation was intact and calm returned.
It is over fifty years since the death of Nevil Shute, who from 1940 to 1960 was probably the best-selling novelist in Britain. You could hardly not read Shute in those days. I devoured him voraciously (I am 68), as did my brother, friends, mother, uncles and aunts. Yet who under the age of 60 remembers him now? If he survives at all it is through reprints on the shelves of charity shops and memories of old black-and-white films culled from his best-known books: No Highway, A Town Like Alice, On the Beach.
Why wasn’t Charles Dickens knighted, assuming he wasn’t offered the honour and declined it, as some authorities believe? Would it have been because he spilled so much ink lambasting the establishment? I think not. He was too colossal a figure for that to be an obstacle, even in Victorian England. Was it – as you will discover if you read Claire Tomalin’s masterly biography The Invisible Woman – because he kept a mistress, the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan? Highly unlikely, since, as you will also discover, he handled that business with the combination of psychotic secretiveness and extreme canniness that one would expect from such a man.
One of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, ‘My Son’s Wife’, features a high-minded young aesthete named Midmore, who spends his days pondering the improvement of society. Midmore inherits a country estate from a widowed aunt, Mrs Werf, and reluctantly pays it a visit. Thumbing through the books in the library, he suddenly realizes with horror what the late Colonel Werf ’s mind must have been in its prime: for the colonel, like Kipling, was an enthusiastic reader of Surtees, the mid-Victorian hunting novelist, and Midmore is exposed to an attitude to life – sceptical, brisk, tough-minded and unsentimental – diametrically opposed to his own. ‘It was a foul world into which he peeped for the first time,’ Kipling tells us, ‘a heavy-eating, hard-drinking hell of horse-copers, swindlers, match-making mothers, economically dependent virgins selling themselves blushingly for cash and lands, Jews, tradesmen and an ill-considered spawn of Dickens and horsedung characters.’ Unable to put it down Midmore reels off to bed clutching a copy of Handley Cross, one of Surtees’s milder creations.
The dog pricked up his ears, which was surprising because so far he hadn’t seemed all that bright. Vanya and I turned to look. At the edge of the clearing a man in a white woollen suit was just visible against the snow, returning our stares and clasping a rifle. For half a minute or so nobody moved or spoke. Vanya’s gun was out of reach, leaning against a tree stump. All around us the forest gaped. Apart from the crackle of twigs we were burning to ward off frostbite, silence reigned – and all waited to see if there would be blood.
I have no idea on what my father based this and I’m sure he was genuinely trying to console, but for years afterwards I avoided novels that mixed politics and facts, particularly historical novels. Writers should just make it up, I thought. Feelings were what counted: feelings, ideas, characters and story. But then, thankfully, I was given Rose Tremain’s best-selling and Booker short-listed novel Restoration, and, plunging in against my better judgement, was immediately hooked.
It was the second-hand book-dealer Malcolm Applin, whose catalogue I find always opens doors and windows, who first introduced me to the Cockney bookseller and writer Fred Bason. Fred had been encouraged to keep a diary by James Agate who told him, ‘Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.’ It was, however, his friend and mentor, Arnold Bennett, who gave him the most valuable advice when he told the young Fred, ‘Talk it, then write it. If you say “ain’t” or “Cor, luv a duck!” then put it down just as you do in ordinary conversation. And that will be your style.’
Before this book-signing craze gets completely out of hand, we must establish some rules. After all, what may be considered correct in Waterstone’s could be frowned upon in Hatchards and be beyond the pale in Hay-on-Wye. Is it ever acceptable to ask an author to sign another author’s book? Fountain pen or ballpoint? What if the author mis-spells the recipient’s name? These are some of the questions I intend to tackle.
Anne Scott-James was one of the ‘First Ladies’ of Fleet Street, though she preferred the title ‘one of the first career girls’. Her novel In the Mink, published in 1952, is a thinly disguised portrait of her pre-war and post-war years as a journalist. Richard Boston, writing her obituary in 2009, remarked of it disapprovingly that ‘her characters are uniformly lifeless. Whatever value it may have for the fashion historian, it is scarcely readable as a novel.’ Later on he adds that she had once not only fused, but actually melted his coffee-maker. Clearly this still rankled.
Think of an Edward Hopper picture, Main Street, Anywheresville, USA, a warm summer’s evening. Geometric buildings, neat and desolate. Give them names: Northfork Drug; The Hub Men’s Clothing; First Clark National Bank; Dr J. P. Wade, Physician, Walk In. Remove Hopper’s colours, see it in black-and-white. In an open window a table-lamp illumines a man’s face. He’s the only human visible. The scene is empty, and you might be hearing utter silence if it weren’t for a huge steam locomotive dragging a freight train down the track that runs along the middle of the street. The locomotive’s as tall as a house, its headlight and its white smoke piercing the dark. No engineer, no fireman visible. A ghost train driving itself.
‘I like these old travellers,’ wrote Norman Douglas, ‘not so much for what they actually say, as for their implicit outlook on life.’ The comment comes apropos his early eighteenth-century predecessor in southern Italy, the ‘loquacious . . . restless’ Pacicchelli. Nearly a century on from the first publication of Old Calabria (1915), the equally loquacious and restless Douglas has himself become something of an old traveller.
Over twenty years ago, I started a regular weekly poker game with a group of friends who had all recently gravitated to London. We had been inspired to do this by Anthony Holden’s beguiling description of the ‘Tuesday Night Game’ in his excellent book Big Deal. Holden – then probably better known for his biographies of Laurence Olivier, the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother – describes the year he spent trying to make his way as an amateur in the world of professional poker, taking in a range of exotic locations from Morocco to Las Vegas and culminating in a creditable but ultimately failed attempt at the 1988 World Series of Poker. To men in their early twenties, with the responsibilities of family and the joys of a mortgage still ahead of them, it appeared an impossibly romantic lifestyle, and in our small way we were determined to capture some of it.
It isn’t every day that I eat pizza with a Nobel laureate. The experience was a fringe benefit of an undergraduate studentship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cluster of biological research labs perched incongruously on the coast of Long Island, New York. The institute has played host to an impressive eight Nobel laureates in the past half-century, the most famous being James Watson, who together with Francis Crick solved the structure of DNA and set molecular biology in motion. Cold Spring Harbor is, in short, a heady place for a young scientist.
It is sobering to think how literary fashions change. Deciding to read the whole oeuvre of Alice Thomas Ellis once more, I went to the excellent Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne, where not a single copy was to be found, and where the assistant asked me ‘Who was she? What did she write?’ Other second-hand bookshops proving equally fruitless, I went to the library, where the lady at the desk looked her up on the computer. ‘These are old books,’ she said. Long banished from the open shelves, the novels I requested would have to come all the way from Shoreham. A sad fate for an author who was fashionable not so very long ago. But Anna (as everyone called her) would not have minded: she was sharply aware of death throughout her life, and a period of posthumous literary quiescence would have pleased her; she, more than most authors of her time, knew in the midst of literary celebrity, that all flesh is grass.
Can you resist a Victorian novel featuring a blind heroine and identical twins, rivals for her love – one of whom turns dark blue in the course of the novel? If not, read no further, but rush off and buy Poor Miss Finch. For readers who have not yet discovered this novel, I shall try not to give too much away. Those of us who love Victorian fiction do so because it panders to our narrative greed. Résumés spoil the appetite.
An upstairs room in a north London public library. I was teaching ‘Introduction to Contemporary Poetry’ to a class of twelve adults, and we’d been going for about twenty minutes. They were all new to poetry, no one wanted to talk, and the atmosphere was sticky. I thumbed Staying Alive – real poems for unreal times, the anthology I use as a set text, and it fell open at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’. I asked if anyone would like to read it aloud. Doreen mustered her confidence, cleared her throat, and kindly volunteered.
Humour is a funny thing. Something which causes a seizure in one person will leave another inexplicably stony-faced. However, there is a small coterie for whom a certain type of humour resonates. Should you, in daylight, be passing Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, you will often find two 9-year-old boys outside, cunningly disguised as a grey haired, middle-aged woman in sensible shoes (the author of this piece) and a balding, bespectacled gentleman (her solicitor). These two often attract the attention of bemused tourists on the way to the British Museum, as they scream with laughter at the titles of the books in the left-hand window of said shop.
It is received opinion among publishers that wine books don’t sell. Don’t even try to suggest a book with the word wine in the title to a publisher – he will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry). The Faber wine list is no more and the once mighty Mitchell Beazley list is a shadow of its former self.
I always wanted to marry Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter Wimsey, that is. Me and Dorothy L. Sayers, both. Perhaps that’s where our love lives (separately) went wrong. However, I can say that Wimsey has never let me down. The clue’s in the name. From the family motto – ‘As My Whimsy Takes Me’ – to the long sensitive hands which play music and bowl cricket balls with equal ease, the beaky profile and the straw-coloured hair, the tormenting war history and passion for John Donne, not to mention the aristocratic birth and the fabulous wealth – here is a man made to fit.
Publishing can be a dangerous game. On my shelves I keep, as a warning to myself, a non-fiction book – perhaps the only surviving copy – which was written by a respected author, published by a major London house, and ran into awful trouble before it reached the bookshops. (Mine was a review copy, but sending a book out for review amounts to publishing it.) It was about Cold War spies and spying. It named an eminent scientist, said he was dead, and identified him as a spy and a traitor. Two errors there: first, he was very much alive, and second, he was neither a spy nor a traitor. Result: the entire print run was pulped, and undisclosed damages were paid.
In July 1967 the schoolmaster and part-time novelist J. L. Carr took two years’ leave of absence to see if he could make a living as a publisher of illustrated maps and booklets of poetry. Both were unusual: the maps featured small, annotated drawings of people, buildings, flowers, animals and recipes associated with places in the old English counties and were meant for framing and to stimulate discussion, while the works of British poets were presented in 16-page booklets, as Carr believed that people could only absorb a few poems at a time.
Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding, a grand sweep of 1930s life in Yorkshire’s sea-facing flatlands, quite literally against a deadline. She completed the novel only weeks before her death, and the manuscript was seen through the press by her lifelong friend Vera Brittain. The book was an instant success, and has never been out of print.
On 3 January 1923 a rackety Czech ex-Communist, ex-anarchist, exeditor, ex-soldier named Jaroslav Hašek died in straitened circumstances in the village of Lipnice, east of Prague. He was not yet 40 and did not live to finish the book he was writing. By that time, however, The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War was already hundreds of thousands of words long and gave every appearance of going on indefinitely. Three volumes and a part of a fourth were complete; the hero, the ‘certified imbecile’ Josef Švejk, after a long and irregular journey east from Prague as a soldier in the 91st Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, was about to stumble into the slaughterhouse of the Galician front.
Forty or so years ago, Harrods was still a place of considerable eccentricity. The Lending Library, with its attached Secondhand Book Department, hardly fitted with the high mark-up merchandise in the rest of this gargantuan store. However, the Harrods mantra that it could supply anything from a pin to an elephant allowed for the existence of the Library until its demise, in much reduced form, in 1989.
When Charles Causley’s first collection of poems came out in 1951 – Farewell, Aggie Weston, the first in Eric Marx’s elegant series of ‘Poems in Pamphlet’ from the Hand and Flower Press – a fellow teacher at the ‘chalk Siberia’ in which he earned his living, picked it up and remarked dismissively, ‘Good Lord – is this the best thing you can do with your spare time?’ ‘What he didn’t know’, said Causley later, ‘was that it was the teaching I did in my spare time.’
This is Daphne Manners, the young woman who comes out to India in 1942 as a VAD nurse and falls in love with Hari Kumar, an Indian journalist educated at an English public school, brought up from babyhood to be entirely English, and finding himself, on his enforced return, belonging nowhere. Their doomed and tragic love affair, to which all else returns, over and over again, is at the heart of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, though its drama is played out only in Volume One, The Jewel in the Crown (1966).
It was called the Dive during the war and it drew servicemen and women from across Yorkshire and the north who enjoyed the hubbub, the smoke and beer, and the temporary sense of freedom and escape that the bar provided. It was said that if you wanted to know where the RAF’s next raid would be, Bettys Bar – the Dive – was the place to be. Now Bettys is anything but a dive: elegant, timeless and comforting. Its waitresses are similarly fragrant, their white blouses and broderie anglaise aprons ironed with military precision. Bettys’ ground-floor restaurant is bright with mirrors, reflecting the line of delicate teapots on a high shelf, the silver of cake-stands and the narrow streets of York.
Try it yourself. Assemble a handful of chaps of pensionable age – because these will be men whose voices were wavering between treble and tenor in the 1950s – and ask them if they remember the name Hank Janson. I guarantee you an interesting reaction – first the joy of slowly dawning recognition, then a shifty flush of guilt as they realize why they remember it so well. During the Fifties Hank Janson was by far the most famous writer of sexy books in Britain. These days, young men have sex education. Then, ten years after the war, we had Hank.
On my bookshelves are several well-thumbed copies of Good-bye Mr Chips. One is a first edition with a delightful jacket illustration by Bip Pares of Mr Chips asleep in an armchair. Another is a film ‘tie-in’ paperback showing Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in a scene from the 1969 musical version. A third is a beautifully bound special edition signed by the author and the artist H. M. Brock. And yet another is of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in a scene from the classic film version made in 1939.
Rereading ‘The End of General Gordon’, the fourth of Lytton Strachey’s portraits in Eminent Victorians (1918), is an awful reminder of our failure to learn from history. Gordon’s and Gladstone’s ill-fated machinations in the Sudan are so redolent of Britain’s recent misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as almost to take one’s breath away: substitute either country for Khartoum, and you have an example fearsome enough to deter any but the most fatuous sabre-rattler from going near the place, let alone attempting to influence its political fate from thousands of miles away.
A picture in our little house and a book excited me. There was a coloured print of Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabethan hose and doublet, sword and feathered hat, explaining his faraway adventures to two children on a beach. And there was the magic of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, where the young brother and sister act A Midsummer Night’s Dream and meet the pixie Puck, who tells them of the people of the Hills of Old England, imps and trolls and brownies and goblins, who live by Oak, Ash and Thorn. And he relates the history of Ancient Britain in fairy story and fact.
Dr Brewer’s Dictionary (1870) is a uniquely curious lucky dip of a book – part anthology of proverbs, part almanac, part Classical dictionary, part trivia. The man in the street who hadn’t the advantage of schooling in Latin and Greek could now delve to his heart’s content, learning snatches of stories, myths and legends, of history and folklore. The breadth of the book, of one man’s labour, is still impressive.
John Sutherland: ‘I’d take Vanity Fair, which I think is the greatest novel in England.’
Sue Lawley: ‘Not Middlemarch?’
JS: ‘It’s more fun than Middlemarch. And you don’t feel lectured in the same way that you do with George Eliot.’
When my sister was 10 she bought a rather battered copy of a book called Marianne Dreams at our school summer fair. A few years later, when she decided it was too young for her, she handed it on to me. I love puzzles – not particularly the kind that have to be solved, like crosswords, but ones that intrigue in the same way as a complex painting or a spider’s web. Marianne Dreams, published in 1958, is that kind of novel. Its plot is driven by mysterious connections – invisible threads that join together people and things in worlds both real and imaginary – and while the story may be resolved at the end of the book, the puzzle remains.
I was brought up on a diet of George MacDonald Fraser’s anti-hero Flashman as he roistered and rogered his way around the Empire, and I reread many of the books while serving in Northern Ireland. But it was only later that I found out why so many of the details in the books rang true. Fraser had himself experienced war in all its facets.
‘Flashman is back,’ declared the Labour leader Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions on 11 May 2011. He was referring to David Cameron and he presumably meant to imply that the Tory was a boorish, ill-mannered bully, riding roughshod over the finer feelings of his Parliamentary colleagues. But I did wonder at the time just how well-chosen Miliband’s ‘insult’ really was. Wouldn’t any male politician be secretly thrilled to be likened to Harry Paget Flashman, the fictional Victorian soldier and adventurer?
I have known three mountaineers, but I feel funny standing on a chair to wind the clock if I have nothing to hold on to. Given my fear of heights, it may seem surprising that, as a teenager, I read mountaineering books. But we read, not least in youth, partly to find out who we are and who we are not. I read about what terrified me – Hunt on Everest, Herzog on Annapurna and, most memorably, bridging the gap from childhood, James Ramsey Ullman. Ullman was an adventure-story writer with an eye for film rights who for several decades was the objective but inspirational voice, in history and in fiction, of mountaineering literature, a field dominated by first-person memoirs. His Banner in the Sky (1954) told the Matterhorn story for children, while The White Tower (1950), a fine Second World War mountaineering novel, wonderfully evokes the space, the weather and the neck-craning heights.
I cannot think of many garden writers from a century ago in whose company I would have felt entirely comfortable. William Robinson would have ignored me, Gertrude Jekyll seen through me, and Reginald Farrer unnerved me. But I should dearly have loved to meet Edward Augustus (‘Gussie’) Bowles, and have him conduct me around his garden one sunny day in spring. For by all accounts he was a sweet-tempered and charming, funny and self-deprecating, discerning and cultured man. He spent his entire life at Myddelton House in Bulls Cross, near Enfield, and, around the beginning of the First World War, wrote what amounted to a gardening autobiography, the trilogy My Garden in Spring, My Garden in Summer and My Garden in Autumn and Winter (1914–15). Of these, the first volume is the best.
It is hard to know what has made me a lifelong reader of John Cowper Powys, but perhaps the fact that he was one of three very different brothers who shared a common impulse may be part of the explanation. Like many people I read John Cowper first, but it was not long before I fell under the spell of Theodore, whose Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) was still being read when I came across it towards the end of the Sixties. Presented with the lapidary finality one finds in inscriptions in country graveyards, Theodore’s allegory tells how Mr Weston and his assistant Michael arrive in the village of Folly Down, selling wine – the light wine that gives pleasure, the heavy dark wine that brings peace – and then vanish into smoke. Reading the book in my late teens I thought it a perfect inversion of conventional religion, showing how a faith that promised eternal life could be reframed as one in which redemption comes in the form of everlasting death.
I came to them, the second time, quite late,
It was the day
The letters, full of snobbery and race hate
That caused the chattering classes such dismay
Came out, and Terry Eagleton had pounced:
‘Larkin is now beyond the pale,’ he’d said,
‘All decent folk should chuck him off the shelf.’
As soon as this stiff sentence was pronounced,
Feeling perverse, I picked him up instead
Although (because?) I was a ‘wog’ myself.
Richard Cobb was a history don at Balliol, eccentric in a college where oddness is almost routine. He was small and thin, not very prepossessing. Jeremy Lewis, his editor at Chatto & Windus, described him as ‘like a freshly skinned rabbit, red and blue all over and faintly clammy to the touch’. He was certainly memorable to those he taught; Tim Hilton remembered an ‘utter disregard for decorum and discipline. I still hear the French martial music and the crashing of glasses. He was both an example of the scholarly life and a lord of misrule.’ Out of college he was memorable too: Lewis wrote of walking with him after a lunch where as always he’d had plenty to drink. ‘Suddenly, ramrod stiff and with no bending of the knees, Cobb toppled over backwards. His head was only inches from the pavement when I caught him, like Nureyev catching Fonteyn . . .’ Alcohol and anarchy were always magnets. There was no gathering so distinguished he’d avoid being thrown out of it.
Death turns up a lot in Terry Pratchett’s books. He’s one of his most popular characters, a seven-foot-high skeleton with burning blue eyes who speaks in CAPITALS. He is as terrifying as one would expect – except that he has a real horse called Binky (the skeleton ones kept falling apart), loves curry, can’t play chess and has a deep compassion for all the living things whose lives he terminates. I find it a curiously comforting image.
In the early days of Slightly Foxed, in our very first issue in fact, I wrote about a book that had once come my way in the course of my work as a publisher’s editor – a book that had entranced me. Suzanne St Albans’ memoir Mango and Mimosa told the story of her eccentric upbringing in the 1920s and ’30s, when her family moved restlessly between the home her two lovable but ill-assorted parents had created out of the ruins of an old farmhouse near Vence, at the foot of the Alpes-Maritimes, and Assam Java, the plantation her father had inherited in Malaya, at Selangor.
There can’t be many humorous books about everyday life that still make one laugh more than a century after they were written. The pattern of English middle-class life has radically changed since The Diary of a Nobody was first published in 1892, but rereading it recently, I found its fictional author, the City clerk Charles Pooter, of ‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, still instantly recognizable. I’m bound to admit that some of the experiences, and also, for heavens’ sake, the attitudes of the ‘pathetic ass who records his trivial life’ (as William Emrys Williams put it in his introduction to the Penguin edition of 1945), seem embarrassingly close to my own. Mr Pooter may have lived more than a hundred years ago – just up the road from where I live now, as it happens, in a house, er, rather similar to mine – but his psychology is timeless.
My small Welsh primary school lay at the end of Boundary Lane, on the Flintshire-Cheshire border. It was a good 20 miles from any beach. Nevertheless, the first thing I remember having to learn was ‘Sea Fever’, possibly the best-known poem at that time in the English-speaking world.
As soon as I could hold a pen I was taught copperplate script by my splendidly bossy elder sister, who was determined to pre-empt any teacher’s pernicious influence. I can still remember the thrill of achieving an infant version of that delicate balance between broad sweep and fine line, of swooping between upper and lower registers, creating delicious patterns on the page that actually meant something. From that promising start my handwriting has deteriorated steadily over the decades, but friends say they still see some trace of its origins, and one legacy of that early tuition is my lifelong love of lettering. As teenagers we biked around East Anglian churches with tubes of paper and blocks of wax crayon poking out of our baskets, alighting to tease out vigorous impressions of ancient brasses in dusty naves, the curlicues of their script imperfectly ghosting through the paper, and I have haunted country graveyards with their slanting stones and lichened legends ever since.
Over the years I have been sent many proof copies of books, but very few that I have bothered to keep. They are, in general, unattractive creatures, with their misprints and vainglorious boasts of future bestsellerdom. But in a corner of an attic shelf I have half a dozen which seem too interesting to throw away, and chief among them is Nicholas Best’s Tennis and the Masai. The mere sight of its dog-eared, pale green cover – embellished only by the Hutchinson logo, with its curious resemblance to a buffalo’s skull – is enough to lift my spirits.
An enthusiastic bibliophile in a certain frame of mind could construct quite a library made up entirely of books that were written in prison. The poetry section would have the esoteric colour of Le Morte d’Arthur and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos; political thought would be unusually well stocked, with The Consolation of Philosophy and The Prince vying for attention with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks; and those with an off-beat sense of humour might enjoy the juxtaposition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. For me, though, the particular highlight of the library would be the history section, in which pride of place would certainly be granted to Fernand Braudel’s monumental work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949).
One of the consequences of being Aldous Huxley’s biographer was that I was invited to Eton, where a 17-year-old schoolboy with the bearing of a middle-aged barrister extended a hand and told me he had read Crome Yellow ‘in my father’s library’. In my mind’s eye I saw a book-lined room opening on to a stone terrace in some country pile like the one in the novel. But then I remembered that the book had been written in a shady back street in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi in the hot early summer of 1921.
‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.’ So says Paul Fussell in the first puff on the back cover of my thirty-year-old paperback edition of Robert Byron’s 1937 masterpiece. Now, as it happens, Professor Fussell – or rather his Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars – is sitting next to me, and what he actually said was, ‘Its distinction tempts one to over-praise, but perhaps it may not be going too far to say that what Ulysses is to the novel . . .’ etc. In the puff, the professorial hedging has been entirely clipped away. Still, it is high praise indeed. Is it deserved? That old stirrer Wilfred Thesiger thought The Road to Oxiana, far from being the great transformative work of twentieth-century travel, was ‘a lot of nonsense’.
At certain times in my life, I have opened a book and discovered a friend. I have chuckled with Anne Shirley over her comical escapades in the quiet town of Avonlea. I have stood under the watchful eye of Aunt Polly and scolded Tom Sawyer for skipping school, only to shrug and offer to whitewash the fence for him once her back was turned. Once I even considered inviting Jo March to dinner, though this idea was quickly dismissed, for I felt quite certain that Jo would go nowhere without her three sisters in tow and before I knew it the entire March clan would show up at my door, for which I had neither the time nor the energy. At this thought I poured myself a cup of tea, took Little Women down from the bookshelf, and visited Jo at her house instead.
In May 1797, the 33rd Regiment of Foot Officers arrives in Calcutta. A round of parties ensues, one at Colonel Sherbrooke’s ‘small mansion’ in the village of Alypore three miles from the city. A guest later describes the company – which includes 28-year-old Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington – as ‘eight as strong-headed fellows as could be found in Hindustan’.
Logorrhoeac, polymagisterial, omniglottal, panchromatic, Anthony Burgess was the most wordy literary figure I have ever met. I use those faintly ludicrous terms of praise because, before I met him, I was hardly aware of their existence. He employed them, with a thousand variants, all the time, in a dozen languages. He was the potentate of the polysyllable. To him, language was a currency: he loved to employ five-, ten- and twenty-pound words, abstruse Latinate constructions, arcane ‘inkhorn terms’, throwing them around like a sailor on shore leave, to show his enthusiasm for the world as he encountered it, a battlefield of huge, mostly ancient ideas which only he, like a twentieth-century Casaubon, could synthesize, using all the words in the dictionary.
When the editors of Slightly Foxed first suggested I take my editorial work to the London Library, I confess I knew very little about the place. From afar, it seemed a refuge for posh authors and a pitstop for peers en route to their clubs, not a place for an unkempt youth like me. And yet, at the Slightly Foxed office, the situation was becoming urgent. With the cocker spaniels growing increasingly distracting and the phones always ringing, how was the editorial assistant ever to do his work? The London Library was the obvious solution, but then there was the issue of the membership fee.
I came upon John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the early Eighties, and was at once rather taken by its main protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. I had never come across such a repulsive hero.
Some bird books, the ones you take with you across mountains, into bogs or through jungles, are small in size, compact and easy to stuff into backpack or pocket, offering ready reference in all locations and in all weathers. C. A. Gibson-Hill’s British Sea Birds is not of that kind. A large hardback, too cumbersome to take into the field, intended for the shelf in library or study, it is a work of education and of celebration. It was written by a man who loved birds for others who shared his passion, to enlighten and delight; and it merits the highest compliment one can pay to such a book – it makes one want to go out and see the birds for oneself, to get to know them as he did.
Alone among the ancient classical verse forms the elegy endures as a modern one. In Augustan Rome – the world of Caesar and Cicero, but also of the elegists Catullus, Propertius and Ovid – the public uses of poetry included epic history, theology, scientific reports and political theory. To write such things in verse now would look clownish, but the spirit of Roman elegy lives on and is, indeed, at the heart of what we call poetry.
I first came across Ahmed Hassanein Bey when bumping across the Libyan Sahara by camel with a friend. This was long before Kindles and iPads helped the bibliophile traveller lighten his load. Between us we had a slightly hodgepodge library consisting of a Koran, a New Testament (a Christmas present from my mother, inscribed with Deuteronomy 2:7: ‘The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert’), some Oscar Wilde short stories, P. G. Wodehouse, Trollope, the complete works of Shakespeare, a volume of poetry, Homer’s Odyssey and an Arabic language book. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Hassanein Bey’s The Lost Oases completed the collection to be borne across the desert by our diminutive caravan of five camels: Asfar, Gobber, The Big White, Bobbles and Lebead.
Several times, during a long life of reading, I’ve been tempted to write an autobiography based solely on the books that have counted for me. Someone once told me that it was customary for a Spanish nobleman to have his coat of arms engraved on his bedhead so that visitors might know who it was who lay in a sleep that might always be his last. Why then not be identified by my bedside favourites, which define and represent me better than any symbolic shield? If I ever indulged in such a vainglorious undertaking, a chapter, an early chapter, would be given over to The Wind in the Willows.
I already had something of a habit of collecting old home-making manuals – 1950s ‘Pins and Needles’ books with instructions for making a rag rug or knocking up a stylish telephone table for instance, or Constance Spry’s Flowers in House and Garden; and I’m very attached to a 1930s DIY book on how to lay lino, not least for its demonstration photographs of a man in a home-knitted V-necked sweater who looks very like my father. Nevertheless, I’d managed to restrict my collection to just a few bookshelves until I was commissioned to write a book about Victorian and Edwardian eating and drinking.
Edith Olivier, born in 1872, was one of ten children whose father was for nearly fifty years Rector of Wilton, on the estate of the Earls of Pembroke, outside Salisbury. After the death of their parents, Edith and her beloved sister Mildred were invited by the Earl of Pembroke to live, at a peppercorn rent, in the old Dairy House (which Edith renamed as the Daye House) in Wilton Park. When, in 1924, Mildred died of cancer, Edith was desolate. She wrote in her journal, ‘I cannot realize that I am going to be lonely always.’ Being a devout Anglican – each day of her life she went to an early Eucharist – she considered entering a convent, but at 52 she was told by the Mother Superior not only that she was too old but also that she was ‘too rebellious of mind’.
Nicholson Baker’s fifth novel, The Everlasting Story of Nory, was not, as its 9-year-old heroine might say, the world’s most raging success. I picked it up as a pocket hardback in a clearance sale. A week later, I returned and bought the remaining stock at a pound apiece, to distribute to friends and family.
Those 150 pages were very timely, I now remember, because in just a few escapist hours they cleared my head of the months of swotting for university finals. The weekend before my exams started, a friend who’d left the college sent me a small package containing a paperback which he’d inscribed with a line from Wordsworth, ‘Up up my friend and quit your books’, and his own suggestion that I take his gift and a bottle into a field somewhere, and indulge myself in a sunlit afternoon of plain pleasure. Two weeks later, exams over, lying not in a field but on a sofa, I opened the book without great expectations, but from the gripping first chapter I was hooked. I read it through in one go. With or without a bottle, I can’t say, but definitely it would have been with cigarettes.
I expect that most of us, particularly in the current economic climate, have experienced trying times in our working lives, whether dealing with uncooperative colleagues, rude customers or overbearing management. However, next time you feel inclined to grumble, spare a thought for Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Patterson, the author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo. His account of the extreme difficulties he endured while employed as an engineer on the construction of the Uganda Railway at the end of the nineteenth century is a sure way of keeping one’s own problems in perspective – all the more so since Patterson bore it all without a hint of complaint.
George MacDonald is a man who changes lives. The friend who first handed me MacDonald’s Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood, the fictional memoir of the Reverend Henry Walton, Vicar of Marshmallows, discovered it decades ago, in its delicious three-volume 1867 first edition (ah, for those halcyon days!) when he was a graduate student in Germany. His newly-wed wife was also a graduate student who had recently given birth to their first child. Their financial resources were perilously strained and, as neither of them had read Erasmus on the merits of books versus food, were deemed insufficient for three-volume, leather-bound novels, however enchanting. There was nothing for it but to sit on the floor of the bookshop and read the book there. When he turned the final page several weeks later, he rose stiffly to his feet, went home, and announced his intention to become a minister. MacDonald had shown him the allure of devotion.
London Belongs to Me is Norman Collins’s best-known book, first published in 1945, regularly reprinted throughout the fifties and sixties, once in 1977 and most recently by Penguin in 2008. The hardback edition I own is a 1949 copy, and runs to over 700 pages of small type. In 1948 it was made into a film with a cast of iconic British character actors, among them Alastair Sim, Joyce Carey, Fay Compton and Richard Attenborough. There was also a six-part television series in 1977, again with a roster of the best of British, including a young Trevor Eve.
‘That is the only church built in Russia during the Soviet era,’ the guide said, pointing at a bleak white building near the shoreline. A few more yards and we could see the full sweep of the Baltic from one promontory of Tallinn Bay to the other. The water had a steely look to it. This was the venue for the sailing events in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the grudging attempt at church-building was meant for those athletes who valued prayer. The skyline was a profile of what history has done to this Estonian city: blocks of soulless high-rise flats from the Stalinist era, a clutch of small-scale skyscrapers and docked cruise liners dwarfing the old part of the city.
I love finding things that have been stuffed long ago into old books – a letter perhaps, a photograph, or just an old laundry bill with its pounds and pence redolent of an older England, where once Chaucer rode to Canterbury and Falstaff drank his fill. Or more recently, where the Brontës conjured moonlit paths and Hardy drowned a mill.
Seren Bell was brought up deep in the Devonshire countryside and now lives in the beautiful Wye valley on the Welsh borders. Her work, in pen, ink and crayon, is concerned with the animals that are part of our rural heritage and reflects her love for them and the landscape in which she walks every day.
Our popular Slightly Foxed Paperbacks are perfect for slotting into a coat pocket or bag, and make charming presents. Delightful to look at, pocket-sized and elegantly produced on good cream paper (complete with French flaps), these reissues of classic memoirs are wonderful reads – all of them absorbing and highly individual. So whether you’re in need of a good book or a present for someone you’re fond of, do seize the chance to stock up now.
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.
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.
Decades ago wits, poets and dukes
Circled like planets round Gloria Jukes,
Bluestocking, tuft-hunter, grande amoureuse –
Was ever a salon brilliant as hers?